How do we know whether
we are progressing spiritually?
by Marshall Govindan
How do we know whether we are progressing
How do we know whether we are
progressing spiritually? This is an important question which every
spiritual aspirant asks themselves at one time or another. It
is also not an easy answer, because the spiritual path is progressive,
and because the spirit has no form, it is difficult to measure.
So, before defining progress, let us define what we mean by the
In Yoga, we talk about the human
dilemma of egoism, of identifying with the body and mind. We refer
to five bodies: the physical body (anna maya kosha, literally,
the food body), the vital body (prana maya kosha, which
animates the physical, and is the seat of emotions), the mental
body (man omaya kosha, including subconscious, memory,
five senses, recognition faculties), the intellectual body (vinjnana
maya kosha, including our reasoning faculties), and the spiritual
body (ananda maya kosha, literally, the bliss body, or
soul, which is pure consciousness, the Witness.) Ordinarily, because
of egoism, one thinks and acts with the belief that "I"
am the body, or "I" am my emotions, or "I"
am my memories or ideas. For example, one says: "I"
am cold; or "I" am angry; or "I" am married
to so and so; "I" am "Jane Doe," or "I"
am a Repbulican. Yet, a month later, one might identify with their
opposites: "I" am hot; "I" am content; "I"
am divorced; "I" have a new legal name: "Jane Smith;"
and I switched parties, and now "I" am a Democrat. Obviously,
we cannot be both opposites; we can only be what is….always.
Yet, the power of egoism is so strong, that we constantly forget
who we truly are: pure being and consciousness.
Therefore "spiritual progress"
must involve a progressive identification with the ananda
maya kosha or spiritual body, and a progressive letting go
of the false identification with the physical, emotional, mental
and intellectual bodies or dimensions of existence. This is a
progressive purification from egoism, whose manifestations include:
desire, anger, greed, pride, infatuation, and malice. In the beginning,
and for a long time, this purification involves making efforts
to respect ethical, moral and religious injunctions, for example,
not harming, not stealing, not lusting. These efforts enable one
to gradually find an inner balance, based upon love, contentment,
acceptance. To use an modern analogy, the ego has us sitting too
close to the television program of our life. Consequently, we
are so absorbed in the drama, that we forget who we truly are.
Purifying ourselves of lust, greed, and anger, enables us to move
back and away from the television screen, far enough that we begin
to see that we are not the television program, with all the dramas
in our life; we are its observer or Witness. What remains to be
done, through spiritual practices like meditation, is to stand
back further, and develop progressively a higher perspective on
Ultimately, as we will see at
the end of this article, once the state of Self-realization is
mastered, it begins to descend into the intellectual, mental,
vital and physical bodies, transforming them. Our spiritual development
need not be "up and out" of this world. It can, as we will see
involve an integrated development of all five planes of existence.
Initially, however, we are progressing
spiritually to the extent that we identify increasingly with that
part of us which is pure consciousness, or the Witness. This is
known as Self-realization. This occurs in the following stages:
1. The development of calmness.
Calmness is not the absence of thoughts, but being present with
them. So, as we progress in this initial stage, we gradually replace
the habit of reacting in habitual manners, for example with anger
or anxiety, with a calm presence. The stain of mental delusion,
known as maya, is weakened gradually by cultivating calmness.
All of the practices of Yoga, including postures, systematic breathing,
mantras, meditation and devotional activities help us in this
stage to diminish agitation and unnecessary activity (rajas)
and to weaken inertia, doubt and laziness (tamas) with
quiet, calm, equanimity (sattva). This brings presence, or beingness
(sat). By practicing detachment, we begin to let go of
our need to be absorbed in the experiences.
2. The development of the Witness,
or Chit, pure consciousness. We adopt a new perspective, but keeping
part of our awareness standing back, observing. The Witness does
not do or think anything. It simply watches actions happening
or thoughts or emotions or sensations coming and going. Part of
our consciousness is involved in the activities, part is standing
back passively. We begin this stage with the effort to practice
being a continuous witness, for relatively short periods or from
the beginning to the end of an activity. This is possible especially
while doing routine activities, not requiring much concentration,
or for which we are conditioned to doing. Subsequently, it enters
even activities which are challenging, or experienced for the
first time, for example, when we have an accident, and fall. This
perspective becomes more and more effortless, and integrated with
daily life activities.
