• Kelly Deutsch

9 Ways to Know if You’re Growing Spiritually



Elia had big desires. Like many of the people I walk with in spiritual direction, she was hungry to learn. She wanted homework. Book recommendations. An assessment, maybe?


Not unlike me! I smiled to myself.


Elia was an off-roader: someone who didn't quite fit under normal religious labels, but was deeply spiritual. She had tasted something intoxicating--a divine love, a Mystery that was spacious and free and fearfully alive. She was eager for more.


So it didn't come as too much of a surprise when she asked me, "How do I know if I'm growing?"


I paused, and closed my eyes as I often do when I'm listening for words to bubble up. I wasn't sure how to answer her question.


There were plenty of benchmarks of growth I could share, but how to package them?



Checklists and Measuring Sticks


You see, many of us would like a checklist for life. “Do these sixteen things, and you will have achieved perfection! Or happiness! Or fulfillment!” Our egos so badly want to believe that. The four steps to meditation, the six steps to become a millionaire, the three paths to enlightenment.


Let’s be real: doesn’t that sound enticing?


Steps and paths offer us security. “I know that I am doing the right thing if I follow the ten commandments.” “I know I am in the right by supporting this political party.” Or even, “I know I’m growing if I follow Teresa of Avila’s path through the seven interior mansions.”


Well, let me assuage your ego. These are not bad things. Rules, paths and checklists are not inherently bad. They do help us know when we’re headed in the right direction.


The problem comes in when we cling to them as the deepest truth, instead of the signposts that they are.


For example, if you are a deeply loving person, you likely will have no problem keeping the ten commandments. You might live them creatively, but the overall spirit of the law probably seems like common sense to you. “Of course I am going to have ‘no other gods before you,’ because you are the deepest Reality. You are Love. You are the connection between all things. There is no before or after you, for you are all.”


You may be tempted to live differently, and occasionally fall. (Who doesn’t make a “god” of other people’s opinions on occasion?) But you’re able to be gentle with yourself, nod at your small-heartedness, and kindly redirect yourself back into courageous living.


Measuring sticks are not made to beat people with. But for some reason, we dual-purpose these tools to shame and abuse ourselves and others.

If, on the other hand, your ego tends to pull you toward moralism, you probably feel pretty good when you follow the rules to a T. On the other hand, you may shame yourself when you fall short. And you may do the same to others, even if it’s in the privacy of your own head. (“Did you hear who Susan voted for?? Can you believe it?”)


Measuring sticks are not made to beat people with. But for some reason, we dual-purpose these tools to shame and abuse ourselves and others.


Their real intent is to help us know we’re growing.



Charting Growth


When I was growing up, my mom would take a picture of us in the doorway of her bedroom each year. We could see how much each of us had grown by comparing our height to features on the wall. It was our makeshift measuring stick. One year, my head was up to the purple flower on her wallpaper. The next, that purple flower was nearly touching my ear! I could almost reach the lightswitch!


We had fun charting our growth over time. Sometimes my sisters and I would compare our photos and giggle about how tall we were. But the one thing we didn’t do was plot how we would grow faster. There was nothing to do, for life did the growing. 


Isn’t it the same in our spiritual lives? Life does the growing. Life is the curriculum. You don’t have to go Eat Pray Love in India, or know the three steps to enlightenment. Those things can help us feel okay about where we are (“Look! I’m up to the purple flower!”), and can also give us some indication of how far we have to go. Fortunately, the divine cares more about your happiness and well-being than we ever could, and he gives us situations hand-crafted for our growth.


There was nothing to do, for life did the growing. 

Sometimes, we want a different path. It’s easier and more controllable to fast once a week, or add three new practices to our spiritual repertoire. I repeat: these things are not bad! But they are certainly easier to cling to for my holiness factor, than to open my hands to the uncomfortable situations life is giving me.


How do I respond to my manipulative co-worker?


How will I walk through the slow, drawn-out grief of losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s?


How do I keep my family safe and sane during a pandemic?


A measuring stick can alert you when something doesn’t seem right. If my mother were to notice that my ears reached those purple flowers two or more years in a row, she might have reason to ask a doctor if something was up.


If you look at the list below and say “I’m no where near half of these!”, you might have reason to talk to a spiritual director. What needs to shift? Where are the blockages?


When that happens, your ego may be surprised to hear that your spiritual director does not recommend a fancy new assessment or an ancient practice that you can follow. Half of the time, the reason we’re not growing is because we’ve rejected the curriculum or are unconscious of it.


Sometimes we do need a new skill that we’ve never seen modeled before. (“You mean I don’t have to stress every time I think about the future?”) A good spiritual director will help you relax into the present moment, try some new responses, and embrace the curriculum life is already giving you. 


Half of the time, the reason we’re not growing is because we’ve rejected the curriculum or are unconscious of it.

