In recent decades a developmental approach to spirituality has emerged from work in different research areas of adult development. “When investigators of human development have written about 'higher' or more adult stages of development they often indicate that such development is spiritual” (Irwin, 2002, p. 3). Due to these being emergent findings from research that was not aimed at measuring spiritual development, the developmental theories involved do not include recognizably spiritual aspects until the higher stages of development. The theories have yet to adapt their understandings of earlier stages to include this aspect of development that emerges strongly at later stages (Irwin, 2002).
These stage-based developmental theories are sometimes termed “neo-piagetian” because they are extensions of the work done by Piaget on cognitive development in children. Piaget (1950) found that children move through specific stages in how they understand the world around them in the course of their development. The general process of development he described as a process of “decentralization,” a shifting from an egocentric perspective, in which the approach to reality is inseparable from the perspective of the individual, to a more objective perspective.
While Piaget's work ended with the transition into a recognizably adult level of cognition, others have continued to research development into adulthood. Looking at a spectrum of this work, Irwin (2000) summarizes:
Whether we examine moral development or psychosocial development or midlife individuation, the descriptions of higher stages involve characteristics that we can agree are spiritual. It is as if development 'naturally' tends toward spiritual development. That is, spirituality is part of normal or optimal development, and not something unusual or even pathological. In fact, because these stages typically occur in the latter years of life, coming after the earlier stages, spirituality may be considered a higher or more evolved aspect of normal development. We may regard developmental psychology as an emerging psychology, revealing something about spirituality from a new perspective (p. 290)
Even though the higher stages of developmental theories are recognizably spiritual, there is no need to follow Wilber (2000) in treating spirituality according to various definitions as either consisting of these levels or as separate from them. Just as we do not think of cognition as consisting of various stages, nor of developing irrespective of stages, but rather as being expressed within or through the framework of a given stage. At this point in developmental theory, we may not have a term that applies to the same element across all of the stages. For example, Irwin (2002) uses the term “awareness” in the earliest stages, and in later stages the term “consciousness.” For the definition of “consciousness” does not apply in the earliest stages of development (p. 6). We must also bear in mind that developmental stages represent not so much growth, as transformation. This is in fact the distinction between development within a stage, and development to a further stage. The passive state of awareness may grow indefinitely and never attain the active properties of consciousness. If consciousness develops from awareness, then that development is a transformation from one type into another.
This transformational aspect may apply to spirituality. It may be that what is readily recognizable as spirituality in later stages, is not recognizable or definable as spirituality in earlier stages. However, in the range of stages we will be considering, we will be treating spirituality in much the same way as cognition, as something that is expressed within or through a stage, not dependent on it.
Spiritual and Ego Development
Stages can are generally considered in three major categories: preconventional, the stages identified in child development by Piaget; conventional, stages that represent psychosocial development within the range of normal adult function; and postconventional, that describe further development in awareness of the systems involved in the construction of meaning and their innate limitations. Hewlett (2002) includes a further category of transcendent stages. “In this final tier, the separate ego is simply the vehicle through which this deeper reality flows” (p. 34-35).
While there are some differences in the theories of ego development, these can largely be accounted for by differences in the focuses of the theories. For example: Loevinger (1976) and Cook-Greutner (1994, 1999, 2004) worked from measures of meaning-making such as self-understanding; Kegan (1994) focused more on unconscious epistemologies; and Washburn (2003) considered intrapsychic relations and structure as well as relations to body and world. These developmental theories, and the less-encompassing theories of reflective judgment development (King & Kitchner, 1994), moral development (Kohlberg, in King & Kitchner, 1994; & in Irwin, 2002), and faith development (Fowler, 1981), all follow the same structure of “an invariant, hierarchical sequence of distinct views of reality and subject-object integrations which comprise operative, cognitive, and emotional aspects of living” (Cook-Greuter, 1994, p. 121). These stages are not merely progressive, subsequent stages include and increase the perspectives of prior stages.
Growth is not only associated with transitioning to a higher stage. As Cook-Greuter has pointed out, most growth seems to occur within a given stage, “The current ways of viewing reality is refined, enriched, and modified” (p. 120). We can distinguish between growth as change within the framework of a stage, and as transformation in a transition from the current framework to a higher-stage framework.
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Cook-Greuter, S. (2004). Making the case for a developmental perspective. Industrial and Commercial Training, 36(6/7), 275-281.
Fowler, J. (1981). Stages of faith: The psychology of human development and the quest for meaning. New York: Harper Collins.
Hewlett, D. C. (2004). A qualitative study of postautonomous ego development: The bridge between postconventional and transcendent ways of being. Ph.D. dissertation, Fielding Graduate Institute, United States -- California.
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King, P. & Kitchner, K. (1994). Developing reflective judgment: Understanding and promoting intellectual growth and critical thinking in adolescents and adults. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
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