3. "I am not the Doer." As our
Witness consciousness develops we no longer feel that we are doing
anything, because we no longer identify with the body and mental
movements. Rather, we feel that we are only an observer and that
our body and mind is an instrument. Part of our consciousness
is involved in doing things, whether it be walking, talking, working,
eating, etc., but now part of our consciousness stands back. It
does nothing. It remains in a passive state of non-judgmental
attention. One feels as if one is an instrument, and that the
Divine does everything. One feels that there is "no doer" within.
Yet everything gets done. One enjoys the play of events, their
synchronicity, and consequences. One appreciates more and more
how actions, words, and thoughts briing about consequences, or
karma, and how this law can be applied to bring happiness rather
than suffering to others. With this new expanded sense of Self,
one feels that the needs of others are one's own. One expresses
one's love for others, helping them to find happiness.
4. "I am That I am" In deep
meditation we become aware of what is aware. Consciousness itself
becomes the object.. We feel that "I am in everything" and "Everything
is in me." Later, and gradually this realization of the Self begins
to permeate our waking daily activities. God realization comes
as this stage deepens. Saints and mystics from all spiritual traditions
have attempted to describe this, but words generally fail them.
In fact, the more one tries to describe it, the further from it,
one goes, because describing it, or even thinking about it, reduces
it to a set of ideas. As "IT" transcends all names and forms,
permeates everything, and is infinite and eternal, all else pales
in significance. Silence is therefore the preferred medium of
instruction for those who truly know IT. As Swami Rama Tirtha,
the first Yogi to bring Yoga to America, at the end of the 19th
century, put it cogently: "A God defined, is a God confined. What
this is all about can't be talked about, and it can’t be whistled
The above stages are not a straight
line. We zig zag through them frequently because of the unstable
nature of the mind, and our habitual habits (samskaras),
karma, maya and the action of the gunas. But in general, this
is the direction of our movement if we are progressing spiritually.
Our identification with the body, emotions and mental movements
weakens and is replaced with an identification with That, which
is beyond names and forms, which is the Self, Pure consciousness,
and which is ultimately Divine.
Progressive conceptions and perspectives
Our conception of God, or a
Supreme Being, will also develop progressively, through stages,
which are parallel to the above stages of spiritual development.
From something which is "out there" to "what is "inside me." it
is instructive to analyze how we think about God, and what we
identify with, evolves as we progress on the spiritual path. By
doing so we can avoid getting stuck at a lower stage. Theologians
have categorized religion's several progressive conceptions of
God. Each religion or cultural group assumes that their conception
of God is the only correct one. It is evident that one's conception
of God is limited by one's education, understandiing of nature,
personal experience, imagination, desires and fears. The human
situation is projected upon one's conception of God. The following
Level one: God is my ally. I am the physical
The belief in a supreme being
comes when one becomes aware of fear, and the greatest fear is
that of death. Primitive man sought to overcome fears by attributing
events in nature to supernatural sources. To allay these fears,
primitive man offered sacrifices, in the hope that these would
appease angry spirits which were responsible for thunder, flood,
drought, war, disease, and death. Supernatural beings, whether
malevolent or benevolent could be foes or allies, in early polytheistic
religions. Believers sought protection from deities and goddesses,
to ward off evil, malevolent forces, and consequent suffering.
Supernatural forces could be capricious, even vengeful. Life was
short, brutish, and survival was the biggest issue, so above all,
protection was needed. In this stage, one identifies primarily
with ones physical body, and survival is the primary issue. If
I am only the body, then evil is what threatens my survival. Good
is what brings safety, food and shelter. So, I pray to a God who
as an ally, provides to me what I need to survive. The stain of
ignorance as to one's true identity, and consequently, egoism
is deeply ingrained in the physical body.
Level two: God is omnipotent. I am the mind
Once society becomes stable,
and survival is not a primary issue, humans sought to form laws
to govern their social behavior. They attributed the authority
for their laws to an "Almighty" God. Here, God is the source of
all power and authority. Those who acquire power, do so, moreover
because God has given it to them. Chieftains become kings, judges
become priests. But power becomes intoxicating, because the more
one acquires it, the more one's desires seek it. The individual,
now freed from survival issues, identifies with the mind and vital's
desires. The ego, the habit of identifying with the body and mind,
encompasses now a nearly unlimited range of possibilities, as
desires expand. One competes with others. One is selfish. With
power one seeks to accomplish, to dominate others, to fulfill
one's ambitions. One does so, however, while trying to respect
the laws which are given by God, fearing punishment, if transgressed.
Religious dogma and institutions are elaborated in response to
an expanding intellectual curiosity, while seeking to control
human nature, and keep it subordinate to those who rule. Science
develops and challenges religion. Religions clash. Cultures clash.
