Defining "Spiritual Fitness"

Psychologist Robert Cloninger and his team at the Center for Well-Being of the Department of Psychiatry of the School of Medicine of Washington University in St. Louis have developed the "Temperament and Character Inventory" (TCI). The TCI is a 240-item questionnaire that measures temperament ("the basic emotional predispositions with which we are born") in four dimensions (novelty-seeking, harm-avoidance, reward-dependence, and persistence), as well as character ("what we make of ourselves intentionally") in three dimensions (self-directedness, cooperativeness, and self-transcendence).

In this last dimension, "self-transcendence," we find the equivalent of "spiritual fitness." Self-transcendence, or spiritual fitness, is an orientation toward the elevated, whether that is experienced as compassion, ethics, art, or whether it is experienced as a divine presence. By orienting toward the elevated, we transcend the ego defense mechanisms by which most of us spend our lives governed.
Self-Transcendence quantifies the extent to which individuals conceive themselves as integral parts of the universe as a whole. Self-transcendent individuals are spiritual, unpretentious, humble, and fulfilled. These traits are adaptively advantageous when people are confronted with suffering, illness, or death, which is inevitable with advancing age. They are disadvantageous in most modern societies where idealism, modesty, and meditative search for meaning might interfere with the acquisition of wealth and power. People who are low in Self-Transcendence are described as practical, self-conscious, materialistic, and controlling. Such individuals are expected to be well adapted in most Western societies because of their rational objectivity and materialistic success. However, they consistently have difficulty accepting suffering, loss of control, personal and material losses, and death, which lead to adjustment problems particularly with advancing age. (From Washington University's Center for Well-Being website; page on "What Does the TCI Measure?")
Self-transcendence, Cloninger has found, is the sum of three subscales:
  • self-forgetfulness; 
  • transpersonal identification; and 
  • acceptance.
C. Robert Cloninger (b. 1944)
Self-forgetfulness is the proclivity for becoming so immersed in an activity that the boundary between self and other seems to fall away. Hungarian psychologist Mihali Csikszentmihalyi has examined these experiences of self-forgetfulness in his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. No one is "in the zone" -- in a "flow" state of absorption in what they are doing -- all the time. Those who more often enter "flow" -- i.e., those who regularly become immersed in an activity to the point that there seems to be no boundary between self and world --  have greater self-transcendence (spiritual fitness).

Transpersonal identification is recognizing oneself in others -- and others in oneself. If you have ever found yourself looking at another person -- or another being -- with a feeling that you are that other, their body embodies you -- or if you have looked at yourself with a sense that your being embodies others -- then you have experienced transpersonal identification.

Spirituality involves connecting with the world's suffering and apprehending that suffering as our very own. The sentiment, "there but for the grace of God go I," can be a start toward a compassionate response. Transpersonal identification goes further. It's not that grace saves you from the unfortunate circumstances others endure. Nothing saves you. You are not saved from those circumstances. If anyone is hungry, then you are hungry, for the hungry are you. That's transpersonal identification. As the poet Kabir put it:
"Everyone knows the drop merges into the ocean, but do you know that the ocean merges into the drop?"
Acceptance is the ability to accept and affirm reality just as it is, even the hard parts, even the painful and tragic parts.

Spiritually fit people are in touch with the suffering of the world (transpersonal identification), yet also and simultaneously feel joy in that connection (acceptance). "Acceptance" does not mean complacency about oppression, injustice and harm. Indeed, the spiritually fit are also often the most active and the most effective in working for peace and social justice. They are energized to sustain that work because they can accept reality just as it is, even as they also work to change it. Because they are not attached to results of their work, they avoid debilitating disappointment and burn-out and are able to maintain the work for justice cheerfully. Because they find joy in each present moment, they avoid the recrimination and blame ("Those evil oppressors!") that would recapitulate the very reactivity that is at the root of oppression.

Add together the scores for self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance. The sum is the self-transcendence score. Voilá, we have defined and measured "spiritual fitness."

(See Wikipedia's entries on Robert Cloninger, here, and on Cloninger's Temperament and Character Inventory [TCI] here. More on the TCI is here. You can take the TCI on-line [payment required] here.)

Many different phrases have been used to express the spiritual capacity – the capacity to:
  • see beyond walls,
  • commune with divine mystery,
  • experience an internal caress,
  • hear our deeper consciousness,
  • experience epiphanies,
  • become awake,
  • usher ourselves into right relationship with life,
  • open our heart to life's blessed mysteries,
  • foster a greater love of self and greater caring for neighbor and earth.
According to Cloninger, what we’re really talking about with these metaphorical and poetic phrases, is self-forgetfulness, transpersonal identification, and acceptance.

In tomorrow's post, I'll say where all of this seems to me to miss the point and go astray.

* * * * *
This is part 3 of 7 of "Spiritual Practice."
Next: Part 4: "Being Judgmental About Being Judgmental"
Previous: Part 2: "Health and Fitness"
Beginning: Part 1: "Primary and Secondary Spiritual Practice"

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