Spirituality & the Awakening Self

I wrote this book in order to unpack the understanding offered by the mystics of the transformational nature of the journey into union with God.  My focus is the deep changes in our identity and consciousness that are not the product of our efforts at growth but the result of following the call of Spirit to become more than we are. The soil of my understanding of the psychological and spiritual processes I describe lies in my work in psychotherapy and spiritual direction and I have drawn on these experiences for extensive illustrations.

My agent has described this as my magnum opus.  I prefer to simply call it the most complete statement I have offered to this point of the possibilities of human becoming. I would also say that it represents my fullest articulation of how I see psychology and spirituality coming together in human awakening and unfolding.  Q&A sections at the end of each chapter invite dialogue with readers and unpack key insights for greater understanding and practical value. The book also contains appendices at the end for those who want to know more about dreamwork and meditation as paths to personal and spiritual awakening.



The Journey of Human Becoming

Being human is a journey of becoming. At birth we humans are not yet what we have the capacity to fully become. Newborns may contain the possibilities for mature personhood, but they do not show any of the characteristics that psychologists have identified as markers of fully actualized humanity. Never present in childhood are such things as the capacity for non-possessive love, a spirituality that makes life meaningful and suffering sufferable, and an identification with all humans, not simply those of one’s own tribe. Many other things could be specified and will be identified as we proceed, but even this partial list shows the magnitude of the task of achieving full-orbed personhood.

Although the journey of human becoming is lifelong, it is not simply a result of the passage of time. Time is necessary but not sufficient. Maturation may make human actualization possible, but full personhood comes only from a lifelong journey of becoming that, as we shall see, must be lived in a posture of openness, trust, willingness, and surrender.

Glimpses of the Evolving Self

Watch as the young child learns to trust that her mother is still there even though she may be out of sight. Piaget called this developmental accomplishment the achievement of object constancy. It is a moment to celebrate, and parents usually do. But then watch as the cognitive skills of this same little girl continue to develop, and notice now how she suddenly seems secure within a first-person perspective on her world. She speaks as an “I” and organizes her experience around this “I.” The result is something that we could call an egocentric perspective on the world: this is a tremendously important moment of human becoming.

But the journey is far from over—even if we continue to follow just this single line of cognitive development and the way in which it provides a perspective from which the person views and relates to the world. Notice how a few years later she has hopefully added a second person perspective to this egocentric way of relating to that which is beyond her own self. What we might call a sociocentric worldview now allows her to see things from the perspectives of others. A developing capacity for empathy allows her to adopt an alternate perspective and no longer be limited to the first-person point of view that earlier was such a developmental triumph.

The subsequent development of the capacity for reason ushers in another stage as, in adolescence, she now adds third-person perspectives and is capable of adopting a more truly world-centric orientation to that which is beyond her. And because we can only identify with what we can see in relationship to self, she is now able to feel herself to be integrally connected to the world, not just to her social or religious group or to her family or herself. Through this process her self is unfolding. The same is true for all of us. By a sequence of ever-expanding identifications, we become what we identify with, and if we trust the flow of this process, our small self becomes a larger and truer self.

There are other important steps in this cognitive and perspective-taking line, and many other important lines of development also shape the journey of the developing self. But let us look at just one more image from later in the journey of this hypothetical young woman. Suppose that she remains open to life and that this openness includes openness toward God. It may well be that when we next look into her life, we recognize something that others around her may not see, or at least not understand. They may notice her equanimity and nonjudgmental openness, and they may even describe her as a very spiritual woman. But if we take the time to get to know her, we may begin to notice how deeply her identity and consciousness are grounded in her relationship to God. Yet relationship may not be exactly the right word because she might talk more of an abiding sense of being in God and God’s being in her. She might also talk about this leading to a sense of being at one within herself and within God.

Although we may not understand exactly what she means, we might begin to suspect that she is something of a mystic. In response to this suggestion, she might laugh and say that she is no mystic. But when asked more about her life, she might tell you, as the woman I am thinking about recently told me, “It’s true: there is nothing I want more than to know God deeply. But it’s also true that I am less and less clear about where the boundaries between God and me—or God and anyone—begin or end. Increasingly I see God in all people and all things—not contained in any of these people or things but expressed in and through them all. And increasingly I feel one with God and one with life—really, one with all that is.”

This journey into a deeper consciousness of our being in God will be our focus in this book. We can describe it as a journey of the evolving or unfolding self because the self that begins this journey is never the self that ends it. But we could also call it a journey of an awakening self because awakening is the central dynamic of the unfolding and evolving. The self that emerges during this journey is larger, more enlightened, and more whole.

This journey is one that all humans are invited to make. It is the journey that defines our humanity, for it is a journey toward our source and toward our fulfillment. It is a journey into what Christian theology has traditionally described as union with God.

