Spiritual Development

Spiritual development is the development of the personality towards a religious or spiritual desired better personality. Spiritual development can mean many things to many people in the secular and pluralistic environment we inhabit in our terrestrial world. Spiritual development, in essence, is to believe in something beyond the material universe and to develop an awareness of realities beyond the confines of time and space.

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Spiritual Wellness


Search Institute‘s international research across traditions and cultures led to the following working definition:

Spiritual development is, in part, a constant, ongoing, and dynamic interplay between one’s inward journey and one’s outward journey. It involves at least three core developmental processes (which are emphasized differently in different cultures and traditions):

  • Awareness or awakeningBeing or becoming aware of or awakening to one’s self, others, and the universe (which may be understood as including the sacred or divine) in ways that cultivate identity, meaning, and purpose. This process can be subdivided into two themes:
    • Self-awareness: Awakening to one’s inherent strength.
    • World-awareness: Awakening to the beauty, majesty, and wonder of the universe.
  • Interconnecting and belongingSeeking, accepting, or experiencing significance in
    relationships to and interdependence with others, the world, or one’s sense of the transcendent (often including an understanding of God or a higher power); and linking to narratives, beliefs,
    and traditions that give meaning to human experience across time.
  • Living an integrated lifeAuthentically expressing one’s strengths, identity, passions, values, and creativity through relationships, activities, and/or practices that shape bonds with oneself, family, community, humanity, the world, and/or that which one believes to be transcendent or sacred. (Search Institute)

Pninit Russo-Netzer states in her search paper on spiritual development:

Whether within or outside of the framework of institutionalized religion, spiritual development refers to a process of increased depth of awareness, connection to the transcendent, and search for ultimate meaning as well as engagement in spiritual practices. Spirituality is regarded as a significant and universal aspect of human experience, but relatively little attention has been paid within established lifespan theories and models to the study of spiritual development as integral to human normative development. Throughout history, and across cultures and traditions, spirituality has played an integral role in individuals’ lives, and in the overall human experience. In some countries such as Indonesia, Pakistan, Egypt, Iran, and the United States of America, where divinity is largely present in the culture and discourse, between 90 and 100% of young adults have expressed a belief in God according to the World Values Survey. In comparison to other countries where there is more separation between religion and spirituality, such as France, Sweden, Great Britain, and Spain, lower expression of a belief in God (less than 70% of young adults) but higher engagement with spirituality outside of the framework of religion are reported. Despite its universal potential, spiritual development does not always occur, and its developmental course may be quite varied across individuals even within the same culture in its pace, manifestations, and saliency in different life periods with differing levels of personal investment and a variety of potential triggers. Spiritual development differs from other developmental processes, such as the physical, cognitive, or emotional domains. Spiritual development often involves a volitional and active act of choice. This entry provides an overview of key points in conceptualizations and research in spiritual development: definition, models of development, contexts, and stages in lifespan development.


Avalanche Liberation Disaster Snow Cold Winter

Paths to liberation

See also: Buddhist Paths to liberation and Earliest Buddhism

Theravada – samatha and vipassana

See also: SamathaVipassanā, and Four stages of enlightenment

In the Theravada-tradition traditions two types of Buddhist meditation practices are being followed, namely samatha (śamatha; “calm”) and vipassana (insight). Samatha is a primary meditation aimed at calming the mind, and it is also being used in other Indian traditions, most notably dhyana as described in the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Contemporary Theravada orthodoxy regards samatha as a preparation for vipassanā, pacifying the mind and strengthening the concentration in order to allow the work of insight, which leads to liberation. In contrast, the Vipassana Movement argues that insight levels can be discerned without the need for developing samatha further due to the risks of going out of course when strong samatha is developed. For this innovation the Vipassana Movement has been criticised, especially in Sri Lanka.

Though both terms appear in the Sutta Pitaka, Gombrich and Brooks argue that the distinction as two separate paths originates in the earliest interpretations of the Sutta Pitaka, not in the suttas themselves. The suttas contain traces of ancient debates between Mahayana and Theravada schools in the interpretation of the teachings and the development of insight. Out of these debates developed the idea that bare insight suffices to reach liberation, by discerning the Three marks (qualities) of (human) existence (tilakkhana), namely dukkha (suffering), anatta (non-self) and anicca (impermanence).

Zen Buddhism

Main articles: Zen and Subitism

Another example of this further development is the Zen Buddhist training, which does not end with kenshō. Practice is to be continued to deepen the insight and to express it in daily life. To deepen the initial insight of kensho, shikantaza and kōan-study are necessary. This trajectory of initial insight followed by a gradual deepening and ripening is expressed by Linji Yixuan in his Three mysterious Gates, the Five Ranks, the Four Ways of Knowing of Hakuin, and the Ten Ox-Herding Pictures which detail the steps on the Path.


