In my PhD research, I sought to evaluate the longer-term process that people undergo to find their spiritual expression. I used the qualitative method of Heuristic inquiry (Moustakas, 1990), to explore the experiences, developmental processes, aspirations, and perspectives of 20 people aged between 37 and 70 who follow a self-directed spiritual path. Each participant had been actively engaging in their spirituality for a minimum of 15 years. I chose the term “spiritual pathfinder” as an overarching characterization to reflect the pro-active and personalised quality of contemporary spiritual engagement. What follows is the Creative Synthesis which emerged from this inquiry. This is a combination of symbolic artwork accompanied by written rationale and creative insight.
Intention and meaning
A vital component in Heuristics is to self-reflect on how one’s frame of reference is expanded through engagement with the experiences, influences and perspectives of fellow peers engaged in similar pathways. The creative synthesis therefore serves as a more personal representation of what it means to be a spiritual pathfinder in secularized culture: for myself, for others, and for the world.
As the researcher, I have my own internal frame of reference, based on my perceptions, intuitions, beliefs, values, and judgements, as well as inherited socio-cultural, and residual religious patterning. All these aspects inform my subjective experience of spirituality from which personal meaning and worldview is born. The creative synthesis continues the exploration of how ones’ subjective experience is also a shared experience, which in turn may be substantial enough to reflect a new paradigm in spiritual expression. The research revealed a great number of themes. Whilst some evoked a stronger sympathetic resonance with my personal experience than others, I hope to fairly represent the distilled qualities and psycho-spiritual trajectory of the spiritual pathfinder in shared “archetypal” terms.
For this purpose, I chose to make a triptych of clay figurines. A triptych most commonly takes the form of a panelled painting in religious art. It is composed of three sections integrated into a single unit, which reflects the dialectic interaction between differing aspects to form a synthesis which is greater than the sum of its parts. Whilst the figurines cannot convey the entirety of the findings, I conceived them as “essences of sympathetic resonance taking form”. Drawing on the data as well as on personal experience, they represent three major stages and three vital aspects, integrated through the overarching theme of what it means to be a spiritual pathfinder.
Medium and process
As per a spiritual or transpersonal perspective, spiritual pathfinders experience their incarnated selves as “spiritual beings having a human experience”; an admixture of spirit and matter, temporarily conjoined by “soul” or “Self” consciousness. Clay represents matter, earth, limitation, and the physical side of our nature, whilst the creative process reflects the “unseen” spiritual and inspirational. Their coming together through my consciousness in relationship with my peers, who represent the collective in this project, results in a symbolic expression of meaning which is both personal and universal.
My choice to work with clay stems from an ongoing relationship with this medium. At many key moments in my life, I have been making clay figurines to symbolically express inner archetypes I am working with as part of my psycho-spiritual process. Working with clay demands an act of physicality: kneading and shaping, and mindfulness of its fragility, which limits the possibilities of translation from idea into form. As such it is an act of grounding and embodying. Time is also a factor, as certain stages are only possible when the clay is of a particular consistency. Creating the main shape must be done when the clay is wet, whereas applying the finer details such as facial features and hands only becomes possible when the clay is drier – but leave it too long and the clay will crumble. This to me resonates with the process of malleability in formative youth, to maturing and defining ourselves in adulthood, and losing the ability to transform if we become too set in our ways. Lastly, sculpting is an act of both creation and co-creation. I start with an overall vision and hold that as my intention as I work, yet the figurine takes on its own life: my hands respond to the shape that wants to appear. A synergy takes place between psyche and soma and between my creative unconscious and executive conscious aspects. These (again) three aspects; embodiment, maturation-time, and co-creativity, for me further symbolise what it means to live an embodied, responsive/responsible, and participatory spirituality.
