Authentic Formation process:
Journey into higher levels of consciousness

grow in christAmong the many training programs to prepare helping professionals, the training of clergy and religious in the Catholic church is perhaps the longest in duration. A young man who joins the seminary takes about ten years or more to finish his initial formation. The longer duration in training is often justified by pointing to the differences of the objective of training. Professional training in other professions train skills and offer information required to give the respective service to the society while priestly ministry and religious life requires the very transformation of the person whose very life mediates his service in the world much more than the skills he learns. Does such a transformation take place in the seminarians by the type of training offered in the seminaries?

The goal of Formative Journey

A missionary vocation is a response to the call of God to follow Jesus of the Gospels more closely and conform oneself to Christ crucified and risen. The definition of a missionary given by Claret beautifully portrays the objective of Claretian formation. We progressively become men on fire with God’s love and spread that fire wherever we go. We become truly Claretians when our only concern becomes how to “follow and imitate Christ in praying, working, suffering and striving always and only for the greater glory of God and the salvation of humankind”. We need to chart out the milestones on the path towards the full realization of our vocational journey.

Maps of a spiritual journey

A transformative formation necessarily attends to the growth of all dimensions of a person’s life: spiritual, intellectual, emotional, charismatic, moral, pastoral and psycho-sexual. Each of these dimensions follow its own progressive stages of development. Among the various dimensions the spiritual dimension has a central place. In fact, Spiritual evolution is the purpose of all transformation.

The biblical term for transformation is conversion. conversion is a two fold movement. Repent and receive the Gospel (Mk 1.15). Traditional Christian approach distinguishes three stages in a spiritual journey. They are the purgative, illuminative and the unitive stages. The spiritual journey starts with the process of purifying oneself through repentance and opening oneself to the salvific action of God which culminates in beatific vision.

The traditional Eastern map of spiritual journey has eight steps which progressively lead one to samadhi, the experience of oneness with the divine. The process starts with Yama (abstaining from wrong doing such as violence, stealing, lies, promiscuity and greed) and Niyama (cultivation of virtues such as mental and physical cleanliness, positive attitudes, study, discipline and awareness of God). This is followed by the training of mind and body to tune oneself to the divine. It is done by Asana (body exercises to make the body flexible and body postures to allow the free flow of energy), Pranayama (breathing exercises to harmonize vital energy) and Pratyahara (training of mind to discipline senses and achieve single mindedness). Progress in these basic stages set the ground for the final three stages that are directly related to living in the consciousness of the divine. They are Dharana (single minded attention on God), Dhyana (dwelling in the awareness of God) and Samadhi (being absorbed into God). These eight stages are excellent ways to understand the methods used to reach higher levels of consciousness, but they do not say anything about the level of consciousness at which a person operates at a given time.

We are at a privileged moment of history where the wisdom of east and west, the richness of diversity of religious experiences and the scientific findings of the various disciplines meet face to face. In this privileged space there are more comprehensive maps of human consciousness available to us and formation of missionaries can benefit from them. The integral vision of Ken Wilber and the Spiral dynamics of Claire Greeves offer very helpful insights to understand and support the integral growth of the formees. Jim Marion, following the integral map offered by Ken Wilber beautifully describes the progressive stages of consciousness from the perspective of Christian praxis. We follow those stages from the point of view of a formative missionary journey.

The seven levels of consciousness

The understanding of the different levels of consciousness help the formators to accompany the formees to be on the move towards higher levels of consciousness. The recent scandals among the clergy and religious and the failure of many pastors to be credible witnesses of the mystery of Christ is sufficient proof that mere academic study of Philosophy and Theology will not automatically raise the level of consciousness and prepare us to be the leaven of the society.

Following the seven levels of consciousness described by Jim Marion, we shall survey the itinerary of growth that a formee needs to undertake in his spiritual journey. I have followed the description of stages given by Jim Marion and added my reflections related to formation. I hope this map can help us to monitor and facilitate the growth and consolidation of the level of consciousness required of each stages of formation so that by the end of initial formation there is a reasonable growth and maturity to live missionary life credibly and joyfully.