A Theology of Becoming

The source and ground of all existence lies in the constantly outpouring life of God. Moment by moment all creation is sustained by God. Creation is not just something that happened in the past. Though there may have been a beginning point, it was the beginning of an active relationship that never stops—a relationship that exists between God and every person and thing that exists. If this relationship were suddenly to stop, we and everything else that is would instantly cease to exist.

But it is not just all being that is grounded in God: so too is all becoming. The universe is a place of creativity, becoming, and transformation because these are fundamental properties of the God who sustains it. All things are not only sustained by God; but all things are also being made new in Christ. All things are being liberated and restored—becoming more than they are, becoming all they were intended to be in their fullness in Christ.

The Spirit of God—the source of all generativity, all creativity, and all life—invites us to participate in the grand adventure of human becoming. Openness to becoming is openness to God. This is why the Christian mystics have so much to teach us. They show us that longing for the fullness of God demands openness to a radical form of transformation that we cannot control. It is something we can neither engineer nor accomplish. But it is something we can experience.

It is, however, alarmingly easy to fail to discern the ever-present nudges of the Spirit to become all we are meant to be. The culture of family and society and the rhythms of our lives lull us into a sleep of complacency within the small, safe places we have arranged for ourselves. Seekers settle for being finders, even when what is found is so much less than what their spirits call them toward. Being and becoming are both routinely sacrificed on the altar of doing. The gentle but persistent heartbeat of our deep longings to find our true place in God is gradually drowned out by the cacophony of superficial desires, and we are left with a small ego-self rather than an awakening self that is ever becoming in the Spirit.

Being Realistic about Deep Personal Change

There are many possible metaphors for this journey of becoming. I have already introduced the concepts of awakening, unfolding, and evolving. Other possible metaphors include rebirth (from death to life), integration (from fragmentation to wholeness), liberation (from captivity to freedom), unification (from separation to oneness), enlightenment (from blindness to seeing), and homecoming (returning from exile). All of these help us identify elements of the transformation of the self that are involved in this journey, and I will draw on each of them as we proceed.

Nevertheless, given how hard change of any sort is, we need to be realistic about these grand ideals of becoming, awakening, enlightenment, and transformation. Becoming is a luxury that evades those whose lives are preoccupied with survival or basic coping. Until lower-level needs are dependably being met, talk of human unfolding remains nothing but meaningless chatter on the part of those who have the luxury of full bellies, a reasonable base of personal security, and idle time.

I am also quite aware of how easy it is to be cynical about the possibilities of deep personal change. After all, anyone who has ever tried to keep even the simplest New Year’s resolution knows the limits of self-improvement projects. If such things as stopping smoking, eating less, or exercising more are as notoriously difficult as most of us recognize them to be, what hope could there ever be for the sort of quantum leap in change that is implied by the concept of transformation?

Recall the familiar story of the frog and the scorpion. One day a scorpion decided it wanted to cross a river. The problem was that he couldn’t swim. Seeing a frog sitting on the bank, he asked the frog to carry him across the river on his back. The frog refused. “I don’t trust you,” he said. “I know how dangerous scorpions are. If I let you get on my back, you’ll sting me and kill me.” The scorpion answered, “But why would I do that? That would be stupid because if I sting you, then we’ll both drown.” “But how do I know you won’t just wait until we get to the other side and then kill me?” asked the frog. The scorpion had an answer for this question as well: “I would never do that because when we get to the other side, I will be so grateful for your help that I could never sting you.” The frog thought about these answers for a while and finally agreed to let the scorpion get on his back. He began swimming, gradually feeling safer and safer, and starting to even think that he had been foolish to have ever worried about the scorpion. But half way across the river, suddenly the scorpion stung the frog. “You fool,” croaked the frog, “now we will both die! Why did you do that?” The scorpion answered, “Because I’m a scorpion. It is in my nature to sting.”

Personality is, by definition, highly stable, and profound changes in the organization and orientation of the self are quite rare. Most alterations are cosmetic and contextual. They are much more likely to involve dressing the scorpion up in some more fashionable clothes than changing its nature. Changes that we see are usually not much more than accommodations to tribal and cultural expectations, not radical reorganizations of the self from the inside out. Although we can see evolution of human consciousness over large periods of human history, it is rarer to see genuine and significant changes in consciousness, identity, values, and ways of relating to self, others, and life after late adolescence or early adulthood.

