In the light of recent tragic world events, we are sometimes tempted to wonder if the internal state of humanity is getting worse rather than better. Fundamentalisms of all sorts are rampant these days - religious, ethnic, racial, gendered, political and individual - causing us to wonder where it is all headed. However, my faith is that spiritual evolution, both individually and as a species, is indeed still proceeding.
We might say that spiritual evolution involves two qualities. First, we become more introspective, self-aware, cognizant of the biases and filters through which we see life and those around us. This aspect of spiritual evolution teaches us that knowledge - even of the highest and deepest realities - is always perspectival. We always and forever see reality through a filter. Each of us - and each culture and religion - is like the proverbial group of blind people grabbing at different part of the elephant. We are tempted at first to think that the "trunk" or "ears" or "waist" or "tail" or "toenails" ARE the whole, but we gradually learn that we are seeing only a part. This realization guarantees that we will remain forever humble and in need of an endless number of OTHER perspectives to complete the cosmic picture.
This brings me to the second aspect of spiritual evolution, which is the capacity to expand our awareness to include more and more perspectives on Life. Here, we begin actually to see the world through another's eyes and to TAKE ON their perspective. For me, the study of personality typology - the Enneagram, for example - helps me first to see that there ARE other perspectives, and then to begin to get in touch with those very perspectives as they are present - subconsciously at first - within myself. Similarly, the study of other religious traditions evolves from first understanding that they exist as valuable contributions to humanity, and then to being able actually to see life from WITHIN those perspectives.
This broadening of one's perspective is currently happening on a world-wide scale, especially with the advent of the internet (the "world-wide WEB") and the fact that we are daily brought in touch with a variety of perspectives and world events. International travel - especially among those in the Millennial Generation - is an expected part of life for many people, and this phenomenon continues to bring a multitude of cultures and world views into ever-closer proximity.
So the question naturally arises: if consciousness truly is becoming more inward and expansive, why do fundamentalisms of all sorts seem to be on the rise? We might think of human spiritual evolution as proceeding in similar fashion to climbing the Great Sand Dunes - the tallest of which rise 750 feet above the valley floor - here in Colorado. For every step forward, we slide half a step backward! Similarly, every advance in spiritual evolution is accompanied by a momentary slip backward into untransformed ways of thinking and acting.
Contemplative psychologist Gerald May calls this phenomenon "ego backlash." We know that it happens on an individual level, when something in us resists change every time we progress another step forward on the spiritual journey. But today we are seeing it happen on a cultural level as well. Because the human brain and mind are being asked to do something they never had to do before - namely, to expand endlessly to take in a larger and larger number of perspectives and greater amounts of information - they appear to be balking at the task. Some would claim that the seemingly higher incidences of mental illness in our time are in fact an indication of the increasingly challenged human brain and mind.
However, my faith is that the human brain and mind - together with our entire being - will continue to evolve, becoming ever more aware of its own filters and biases, AND expanding to take in a greater number of perspectives and integrate them into a single Whole. Why do I maintain this faith in human spiritual evolution in the midst of a plethora of tragic current events? Because I am convinced that it is THE DIVINE who is ever evolving within us!
Photo: Aspen trees in the second largest aspen grove in the world, near Kebler Pass, CO, September 26, 2015
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Stephen Hatch, M.A. is a spiritual teacher and photographer from Fort Collins, Colorado. His approach is contemplative, inter-spiritual, and Earth-based.