Spiritual paths have several different facets. They involve what people think, do and feel. Ideas, practices and experiences are all involved. When it goes well, these different aspects of personality become increasingly integrated. Thoughts, emotions and actions are aligned and work together harmoniously. Each one supports the others in fruitful mutual reinforcement, without tension or strain. Every element in someone’s personality works together in a harmonious and balanced way.
Imagine some iron filings scattered on a sheet of paper; they are disorganised and pointing in many different. When a magnet is introduced, the filings quickly organise themselves in a pattern and become co-ordinated. When the spiritual life goes well it produces something similar to that kind of co-ordination. The various elements of a personality start to work together around a spiritual centre. In the psychology of C. G. Jung, the name for that spiritual centre is the ‘Self’.
You can distinguish between true and false forms of spiritual transformation. In less satisfactory forms of spiritual transformation, there can be uncomfortable struggles between different parts of the personality. That produces an unstable and often unconvincing attempt at spirituality. A common problem is that people try too hard to produce the appearance of a deeply spiritual life, but in a way that lacks deep roots and is inherently unstable. Whatever part of the personality has been side-lined starts to re-assert itself.
It is a tricky matter how much self-discipline is helpful in the spiritual life. There is certainly a place for it, and everyone on a spiritual journey needs some disciplined regularity. However, being too organised and disciplined about it can lead people astray. In the end we find that we cannot turn ourselves into holy people, but there is a way of opening ourselves to something above and beyond us that will transform us.
There is an analogy with how people do sport. Sometimes people talk about the ‘natural’ game of tennis, basketball or whatever, in which people surrender themselves and let the game play itself through them, rather than trying too hard to play well. It is very similar to the spiritual experience of ‘grace’ that is beyond yourself. You may need to practice hard at tennis, and get pretty good at it, before you can surrender to the game and let the game play itself through you.
In the same way, you may need to put time and effort into the spiritual life before you can surrender yourself fully to grace and let grace and spirituality flow through you. But in the end, things work much better, in a way that is more satisfying and more convincing, if you can make the switch to doing things that way.
It is one of the benefits of looking at the inner journey from the perspective of psychology as well as spirituality that it is easier to spot when shallow roots are leading to an imitation of the real thing. If the inner life looks convincing from the perspectives of both psychology and spirituality it is more likely that be authentic and transformative.