Spiritual development is a rather vague concept that can evoke different associations in our minds, so we first need to clarify the concept of development, followed by the concept of spiritual development.
What Is Spiritual Development?
When we use the word development, we refer to the growth and maturation of any “system” over time. This system may be biological (i.e., a “living” system), or it may be something created by human beings. You can see the best examples in nature. For example, when an acorn falls to the soil, it has the potential to become a whole new oak tree. The acorn germinates in the soil and becomes a small seedling and later a sapling. It eventually then grows into a tree. Most of us did germination experiments in school where we put beans between wet cotton pads, and we saw how the beans germinated and grew. In nature, everything matures by going through certain stages, and it’s impossible to skip any of these stages. The biological development of human beings is no different. For example, human babies do not stand right after birth, and in fact, they need more care than most species.
However, because the human consciousness is much more developed than in other living beings, we also have an “inner” development that runs parallel to our biological development. Our perceptions, intelligence, behaviors, and capacities develop by going through certain stages as our nervous systems develop. We cannot skip any of these stages. Unless there is a hindrance to biological development, we all grow up at a certain speed and develop by going through the same stages at roughly the same ages.
In psychology, extensive studies have looked at the cognitive developmental stages of human beings. Among these, the best-known works are those of Piaget. Although there are various other studies in this field, Piaget’s works have gained general acceptance. Piaget’s stages are listed as follows:
Sensorimotor (Birth–Age 2): The period when the external world is first perceived by the senses. The child begins to notice that objects exist even when they are not seen. In this period, the child moves from reactionary movements to purposeful ones.
Preoperational (Ages 2–7): The period when the use of language and symbols develops. Children think in a one-way logic, and they have trouble understanding the viewpoints of others.
Concrete operational (Ages 6–11): The period when logical solutions can be created in the face of problems. Children can understand rules, but they mostly think about concrete objects.
Formal operational (Ages 11–18): The period when logical solutions can be created in the face of complicated problems. More abstract thinking and opinions about social matters are developed.
This model gives us an idea about the stages of cognitive development in humans. Development by going through certain stages works when learning all kinds of skills too. You couldn’t go to bed and wake up next morning as a talented architect, a master musician, or a successful manager. To learn a certain skill, you need to go through certain stages to learn that skill. You might go through these stages quicker than most, but you can’t skip any of the steps.
This covers the concrete side of our mental development. When we talk about spiritual development, however, we’re not referring to a biological, psychological, cognitive, or moral development. In fact, spiritual development is a concept that encompasses all these, but it is not limited to them. Spiritual development is a process that is much more universal and evolutionary. A single lifetime is not enough to complete it.
According to the results of many psychological studies, we are born with a certain identity and some inherent characteristics. Sure, our environments certainly influence us, but each of us also has a certain inherent identity, and this remains constant. The things we learn in life are only patterns on the floor created by this identity. This floor comes from not a single life but all the lives that have been lived by humanity, by all of our ancestors. We are the children of a much more encompassing evolutionary process. Of course, the evolution here is not like Darwinian evolution, which is just the product of blind accidents. This evolution is a process that is encompassing and endless, and it is created by the conscious influence of spiritual energy.
We are all born with a certain identity and potential because we, as spiritual beings, use our bodies as vehicles. We express our being in the physical world through our bodies. From the moment of our birth, we are mostly influenced by our surroundings at first, by certain things, and our hidden potentials begin to unfold. We become aware of our skills, but generally, we only realize a small part of our inner potential. Nevertheless, because we are born to this world, we cannot bring along all of our skills.
Now, we need to educate our worldly selves to reveal and use our inner potentials. Let’s say you have an artistic talent and the potential to express creativity in this field. If you didn’t develop yourself by doing the necessary work to develop this talent, it would remain hidden and not be expressed.
Developmental Stages and Lines
We explained earlier how we develop biologically by going through certain stages. Likewise, our personality or inner persona matures by going through certain developmental stages. Periods of childhood, adolescence, and adulthood display different characteristics.
Similarly, as we learn certain skills, we again develop by going through certain stages. Before we progress to a certain stage, it’s impossible for us to completely grasp and understand it. Children under five years old have difficulties understanding the viewpoints of others. For example, say you had a plate that was painted blue on one side and red on the other. If you showed this to a toddler, he will only know the color that’s facing him. If you showed him the red half first and then flip it over before asking which color you can see, he will say it is blue. This is a situation related to cognitive development. Only after five years can children learn to see the perspectives of others. Then again, there are people in their fifties that still cannot see the perspectives of others…
Just like we can measure intelligence levels and biological development levels, we can also measure spiritual development levels. It’s not exact of course, but we can do it by observing the behaviors and actions of a person.
