I was recently (and briefly) introduced to James Marcia’s theory of identity achievement which describes the formation of identity during adolescence. According to Marcia, during adolescence (or in other times of identity crisis) we have the chance to choose between different occupations and beliefs. It is a time to explore and eventually commit to an identity. The result of this process is one of four identity states.

  • Foreclosure – results when a commitment is made without real exploration. This could be by defaulting to the easiest choice or through reactionary rebellion.
  • Identity diffusion – unwilling to explore or commit, one becomes socially withdrawn and un-engaged.
  • Moratorium – this is identity limbo. Often, a transitory state.
  • Identity achievement – having undergone a crisis, explored options and made a commitment one’s identity is now solidly owned and defined.

People often go through moratorium – achievement cycles a few times in life. Often prompted by changing phases of life or by external circumstances. At this point there is the risk of falling back to a previously held position or remaining stuck in one that no longer serves. Spiritual practice is another such cause, I believe, that can bring about an identity crisis leading to a temporary state of moratorium. It is easy at such a time to fall back into a state of foreclosure (for example, clinging to a ‘spiritual’ identity) or even diffusion.

It seems quite clear to me that Identity Achievement is required for spiritual practice to be a healthy and effective process. How identity status is affected by spiritual practice, however, is another question. Is identity achievement different in one who has seen through the veil? How? Do we need a fifth identity state for that?

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