The Koan Of Illness

Why It’s Important to “Grow Up” before “Waking Up.”

personal development May 23, 2022
Why It’s Important to “Grow Up” before “Waking Up.”

Adyashanti said in a recent talk that some people are “big experiencers” and others are not but that neither was a determinant of a higher state of awakening. I found this reassuring since I have never been a “big” experiencer. My growth has been a gradual awakening to a more expanded way of seeing the universe, more serenity, more ability to be in this world but not “of” it, greater ability to be in the present – basically a life filled with increasing beauty, truth, and goodness. 

For much of my life, I have focused on “growing up” more than waking up, both in my work (teaching, coaching, writing) and in my life. My pleasure in intellectual exploration and my decision to get a lot of education fed my cognitive development, family tragedies helped me to acknowledge and learn to master my emotional self, long term responsibilities helped me to grow morally, etc. Often, however, I felt I was “behind” others on the spiritual path because I didn’t have the overwhelming state experiences they had even while I could see that my level of peace and joy and perhaps even experience of the numinous was greater than theirs. At the same time, I could see that people who had had many of these experiences struggled a great deal with integrating them. 

Today there is a great push out there for people to “wake up.” Thousands flock to gurus hoping for transmission, meditate to escape into a world of peace and love. Books are written about how important it is to wake up. 

And it is important. However, it is also important not to forget about “growing up,” that process that leads us to develop mastery of our bodies, our environment, our emotions, and our minds in this world, that requires us to get to know and manage our ego sufficiently to work with and care for others, that asks us to take ever broader perspectives (time, space, culture, context) through which we see the world, and that gives us the ability to act with more tolerance and understanding. 

Having seen many people in various stages of waking up and growing up, I have come to conclude that those who “grow up” before “waking up” have an easier time of it. There are several reasons for this that I go into below, but fundamentally, it’s because growing up gives you a container for holding non ordinary experience, unusual perspectives, and a self that may not be all you thought it was. Without having grown oneself into a person of considerable depth, sanity, openness, and balance, waking up can overwhelm a person. 

Growing up is about developing increasing perspective-taking ability, emotional capacity, moral understanding, and other traits associated with mature adults. It is about creating a life that is sane and balanced, even, to use a word from Cindy Wigglesworth (The 21 Skills of Spiritual Development) noble. In short, it’s about developing both more wisdom and more compassion. 

Waking up is about going inward and becoming acquainted with Self. It is about disidentifying with the personal self/ego and reinhabiting the physical from a nonpersonal self. One becomes lived by Self rather than living with one’s ego in control. 

States (waking up) and stages (growing up) can seem to progress independently of one another, particularly through the levels of development which most people achieve in the world today.[1] For example, nonordinary states of consciousness can be experienced temporarily at any time and at any one of the growing up stages,[2]. One can be mature and balanced without experiencing nonordinary states. However, the full possibilities of either require development of both. 

A model of state and stage development which shows the full interrelationship of these developmental processes is Terri O’Fallon’s StAGES model, which she built on the work of Ken Wilber and Susann Cook-Greuter. In her model, growing up IS waking up since the higher levels of development are in fact about living from causal and nondual states. 

In this model, growing up, a sequential process in which one transcends but includes the learnings of the earlier stages, requires us to develop (or evolves us into) deeper state understanding. 

Most people do not develop beyond the middle of the subtle tier stages, and many live well-respected lives without going beyond the concrete tier. Causal and especially nondual stage existence (living consistently from this orientation) is very rare. 

But regardless of where one is in this process of development, one can be suddenly thrust into subtle, causal, or even nondual states of consciousness. Depending upon the person’s level of development, these sudden openings or “awakenings” can be a blessing or be highly disorienting and frightening. If the experience is too great or they have not developed beyond the concrete or mid subtle stages, they may experience 

– Fear, overwhelm and disorientation. People may question their sanity or find themselves trying to deal with material that has thrust itself unbidden into their psyches. 

– Physical symptoms including changes in the endocrine and nervous systems.[3] 

– Inability to deal with understandings that conflict with what may be rigidly held views (a narrower perspective on what is true is characteristic of lower stages). 

– Hijacking of the experience by the ego resulting in an overblown ego that is convinced it is enlightened. 

– Spiritual bypassing, where the person uses spiritual experience to avoid handling real world issues. 

However, those who have reached the higher subtle or even causal levels (and have largely dealt with developmental issues at the lower tiers[4]) are more likely to experience awakening as a welcome expansion of their already wide open consciousness. Particularly if they have cognitive understanding from reading and study, the experience can be not so much a break from ordinary life as a recognition, “Oh, this is what they meant.” 

