There is no “You” or “I,”
no object to contemplate,
That lost in
The blind theologians
Then they saw,
and their seven levels
of attainment dissolved
One traditional developmental model addressing the various progressive stages of human/spiritual adaptation that some aspiring practitioners have found useful as a theoretical reference is the “seven-stages” paradigm of maturation leading to “liberation” in human form. Of course, successive awakenings to deeper and deeper levels of awareness beyond the self-contraction, and subsequent embodiment of such realizations, do not occur in a linear fashion. There is usually a lot of overlapping and flip-flopping back and forth between levels as we strive to rise above our various delusions and false views about reality and discover our true nature and identity within the totality.
No conceptual framework is ultimately true, but as a provisional expedient, the seven stages model may have something to offer as a general path guide. Regardless, working and studying with a qualified master teacher is by far the better way for most aspirants to determine the quality, depth, and breadth of their ongoing development in the so-called “spiritual” arena, and so avoid the common pitfalls of misjudgment and vanity that plague those who rely solely on their own self-assessments.
As a note of acknowledgement: a coherent version of this developmental model was first brought to my attention in the mid-1970’s via the writings of the controversial American author Franklin Jones (1939-2008), and because they still strike me as both brilliant and relevant (and despite the fact that, in his later years, the fellow fell victim himself to some of the very traps he had once warned about), I have incorporated some of his early insights in regard to human spiritual development into the following essay. The 7-Stage model itself has been around in various forms for centuries, and in fact it corresponds in many ways to the 7-Chakra system in Tantra, an ancient esoteric understanding of the evolutionary energy complex of the human body-mind.
The first three stages of life are representative of the stages of ordinary human growth and social adaptation from birth to the threshold of adulthood. They are the stages of physical, emotional, and mental development, occurring in three periods of approximately seven years each (until approximately twenty-one years of age). Every individual who lives to an adult age inevitably adapts (although, in most cases, only partially) to the first three stages of life.
Stage One—Individuation: The first stage of life is the gradual process of adapting to life as a separate individual no longer bound to the mother and dependent on her as the food source. This whole stage of life could be described as an ordeal of weaning, or individuation.
Substantial physical growth and learning occurs in the first stage of life, as one begins to manage bodily energies to explore the physical world. Acquiring motor skills is a key aspect of the first stage of life, learning to walk and talk and perform the necessary functions required for the basic upkeep and maintenance of the host form.
If the first stage of life unfolds as it should, the separation from the mother completes itself in basic terms. Nevertheless, there remains a lingering tendency to struggle with and even resist this simple individuation. Every human being tends to associate individuation with a feeling of separation, a sense of disconnection from love and support. That reaction is the dramatization of the self-contraction in its earliest form and will characterize most people for their entire life, manifesting in endless varieties of neurotic maladaptation, unless they are able to awaken to their true nature, prior to identification with their human host body and its personality.
In terms of eschatological orientation, one fixated at this early stage of adaptation commonly hopes to be “saved”, redeemed, or blessed by an external Supreme Parental Deity figure, who, it is believed, will intervene if properly petitioned to “make things right” (based upon one’s conditional concept of rightness), assist in the attainment of desirable effects such as wealth, health, and political victories, and generally watch over the chosen either directly or through appointed angelic agents to insure hopeful outcomes.
In the Abrahamic religions, the Parental Deity is imagined to be a super powerful male – God the Father – who is typically to be feared and obeyed, and who metes out just punishments on those who swerve from the laws He has handed down from His Divine Abode through His various prophets, now typically represented by the priest castes (be they Jewish rabbi, Muslim cleric, or Christian bishop).
In Hinduism and various polytheistic models, the Ultimate Parent Deity is projected as a Divine Mother figure, with all the nurturing maternal qualities associated with the role, although She too can get pretty fierce, in Her darker form of “Kali” for example. As the Divine Feminine aspect, She is the Subject of elaborate devotional gestures and endless rituals of praising and petitioning, in order to acquire favor and fortunate regard.
Even in Buddhism, which does not require worship of some ultimate deity figure, there are still numerous supernatural characters who fill the parental role, such as the Bodhisattva of Compassion (Quan Yin/Avalokitesvara), to Whom the faithful resort in devotional programs and petitions for well-being and good fortune.
