The Spiral of Growth
"I put forth the concept of the spiral of growth to allow you to move through these disturbing and disruptive pitfalls with more understanding and less pain."
by Ken Russell
One of the more helpful understandings on the mystical path is that of the spiral of growth. It conveys a sense of how spiritual growth happens. And it helps to free us of the notion that spiritual growth is linear. The idea of linear growth prevails in our culture, as seen in concepts such as biologic evolution, the continual advance of civilization, and the march of science. And this is reinforced by our system of formal education, which is highly linear.
Progression appears to be orderly as we move from infancy to adulthood. For instance, first you learn to count; then comes arithmetic, followed by algebra, which leads to calculus, and so forth. Once you master counting, it is no longer a problem. Once you learn to multiply, it no longer presents itself as a problem. Each step is a building block for the next step. We learn that once we understand or resolve something, we move on to the next thing. You may have struggled with the multiplication tables or with pronouncing "th," but once you overcome that, you move on. You are done with earlier problems.
This is not what happens as we tread the spiritual path and work through our conditioning. We do not solve one problem and move on to the next. We do not graduate from one set of difficulties to another. We discover that we are always dealing with the same conditioning. We cannot change the past, and the past formed our conditioning. Our conditioning is like a life koan, something we continue to deal with until we finally see it clearly and are free of it. It is a given that you will contend with it during your entire journey. We do not advance to a new set of personal problems as we move on. Progress is not measured by leaving behind old problems and working on new ones.
Rather, progress is indicated by a growing clarity about the nature of our conditioning. We do not remove or eliminate our conditioning as much as we move into spaces of greater clarity about what it is and how it works. This greater clarity helps distance us from the program so that we see it for what it is—our conditioning—not our Being, not what we truly are. The conditioning remains, but we no longer believe that we are our conditioning. We shift our center of gravity from the socially created and artificial personality to something that is real, our Being.
The various patterns remain, but we do not identify with them. We understand that they are an accident of our personal history. We see that they are layered over what we really are. We learn that we need not take our problems so seriously. We do not accept them as hang-ups. Rather, they are a turbulence in the flow of our consciousness, and our consciousness is something infinite, the equivalent of God or Buddha-nature.
This understanding of the spiral of growth can help you deal with one of the most discouraging experiences on the path: coming up against the same old problems again and again. You seem to be making progress and wham! You find yourself doing what you did as a teenager. And, if you have allowed yourself to become too excited about your progress, you may be plunged into despair.
Your mind, ever waiting to sabotage your process, beats you with such thoughts as "I am hopeless," "Everybody else is getting it but me," "Something about me is fundamentally flawed," "I am hopelessly messed up," "Mom and Dad were right about me." For many, this is the most vulnerable point in their process, the time when they are most likely to give up.
In Christian theology, this is the dark night of the soul. I can personally testify that this darkness can appear to be overwhelming. It caused me deep anguish at several points on my path. It caused me to doubt everything I had learned or accomplished. It was nearly devastating. I did not understand about the spiral of growth back then. To my mind, it wasn't as if I simply had a problem. It was more as if I had wasted my whole life and all my work on myself was futile, or as if I missed certain opportunities or failed to take advantage of others and was doomed to remain stuck in unconsciousness.
Others have had similar experiences, thinking that they had wasted their lives. That perhaps, as their friends and family had warned them, this spiritual stuff really was nonsense. Maybe they should have put their time and energy into something sensible like making money, gaining fame, or finding their mate. Or perhaps there might be something to the spiritual path, but it is not for them because they are too messed up to benefit. And so on.
I put forth the concept of the spiral of growth to allow you to move through these disturbing and disruptive pitfalls with more understanding and less pain. Like any concept, it cannot be an exact representation of reality. But it is far closer to reality than the concept we normally entertain, that of linear progress. The spiral is perhaps the best paradigm for progress on the spiritual path. The growth process is cyclic rather than linear. We come up against the same old difficulties repeatedly. We believe we have overcome something, and there it is again, only much more subtle.
At the same time, there is movement, represented by the upward flow of the spiral. The problems come up, but we are in a different place with respect to them each time they appear. We don't buy into them as much. We get over them faster. Perhaps we can even chuckle at them. We learn that these difficulties are only our conditioning. And that this is part of our progress, not being caught in the conditioning. The spiral of growth captures this as the circling around moves to higher and higher levels.
And this upward-moving circle is a reminder that you will keep grappling with the same set of problems. As you come to know yourself, you gain the ability to recognize the various patterns as they attempt to influence your life. You understand that you will have certain tendencies because of your conditioning. Then, when you see that tendency arising in your life, you know that you need to be extra vigilant. Over time, the various patterns mutate into subtler forms. For instance, if your pattern is ambition, it may very well shift from amassing much money to becoming enlightened. That's okay; you just recognize it for what it is.
You learn that whatever state you are in, no matter how hopeless it seems or how trapped you believe yourself to be, it will pass. Sometimes it is just a matter of hanging on. Some spiritual traditions place much value on the saying "This, too, will pass." That phrase will also help to prevent you from becoming overly attached to the good spaces. If you become attached to the more agreeable spaces, the expansive ones, you will suffer more when the spiral turns. And the spiral will turn. Try to keep in mind the phrase "This, too, will pass." It will aid you as you traverse your personal spiral, especially on some of the more difficult turns.