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The 7 Essential Stages Of Spiritual Growth (And How To Know Where You're On The Path)

Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
January 20, 2016
Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
By Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist
Linda Carroll is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981.
January 20, 2016

We hear so much about finding our "whole selves” and “coming from authenticity,” but so many of us don’t understand how we actually reach that point. We don’t suddenly become that new, better version of ourselves because we read the right book or heard the right speech.

Becoming whole is a lifelong process. It is finding and embracing the new self and forgetting what you learned to be. In my book, Remember Who You Are, I describe the seven stages of seeking and claiming your Spirit Self.

Since one of my favorite personal growth tools is the map (in my counseling/life and love coaching practice, I’ve discovered that the structure or model of a map helps many people describe their feelings), I want to help you build one.

In this article, I provide an overview of the stages of claiming your spirit self and questions to help you build a map that will reveal where you are on the journey of finding your true self — and discover where you want to go next.

1. Forgetting or losing the connection to essential spiritual self.

This happens when we enter the physical world at birth. We develop a personality that allows us to adapt to our circumstances — familial and cultural. This original self is rarely remembered, although at times we catch glimpses of it.

Moments of unexpected grace — falling in love, acting from instinctive certainty rather than fear — are reminders. We reconnect with our essence, too, when our senses are moved by the natural world around us.

2. Remembering is the key to most world religions and to spiritual experience.

It may be prompted by a thought, a poem, a luminous dream, a dramatic event such as a mystical experience, or any transition or change. In whatever way we are awakened, we are reminded for a moment of a different realm of existence with its own truth. Such revelations often signify the beginning of the journey back to our true essence.

3. Exploring spiritual ideas and religious practices moves us toward an awareness of remembering.

We participate in traditional and unfamiliar forms of prayer or attend retreats and seminars. We explore the revival of spirituality through books and even pilgrimages to sacred sites — whatever “sacred” means to you.

4. Practicing allows us to begin using rituals that keep us in alignment with our spiritual path each day.

Some traditions use ceremonies, liturgies, prayers, or meditation at a specific time and place; some embrace a lifestyle that is its own kind of practice.

Without practice, the treasures we find in exploring will lose their light and promise. With practice, the spiritual can intertwine with the everyday, changing our sense of the world and ourselves in fundamental ways.

5. Shadows on the path reflect obstacles that inevitably confront us, as our spiritual exploration veers into the world of emotions and innermost thoughts.

We may feel grief for all the time we have lost to ego-driven choices. These shadows can also take the form of difficulties in our relationships with others, as we try to communicate what we are discovering. Our friends and loved ones may not understand — or may even be threatened — by who we are becoming as we recognize our true nature.

6. Reclaiming is that stage in which we begin to recognize and trust those things that have meaning for us.

At this point, we take hold of the direction of our lives, both inside and out. We work harder to be honest with others and ourselves. We are more accountable for our actions. Sometimes we are even able to challenge others and ourselves with more ease and less judgment, feeling greater compassion for our common human condition.

At the end of most stories about a sacred journey, the voyager returns with hard-earned wisdom and many gifts for his or her community. We may find ourselves in the same external circumstances where work and relationships are concerned but standing on different soil, seeing everything through new eyes.

7. Acceptance is less of a stage and more of a condition woven throughout the stages.

It is the knowledge that we never completely “arrive.” We are always on the path. We are always forgetting, remembering, exploring, practicing, integrating, and then forgetting again.

Acknowledging this, we learn to accept the inevitability of lapsing into old responses and our previously limited perspective. We develop more patience and empathy, more humor about our human fragility, and greater tolerance for the journey of finding our way back. That, after all, is life.

How to Start Your Search

1. Ask yourself if “soul” is different than “spirit.” It is important that you have your own unique definition for these essential words.

2. Create your own definition of spirit. Pay attention to what makes sense to you.

3. Ask yourself what it means to you to remember who you are. What qualities do you consider to be a part of your soul self?

4. Look at pictures of yourself as a child that reflect what you interpret to be your essential qualities. Describe what you see in your activities, body, or eyes that recalls these fundamental spirit qualities.

5. Familiar childhood stories teach that we must leave home to find home; the happy ending requires us to heal ourselves and find our own internal truth. Sleeping Beauty wakes up, Pinocchio becomes a real boy, and Dorothy returns to Kansas, discovering that what she sought was in the place she left.

Remember a journey you took in which you had to leave your outer life to discover a part of your inner self. Meditate on that journey.

The late Angeles Arrien once told me about a Native American folk tale that claims each person is born into this world with a special song that is his or hers alone. My hope is that articles and books such as this; publications like mbg; and practices including yoga, meditation, and attempting to live and love in a complete, authentic way will guide us each to our unique song and will inspire us to bring its music into this world.

Related reads:

Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT author page.
Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist

Linda Carroll, M.S., LMFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and board-certified life coach currently living in Oregon. She received her master's degree in counseling from Oregon State University and has practiced psychotherapy since 1981, specializing in couples and communication. She is the author of the highly acclaimed book Love Cycles: The Five Essential Stages of Lasting Love, which has been translated into four languages, and she regularly teaches relationship courses based on the Love Cycles method at wellness spa Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico. Her next book, Love Skills, will be available in February 2020.