How to Measure Spiritual Growth

by  John Stahl
June, 2004

      I remember reading about “Spiritual Materialism,” which refers to the pride that comes from spiritual growth and spiritual attainments. After practicing yoga for years, or working on your path of spiritual growth, there is a common tendency to feel a kind of satisfaction in your accomplishment. For some people, it even becomes impossible not to play the game of being “more spiritual than thou.” This, of course, is very funny, so I would like to share a true measure of spiritual growth that works magically and inexorably to transcend this problem.

     First, I have to prepare the ground with some discussion of a fundamental principle of philosophy. There are basically two directions of energy flow – inwards, towards the center, or outwards, away from the center. The typical Western style (“the rat race”) is a movement reaching ever outward, grasping towards more and more. The Eastern wisdom, on the other hand, stresses the opposite direction – a movement back towards the center, within. It sounds simple enough – “Oh, yes, I get it -- moving outward is bad; moving inward is good.” But it is not at all so simple. I am especially fond of the Alchemical symbols for personal growth, because they stress a balance between both directions. The basic alchemical dictum which summarizes the whole art is “SOLVE ET COAGULA.” This means, literally, “to separate, and to unite.” Move apart, and come together. It is the alternation between these two directions which comprises the “process towards perfection” which the study of alchemy is all about.

     Let’s start with the movement towards the center. There is a point at the center which is a point of perfect balance, peace, and clarity. Moving away from this point goes towards, in the first place, greater complexity, but ultimately it leads to chaos and confusion. The movie Bonnie and Clyde is a perfect model of this process. Bonnie and Clyde (robbers, if you don’t know) pursue a career of violence and greed which leads to greater and greater confusion and chaos. As the movie progresses, they become crazier and crazier, moving faster and faster, and when they are finally blown apart in an explosion of chaos, it is inevitable and obvious. Is your life like that (even a little bit)? Then you need to see an Indian guru who will give you a calming mantra and help you to compose yourself and begin the long journey back to the center.

     But the lesson of the alchemical symbols is that the fastest way to the center is not to attempt to go there all at once, in one non-stop instant ride (that is, of course, the Western model – we want it all NOW, so that we can reach Nirvana before lunch). No, the fastest way to the center is, like breathing, to alternate going in with going out. Both directions are meaningful and valuable. Some people consider that God is this point of perfection and balance at the center and “the Devil is distance from God” (to use a famous definition). It gets complicated here, because I have to make a small digression, advising the reader always to look very carefully at an idea in order to discover the meaning of an idea, which may lie beneath the surface, rather than simply to judge an idea as right or wrong. There are many ways to use words, and the same words may be used in different ways at different times to express the truth. So, that concept may be illuminating (that God is Perfection at the Center, and the Devil is movement away from that point), but I prefer to consider that both directions are aspects of “God.” The movement away from the center is the Creative aspect (Yang, if you like), while the movement to the center is the Receptive aspect (Yin).

     A good example of all of this may be found on the chess board. Those of you who play chess may understand the distinction between “Positional Chess” and “Combinational Chess.” Positional chess follows the direction towards the center, as the game simplifies towards the inertia inherent in the position, while combinational chess strives to throw the game outward again into chaos and confusion, out of which the player hopes to extract a new inertia favoring the pieces of his color. So the movement away from the center is the road to change, but it is only brought to completion when it returns back to the direction towards the center.

     That’s enough philosophy – it’s almost lunch time, after all. So now that we are on this path towards the center, via SOLVE ET COAGULA, how can we tell which of us is closest to the center? As we get closer and closer to the center, everything converges. The center is a point of clarity, balance, peace, and infinite love. So the closer one is to this point at the center, the more one will feel the spirit of infinite love. This is obvious – look at any spiritual teacher you can think of – all of the really advanced spiritual teachers radiate an energy of peace and love. You can feel it and you can see it.

     Now for the funny part! Everyone is invited to play the game of being “more spiritual than thou”! Everyone who wants to show how advanced they are spiritually only has to work on radiating infinite love! The funny part is that it actually works. No matter where you are on the spiritual hierarchy, the more you practice infinite love, the faster you will advance on the path! So go ahead; impress your friends; be the first on your block to manifest infinite love, and spread this measure of spiritual growth far and wide. And do it quickly, because this world needs all the peace and love it can get, and it needs it soon.

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