Center for Spiritual Inquiry and Integral Education

R. Michael Fisher
Spirituality and Higher Education (2)
by R. Michael Fisher - Wednesday, December 21, 2011, 09:24 PM

[readers ought to read the prior Forum posting as the current one is a part of a series; the diagram referred to here is in the first posting of the series as well]

On The Way to a Postmodern-Integral Basis for Spirituality

Spirit and spirituality have many definitions. Any researcher or person curious will find a great variety of conceptualizations and claims about these areas. I'll not track out that literature and those debates here. More directly, I wish to slide right into some core aspects to how an integral spirituality (for CSIIE) might distinguish itself. I'll avoid a lot of magical, mythical, religious, and new age trappings and dressing here, and go for a basic psychological and philosophical scaffolding for spirtuality. I am not rejecting other discourses than psychological and philosophical, I am merely attempting as clean of way into understanding, which may serve as a useful postmodern foundation for spirituality. Of course, I am talking bout spiritual development or evolution. Thus, I am looking at only one small piece of the pie of this topic, yet, it is very relevant to education. For what is educational is by necessity, it seems to me and others, a process of learning, growth and development.

Learning to become spiritual could be an appropriate description of CSIIE's overall curricular agenda. Of course, it is controversial as some would resist that we have to learn to be or be educated to be spiritual. I agree in some ways. If Spirit is and creates, and we humans are a part of that Creation, then it seems we are spiritual beings. I won't go further into that origins and source issue at this time. Focus is rather on spiritual development in higher education. The map I constructed, from a dream, in the prior Founder's Forum piece "Spirituality and Higher Education," gives a big picture look at development. It's a vision, yet based on a lot of experience, theory, psychology, philosophy and so on from a lot of thinkers and traditions, as well as recent more scientific studies of the nature of individuality (also called "ego" development).

Facilitating the spiritual life is another phrase I prefer when thinking of spiritual development and higher education. Of course, pedagogical facilitation of a spiritual life starts as earlier as you want to go, where there is some consciousness of some caregiver, teacher, etc., who are nourishing spirituality in the individual. The one premise that is foundational is that we start out life in the pre-personal realm (top of the diagram) before a sense of individuality emerges. Object relations theory has a lot to tell us about early human developmental (0-3 yrs of age).

I mention object relations theory because it is well recognized as a solid scientific foundation for pedagogical understanding of human development. I also mention it because it is both useful and limited, yet it gives the spiritual journey a ground in reality in the worldly empirical understanding of development, and not merely a conjectural sense of reality in a spiritual understanding of development of humans. The worldly + spiritual understanding is rather a gross distinction, and in fact they are not distinct or separated by necessity, it is more that such terms represent different perspectives and realities, yet they are continuous as well. Let me explain more of these two perspectives utilizing the extensive study of these phenomenon by A. H. Almaas (1).

Before jumping in to two perspectives of human development and reality, it ought to be said that I have reservations at times (my postmodernist lens), that even using the word spiritual is necessary or useful because it can create such immediate resistances from those who do not associate human development, and themselves as anything to do with anything "spiritual." That critique I honor and see their point. However, for now, I wish to pursue the topic because of the stance that the very organization I founded has taken and has placed at the foreground of the name of our institute: Center for Spiritual Inquiry and Integral Education (CSIIE).

The other term "integral" can be equally off-putting to many. Yet, it is unavoidable in any discussion of higher education at CSIIE. Off the top, I assert that this entire document, as well as our organization is, more or less, articulated from an integral lens and integral attitude. One could say a spiritual lens and spiritual attitude as well. But I don't want to get cluttered in technical jargon and so I'll leave these terms and move on to more relevant one's to the discussion of: what is spiritual development and how do we best facilitate it? Acknowledging, "best" is controversial too, and ought to be handled with great care.

Clarifying Spiritual Development: Being and Ego

Spiritual development can be said to move along a trajectory for the individual human organism, through a series of cycles of "births" (2): that is, starting at "physical birth" with more or less a saturation in Being (i.e., pre- and peri-natal experience) for a couple years, to a "psychological birth" with the empirical sense of arising awareness (self-image) of an individual self (ego), distinct from mom or dad. This second birth is the focus of object relations theory and it informs us of key aspects of the human developmental journey.

First, let's see the parallel of terms I am using here. The two perspectives mentioned above are "worldly" (human), and "spiritual" (Being). Now, psychologists, sometimes called ego psychologists, are very focused on healthy human development of the ego or individual personality. They do not care about any development beyond that. This would be the norm. One could critique such ego psychology as being limited by the ego development of the psychologists (researchers) themselves. True. But the critique would come from a "spiritual" world perspective that is ultimately more interested in Being as the developmental goal of a healthy human being. Scientist-types (most psychologists) are not comfortable bringing spirituality and Being into the picture. Yet, how could they not, when we are classified scientifically as "human beings." It seems they are only interested in the first half of the combination--and thus, not the total reality or total understanding of human nature.