We’ll discuss this later, so let’s talk about developmental lines for now. We can name the different sides of our being lines or call them different intelligences, such as mathematical and analytic intelligence, artistic intelligence, social intelligence, kinesthetic intelligence (body skills), and spiritual intelligence. Each of these things makes up a different side of our being. Of course, we can’t be at the same level in every line.
Take for example a man who is very talented at music and has reached a high level by developing this side of himself. Despite this, he may not be so good at social intelligence. Alternatively, consider someone who is extraordinarily good at mathematics but lacks any skill in sports. People can be musically talented but terrible dancers. Therefore, it’s flawed to estimate the developmental level of a person by evaluating only one side of that person. Generally, all of us admire artists, and masters in any branch of the arts are revered. However, when we look at their private lives, we often see how they are very untalented in other ways. All of us are good at some sides but lacking in others. The important thing is to be aware of it and strive to complete our less advanced sides.
What Do We Mean by Spiritual Development?
What do we mean when we talk about spiritual development or being spiritually developed? This is actually a relative concept, and we could all give completely different definitions. However, if we were to simplify it, we could say the basic qualities of a spiritually advanced person are love, compassion, and giving.
Of course, love comes in many different forms, but in spiritually developed people, we can see an encompassing love toward other people that is beautifully expressed.
Here’s a list of the basic indications for spiritual development:
The effort for self-reflection and self-knowledge:
People who are spiritually developed, or on the path of it, are rather self-reflective and try to get to know themselves rather than judge others. The question of self-knowledge is studied in all the spiritual development schools all over the world. For example, in almost all the Sufi schools that thrived in Turkey, many practices aim to know and control the “self.” Self-reflection, or self-knowledge, is a very important and essential subject to study. Of course, there’s also another important element, which is identifying and accepting our “shadow” sides and transforming them by integrating them. We’ll return to this point later.
The effort for self-development and change:
Spiritually developed and mature people strive to develop themselves in all matters and work for constant change, because a person can only give to others by first developing him or herself. Naturally, change according to the necessities of the times is also very important. Change is only possible through flexibility, with mental clarity and flexibility being essential prerequisites to a person’s change.
Love, compassion, and protectiveness:
A characteristic quality of spiritually developed beings is their ability to strongly reflect the energy of love. These people have less resistance to the energy of love, and they easily conduct and reflect this infinite energy. When you are around people who can reflect love, you feel good. What’s more, love is manifested in behaviors such as compassion and protectiveness. As the level of spiritual maturity increases, we see love become more encompassing and unconditional.
The sense of responsibility:
Spiritually mature beings feel responsibility toward their surroundings and humanity. They act from the principle of people being responsible toward to the whole rather than that of them just being responsible for their actions. They gain a sense of responsibility from their own consciences.
Spiritually mature beings are more inclined to volunteer their services in a completely natural way to the people around them. Indeed, unconditional giving is a natural reflection of our nature, because all spiritual beings (which are infinite sources of energy) do is give. We, as spiritual beings, actually develop matter as we live in the body. Voluntary service, to a reasonable degree, is very important to spiritual development.
The effort to understand people:
Spiritually developed beings try to understand people rather than expect to be understood. This understanding brings with it a sense of compassion. Of course, before a man can understand another man he must understand what is going on within himself. In order to understand another person, we need to be in his or her shoes, so we need empathy. However, we can see the perspective of others only within the limits of our capacity. Clearly, if we are still at a certain level, it is impossible for us to understand another at a higher level.
To rule over the inner world:
People who have advanced on the path of spiritual development have a strong hold over their own inner worlds. They strive to train their emotions and minds, and they endeavor to direct their thoughts toward the positive. Training the mind and ruling the emotions can be achieved only after sustained hard work, so constant self-observation and conscious work on the self are needed. Our minds are under continuous bombardment from miscellaneous factors, and some factors in the subconscious make it difficult to control our minds. Releasing and transforming these factors is one important target on the path of spiritual development. To lead ourselves in a certain direction, we need to rule over our inner worlds. If we are constantly pushed and pulled by thoughts and emotions, everything just automatically happens for us. Our negative emotions are especially inhibiting.
