Am I Making Spiritual Progress?

Devdas Menon

Text of an invited article that appeared in the December 2005 edition of the magazine Life Positive

"Am I making progress?" is a question that many of us so-called spiritual seekers are inclined to ask. The very fact that we ask this question suggests that perhaps all is not well with our present situation. We usually experience rapid progress during the early stages of our spiritual journey. Doubts arise at the later stages, when we seem to get bogged down, and we even wonder whether there is any progress at all.

"Is my answer correct?" is a somewhat similar question that many of us in the teaching profession face from students, when they are given a problem to solve. If the problem relates to a subject like mechanics, then there is usually a unique solution. A good student discovers the many possible ways of looking through different angles and being able to verify the solution. This not only makes learning more enjoyable, but also builds an inner confidence in the student. The locus of decision making shifts from external authorities (teachers, books) to within the individual.

So, do we need an external authority to tell us whether or not we are making spiritual 'progress'? Can we not discover for ourselves? What are some of the different angles through which we can look at ourselves and gauge our progress?

But, first, what is it that we are seeking in spirituality? Is it not, simply put, a state of enduring happiness?

But is that not something that everybody else is seeking in life too? What makes spiritual seekers different or special? Is it the fact that while the others are seeking enduring happiness in this material world, we 'wiser' beings see the folly of this and direct our search in other realms? But if we look closely amongst our own species of spiritual seekers, we notice that our other-worldly search takes so many different forms that the differences in our ways often cloud the commonality of our goal. If we scratch the surface of a spiritual seeker, all the differences begin to emerge, and not very harmoniously. Religious differences may even lead to a clash of civilisations, as history has shown time and again. Whose side will God take?

Perhaps we all know deep inside that spirituality is all about seeing Spirit everywhere. This means seeing God (or consciousness) in all beings, and especially sentient beings. Is it not as simple as that?

So, we make spiritual progress when we begin to see through the apparent differences that separate human beings and we see the underlying oneness. This union cannot help but make us happy. If instead, we find our minds focussing on the differences, the sense of separateness increases, and this division makes us unhappy. So, this is one simple way of assessing whether or not I am making spiritual progress. The more people (especially those I have serious differences with!) I embrace in my consciousness, the more spiritual progress I make. And, incidentally, this also means that I no longer make a distinction between a spiritual seeker and a non-seeker. I see the reflection of God in both.

Now, let us look at our relationships with other non-human beings, like plants and animals, and even matter. Are they not also reflections of God or consciousness? Or does God have limited boundaries? Some kind of a line of control?

I am reminded of a beautiful story, narrated by Anthony de Mello, about an Indian soldier who was captured by the Pakistani Army, when he accidentally strayed across the Line of Control. He spent many years in jail, and was finally released. As he was being led back to the Indian border, he was (understandably) beginning to feel sentimental and nostalgic. He kept asking his Pakistani escorts, "How close are we to the border?" When he was fairly sure that they had actually crossed the border, he burst out into a patriotic song. He knelt and kissed the earth, and exclaimed, "How sweet this earth tastes! How wonderful are these trees and birds and squirrels of my native land! Even the air smells so good and fresh! Just look at the beautiful sky!" He was terribly upset, however, when he was informed by his escorts that they had made a mistake in their estimate, and that in fact, they were still some ten kilometres away from the border.

Blessed are the air, the sky, the earth, the squirrels, the birds, the trees, and all of Nature, for they know no boundary!

So, I make spiritual progress, if I can see beyond all physical and mental boundaries. This does not mean that I should not play my part and identify with my nation or my religion or my community or my family. The spiritual challenge is to be able to distinguish between my apparent role in the drama of life and the underlying reality of oneness. The challenge is in understanding who I really am, which means expanding my identity beyond this mortal bag of flesh and all its assets and its extended ego-self to encompass everything in this universe. Is not all this the essence of spiritual seeking?

We all have our own different types of spiritual practices. Can we look at whatever system we may be following, and assess whether we are indeed making progress? The practices are, of course, no more than fingers pointing to the moon, as the Zen Masters are inclined to say; they work only if we truly discover the moon.

What is the quality of attention that we give to our spiritual practices? This includes the entire spectrum of our so-called spiritual exercises (such as meditation, worship or prayer), mental exercises (such as scriptural study, visualisation, affirmation or contemplation), emotional exercises (such as emotion-releasing or catharsis), physical exercises (such as yoga, pranayama, tai chi or simply walking), and various forms of active community services and activities related to honouring Nature.

I am making spiritual progress if I am fully involved in these activities, so much that I do not even feel the passage of time. I get energised by these activities, and that energy and quality of attention spill over to everything else in life. After some time, I get to realise that there is nothing called a non-spiritual activity, and the label spiritual may even drop from my vocabulary. But I am not making spiritual progress, if the spiritual practices become merely mechanical rituals, or when they are only intended to serve ego-centred desires.