The general orientation of progress in the level of consciousness is marked by less ego-centrism than the previous one and the person will be freer to live objective values at the serve of the integral good of oneself and others. Two simultaneous movements take place as the person journeys forward in life: awakening and Growing. Awakening happens when the person realizes false identifications and discover one’s True Self. Each awakening takes the person closer and closer to who he/she really is. Growing is the process of consolidation and growth of the various dimensions of life at each level. Only when the person has sufficiently consolidated the gifts available at each level that he /she gets ready for the next level. Progress in the level of consciousness involves a “death” to the old self-centered way of perceiving everything and a ” rising” to less self-centered way of seeing things. It is through this baptism of continuous death and rebirth that we arrive at Christ consciousness. We cannot push the process in an arbitrary way. Formative accompaniment needs to take both these aspects into account in order to offer appropriate help to the formees.

1. Archaic consciousness of infants

It is the level of consciousness of the infants which Mark Gafni calls pre-personal. At the beginning there is no separate sense of individuality in the infant. The infant achieves the initial sense of its body boundaries by differentiating from that of the mother. Then it differentiates its emotions from that of the mother. The child realizes that its physical reality is distinct from that of other physical beings and objects. By about eighteen months the child begins to realize that its emotions are separate from that of the mother and others. A third emergence is that of the mind and will. Consciousness is less and less attached to the physical matter.

As we grow in consciousness there is greater transcendence from engrossment in matter, though matter remains as the ground to support the journey. There cannot be a spiritual journey without matter as its foundation. Without body you cannot make the trip, though matter is the least conscious part of who we are.

When human consciousness is defined by matter or constricted by the limitations of the matter, our spiritual journey will also be proportionately limited. Growth in spiritual journey involves setting in motion the opposite dynamics where the person is more and more in charge of the physical forces and engages to serve the purpose of life.

Failing to consolidate the sense of separation of body, emotions and thoughts from that of others, a child may grow into an adult person with issues related to personal boundaries. When physical and emotional boundaries are not consolidated, one may project one’s own emotions and thoughts outward to others, without realizing that others have their own feelings and thoughts. It may also lead to perennial sense of victimization as an adult who sees himself/herself manipulated by others and fails to take responsibility for one’s own problems. When the differentiation of one’s emotions from that of others is achieved, his spiritual passage from bodily and emotional embeddedness to individual consciousness is complete.

Archaic cultural consciousness has been prevalent in the stone age. Our ancestors felt themselves to be part of nature and lived primarily by sensation and instinct which were highly tuned to sense danger in the jungle and meet the survival needs on a daily basis.

In formative context, if is important that the formees assume responsibility for themselves and separate their own feelings from that of others. Many issues of child abuse and sexual abuse are manifestations of narcissism and entitlement perpetrated by persons who do not have the ability to understand the feelings of the victims. When a person is not awakened to take responsibility for oneself and his vocational journey as a free response to a call, he may float through the formative process without internalizing the values of consecrated life.

2. The magical consciousness of children

It is the level of consciousness that marks children aging 2-7. Look at the stories that impress the children of this age.   There are fairy creatures, gods, demons and other creatures that inhabit the child’s inner world. The child is not able to distinguish the contents of its mind and that of the outer world. Its consciousness is still ego centric and believes that the outer world revolves around the self. For example, the child believes that it can make things happen by its thinking.

The child’s mind begins to emerge as something separate from its physical and emotional being. The emergence of mental “images” (by 7th month)and the use of symbols including language (by age two) mark the beginning of mental life. Magical consciousness develops in the child as it cannot clearly distinguish between its own mental images and symbols and the external world. The child develops many magical beliefs such as the Sun and Moon have lives and objects outside obey the orders of the child and magical formulas make things happen outside. It may believe that tearing a photo may hurt the person. In playing hide and seek, the child thinks that it cannot be seen by others because it had hidden the face, but hands or legs might be visible outside. Everything is seen from its own ego-centric point of view.

The child learns what is right and wrong, good or bad according to the norms of culture. What is right is what makes mum and dad happy and what displeases them is wrong and bad.

Slowly the child discovers that magical words does not work the way it wants. It cannot command the rain to come nor the thunder to stop. It begins to realize that the reality outside is separate and works on its own laws and there are other points of view. As this differentiation gets consolidated, the ego-centrism, grandiosity, omnipotence and narcissism proper to this stage begin to dissolve.

