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Four Common Factors in Spiritual Growth

There’s an interesting finding in research on psychotherapy. When hundreds of different approaches to helping people change are put to the test, they produce approximately equivalent results. This is because all approaches share four common factors that affect outcome: 1) individual variables, 2) the therapeutic relationship, 3) hope, and 4) techniques. This has been called the “Dodo bird verdict” after a scene in Alice in Wonderland in which the dodo bird declares: “All have won and all must have prizes!” at the conclusion of a game of croquet in which the hedgehogs are rolled up to make croquet balls and the flamingos are used as mallets.

Let’s consider how the four common factors might be applicable to our attempts to keep moving toward our best lives.

Individual variables: If we’re honest, we all have habit energies of thought, emotion, and behavior that limit us. These have usually been with us for most of our lives. We have had so many loops through these habit energies that they have become highly conditioned. We’re often reacting to life in a habitual way rather than choosing to move in the direction of our best life. My favorite approach to going off automatic mode is mindfulness meditation, the subject of over 3400 published articles since 2000. If you’re interested, google Jon Kabat-Zinn, the person most responsible for bringing this ancient spiritual practice into the realm of mental health research and practice.

Therapeutic relationship: In therapy, nothing much happens unless there’s a good connection between the client and therapist. The relationship is the most active ingredient in the process. I’ve often wondered how many therapists like me would be out of work if people had more therapeutic relationships (marriages, friendships, spiritual companions) in their lives. Coaches often say “There is no ‘I’ in team,” but there are two i’s in “relationship.” Our best leverage in improving any relationship is to keep our focus on things in our own behavior that limit the relationship. Jesus was onto this 2000 years ago when he talked about focusing on the log in your own eye instead of the speck in someone else’s.

Hope: We live in a world in which reality is always at odds with the ideal. This is true with our own attempts at our best life. Hope comes from a vision that pulls us forward toward an ideal--and an active plan for attempting to close the gap between our actual life and our vision. Without hope we’re just spinning our wheels; with it we’re alive and growing.

Techniques: Individual variables, the relationship, and hope account for about 85% of positive change in therapy research. The final 15% is related to techniques. Whereas hope is a vision and a direction, techniques are more like a strategic plan to get there. What are your techniques--meditation, prayer, yoga, exercise, time management, reading, intentional time with loved ones and friends, writing in a journal, tai chi? If you’re looking for fresh input, you might enjoy two books that each review fifty authors’ ideas: 50 Spiritual Classics and 50 Self-Help Classics (both by Tom Butler-Bowden).

Maybe if we attend to these four factors of our own growth we could let go of our our tendency to live as what Scott Peck called “comparing creatures.” Perhaps, in this incessantly competitive culture, we could get a bit more comfortable with “all have won, and all must have prizes.”

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