The first figurine depicts a mother and child. The mother figure is painted in “non-human” colours to represent her archetypal nature, whereas the child is painted in human colours, such as skin colour for her face and hands, to represent incarnated life. The child represents the purity and originality of child awareness mentioned by participants. Her expression is one of wonderment and open curiosity. She faces outward toward the world, whilst held in unconditional belonging and love personified by the mother. In concordance with themes around searching for belonging, one’s deeper identity being inherently spiritual, and the restoration of the Sacred Feminine to enable a more balanced spirituality, the figurine primarily symbolises the birth right of any soul to experience the mystery of life unmediated and to receive nurturing in immanence, represented by the Divine Feminine.
Like many of the participants in this study, I felt to be a cuckoo in the nest: a changeling child. I could not find belonging in my family or world and I subconsciously resisted my incarnation. The figurine therefore further symbolises the themes of foundation, grounding, the healing of primary wounding, and finding belonging on this earth, understood as fundamental by participants for an embodied spirituality. According to Psychosynthesis theory, it represents the personal psychosynthesis which precedes, accompanies, and integrates the life-long process of a transpersonal psychosynthesis.
The restoration of the Divine Feminine emerged as a major characteristic of the new spiritual paradigm in this study. Particularly female participants mentioned their growing awareness in mid to late childhood of the patriarchal disenfranchisement of women within religious, educational, and societal institutions. The Catholic religion within which I was raised obsessed about sins of the flesh and imposed fixed gender roles. It did not provide a healthy archetype to represent, let alone honour, my femininity. In my search for wholeness, I came to understand that my first priorities were to heal my inner feminine and embrace my incarnation. Like so many of my peers, I experimented with various “alternative” new age practices. A spiritual crisis in my mid-thirties began my spiritual orientation in earnest. This was my “significant life-event”: an acute physical, emotional, and energetic upheaval and psychic opening into other-dimensional realities. I understood this opening as an initiation into my soul-purpose and process of deepening incarnation through the mystery of the Sacred Feminine, whose many aspects appeared in visions, intuitions, and dreams, which found form in clay figurines. Significant life-events on the pathfinders’ path, such as spiritual emergencies, awakenings, and OBE’s, in that way symbolise the end of the innocence of spiritual childhood and initiation into a new phase of growth and maturation, marked by challenge and learning.
In-tuiri (to see within)
The second figurine is a symbolic depiction of inner guidance and intuition. The figure is sitting in meditation and/or contemplation as an act of deep listening. Her eyes are closed because the focus is inward. The figurine represents introspection as the cornerstone for living a spiritually connected life beyond the distractions of the outer world. The abatement of the rational mind in spiritual practices allows the intuitive function to develop, symbolised by the “third eye” on the forehead. The figurine has one hand on her belly feeling her gut-instincts: her bodily signals, and one hand on her heart feeling the (com)passion of the soul. The heart is coloured gold, signifying the spiritual heart which carries the higher wisdoms of compassion, integrity and agape to guide the human heart. The figurine is painted in colours which roughly represent those of the ascending chakras and to depict the bridge between earth (red/brown), heart (green and gold) and spirit (blue/white) that is created through practice. The figure looks more “other-worldly” than the other figurines to symbolise the transcendence of ego and expansion beyond merely human existence through spiritual engagement.
The image represents the consistent self-development work that pathfinders undertake, each in their own way, to make connection to their authentic being, and/or spiritual dimension. Participants use their spiritual practices as tools to enhance their ability to be present, connect to guides, note somatic signals, perceive deeper feelings, travel between dimensions, integrate psycho-spiritual processes, and witness the workings of the mind. Above all, practice serves the receptivity to inner intuitive guidance which pathfinders require to discern the deeper purpose and direction of their being. Pathfinders seek direct knowing or “Gnosis” and search to explore experiential opportunities that serve this quest. The figurine represents and acknowledges the role of transcendence to “see” beyond the egoic construct and human-made frameworks onto new horizons.
