In moments of despondency, we tend to wonder if the efforts that we make through meditation, incantations, devotion, selfless service and other austerities to become a better and more spiritual person are having any positive effect. They do have a substantive but invisible effect on our aura or subtle body but we lack the occult insight to discern such changes. It is only a genuine Guru who can perceive changes in the subtle body of the disciple. In the absence of a Guru, one can assess one’s spiritual progress by observing the psychological changes that have transpired in one’s responses to external situations. These are two talks by the Mother Mirra Alfassa on the topic of spiritual progress.
Correction Nov 1, 2012: It appears that these are not the direct remarks of the Mother but a paraphrasis by a disciple named M.P. Pandit. Nevertheless, the insights are original!
Mother’s first talk
It is a question we come across so often in spiritual life: why don’t I progress? Many exert their utmost, strive to improve themselves and advance in yoga. But, they complain, they see no signs of progress anywhere. If they see any signs of change at all, it is in the reverse direction. Only failings, defects, weaknesses stare at them and they are driven to despair.
But this is only an appearance. Facts are quite otherwise. Progress is not an external development. One cannot see it in outer terms day by day. Progress – spiritual progress – is essentially an inner process of change, modification, reconstitution. Mostly it goes on behind the veil and only when it arrives at a definite stage of fulfilment does its effect begin to appear on the surface. And there is a purpose in this method. Sri Aurobindo points out that in Sadhana(practice), if this working were to proceed in a way perceptible to the outer senses the mind and the vital would interfere at every step, insist on giving their own self-chosen direction to the development and altogether act as blocks to the Power at work. That is why the work is carried on mostly underneath so as to proceed uninterruptedly. It is only when the results appear in their own time that we see how things had been moving in that direction all along and how circumstances were developing to favour that culmination. It is also seen how nothing has been in vain.
Once one opens oneself to the Yoga-shakti (force) – as in our yoga – the work goes on ceaselessly whether one perceives it or not. When this goes on behind the surface one has the feeling, naturally enough, that nothing is being done; actually it is never so. Again, the fact that one gets conscious of weaknesses, defects etc. is itself a direct result of the inner progress registered by the yoga force at work; it puts pressure on the nature to change and all that lay concealed – in the absence of such compulsion – comes up claiming attention. A man who does not progress has no problem, no uneasiness; he stays content in his ignorance.
There is another aspect of the matter which needs to be underlined. There are two sides to this question: one of effort and the other of result, i.e. progress. Of these two, Sri Aurobindo makes it clear, only the effort side lies with the individual. His part is only to aspire, surrender, reject and practise -in a word, to fulfil the conditions. The result is not in the hands of the practicant; he shall have no claim on the result. The result is in the keeping of another, call it Nature, call it the Divine. The sadhaka(seeker) works because it is the only thing to be done; it is his offering to the Divine in progression and this he shall do with the utmost sincerity and joy of sacrifice. Should he strive and strain with an aim at result, say progress, in a particular form, then there comes in a vitiation of the effort. The sincerity of the offering is tainted by a preference at the root. Besides, personal insistence on progress raises up many premature difficulties and obstructions which are differently worked out by the Power greater and wiser than oneself, when things are left to its Will. One does the best one is capable of. The rest is left to the Divine who chooses the right moment and also the right form for the results to be manifested. True progress appears slow in coming but it is always in preparing.
Mother’s second talk
How often does one come across the complaint, “There is no progress in my sadhana(practice)“. People are dispirited, aggrieved that in spite of all their strenuous efforts, regular prayers, meditations, selfless work, they are very much where they were. Why is there no progress, they ask plaintively. How do you know that there is no progress, would be the natural counter question. Progress, especially in spiritual life, is not a matter to be measured in external terms, something like the muscles of the body-builder. The aim of spiritual sadhana(practice)is to bring about a change in the inner consciousness, shift the centre of being from the surface inwards so as to link one’s human end to the Divine. According to the inner direction of this aim, the main field of the working process is also inner. Consequently, even the results of the effort begin to manifest themselves first in the inner regions. It is only when there is a sufficient accumulation of the inner gains by way of adjustments, modifications and displacements in the consciousness, that the effects begin to be even outwardly perceivable by the physical eye. Thus it is only the appearance of the definitive results of a ceaseless, long, inner process that is usually marked and called progress. Actually it is but the result of a solid progress that has been registered behind the veil.
