Well-being, personal development and spiritual growth

There are three completely different ways in which you can use the incredibly versatile tool of meditation, and they have very different goals and outcomes. Firstly, over the last 30 years or so, mindfulness meditation has been shown conclusively to be a very valuable complement to therapy when used skilfully and wisely. For example it can be very effective in the treatment of stress, anxiety, insomnia, pain and illness. Both meditation and mindfulness have also been shown to have definite benefits in maintaining physical health by enabling you to relax your body and calm your mind whenever you choose.

It is important to understand the different contexts and the goals they are setting out to achieve. . .

Secondly, you can use meditation and mindfulness for your own personal development, and thirdly for your spiritual growth. In the public domain the main focus for the use of mindfulness meditation has understandably been for therapeutic purposes. However, I think that there is considerable confusion because the goals of the three different ways of using meditation are not clearly understood. This can result in unintended outcomes when therapists do not know or understand these goals and so lead their clients, either intentionally or unintentionally, into spiritual experiences for which they are not prepared.

Therefore it is important to understand these different contexts and the goals they are setting out to achieve. Therefore let’s take a look at these three different goals.

The therapeutic goal

In a clinical setting, the goal is to change behaviour. Marsha Linehan states clearly that the goal is to develop a more “effective way of transacting with yourself and the environment”.

Clients simply want help for their problems, they’ve not come to learn about Buddhism or spirituality. And so whether therapists are providing meditation to help with sleeping disorders, pain or anxiety and all of the other ways in which is can be extremely beneficial, they are using it to facilitate attaining this goal.

To this end, meditation provides the foundation of calm which gives the client a secure base to be able to observe their thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and behaviour patterns and free themselves from being caught in them. It provides a reference point which they can access whenever they choose. It balances their mind and emotions, taking them out of the waves of emotional turmoil and bringing them to ‘the beach’ – that still, calm, open space which is the foundation of the human mind.

This gives them the security of knowing that this basis of calm is always there once they are emotionally and mentally balanced. It is the ‘secure place’ in their mind. With this comparison, and from this foundation, change becomes much easier to achieve.

To my mind, all psychological therapy is to assist someone attain a healthy sense of identity so that their personal stories give them a sense of continuity, security, confidence and well-being. They can then have clear boundaries between their sense of self and their subconscious mind and communicate with their world with confidence.

The goal of personal development

Personal development is still within the realm of the personal, and so it involves the development and exploration of our sense of identity. Jung called this ‘individuation’ and Maslow called it ‘self-actualization’, the fulfilment of our hierarchy of needs. Actualization means self-fulfilment, and that our sense of identity is secure in its independence. This means that we have the freedom for self-exploration.

The enormous surge in the publication of self-help and ‘teach yourself to’ books in the last few decades bears witness to the increasing interest people have in personal development. In fact, once your physical and emotional needs are met it is a healthy thing to want to get to know yourself better and fulfil your potential.

You might take the opportunity to explore interests and talents that you didn’t have the time for when you were establishing your career or your family, or you might become curious about your weaker areas. Taking the time to read philosophy or catch up with the scientific literature, listen to music, go to art galleries and museums and explore other cultures are all ways of developing personally. The psychologist Carl Jung placed opening to and knowing your ‘shadow’ – those hidden areas of your psyche – at the centre of personal development, because this lies at the root of the conflicts we all experience in our lives.

And so personal development is still self-focused, even though our understanding of our sense of self has changed radically since Jung’s time. He thought of it as a deep structure in the mind, however the view of modern psychology is much closer to the view that lies at the core of the meditation tradition. This is that our sense of self is constantly changing and created in our relationship with others. It is formed through our language, relationships and the meanings we give events and how we organise them into stories.

Personal development can then lead to a much broader, more flexible, healthier and more fulfilled sense of self.

Spiritual growth

Personal development is not the same as spiritual growth. This is where the goal and the outcome depart radically from the previous ways in which you can use meditation. The goal of spiritual growth is to go beyond your sense of self, to realise its limitations and boundaries, and allow them to dissolve.

Dissolving is the key word here. The goal for both therapy and personal development is to build – to build a healthy, independent sense of self. The goal of spiritual growth is to understand that this is limited and ultimately creates our sense of separation from everyone and everything else. Naturally, this is exactly what our sense of self is designed to do. And so spiritual growth is based on the understanding that the only way to free yourself from this limitation is to dissolve the boundaries which separate you. And these boundaries are created by your personal identity.

Therefore spiritual growth is the process of going beyond your identity, beyond the stories which you have constructed to create your identity – letting go of them. It means giving yourself to something bigger than yourself, opening up and being vulnerable to the people and the world around you. It assumes, of course, that you have the security and confidence to do this.

It is not the same as personal development in that spiritual growth is the process of opening and deepening – opening to the infinite nature of the human mind and deepening your experience of the human heart. Someone may be a healthy, balanced individual, be a valuable citizen contributing to society, but not be at all willing to open and feel fully. And alternatively, someone may grow spiritually and not develop at all personally. They are such different processes.

Therefore to confuse them can have very serious consequences. I have met clients who have been convinced that they have very serious psychological problems, and so have their therapists, when they actually have a gift for the inner life. Their need was to grow spiritually, to open to the infinite. On the other hand I have met students who have been pursuing a spiritual path trying to solve what were actually personal, psychological problems. Learning to let go was the last thing they needed to do as their sense of self was not at all developed, confident or strong enough to do it.

Understanding the difference between well-being, personal development and spiritual growth is crucial when using meditation and mindfulness. They are such valuable tools for all of them, and essential for spiritual growth, but the way you use them and the outcomes and goals are so different that they can have very serious, unintended consequences if these are not known or understood. Both personal development and spiritual growth depend on a secure, healthy, confident sense of self. True spirituality rests on the understanding that you can only give yourself, you can only let go of and go beyond yourself when you have true confidence in yourself.

Graham Williams