Stages of Spiritual Growth
In The Book of Oneness (Munnis, 2014), seven stages of spiritual growth are introduced that describe the process of growth individuals experience as they move toward oneness with God. The stages are summarized below to provide a lens for critically examining the New Testament, including the spirituality of the people Jesus described and addressed, the writers themselves, and Jesus’ own development as he grew in spiritual wisdom and illumination.
Stage One: Beginning of Self-Awareness
A person at Stage One of spiritual growth has a dualistic orientation toward the world and sees the material as separate from the spiritual. This person would see the New Testament and Jesus from their own specific cultural context, rather than in the context Jesus experienced through his process of transformation. There would be a tendency to read his words as commandments and rules to be taken literally, even to the point of overlooking places where his teaching speaks against this human tendency. Faith would be defined as believing what is said to be literally true with a very dualistic approach to God, Jesus, and the world. This person would likely find resonance with the stories and texts that were told from a Stage One point of view. For example the text “no one comes to the Father except through him” (John 14:6) would be combined with “that whoever believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:15) to become a formula of exclusivity based on a codified system of belief, rather than seeing Jesus as an example of the way, where “through him” means the process of transformation, and belief in him is not something codified as a rule of faith, but rather is a trust in the process generated through faith.
If we are in Stage One:
- We realize that social and cultural forces have conditioned our minds to function along specific, identifiable patterns. Almost simultaneously we realize some of these limits can be removed, yet we are unsure how to alter these patterns, and they continue to hold us.
- We realize that accepting and following social and cultural dictates do not alleviate spiritual suffering. We do not fully recognize our own contribution to this suffering.
- We believe that what is considered valuable or important is an objective determination.
- Questions about who we are and why our world is the way it is emerge.
- Spirituality functions in a rule-based system.
- We understand faith as belief.
- We understand God and reality within a dualistic system of thought: There is good and there is evil; there is the material and there is the spiritual. The mental and intellectual aspect of our life is thought of as spiritual. Aspects of inner spiritual reality—thoughts, inspiration, dreams, intelligence—are left undifferentiated in our understanding. The sources and/or manifestation of these inner experiences are unknown and mysterious.
- We express devotion to God outside of the person in material ways—crosses as jewelry, vestments, cathedrals—perpetuating dualistic thinking.
(Munnis, 2014, p. 29)
Stage Two: Author of Our Own Story
A person in Stage Two would begin to identify with the parts of the Gospels that emphasize self-knowledge and awareness. They would begin to understand that there are exceptions to the rules. They begin to see the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) as reflecting a new understanding that emphasizes a more subjective understanding of the teaching “You have heard that it was said. . . . but I say to you” (Matthew 5:21-22). Understanding intention and attitude become part of the way of interpreting the life and teachings of Jesus. The rules are not always clear and shades of gray appear to the spiritual seeker.
If we are in Stage Two:
- We realize the value of self-knowledge and self-awareness.
- We realize that many of our fears are based on illusion and that even the most painful personal self-discoveries do not destroy us.
- We realize that we are the authors of the story of our lives and we tend to protect our self-image in the stories we construct about ourselves.
- We recognize exceptions to rule-based systems of spirituality.
- What we consider to be valuable and important we begin to understand as subjective determinations. There are shades of gray between good and evil.
- Faith, while still operating as a system of belief, begins to incorporate subjective values and principles.
- Devotion uses a superficial self-image of humility that is not grounded in our true identity. (Munnis, 2014, p. 34)
Stage Three: Discovery of the Unconscious
A person in Stage Three would resonate with another level of the teaching: “it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles” (Matthew 15:11). The parables that point out our inability to overcome fear, or greed, or that show us bound by cultural tradition and concepts of purity resonate at a Stage
Three level (e.g., the parable of The Talents, Matthew 25:14-30; The Good Samaritan, Luke 10:25-37; The Prodigal Son, Luke 15:11-32). These stories were contributed to the Gospels by those who found themselves within the stories and they understood how they could influence the stories of their own lives.
If we are in Stage Three:
- We discover that we have a subconscious and an unconscious part of ourselves, and that when they are left unacknowledged, we react to them constantly in our awake life.
- Once we begin to pay attention to the unconscious part of ourselves new awareness breaks through to our conscious mind.
- We are able to self-reflect on our consciousness and our various mental states. Of these various mental states, we consider some to be spiritual.
- The undifferentiated interior being of Stage One evolves into awareness of the mind, the function of intelligence, the ego, and the will. Our understanding of the relationship among these interior forms of consciousness is rudimentary, but evolving.
- We are able to question the reality of dualistic thought. Dualistic thought gradually incorporates pluralistic thinking.
- Faith enters into the process of becoming an attitude and an understanding of God rather than a belief about God.
- Cultural and contextual conditioning are more apparent to us.
- Devotion recognizes mystery but not the fullness of our relationship to God.
(Munnis, 2014, p. 39)
Stage Four: Recognizing Unity
When a person reaches Stage Four, the unity aspects of the Gospels resonate: “I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you” (John 14:20) and the person understands that the story of the woman at the well (John 4:1-30) expresses the personal, intimate aspect of God and human beings, yet also expresses that God is “spirit” and transcendent.
If we are in Stage Four:
- We begin to understand that our interior life is evidence of different parts of our true being, that our material mind is connected to a higher form of consciousness. We learn how to separate the spiritual from the other mental states.
- We recognize the difference between internal and external causes and the phenomena associated with those causes. (For example: Internal fear and anger result in the phenomena of sullen behavior in some persons, or aggressive behavior in others.)
- We reach a level of awareness where our internal process of self-evaluation is constant. We notice our internal reactions to external phenomena and mental impressions, but they do not always cause a change in our behavior.
- We recognize the elements of unity that exist in all things.
- The teachings of spiritual masters we once thought we understood now take on new and deeper meaning.
- Faith as belief is replaced with an intuitive understanding related to how we see and interact with the world; our attitude and understanding of God changes. We recognize more of the transcendent qualities of God.
- Devotion to God is integrated with devotion to truth, love, and peace.
- The universe as a system of energy and consciousness that is realized in human form emerges.
- During devotion we recognize the potential of unity/oneness during specific ritual practices.
(Munnis, 2014, p. 46)
Stage Five: Recognizing Our Identity
In Stage Five, transcendent experiences occur like the transfiguration of Jesus (Matthew 17). But in this case we see that the text was written from the perspective of one in an early stage of spiritual development. The author focused on Jesus as he was seen, and he was understood as an elevated being distinct from others, rather than as representative of the potential in all human beings. In the description of the transfiguration, the disciples want to erect temples, they ask questions about Elijah and forget the purpose of John the Baptist, and they ask why they cannot heal or cast out demons. The writer does not grasp that there is a fundamental question of personal identity and they continue to see God as outside of themselves.
If we are in Stage Five:
- Episodes of transpersonal consciousness (transpersonal in the sense of a consciousness beyond our own) occur where our experience and our awareness of the experience are simultaneous.
- We experience continuous events of purposeful synchronicity.
- We can sometimes observe ourselves and the world without attachment to the drama of the people and events around us.
- We can recognize some experiences as neutral events that do not require evaluation.
- We recognize our identity is intimately connected to God and cannot exist independent of God.
- The mind, the will, the ego, and our intelligence all function together at a high level of harmony, and we sense their purpose and role in human consciousness.
- Our understanding of universal law retains flexibility in the face of complex human situations and difficulties. Diversity becomes a more accurate representation of God, and unity is understood in a transcendent context where we see and observe larger patterns in life.
- Devotion to God helps us recognize that we have a mutual relationship with the divine—giving and receiving in a like manner.
- Faith—both the attitude and understanding—is rooted in independence from external authority.
- We seek out and participate in communities of accountability that match our own sense of purpose.
(Munnis, 2014, p. 52)
Stage Six: Embodied Spirituality
The emphasis in Stage Six is on the unity or oneness of Jesus with God. Again we have texts where the witness of the event and experience are seen in a dualistic perspective rather than a perspective of oneness. The oneness is expressed, but then interpreted as if Jesus is God, rather than Jesus existing in a state of oneness with God.
If we are in Stage Six:
- We experience episodes of spiritual union and oneness with God.
- Surrender, grace, truth, freedom, and love are no longer confined to the mental and psychological realm. We feel them, experience them, and embody them in thought and action.
- All components of our being (intelligence, will, ego, mind) are functioning in harmony and evolving toward the highest levels of awareness and consciousness.
- We experience eternity as a state of being independent of chronological time.
- Faith becomes an attitude and perspective that we realize in process with other human beings on a spiritual journey.
- Devotion extends beyond communal and personal ritual practices and is embodied in everyday tasks and practices.
- Faith is generated by our internal state of being.
(Munnis, 2014, p. 58)
Stage Seven: Oneness with God
The final moments of the crucifixion leading to the resurrection and the elevated condition of Jesus are expressed in Stage Seven, in his consciousness and in the manner he is seen, and how he appears to function in the world. Again, since those present were not themselves elevated to this stage, the experiences and events were seen in a dualistic context that saw Jesus as unique rather than representative of the potential that exists in every human being. The appearances in a three dimensional context could only be described according to what was known: the material world. All of his appearances were conditioned by the level of perception in the person describing Jesus: those bound to the material world saw his transcendence as a physical resurrection; those who saw deeper into the spiritual condition of reality saw him as transcendent and ascendant. His physical disappearance was the final state of liberation. Since he had transcended emotional experiences, conceptual knowledge and all lower levels of consciousness, he could not be seen, nor described in words that were bound to material consciousness.
If we are in Stage Seven:
- We experience liberation of consciousness from all forms of confinement: emotional experiences, psychological phenomena, conceptual knowledge, and all other mental, intellectual and ego- centered states of consciousness.
- All conditioning, imprints, or patterns that have become latent and would limit consciousness, awareness, or the highest expression of these have been “burned” away.
- God-realization and self-realization are mutual and fully aligned inside the consciousness of the human being. Subject and object become one; God and the person become one consciousness.
- Inside the one consciousness little conscious differentiation exists, only sufficient to remain in proper relation to God, other persons and experience—all the time keeping individual consciousness subordinate to divine consciousness. The oneness of God is reaffirmed at all levels of being.
- Life proceeds in a synchronistic way with a natural effortless flow.
- All life purpose related to the incarnation of the body has been fulfilled.
- Final liberation, from all earth and forms of gross material existence and the related confinements, occurs in surrender to the transition that appears to us as death.
- Devotion is a process of mutual love in all aspects of life: material, time, the psychological, and the spiritual.
- Faith is fully embodied in the person such that it is expressed through love as a state of being.
- There is no fear, only acceptance and love.
(Munnis, 2014, p. 65)