11/12/2012 05:59 pm ET Updated Jan 12, 2013

The Self vs. Spiritual Growth

Growth to spiritual maturity can be defined as an ever-enlarging circle of concern. The first growth step, which typically happens in a healthy childhood, is to move from being concerned only with oneself (egocentric) to including people in one's own group: one's family, community, religion and nation (ethnocentric). The next step, typical in adolescence or early adulthood, prompts the person to include increasingly more -- and eventually all -- people in their circle of concern (worldcentric.) At the same time they may begin to care about and include animals, the environment and eventually the entire universe. At this point the person shuns anything that would divide him from others; unity is of prime importance. We say that person's worldview is universal.

So what is it that causes this expansion, this spiritual growth? One factor is meditation. Meditators report a type of self-transcendence where their sense of self merges into the All, and they feel connection with all of the Universe. This results in an awareness that "we all are One." During this state, the person does not experience himself as a separate self, but as part of everything that is. To perhaps overstate the case, this experience takes him out of feeling separate, and connects him to something larger than himself.

Researchers have found many other benefits to self-transcendence -- that it is inversely related to neuroticism, and that it leads to a decreasing reliance on externals for definition of the self. It is also associated with a greater sense of connectedness with past and future generations.

The correlation between meditation and spiritual growth is so strong that some insist meditation is the sole, or at least major, means of growing spiritually. But other people without a meditation practice have also reached spiritual maturity and a universal worldview. So while meditation is certainly one factor, there must be other avenues of growth.

If growth means moving beyond the self, then anything that takes us away from concern with ourselves, anything that lets us connect with something larger, can lead to growth.

In considering experiences that can take us out of ourselves we might look at the example of a new mother. Once interested in herself and in getting attention from others, when she becomes responsible for another being all concern for herself may fall by the wayside. Her baby's welfare takes priority over her own. Another example might include a person who throws him or herself so fully into community or charity work that their personal concerns fall into second place. Hobbies, sports, even sex can coax a person out of their self-centered shell, and toward a view of themselves as part of something greater. Rewarding professional activities are probably one of the most likely candidates for fostering a self-transcending state. And of course, we cannot ignore the benefits of certain types of prayer or participating in certain types of religious activities.

There are similarities between the type of self-transcendence meditators report and another, far more common human experience. In 1990, psychologist Mihali Csíkszentmihályi wrote a book called "Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience." This book described a state of concentration he called flow, where the activity in question demands a perfect balance between the level of challenge posed by the task at hand and the person's skill level.

In a flow activity, the person's whole being is involved and their skills are being used to the utmost. The rules and goals of the activity must be clearly stated, and immediate feedback must be provided. The activity must demand a high level of skill and must present challenge to the doer, but the end goal must be achievable. The task must encourage concentration to the point of full absorption. It must disallow distractions to the point that awareness of extraneous factors -- time, hunger and concern with self -- drop away.

Spending a lot of time overcoming manageable challenges with maximum skill can spur a person to acquire new proficiencies and to accept further challenges. Flow activities also take us outside of ourselves, like meditation does, though probably to a less dramatic level. The flow state tends to expand our consciousness, and leads to growth. In this sense, purely relaxing leisure activities are not as fulfilling as those that take us out of our awareness of ourselves as separate individuals.

Finding activities that lead us into flow states can foster growth and increase our sense of fulfillment. As a bottom line, if we want to lead a richer, more connected life, and spur our own spiritual growth, we should seek out activities that promote self-transcendence and the flow state. Meditation is one such activity, but it may not appeal to everyone. The good news is, plenty of other choices exist, and they may be found in our profession, community service, our favorite hobby and sport.