How Do We Know Whether We Are Progressing Spiritually?
Illustration by Joanna Grochocka

How Do We Know Whether We Are Progressing Spiritually?

Marshall 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 a 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:


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.


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.


“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.


“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.

Copyright: M. Govindan Satchidananda, Autumn 2007

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The only physiological function which is both voluntary and involuntary is breathing. Breathing can be controlled consciously by the mind or it can be allowed to function automatically like other physiological processes, such­ as digestion, under the control of the body. Breathing is thus an important bridge between the mind and the body, and can influence them both.

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