One of the significant characteristics of spiritually developed people is creativity. Creativity is one of our being’s most important skills. This doesn’t mean just producing new things and creating new works of art. We need creativity in all areas of life. Spiritually mature people are in a constantly creative state in all fields of life. They have flexible thinking, and because of this, they have more choices.
The state of inner wholeness:
Those more advanced in spiritual development display a coherent and integral inner structure. Within us all, there are different sides and distinct selves. As we advance on the spiritual path, these different and distinct selves merge together and reconcile with each other. Achieving inner wholeness is a significant indication of spiritual development. The state of wholeness, or of integrity, is a long-term process that requires us to work consciously on ourselves. To become whole in the truest sense, we must work on ourselves and ask for help whenever necessary. Various spiritual therapy practices help achieve and advance this integrity. While we still have sides that oppose each other, it is very difficult for us to advance quickly and live our lives efficiently.
Everything discussed so far has served to give a general idea of the concept of spiritual development. Spiritual development is a complete, long-term process, so advancing on the spiritual path is only possible by making efforts in every moment of daily life, rather than performing practices at certain times of the day. In ancient times, people retreated into monasteries to spiritually advance. They spent most of their lives worshiping. However, those times are gone, and it’s not possible to withdraw to a life of isolation any more. What’s more, it wasn’t such a good way, because everything is easier when we are alone.
What we should do these days is live spirituality in our daily lives. Of course, it helps to be alone sometimes, so we can reflect and rest by leaving life’s daily tempo. What advances us more, however, is to live life with its rights and wrongs. Plus, we can actually use them and learn more by making more mistakes. Of course, this doesn’t mean we should deliberately make mistakes, but people who avoid new experiences, and therefore avoid mistakes, don’t learn as fast as those who try new experiences and learn from their mistakes.
To elevate our beings to a higher level, we need to look within ourselves and make the necessary arrangements. This is only possible by gaining “awareness.” In our daily lives, we are not aware of most occurrences within our bodies and minds. This is a natural tendency, because we can only be aware of a certain number of stimuli (at most nine things) at any given moment. When there’s more than this, we cannot perceive some of it. Because of this, we need to manage our attention in order to gain an awareness of our inner world. If we successfully manage our attention, we can be aware of the things we want to be aware of. Now, let’s try a simple exercise for this.
Sit straight and look attentively at the things around you. Without skipping any, examine the objects you see…
As you do this, you may notice you are no longer aware of some of the sounds around you. Now, listen to these sounds. Next, feel the sole of your left foot on the ground. You may realize you weren’t aware of your foot until I mentioned it. Now, focus on the various emotional moods within yourself. If you like, you can close your eyes as you do this. So, with your eyes closed, watch whatever is happening within you. Just watch and accept the various thoughts following each other, the feelings within, and everything else as it is. Just observe them and enjoy being aware of them…
As your mind becomes calmer, you’ll see how thoughts in your mind appear one by one, like air bubbles rising slowly from the depths of the ocean. Like air bubbles, they become more and more distinct as they approach the surface… This is maybe an image in your mind, or maybe it’s some words and maybe some feelings… As you slowly spend time among these thoughts, you may notice that observing the activity in your mind like this is an interesting experience for you. Now, just follow what is happening in your mind for a while. You may notice from time to time that you can observe the thoughts in your mind openly, but sometimes you can get lost within them… Now, direct your attention to your breathing… Follow the movement in your body as you breathe in and out… Next, take a deep breath and slowly open your eyes…
Yes, this short exercise can give you an idea about awareness and attention. In daily life, our attention constantly wanders between various things, and we generally don’t notice what happens within us. Sure, we don’t need to know and consciously control everything all the time, and this isn’t even possible. Most of our functions are controlled by the subconscious, and this makes things easier for us, so we do not need to consider many of the actions we do in our daily lives. For example, when you wake up and do your morning chores, you don’t always need to think about them, but at this point, you may want to see what kind of mood dominates within you while you do these chores. Because we do our habitual chores in a kind of autopilot, our minds think about different subjects and topics instead. For example, while you prepare your breakfast, you might be fighting with someone in your mind. You need to be aware of this, because automatic feelings and thoughts like this can cause you to lose copious amount of energy.
So then, as we become more aware of ourselves, what should we direct our attention to?