Magical consciousness is the average and dominant consciousness of most tribal cultures. Animism is the common religious practices which involves magical practices and rituals to control natural phenomena. Sickness and calamities are attributed to evil eye or actions of witch doctors.

In formation context, some formees may hold on to beliefs in magical powers to religious objects or relics to meet their needs. The formator should offer help them to address the fears or anxieties that underlie them and offer help to face them better. Prevalence of magical thinking in a formee is a red flag to be taken seriously in vocational growth process.

3. Mythic Consciousness: Pre-adolescence

It is normally the level of consciousness of a child from age 7 to adolescence. It is the consciousness of the child’s emerging mind or ego. For the child the “God in the sky” is a super parent who can work miracles to meet the child’s needs. It is the conformist, law and order level in which everything in the child’s parochial world is seen as the “true” and the “best”. The child defines itself by conventional rules and roles and sees its self worth in following the “laws” and in behaving properly. It has been the dominant level of consciousness in most of the world’s leading religions.

By age seven the child begins to understand general rules. For example it knows that the word “dog” means all dogs. The child also knows the different cultural roles as father, mother, priest, police, teacher etc. The child develops mythic consciousness which sees everything guided by rules and laws and you have to follow them. In this conformist “law and order” stage of development what mummy and daddy say as right and wrong is what is right and wrong. Their parents are the greatest people, the true “gods” for the child. The belief system, race, colour, ethnic group, political party of the parents is the right one and others are wrong or inferior. One’s nation is the greatest in the world.

The child may experience confusion when one of the “gods” (parent, teacher or hero” contradicts what is said by another “god”. For example, the child sees daddy smoking after the teacher says that smoking is bad and it kills people. At this level the child is not able to integrate diversities.

The child’s inner world at this level is populated by great many “gods”. Apart from the concrete external gods of parents, teachers and heroes, there are also Santa Claus, angels and saints who take care of the needs of the child if he is “good”. There are also devils who are waiting for snatching him. He may come to believe the one Christian God who lives in the “sky” or “heaven”. The child believes that gods and later the great Christian God have power to arrange everything to meet the child’s every need. He learns to pray and prayer is asking for the things he needs. The child has no doubts that God can turn broccoli to ice cream if he wants. God exists primarily to fulfill is narcissist needs.

At this level the child understands myths and symbols in a concrete, literal “rational” way. For example, God created the world in six days and molded man from clay. He considers himself “good” if he follows the rules and “bad” if he breaks rules. The child assumes that his religion is the one true religion and everything in his immediate cultural environment is the only true way of doing things. Ethnocentrism has its roots at this level. Doing something different, or holding a different view is a betrayal to one’s God, tribe or country. Others who hold different practices or views are mocked or opposed strenuously because it threatens his sense of self.

When mythic consciousness persists into adult life, one may hold that one’s religion is the only way to salvation and all the people are to be converted and one’s own culture is superior to that of others. People who follow other religions or other systems of thought (Marxism, feminism) are “evil”. It is ok to use political powers to force others to follow the “correct” faith.

The child makes progress as there is a shift of self-centeredness from individual to the immediate culture. But still it is ego-centric and there is little space for toleration of different viewpoints and beliefs.

At cultural level mythic consciousness is held by dominant and average consciousness of believers of ‘world religions’. Mythic consciousness has produced large empires and led big conquests.

In formation context vestiges of mythic consciousness is quite common and many formees tend to persist at this level especially in the early stages of formation. It can be seen in the way authority and rules are invoked in the formation process.

4. Rational Consciousness

Rational consciousness is the dominant consciousness of the present age and is more or less attained by an average adult in our contemporary society. The primary spiritual task of adolescence in our society is to move from mythic to rational consciousness. Our adolescents go through inner struggles when adults expect them to stick to mythic level of consciousness in their religious beliefs.

As a young boy develops capacity for abstract thinking and exercises critical thinking, he understands general principles that govern nature and society. For example, all humans are created equal. He learns to think and write by the rules of logic. The ability to understand mathamatics and other sciences requires rational level of awareness.

There are different gradations in rational level of awareness. One can fall for a few original insights and become prey to ideology. Many “isms” that border on mythical consciousness is an example.

