Human Spiritual Nature and the Individuation Journey
Updated: Mar 5
Spirituality is Unfashionable
In an increasingly secular culture, the word ‘spiritual’ is almost heretical; something to be avoided where possible; a topic that gets people worried especially in the company of atheists. Part of the problem is that we tend to conflate spirituality with religion, and if we have antipathy to religion, then we may well throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater; we may think spirituality means we have to believe in God, but this isn’t true.
Anyone with some knowledge of history can understand why modern progressive people dislike religion, because from the current perspective it's easy to see the suffering that religious institutions can cause through rigid dogmatic belief systems that do more to control people than set them free to be their best. It can be said that the biggest issue with organized religion is that it has little to do with spirituality at all.
Jordan Hall makes a distinction between spirituality and religion that is helpful to consider:
Religion has a lot to do with the way individuals relate to other individuals, and how they form into groups and communities, which in turn enter into a relationship with the world at large such that those same communities are able to adapt and thrive. Religion represents an evolving set of structures that give rise to embodied practices that enable communities to function well and endure. In this sense, religion is made of the rituals that hold our communities together.
Spirituality is a much more personal experience; it's the way an individual is able to achieve congruence with the Self and is thus intrinsically connected to the individuation journey; it’s about how we enter into relationships in the world and then integrate those life-experiences toward ever greater wholeness or congruence.
This distinction suggests that religion and spirituality exist separate from each other and that religious practices don’t necessarily enable spiritual experiences to occur, but more importantly bring us together in meaningful, coherent and harmonious ways. For secular people, gathering around the dinner-table at key times of the year can be a form of religious practice that keeps families and friends connected, and in a larger sense, for example at thanksgiving or Christmas, family and friends also cohere as a community.
The realm of the spiritual is free to be something we alone must seek to engage, in order to feel more complete and fulfilled. The cultural discomfort we have with the spiritual does us no favours, and I believe significantly contributes to the fundamental psychological sickness of the west: disconnection through lack of integration.
What does it mean to be disconnected?
To be disconnected is to lack a personal, subjective and intimate ongoing experience of feeling and knowing that we belong to the universe; connectedness is a full-body experience and that means it touches all four windows of perception: physical sensation, intellectual mind, intuitive mind and feelings & emotions; connection is not something we ‘think’ we have, it’s something we ‘know’ we have because we feel it.
Spirituality is particularly personal; it is our unique and intimate conversation with all-that-is and with the totality, we are a part of, what we might call Divine Mind. Because it is personal it is innately subjective and as such not easily shared with others, although others may have similar experiences. The subjective nature of spirituality may be one reason why today we are cautious of it; ours is a cultural paradigm that prizes the objective viewpoint and pretty much invalidates the subjective experience.
Disconnection is a choice; it may be an unconscious choice for many people, but it’s a choice nevertheless and that means there is scope for change any time we want it.
The notion of holism is to cultivate wholeness, and at its core, it means that life qualities such as unhappiness, depression, and meaninglessness can be overcome through an integrative approach that aims to see an individual as having many parts that need to be seen as one larger whole; life dissatisfaction is a result of not living a ‘whole’ life.
An holistic approach to life requires us to cultivate and engage in an active spiritual life alongside a physically responsible one; attending to our basic survival needs, has to be woven into a spiritual life-context in order for the individual to feel that life has purpose and meaning, without which chronic depression eventually results.
There are a number of older systems of thought, which recognize the multi-faceted nature of the human being, which can help us to approach daily life in a way that encourages us to pay attention to our complex human nature. In the Western Occult tradition and alchemy of the Middle Ages, the qualities of human experience were divided into five elements: Fire, Air, Water, Earth and Ether, each pertaining to different essential needs. In North American Indigenous tradition a similar system based on the same elements is called the Medicine Wheel. Traditional Chinese wisdom also uses a five-element system; Fire, Water, Earth, Wood, and Metal.
Today its common for most of us to have a very lackadaisical life approach, bereft of any deep consideration or philosophical foundation; the general consensus rejection of religion by modern westerners, although having more freedoms, has also meant the loss of life-benefits like strongly rooted values and sense of place within existence. As a result, many of us are “mono-elemental” types, who excel at one particular human mode (represented by the elements - see an introductory article on this for more information) but lack any significant development in the others. If we are Earth types then what we do very well is get things done, and keeping busy is our comfort zone, and yet we can be almost incapable of emotional awareness and capacity. If we are Fire types, then we do the quest for self-improvement very well, jump into fasting programs or long haul meditation retreats, but find ourselves grossly impractical and ungrounded.
Well rounded human-beings are multi-elemental, who actively work on developing all four prime elements in order to achieve greater optimal performance. The synergistic balance between the four prime elements, gives rise to the fifth element and it represents a highly optimized state of being where flow states are more easily generated.
The life-task toward self-realization, sometimes referred to as the Individuation Journey, must necessarily involve inner work with all our elements, and that means the cultivation of spiritual life. The good news is that there is no specific true way to do this; as the old saying goes “there are a thousand doors to Buddha” meaning there are near-infinite routes to self-realization. For some of us, this might involve drawing from existing religious ideas and practices, for example, there is a strong interest in Eastern spiritual systems like Yoga, Qi-gong, & Tai chi, and also a growing spiritual-mystic community following Christian traditions. For others, indigenous spiritual approaches such as shamanism provide a rich source for inspiration.
Other traditions with a strong spiritual heritage, are the Nordic and Germanic traditions (runeology), medieval alchemy, western occult traditions including Tarot, which have their roots in Ancient Egyptian wisdom, Ancient Greek philosophy such as Aristotle, Socrates, and Plato as well as Ancient Roman wisdom e.g. Stoicism.
The recent increase in plant medicine hallucinogens is related to the desire in modern people for the spiritual experience, which can have a profoundly healing affect.
Spirituality is a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it gets. So don’t be disheartened if earlier quests for spiritual meaning haven’t yielded results - perseverance is an important capacity. Finding your unique way to connect to the living pulsing field of intelligence all around you, will make you a happier and better person, and in turn make the world a happier and better place for all of us.