Notions of universal spirituality seem to be out and about these days, the idea that the world’s religious traditions are merging toward a more comprehensible whole, a nugget of truth extracted from the countless myths, dogmas and dictums that for millennia had these same traditions at one another’s throats.
Good luck with that, I say. Sure, it seems a worthy and well-intentioned effort, I guess, but I have the sense that crowbarring the existing religions into some new, unrecognizable theological archetype, or melting them down into one glowing ingot of new age aphorisms, in the end won’t really please anyone.
To me, at least, this effort seems akin to trying to hammer together the sleekest, fastest, most beautiful racing car imaginable from the various parts of every automobile ever made. Old parts, new parts, some that work, many that don’t, some gleaming, others rusted, the chosen ones carefully polished, then squeezed and crowbarred and screwed together to form some odd, new contraption. A Chevrolet fender here, a Rolls engine there, and toss in a BMW steering wheel. You get the point. What might something like that eventually look like? Will it ever run? Like I said, good luck with that.
Besides, we don’t have to merge, or gravitate toward, or synthesize ourselves nearer to universal spirituality, because that was accomplished a long time ago. Called life, it’s the most universal thing we all share, and, from a spiritual perspective, the greatest of equalizers. We may not all have a shot at playing professional sports or an Ivy League education, but we do have a shot at spiritual development. It’s our birthright. It’s universal.
Over the last 80 years, developmental psychology has discovered the stages of human growth, from infancy to adulthood — and beyond. Today there is wide agreement that we human beings pass through a sequence of stages or phases of development that are progressive in nature. These stages have been discovered to be universal; that is, we are all born with a built-in template for a remarkable range of transcendence. This progression affects not only how we think, but our morals, compassion, physical abilities and understanding of the world. The more we mature, the more we understand, while at the same time developing the capacity for far deeper and mature relationships.
Looked at through the other end of the telescope, it seems the Universe — or The One, or God, or whatever your preference — has decided to present itself to us in sensible, successive stages, just as we treat our own youngsters. We are all born as small human mammals, no question, but we must learn, we must aspire, to become more and more human. It’s called growing up. Interestingly, it has been shown that for those who succeed at the adult stage of maturation, new, even more robust phases appear, suggesting that our transcendent path may lead to whole new realms of highly spiritual fulfillment.
This template is the regimen for our spiritual development, and life is the arena in which it is played out. In that sense, our everyday lives are of profound importance; our relationships and aspirations, desires and efforts, and failures and successes are the stuff of spiritual advancement — and, yes, regression. For simplicity’s sake, development can be broken down into roughly two parallel tracks: cognition, and compassion. Cognition is not only what we think, but how we think, while compassion is our moral and caring relationships with others. Properly developed, cognition leads to wisdom, while compassion leads to a loving relationship with all beings. Sounds simple. Unfortunately, as we all know, life is anything but that.
Because this progressive template challenges us ceaselessly, life proves to be a relentless battle. There is always another hill to climb, and this constant pressure can, at times, prove overwhelming. Pathologies, delusions, addictions, apathy and hopelessness are all, by and large, various forms of avoidance we sometimes seek as shelter from the daily storm. Moreover, our lives are fraught with potential detours and wrong turns at every corner. For everything we might get right, it seems there are ten we might get wrong, sabotaging our progress along the way. “Staying young,” for instance, does not mean never growing up. Generally, good decisions lead to greater love, understanding and happiness, while poor decisions generate anger, confusion and sadness.
That’s the road map. How well we navigate determines our fate. For every potential positive, there’s always a potential negative. So, the obvious and hard truth is, we must make good decisions along the way. How could we possibly learn and advance if it were otherwise? How do we overcome all our previous poor decisions? With good ones!
The developmental sequence tells us that spirituality is a reality, not a myth, and that both its direction and elements can now be grasped. Within the last 50 years science has augmented our developmental road map with some interesting facts of its own. ESP, for instance, once thought of as silly rubbish, is now a demonstrated fact, and while its reach seems — experimentally, at least — weak, the reams of data supporting its reality have turned the old material worldview on its head. Particle entanglement, the established fact that particles can remain linked over any distance and perform in synchronicity instantaneously at speeds greater than light, put the final nail in the materialist coffin. Seems there’s much more to the universe than a sea of endless particle collisions, after all.
Does this mean we now understand the universe completely? Of course not! I suspect we have barely scratched the surface. But it does mean we have the basic ingredients that speak to our own, human struggle, and those ingredients are now reasonably clear and positive. The rigorous pursuit of knowledge and compassion are the ingredients of success — for anyone, anywhere. Question everything critically, while increasingly opening yourself to compassion. It’s not always easy, but it works, and life is the crucible where all the progress takes place.
Universal spirituality is perking constantly in and around us, so there’s really no need to go hunting for it. Look out any window and that’s what you’ll see, at times wonderful, at times terrifying, but always transformative. Transcendence is not some trendy, academic term, but the very definition of life. It’s just that we’re often too busy to take notice. In difficult times, that’s always good to remember.