Judging Spiritual Progress

Note: Let truth guide you, not us. Our humble disclaimer.

Faith. When people think about religion, most think about this idea of faith. The skeptic argues that the spiritual practitioner needs faith to follow something that makes no sense. The spiritual practitioner argues that faith is essential because the deepest truths are beyond the limitations of the senses.

Neither is quite right. There is proof, and we can see it. But spirituality is subtle, so we won’t be hit over the head with it. It is not like being turned on by a sexy woman. It is more like slowly falling in love with your best friend; one day you wake up and realize you are in love, even though you might have been slowly falling in love with them for years.

So if spirituality is subtle, observing spiritual progress is not an easy task.

New spiritual practitioners sometimes think the answer lies in mystical visions and supersensory phenomena, in levitation and voices from God. Such shows of spiritual power are not indicative of much, however, as we’ve discussed elsewhere. A man in the driver’s seat of a car and one in the trunk both reach the destination at the same time, even if only one is seeing the scenery along the way. Likewise, visions can come from our imagination and prove to be nothing more than attempts at validating our path.

So “what are the criteria of progress if visions and phenomena are not?” rhetorically asks Hazrat Azad Rasool, a modern Sufi saint.

Rasool, in his book Turning Toward the Heart, gives a surprisingly concrete answer to this question that is applicable both to Sufis and Vedantins alike.

A simple way of judging one’s forward movement is to watch for improvements in behavior and conduct. As an individual performs the practices, his or her character and personality gradually change. Certain weaknesses or other problems (for example, addictions and similar tendencies), slowly subside. With the purification of the heart, evil tendencies of conceit, greed and jealousy also recede.

Another criterion is best explained by means of an analogy. Often when a person becomes deeply involved in his or her work, he or she forgets to eat, rest and so forth. Analogously, many people become so much involved in worldly affairs that they forget to remember God. Those who pursue the way of the Sufi strive instead to become so engrossed in remembrance of God that none of their worldly activities distract them from this recollection. Everything in life may serve to remind them of the Presence of the One Who created it.

Let’s say that a woman learns from her physician that she has contracted a terminal illness. For months or even years afterwards, she continues to eat, sleep and share the company of her family and friends, just like other people. Yet for her, the beauties and bounties of day-to-day life take on new significance. The sweetness of time spent with her children reminds her that such times are finite. Her husband’s companionship heightens her awareness that soon they may be parted. The realization that nothing is permanent suffuses every aspect of her life, causing her to appreciate all she has been given.

Similarly, while a disciple of Sufism carries on working, eating, engaging with family and performing other daily activities, he or she is constantly aware of God. This awareness inspires him or her to strive to be a better person, to show compassion, withhold anger, avoid greed and self-centeredness, repent for errors, overcome character flaws, seek God’s forgiveness: in sum, to approach all worldly relationships and activities within the context of the single paramount relationship between oneself and the Divine.

The student can distinguish by degrees how much he or she has turned from worldly affairs to Divine affairs. Beginners on the path remember God periodically, through assigned practices such as wuquf al-qalb (heart pause) and muraqabah (meditation). The rest of the time is passed remembering things other than God. Gradually, students start to sustain their remembrance of God for longer periods, and are less frequently distracted by material concerns. Finally, consciousness of God permeates every moment of their lives.

This unceasing remembrance is the goal of one who travels the Sufi path, and the signs of its gradual attainment are the best proof of progress.

Such unceasing remembrance also is the best proof for the spiritual practitioners of Vedanta who are looking to chart their progress.

Faith plays its role in spiritual life, and some of the campaign always will remain hidden from view. But we still can measure our progress and prove that spirituality makes a difference. We just need to be ready for subtle outcomes that are hard to measure.

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