Growing Up: When Spiritual Walls Fall

What does it mean to grow up? Is it about the body getting taller? Getting older? Is it about “acting your age”?

What we really mean by growing up is a maturing understanding and perspective that informs our actions. We learn more about ourselves and the world around us. How does this relate to spirituality?

Over many decades, spirituality has been connected with meditation, mysticism, yoga, enlightenment, Eastern traditions, and New Age. While those words were once fresh indicators to a unique field of learning, they have now become a standard part of our lexicon and are losing their ability to indicate something fresh and vibrant—the vivid complete nature of you and the world. Furthermore, narrow interpretations of those words have saturated our culture to such an extent that would-be explorers can be put off simply by hearing them.

“Spirituality” is derived from the words breath, air, and spirit. In essence, it indicates something subtle—experiencing the completeness of what is here rather than living within a partial picture. But maybe that description could be summed up best as not spirituality, but simply growing up.

But isn’t spirituality about more than growing up? If you take the sexiness out of the branding of spirituality, you’ll see that the answer is actually no—not if we fully understand what growing up entails. Sure, aspects of the spiritual journey are profound and mystical, but many are like weeding a garden. Sometimes you get a bout of poison ivy. Yes, the overall trajectory is one of increasing joy, vision, depth, independence, and capacity, yet even these broad words provide a limited description of what’s going on.

Growing up is about much more than it gets credit for. It’s a multi-layered process of blooming. Yes, the body grows. Yes, we go to school. Yes, we learn the ways of the world. And there is so much more. The mind becomes subtler. The physical sense of location in the world becomes subtler and more integrated. Connectedness becomes a living reality. Deeper dimensions of living come to the forefront. Accordingly, events of the day are seen in a broader and more integrated context, aligned with the needs of people and the planet as a whole. All this is growing up.

Much of our society today is stuck in a story where the blooming of the flower has been forgotten. The most common stories seem to be about the growth of just the stem. It’s the story of get your degree, get your salary, get your cars, get your spouse, get your kids, get your home, get your retirement. It’s the I-me-mine stage of development. We’re supposed to outgrow it, but the stories we replay in our culture don’t often convey continued growth. Spirituality became a necessary brand to fill the void.

What if we told better stories? While if we maintained an awareness of our sense of self, our emotions, and our intuition as we learned the procedural know-hows of the world? Our culture just might bloom on its own, without needing a formal spiritual track.

Spirituality ceases to be spiritual as it fully unfolds. Meditation, mysticism, and deeper phases of awareness lose their defining boundaries as the human system grows. They oppose less and integrate more. It is a ceaseless blooming, without beginning or end. It is a ceaseless growing, cast paradoxically alongside being a grown-up.

We need to popularize a more complete story about growing up—one that goes beyond acquiring things, securing titles, fitting in, and winning arguments, while also going beyond narrow notions of what spirituality and its associations are supposed to look like. That’s a road that is not yet well-defined, and therein lies its beauty and power.

We can start by acknowledging the people growing up among us who are not the tallest or the oldest. Two come to my mind right off the the bat—Greta Thunberg and Malala Yousafzai, who are redefining what it means to be growing up at any age. There are many others as well, scattered across the age spectrum. Some are public personalities, most are not. Some are activists, some are not. Some are recognizably spiritual, many have no identifiable markers. All are growing up. It is this journey—our journey—that I speak of here. It is this story of growing up that we must capture and re-tell.

Put simply, growing up is the vehicle through which life reveals itself most completely.

Anoop Kumar, MD, MM is board certified in Emergency Medicine and holds a Master’s degree in Management with a focus in Health Leadership. He practices in the Washington, DC metro area, where he also leads meditation gatherings for clinicians. He is the author of the upcoming book Is This a Dream? He tweets @DrAnoopKumar. Join our next online monthly discussion.