Living a Spiritual Life
by Swami Krishnananda

Chapter 13: The Stages of Spiritual Development

The developmental process in the search for the spirit moves along different stages. In the most initial condition of human life, there is a preponderance of sensory activity, and one tends towards an overwhelming interest in material forms.

The physical body, which is pure matter, requires only material counterparts. The desires of the human being in this lowest of levels are sense oriented, and the senses are pre-eminently capable of converting every perceptible object into a material content.

The value of a thing is assessed on the basis of its material components. This is a state of affairs where the mind gets entirely engrossed in the reports of the senses and does not exercise the faculty of independent thinking. Whatever the senses say, the mind agrees. In this condition the mental faculties become almost servants of the demands of the sense organs, and it is difficult to make a distinction between sense perception and mental thinking at this level.

Why does this happen? Due to a peculiar structure and pattern of operation of the sense organs, it appears that sensory contact with an object outside is a source of satisfaction.

A time comes in the history of one’s life when, by repeated engagement in this kind of sensory activity, one discovers that the so-called objects of sense do not provide that extent of satisfaction as one expected from them. An unexpected repercussion may sometimes sever one’s sensory desire for the objects, and a new avenue of thinking opens itself up inwardly, after a period of suffering and defeat experienced while spending the whole of one’s life in permanent satisfaction from sensory objects. Then, one begins to think, “I have not been able to get what I want.” This want cannot be filled from any effort on one’s part. There is a susceptibility of separation of oneself from the objects of sense under the least provocation. There is what is known as bereavement, which is loss of one’s closest contacts and an unsuspected severance of oneself from the sources of the erstwhile-expected sources of enjoyment.

“This world is no good,” one begins to grumble after attaining a measure of maturity. Nobody is finally reliable, nothing is permanently satisfying. The closest, the nearest and the dearest of things cannot be relied upon entirely for various reasons, which one has experienced throughout one’s life. “Nothing is good; everything seems to be futile. I have to pursue the good. As nothing has satisfied me finally, I have not been able to discover anything good in this world.” But, there must be something which is really good—else, there would not be dissatisfaction with the apparently good things of the world.

Spiritually, this is the first stage of practice: the desire to do what is good and permanent in nature. “It is good to be good; it is bad to be bad. I wish to be good, and wish to see good things in the world. I have not been able to see anything really good anywhere, after my long experience in this world. But, something must be there, which summons me from inside. And, if really a thing called ‘good’ is not existent at all, the dissatisfaction with the world of things cannot arise in the mind.” The desire to do good is the first stage of spiritual life, though one cannot know what that good thing actually is.

In the second stage, one begins to search for the way of knowing what the good is by means of study of scriptures, by personal rational enquiry, by contacting great souls—saints and sages, gurus, masters, mentors—and by attending satsangas of saints and knowledgeable persons. One wishes to pick up the good, as much as possible, from any corner of the world.

Vichara, the investigative process, commences after the desire for the good settles steadily in one’s mind. It is absolutely necessary to be finally good. Only the good survives; nothing else can finally subsist in this world. The second stage of investigative enquiry is a wide area of human effort which is carried on through deep study, which includes the study of one’s own experience in this world, an analysis of the hardships through which one has passed in this life, the causes thereof, and the real reason for the ultimate undependability of things in this world.

This searching effort on the part of the seeking spirit goes on for years together, because if the search is purely intellectual, that also may not be finally satisfying. One may read the Brahma Sutras, the Upanishads and the Gita with linguistic commentaries and grammatical interpretations; they will not satisfy. One may become a pundit, a teacher, and a professor, but that is the knowledge acquired through reason, understanding and intellectuality, and satisfaction is not an intellectual achievement. It is another source altogether, which has to be delved into carefully.

From where do we actually derive satisfaction? It is not through any kind of intellectual search, through scientific observations or metaphysical investigations. None of these bring peace to the heart, or solace to the individual.

The search goes on along these lines, deeper and deeper, again and again, for many years. The mind engaged in this kind of investigative activity tends to gradually lose the thickened relationship it had established with the objects of sense. A strong rope was previously tying the mind to the physical objects of the world. The thick rope slowly gets thinned into a thread, and the mind, which also works in association with the sense organs, gets attenuated correspondingly. This means to say that the desires which were very strong earlier become loosened, and the grip of the objects on the senses diminishes in intensity. Though we may sometimes feel that it may be good to have such and such a thing, in this awakened mood of the mind this desire for having something will be a very mild and passing longing which will not harass the mind permanently, as was the case earlier.