During and after my spiritual crisis, I had no context or map to understand what was happening to me. As a result, I became largely reliant on inner guidance to find direction and meaning. As per participants’ trajectories, it marked a phase where existing assumptions and beliefs were either broken down, or up for questioning. None of it made logical sense, yet I felt an intuitive surety that this was an intentional and guided process. I felt drawn to Gnosticism, Theosophy, Anthroposophy, Shamanism and Psychosynthesis: areas I had little interest in before but were now very relevant to my personal experience. As was the case for most of the participants, I encountered a few key people who, due to their own spiritual journeys, could provide healthy mirroring to reflect my newly emerging selfhood. My perspective on reality and my identity became wholly transpersonal, not as an abstract idea or spiritual lifestyle-choice, but because an enhanced connection with my spiritual nature and interconnection with spiritual dimensions had awakened, which felt more real than anything I had ever felt. Whilst my rational faculties remained intact throughout, my intuition became the main driver for my future direction. The figurine further symbolises this process of waking up to new ways of knowing and resulting changes in perspective.
The third figurine depicts the synthesis of psychological healing (fig 1) and spiritual practice (fig 2) as the path of individuation or self-realisation. The pathfinder has now reached a level of maturity and embodiment to embrace her incarnation with the self-acceptance, self-awareness, and self-understanding necessary to walk an authentic path. She is not perfect, but wizened to the shadows that live within herself, others, and the world. She has learnt sufficient tools to take responsibility for her life, her behaviour, her relationships, and her purpose to do what is hers to do. There is growing congruency between her sense of self, her path in the world and her spiritual path. The figurine’s stance is intentional, facing forward, alert and prepared to meet the challenges that life will bring. Her heart is open, her third eye is seeing the path before her, and on her back sprouts a pair of wings, symbolising her spiritual connection beyond the physical realm. The pathfinder is in the world but not of it: a soul having a human experience. Realising her potential, she steps out of the undifferentiated clay.
What drives this spiritual wanderlust in secularized culture? Spiritual pathfinders consider themselves bridge-builders, navigating between the religious and secular and between spirit and science to create a middle ground. Many participants found a place of stability, some even committed to a tradition, yet the principles of open inquiry, spiritual freedom and choice remained key. Whilst they feel open to explore established teachings, pathfinders primarily look to experience spirituality without a fixed intermediary or formula. They take a leap of faith in the face of Mystery yet claim self-agency by choosing to trust that, when sourced in intuition, their decisions are congruent with the path that calls to be walked and co-created. Doubt serves to keep their mind open to questions and new perspectives, and shadow arises to be worked with. The “full spectrum human” that pathfinders aspire to is both transcendent and immanent. Therefore, spirituality is not compartmentalized away from everyday life nor from scientific inquiry. Life is the mystery which asks to be experienced and explored, and through this, new paths are co-created. Along with my fellow pathfinders, I experience spirituality as fundamental to my life and identity. Whilst the accumulative effects of direct experience, psychological healing and spiritual practice are by now well-rooted in my being, there is no sense of “arrival” but rather, a “continuing to find”. I perceive my identity as a responsive consciousness interacting with life, occasionally getting stuck in the clay, and returning to fluidity through reconnection to my “full-spectrum” triune nature. As I learned to understand my spirituality better through meaningful encounters with participants, I feel less different and more belonging through identifying mutual themes, aspirations, and challenges. Pathfinding is both a unique and a shared experience, with higher-level transformation of self and world as its aim. In essence, pathfinders are not looking to find a form of spirituality that “suits” them. Rather, they are responsive to an inner spiritual impulse to “in-form” and “full-fill” the purpose of their individual incarnation in service to the whole. Their own unique blend of spirituality is created as a direct result of this process. Self-transformation is an ongoing development as experiences, perspectives, practices, people, and paths interact, synthesize, and inform the whole in active co-creation. When the impulse stirs, pathfinders resume their unique way, incrementally individuating, in anticipation of the next exchange.
The triptych (image)
Moustakas, C. (1990). Heuristic Research – Design, Methodology, and Applications. Sage Publications.