How Can We Discern Progress In Spiritual Practice?


This is a question raised by earnest spiritual seekers. It’s clearly not a question for ignoramuses–that is, for those, strictly speaking, who are ignorant and who are ignorant of their ignorance–nor is it a question for fully realized beings (for whom there can be no question of progress or the lack thereof). It’s only, therefore, a relevant question for those who are very much ‘on the Way.’


The reason the question is raised is that one earnestly wants to know whether he or she is practicing correctly. If it’s raised for unwholesome reasons (like pride or envy), then the matter, by the answerer, should be summarily dismissed or the vice directly pointed to.


A Neo-Advaitist might say, “There is no progress because there is no self keen on making progress. There is no discerning and thus there is no question at all.”

Reply: this is a cheap trick, it’s uttered out of quiet self-righteousness, and, as such, it is not to be taken seriously. This objection reveals, in the very least, a lack of compassion.

From the depths of compassion, then, we should offer an answer to the question.

Peacefulness, Love, & the Diminution of Suffering

When asked how a potential student can tell whether a teacher is legit, Sri Ramana Maharshi answers by suggesting that a legitimate teacher, established in and as peace itself, is one around whom one experiences great peace. If, that is, one is ripe enough and if one experiences no such peace, then it would be wise not to take this one as your teacher.

A similar line of thought can be applied to the case of progress. If others can discern not just that one is more peaceful but also more loving, then one has every reason to believe that one’s practice is heading in the right direction. Of course, one, at this stage, won’t always be peaceful or loving, but the question is really whether there has been noticeable, if unspoken, improvements to overall peacefulness and to overall lovingness.

I add in the loving condition because we should, over time and if our practice is going well enough, notice not only a greater sense of peace but also a more capacious, loving openness. Our sense of poignancy should increase appreciably.

In addition to greater peace and love, we should, concomitantly, observe that the trend of suffering is downward. Meaning, perhaps, that we get into fewer funks or ruts than we used to. Meaning that we’re able to use sadhana to get out of negativity more swiftly (the recovery time, as it were, is quicker). Meaning that fewer events are bound to ‘throw us off’ in the first place. And so on.


If one is not noticing, over a long enough period of time (hence one must be discerningly patient), greater peace, more love, and less suffering, then one should seek out help with a view to making earnest corrections to one’s practice. And if one is noticing all three, then one should carry on with earnestness, gratitude, and humility.