Second, I'll take the spiritual (Being) perspective on human development and give it focus, and yet, as Almaas argues, one can integrate both the worldy and spiritual perspectives. And not only that they can be integrated, they ought to be for a healthy integral view of the human journey and spiritual path. Almaas points out that this is a controversial, yet ethical, integral stance--one not popular with many spiritual traditions. Let's look at some of those arguments and also at the offering integral solution that Almaas offers.

The Absolutist (nondual) spiritual traditions see ego as bad, an illusion, and as a barrier to spiritual development and truth about reality. Almaas wrote, for these schools of thought "Ego then is seen as antithetical to Being, and therefore for Being, which is the Supreme Reality, to be perceived and lived, ego activity must cease" (p. 20). However, the other path is to see that humans do develop an ego or individual personality for a good reason, and that they do so out of necessity of biological and psychological psychic structures. Thus, object relations theory address this. The more integral perspective is to see that ego (self) is a reflection of Being (sometimes called Self). Ego cannot be something other than Spirit but it is in a particular form and that is one that is more focused on self (ego) than Being. This is the worldly experience of all human beings, and developmentally it is essential for the healthy human being. The point is, from a spiritual perspective that has tolerance for ego, there is no divide, no making ego false or just an illusion made by the mind. Although, at the same time, ego is a construction of the mind.

The main issue is not the ego (duality) as a problem, but rather it is a stage of development of Spirit and manifestation of Being (nonduality). Indeed, the ego is a limited expression of Being and that's its shortcoming but that doesn't mean it is bad. Almaas makes several points in regard to a spiritual perspective and advantage of not seeing these as dichotomous perspectives and one better than the other. Almaas specifically says "Buddhist [nondual] tradition presents a detailed description of ego, but has little clear notion of its development" (p. 22). That tends to breed an intolerant attitude through lack of understanding of ego and its role in development, including spiritual development. Let me quote Almaas's advantages of embracing ego development on the spiritual path:

1) "the status of ego as a mental structure, from a more scientific viewpoint than the simple claims of the man of spirit [i.e., traditional nondual views]" gives more credibility to those in a worldly perspective (without moral judgment), who may be considering their own development and potential for growth toward a spiritual life

2) "it makes possible a method of exploration in which this mental status becomes increasingly clear to students, thus making the realm of Being more available to experience"--the better the spiritual seeker understands the structure of ego, the easier it is to transcend it

3) "it is extremely useful for understanding and overcoming obstacles to inner realization faced by those on spiritual paths"

4) "it supports a model of human development in which spiritual development, that is movement into the realms of Being, is seen as a normal part of human life rather than an alternative endeavor incompatible with personal life" (p. 22).

If the earliest stages of pre-personal human development are saturated, more or less, in Being, eventually that fades to where conscious awareness of the individual arises, as a self, and the personality is focused on more and Being recedes into the background. Yet, as one eventually matures in individuality, they may start to experience, and wish to experience more Being, and less human aspects. This is the spiritual journey in its most basic dynamics. And ultimately, "this presence of Being, independent of any inner [self-]image, that is what we are" (Almaas, p. 27). In this way of Being, we are thought to suffer less, be more authentic, be in our true nature, and emanate what Almaas calls "Essence" (a set of all the great qualities of nondual existence, including operating without fear).

However, the attainment of such a stable stage of Being immersed in later adult life is very challenging as we have to overcome both the ego structures of the earliest years of our life, as well as the social structures (e.g., social-self-role) and identities that our culture tells us are real and valuable. Again, this is the embrace of and yet going beyond, transcending in some manner, the worldly existence of the human, for a more spiritual existence of Being. Yet, Almaas, and myself and others, are aware this is a journey and healthy development has to integrate a healthy ego before one transcends it. The problem noticed by many critical observers is that too many people take up spirituality practices and join traditions that deny the ego's reality. This can be a real problem when the ego in the adult has not yet reached maturity and healthy integration. If the ego is pathological, no nondual spirituality will change that, and what will end up happening is that the nondual will become pathological in lived expressions by such an individual. In other words, nondual will be used as an ego-defense, that is, as part of the ego's pathological system.

