Leaving Home: The Psychology of Emerging Adulthood and Spiritual Identity

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I’ve always been a slow transitioner. I marvel at people who can wake up, and almost instantly hop out of bed to begin their day. First, my alarm rings. I turn it off, with my eyes closed. I keep my head under my pillow. Then, after about thirty seconds, I start to slowly take deeper, longer breaths. Then, I bring my head up above the pillow. After another few minutes, I shift my body to a different position, usually onto my left side. Finally, I open one eye, my right eye. My right eye has slightly weaker vision than my left, so I think that maybe if I open this eye first, the extra few minutes of looking at the world that it gets will make it stronger, somehow, over time. (This probably is not true.) After another minute or so, I open my left eye. This entire ordeal, from waking up to opening both of my eyes, takes fifteen to twenty minutes. After another ten minutes, I am ready to get out of bed.

My best friends know this about me. They tell me thirty, fifteen, and five minutes before we need to leave the house before going out. I don’t know why I didn’t take this into account when writing this article – I knew it was going to be a lot of work, that it would take a lot of internal questioning and moments of pause, but I thought I’d have it done within a couple of months. I began in late June of last year, and it is now June again.

This past year has been filled with transitions for me. I wanted to write something about transitioning from childhood to adulthood, but being in that period of time myself, I felt unsure of which experiences of mine I could trust, how to pull together all of the ideas I was getting from my academic research and from my spiritual knowing. Was spiritual knowing even something I could trust listening to? At the same time, I have had a lot of different changes in relationships since last June. Many relationships have been broken, some healed, some still in the process of healing, some may not be healed ever, or for quite some time. A slow transition indeed.

But still, I continued to read, continued to seek the guidance of those who had reached me on an intellectual or emotional level in the past. I created new relationships, and nurtured existing ones with people whom I connected with in the past. In July of last year, Swamini Svatmavidyananda, a female Hindu teacher/monk/scholar, happened to be in the Financial District of Manhattan. I went there intending to interview her for this article that I was writing, but her combination of sharp, lightening-cutting authoritativeness and gentle compassion, both intensely feminine, very grounded in her Self, spoke to a much deeper part of me than the cerebral knowledge I was seeking. “Education is meant to open the mind and heart to new vistas and discoveries about oneself. If this blossoming, for whatever reason, is delayed or has not yet taken place, it has to be initiated by one through cultivating the desire to know oneself.”

And so, in trusting myself, I am now, a whole year later, ready to write, and also ready to share the experiences and questions of peers that I have been gathering over this time:

“I’m not interested in a relationship, and definitely not interested in tying myself down right now. I could be happy being single forever.” “I think I’m ready to settle down, but I’m not really sure what that means. Maybe I’m not actually ready.” “I feel like I’m the only person I know that’s interested in having a serious relationship. I just want to wake up next to somebody every day, and share my love with them for the rest of my life.”

“I feel pushed into my career. I wish I could have stayed in school longer, or just taken time off to travel.” “Having a salary is amazing, I love being self-sufficient.” “I feels like I’ll never get out of school, and all of my other friends with jobs are living their lives kind of like adults already.”

“I feel like I’ve grown old too fast, like maybe I shouldn’t have rushed into a career and relationship this fast.” “Maybe I’m too old to be acting like this, and I need to grow up.” “I have no idea what I should be doing in life right now, but everyone else seems to have it together.”

I am not sure when was the last time I met a 20-something year old who hasn’t struggled with some combination of these issues. It seems like the expectations our culture(s) put on us during this stage of our lives are often conflicting and confusing. For example, my friends often commiserate over problems like, “My parents said I couldn’t date boys up to age 22. Now I’m 23 and they’re asking me why I haven’t found anyone yet.” Similarly, we are caught between expectations regarding finishing school and starting our careers. Some of our parents expect us to go straight from our Bachelor’s to a graduate degree, without a break in between, which is unfeasible for individuals in certain fields. On the other hand, many of us who are in the work field already are not sure if they would like to go back to school or not. This leaves many in a confusing in-between stage between “working adult” and student. Even the label “adult” seems misplaced.

Truly, adolescence and early adulthood is the life stage which contains more psychological, biological and social changes than any other stage besides infancy.

Adults often look to religion for a sense of guidance in raising children, and in managing their own lives during times of crises. Adolescents and young adults have a less clear view of how religion or spirituality may fit into their lives, if they even have a place at all. Religion was often associated with forced discipline and chores. On the other hand, research tells us that young people with a strong sense of religious identity often feel alienated from their less-religious peers, especially in cases where they identify as a part of a religious minority group.