Still, the job is a hard one. Though the mind is thinned out by feeding it with a diet of sensory enjoyment it can again become strong and thick like a rope if circumstances are favourable. A person who has fasted for many days becomes thin, emaciated, bony, and only a skeleton is seen; but it does not mean that he cannot recover his original robust and hefty condition if the necessary diet is provided.

Therefore, spiritual seekers cannot go with the complacence that desires have vanished completely just because there is a passing interest in things and no strong liking for anything in this world. A passing interest can become a very seductive source of attachment, because it is a living thing. Even if a living thing is very feeble and thinned out, there is a chance of it regaining its strength in the potentiality which it had earlier because it is vital and alive.

Hence, no one can be so sure that things are perfectly in order and that the mind is perfectly controlled. It may appear to be restrained on account of the fasting of sensory contacts, but as long as contacts are possible—objects persist to exist, and the mind is amenable to such cooperation with this work of the sense organs—then all the doors for the earlier enjoyments are open and the flood of satisfaction expected through the sense organs will insinuate itself, gradually. At any moment of time, the nature of the world in its physical form of presentation can engulf the perceptional activity of the mind. Even in the penultimate stages of spiritual practice, one can have the very same early childhood desires of the normal longings of human nature. It starts with a desire for creature comforts—food, clothing, and shelter.

But when we speak of the mind, which works in terms of the sense organs, we should remember at the same time that the nature of the mind is such that it has hidden potentialities of self-affirmation, which is called egoism. Even as the five sense organs have their own five types of desire, and the mind only acts like a handmaid and plays second fiddle to the organs of sense, there is another type of longing which is stronger and ever persisting, more powerful than even sensory desires—namely, the power of self-affirmation, egoism, and an assertion which defies the value and worth of other things and other people in the world.

“When I speak, I have said everything. No one can open their mouth before me.” This is the sort of attitude the ego will develop, as if the whole world is a fool, and oneself alone is wise. This is the adamant behaviour of a dictator, a totalitarian, a despot or a harsh tyrant who sits in the heart and the ego of every person. One can be converted into that state at any moment. Anyone can easily become a despot if the circumstances are provided.

Therefore, this is a crucial stage of the search for the spirit, where one is on the borderland of ascent and descent. It is a precipitous condition where we may suddenly fall, or we may retrace our steps and guard ourselves effectively. In the earlier two stages of searching for the good—investigation through study, attending satsanga, etc.—there is not much danger. It looks like a very common and routine affair, and everyone can participate in these types of spiritual sadhana—namely, attending satsanga, study of spiritual scriptures, and the like. But, when the sadhana process gets internalised much more than it was during the period of study and attending satsangas, the warning signal announces itself: “Beware! Here either you live or die!” And, who would like to die? The mind says it is good to be alive; and to be alive in the world is equal to being alive to the demands and the requirements of the bodily and sensorially conditioned desires. Else, it is a death blow that the sadhana spirit may deal.

Why does it look like a death blow? Because it is a warning to the ego that it shall not live for a long time. It is not the body that is afraid of what is going to happen, not even the sense organs, but the ego which wants to maintain itself. The ego says, “Thus far and no further.”

“Enough of this great vision, O Lord!” sais Arjuna before the Vishvarupa. The ego cannot tolerate the threat discharged by that Vishvarupa to the individual consciousness of Arjuna, which felt that it was going to be annihilated before this blazing fire of cosmic experience. “Come down! Let me see You as I was seeing You earlier. Let the world be there, as it was before my senses. Enough of this light! Enough of this widened vision that is going to swallow me! Enough also of this need to think cosmically.”

Set aside the question of the Vishvarupa and Arjuna for the time being. Even the attempt to think in terms of a cosmical operation of things is a threat to the ego. There will be such a pain felt within oneself that one would feel, “It is not for me, and I shall not pursue this way.”

Let any one of you try your best to think and interpret every little thing in the world cosmically, in its organic interrelationship with the whole of creation. You cannot think like this even for a few minutes, because that kind of thought is a threat to the egoistic desire to exist individually through this body.

But suppose, by the power of your good works done in the previous life, due to the power of your sadhana shakti and sincerity of your longing for spiritual success, you move forward. Then, through this thinned, attenuated form of the mind from which gross longing for objects has been extracted, a light will flash forth.

As sunlight cannot penetrate through brick but can penetrate through glass, the higher forms of reality cannot reflect themselves in a gross form of the mind, which is ridden over with sense desires and egoistic longings. This flash that will occasionally be experienced in deep meditation is actually the sattvik content of the mind working in a preponderating manner, while in the earlier stages rajas and tamas were clouding the work of the sattva guna in the mind. The rarefied form of the mind, which is sattva, refracts and reflects the inner light of the Atman, and visions of luminaries manifesting themselves like lightning will be the experience of the seeker.

