Delve into the essence of spiritual progress, exploring signs of awakening and the transformative power of surrender.
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As they journey down the spiritual path, many seekers ponder the genuine markers of awakening and the transformative steps to enlightenment.
What does spiritual progress look like? What are the roadmaps or indicators of awakening? What does enlightenment look like? How does our life change with spiritual awakening?
Embarking on a journey of spiritual progress is a transformative and deeply rewarding experience. However, recognizing the signs of spiritual growth and understanding how to navigate the path to enlightenment can be challenging. Amidst the profound shifts and revelations, having a roadmap to discern milestones and guideposts becomes essential. Delving into spiritual depths requires both intuition and guidance, as the markers of growth can often be subtle and nuanced.
"The sure indication of spiritual progress is the positive transformation of character. Visions, ecstasies, and philosophical insights that do not make us more compassionate, peaceful, and trustworthy people, are just fireworks."
—Yogacharya Ellen Grace O'Brian
Here is a reading from the Bhagavad Gita that describes the transformation. It is from Chapter 2, verses 64-65:
When you have perfect control over the senses, beyond both attraction and aversion, the mind is anchored in the wisdom of the Self. Such a person attains equanimity. In equanimity all sorrows are dispelled. The intelligence of one whose mind is in equanimity is established firmly.
The Bhagavad Gita is a classic text about the journey of enlightenment for seekers from all faith traditions. Reading the Gita, we get to eavesdrop on the conversation between the warrior Arjuna, who symbolizes the seeking soul within us, and his friend and guru Lord Krishna, who represents the higher true Self (which is also within us). We explore this as an inner dialog of the unfolding journey. As we listen to Arjuna's dilemmas and questions, we naturally reflect on our own.
In the story's opening, Arjuna is about to enter a battle he wants to avoid. He wants to find a way out, so he turns to Krishna for counsel and laments what he sees as a no-win situation. He doesn't want to face the difficulty he is in, so he asks Lord Krishna for advice.
Arjuna's moment of crisis is a common one for many of us. We come to a time when we don't know what to do. We can't see the way forward; we're anxious and confused and want to escape suffering. Sometimes we even identify a theme to our suffering—oh, I have done this before, been here before, and here I am again. How can I stop making this mistake? How can I avoid doing what I know is bringing unhappiness or sorrow?
Searching for a way to stop suffering is a powerful motivator for stepping onto the spiritual path. We are looking for freedom from sorrow. I should qualify that and say we are looking for freedom, but not entirely. Usually, our motivation is situational, not transformational. We seek freedom from a particular problem, not liberation from the source of our suffering. Initially, we look for improvement in our human condition and not liberation from it. This short-sightedness is marvelously demonstrated by Arjuna when he asks for Krishna's advice and then refuses to take it. We ask God: What should I do? The higher Self responds, saying, Do this. We say: No.
This quest for relief often marks the beginning of one's spiritual progress.
Most of us bring expectations with us about what we want the spiritual path to provide for us. We are looking for a better way to do what we want and avoid what we don't want to do. We think the spiritual path will give us the tools to do that. And we'll bring God on as our subcontractor to help us out. Yet, as we delve deeper into our spiritual progress, we realize that true growth transcends these initial expectations.
We discover that while the spiritual path does support skillful living, it is not necessarily in the way we thought. So when we want to know if we are progressing on our spiritual path, we must understand that spiritual progress is not measured like success with worldly goals. In fact, spiritual progress is ultimately not measurable because it is spiritual and not material. It is a process and not a task. However, we can experience some changes along the way that we can attribute to our spiritual practices.
Baba Hari Dass wrote:
If you wish for spiritual development, then start now and never stop. Don't wait for an auspicious day to come. Lofty spiritual ideas may seem to be unattainable. But by firm determination, devotion, and enthusiastic effort one can achieve the goal. If you have to hike to a mountaintop, then you walk through the hills and dales, woods and rivers, snowy cliffs and ravines. You face all the odds and make it to the top. The spiritual path is not a highway. 