Traditionally, Hindus look to the chatur-ashrama schema to gain an understanding of how roles are ideally delineated within each stage of life. The four (chatur) main stages (ashramas) of development are brahmacharya, often translated as the student phase; grihastha, the householder phase; vanaprastha, retired life; and sannyasa, renounced/ascetic life. For example, when one is in the brahmacharya stage, or student stage, one abstains from engaging in romantic relationships, concentrates fully on their studies, while developing the beginnings of socioemotional intelligence which will come to fruition in later stages of life. In the grihastha stage, the house-holder stage, the individual makes their primary contribution to society through their career or through some creative work. This often coincides with marriage, though is not always so.

However, this developmental model may seem outdated in a world where there is no longer a clear boundary between student life and adult life, or between different stages of early adulthood. This mirrors current issues in developmental psychology today. While we thought that adolescence ends at age 21 because of a sudden decline in brain development, recent research in neurology has shown that the brain actually keeps growing past age 21. Our reason for assigning physiological adulthood to that age is in question. In addition, social expectations of 20-something year olds are changing. Psychologists are referring to a new developmental stage called “emerging adulthood,” ages 21-32.

Religion and psychology intersect in ways that provide interesting answers to the questions of emerging adulthood, and finding meaning in a stage when identity is often in flux. People often look to religion for a sense of guidance in raising children, and in managing their own families’ paths during adulthood. The picture of how religion fits in one’s life is less clear in adolescence and early adulthood. But this is a perfect time in which one can learn to achieve and meet certain personal goals, without being perfect all the time.

Psychologically Leaving Home: Crises of Early Adulthood

During early adulthood, most of us leave the home. If we do not leave home, the development of our identity stalls or stops completely. This does not necessitate a physical leaving of the home, but a psychological leaving of our home, or whatever “home” means to us. Physically moving away from our place of birth is often very helpful for people and is sometimes the only way that certain options could be explored for people. For example, many people say that they would not have considered a change of major in college, change in career path, come out with a different sexual orientation, or had certain relationships had they physically stayed at home. Having your own “space” away from your family’s space can also spur on psychological changes that might come about once you are away from your parents’ gaze.

That said, not everybody can afford to move away from home, nor does everybody want to. In American society, it is seen as strange for someone to live with their parents until marriage, but in many cultures, this is the norm. As long as this is something that a person is comfortable with, there is nothing wrong with living at home into adulthood at all. Some people do not move out even after marriage, choosing to live in joint-family households. However, even when you physically still live at “home,” there is a necessary psychic break that comes during early adulthood which represents a transitioning away from more secure, familiar ways of thinking and being.

Transitioning into adulthood does not involve one leaving of home, but the leaving of many “homes.” One is leaving our parents’ perception of what relationship is, especially learning new ways to love, and how we would like to be loved. What might it be like to be somebody’s lover, and what do I want my lover to be like? How do gender role expectations play into this? We start to wonder about being single, about being in a relationship, about being married or not married, and form opinions about these relationships. Sometimes, we use other people to fill lonely places in ourselves. We attach ourselves to a fantasy image of our partner, and use that image to ignore broken parts of ourselves. Other times, we use the space of a safe, healthy relationship to explore those scary places within us, to heal and to grow.

Learning about what we desire, and what enacting desire means in reality, naturally shifts our attention away from satisfying the desires of what our parents want for us and towards making our own marks as individuals. This does not mean that we totally separate from or hate our parents, or that a truly healthy adult is one who has abandoned their parents. Different cultures would paint different pictures of what a healthy, individualized adult relationship with one’s parents looks like. But romantic relationship provides a space in which we can experiment with how much of our parents we would like to keep, and how much we would like to create in our worlds, in privacy, or in secrecy. Through many types of relationship, even friendship, we struggle with how much of our parents’ guidance we would like to keep, and how much of our own intuition we will learn to trust. It is a journey, often painful, but learning to live in a way that is true to yourself is always rewarding. Louise Kaplan describes adolescence as the period in which “we strive to seek our own balance between bending to the authority of social order and preserving what the true self loves.”