This experience is actually the fourth stage in spiritual practice. We will see tiny lights emanating from even gross physical objects. Flashes emanate from even grossly hard substantial physicality, and we begin to feel that there is an inner reality hidden behind the visible physical forms of things.

When the meditation continues and one progresses further on, there is a sense of detachment felt within oneself—detachment not of a purely physical nature of being away from objects of sense, but the consciousness itself gets detached from its connection with objectivity of every kind. An object is actually a form of externality. The object to which we are attached need not necessarily be a tangible thing. It can be even a conceptual presentation in the mind arising due to intense longing which has not been fulfilled in other ways.

In this fifth stage, we would like to be alone to ourselves. There is no need for social contact. We feel happier when we are alone than when we are in the midst of people. The more we are alone to ourselves, the more is the joy felt within. An aloneness of a supernatural character begins to take possession of us. This is something different from the aloneness which we feel when we are locked up in our own room and nobody sees us. After the satsanga is over, we go to our room, close the door and sit alone. This is one kind of aloneness. But we are not mentally alone, even inside our room. We are conscious of the presence of many things in the world outside.

Hence, physical aloneness is not spiritual aloneness. In this fifth stage, there is an experience of what can be called spiritual aloneness: consciousness feels satisfied with itself only, and it does not require any kind of association with any object of the world. It wants nothing, and it is satisfied with itself. This is a superior kind of vairagya, far different from the ordinary detachment that we practise by being at a distance from tempting objects.

Here, we begin to feel a gravitational pull upward, rather than the downward pull towards the Earth and Earthly enjoyments which we were feeling earlier. It looks as if we are moving vertically, rather than horizontally on the surface of the ground. A power pulls us up, but it pulls us from all directions because this power is not only in one point like the apex of a triangle. It is not at one particular pinpointed area of space. It is an all-pervading influence. So, we feel a pull of a different kind altogether, apart from the physical gravitation that we ordinarily feel when we are living in the world. Something shakes us up completely, and it appears that we are not in this world. We are elevated consciously into a realm where our true being seems to be located. “Though I am here, I am really somewhere else, even at this moment,” will be the feeling we experience at that time.

This fact of our real being having a location elsewhere and not in this world on the surface of the Earth is the reason why no one can be satisfied by anything in this world—because we do not really belong to this world. Our shadow moves in this world, but our being is elsewhere. This pull is felt in this stage of spiritual ascent where we are spiritually detached, and not merely out of contact with existent objects. In the further stage, when we ascend higher and higher, the materiality of the world will cast off its masquerading veil, and it will speak to us in a different language altogether.

The world is not made up of physical substance; it is made up of radiation. Everything is aglow with life; everything can speak. Stones, trees, flowing rivers, mountains, the sun, moon and stars will appear to be eager to speak to us because we have been pulled up into a cosmic level of experience where all things become friendly with us. The Yoga Vasishtha says that all the directions become our friends. It is a great truth. Light flashes from every atom, from every corner of the world, and every human being looks like a super-human person. There is a super-human potentiality even in ordinary people, which can be seen—through the eye which is not physical—through that eye alone which Arjuna could behold the Vishvarupa. It is not the physical eye—not the dual eye, but the single eye. There, what happens? Radiance does not merely pervade the world. The world itself gets transmuted into radiance, a mass of light.

Perhaps the quantum mechanics theory of the modern scientific discovery is right when it says that the whole physical world is basically a quantum of light which appears to be solid on account of certain reasons, into which we will not enter here.

There is a suffocating experience at that time, as if somebody catches hold of our throat and our vital individual existence is going to be annihilated and wiped out. It is what is called ‘dying to live’. It is the death of the mortal experience for the sake of eternal existence.

Such are some of the experiences through which a sincere seeker on the spiritual path will pass. But sincerity is a vital factor which has to be emphasised. We should not give lip-sympathy to this search for God: “It is a long way off. Who knows? It may come or it may not come. It may be very far away. It may not be in this birth. It is in the next birth. Who knows?” If this kind of doubt persists, it may not come at all.

What is required is not the length of time of practice, the duration of the hours of our sessions in meditation, but the intensity of the longing—tīvra saṁvegā. As Patanjali Maharishi puts it in one of his sutras, tīvra saṁvegānām āsannaḥ (Yoga Sutras I.21): “It is near to those who are intense in their burning longing for it.” The only qualification of the spiritual seeker is wanting it, mumukshutva. Seek, and you shall find it.