Almaas thus asks for balance and patience on the spiritual path. It takes many years of disciplined work and there are no guarantees of successful re-appropriation of Being as central. And that includes patience with the processes of healthy ego development, that is, psychological birth of the individual. He promotes a practice of spirituality that does not separate psychological therapeutic work from spiritual work--the latter which could be called birth of the soul (3rd birth cycle). They are rather both the same fundamental process, totally connected on a continuum of development of Spirit or true Essence and living as Being. Almaas warns that,

looking at things simply from the spiritual perspective does not do justice

to the question of human living. The perception [from nondual, as an

example] that life itself is a conceptual occurrence, which might be ultimately

true, does not help us much to understand what human life is all about.....

The absolute reality of which we have been speaking [i.e., the spiritual

perspective] is the source of the human being, and the spring of all life. But

human life is lived [as persons, as a self, as an ego] in the manifest world,

with all its differentiations, colors and richness. To truly understand human

life is to know the nonconceptual reality [i.e., nondual] and still live a

personal life of love, work and knowledge [i.e., dual, integrated with

nondual]. (p. 29)

And then, in an integral statement, Almaas concludes:

For human life to be complete and balanced, it must consist of the harmony

of all dimensions of reality, from the ultimate nonconceptual source to the

various dimensions of manifest existence. It must integrate in a harmonious

whole the universe of the man of spirit and the universe of the man of the

world. Otherwise there is either no life or a fake life. (p. 29)

Over-zealotry of any kind of spiritual endeavor can cause us to get out of balance from a whole human life, just as an over-zealous ego endeavor can do the same. Spiritual development is great, yet, it has to be integrated and healthy to offer its real fruits, and to do that, it has to have an integrated and healthy ego psychic structure to do so. The complexities of all the aspects to be integrated in ego development are far beyond the scope of this essay, but at a minimum one could say that will, heart (emotionality), and mind (intellectuality) are core to be integrated well (some may say what needs integration is body and mind, or shadow and persona, and/or id, ego, superego, depending on the theorist).

So far, there is good evidence to show that most adults in our society in the West are not well integrated with these three at minimum. To use spirituality as a patch job for pathologies and unintegrated aspects of the ego, is to use spirituality for the wrong reasons, and that will distort spiritual development and create more complex unhealthy problems not less.

For what is educational is by necessity, it seems to me and others, a process of learning, growth and development. And what is higher education is, equally, a place of learning to integrate the ego with Being. In many ways, I would describe them as two realms that shift like a gestalt image, one in focus and foreground, and the other necessarily goes into the fuzzy background, yet both are there making up one whole reality. Due to psychological and biological givens of psychic development, to a large degree that are universal, and due to the conditions of social cultural realities, the gestalt flips back and forth through the three major birth cycles mentioned in this essay. I would contend there is no one "final" resting place, as the human life is too dynamic for that. The key point, is that higher education is about the human life. It is about learning to understand it, in all perspectives, in all levels, and stages and cycles.

No one perspective should be only privileged, not even the spiritual one. This is the real message of this essay to CSIIE. If spiritual inquiry is taken from an integral approach and attitude, within the parameters of Almaas's basic framework and findings, then a healthy spiritual development and path is likely the outcome. Again, there are no guarantees. The inquiry into human life, with a spiritual lens, is the best we can ask for. Each will find what they will from such a sincere and dedicated inquiry or (re)search. If we put our inquiries together, collectively, and sort them and critique them, and re-interpret and re-visit them, without absolutism, then I see we can really offer something important to the world.


1. If you look up Almaas on the Internet (e.g., Wikipedia) you will see a good deal of his life's work. For short, he and his work in spiritual education, therapy, and evolution of consciousness, are well-respected by many and the integral philosopher Ken Wilber has endorsed Almaas's "Diamond Approach." In this essay and throughout my discussion, I will use Almaas's work as an integral approach, even though I find it is not as extensive as Wilber's integral approach to development of humans. It is simpler for an introduction to integral developmental frameworks and thus, more pragmatically effective in all likelihood. In particular, I'll paraphrase or quote from Almaas, A. H (1988/96). The Pearl Beyond Price: Integration of Personality into Being: An Object Relations Approach. Berkeley, CA: Diamond Books Almaas Publications.

2. For the time being I'll not enter into a discourse (unique to the theorist Bracha L. Ettinger) on matrixial theory of development, with a focus on pre-natal development of a mother ("I")-"non-I" (baby in the womb). The womb-experience and the physical and psychological aesthetic template it creates is profoundly important, called "matrixial." It is not often given value in more phallocentric theories of development, which Wilber, Almaas and others tend to follow (including the object relations theorists). I intend to spend one essay on developing the importance of the matrixial relationship to development and spirituality. CSIIE is advised to look carefully at a more feminist, feminine, and enwombing empirical reality to human development, if it wants to be truly integral.