For almost everyone, there is a leaving of the home that happens once we learn that we do not always think in the exact same ways that our parents do. Cognitively, because we develop the capacity to argue and reason during this time, we often explore this ability with our parents. This can cause rifts between parents and their children, where it is difficult to balance the desire to encourage a capacity to discuss and make decisions on one’s own and the desire to keep children close, obedient, and predictable as they mature. One study by Larson, Richards, Moneta, Holmbeck, and Duckett (1996) revealed that from pre-adolescence to age 18, time spent with one’s family drops from 35% to 14%. One can only imagine how this time decreases as the child moves into college and/or onto their career. Again, these sorts of changes in relationships over a relatively short time span only happen in adolescence, not any other period of life. Navigating these changes in familial ties can be extremely uncomfortable for many people – we simultaneously try to preserve a perfect image of our childhood while perhaps rebelling or resisting aspects of our upbringing. We feel that we owe our parents something, and that perhaps what we might owe them must come at a cost to our freedom. Parents often feel threatened by this new dynamic. Often, we must become critical and angry for some time before we develop the energy to separate in a healthy way.

We leave the familiar “home” of high school, then college, then graduate school. Perhaps working life feels like home for us, and going back to school feels like a bigger leap to make. Sheehy describes in her book, Passages: “I should get experience before landing my ‘real job.’ I should work to change the system. I should be married by now. I should wait to get married until I accomplish something. I should help people. Now is the time I should be free and try everything. I should do what my schooling prepared me for.” We believe our identity is being built, and we sometimes believe faultily that the choices we make during this period are irrevocable. We wander between urges to build a foundation for later ventures in life and exploring and experimenting. We start to discover our strengths, the new skills we’ve acquired; we fear that we are too young, that we do not know enough, that someone will find out that we’re faking it until we make it, that we have no idea what we are doing.

Sometimes, it is physical or mental illness that leads us to a loss of home. In an interview with a breast cancer survivor in “The Feminine Face of God,” a woman relates, “In order to gain my life, I’ve had to lose it…I’ve had to let the old be cleaved away and give up the thing I love the most…so the pattern of the new can take shape.” The psychological leaving of the home is often accompanied by periods of depression, anxiety, in cycle with very exciting and wonderful experiences. First psychotic breaks are extremely common for young men during this time period, and mood disturbances, eating disorders, and manifestations of personality disorders are more of a risk for women during this time.

For all this psychological upheaval, medicine and therapy are definitely viable options. However, a growing body of research supports spiritual exploration as an antidote for drops in life satisfaction and mental stability.

Dr. Lisa Miller, in her book, “The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting For Health and Lifelong Thriving,” points to research which provides evidence that spirituality, that is, a feeling of connection to and dialogue with a higher power, something greater than oneself, the Universe, etc. that is loving and guiding, defends against a variety of high-risk behaviors and probability of developing mental illnesses. “Research in medicine and psychology has found that people with a developed spirituality get sick less, are happier, and feel more connected and less isolated [which puts them at less risk for developing mental illness].” The development of natural spirituality over the lifespan also mirrors and seems related to the development of psychobiological characteristics. The mental faculty for transcendent awareness and spiritual experience was found in multiple studies, even internationally, to surge during late adolescence and end in the mid-twenties. One University of Colorado twin study found that “at fourteen years old, the largest impact for a teen’s spirituality comes from her family but by nineteen, it is shaped primarily by her biology.” There seems to be a natural surge in the capacity for spiritual reasoning during this time, which has been shown to aid individuals through times of psychological distress. This opening to spirituality which is facilitated by the body, unfortunately, is often not taken advantage of.

Miller cites thirty-eight clinical trials, as well as dozens of books published by the American Psychological Association link practices associated with growing spiritual perception, “knowing of the heart,” yoga, meditation, and prayer, with treatment outcomes like depression and anxiety symptom relief, as well as improvements in physiological conditions. In the psychotherapeutic setting, patients who combine an exploration of spiritual identity with other clinical work benefit greatly from treatment, and move beyond symptom reduction to treatment based on self-growth.

How can we use this growing scientific knowledge about spirituality and development to aid common issues in emerging adulthood? When we finally wake up, suddenly feeling that something about our “home” is not right, that we do not fit here perfectly anymore, that something about our old identity is off, how can we use a sense of spiritual direction to aid us in our transitions?

Spiritually Leaving the Home: Prabhayauvanam

In various spiritual traditions, the beginning of adulthood has always been an especially sacred time. As noted in “The Feminine Face of God,” Prince Siddhartha left his home and family in the middle of the night at the beginning of his journey towards Buddhahood; in the Old Testament, “Abraham our father left the certainty of the womb…for the wilderness.” Setting out into the world, away from the ways of thinking of our parents, has always been a part of one’s spiritual journey.

