The Bittersweet Symphony of Personal Growth
Higher consciousness develops through cyclic experience and linear stages of growth
Step aside — no offense
In the music video for “Bittersweet Symphony” released in June 1997, Richard Ashcroft strides down Hoxton Street in London while musing on the meaning of life and the instability of identity:
I am here in my mold
But I’m a million different people
From one day to the next
I can’t change my mold
Ashcroft’s protagonist displays unshakeable confidence in who he is and where he is headed.
But what about the mold he refers to, the one he can’t change? Does that mold protect or imprison him? Does it represent his uniqueness or just the opposite, a feeling of stuckness in the societal role he must play?
The ambiguity of the image is intriguing. We can’t be sure if this guy feels subtly trapped or rebelliously alive and ready for anything.
Growth is cyclic, not linear
And who are the “million different people from one day to the next” that Ashcroft’s protagonist becomes?
I was recently reminded of the “Bittersweet Symphony” lyric after learning about the ideas of Michael Bernard Beckwith. In his model of the four stages of spiritual awakening, he discusses four perspectives we can take when processing daily experiences on the road to higher consciousness: to me, by me, through me, and as me.
Beckwith presents these perspectives as developing sequentially. The understanding is that only when the learning of a given stage is mastered can a person advance to the next stage of development.
I agree that sequential learning is fundamental to growth, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. In my experience, people tend to cycle through developmental stages within a framework like Beckwith’s, backward and forwards, with an upward trend emerging over time — usually lots of time.
On the road to mastery, we have good days and bad days, and good and bad moments in a single day. To maintain inner balance, it helps to remember that feelings of failure and success rise and fall. Expecting steady improvement according to stages in a model can be misleading, and discouraging.
The usefulness of a framework like Beckwith’s stages is that it can provide a touchstone, a mental model to check in with when negative feelings and setbacks arise, as they surely will, in everyday life.
For balance, it is just as important to check in when life feels great. Learning to discern how our view of a situation makes us feel stuck or unstoppable (and anything in between) supports conscious growth that trends upward. And the more conscious we are, the faster we progress.
The Four Stages in sequence and cycles
In the following paragraphs, I give brief explanations of Beckwith’s four stages followed by examples of the cyclic nature of these stages as I have noticed them in my life.
Two caveats: (1) These explanations are very brief. For a complete understanding of Beckwith’s model, I encourage readers to check out the resources linked at the end of this story. (2) My examples are bound to be different from yours. Like the protagonist in the video, we are all walking our unique paths of growth.
One: to me (Poor me). At this stage, people see life as happening to them. They see themselves as victims and tend to blame others for their problems. Often what shakes people out of these doldrums is feeling stuck and unhappy and feeling ready to make a change.
Cyclic example: Almost anything that requires me to be in a certain place at a certain time triggers this energy. Appointments often feel like life is intruding on my private space, making it feel like something coming at me. I’ve had a thing about schedules and deadlines my entire life. Just realizing that has already proven to be helpful when feelings of resistance rise up.
Two: by me (I’ve got this.) People in the second stage experience “manifesting consciousness.” They grasp the power of clear intention, visualize the life they want to live, and do the work necessary to make it so. They see the circumstances and events in their lives as created by them.
Cyclic example: Any activity related to making art is a great way to bring “by me” energy into the mix, especially when I need to reconnect with resourcefulness and creativity. Cooking and cleaning also tap into this energy.
Three: through me (Neo’s first jump.) In stage three, people perceive life as a force that lives through them and ultimately works for them, regardless of immediate conditions or results. Visualization in stage two becomes visioning in this stage. People realize that there is something within they cannot yet see and want it to come forward.
Flying blind, they have faith in life and authorize their unique gifts to emerge. This requires radical trust, surrender, and willingness to stay open in the face of challenging people, events, and circumstances. Receptivity and willingness to relinquish the need to be in control are also hallmarks of this stage.
Cyclic example: At 17, a scene I performed in my freshman year for an exclusive audience of drama faculty members invoked a “through me” experience. I was so terrified when the curtain opened that I was ready to lose consciousness. And then somehow, the lines emerged from my throat, and the final applause made me feel I was leaving my body.
More recently, since I live in a national forest, taking a walk through the neighborhood is a nature walk. Amid the tall trees, clear blue skies, and canyon vistas, I can enter a space of “through me” energy easily.
Four: as me (Namaste, or “My godhead greets your godhead.”) The fourth stage characterizes people who live and act from source (whatever that means to you), who feel at one with “all of life, with no filter.” People at stage four are at one with God because they realize they are God, in the sense that we are all individual manifestations of the infinite.
Cyclic example: A peak meditative experience I had under the influence of psilocybin mushrooms years ago is what I would call a stage four moment. When the effects were at their greatest, I was meditating outside near the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California. Seated on a flat rock overlooking a canyon, I felt suffused with the warmth of the sun and the energy of the wind. I felt at one with all that surrounded me, even the occasional insect that buzzed around my face.
A few years later, childbirth was an extended moment of connection with the divine. The first time I looked into my son’s eyes, I understood that I was meeting a brand new, unique expression of the infinite. Just moments before, this new consciousness had been part of me. We were now separate, but I could still sense our oneness. It was perhaps the most unusual moment of my life.
Days become lives
Frameworks are invaluable if we remember not to take them too literally. Personal growth happens at both macro and microcosmic levels, and its trajectory is rarely neat.
Metaphorically, it’s true that we are “a million different people from one day to the next,” especially during intense periods of life. The grumbling victim, magnificent manifester, conduit of the infinite, or godhead at one with creation — these are all me, and you.
Beckwith’s quartet, your symphony
It can be fun to push a framework further, according to personal experience. Using the four stages as a starting point, are there other perspectives you can identify that inhibit or accelerate your personal growth? How does Beckwith’s quartet of stages inspire you to tune into and discover your own symphony of perspectives?
For a short explanation of Beckwith’s model, see this four-minute YouTube video:
For an intriguing and more in-depth conversation, I highly recommend Oprah’s conversation with Beckwith in this Super Soul Sunday episode.