I often hear people talking about spiritual growth. But when I listen closely, I find that individuals have all kinds of ideas about what spiritual growth consists of.
What many of us tend to mean by spiritual growth has to do with an individualistic endeavor. In fact, much of what passes for "growth" is actually just fattening our ego.
I want to propose that growth isn't about gaining something we don't have, and it isn't about learning things. It is, rather, a matter of self-transcendence. As such, it moves in the opposite direction from much of what is popularly thought of as spiritual growth.
From the time of Augustine, self-transcendence has tended to be equated with opening to the divine. But I propose that real self-transcendence is oriented in a quite different direction.
Self-transcendence is about opening to people in their otherness to us.
The key point here is that it's not about wanting people to be like us, to agree with us, to fit in with our wishes. It's about allowing—indeed, welcoming—the otherness of the other person.
When we not only accept, but actually embrace, the otherness of another individual, it drives us to a new level of self-acceptance and self-actualization. Because we welcome another without trying to change them, even as they show us how different from us they can be when they are authentically themselves, we are pushed to receive our own uniqueness in a deeper way.
How does this happen?
As long as we are seeking to modify the otherness of the other, we will inevitably engage in drama. There will be tension, upset emotions, mental turmoil. Seeking to alter the other is a proven recipe for drama. It occupies our thoughts continually, taking us away from self-transcendence.
When we cease trying to change the other and can accept the other in their radical otherness, which means recognizing that they are perhaps drastically different from ourselves in some aspects, we are moving away from drama and into authenticity. We are in effect saying to the other, "I appreciate it when you are real with me."
To appreciate the realness of the other is to demand of ourselves that we become more real. This is what drives our self-transcendence. We can only embrace the realness of another person to the degree that we embrace being real ourselves.
In opening to a person as a real person, I become real. Their authenticity evokes in me my own authenticity. This is the only way I can meet them as a real person: I must become real myself.
At the very moment that I feel like pushing the other way because they do not give me what I want—which is to engage in drama—I am called upon to dive deeper within myself than my reactive thoughts and emotions. I am called upon to open up my heart to the other and include them.
When we reach out to include at the very point we want to reject or fight the other, calming ourselves, centering ourselves, soothing ourselves instead of reacting because we aren't getting what we imagine we should have, we self-transcend. We become more authentically the loving individual we really are.
Actually, we discover who, in essence, we have always been. More of our real being comes into play in everyday situations.
To experience more of ourselves is to experience the divine. But it comes about not through trying to be "more spiritual," but by allowing the realness of another to tease out our own realness. We are becoming who we inherently are. This is authentic spiritual growth.