Many of the “New Age” philosophies are little different, and merely substitute a concept of an idealized “Universe” for the Father or Mother Deity. Nevertheless, as long as we are living with the presumption that the universe is some kind of wish-fulfilling machine, external to us, and in charge of our destiny, we will always remain in the position of powerlessness. As our perspective matures, we come to realize that the universe and us are not two, and it is we who are co-responsible for the whole thing. We are not solely on the receiving end, in other words.
Regardless of nominal religious affiliation, those fixated at this first stage tend to cling to and depend on some version of an external parental deity to meet their religious/emotional needs, and curiously enough, have often waged wars in the name of their parent deity of choice, and ostracized, tortured, and killed those who fail to properly acknowledge their chosen Divine parent.
Stage Two — Socialization: Between the ages of five and eight years one begins to become aware of the emotional dimension of existence —how one feels and how others respond emotionally assume great importance. This is the beginning of the second stage of life, the stage of social adaptation and all conditioning programs that go with it. During this time the themes include a growing sense of sexual differentiation, an awareness of the effects of one’s actions on others, and a testing of whether or not one is loved and personally validated as an independent person.
With the arising of greater emotional sensitivity, there is also the tendency to become fixated in chronic patterns of feeling rejected by others, and rejecting or punishing others for their presumed un-love and failure to confirm our idealized self-image. The drama of rejecting and feeling rejected is the primary sign of incomplete adaptation in the second stage of life, and it is both here as well as in the third stage where the emotional/sexual contraction most commonly takes root. I speak at more length about this knot at the heart, particularly in The Game of Rejection and Sadness – The Wound of Love and as it relates to certain contemporary spiritual practices, in Zen and the Emotional/Sexual Contraction.
Stage Three—Integration: During the teen years, the third stage of life becomes established. The key development of this stage is the maturing of the ability to use mind to conceptualize and discriminate, leading to the exercise of will. On the bodily level, puberty is continuing (having begun during the later years of the second stage of life) with all its attendant bodily and emotional changes.
The purpose of the third stage of life is the integration of the human character in body, emotion, and mind, so that the emerging adult becomes a fully differentiated, or an autonomous sexual and social human character. If the process of growth in the first and the second stages of life has proceeded unobstructed by conflicted messages and neurotic resistance, then this integration can take place naturally. If, however, there have been failures of adaptation in the earlier stages, such as a chronic sense of being separate, rejected, or unloved, and consequent difficulties in relating happily to others, then the process of integration is disturbed, and fixations on dysfunctional attitudes and behaviors assert themselves.
The religious counterpart to this life stage may include a complete rejection of the parental deity figure, along with a general questioning and suspicion of all parental religious values, perhaps resulting in an embrace of atheism or agnosticism, infused with various forms of pseudo-scientific materialism, or even hedonism as a reaction to perceived parental strictures.
Indeed, for most humans, the process of the third stage of life becomes an adolescent struggle between the conflicting motives to be dependent on others and to be independent of them. This adolescent drama tends to continue throughout adult life, and is a sign that the work of the third stage of life was never completed. The truly mature adult, characterized by equanimity, discriminative intelligence, heart-feeling, and openness to the new, tends never to fully develop, although a nominal adaptation to the first three stages of life is usually acknowledged by twenty-one years of age.
The first three stages of life are the “foundation stages”, as Jones notes, because the ordeal of growth into human maturity is essentially a preparation for something far greater — true spiritual awakening, and ultimately, Liberation. This greater process begins to flower in the fourth stage of life on the basis of a profound conversion and opening to love.
Stage Four — Spiritualization: The leap to the fourth stage of life is a transition that very few are prepared or disposed to undertake. It is nothing less than the breakthrough into a spiritually-illumined life of Divine recognition and heartfelt compassion, and one generally oriented towards selfless service. Historically, such lives are elevated in the consensus judgment to the level of sainthood.
How does such a life become possible? Typically, it is inspired by a heart-awakening so profound that the common human goals — those concerned with satisfying craving for “worldly” pleasures and avoiding hardship and pain — lose their force and attraction. The motive for one established in the fourth stage of life is based on devotion to a deep and persistent intimacy with what mystics call “the spiritual Heart”, an intimacy that is real and ecstatic, and which changes one’s vision of the world. Everything that appears, everything that occurs is now seen as a process full of Divine Presence. Stabilizing in this stage of life is generally considered the summit of realization achieved in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and much of Hinduism, and is most uncommon in this world.