Spiritual practices, properly done, lead to inner transformation, and are often accompanied by the so-called mystical experiences. Even one taste of a direct experience of stillness and oneness with the universe reveals a first-hand new dimension to life. One will never be the same again. However, these 'peak' experiences are usually transient in nature, and unless there is a radical transformation, the accompanying realisation will not endure. Strangely, any craving for such experiences tends to be counter-productive. All one can do is to prepare one's inner ground for the Grace to come when It will.

Some of us who have tasted mystical experiences often get into the delusion that we have become 'enlightened'! Although the fragrance of the experience and the associated delusion may last for some time, we are in for a rude shock when the tide of time reveals that many parts of us have not transformed and that we continue to be mere mortals, with our petty fears and desires. There is also a danger that we begin to consider ourselves "spiritually evolved", without recognising the foolish arrogance behind such an assumption.

Experiences are mere specks and memories of the past that we should allow the tide of time to wash away. Reality is only in the present, and it is only what we are now that really matters. The ego-self wishes to preserve the memory of a peak experience. But this is really no different from the way we display our shiny awards, gold medals and precious certificates in our drawing rooms for others (and even ourselves!) to see how great we are.

It is my average emotional state during the course of any day that serves as an appropriate indicator of my spiritual progress. I may be engaged in rigorous spiritual practice, but if I do not feel 'good' and experience unconditional love and joy and peace (which have no opposites, unlike pleasure), there is something amiss. If, on the other hand, I am consistently feeling irritated, worried, depressed or fearful of things that are happening around me or that may happen in the future, then I am clearly on a different journey. Yes, I do need help to pull me out of the mess I find myself in, and yes my spiritual practices do give me solace and hope to survive. But do I recognise this (and this can be a tremendous insight!), the fact that they serve me mainly as a crutch? Surely, I need to do something new and different to pull myself out of this rut. First of all, I must recognise that it is a rut, and this recognition is part of true spiritual progress. A continued awareness and a strong motivation are all that are needed. I must remain open for the Grace of God to enter and show me the way. Truly, there are infinite such ways...

Can we not see that practices that aim to seek solace and self-centred gains only serve to strengthen the delusion of the ego-self, and so keep us further from embracing the All?

The course of human evolution, from bondage to liberation, has never been easy. We are periodically pushed into chaos and suffering, and our spiritual progress is tested time and again.

I am reminded of a dear spiritual teacher, a gentle, wonderful and loveable soul, known for his wisdom and mastery over a certain type of meditation. He had undergone many trials and tribulations, and had flowered in the process. He built up and nurtured carefully a beautiful ashram with the ambience of peace and oneness with Nature. A terrible event (murder of one of the inmates), however, upset and tormented the Master. He found it painful and difficult to reconcile with the fact that his Garden of Eden had finally been breached by 'evil'.

Nature has its mysterious ways of testing everyone. It is up to us to learn the lessons, not only from our own apparent failures, but also from those of others. No man (or ashram) is an island. We are inextricably inter-connected with everything else in the universe, and although we can build boundary walls around us for the purpose of spiritual practice, we must recognise that these are but imaginary boundaries, and that the world 'outside', with all its ugliness (and beauty too!) is an inseparable part of us.

This is a fundamental truth that we seem to miss sight of, especially when we spend a lot of our energies pointing at shortcomings in the world, without realising that these are but reflections of the rot in our own selves. So many of us love to talk of degeneration in the world, of how there is so much corruption and pollution and violence and fanaticism and materialism and Westernisation and mindless technology around us. Although this may help us dissipate some of our frustrations, we do not really feel any better at the end of the day. The underlying sense of unease troubles us again and again.

Enduring happiness, love, peace and harmony are clearly realisable only when there is no sense of separateness. This has been the perennial wisdom of the ages.

Somehow, the illusion of separateness has happened in us, and we find ourselves imprisoned as narrow and fragmented identities. The boundless and self-aware consciousness has contracted to a narrow and isolated ego-self, and to this illusion my identity has got tied. This illusion can be reversed in an instant, as some rare sages have demonstrated, by discovering that in reality, it never happened. There is no separate spiritual seeker, and words like 'progress' are meaningless.

But for lesser mortals like us, the grand illusion has to be reversed in stages. We could label this process 'spiritual progress', if we wish to. The choice of the label, however, reveals the language of the ego-self, which is always seeking to glorify itself through achievement.

As we awaken spiritually through a series of inner transformations, we clearly begin to see how organically we are connected to everything else. The world may be in a mess, and yet, paradoxically, everything is in its proper place. We find ourselves to be a vital part of a wonderful flow of life. There is a sense of motion, but there is no relative motion when we are one with the world, and we really are not doing (or seeking or becoming) anything. We are simply being.

Perhaps this is why we are called human beings?


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