If you feel you are not making spiritual progress, the first thing to do is to take stock of yourself and find out what is standing in your way. Most people fail to attain their spiritual goals because of a lack of sustained effort. Do you ask yourself at the end of each day whether you have progressed more than you did the day before? Self-analysis is the greatest method of progress. Keep a mental diary, and each day check your progress in developing the following qualities. This simple self-discipline will help you develop spiritually.
You must learn to control your speech and behavior, especially when mistreated. Don’t become a doormat, letting others trample on you, but never lose your calmness or attitude of forgiveness when criticized. Few people can control their outer behavior, and even fewer can control their inner balance during a bombardment of unkind words.
Always resist the impulse of acting under the influence of a spirit of revenge. It is easy to slap back with hurtful words when someone reviles you, but it takes great inner strength to refrain from doing so. Protect your inner peace and calmness by remaining silent in the face of ill-treatment.
2. Self-expansion: kindness and forgiveness
The happiness people seek is found not in egoic self-absorption, but in expanding the sense of self to embrace others. Kindness is the law of the spiritual world. Kindness springs from the inner self, and bestows the readiness to look upon everyone as a friend. At its essence, kindness consists of the simple acceptance of others in recognition that they, like you, are striving for self-improvement. Become the friend of everyone, ever ready to help.
To be spiritual is to be understanding and forgiving. Jesus had the power to destroy the world, but instead he said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” God allowed Jesus to experience betrayal in order to show the world how He wants His saints to behave. When you can forgive someone toward whom you’ve held a grudge, you will begin to understand what it means to be inwardly free.
Freely forgive and forget those who offend you. Forgiveness means, in the last analysis, giving a person a chance to reform. If apologies on your part will bring out your self-styled enemy’s good qualities, by all means apologize. It takes spiritual development to be able to apologize graciously and sincerely. Do not, however, encourage a wrong-doer by being too humble and apologetic.
3. Desire and anger: the two greatest barriers
Desire and anger are the two greatest barriers to wisdom. The frustration of desire produces anger. The very fact that desires can lead to anger should be a sufficient indication that the desires themselves are manifestations of bondage, not of freedom. Inevitably, anger clouds your understanding, leading to false, self-justifying perceptions of reality.
More than any other negative quality, anger thwarts your efforts to progress spiritually. Anger extinguishes the flame of inner peace, in the light of which alone you can behold the Divine. If you have a tendency to become angry at slight provocation, find the affirmation which has the most meaning for you and repeat it to yourself until your subconscious mind is clear of any tendency to anger or harsh speech. Affirm divine calmness and peace, and send out thoughts of love and good-will to all.
4. Meditation: your most important engagement
Meditation is the most effective way to spiritualize your consciousness. Never allow anything to discourage you from seeking God through the daily discipline of meditation — it is your most important engagement. Meditation centralizes all the energy in the brain, and destroys all the seeds of past bad habits. Through the practice of regular, right meditation, you can conquer all tendencies that retard your spiritual progress.
Always meditate with devotion. Never be satisfied until you experience a divine response, and at the same time never allow yourself to become discouraged. The joy born of meditation is an indication that God has replied to your devotion, prayers, and mental whispers.
5. Forsake all attachments.
The way to spiritual progress lies in making the effort to forsake all sense attachments. Sense-attachment is unbecoming to the soul, inasmuch as it tries to satisfy your need for everlasting soul happiness with evanescent sense-pleasures. The more you cater to the flesh, the more subject you become to other sense temptations. You are more than a civilized animal. Your rational faculties have a deeper purpose than keeping the body well-fed and well-clothed.
Try to free yourself from all attachments. Non-attachment to people, possessions and goals does not mean you should neglect your family or other material duties. It means you should perform such duties without desire for personal gain, but with the sole desire to please God and to serve His children. We limit our potential for self-expansion when we act with the purpose of being the main beneficiaries of our actions. You obviously need to maintain the body and have the basic necessities of life, but the higher needs of the soul must also be fulfilled.
Non-attachment enables you to live perpetually in a state of inner freedom and happiness. Attachments, on the other hand, keep you forever fearful; you live in a state of regret for the past or of anxiety for the future. Never allow your possessions to possess you, or the petty details of daily life to invade your heart with hordes of worry.
6. Devotion and mental whispers
Devotion is paramount. Without love you would lack the necessary urgency of desire to reach the divine goal. Love is the very essence of God. When consciously directed, it finds its way unerringly to its mark, and is the one thing God cannot resist. You may try many ways to find God, but He will elude you until you enter into, and pour forth, great love from your heart.
You are never so busy that you can’t whisper your devotion to God mentally. This is the surest way to keep Him in mind in the mad rush of daily life. In the language of your heart, constantly, unceasingly, whisper to Him of your eternal love, and of your burning desire to know Him. The more you practice, the nearer He will be. By this constant practice everything eventually vanishes but God.
7. Live in the consciousness of goodness.
Whenever you see wrong in others, and are distressed by it, remember, it’s also wrong in you. When you are right inwardly, all things are right, for you see everything as part of God. Always try to see the good in people. By focusing on the good in others, you not only help them see the good in themselves, you also begin to establish goodness in yourself. When you live in the consciousness of goodness, you accept all things without judgment, and look with kindness and sympathy on everyone, no matter how foolish.
Remember always that positive attitudes uplift the mind, while negative attitudes take the mind slowly downhill into a private gloom. For just as positive, happy attitudes make one receptive to bliss, negative attitudes estrange one from it. In a negative state of mind, one loses sight of the the soul’s all-powerful ability to transcend every difficulty.
8. Inner calmness
The most important condition for lasting happiness is the ability to remain inwardly calm, no matter what happens. One who is inwardly calm is able to see things as they are, and to accept with an unruffled mind whatever comes. I often say, “What comes of itself, let it come.” This is just as true for the bad things in life as for the good. Only inner calmness will give you a sense of correct proportion and inspire you to behave with unfailing good sense.
A calm person is not moved by impulses and desires and is decisive and prompt in his actions. A restless person, like a puppet, dances at the instigation of emotional desires and temptations. Remain ever calmly centered in the Self within, and always act from that center of calmness.
9. Live a balanced life.
Spiritual progress requires that you make the effort to live a balanced life. This includes performing carefully all duties connected with earning a living, staying healthy, and having a harmonious matrimonial and family life. It’s important that no one duty undermine another. Spiritual development should enable you to harmonize all such duties so that they all contribute to your peace and happiness.
Remember also that your outward company is of paramount importance. The regular inspiration of good company will help you in the effort to form good habits and to make steady spiritual progress.
Resolve firmly to “try and try again.”
Spiritual progress is achieved above all by desiring it intensely. Know that you are growing spiritually when your entire consciousness, no matter what your faults, is turned to God.
All of us are part of God; we belong to Him, and He, to us. Eventually, we must all go back to Him. If you resolve firmly to “try and try again,” God Himself and His angels will come to your aid. Given sufficient time, and renewed courage on your part, you cannot fail to make ongoing spiritual progress.
From Praecepta Lessons and books
Related reading: How to be Happy All the Time by Paramhansa Yogananda