I use that as a big, long asterisk to the list below. How do you know you’re growing? These are some of the signs. I entreat you not to judge yourself or others according to this tool (“I’m not even up to the lightswitch yet!”). However, if you’d like to learn to attend to life’s curriculum and tune into its invitations, I invite you to schedule some time with a spiritual director. An outside “spiritual doctor” can see things you might miss, make healthy recommendations to support your health, and most importantly, help you listen to your body’s own wisdom that does the growing even when you’re unaware of it.




9 Signs that You Are Growing 


1. You're gentle.

You speak to yourself and others in tender ways. There is compassion and understanding for your own failings: “I can’t believe I hurt her like that!” becomes “That part of me was in a lot of pain to lash out like that. I’ll go apologize.” When you fail to keep your commitment to yourself (around boundaries, spiritual practices, etc.)-- you do not get angry, but gently recommit to what you most desire.


2. You're open to paradox.

Your brain doesn’t explode when you try to hold together two things that seem contrary. Was that relationship good or bad? We had so much fun together, and genuine sharing--but she was also so manipulative. Is it possible it was both? Or neither?


3. You don't need to judge things or people.

You’ve put away your label maker. When you lose your job, you may feel shocked, but you catch the impulse to label it bad or catastrophic. You simply let it be what it is: life unfolding. When you get a promotion, you may feel proud, but also know that this, too, is a part of life’s mysterious unfolding.


4. You know your reactions are all about you.

When your sister in law makes snide remarks about your profession (“Still working in that strip mall, Deb? Too bad they only let real doctors work in clinics.”) and you fantasize about punching her in the face, you recognize that flare of emotion means she’s hooked something in you. Perhaps it’s because some teensy part of you worries that you’re a fraud? You work on what you can control--your own healing and acceptance--instead of launching into enraged gossip with your friends.


5. You are hard to offend.

When the qualities above come to deeper maturity, you find you have fewer places to get hooked. This doesn’t mean that you are 100% healed of every wound and trauma, but when someone goes for a low blow, your response is curiosity instead of offense. Perhaps you lost your best friend to suicide as a teenager. When someone remarks over dinner “Yeah, I think Sylvia Plath was one of those crazies who couldn’t handle life,” you wonder more about what would lead a person to make a comment like that, instead of wondering how you can shove their face in the nachos and dash out before they realize what’s hit them.


6. You have hard conversations.

I cannot emphasize enough how huge this is. We can think we are so holy and grounded and working for justice, but never learn how to tactfully have a difficult conversation. Take the snide sister-in-law above. After you’ve had a moment to breathe, work through your violent fantasies, and recognize what you need to let go of inside yourself--do you say anything to her? “Hey Sara, yesterday you made a comment about my career and how I work in a strip mall instead of a clinic. I found that highly offensive. Can you help me understand what you meant by that comment?”


7. You know others’ reactions are all about them.

Instead of tiptoeing around people in fear of their reaction, you act responsibly and give others the freedom to respond how they will. Maybe Sara isn’t used to being called out on her snide remarks, and lashes out even further. “Perhaps if you truly belonged to this family you’d know what I meant.” This doesn’t faze you: she’s bound up in a world that you don’t care to be a part of. Not your monkeys; not your circus. How she responds is none of your business. Your responsibility is to decide how you want to respond.


8. You have strong boundaries.

You are clear about the way you want to be treated, what makes you feel safe, and what you need in order to be happy and healthy. No amount of manipulation, insinuation, or playing of your heart strings will make you violate yourself. “But Carol, we don’t have anyone else with your talents!” “Jack isn’t talking to me anymore. I’d better go apologize for not coming to the event on Saturday.” If you were taking care of yourself, getting much needed alone time, or sparing yourself from the draining office gossip, you have no need to apologize. You take care of yourself without needing to explain or justify.


9. You experience deep serenity.

As the above responses and habits become engrained in your bones, you find you react less. Your anxiety abates. You don’t worry about the same things you used to, and that exercise in opening yourself to paradox has loosened your spiritual muscles enough that Unknowing becomes a habit. Mystery gives you something of a thrill. And you trust, even when life is chaotic, that Love has everything under control. You find it easy to settle into stillness. Others notice. Life becomes far more effortless, because your new patterns serve you well. Most of the time, you feel grounded, content, alive.



What other ways do you find to be indicators of growth?




Kelly Deutsch specializes in audacity. Big dreams, fierce desires, restless hearts. When seekers are hungry for unspeakably more, she offers the space to explore contemplative depths and figure out where they fit in the vast spiritual landscape. She speaks and writes about divine intimacy, emotional intelligence, John of the Cross, trauma-informed spiritual practice, and neuropsychology. Kelly offers spiritual direction, coaching, contemplative cohorts, and retreats. She is the bestselling author of Spiritual Wanderlust: The Field Guide to Deep Desire. When she isn’t exploring the interior life, you might find her wandering under Oregonian skies or devouring red curry.



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