There’s a story of a young disciple who came to his guru’s forest ashram for training. The guru blessed him and asked him to begin collecting firewood for the ashram’s stoves. Willingly he carried out this task, and as the days, months, and then years passed, he continued to serve humbly in this way.
One day as he was returning to the ashram with his load of wood, he tripped on a tree root, and a stick fell from his arms. As it dropped, it pulled out a few strands of his hair. Staring in amazement at the gray strands entangled in the piece of wood, he thought, “I came here as a young man, and now I am old with gray hair. I’ve wasted my whole life in carrying wood while other disciples have studied with the guru. I haven’t progressed toward my goal of finding God.” His eyes began to fill with tears.
Just at that moment his guru came running to him and caught his tears. “Don’t you know,” the sage said, “that if the tears of a soul as great as you touch the ground there will be famine in the land for seven years?” The guru then touched his forehead, and the disciple entered into union with God.
This beautiful story illustrates the point that it’s very difficult to tell for oneself whether or not we’re making spiritual progress. Are there any ways to know if our spiritual efforts are bearing fruit? Here are some signs to help guide you:
Do you have greater understanding and compassion for others? With spiritual growth, our consciousness expands so that we feel more keenly the joys and sorrows of others. With this heightened awareness comes a sense of connection and unity, and a strengthened desire to help others out of their suffering.
Are you finding new perspectives on life that are bigger than your own likes and dislikes? As the self-limiting confines of ego begin to dissolve, we get a broader view of life that embraces others’ realities as much as our own. Swamiji defined maturity as “the ability to relate appropriately to other realities than one’s own.”
Are you able more easily to accept people or situations that once used to bother you? Are you beginning to wonder why a particular situation ever troubled you? With inner growth comes freedom from old karma that has kept us bound. Sister Gyanamata, Yoganandaji’s most advanced woman disciple, loved these words from a chant: “Before my eyes/My dead self lies./Oh bliss beyond compare!”
Are you seeing new things in yourself that need to change? This may seem contradictory to spiritual growth, but Swami Kriyananda once said, “If you see a flaw in yourself that needs correcting, don’t despair, but rejoice. The flaw has always been there, but now that you finally see it, you can get to work on it.”
Are you able to remain “even-minded and cheerful” in all circumstances? As an undercurrent of joy begins to permeate your consciousness, you’ll realize that no matter what happens in life, nothing can touch that joy. A saint once said, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”
But I should also mention that there are some attitudes that are deterrents to our inner development:
Don’t keep looking for signs of spiritual progress. Yoganandaji said that our spiritual efforts are like planting seeds. If you keep digging them up to see if they’ve sprouted, you only slow down their growth. Be a good gardener who lovingly cares for his plants, but has the patience to let them grow at their own pace.
Remember that God is the Doer, and give your inner development into His hands. In self-forgetfulness we are able to allow divine grace to transform us in ways we can’t yet understand. With faith in God, over time we can achieve the goals we are seeking.
Once we were riding in a car with Swami Kriyananda, and he was commenting on the spiritual growth of various Ananda members. Quietly from the back seat I said, “I don’t know that I’ve made much progress.” With intensity Swamiji replied, “How can you say that? You’re an entirely different person than when you came!” I’d been at Ananda for about fifteen years at that time, and I surely wasn’t aware of the changes to which he was referring.
If our spiritual progress happens in ways that are difficult for us to see, we might be inclined to ask, “Who are we becoming through this process?” It may seem hard to define, but it’s actually quite simple—the last two lines of Yoganandaji’s poem, “Samadhi,” say it all:
A tiny bubble of laughter, I
Am become the Sea of Mirth Itself.
In their own good time all of our efforts end in the endlessness of God’s Ocean of Joy.
Towards that Joy,
Listen to Devi as she reads the blog, then expands on it, often adding special behind-the-inspiration stories and answers to common spiritual questions. Subscribe to the podcast or download the audio recording by right-clicking here. Or listen to it here (10:36):