The difference between spiritual growth and personal development?

Michael asked me on my Dutch blog:

What’s the difference between personal and spiritual growth anyhow? I think self knowledge is perhaps the only spiritual or personal growth there is, isn’t it?

It’s a very good question. Depending on ones spiritual background, one can go into this very deeply, or just skimp the surface. Ken Wilber has tried to chart levels of spiritual development in people very precisely. He ended up with eight levels (or colors), if I understand him correctly.

In the yoga tradition Enlightenment itself (Samadhi that is) has levels. There are different kinds of Samadhi and one is better than the other.

But in our day to day talk about this spiritual growth and personal development do tend to mix. There’s a lot that is called spiritual, that I’d personally categorize as personal development. And yes, in both self knowledge is an important aspect of it. But to be complete a third stage has to be added, which leads me to three forms of growth or development:

  1. Personal Development
  2. Spiritual Growth
  3. Quest for Enlightenment (Moksha, Samadhi, Nirvana, Redemption)

Personal development does not have to be spiritual. People who follow a course in pottery making or gardening are personally developing themselves. Personal growth can take the form of keeping up to date in your profession. Psychotherapy too is a way to do personal growth. In short: anything that helps you to function better in your day to day life – personally or professionally – is a form of personal development.

Personal development does not have to be spiritual. None of the examples I gave above are spiritual in any sense. But those who take a management course will in some cases be given meditation exercises. This means that personal growth seminars use spiritual techniques. Does this mean it’s spiritual what they’re doing there? I’m not sure. I think it can only be called spiritual if people transcend themselves, or there is reference to a higher power, god or inspiration. But even if God is called upon, if the goal is material success or riches – is that very spiritual?

For me it’s spiritual development only when people learn to be more ethical in their day to day life and business and learn to contribute (more) to society. Old fashioned or new ‘values’ should play a part – for it to be called spiritual growth. I personally also use the words ‘spiritual growth’ when I talk about how spiritual insights can help us live more peaceful lives, improve our relationships and prevent problems.

But that could also be called personal growth. The words ‘personal growth’ do sound more selfish. Things like learning to be more productive, dealing with stress and becoming successful fall under personal development. Nothing wrong with it, but it is focused on ME. This transforms into spiritual growth, I think, when the effect of our actions on others is taken into account.

Spiritual growth also includes the support people can feel from being part of something Larger. For instance: people who convert to Christianity, because they find in Jesus the strength to overcome Alcoholism. I’d personally label that experience differently, but the personal transformation involved certainly has a spiritual component.

There is a gliding scale between developing hidden aspects of oneself (personal development) and transforming yourself and reintegrating yourself (spiritual growth). In the latter case spiritual experiences will play a part in more cases.

Buddhism and Hinduism go a step further. Their basic assumption is that human beings can be liberated from the maelstrom of daily struggles. This liberation does not involve suppressing emotions, but not being touched by them. Nirvana and Moksha are states of consciousness that go beyond the ordinary. Those who follow one of these paths are on the quest to Enlightenment or Awakening. There is more to this path than merely living an ethical life and a sense that ‘there is more’. This path asks in addition dedication and perseverance. It’s also a revolutionary path in the sense that it can get rid of all material and social wealth – because ultimately money and status don’t matter.

Personal and spiritual growth too can result in drastic changes in one’s day to day life – change of job, new relationships, new friends etc. The search for Awakening or Awareness (if I may translate Nirvana like that) ultimately goes a step further: the environment we live in becomes less important. This does not necessarily involve retreat into a convent. The implication is that the goal no longer has anything to do with the environment, only with our inner state. Ultimately, so they say, the very idea of a ‘goal’ drops away as well.

14 thoughts on “The difference between spiritual growth and personal development?”

  1. I have come to understand that personal development merely entails the cumulative efforts made to become comfortable.., or at least reach a level of acceptance of ones own self..or better yet : ones own MIND MADE self..
    Spiritual development on the other hand is the cumulative efforts made to become one with spirit.. going beyond the person NEEDING personal development..going beyond ego..or at the very minimum..realizing the illusion of “me”
    The concept of “ethics” is based on ideas and believes,collectively accepted..and therefor only pertains to the COLLECTIVE MIND(the “ensemble of egos”) and have little to do with spirit-uality.