Political and religious institutions become allied. One even prays
to God to defeat one's enemies or convert others whose beliefs
differ from one's own. It is "us" against "them."
Level 3: God is Stillness: "Be Still and know
that I am God." I witness.
Many individuals reach this
stage when, for one reason or another, they discover an inner
being, which is behind the movements of the body, senses and mind.
It may be a spontaneous spiritual experience, in which one transcends;
it may be the result of practicing a formal meditation exercise;
it may occur as a result of an intense physical experience which
involves pain, or great concentration in which one detachs from
the ordinary mental state. As a result, one begins to realize
that one's previous conceptions of God were just conceptions,
that is, one begins to realize that one has up to now created
a God to serve one's own egoistic needs, with all of its fears
and desires. One realizes that one's view of the world "out there"
is distorted by one's own likings and dislikings. But in level
3, one finds peace, and so God is peace. One realizes the truth
of the Psalms: "Be Still and know that I am God." One realizes
that it is only by developing the inner perspective of one's true
Self, a Witness consciousness, that one can overcome the turmoil
of the outer world. In the Stillness of the mind, one discovers
pure consciousness. It is like the light in the room, which up
until now, was ignored, as one was preoccupied with what was reflected
by the light, the contents of the room. In the beginning, there
is a tension between one's inner and outer life, which may result
in one rejecting the latter. As this stage progresses, one seeks
to cultivate calm, meditative awareness throughout all of the
moments of one's life. One does not reject the world. In the words
of Jesus, one is in the world, but not of it. One replaces thinking
about God, that is, concepts, with a new witness perspective,
wherein one is no longer absorbed in thoughts, but at peace with
a quiet mind. In effect, one rises above the mental movements,
into "the light of consciousness." Words cannot express. Poetry
can point to it. "It is a peace which passeth all understanding,"
mentioned by the mystics and seers of all spiritual traditions.
At this level, religion and every other intellectual system is
submerged into spirituality.
Level 4: God is Wise. I listen, I know.
Having gone beyond the primary
issues of fear and desire, and having found inner peace, one realizes
that God loves me, that he forgives me, that he understands. Therefore,
he is wise. God is all knowing, and so, by listening to God, I
also know. I listen to him, by being calm, receptive and allowing
my intuition to speak. I begin to identify with the one who knows,
not because I learned something in school, but because I just
know. I understand more and more, spontaneously, whenever I focus
on what it is I need to know. Things become clear. I see the underlying
truth behind everything, and wisdom comes to me. I can distinguish
what is permanent from what is impermanent, what brings joy from
what brings suffering, and Who Am I, truly, the eternal soul,
pure consciousness. One's concern is no longer with following
the rules, and avoiding what is painful, particular in the "outer"
world of turmoil, however, as in previous levels. One turns towards
transcendental loving God, with full confidence, and cherishing
That in one's heart constantly, one feels loved, purified, and
guided by the Lord intuitively. At the end of this stage, one
feels completely innocent, having let go of all notions of right
and wrong, guilt and pride. One identifies with others, loves
them and helps them to find happiness.
Level 5: God is my co-creator. I create.
At this level of spiritual development,
one realizes that one has the power and the responsibility to
create one's life. One goes beyond the ordinary state of "dreaming
with one's open," to that of a visionary. One becomes a visionary.
One remains faithful to one's dreams, the dreams which one knows
are in alignment with one's path of wisdom and Self -realization.
The Lord is no longer distant, and one feels that one is a "co-creator"
with the Lord. The Lord gives graciously. The Lord inspires. When
one sets one's intention to make something happen, consequently,
the universe conspires to support one in bringing about its fulfillment.
One may have to work hard for its accomplishment, but one feels
that one is not the doer, just an instrument. One is patient about
the outcome, trusting that the universe will take care of it.
One abides in the present moment and things get done as one does
whatever is needed. One aligns oneself more and more with the
will of the Lord, however, as one purifies the ego's needs and
preferences. Whatever the result, one feels blessed.
Level 6: God is a wonder. I am effulgent self
With God as one's co-creator,
one begins to see the world as a miracle of creation, and our
lives are a playground. Miracles abound. God is "ever-new joy,"
in the words of Yogananda, so awesome is every moment, every event.
One sees the Lord as that which is beyond all causation, unaffected
by creation, the light of consciousness. One realizes that at
one's own deepest Self is the same: effulgent self-awareness.