The death of the mythic and birth of the rational create many tensions in the young person. A rational mind set may question the presuppositions of the previous world view and may reject the religious truths presented in pre-rational terms. They may not accept rules and regulations just because they are conventional and need a rational basis for their acceptance. The development of reason will allow the level of consciousness of a teenager to move to a more universal and global perspective that transcends family, tribe, race or mythic belief system. Scientific principles are universal. Development of reason will help Christian teens to understand universal truths and spiritual values enshrined in the teachings of Jesus and find “reasons” in the Christian myths. Both clergy and many serious Christian adults have developed a more “rationalized” Christianity for themselves. Some may drop out of Church for a period as they find difficult to find rational understanding of some teachings and return after a period. Some may never return and may call themselves agnostics or atheists who refuse to believe in a mythical sky God. It is important to assist the teens to make sense of the rich spiritual heritage of the Church and experience meaningful forms of prayer and liturgical celebrations.

At the cultural level rational consciousness dominates the universities, government, technology, business and media communications in nearly every public human institution. The period of enlightenment and the dawn of scientific era has helped emerge the rational consciousness in the world at large. Much of the missionary work in less developed countries strive to aid people to develop into this level of consciousness.

Study of Philosophy and theology help the formees to develop rational consciousness. When mythic consciousness of faith is promoted in the culture and questions of faith are not allowed to be raised, the formee may separate studies from his faith journey. Where studies are not integrated into the faith and life of formees, we are preparing them to be priests who preach what they do not practice.

5. Vision -logic Consciousness

It is the highest of the three mental levels of consciousness. It is the consciousness of many great artists, writers, scientists and thinkers. At this level you identify with the abstract mind and think from different perspectives.. It is able to focus on global issues that affect humanity and is affected by this awareness.

At this level you transcend the pitfalls of ideologies and ‘isms’. You are able to see and integrate different mental perspectives. A person at this level is more grounded than those in the rational level who are guided by ideas. Vision logic is the level of the integrated personality. More of the unconscious and repressed emotions are brought to awareness and integrated. At this level you transcend all sectarian views and is interested in the good of all. There is greater appreciation of persons, cultures, religions, philosophies and perspectives. Inwardly one experiences greater freedom than before. But there the “existential” angst and unrest. The external success and fame does not satisfy. For some God is dead as it makes no sense of the goodness of God in the wake of human tragedies and cruelties. At the end of vision logic, one begins to transcend mind itself and begins to glimpse the self that transcends body, emotions and mind. The self is encountered as the inner witness.

At cultural level vision logic consciousness lies in the future or at best it is dawning in the emergent culture which is intercultural and integral. The inter-disciplinary approach to study human realities and the interest and commitment to address global issues are signs of it. Holistic approach to address social issues is more and more common today.

Some formation centers promote vision logic by promoting awareness and participation of students in JPIC issues.

6. Psychic Consciousness

At Psychic level we identify the self with the inner witness that observes body, emotions, and the mind. This inner witness is a permanent self, the part of self beyond space time. Intuitive powers and psychic senses are accentuated at this level. Psychic powers beyond the five physical senses (psychic or astral body)are more readily available to the person. The person opens regularly to those experiences called cosmic consciousness. There is an awareness of the oneness and unity of all. Psychic capacities for healing, prophecy, gift of tongues and other special gifts are by-products of this level of consciousness. But what is important is the inner awareness of what is happening within and be in touch with the vast and wonderful world within. The danger of this stage is the attachment to the gifts and capacities and the risk of being carried away by them. Spiritual masters usually advise not to tarry at this level, but rather to move on to the next level.

At the cultural level, psychic level of consciousness was achieved by the ancient world by spiritual masters. Today many dedicated spiritual seekers advance to this level.

In formation such a level is not formally promoted. It may happen in the life of a formee by special grace through his own personal search and by the help of suitable spiritual guides.

The dark night of the senses

The transition from the psychic level of consciousness to the subtle is the dark night of the senses. John of the Cross best explains this transitional stage. At psychic level a Christian experiences the nurturing love of God and finds joy which leads him to spend longer periods at prayer. After becoming adept in psychic level, one begin to feel the subtle vibrations of the next level of consciousness. They do cause disturbance and pain. The vibrations coming into the psyche from the subtle level are higher than anything we have felt before. They are exquisitely beautiful, warm, intelligent and dazzling. The energies are so delightful that one may be high on God for hours or days on end.