However, the fourth stage of life, though it represents a profound and auspicious advance beyond the foundation stages, is truly only the beginning of real spiritual growth. Despite breakthrough moments of Unity Consciousness that may occur, as well as a dramatic relaxation of the core emotional contraction that characterizes the usual person’s life and relations, the primary error of judgment and appreciation in the fourth stage of life is the dualistic presumption that God and the individual soul are inherently separate from one another.
The Divine is the intensely attractive “Other” with Whom one communes and in Whom one may become ecstatically absorbed at times, even to the point of consuming union. Nevertheless, such raptures pass, and one is left with the continuing hunger for the “Beloved”. The individual being is still taken to be a separate and independent self, still fundamentally contracted and thus still searching, even though the goal of seeking is “spiritual” in nature (as opposed to the craving for gross satisfactions of money, food, power, and sex).
Stage Five — Higher Spiritual Development: The fifth stage of life could be described as the domain of accomplished Yogis — individuals involved in the pursuit of “Enlightenment” through mystical experiences, exotic brain phenomena, and the acquisition of psychic powers. Just as very few religious practitioners fully awaken to the Divine Communion enjoyed in the fourth stage of life, even fewer would-be Yogis actually achieve the full fruits of fifth stage Realization.
The important difference between the fifth stage of life and all the stages of life that precede it is that awareness on the gross physical plane is no longer the normal mode of existence. Rather, attention is constantly attracted to phenomena associated with the subtle realms – the dreamlike or visionary regions of the brain. The energy of awakened “Kundalini” moves along the subtle nerves from the base of the spine, up through the ajna chakra (also known in mystical literature as the “Third Eye”), and beyond the crown of the head. At its point of highest ascent, the yogic meditative state traditionally called “Nirvikalpa Samadhi” (“formless ecstasy”, in which all awareness of body and mind is temporarily dissolved in the absolute bliss of Self-Recognition) is activated. This profoundly ecstatic state is regarded as the summit of Realization in most esoteric yogic schools.
This dissolution of body and mind is a direct demonstration to the yogi that the apparently separate self has no enduring substantiality or significance, and that only the radiant condition of absolute freedom and peace truly exists. Even so, a limit remains. This great Samadhi, the culminating achievement of the fifth stage of life, is fleeting. At some point bodily consciousness returns, and so does the ache to renew that boundless, disembodied bliss. Fifth stage conditional Nirvikalpa Samadhi, for all its profundity, is achieved on the basis of a subtle stress, a subtle self-contraction. It is the ultimate fruit of the yogic strategy to escape the body by directing one’s awareness upward into infinite Light. Moreover, as Ramana Maharshi notes: “Even though one practises Kevala Nirvikalpa Samadhi for years together, if one has not rooted out the vasanas [karmic residues] one will not attain liberation.”
When this process has completed its work, a great conversion has occurred in the human body-mind. One is no longer seduced by the fascinations of visionary experience, even when such experiences arise in the brain. Neither is one moved to direct one’s attention up and out of the body into the infinitely ascended state of “formless ecstasy”. Rather, the “tour” of mystical experience is revealed to be simply more of the futile search to become completely satisfied and fulfilled, based on the stress of the self-contraction. When that whole pursuit of mystical attainments relaxes, the aspirant may then be drawn beyond all habits of identification with bodily states and even beyond the subtle mind states of the fifth stage of life into a pristine understanding of Reality as Consciousness Itself.
Stage Six — Awakening to the Transcendental Self : In the sixth stage of life, one is no longer perceiving and interpreting everything from the point of view of the individuated body-mind with its desires and goals. Rather, one assumes the detached position of “Witness” to all that arises, and even though continuing to participate in the play of life, there is a disinterest born of dis-identification with any personal vanities or worldly concerns. It is the domain of the reclusive sage found in certain schools of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism.
The sixth stage of life may include the experience of Jnana Samadhi, which, like fifth stage conditional Nirvikalpa Samadhi, is a form of temporary and conditional Realization of one’s “True Self”. However, fifth stage conditional Nirvikalpa Samadhi comes about through the strategy of ascent, the urge to move attention up and beyond the body-mind, while in Jnana Samadhi, awareness of gross and subtle states is excluded by concentration in formless Transcendental Self-Consciousness (the formless Brahman of Advaita Vedanta, for example).