Light is a metaphor for consciousness, but it is also what mystics
experience in the depths of their soul. The Lord is beyond time,
beyond space, unlimited by anything. At this level, the grace
of the Lord brings many wondrous occurrences. One finds sacredness
in the mundane. One sees with the eyes of the mystic, the Presence
of the Lord everywhere. Grace, unlike karma, is undeserved, and
does not depend upon whether our actions are good or bad; it is
the response of the Lord to one's call to unite with That which
is beyond names and forms, to give up the duality of liking and
disliking, having and losing, success and failure, fame and shame.
One recognizes that the ego's game, with all of its desire is
a huge trap, and one surrenders to the Lord, not just mentally,
but consciously. One seeks liberation from the ego's games. One
becomes absorbed in that which is beyond the mental movement,
their fundamental source, the light of consciousness.
Level 7: God is Absolute Being Consciousness
and Bliss. "I am."
Having escaped the duality of
the mind, one arrives at the non-dual state of satchidananda,
or absolute being, consciousness and bliss. This state is unconditional,
in that it depends upon nothing. It simply is, and one realizes
that "That I am." One becomes nothing special; one experiences
nothing special. For specialness implies being apart, and at this
level one has transcended the pairs of opposites, and realized
one's unity with everything. At this level, which theologians
would classify as monism, there is only one. In theism, there
is the soul and the Lord, and they are separate. From the perspective
of monism, there is only one. That one, is infinite, unchanging,
eternal, beyond description, the source of everything. One accesses
That when in the deepest states of meditation, the mind becomes
silent, yet consciousness expands. When Moses asked God "Who are
you?" when God spoke to him through the burning bush, the Lord
replied "I am that I am." This expresses both the ultimate objective
and subjective states of existence, "I" the subject, and "That"
the object. It is not a void. It is the source of everything;
it is supreme intelligence itself. Being here now then becomes
the only way to go! Being, not doing becomes your vehicle and
destination. Being present, no matter what the drama, brings awareness,
and awareness brings bliss: "satchidananda." And you can no longer
answer the question "Who are you?" except with a reply that "I
am." Any other reply is seen to be a case of mistaken identity,
the ego's game. One's old habitual tendencies, preferences and
dislikes fade into the background, and the feeling of "I am" rules.
There is no more "other." This realization, known as samadhi,
in Yoga, comes during deep meditative experiences, and for many
years, can be elusive, because one is ordinarily so conditioned
to identify with memories, the body and the mind. But by returning
repeatedly to this state, the stains of ignorance, egoism, delusion
and karma gradually fades in the effulgent bleach of Self-realization.
Saints of all spiritual traditions
who reach this state find that it is so fulfilling that the desire
to remain in this world gradually fades, along with all other
desires. The body, with all of its needs, continues to be a distraction,
and so, even advanced saints, who have reached this seventh state,
depart from this world without complaint, either bound for heaven
or in quest of liberation from the round of birth and rebirth.
However, in China, Tibet and
India, there exists an ancient tradition of spiritual adepts who
have envisioned that spiritual development does not end in the
spiritual plane of existence, as described in the seventh stage
above. Realizing that the Lord is Here, their surrender to the
Lord went beyond surrendering their soul to the Lord, in the spiritual
dimension. Surrendering their intellect, the desire to know, they
became sages, capable of profound knowledge on any subject they
turned their minds to. Such knowledge came not in the usual way,
through study or empirical research, but by intuitively becoming
one with the object of interest. This insightful knowledge, expressed
the most profound of truths, often defying expression, a product
of supreme intelligence in deep states of concentration and cognitive
absorption, known as samadhi.
Surrendering further, at the
level of the mind, such adepts became "siddhas," or one's who
could manifest latent powers, such as clairvoyance, prophecy,
clairaudience. Surrendering themselves at the level of the vital,
mah siddhas, or great, and perfect adepts, manifested still greater
powers, such as levitation, materialization of objects, dematerialization
of themselves, control over nature, control over events. Surrendering
at the level of the physical, even the cells gave up their limited
agenda of reproduction, and became intimately connected to the
will and consciousness of the adept. The body became invulnerable,
deathless, no longer subject to the laws of nature. Such a progressive
surrender to the Lord expresses not an aspiration for liberation
from this world of suffering, but ones aspiration to allow the
Lord to manifest through oneself at all levels of existence, in
all five bodies, spiritual, intellectual, mental, vital and physical.
No longer seeing a division between matter and spirit, but only
spirit, that all is Divine, such Siddhas, are the leading edge
of humanity's evolution. For them, to realize God in a diseased
body is not perfection. They have fulfilled the injunction of
Jesus to his disciples to "Be ye perfect, even as your Father
in heaven is perfect."
Copyright: M. Govindan Satchidananda,
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