Sun, 06 Aug 2000

Existential crisis a sign of advanced spiritual growth

By Rahayu Ratnaningsih

JAKARTA (JP): Most educated men and women will at one point in their lives undergo what is now popularly termed an "existential crisis". A point where they stop and think, "What am I doing? Why am I here? What's the purpose of all this?" These are the burning questions which a branch of psychology called existentialism seeks to provide a practical answer to. It says that the only meaning in life is the one that each individual gives to it; everyone is responsible and free to choose their own meaning to their sufferings. There is no meaning outside this context, certainly not one sent down from heaven.

This crisis is not an indication of a mental disorder. If anything, it shows quite an advanced spiritual development, more so than even those religious people who seem content with their rituals and uncompromising faith.

The following four stages of spiritual growth, as defined by M. Scott Peck in his book The Different Drum, could perhaps clarify the issue. They are Stage I: Chaotic, antisocial; Stage II: Formal, institutional; Stage III: Skeptic, individual; and Stage IV: Mystic, communal. He says most young children and perhaps one in five adults fall into Stage I. It is essentially a stage of undeveloped spirituality. Being unprincipled, there is nothing that governs them except their own will. And since the will from moment to moment can go this way or that, there is a lack of integrity to their being.

These people live a painful existence, some may end up in jail or killing themselves. Some, occasionally, convert to Stage II, in a process that is seemingly sudden, dramatic and unconscious. The majority of converts to exoteric religions, born again Christians, Muslims or Hindus or exoteric religious believers belong to this stage. The main characteristic of the people of this stage is their attachment to the forms (as opposed to the essence) of their religion, which is why it is called "formal" as well as "institutional." They can't tolerate change and ambiguity. After all, order, rigidity and certainty are what they are yearning for after the chaotic existence they have left behind. They are the people who in mobs demand the death penalty for those they consider heretics or call for holy wars against "infidels". Their manner of speaking would sound something like "God did this, God did that." They have God sown into their back pocket. And their vision of God is almost entirely that of an external supreme being: Omnipotence with supreme knowledge who most of the time acts as a cosmic daddy figure or a giant benevolent cop in the sky who rewards, rules, directs, monitors and punishes. This is precisely the kind of God they need -- just as they need a legalistic religion for their governance. They have very little understanding of the immanent, indwelling God.

Some of Stage II people may convert to Stage III. People whose childhood is fed with churchy or preachy moralism may in their late adolescence rebel against what their developed intellects see as silly superstition. At this point, they begin to convert to skeptical individuals and to their parents great, if unnecessary, chagrin, often become atheists or agnostics. The so- called Muslims or Christians by KTP (ID) fall into this category.

Although frequently "nonbelievers," people in Stage III are generally more spiritually developed than those who remain in Stage II. Although individualistic, they are not the least bit antisocial. They just don't see enough relevant, rational reason to believe in the necessity of acknowledging Jesus as Lord and Savior or Muhammad as God's last messenger (as opposed to Shiva, Mao or Socrates) in order to be saved. As skeptics, they are often scientists. Active Stage III men and women are active truth seekers. And, as mentioned above, often people of this stage experience an existential or identity crisis.

Peck further writes, "If people in Stage III seek truth deeply and widely enough, they find what they are looking for -- enough pieces to begin to be able to fit them together but never enough to complete the whole puzzle. In fact, the more pieces they find, the larger and more magnificent the puzzle becomes. Yet they are able to glimpse the 'big picture' and see that it is very beautiful indeed -- and that it strangely resembles those of the 'primitive myths and superstitions' their stage II parents and grandparents believe in. At that point they begin their conversions to Stage IV, which is the mystic communal stage of spiritual development."

Most people bounce back and forth from one stage to another. The successful "free thinking" businessmen in Stage III may not feel the need to go to church on Sundays since it coincides with his other "religious worship", which is golf. You can find God anywhere, in churches and golf courses alike. However, when his business is hit by a monetary crisis, church becomes more important that golf. This must have been because I haven't been praying, he thinks. So he is back to Stage II and prays until business is back to normal again (it must be because he's been praying so hard) and gradually he begins to slip back onto his Stage III golf course again.

As I wrote in my previous article, the midlife crisis comes early these days, although Siddharta was only 28 when his crisis was culminating and he left his palace for an answer to his burning question of why people suffer. A lot of young people are now turning to meditation or contemplative spirituality as propagated especially by Eastern mysticism though a strong current for more esoteric Western or Semitic religions is also taking place. So are you thirty-something and already feeling disoriented about your existence? Cheer up, you are not alone and in fact are one of those lucky few who have come far enough to reach this spiritual stage. One piece of advice for you: A guru will come when one is ready.

The author is a director of the Satori Foundation, a center for the study and development of human excellence through mind programming and meditation techniques, e-mail: