Identifying the signs of spiritual progress

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[1].

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)[2].

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” ! 🙂

  1. The music that one listens to may change –  it may acquire a more devotional flavor.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. One may find changes in the  kind of books one prefers to read.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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


  1. M.P. Pandit, Mother of Love, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1965, vol 2, page 150
  2. M.P. Pandit.  Mother of Love, Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1965, vol 4, pp 115-118

Related Posts

  1. Subtle forms of the ego – (transcending suffocation)
  2. Jnana Yoga : the ego blocks that have to be dissolved
  3. Signs of readiness for the spiritual path
  4. Signs of spiritual apitude
  5. The spiritual ego
    How does the Mind change with Yoga?
  6. Disrupting the routines of life
  7. Gita, Chapter 2, Verse 69 – Inversion of day and night
  8. Developing one’s own spiritual atmosphere (Gita 3:17)

15 thoughts on “Identifying the signs of spiritual progress

  1. carolks

    Really enjoyed this post. I was able to give this ego a good report card on the state of affairs. Better listening habits.” Been there done that” in place. Working on the dream situation. Love Sri Aurobindo’s “There are treasures in the Land of Nod”.

    But——-do wake up a little stiff in the morning! I do realize the body in the Kal Yuga does wear itself out.

    Happy traveling to the travelers to no where or Now Here!!!

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Since you mentioned Sri Aurobindo used the phrase “treasures in the land of nod”, I decided to look it up. It is mentioned in the book Correspondence with Nirodbaran entry dated February 28, 1935. I hadn’t read this section yet

      Nirodbaran: By the way, people get poems, pictures in meditation and I seem to get only letters and points for letters! Since letters and discussions are interdicted I have been obliged to draw inspiration from sleep. And I find that sleeping has a decided advantage in this Yoga!

      Sri Aurobindo: You get letters in meditation! that would be fine—it would save me the trouble of writing then, simply project into your meditation instead of sending through Nolini! No objection to sleep—the land of Nod has also its treasures.

  2. Sandeep Post author

    This is a dialogue from the Evening Talks pertinent to this topic:

    Nirodbaran: There is another charge we hear very often from some people. They say that they don’t find any outward sign of progress even in people who have been staying here and doing Yoga for ten to fifteen years.

    Sri Aurobindo: Have they the vision to see the inner progress?

    Nirodbaran: But there should be some sign in the outer being. They say they are just as angry, jealous, egoistic as other people.

    Sri Aurobindo: These things belong to the outer being and they are the last to change. That doesn’t mean that there is no inner progress or experience.

    Nirodbaran: Nothing should be visible outside? In Ramana Maharshi, for instance, they say one can see or feel peace, calm, etc.

    Sri Aurobindo: Is there nobody in the Ashram who is quiet and peaceful?

    Satyendra: In the world also you find people who are not jealous, who are peaceful, etc.

    Sri Aurobindo: How will you know then without inner perception? Maurice Magre saw peace and inner beauty in many faces, which he didn’t see outside the Ashram. For us it is nothing compared to what is yet to be done. All the same, it is something. I see light in many people here which I don’t see in worldly people.

    Nirodbaran: They say about Z also that they don’t find any sign by which he can be said to have made any progress.

    Sri Aurobindo: But every time I see him I see the stamp of a Yogi on him. Of course he is not a Siddha but one who is doing Yoga.
    (Nirodbaran, Talks with Sri Aurobindo, vol. 1, p 359)

  3. Sandeep Post author

    Ramakrishna Paramahansa spoke of the four stages of a Yogin : Vahudaka, Kutichaka, Hamsa and Paramahamsa.

    Vahudaka : one who wanders here and there looking for holy places and sages.
    Kutichaka : one who, having satiated his or her wanderlust, begins to sits quietly in one place and engages in contemplation to awaken the light within.
    Hamsa : one who has acquired some illumination within
    Paramahamsa : one who has gone beyond!

    This is a passage from the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna on this topic:

    RAM (to Gopal): “He [meaning the Master] says that one becomes a kutichaka after being a vahudaka. The sadhu that visits many holy places is called a vahudaka. He whose craving for travel has been satiated and who sits down in one place is called a kutichaka.

    “He also tells us a parable. Once a bird sat on the mast of a ship. When the ship sailed through the mouth of the Ganges into the ‘black waters’ of the ocean, the bird failed to notice the fact. When it finally became aware of the ocean, it left the mast and flew north in search of land. But it found no limit to the water and so returned. After resting awhile it flew south. There too it found no limit to the water. Panting for breath the bird returned to the mast. Again, after resting awhile, it flew east and then west. Finding no limit to the water in any direction, at last it settled down on the mast of the ship.”
    source: Gospel of Ramakrishna, Vol 1, Chap 21, A Day at Dakshineswar

    1. Sandeep Post author

      Ramakrishna Paramahansa spoke of the four stages of a Yogin : Vahudaka, Kutichaka, Hamsa and Paramahamsa.

      These terms Kutichaka, Vahudaka, Hamsa and Paramahansa originate in what are known as Sannyasa Upanishads; there are 5 Upanishads namely the Biksuka, Turiyatita-avadhuta, Satyayani, Paramahansa Parivrajaka and Sannyasa Upanishad that mention these stages.

      For example, the Turiyatita Avadhutopanishad of the Shukla Yajurveda says:

      In due order he first becomes a hut-dweller ascetic (kuticaka), reaches the stage of a mendicant monk (bahudaka), attains the stage of a hamsa-ascetic, and then he becomes the highest kind of ascetic, paramahansa

      The definitions of these terms as outlined in N.S. Subrahmanian’s Encyclopaedia of the Upaniṣads (New Delhi : Sterling, 1985) are at variance with those given above by Ramakrishna. The latter may have redefined the terms based on his spiritual experience.

  4. Sandeep Post author

    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.

    This is also the purport of Gita chapter 14 verse 11

    sarva-dvāreṣu dehe ‘smin
    prakāśa upajāyate
    jñānaḿ yadā tadā vidyād
    vivṛddhaḿ sattvam ity uta

    There are nine gates in the body: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, the mouth, the genitals and the anus. When the light of knowledge shines through all the gates of the body, then it should be known that Sattwa(purity) is dominant.

  5. ipi

    For those who have within them a sincere call for the Divine, however the mind or vital may present difficulties or attacks come or the progress be slow and painful, — even if they fall back or fall away from the path for a time, the psychic always prevails in the end and the Divine Help proves effective. Trust in that and persevere — then the goal is sure.

    Sri Aurobindo
    (Letters on Yoga; Part I; PP 549)

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  8. Mark

    A nice insight from “Satprem’s Sri Aurobindo , or The Adventure of Consciousness”:

    “Finally, when we have mastered vital immobility, we find that we can begin to help others with some effectiveness. For helping others has nothing to do with sentimentality or charity; it is a matter of power, of vision, of joy. In this tranquility, we possess not only a contagious joy but a vision that dispels the shadows. …” PP. 76

    Also from Roger Housdon’s “Ten Poem’s to Change Your Life”:

    “In that beauty, the soul’s natural state, we shall exude a fragrance, which in past eras was known as the fragrance of sanctity. No matter how authoritative a person sounds, no matter how knowing they may seem to be, or how high their station, if that scent is not in the air, they are not quite who they say they are, or who others think they are. It is the fragrance of kindness. When the great saint Kabir died, his Muslim and Hindu followers argued over who would have care of his body. When they reached the cremation ground and lifted the shroud, there was nothing but roses. For all the intensity of his spiritual training and practice, for all the complexity of Tibetan Buddhist ritual and initiations, His Holiness the Dalai Lama has said, “My religion is kindness.” PP. 52

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