One of the indications we see in ourselves (and in Arjuna in the Gita) is a progressive commitment and an opening to change and transformation. Arjuna's first question was about how to avoid his difficulty. What follows is his inquiry about what spiritual mastery looks like. The line of questioning changes from asking what we can do to the possibility of what we can be or become. This shift in perspective is a clear sign of spiritual progress.
Arjuna asks Krishna what an enlightened person is like—how do they experience superconscious meditation, how do they talk? How do they sit? How do they move about? We can tell he is starting to wonder—how will I change? What will my life be like? Will I be able to experience the highest states of superconsciousness and still engage in the world? What will I be interested in? What will I talk about? What will my friends think?
What are the road maps or indicators of what spiritual progress looks like? How can we tell if we are progressing? Learn four indicators that will guide and support your journey.
One of the first signs of spiritual progress is just that—beginning to imagine enlightenment as a possibility and committing ourselves to the journey in earnest. We discover that it is a transformational process that (most often) takes place over time, as the mental field is purified, and the inner light of the divine Self illumines our thoughts, speech, and action.
With the regular spiritual practice of meditation, study, self-discipline, and receptivity to divine grace, here are four signs of spiritual progress we can experience:
More peace, less peturbability.
Meditation offers the direct experience of our spiritual nature, which is peace itself. The more we experience and know inner peace, the more luminous and even-minded we become. We don't lose our cool so easily. We have greater insight into our thoughts and emotions and can respond rather than react to people and circumstances. We can pause rather than pounce. We have a new awareness of who we are as spiritual beings and don't have to take things personally.
The poet Mark Nepo expressed this beautifully.
When I have access to the place
Within me that is lighted, I don't have
To speak heatedly. I can just give away
Warmth. When I am still enough to brush
Quietly with eternity, I don't have to
Speak of God. I can just offer peace To those around me. 
Greater discernment, less disappointment.
We begin to see the transitory, changeable nature of all things and understand that they cannot provide lasting happiness or security. We learn to rely on God—rely on the Source of life and not appearances.
With greater insight, we view our mistakes or shortcomings as part of our path, a work in progress. They no longer consume us. Neither do the mistakes or shortcomings of others. We start to develop compassion for ourselves and others. Life becomes larger and sweeter; we don't take ourselves so seriously. We are less invested in a self that needs defending.
More faith, less frustration.
Through experiencing encounters with divine grace, we start to notice how life supports us. We even begin to expect grace—we look for it and affirm it when we see it. We have less frustration when things don't go our way because we now suspect that there is a Greater Way at work in our life. We begin to have a supportive relationship with the Infinite.
Motivated by purpose, not problems.
Instead of being driven by problems and pressing challenges in life, we are purpose-driven—always keeping our higher purpose of spiritual liberation in view. With this new orientation, we progress from having a supportive relationship with the Infinite to having a cooperative relationship with the Infinite—from seeking support to actively seeking to be of service. Instead of asking what I want or what I should do, we ask: how can I serve life? Our life begins to blossom with surrendered devotion to God. Transformation begins.
When we open to God not as a separate Reality but as The Reality of our life, of all life, then we are no longer led by fear and are free to be happy and content. To live, to love, to change, to grow. We give up our commitment to suffering and begin to live. Beginning to live is opening to the ever-new life that beckons us, moment to conscious moment. So aptly expressed by the poet Fred LaMotte:
When you opened your eyes this morning,
You broke every law that made yesterday real.
Why insist on being who you were
Before you took this breath? 
 Baba Hari Dass, The Path to Enlightenment is Not a Highway, (Watsonville, Sri Rama: ebook 2021) 16.
 Mark Nepo, Reduced to Joy (Berkeley, Viva Editions: 2013) 44.
 Alred K. Lamotte, The Nectar of This Breath (Houston, St. Julian Press: 2022) 35.
© 2023 Ellen Grace O’Brian