As we advance on the path of spiritual development, we can basically think in two directions: First, we can detect the disharmonies and obstructive aspects that hinder development and need to be corrected. Second, we can identify the positive resources and talents within us and act to improve them. Let’s look at these two directions in more detail.
First, let’s focus on being aware of our inner disharmonies and other factors that inhibit our development. As we look inside and try to see what is happening there, we first need to learn “the things” we will focus our attention on, because when we look within, everything is too familiar for us at first glance. It may seem there is little to correct. Also, many things influence us on a subconscious level, so we don’t know about them. If we don’t know what to pay attention to and how, we cannot achieve much. Think of it like learning to drive. If you took a man who’d never seen a car before, he would have no idea how to drive. The gears would just be a stick, the steering wheel would look like a wagon wheel, the dashboard would mean nothing, and the pedals would be incomprehensible. What’s more, if this was a modern car, many buttons would look like ornaments to him. Now, if this man is then taught about the various controls and the functions of the gadgets, he will slowly but surely get to the point where he can direct his attention to driving and controlling the car.
This is why when we try to increase our self-awareness, we need to learn where and at which things to look at, or in other words, which buttons to press. Many ancient and modern traditions and systems talk about points to be careful of as we advance on the path of spiritual development and maturation. Today, by modernizing the ancient traditions and merging them with new psychological studies, we have extended systems of spiritual development. Such systems offer us detailed maps of our inner world, and finding our direction on the path of spiritual development becomes easier. Of course, everyone can choose a path in accordance with his or her own needs.
Today, one of these systems is called the Fourth Way, which was introduced by the great master Gurdjieff. It synthesizes various ways and consists of highly efficient methods. My own society has benefited from Gurdjieff’s works. From time to time in our public lectures, we have studied parts of it. Within Gurdjieff’s system, two of the most basic, yet significant, tools are “Observing the Self” and “Self-Remembering.” If we want to learn what is happening within us and later make changes to our inner mental world, we first need to observe what happens within ourselves. As a result, we accumulate data about ourselves and what is happening within us. Only after this can we begin to identify our inner disharmonies and other factors inhibiting our development.
So, to which points should we direct our attention as we try to identify our inner disharmonies and other factors inhibiting our development? Detailing all of these is beyond the scope of this article, but to give you an idea, I’ll outline some topics.
As we advance on the path of spiritual development, one of the most important factors we need to focus our attention on is our emotions. Emotions are the most important inner aspect accompanying our ongoing mental life. Emotions are the main energy source for our lives and actions. If you don’t feel good, and if your emotions are not in line with your actions, you will not be motivated to do anything.
Our emotions can only work in two ways: you feel either good or bad. There’s usually nothing in between. In other words, they’re either positive or negative. In our daily lives, we mostly live in a state of identification with our emotions. Our inner mood, and even all our thoughts, is tinted with the colors of our emotions. Also, each thought—every image, word, and sound in our minds—is associated with an emotion. Everything you experience within your field of consciousness, everything you perceive with your senses or imagine with your mind, evokes a certain emotion. Everything swings back and forward between like and dislike, love and hate, happiness and sadness, and courage and cowardice. The emotions within us determine whether our performance in an area will be good or bad.
Most of our emotions, the certain feelings we have whenever we encounter certain things, are learned in our younger years, and they all work automatically. If we want to control our emotions, we first need to learn how to observe them. Of course, after observing them, it is necessary to work on the negative ones, which is no short-term endeavor because our emotions, unlike our thoughts, move quickly and we cannot always catch them. However, on the path of spiritual development, we can benefit from all kinds of emotions in a positive way. If you build up an inner alarm mechanism against negative emotions, you can use your emotions as useful indicators.
This simple principle may shorten your way: Each situation that creates irritation or negative emotions within you is a situation you need to work on. Of course, I don’t mean situations that pose a real danger to you, because these are definitely situations where you should feel bad. Fear and anxiety on such occasions are normal and healthy. However, feeling fear or anxiety when there is no danger to your life is certainly something you need to work on and transform. Of course, you cannot change your emotions by becoming aware of them and just snapping your fingers, but noticing them is the first step to changing them. If you can achieve a strong awareness of your emotions, you will also find ways to change them after a while. Negative emotions like anger, rage, sadness, resentment, hate, jealousy, pride, low self-esteem, and so on should be noticed and accepted by anyone wanting to work on them.
You may need help from an expert to change some emotions, because some have their roots in the depths of the subconscious. Some may have originated in our past lives, so we need help to change such habitual emotions.