To move into the subtle level of consciousness and live there, there is need for healing and transmuting of negative emotional and mental vibrations. These negative vibrations need to be owned and integrated. The person may go through the dark night of the senses when the repressed contents of the unconscious surface.

It is important to show compassion for all the dark forces and when they are integrated they release tremendous energy. The disconnected part needs healing and be reunited with the rest of the soul. The dark night of the senses may can go for years. When the negativity is being transmuted by being released into conscious awareness, all sorts of negative things tend to occur in our outer lives. Chasing these external signs by awareness, we may get some insight into the type of emotional imbalances healed within. Journal writing and dream work are useful instruments to help us to work with shadow. Eventually the dark night of senses come to a natural end.

There is very little awareness and formative help offered to priests and religious in this level of consciousness. Most people find themselves judged rather than helped when they go through the dark night of the senses. Often the inner work of integration is left to the private struggle of the formees, though some are fortunate to get help from gifted spiritual guides.

7. Subtle consciousness

As subtle consciousness dawns, our consciousness feels “as if liberated from a cramped cell”. Subtle level is the last level where our self will be identified with our human personality. At this level our consciousness is able to receive communication from causal level. Once we have consciously realized the subtle level, it takes some years to get used to the energies at this level and become competent to exercise them in every day life. At subtle level one has immediate contact with one’s guardian angel or the personal spiritual master who may be a saint or an apostle or Jesus himself. The physical, emotional and mental nature is flooded with a great light and energy. Holy communion becomes an opportunity to visualize ourselves transformed into the life of Christ.

It is at subtle level that we begin our final individuation to become spiritually and psychologically whole, unique and full of inner beauty. The male and female part of us is united into one divine “Christed” whole.

The dangers at this level is the possible projection of the remaining dark parts of the self into hallucinations.

As the soul moves to the next level there is another crisis awaiting: the dark night of the soul. As our consciousness gradually ascends to the next level of consciousness (Christ consciousness), we also begin a simultaneous descent into a spiritual crises like of which we have never before experienced.

The dark night of the Soul

Dark night of the soul is the central mystery in the evolution of human consciousness. Jesus death and resurrection is the most vivid living of this death rebirth for us. In biblical terms it is the “sign of Jonah” and the “baptism of fire and the Holy Spirit”. We enter the dark night with the understanding of our fragile human nature, sinful and mortal with all that it implies and come out of this profound spiritual passage with the realization of our sinless and immortal divinity. The sacrament of baptism is the precursor of the inner baptism of this night.

The dark night is a necessary purification to realize Christ consciousness. There are different reasons why it is necessary.

1. The first is intellectual and related to our sense of identity. Despite years of study, Bible reading, prayers, Church attendance, we have no idea as to who we truly are. We identify ourselves to our appearance, race, status, nationality, religion etc. We still identify who we are as defined by our personalities. We even think that our space-time defined personalities are the part that is eternal and survives death. We still see God, devil and other people as distinctly separate from ourselves. When we say God dwells in us, we consider God as an extra invisible appendix living in us, but separate from us.

2. The second reason is the need for the purification of emotions. We are emotional beings created for love. We are here on earth to learn to love as Jesus loved. we can love as Jesus loved only when our emotional bodies are fully purified by the death and rebirth of the Dark Night. we cannot love as Jesus loved, as long as we harbor the “roots” of emotional imbalances which lead our consciousness to project outward. We project our repressed good parts to our parents, teachers and to God while the bad parts are projected out onto the Devil. The dark night of the soul rips us of all our projections and we become whole psychologically. For the first time we see the world and ourselves without projections.