At the same time, many Hindu young adults are confused as to when adulthood actually starts. In speaking about the four ashramas (stages of life) in Hinduism, we name some age between 18 and 21 (depending on who you ask) to be a transition age between brahmacharya (student life) and grihastha (householder life). However, it now seems like this same age range is more of a melding of those two ashramas, and perhaps it spans even beyond 21 to the early thirties, which many psychologists are now considering to be a part of emerging adulthood. It might make sense to call a person a brahmachari for as long as they are in school, but if someone is doing a PhD program, which these days can take up to 10 years, does that really mean someone is a brahmachari until they are 29? In other words, must they follow the rules of brahmacharya, including no romantic or sexual relationships, and refraining from material enjoyment, until then? What if they want to get married while still studying? Young Hindus, fresh out of college, are often confused about dating for this reason – their parents and religious leaders offer up mixed messages about reducing interactions with the opposite sex, maybe even saying that dating is “against Hindu culture,” but parents also often suddenly begin to urge their children to “have a boyfriend/girlfriend” or “get married” during this age.

Then there are students who finish college at 21, and want to work for 2-3 years then go back to graduate school for two years. What stage are they in? There are others who finish school and get a job at 21, but prefer to work on their careers and live alone until their 30’s. And what makes a person a grihasthi? Is it just being married? Would something like renting or buying your own apartment be part of it? How appropriate is it to still maintain a level of dependence on parents at the beginning of this stage, in our economy where house ownership and marriage seems like a distant dream for many young people?

We need a deeper understanding of the ashramas besides simple definitions of “student life” and “married/householder life,” because those two areas of your lifespan aren’t so clearly demarcated anymore. They intersect and overlap. We no longer go to school, get married/get a job, buy a house and have children in that order. Besides changes in social expectations, our economy simply does not allow for that, much of the time.

However, a wider dharmic understanding of the ashramas is not as shallow as these four simple categories. There actually are multiple transition stages between ashramas, as well as sub-ashramas within each of the four stages. One such sub-stage is prabhayauvana, an age span which happens to line up exactly with current understandings in psychology of what emerging adulthood is. In other words, there is an understanding that between the four main stages of life, there are transition periods in which you are neither this-nor-that. These periods are often fraught with confusion, but they are also seen as fertile grounds for self-growth and transformation, depending on how you choose to deal with the issues you encounter.

In my interview with Swamini Svatmavidyananda, she related a story from the Chandogya Upanishad about Svetaketu. Svetaketu finished his schooling at around age 24. He excelled in his studies, and was very intelligent. Upon finishing his studies at the gurukulam, he took a ritual bath which signified the end of his life in the brahmacharya phase. In other words, he was officially finished with the student phase of life. However, he had moved back home, and was not yet married, so he was not truly a grihasthi yet. He felt very confused, not knowing where to seek direction from, not knowing what to do with himself, since he didn’t feel that he clearly fit into any particular societal role. I think a lot of young adults can identify with his situation.

Svetaketu turned to his father for advice. His father asked him, “You say your education is complete, but is it really complete? Did you ask for that knowledge after which there is nothing else to know?” Svetaketu answered, “I was the brightest there, and if the teachers knew about that, they would have taught me. Obviously, there is nothing else to know.” His father countered, “Well, you can’t be as all-knowing as you think, since you don’t have what it takes to have a sense of direction in life.”

Svetaketu thought about this. “Is there such a knowledge? Maybe I think I know everything, but I don’t really know.” His father continued, “What you really need to know is knowledge of your Self. Before all names and forms there was sat, truth, and sat is you, what you are in your innermost Self. If you know gold, you understand the world of ornaments, but if you know one earring, you don’t necessarily know bangles, chains, everything else there is to know. Thus, if you know the Self, the essence of all there is, you have that foundational knowledge which allows you to navigate everything else in this world. However, if you just seek to know different aspects of this world, as if to try to learn about each ornament individually, you can never truly know everything. Seek knowledge of that gold, that sat, the inner self, which can guide you through everything else this world will place in front of you.”