However, we can begin to control our emotions to an extent if we learn not to identify with them. In our daily lives, we identify with all kinds of emotions, and we are one with them. Identifying with positive emotions is usually not a drawback, but identifying with negative emotions greatly inhibits us. You may be thinking, “How can we avoid identifying ourselves with negative emotions?” If you can look at your emotions from the outside, you will notice that your own consciousness is separate from these emotions, with emotions being mere “objects.” If you can feel your emotions, it means you are not your emotions. When you learn to look at your emotions in this way, from the outside, you can avoid identifying with them and letting them control you.
In daily life, our minds constantly produce things. In the mind, the thinking activity never stops. Our mind jumps here and there, usually in a seemingly random manner. We are usually unaware of the thoughts in our minds, and of course, our thoughts can shift to the negative as well, just like emotions. In other words, negative and destructive thoughts can prevail in our minds.
To advance on the spiritual path, an important thing we need to be careful about is achieving some awareness of our thoughts. If we can achieve a proper awareness and combine it with certain mental exercises, it becomes possible for us to control the thoughts hindering our development and transform them into more positive, creative, and productive ones.
Without exception, all schools of spiritual development emphasize the significance of identification. In our daily lives, we need to take on various roles, whether willingly or unwillingly, and identify with certain jobs or chores. One of the most important things we need to be aware of is our inner identifications, because the things we identify with veil our essential being and hinder our spiritual development. As we become aware of our identifications and withdraw from them, we can begin to be our true selves and unfold our real inner talents.
The concept of the shadow was introduced by Carl G. Jung, one of the founding fathers of psychiatry. What Jung means with this concept is the various negative characteristics we have within the subconscious that we cannot attribute to ourselves.
The easiest way to detect your shadow is to notice the personality traits you hate. The traits you cannot bear the thought of having yourself, the traits you do everything to avoid showing, make up the shadow. This is a very detailed subject, so I won’t elaborate on it for now. You can, however, start by identifying the personality types that irritate you most and consider why they irritate you. The most important thing in this, above all else, is to accept all your inner negativity as it is.
The Positive Sides We Are Unaware Of
So far, we have talked about the negative sides we need to be aware of within us. Now, let’s talk about being aware of our positive qualities.
Even if we are unaware of them, we all have many talents and skills that can be developed with the right effort. No one is living his or her first life on Earth. We have been embodied many times before, and we have experienced much in those lives. Even when we cannot completely remember them, traces of these experiences linger in our field of consciousness. Also, we all live within the field of the collective consciousness, which contains the collected experiences of humanity and is an enormous accumulation of knowledge.
A significant factor preventing our connection to our inner resources and talents is our limiting beliefs. There are so many limiting beliefs within our subconscious, and these beliefs veil our talents. We cannot recognize some talents that remain within us always. Sometimes when you look for something, you cannot see it, even though it is right there under your nose. Likewise, many talents and skills are always there within us, but we cannot see them. From the moment we begin to see them, they start to exist for us. Only then can we use them.
As we advance on the path of spiritual development, being aware of our inner positive qualities is as important as overcoming the negative ones. It is even more important than becoming aware of our negative qualities, because as we strengthen our positive sides, the negative ones dissolve one by one. Indeed, there is nothing bad or useless within us. Everything is useful as long as it’s in its proper place.
Here are some positive qualities you can become aware of in yourself:
Each of us is unique, and there is only one of each of us.
Each of us can continue to develop so long as we continue to strive in any given subject.
Each of us can continue to learn new things as long as our senses and minds work.
Each of us is creative. Our brains produce thousands of thoughts every day.
Each of us is a child of the same universe.
Each of us is a part of the infinity and has an infinite potential.
Each of us has the possibility to use all previous developments within the time we are born into.
Each of us has the ability to access the field of the collective consciousness and gain information from it.
Each of us has the capacity to observe what happens within us and change it as we like.
Each of us has willpower and the freedom of choice.
Each of us is contributing to Creation right now.
Each of us is able to love.
The Sun gives life to each of us, as it does to all living beings.
Our current state is the result of evolution up to this point.
Each of us has the potential to give unconditionally.
Each of us can program our minds to follow the direction we want.
Each of us can desire and create the things we want.
Each of us can see and appreciate beauty and create beautiful things.
Each of us can continue our lives under an infinite protection and assistance.
Yes, we do, because each of us is a SPIRITUAL being.