However, after three decades of providing psychoanalytic psychotherapy and one decade of working with people who seek personal transformation through spiritual openness, contemplative stillness, and awareness, I would have to say that while deep and really meaningful changes in people are relatively rare, they are very possible. It is possible to experience a profound reorganization of the very foundations of our identity, values, meaning, and consciousness. It is possible for our whole perspective on life—on our self, on others, on the world, and on God—to shift dramatically. It is possible to awaken and move from blindness to seeing, from captivity to freedom, and from separation to oneness. It is possible for us to experience the emergence of our larger, truer self that we in reality are. These sorts of quantum shifts in the organization of our being are never something that simply result from things that happen to us. Nor are they simply the cumulative result of the small incremental steps of growth associated with our efforts at spiritual or psychological self-improvement. But when we respond to life and the continuous invitations of the Spirit to become more than we presently are, with consent and openness of heart and mind, it can be our experience— with or without external triggers.

These sorts of changes are deeply spiritual. Our spirituality either keeps us safely immune to such changes or facilitates them. But genuine transformation never happens without profound spiritual implications. Although personal transformation will be my primary focus, we will also see that ultimately transformation is not just a personal matter.

Genuine transformation occurs only within a communal and interpersonal context. Often those communal contexts inhibit transformation, but they can facilitate it and always mediate it. We either open each other up to the transformational possibilities that we encounter in life or close each other down. Sadly, it seems to me that much of the emphasis on spiritual formation and transformation that exists in Christianity does the latter, as do the ways we relate to each other in Christian communities and churches. But I am convinced that we can experience transformational awakenings much more frequently and fully if our families, churches, and communities can learn to support them rather than fear or resist them.

Anyone who has influence over the lives of others is in a position to help make this happen—particularly those of us who are involved in any aspect of the nurture, care, formation, or reformation of others. Therapists, spiritual directors, clergy, religious workers and educators, parents, mentors, coaches, and others who are involved with the nurture of the inner life of persons—all these can do much more to help those they are encouraging to truly become all they can be. We can help people notice and respond to the moments in their journey that are pregnant with transformational possibilities. And we can help them attend and respond to their deep spiritual longings, longings that always point us beyond the safe way stations where we settle, onward to those places and ways of being that hold genuinely transformational possibilities for us and for the world.

Becoming All We Can Be

My interest in these possibilities of becoming all we can be has been at the center of my life’s work in psychology and spirituality. This was the interest that originally led me into training in clinical psychology and later in spiritual direction. I wrote an outline of this book in 1974, but I was far from ready to write it or, much more importantly, to experience it. The ground on which I stood was too small—theologically, spiritually, and psychologically. Of course, it was me who was too small. I was far too invested in the life of the mind and soul to make the journey of spirit for which I longed. I flirted with ideas but was not ready to respond to the deep call of the Spirit to my spirit that drove my interest in human unfolding and awakening.

Over that time I wrote a number of books on psychology and spirituality in which transformation organized my approach to both but remained a secondary focus. In this book transformation moves from the background to the foreground. This book also moves something else from the back stage of recent books to center stage: mysticism. This, I am convinced, is the branch of spirituality that has the most to contribute to an understanding and experience of transformation, awakening, and human becoming. All major religions have a mystical tradition, and if we are to experience the fullest unfolding of our self, it is essential that we learn to listen to what the mystics have to teach us.

Mysticism uniquely supports the integration of insights of psychology and spirituality into a framework for both understanding and nurturing the unfolding self. Without mysticism I am convinced that neither psychology nor spirituality have much worth saying about personal transformation or the further reaches of human becoming.

Psychology and spirituality are not, however, the only fields of study that offer important potential contributions to understanding human unfolding. In what follows, I will draw on insights from Perennial Philosophy; evolutionary theology; cultural anthropology; comparative spirituality; and clinical, developmental, and transpersonal psychology—placing all of this back within a Christian understanding.

But before your eyes begin to glaze over, I should make clear that this will not be a dry academic exercise. The map I will be sketching of the awakening self is complex, and the ideas are big, but I will be repeatedly pausing to step back from these ideas so we can examine the difference they actually make in real life. My primary interest is in the spirituality of this unfolding, not the theory of it. Although I will have to lay out a fairly complex conceptual foundation for us to understand that spirituality, we will keep returning to the lived difference it can actually make.

It is the Christian mystics who will provide the overall framework for the synthesis I will offer and—although this might surprise you—it is they who will help us keep this practical. Mystics are interested in experience, not in theories. They are aware of a profound truth that most of the rest of us fail to appreciate. Mystics know that all of life is flowing toward God, and they have learned how to open themselves to this flow and participate in it. Life has a direction. It is returning to its source. The outflowing vitality and love of God that is life itself leads back toward God. This is the key to understanding the human journey and the key to understanding the transformational journey of human becoming. Transformation is not simply change. Nor is it reducible to maturation or self-improvement. Transformation is movement toward wholeness. It is an unfolding of the self that moves us toward being at one within our self and with God.

Christians affirm that everything that exists is being held this very moment in Christ, and that everything that exists is being made new in Christ. These mystical truths may be beyond our comprehension, but they are not beyond our potential experience. We may not understand these things, but we can know them. To that end I have written this book.