There is not a clear path between student life and householder life, and perhaps there doesn’t need to be. Perhaps this transition period is here for us to seek knowledge of the Self, to make mistakes along the way, to develop the inner compass, which will allow us to not depend on religious leaders as a crutch, but rather as guides who walk along with us from time to time as we continue to follow what we discern from within. There is certainly value in consulting sacred texts for guidance and knowledge, but ultimately, all of our texts direct us to look within for true knowing. What is the point in developing all of this knowledge about seeking inner wisdom if we never actually try to seek it? And psychological research tells us that adolescence and emerging adulthood is the time where we are naturally wired to do so. There are other ways that we can guide ourselves to a sense of dharma, or at least psychological well-being during emerging adulthood, that is guided by a combination of our developing intuition, academic education, and spiritual knowing. This does not mean that we become overconfident or egoistic, but simply that we learn to trust ourselves.

Swamini says, “What is confusing at this time is that there is no specific role to follow. Our shastras say, anaashrami na tishyet, do not stall between ashramas for too long, or you will be confused. So, parents get nervous to push children here and there, and young adults often feel pressure when they compare themselves to their peers. But life is complex, it doesn’t work that way. Not everyone is developed financially, emotionally, mentally, to move on at the same time.” Not everybody makes transitions at the same time, so we can’t impose the same exact standards on every person. For example, females tend to mature sexually earlier than men do, and so interactions between males and females may be mediated by who has gone through certain biologically-mediated mental and physical changes, who hasn’t, who has emotional maturity in relationship, who does not. The dharmic traditions represent, encourage, and recognize a variety of paths and experiences, whether in gender identity or lifestyle choices, so for us to push all young adults onto one path from college, straight to grad school, and right into marriage seems myopic, and perhaps even ignorant of the wide variety of choices endorsed by a dharmic worldview.

However, this is not to say that it is easy to be in between ashramas. For this reason, the path defined by this intermediate stage must be grafted together from engagement with one’s spiritual or religious tradition, personal experiences, and through a development of trust of one’s inner compass. This trust is perhaps the hardest thing to cultivate during this time. Early adulthood can be a vulnerable time, where victories and successes are often punctuated by periods of low self-worth, loneliness, and fear.

In clinical accounts as well as stories from various religious traditions, early adulthood is a period in which previously unseen material from the unconscious can come up as strange dreams, vague senses of dread, new anxieties, deep depressions, as well as false grandiosity and mania. As much as this is a time for self-discovery and rebuilding of identity, it can easy become a place where we lose touch with our Self. Many, in seeking a feeling of “just being” (that can safely be found in meditation), develop addictions: as predictable as drugs, alcohol, or sex, and as subtle as addictions to pushing off responsibility, to validation from others, to cycles of toxic relationships, and to a feeling of ungroundedness – an addiction not to traveling as much as a feeling of running away. We pretend as if we are going on with a sense of purpose, and accumulating money early on can trick us into thinking that we’ve got it all together. But still, there is a feeling that we are still one step behind happiness, that maybe we haven’t yet proven ourselves. Some chase happiness by going back to school, others by going to work, some by doing nothing at all. Usually, there is still something missing. We feel like we’re doing so much, but doing so little, still falling apart at the seams.

Religion and Identity

Exploring spiritual identity, seems to be a way that psychology and religion endorse finding a deeper sense of fulfillment. For the dharmic traditions, this means engaging with the Self, but for others, it may be simply finding ways to explore your spiritual narrative. When have you felt most connected to a larger sense of purpose? What makes you feel most alive? Do you have memories of a time when you felt in tune with the world around you, with people, with existence?

It might seem that adolescents don’t care about religion, but they may just want to interact with spiritual identity in ways that are different than their parents’ did. Spirituality might not mean going to temple, but that doesn’t mean that they are not in touch with a sense of interconnectedness or divinity in other ways. Parents are often punitive with adolescents about not engaging with religion, but there is nothing wrong with not conforming to the ways of practicing religion that parents practice. This does not mean that they have no sense of religious identity or spiritual narrative.

On the other hand, especially for people who grew up with Hinduism as their religious tradition, I have noticed a trend to ignore religious or spiritual identity totally. At least in America, members of other religions struggle with questions of what it means to be a Christian, a Muslim, a Jewish person, and how to integrate aspects of that identity with other parts of their personality. However, Hindu-Americans are not even sure if they are Hindu at all, much less if they are practicing or non-practicing (however those labels may apply to Hinduism). Hindus are not ready for the types of discussions that young people of other faiths are having. We are more likely to read a few poems by Rumi and listen to a few qawwalis and call ourselves “Sufi” (which, by the way, can be incredibly insulting actual Sufis), or to flippantly say “I guess I’m spiritual, but not religious” when asked about religion rather than investigate what it actually means to be Hindu or not Hindu.