One reason is that there will be less of a gap between this new reality and their ordinary one. The ordinary state of people at the causal stages may not look so different from what people describe as peak experiences. Maslow’s self-actualizing people are described as spontaneous, autonomous, aware, accepting of self and others, loving, creative, open to ecstasy, wonder, and awe.[5] They may already be comfortable with a Witnessing experience. 

Because the causal level is a place of revelation instead of one of increasing personal control, one who has accepted that life is a mystery, that predictability is not to be had and he or she is not in control will not be so disoriented. Causal experience is about being lived by spirit, not about harnessing spirit to one’s personal agenda. As Adyashanti put it in an interview with Tami Simon, “I woke up and discovered I was not there.” 

Qualities that are developed during the growing up process such as accepting things as they are, the ability to take multiple perspectives, openness to not knowing, a willingness to rely on the workings of the universe instead of needing to work out everything logically, and comfort with paradox and complexity are all helpful in managing this lack of controlMore mature people also have the ability to reflect on their own growth and thus know that growth can be expected to continue and that it can be disorienting. 

Grown up people are able to accept and navigate the difference between a harsh and even insane outside world and an inner focus on wholeness and peace. When we develop in the concrete tier and move from the concrete to the subtle tier, society is already there to accept us. Our relatives help us to learn the concrete world, our educational system is geared to helping us move to the subtle. But at the causal level, we have no universities and few communities or spiritual teachers, so we are left to function in a concrete and subtle world despite seeing possibilities beyond it. Without capacities for acceptance and giving up control, this gap can be very frustrating. 

At higher stage development, people are more likely to be able to maintain the natural human drive for growth instead of retreating from what seems like too big a jump to make. If they feel too much fear or confusion, people may feel hopeless and give up. For example, I remember in 8th grade being asked to decide what I wanted to major in in college so I could plan my class schedule for the next four years. Given I had a future perspective of maybe a year or two at the outside, no idea what I wanted to do, and no ability to plan, the project seemed impossible. Fortunately, I had parents and teachers to help me begin to deal with these subtle capacities and assure me that they would be helpful to me. Without such support, however, people can find learning about the subtle world so difficult that they give up and retreat to a safer concrete existence. 

Similarly, one can give up on causal experience if it is encountered too soon, and there is no one to help you navigate it or even explain why you might want to. Just as overwhelmed young people look for authorities and join cults, so people who encounter the causal before they are ready to let go of control or rationality or when they have no support or people around them who have already walked the path can suppress the experience (sometimes) or develop unhealthy coping strategies. 

With higher stage development, one can better hold and stabilize the experience. With a mature consciousness that involves the ability to concentrate, take multiple perspectives, and live with expanded awareness, manage the physical body wisely, and handle emotions with greater facility, there is a more adequate container for causal experience. 

I came across this poem recently by Constantine P. Cavafy which encourages us to take on the journey of growing up before pushing to enter Ithaca (a metaphor for enlightenment) before we are ready. 


When you set out for Ithaca
ask that your way be long,
full of adventure, full of instruction.

            *            *            * 

Have Ithaca always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaca to give you wealth.

Ithaca gave you a splendid journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She hasn’t anything else to give you.

And if you find her poor, Ithaca hasn’t deceived you.
So wise you have become, of such experience,
that already you’ll have understood what these Ithacas mean. 


[1] Obviously neither is fully independent: according to Ken Wilber, meditation can speed up growing up (The Eye of the Spirit, page 219 and elsewhere) and dealing with shadow psychological issues can help spiritual growth. According to Anadi, “To seek is the most challenging endeavour in human existence.  Therefore it is critical that one will develop certain essential qualities such as sincerity, maturity, inner strength, patience, determination, purity of intention, humility, as well as discriminative wisdom, sensitivity to the realm of I am and the ability to meet oneself. 

Only by possessing the virtues we have described here can one persevere in the face of the unknown and unravel our final destiny.” Summary quote on Anadi’s website from the Book of Enlightenment pp. 42-43. 

[2] For more information on this lattice and a detailed description of the stages of development, please see the article How to Wake Up and Grow Up at 

[3] Jeff Warren cites Willoughby Britton’s research at Brown University on symptoms in “The full range of symptoms, from mild to intense, include headaches, panic, mania, confusion, hallucinations, body pain and pressure, involuntary movements, the de-repression of emotionally-charged psychological material, extreme fear and – perhaps the central feature – the dissolution of the sense of self.” (Enlightenment’s Evil Twin, Psychology Today January 2014) Others who have commented on the physiological changes are David Hawkins, Discovery of the Presence of God: Devotional Nonduality, pp. 113-115 and Igor Kufayev who has spoken many times on this issue, e.g.!letter_to_a_siddha/c1tbn 

[4] Psychological problems at early stages, e.g. attachment issues or a tendency to act as a victim, will repeat in later stages until they are dealt with. 

[5]Maslow, Abraham H. Toward a Psychology of Being. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Company, Inc. l962, p. 23. 

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