The Awakening in the sixth stage of life represents a profound revolution in consciousness. Such Realizers discard the fascinations of experience, transcending the gross entanglements of the early stages of life, as well as the subtle attractions of devotional (fourth stage) rapture and of Yogic (fifth stage) mysticism. Instead, the Sages of the sixth stage of life have traditionally contemplated the spacious freedom and luminous, refined purity of their own innate awake awareness.
Nevertheless, even deep resting in the freedom of Transcendental Consciousness is not complete liberation in human form, for the aspirant has not yet penetrated to the essence of mind, nor resolved all lingering traces of emotional contraction at the heart. There is still a very subtle stress of identification at play, a lingering dualism between formlessness and form persists, and so there is still one last fixation to be released.
Sixth stage practice is expressed by turning within, away from all conditional objects and experiences (including the movements of energy and attention within one’s own body-mind), in order to concentrate upon the radiant Source of individual consciousness beyond name and form. Thus, the root of the self-contraction, the core story, is still alive. Mind has let go of everything, everything except itself.
Due to a fundamental delusion about its own nature, the seeking mind still continues, albeit in its most primitive form, to superimpose a fantasy of interpretation on perception called “the True Self”. However, no matter how clear, radiant, and knowing the experience may seem to be, it is still subject to fluctuations, still susceptible to conditionality. Moreover, the one who is enjoying this glorious condition still remains, obstructing final liberation. When both self and world are directly recognized as mere conceptual designations, and every single trace of one’s conditioned reality dissolves in the blaze of unconditional love, then no barriers remain. As it so happens, the one who would be free was the only one standing in the way of true liberation.
Stage Seven — Liberation: It represents release from all the contracted limitations of the previous stages of life, and the end to the core story of “me and mine”. It is the stage of completion in human spiritual development, and is traditionally pointed to in Tibetan Dzogchen Ati Yoga and Chan (Zen) Buddhism, as well as by the great and rare Realizers who transcend all schools and sectarian affiliations. Remarkably, the seventh stage Awakening is not an experience at all. The true nature of everything is simply obvious “as it is”. What is, simply is. This fundamental Awake-ness has been called “Open Eyes”, or “Sahaj Samadhi” – the natural state.
Form is no longer perceived to be different than emptiness, emptiness is not other than form. Beyond the sixth stage, any perception of dualism, even at the most subtle level, collapses. No longer is there any need to seek meditative seclusion in order to realize perpetual identification with Reality, or Union. Reality and you are not two, nor have they ever been. There has never been a single moment when everything was not pure perfection. It’s not that everything has finally arrived at a state of purity, but rather that it always was, is, and will be. It was only our temporary case of amnesia that obscured this simple realization. There had never been any separation to begin with. The whole adventure has been a dream journey all along.
When one is finally able to turn their attention around without distraction and thoroughly recognize mind for what it is, all fixation and false identification dissolve in what has been described as the “Great Death”, although paradoxically, it is not an event in time that happens to “me”. All sense of self or Self are instantly recognized as transparent fantasies of interpretation on perception, leaving the natural mind (awareness of the present moment) without any contraction or urge for modification in its open and relaxed simplicity.The essential emptiness of both self and world becomes spontaneously apparent. Any vestiges of the emotional contraction at the heart are dissolved, as the poisons of greed, envy, pride, hatred, and ignorance are effortlessly transmuted into wisdoms, and the boundless compassion of Awakened Mind becomes spontaneously activated. In that regard, one indication that such enlightenment is true of one is that all that is left of them is love.
The open spacious transparency of awake awareness recognizes itself — our true nature knows itself — without boundary or limitation. Both bondage and liberation, samsara and nirvana, are seen as mere conceptual designations in the radiant shine of unfettered mind. A tacit realization that pertains here is that all arising phenomena, including one’s own mind, are manifestations of the great natural perfection, inherently empty and marvelous as it is, and consequently, “with the ending, fading out, cessation, renunciation, and relinquishment of all construings, all excogitations, all I-making and mine-making and obsession with conceit, one is, through lack of clinging/sustenance, released.”
~ Aggi-Vacchagotta Sutta