This does not mean that claiming Hinduism as a part of one’s religious identity is the ideal end-goal of a person’s development. This is less a question of rallying for a unified Hindu identity or of shaming young Hindus for not claiming some sort of birthright, and is more a question of exploring why we might be blocking off questioning and interacting with this specific area of our identity. Just as we might wonder why an individual ignores questions of what they want their career to be, or ignores questioning their socioeconomic privilege, we can also wonder why such a vast portion of people who grew up with Hinduism as a cultural or religious upbringing ignore questions of religion, which is also an aspect of identity. Calling oneself “Hindu” without exploring what that means, and going through rituals and festivals as a social obligation is not qualitatively much different from rejecting an exploration of how much Hinduism is or is not a part of one’s religious identity out of shame associated with Hinduism. Developing a sense of religious identity, whether as Hindu, questioning, atheist, or other, can be an incredibly growthful experience, and it is a detriment to one’s own psychological development if these questions remain unasked.

Finding a Way: Practice Makes Perfect

Swamini suggests not thinking of brahmacharya and grihastha as dual categories, but as two poles that we are all somewhere transitioning between. This is not a ladder to climb, but a river that we are flowing down together, though we may enter the river at different points along the way. If you are student, how can you negotiate the duties of being a student while also honoring a calling to explore new relationships? In relationships, how can you explore new ways of relating to one another, to jagat (the world), to ishvara (God)? How can relationships feed us instead of being inimical to our goals? You will learn how to trust what your spiritual center, your heart, says about your career path, your feelings, your sexuality, your family. How much of what I know about myself was learned from what my family and community says about me, and how much of what I know about myself comes from a deeper place within myself?

These negotiations require discipline, and the discipline that comes with developing a spiritual practice can be generalized to other areas of life. “Many young adults are still rebelling against something invisible in emerging adulthood. We are immigrants or the children of immigrants, but also the children of people who fought for independence from centuries of colonial power, for freedom. But part of the colonized mindset that we have inherited is that we always need to be rebelling against something. Change and revolution is good where it is necessary. But I’ve found that with many of us, we have found one thing in our tradition or upbringing to righteously rebel against, but then we throw out all dharma with it. Discipline is one of these things that we often throw away. We have also inherited a sense of weakness, that our way of understanding the world is somehow inferior, less worthy, something we need to apologize for, and sometimes we fight from this place. I suggest that instead, we do question our traditions, with an understanding that there is a flexible infrastructure provided by dharma that there is no reason to throw out – we can still retain a kernel of the essence of dharma while being aware of the individual differences and needs of each person in the current day. Give yourself a sense of agency in change while also finding things to value about your identity, and where you have come from. This is how we escape our colonial mindset. Craft rules for yourself from the structures of relating to this world and ishvara that dharma has provided. Think of it like an architectural plan that you can make some changes to, like break down a temporary wall, make this wall a little bigger, personalizing while staying within the rudimentary blueprint. Make goals, but know as you relate to others and to yourself, these goals might change. And in creating your plan, discipline is not something to fear.”

From the time we are infants, we use our parents as a mode of story-telling and sense-making about our own worlds. We fall, and our parents explain why it happened, why it hurts, ways for it not to happen again. In play, we learn to develop narratives about our own experiences, often symbolically. As young children, when we are reenacting adventures of a lost princess or ninja on a secret mission, we are reenacting, working through, and resolving psychological struggles and conflict through symbolic play. Our journeys into the realm of fantasy become a laboratory for testing future courses of action. As we move into adolescence, we are at risk for losing this capacity to engage with rich imaginary and abstract reality as a mode of working through our own conflicts. We also no longer have our parents to provide structure when needed, and as a secure base when we do decide to move out into free exploration. This can often give us a vague feeling of uprootedness, loneliness, or a feeling of being lost and having no sense of direction.

However, by contemplating what our own spiritual narrative might be, and by learning what it might mean to develop a sense of structure guided by our own spiritual knowing, we can balance creative, loose, unstructured thinking, with a sense of self-regulation. Furthermore, ritual and contemplation on philosophy and religious story-telling can modes by which we can exercise our capacities for guidance by self-narrative. These are not the only ways to develop abstract thinking, but if you are already somewhat inclined to spirituality, it is a good way to think of how and which practices you might benefit the most from.

