Our soul evolves over thousands of lives, playing a variety of roles – labourer, athlete, businessman, politician, artist, philosopher, scientist and so on and so forth. In the chapter Ladder of Self-transcendence in the Synthesis of Yoga, Sri Aurobindo outlines this gradual evolution from the barbarian to the philistine and then to the person of culture and intellect. The final stage of this evolution begins when the joys of phenomenal life (socializing, eating, traveling, etc) cannot fill the void in the heart and one begins to question the purpose of life. This marks the start of the spiritual journey. The Mother of the Aurobindo Ashram, Mira Alfassa, detailed three signs which indicate that one has reached this stage in life.
An absolute supernatural darkness falls
On man sometimes when he draws near to God:
An hour arrives when fail all Nature’s means;
Forced out from the protecting Ignorance
And flung back on his naked primal need,
He at length must cast from him his surface soul
And be the ungarbed entity within:
Sri Aurobindo, Savitri – I: The Issue
Disciple: Are there any signs which indicate that one is ready for the path, especially if one has no spiritual teacher?
Mother: Yes, the most important indication is a perfect equality of soul in all circumstances. It is an absolutely indispensable basis; something very quiet, calm, peaceful, the feeling of a great force. Not the quietness that comes from inertia but the sensation of a concentrated power which keeps you always steady, whatever happens, even in circumstances which may appear to you the most terrible in your life. That is the first sign.
A second sign: you feel completely imprisoned in your ordinary normal consciousness, as in something extremely hard, something suffocating and intolerable, as though you had to pierce a hole in a brass wall. And the torture becomes almost unbearable, it is stifling; there is an inner effort to break through and you cannot manage to break through. This also is one of the signs. It means that your inner consciousness has reached a point where its outer mould is much too small for it – the mould of ordinary life, of ordinary activities, ordinary relations, all that becomes so small, so petty; you feel within you a force to break all that.
There is yet another sign: when you concentrate and have an aspiration, you feel something coming down into you, you receive an answer; you feel a light, a peace, a force coming down; and almost immediately – you need not wait or spend a very long time – nothing but an inner aspiration, a call, and the answer comes. This also means that the relation has been well established.
Disciple: When can one say that one has truly entered the spiritual path?
Mother: The first sign (it is not the same for everybody) but in a chronological order, I believe, is that everything else appears to you absolutely without importance. Your entire life, all your activities, all your movements continue, if circumstances so arrange things, but they all seem to you utterly unimportant, this is no longer the meaning of your existence. I believe this is the first sign.
There may be another; for example, the feeling that everything is different, of living differently, of a light in the mind which was not there before, of a peace in the heart which was not there before. That does make a change; but the positive change usually comes later, very rarely does it come at first except in a flash at the time of conversion when one has decided to take up the spiritual life. Sometimes, it begins like a great illumination, a deep joy enters into you; but generally, afterwards this goes into the background, for there are too many imperfections still persisting in you…It is not disgust, it is not contempt, but everything appears to you so uninteresting that it is truly not worth the trouble of attending to it. For instance, when you are in the midst of certain physical conditions, pleasant or unpleasant (the two extremes meet), you say to yourself, “It was so important to me, all that? But it has no importance at all!” You have the impression that you have truly turned over to the other side.
Some imagine that the sign of spiritual life is the capacity to sit in a corner and meditate! That is a very, very common idea. I do not want to be severe, but most people who make much of their capacity for meditation – I do not think they meditate even for one minute out of one hour. Those who meditate truly never speak about it; for them it is quite a natural thing. When it has become a natural thing, without any glory about it, you may begin to tell yourself that you are making progress. Those who talk about it and think that this gives them a superiority over other human beings, you may be sure, are most of the time in a state of complete inertia.