How do we know whether we are progressing spiritually?

by M. Govindan Satchidananda

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 "spiritual."

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 ourselves.

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 either."

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 of God

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 illustrates this.

Level one: God is my ally. I am the physical body

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 and personality

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 three: 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 four: 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 five: 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 six: God is a wonder. I am effulgent self awareness

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 seven: 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, Autumn 2007


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