Svetaketu’s story teaches us the importance of using early adulthood as a time to develop self regulation and discipline. While we may not necessarily relate our new-found independence to self-discipline, Dr. Laurence Steinberg, in “Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence,” argues that the brain continues to be especially plastic during adolescence and early adulthood, such that the development of self-regulation can still be set to lay a foundation for future behavior. Various studies, including the famous Marshmallow Experiment, have illustrated how individuals who display an ability to self-regulate at an early age go on to enjoy success in school, their careers, relationships, and other areas of life. The ability to develop self regulation is especially key in the development of a capacity to motivate oneself, which is an undeniably useful skill.

However, early adulthood is still a phase of our youth, and we cannot be so disciplined and structured that we lose out on the joy of exploration, of desire, of enjoying friendships and other relationships. Adolescents are growing out of a phase where they need the type of routine and structure that children may need, especially when this structure comes from parents or outside sources. Many young adults are also growing up without a sense of play or relaxation, and are growing into adulthood without a sense of what it even means to be a child or teenager. So, one must learn how to balance free, playful, unstructured activity with discipline and routine. Perhaps we can think of ways to develop “modern samskaras,” or ritual milestones along the lifespan. Recently, I noticed that a bunch of my friends were getting engaged or moving to a different point in their relationships, moving to new jobs, joining graduate programs, going to new cities, all at the same time. I decided to have a dinner party to celebrate everybody’s transitions. It was great to have everybody in one place, to relax together, to talk about where we had been and what is coming next. Just as samskaras can be ritual markings of pause before transitions, we can develop our own “rituals” which serve a similar purpose to recognize smaller shifts in life.

Beyond simply learning to set a schedule for oneself, setting aside time to contemplate deeper aspects of experience are invaluable in laying a foundation for dealing with life’s mounting pressures in a healthy way. Some may find that a regular practice of prayer, asana or meditation work for them in helping to connect to one’s spiritual nature, but oftentimes, we assume that these practices will help all individuals, when in actuality, everyone benefits differently and at different times from each practice. We are all different, and come to each of our experiences with a different set of emotional capacities, physical capabilities, social needs, and personality traits determined by both our unique past karmas and differing environments for maturation. A verse from the Srimad Bhagavatam (7.5.23) describes the nine ways of relating bhakti, love or devotion, which we can use to develop a spiritual practice as suited to each individual person. The most important part is that we make a practice out of it; that is, that it is something we can commit to with regularity, which is feasible for our lifestyle. We can choose any amount of these practices in any combination that we choose which speaks to us and seems the most “doable.”

1. Shravanam (Listening) – Dedicate 10 minutes every week to listening to a podcast or lecture on YouTube by a favorite teacher or scholar. Swami Dayananda Saraswati, Swami Chinmayananda, Swami Tejomayananda, Acharya Vivek, Radhanath Swami, Swamini Svatmavidyananda, Sadhvi Bhagawati Saraswati, Sadhguru Jaggi, as well as various other spiritual teachers from within the tradition regularly upload videos of their talks to YouTube. I have sometimes found that some of my most profound spiritual lessons have been taught to me by people outside of the Dharmic traditions. I will never forget listening to a qutbah by W. D. Mohammed at Masjid Malcolm Shabazz in Harlem, messages from a video of a lecture by Usama Canon of Ta’Leef Collective that a friend sent to me, or talks outside of class with Sister Marian, a nun who taught a Christian Spirituality & Mysticism class I took during my undergraduate years. Listening to my friends who are not Hindu has been just as fortifying for my sense of religiospiritual identity as engaging with my Hindu friends has been. Helping others explore their sense of identity can be just as rewarding as exploring your own.

2. Kirtanam (Singing) – Create a playlist of bhajans or chants to listen to every morning, and sing along, if you can. Apps like Saavn and Spotify have bhajan playlists already made. Explore different artists and musical styles. Besides devotional songs in Hindustani and Carnatic Indian classical styles, there are many bhajans, stotrams, and kirtans with a more contemporary feel.

3. Smaranam (Remembering) – Taking time to read and reflect on one of our many shastras or spiritual texts can easily become a part of one’s day. You can reserve two minutes a day, perhaps before bed or during lunchtime, to read a quote from the Dhammapada, a verse from the Upanishads or Bhagavad Gita. Similarly, if you have more time, you can join a philosophy group or a Vedanta class to remember and reflect on aspects of your spiritual tradition. Translations of the Bhagavad Gita and Upanishads, as well as other sacred texts, are available as mobile phone apps and eBooks. Of course, you can always browse a bookstore for commentaries by scholars like Thich Nhat Hanh or David Frawley to read pieces of during a dedicated time on weekends.

