One of the most persistent myths floating around the spiritual landscape is that altered states of consciousness are a hallmark of being “spiritually evolved.”
That those kinds of experiences just don’t happen to you unless you are very highly developed…
It’s a favorite story among young, idealistic seekers who really want to be evolved.
And among enthusiastic gurus who really want to be seen as being evolved.
The problem is that it simply isn’t true.
States of consciousness—and stages of developmental growth—are two completely different things.
And while mashing the two together may grease the wheels of spiritual commerce…
It actually causes some familiar (and unnecessary) problems.
Whether you are having spiritual experiences—or you aren’t—believing that that has anything to do with how evolved you are will tend to stall any forward momentum.
And leave you stuck, right where you are.
Three Cool Insights…
The link between spiritual experiences and “spiritual evolution” is really very simple…
The popular idea is that you grow upwards through successive stages of spiritual growth.
And at the upper end of the spectrum, you start to have really cool spiritual experiences.
Like unlocking achievements in a video game.
And the higher you go, the more profound the experiences get.
So… if you want to have really profound spiritual experiences, you’d better get to work on being more evolved…
And if you have a really profound experience—well, hot damn! You just made it to the top of the evolutionary ladder!
It’s a gratifying story. (Or discouraging, depending on your point of view.)
But that’s not actually how it works.
Spiritual experiences and altered states of consciousness are available at every stage of growth.
They don’t just appear at the upper end of the spectrum.
What changes as you grow is how you interpret them.
Different people at different stages of development could have the exact same experience.
And they would each come away with a different story and interpretation of what just happened.
The interesting thing is that people at similar stages of development will come away with similar stories.
(And, ironically, the “I’m spiritually evolved” story is more common to the earlier levels of development.)
But you don’t have to be unusually evolved to have spiritual experiences.
You just have to move your consciousness in unusual ways.
It’s not even that hard…
It’s like learning to play an instrument.
Anyone can do it. And anyone can get good.
Regardless of where they sit developmentally.
Take two equally talented musicians… One may be a spoiled child of a rockstar. Another, a mature and insightful artist.
In either case, their skill with their instrument has nothing to do with who they are as a person.
It’s the same thing with consciousness.
Your ability to move your consciousness, and your current state of growth, are two completely separate things.
And yet, the myth persists.
It’s something that philosopher Ken Wilber calls the State-Stage Fallacy.
Once you learn to spot the fallacy, you’ll see it all over the place.
And many spiritual books will take on a completely different context once you recognize the point view that they were written from.
But the most important place to recognize the myth, is in yourself.
Buying into the state-stage fallacy can be absolutely crippling.
Both to your ongoing growth. And to your ability to explore altered states of consciousness…
Because if you aren’t already having spiritual experiences, the tendency is to think that you aren’t evolved enough.
And so you may just pass it off as something you’ll never achieve.
Or put off getting started until you’ve met some imaginary qualification.
Like thinking you have to be a visionary, genre-breaking musician before you ever pick up a guitar and learn to play.
And that obviously doesn’t lead to much progress…
On the other hand, if you are having experiences, the tendency is to think that you’ve arrived at some predefined destination.
Reached the top of the spiritual ladder.
And so you stop exploring…
And fall short of your true potential.
Which is even more unfortunate, because you were already off to a good start!
Maybe you developed an ability to access intense vision states…
Or gained some independence from your thoughts and emotions…
Or identified with the silent internal Witness…
But if you buy into the fallacy—or if you’re a part of a tradition that claims that your experience only comes with the highest stage of spiritual evolution—then the tendency is to stop searching.
Instead of pushing forward into unexplored territory, you just retread the same ground over and over again.
Which is understandable from a religious standpoint…
Because if the most evolved devotees of your chosen religion said that that’s as far as you can go… Well, why go looking for more?
I mean, it’s not like those first heroic figures started out by exploring the unknown or anything…
And so instead of finding a whole new beginning, and setting out to discover something new—the tendency is to pat yourself on the back and call it a day.
And that’s the saddest thing of all…
The people with the most potential often end up with the least ambition.
All for the sake of being “spiritually evolved.”
Which is so frustrating to see!