Ramana Maharshi

Ramana Maharshi frequently recommended Vichara, “Self-enquiry“, also called ātma-vichār or jnana-vichara, as the most efficient and direct way of realizing Self-awareness, in response to questions on self-liberation and the classic texts on Yoga and Vedanta. It is the constant attention to the inner awareness of “I” or “I am”, and is also the method which was followed by Nisargadatta Maharaj.

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Drop Of Water

According to Ramana Maharshi, the I-thought is the sense of individuality: “(Aham, aham) ‘I-I’ is the Self; (Aham idam) “I am this” or “I am that” is the ego.” By paying attention to the ‘I’-thought, inquiring where it comes from, the ‘I’-thought will disappear and the “shining forth” (sphurana) of “I-I” or Self-awareness will appear. This results in an “effortless awareness of being”, and by staying with it this “I-I” gradually destroys the vasanas “which cause the ‘I’-thought to rise.” When the vasanas disappear, the mind, vritti also comes to rest, since it centers around the ‘I’-thought, and finally the ‘I’-thought never rises again, which is Self-realization or liberation:

If one remains still without leaving it, even the sphurana – having completely annihilated the sense of the individuality, the form of the ego, ‘I am the body’ – will itself in the end subside, just like the flame that catches the camphor. This alone is said to be liberation by great ones and scriptures. (The Mountain Path, 1982, p. 98).”

Robert Forman notes that Ramana Maharshi made a distinction between samadhi and sahaja samadhiSamadhi is a contemplative state, which is temporarily, while in sahaja samadhi a “silent state” is maintained while engaged in daily activities. Forman notes that “the first experience of samadhi [by Ramana] preceded sahaja samadhi by several years.”

Transcendental meditation

Robert Forman, who is a long-term Transcendental meditation practitioner, with over 40 years of practice, describes the “Pure Consciousness Event,” a state of consciousness which is similar to transcendental consciousness in transcendental meditation. TM describes seven states of consciousness; “pure” or”transcendental consciousness” is the fourth state of consciousness, and the first of four transcendental states of consciousness, which eventually end in full enlightenment.

According to Forman, introvertive mysticism is a transient, contemplative state, akin to samadhi, while extroverted mysticism is a more developed form of mysticism, akin to sahaja samadhi, a “silent state” which is maintained while engaged in activity. Shear, also a long-term TM-practitioner, also notes that Stace regarded extroverted mysticism to be a less complete form of mysticism, but was puzzled by the fact that there are far more descriptions of introverted mysticism than of extroverted mysticism. Shear proposes a developmental sequence of three higher states of consciousness:

  1. HS1: the recognition of pure consciousness/emptiness
  2. HS2: the stable presence of this pure consciousness/emptiness throughout all activity
  3. HS3: the recognition of this pure consciousness/emptiness as the ground of all being

According to Shear, HS1 corresponds to Stace’s introverted mysticism, whereas HS3 corresponds to Stace’s extroverted mysticism, and is actually the more developed form of mystcism, in contrast to what Stace supposed.


Several psychologists have proposed models in which religious experiences are part of a process of transformation of the self.

Carl Jung’s work on himself and his patients convinced him that life has a spiritual purpose beyond material goals. Our main task, he believed, is to discover and fulfil our deep innate potential, much as the acorn contains the potential to become the oak, or the caterpillar to become the butterfly. Based on his study of Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism, Gnosticism, Taoism, and other traditions, Jung perceived that this journey of transformation is at the mystical heart of all religions. It is a journey to meet the self and at the same time to meet the Divine. Unlike Sigmund Freud, Jung thought spiritual experience was essential to our well-being.

The notion of the numinous was an important concept in the writings of Carl Jung. Jung regarded numinous experiences as fundamental to an understanding of the individuation process because of their association with experiences of synchronicity in which the presence of archetypes is felt.

McNamara proposes that religious experiences may help in “decentering” the self, and transform it into an integral self which is closer to an ideal self.

Transpersonal psychology is a school of psychology that studies the transpersonal, self-transcendent or spiritual aspects of the human experience. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology describes transpersonal psychology as “the study of humanity’s highest potential, and with the recognition, understanding, and realization of unitive, spiritual, and transcendent states of consciousness” (Lajoie and Shapiro, 1992:91). Issues considered in transpersonal psychology include spiritual self-development, peak experiences, mystical experiences, systemic trance and other metaphysical experiences of living.

See also


  1. Russo-Netzer, P. (in press). Spiritual Development. In: In: M. H. Bornstein, M. E. Arterberry, K. L. Fingerman & J. E. Lansford (Eds.), SAGE Encyclopedia of Lifespan Human Development.

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