4. Padasevanam (Service at the Feet of God or Others) – Volunteer work as a form of seva, or charitable work for the sake of others, can be a powerful exercise in nara puja, or worshipping the Divine through reaching out to other humans. While we usually might think of volunteering in a soup kitchen or temple as the only way to engage in seva, we also can consider hosting free skill-sharing events, volunteering for medical clinics, tutoring children, teaching languages, etc. The commitment necessary to do volunteer work also helps to reinforce self-discipline.

5. Archanam (Worship) – Many temples hold various puja and abhishekam services daily or weekly. If you are drawn to ritual, it also is easy to set up an altar for yourself where you can engage in your own daily or weekly ritual. It can be as simple as lighting a candle or agarbatti (incense) there and offering a prayer, or learning how to do puja on your own at home.

6. Vandanam (Praise) – While this can also include prayer or chanting, many consider other forms of the arts to be ways in which one can connect to one’s spiritual self. This includes dance, painting, music, and writing. What centers you? How do you find balance outside of your work? Any form of creative or grounding activity can be seen as a form of vandana, if it feels sacred to you.

7. Dasyam (Servitude), Sakhyam (Friendship), Atmanivedanam (Dissolution of identity) – The last three forms of bhakti are more attitudes towards relationship with God, rather than recommendations for developing a spiritual practice. You can bring these goals of spiritual relationship into any of your practices.

Sadhviji also points out the importance of sangha, or community, in personal developing during emerging adulthood. Sangha may include a more religious aspect, but need not be religious in nature in order to be fruitful. Developing a peer support system is an invaluable resource in learning to deal with common issues that most people within this age group face, whether you believe that your problems are common or not. This too must be made into a practice. We can set aside time every week to meet with or call one friend whom we would like to reconnect with, with whom conversation is often meaningful. If you do not have any friends with whom you can share meaningful conversation – and this does not mean deep, spiritual conversation, but just a person with which you share a sense of trust, and whom you perhaps feel you can learn from in some way – set aside this time to seek out such relationships through social gatherings you may not have considered attending before. Dedicate time and effort to creating a network of support, of people whom you can relate to.

Sangha also includes developing a sense of community with our local area or with humanity. What does developing spirituality while connecting with your community look like to you? For some, it means engaging in social justice work, connecting with the struggles of others through empathy. For others, perhaps it means going to a mandir you haven’t ever been to before, or if you are Hindu, going to a Jain, Buddhist or Sikh place of worship. You may even consider interfaith work as a part of developing a sense of community.

Seeking Trust

As I said in the beginning, I have lost a lot of relationships, and gained some, too. A very painful part of losing others was losing their trust in me, losing my trust in them. But ultimately, most challenging were periods in which I lost trust in what I needed for myself. I remember times in which I felt very lonely, where I was not sure if I could trust what I thought I needed; where I frantically texted friends with my existential crises, physically sought out the space of my childhood bed to retreat into. This period of transitions will be full of such failures of trust in others and of self. Learning to trust the way your life unfolds, how it intersects with and veers away from the lives of others, is painful, slow, work. The familiarity of our childhood homes are gone, and since we are not sure what lies ahead, and if we are capable of what is coming, it’s easy to wish that we will never grow up. Those closest to us ask if we are sure of what we are doing, leading us towards regret, away from self-trust.

But emerging from spiritual childhood to spiritual adulthood means listening to your inner-knowing, being driven by your own traditions as you see them, not solely by how others see things. Eventually, we will be led towards a new way of trusting our inner voice, our spiritual heart, but we must be willing to not-know for however long it takes us to get there. I felt so lost for a while, and I’m sure I will again, bouncing between school and home and friends and my parents, detached from something, though I was not sure what. But still, I found reminders and reasons to trust my path.

And suddenly, one day, it all clicked. I read something, that there’s a difference between the male doctor who tells a woman who is about to give birth, “I know how you feel right now, you can do this,” and female doctor who says, “I’ve delivered three of my own, I know how it feels, you can do this.” The pain we go through, the periods of self-doubt, are all a part of developing into people who can help and relate to others in an authentic, whole way, because we have been through pain which has allowed us to truly know.

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8 comments

  1. Gaitri

    Great article. I enjoyed reading and it made me do some reflecting as well. Keep growing, You make us proud!

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