  2. I don’t think ethics are necessarily only a cultural thing – I think they are at heart a thing of the soul. LOVE being an essential aspect of Spirit. Ethics follows out of that. It’s but another word for ‘right action’, which surely we must strive for as long as we have bodies to live in.

    What’s culturally dependent is in fact not ethics, but morals. The right way to do a handshake – the not shaking hands with women in Muslim countries – whether to wear revealing cloths – whether to give a boss feedback etc. All that’s culturally dependent.

    But surely it goes too far to say that things like what happened in WW2 was merely ‘culturally dependent’ and therefor beyond ethical reproach?

  3. Both spiritual growth and personal development can be achieve through the help of meditation.

  4. “Know thy self.” might suggest a spritual move. I guess spirit might usefully be called intelligent energy.
    “Self” has been a difficult concept for me. Anyway it seems to have become much larger with the years and a bit less personally important.
    Meditation does seem useful in most of its variety. How do you usually distiguish contempltion from meditation?
    What’s in a word
    Ethics and morals seem important parts of our culture. Nice to remember that our culture is often dangerously dependant on language.

  5. Hi Richard & Amabayag – welcome to my blog,

    > Self IS a difficult concept – all the more difficult as in spirituality there are different kinds of selves.

    > Your question about meditation is good, I think I might just blog about it tomorrow. For now: there are all kinds of meditation, I’d say contemplation is a kind of meditation.

    > Words ARE important, when we want to talk about stuff. And human beings do. Blavatsky, and many Theosophists after her, said that the problem isn’t with there being too much dependence on words: instead the problem is that the words in Western languages are too materialistic. Which is why theosophists use so much Sanskrit. I generally try to avoid that – but that has other side effects.

    The difference between morality and ethics is one of the things I learned at university – in a class given by the philosophy department called ‘ethics’ 🙂 Ethics is one of the few subjects where I think Sanskrit is less useful than western languages like English and German.

  6. Richard quoted ‘Know thyself.’ That and impersonal development are key here.

  7. according to me “spiritual growth” & “personality development “..both are having direct relationship…………because both have got the faculty to observe the internal mechanism………..both needs self conciousness(self means soul)……a person who is spritiual & pure……then automatically his personality develops……beacuse when a person is spritiual then he thinks pure & do pure ..which leaves a good impression on its mind stuff……..& we all know that personality means sum of all the good & pure impressions……….we reap what we sow………..if we do good & pure our personlaity will develop automatically…….it is an effect………..

  8. You cannot have spiritual growth with out personal growth. Spiritual growth comes before personal growth, it follows on so to speak. Personal growth is pretty hard to do with out it. Many people do not realise that they are using the spiritual part of them selves when they start to seek to change their their lives and grow. Personal growth involves everything, all your many bodies, emotional, intelectual, physical and spiritual. Spiritual is first with the physical last! Actually, you can get a pretty good idea of what is going on with your spiritual self by looking at what is going on in your physical body! 🙂
    We are growing all the time!

  9. Pingback: God is in the Personal Development Business
  10. Some people are coming from a very painful place, struggling with feelings of sadness, nervousness, irrational constant anger, self-doubt, self-hatred, poor control over their behavior, inability to relate socially in an appropriate manner, inability to stay focused on reality, and a host of other emotional and behavioral complaints. It’s necessary for anyone in these circumstances to get help with these personal adjustment problems in order to be able to address spiritual issues.

    This sort of therapeutic help is clearly, IMHO, related to personal growth. If someone who had not been able to talk to others without crippling nervousness or who had been hiding from the world because of depression can become socially engaged, this is real growth that does not have anything to do with selfishness. In fact, it is likely to decrease selfishness because it enables the recipient to give more to others rather than attacking or avoiding them.

    Once a certain threshold has been reached in dealing with these personal problems, then it becomes possible to advance spiritually. Spiritual and personal growth are related certainly, but are in essence separate areas that require distinctly different methods of approach.


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