The Not So Big Faith, book review in The Religious News Service

~ Jana Riess

Book review A Guide to Firsthand Experience with God

~ Rev. Carl Gregg

In this book David Benner shows himself to be one of the most mature and needed spiritual elders of our time. He offers us a profound synthesis of the human journey toward ever-widening consciousness and mutual indwelling with God in Christ. He rightly draws on the concrete experience of great Christian mystics as those who provide us with the fullest framework for understanding and nurturing the Spirit-led unfolding self over a lifetime. He also draws on his long experience as a psychologist and on other areas of learning and Scripture that show the integral connections between all the dimensions of our evolving humanness. His personal quest for the deepest awareness and truth of human life as it is lived in relation to the transcendent feeds the authenticity and insights of this book. I could not recommend it more highly as a framework for understanding the transformative levels of our journey into the way, the truth, and the life.

~ Tilden Edwards, founder and senior fellow, Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation

In a challenging multidisciplinary analysis of psychological change and spiritual development, psychologist Benner leads off by arguing that “full personhood comes only from a lifelong journey of becoming that, as we shall see, must be lived in a posture of openness, trust, willingness and surrender.” Blending insights from psychology, theology, anthropology, his own clinical practice, and other disciplines, the author suggests that the adventurous journey of the “awakening self” is one of experiencing the possibility of “radical” transformation leading to oneness with God. Throughout the book, stories from the Christian mystics and other spiritual tutors provide a rich array of examples of communion with the divine as the writer presents his vision of the self as it moves from one stage of consciousness to the next. Benner’s generous use of examples from outside the framework of traditional Christian thought may make some readers uncomfortable. But if they persist, they will find this profound journey into spiritual and psychological growth provocative, enriching, and full of insights that will stay with them after they have put down the book.

~ Publishers Weekly

I’m drawn to contemplative spiritual practices because of the fruit I see in the lives of the contemplatives I know. But, when I’ve asked questions of contemplative friends, their answers haven’t been particularly satisfying. They talk about the early church – the desert fathers and mothers – and their personal experience of contemplative prayer. But, they haven’t been able to ground their practices in Scripture, at least not to my conservative, evangelical satisfaction. In this brilliant book, David Benner does exactly that. Drawing on Scripture, theology, philosophy, and psychology, Dr. Benner explains what it means to be “in Christ,” as well as the role of contemplative spirituality in a Christian’s spiritual formation. With depth and clarity of thought, he describes the processes of spiritual formation and the place of the body, mind, soul, and spirit in our transformation. Most importantly, he gives the reader a rich and beautiful understanding of the many Scripture passages that reference our living and moving and existing in God. This book is a gift from God for which I’m very grateful. I highly recommend it.

~ Marilyn Johnson (Amazon.com)

In Spirituality and the Awakening Self, David Benner offers deep insight about the sacred journey of transformation of the unfolding self, emphasizing learning from the Christian mystics and the essential nature of contemplative stillness. There are also helpful appendixes on dreamwork, meditation, prayer, and awakening.

~ Siang-Yang Tan, professor of psychology, Fuller Theological Seminary

Benner offers us a highly readable book—grounded in historic Christology and developmental psychology — in which he develops a psycho-theology of growth. He charts our development from the primitive awakenings of childhood to mystical participation in the Divine Spirit in maturity through repeated awakenings to our authentic selves and to God. Sell your bed and buy this best of Benner’s books!

~ J. Harold Ellens, author of numerous books on psychology and spirituality

Spirituality and the Awakening Self is a deeply thoughtful book to be kept and savored. Once again David Benner has seamlessly woven together his gifts and skills as psychotherapist and spiritual guide. As one of the wise voices of our time, his words deserve to be kept and savored.

~ Margaret Guenther, Professor Emerita of ascetical theology &
former director of the Center for Christian Spirituality, General Theological Seminary

David Benner is a trusted companion who helps us navigate the complex possibilities of personal awakening, of becoming more than we are, of movement beyond changed behaviors into changed being. This book guides us into life as truer persons and communities immersed in God.

~ John Kiemele, founder and executive director, Selah Center, Woodway, WA

Threaded through the ever busy life of Western Christian tradition are certain voices that have always had some difficulty in being heard. They are those voices that try to tell us about ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ and they are called—sometimes alas dismissed—as mystics. We meet them in these pages, men and women remarkably like us yet remarkably different, people rich with the presence of God yet very aware of being as poor in their humanity as the rest of us. The great worth of this book is that it is offered to us at a time in Western Christian experience when we can no longer afford to be cavalier about our rich mystical tradition. Among the many voices in these pages is that of Karl Rahner who tells us ‘Tomorrow’s devout person will either be a mystic—someone who has experienced something—or else they will not be devout at all.’

~ Herbert O’Driscoll, Anglican priest, author, preacher