Between the advance achieved within and the appearance of its perceivable results on the surface of the being there is a necessary time lag. The progress has been going on within all the time irrespective of whether one has been conscious of it or not. Most of the progress in spiritual life, – especially in the earlier phases – is worked out behind the curtain. And that is done on purpose; because, otherwise the limited ignorant mind tends to interfere at every step. Thus one is not normally aware of the movement of progress that goes on within until its results reach out to the surface. But because one cannot see or grasp with the physical senses, it does not mean that the thing is not there.
Is there no means of testing the inner progress in any way? There is, it lies on our psychological level. One has to see what are one’s reactions in day-to-day situations. If one finds that one reacts to men and things with less ego-centredness, meets difficulties with less excitement, is able to hold himself a little less involved in the flow of the moment, that is a sign of some definite progress.
Indeed even the inner progress is at best slow and that is because of the great resistance offered by many unregenerate parts of oneself to the demand or change. Usually some central part and, perhaps, a few more which collaborate with it take the lead in the sadhana but the rest which continue in their old rut of contented ignorance refuse to move, and act as a dead weight even if they do not sabotage the effort -as the lower vital so often does. Necessarily, this makes the journey hard, tortuous and the advance is slow. Added to this is the factor of opposition from the universal forces which will not yield an inch of their domain without struggle. Even when the seeker clears his psychological system of impurities, he finds the cleansed areas repeatedly occupied by external invasions. This complicates matters and slows the progress still further. But with patience and persistence the way is forged steadily, imperceptibly. Each step leads to another and the pilgrim goes forward. In spiritual life there is no such thing as a stationary position. In the very nature of things the spiritual energy that is set into movement has got to be in motion, unroll itself continually till the goal is reached. If things have really come to a stand-still, it can only mean that the person has himself moved away from the current of sadhana(practice).
The indicators of spiritual progress
As the Mother says above, one must look for changes in one’s psychological responses to daily situations to assess one’s progress. A few changes are discussed below and there may be others. It goes without saying that one must not confuse the world-weary despair and ennui that is induced due to psychological aging with “spiritual change” ! 🙂
- The music that one listens to may change – it may acquire a more devotional flavor.
- Your mood is no longer affected by the weather. Regardless of whether the day is gloomy or sunny, you go about your work remaining inwardly serene.
- Almost all people live fitfully in a cycle of work-boredom-leisure. We work diligently for a several hours and then need a few hours on languor to recuperate. As we progress, this cycle is replaced by a perpetual feeling of contentment in which work is done without any fatigue or gloom.
- Food consumption changes: One may become indifferent to the taste of food because the senses start to be satiated by the inner light rather than outer excitement. The notion of comfort food (food which is eaten to improve one’s emotional state) disappears; one doesn’t turn to eating as an escape from stress and as a means of relaxation.
- One may find changes in the kind of books one prefers to read.
- The incessant desire to travel and escape from the hardships of life which preoccupies the lives of most people loses its hold on you because you have found the nectar of joy within oneself. The cerulean skies and pristine beaches cannot entice those who have discovered the empyrean firmanent (Akasha) within.
- One is no longer caught up in the play of personalities. Out in the yonder world, people base their decisions on fragmentary impressions of each other. They get impressed by someone’s lineage, looks, possessions, habits, and even hair! With spiritual progress, one interacts with people without getting overwhelmed by such superficial distinctions.
- One sleeps peacefully (without the aid of any drugs) and awakens feeling refreshed. One is no longer troubled by the incoherent dreams arising out of the subconscious.
For more on these psychological changes which may occur, see Developing discernment on which actions are spiritual
- M.P. Pandit, Mother of Love, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1965, vol 2, page 150
- M.P. Pandit. Mother of Love, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1965, vol 4, pp 115-118
- Subtle forms of the ego – (transcending suffocation)
- Jnana Yoga : the ego blocks that have to be dissolved
- Signs of readiness for the spiritual path
- Signs of spiritual apitude
- The spiritual ego
How does the Mind change with Yoga?
- Disrupting the routines of life
- Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 69 – Inversion of day and night
- Developing one’s own spiritual atmosphere (Gita 3:17)