And so, a Rant…
Aside from the fact that spiritual experiences are available to everyone…
And the fact that there is no ultimate state of consciousness…
(Any more than there’s an ultimate painting or highest musical composition or final biological evolution.)
The other issue is that being “spiritually” evolved is a meaningless statement.
There is no spiritual line of development.
Because the word spiritual itself has very little meaning…
It’s mostly become a way to divide the world into the parts of life we like, against the parts of life we don’t.
But since everyone has their own values and beliefs—everyone has their own definition of what it means to be spiritual.
My personal definition is as valid as any other… And I can use it to guide the important decisions in my life…
But it’s not so useful as a developmental standard.
Because it really only applies to me.
To put it blunt and nerdy: the phrase “spiritually evolved” is self-referential.
I can apply my own standards to everyone else. And say that few people measure up…
Her? Oh, she gets it. We have so much in common. And her values are spot on! She’s very spiritually advanced…
Him? Yeahhh… Very low vibrations. You know he’s actually passionate about completely different things? But I suppose all beings wake up eventually…
Technically, it’s still a valid perspective…
But all I’m doing is elevating my own values and beliefs, and judging the world by my own ideals.
Which doesn’t really make me “evolved.”
More just an asshole.
And on top of all that, “evolution” doesn’t run along a single track anyway.
There are lots of independent lines of development…
Cognitive, emotional, moral, values, needs, self-sense, interpersonal, psycho-sexual, somatic… the list goes on and on.
All of us are highly developed in some lines. Less so in others. And probably hurting in a couple more.
We can focus on growing in the areas that are most important to us. And, in that sense, become more evolved.
But nobody is highly developed in all of them.
Nor is there any reason to be.
Nobody is standing by to reward you for your achievements.
What makes you interesting and unique is the complex conglomeration of all the lines mixed together. And how the varying stages of growth interact and intertwine.
So, stay where you are… Work hard to grow… Alternate between the two…
It’s entirely up to you.
All part of becoming who YOU aspire to be.
And none of it has anything to do with altered states of consciousness…
…which leads us to the good part.
A Bit of Inspiration…
Understanding the state-stage fallacy is a very liberating insight.
Understanding it emotionally I mean…
You may feel a prideful sting for a moment if you thought you’d reached the finish line…
But that’s like being disappointed after setting out for the horizon—only to find a whole new world beckoning before you.
Consciousness and growth go hand in hand.
But one is not dependent on the other.
As you wander and explore, you’ll be changed by your experiences.
You’ll learn and grow and discover new perspectives.
And as you grow, you’ll be inspired to wander in new and unexpected ways.
Onward, inward and upward for as long as you choose to go.
And that’s so much better than buying into the myth…
Because if you don’t need to be “evolved” before you start, then there’s nothing holding you back.
And if there’s no end to the adventure, then you’re never forced to stop.
Every spiritual experience you’ve ever read about is available to you now.
Or at least soon… with a bit of practice.
You don’t need to wait. You don’t need to “raise your vibrations.” Or “be more spiritually evolved.”
That’s all a bunch of bullshit.
You won’t be disappointed.
Oh… And one more thing… For those who want to use spirituality as a path to personal growth…
The thing about growth is that it takes time to build those new parts of yourself.
It isn’t something you can force.
Any more than you can force the growth of a plant.
But you can slow it down…
Too small a pot… Wrong environment… Not enough water…
In the case of consciousness: not enough movement.
Sometimes being stuck isn’t so much “stuck” as it is “not moving.”
Or always moving the same way.
It’s settling into the same habitual states.
And staying there for no particular reason.
(And that includes habitually sitting on your ass and Witnessing the present moment. Sorry.)
The more you move your consciousness, the more you shake off the states that hold you back.
And so the more you move, the faster you tend to grow.
Not because you achieve some sacred state of spiritual evolution.
But because you won’t spend as much time lingering in the pots that no longer fit.
Or slaving along to the rituals of tradition.
So, actually… moving your consciousness in new and interesting ways does make you more evolved…
In a way.
Which is, I suppose, an ironic and amusing way to end.
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About Zach Herbert
I teach people to do cool things with their consciousness, and break their brains with beautiful ideas.
Professional heretic. Unlikely mystic. Host to rebels, misfits and independent thinkers.
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