3. The dark night is needed to purify the aspects that go beyond the individual personality. We participate the redemptive work of Christ (Col.1.24), It is the purification at the transpersonal level and sharing of the world’s negativity. We move beyond the personal boundaries and the light within us is connected with the light of other beings of light, to the positive energies of the universe in general. The negativity within us is connected to the negativity of the universe in general and the darkness of other beings. While we experience light, healing, consolation and insight from the positivity in the world, the soul may also experience torments and “Kosmic terror” from the negative forces. The mystery of Jesus passion and resurrection is the key for us to live internally what he lived in his whole humanity and lived humanity’s death to the mankind of Adam (humans as fallen, sinful, separate, and mortal) and rebirth into the realization of our divinity (humans as one with God and others and non-dual).

During initial formation formees may not usually arrive at this level. It is at a later stage if the person evolve to higher levels of consciousness, he will come to experience it.

8. The causal Level: Christ consciousness

Once the soul comes out of the dark night of the soul, the person is free from neurotic projections and emotional addictions and live in the present with a detached but committed acts of love to improve the lot of others. At this level the Chrisian is identified with his true Christ self, which is seen as in spiritual union with God the creator. With Paul one can say, “I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me”. The person sees others as the Christ and treats them accordingly. It is causal level because the person is grounded on the very ground of all: God. One lives true compassion as natural flow from within. It is experienced as fearless openness without territorial limitations. Another quality of this level is the great detachment from everything and the desire to be alone or occupied with something that serves others. The person does not engage with others’ ego and get into fights or arguments as there is little “ego left and one remains unthreatening to anyone.

Emotions retain their childlike quality and spontaneity. Remember the scene when Jesus wept (Jn 11.35). There is increasing appreciation and desire for silence. The danger at this level is to neglect the new co-creatorship and responsibility because one knows that God is running the world and everything is safe in God. Returning to the world after realizing our union with God to work in selfless service for others is important to consolidate the gifts of this level and move to the next. For a Christian the causal level is like the forty days between Easter and Ascension, the period between our resurrection into Christ consciousness and the ascension into non-dual consciousness.

9. Non-Dual consciousness: Ascension into Heaven

Non-Dual consciousness marks the end of all division between creature and creator. It is the level at which Jesus could say, “My Father and I are one”. The traditional Christian term for the culmination of Christian journey is “beatific vision”. This is the end point of the evolution of human consciousness.

Mystics who arrive at this level usually keep quiet about their experience and are misunderstood seriously because the language of dualistic world cannot express this level adequately. All human paradoxes find meaning when duality is dissolved. Polarities coexist without conflict. The void is fullness, darkness is illumined and there is no need of dispelling darkness with light. We need to relinquish all polarities including higher and lower to get there. It is, in fact, no level at all, but the ground of being that underlies all levels. It is the fulfillment of Christ consciousness when one can say with Christ, “it is finished” (Jn 19.30). Meister Eckart calls this consciousness the great “break through” and Jim Marion uses the language of the Gospel, the “ascension of the Christ, body and soul, into the Kingdom of the Father, the Kingdom of God here on earth (Mk.16.19).

This non-dual consciousness is the fulfillment of the Christ Consciousness (“I and the Father are one” – John 10:30). It is when the human personality dies, and one is “resurrected” as a Christ.. What Jesus proclaimed, the Kingdom of God, comes to be realized in the life of his followers.

Bernadette Roberts, a modern mystic, calls this level “no-self” because when she looked inside, she could not find anything of her former self. Only Christ is.

Formation and levels of consciousness

Traditional formation programs help the formees to move from mythic consciousness to rational level of consciousness. The study of philosophy and theology offer excellent means to achieve this level of consciousness. When the mystery of Christ which surpasses everything is seen only through rational senses, much of its depth and height escapes from that perspective. The very means that helped transcend the mythic consciousness prevent further growth into higher levels of consciousness. A holistic map of spiritual growth together with effective practices suited to each level are important for a formation that leads the missionary journey towards Christ consciousness.

– Mathew Vattmattam

Suggested readingto depen the theme

Jim Marion, Putting on the Mind of Christ, The inner Work of Christian Spirituality, Hampton Roads, 2011

Marc Gafni, Your Unique Self, The radical Path to Personal Enlightenment, Integral Publishers, 2012.

Bernadette Roberts, What is Self?: A Study of the Spiritual Journey in Terms of Consciousness. Sentient Publications, 2005.

Bernadette Roberts, The Experience of No-Self: A Contemplative Journey. State University of New York Press,1993 (revised edition).