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Of all the ways you can grow, most are marked by externals—growing richer, more successful, or with a larger family, for example—and others are known by your behavior and attitude—for instance, growing happier, more loving, and more mature. The only kind of growth that is totally silent, hidden, and unseen is spiritual growth. The Bhagavad-Gita says that even someone who is enlightened can’t be recognized by external signs.
This isn’t a mystical statement, or an obstacle put up to confuse someone on the spiritual path. The reason that spiritual growth is unseen is that is happens only in consciousness. You can’t think your way to a higher spiritual state. It requires knowing how consciousness works, which is what another ancient Indian adage means; “Know this one thing by which all else is known.”
In daily life all of us are guided by mental activity, which is constantly renewing itself with new desires, wishes, dreams, fears, habits, and miscellaneous thoughts. This level of awareness is not the enemy of spiritual growth, but almost all mental activity is irrelevant. Positive thoughts and negative thoughts play a huge part in how well your life is going, but they do not affect your state of awareness, which is the only thing to be focused on if you want to grow spiritually.
Five Principles for the Spiritual Path
There is a huge cache of spiritual writing from every spiritual tradition, Eastern and Western, from which one can distill how knowledge in awareness grows. For practical purposes, here are five principles that you can apply to your own path, whatever it is and whatever tradition you favor.
1. Consciousness is the ground of all things, the source of creation.
Although there are different words for the source of creation, yet every tradition agrees that the source of creation is conscious. This source is behind the scenes, we might say, and every individual consciousness (that is, you and I) is embedded in it.
Practical application: To grow spiritually, you must take an interest in consciousness, which means setting out to find your source.
2. The spiritual path goes beyond the thinking mind. It is transcendent.
To find your source, you are not asked to think your way there, nor to feel your way or follow obscure teachings. Something much simpler is required, known as simple awareness. When your mind is quiet and rested, you will feel centered. The thinking mind won't be distracted, disturbed, overwhelmed, or stressed. This is simple awareness. From here, there is movement toward deeper awareness.
Practical application: First for the serious aspirant is regular meditation, but in modern life this might be too much to ask given the speed and stress that we are all subjected to. But you can always take time during the day to center yourself.
Find a quiet place to be alone, take a few deep breaths, and with eyes closed follow your breathing. This centering exercise should be done regularly several times a day in order to learn what it feels like to be in simple awareness. With practice, your mind will easily slip into this state and stop being so addicted to constant thinking.
3. The deeper levels of awareness are your true self.
Simple awareness is the starting gate to the spiritual path. The goal of the path is total awakening or enlightenment, but that is far off for almost everyone. There have to be steps for progress along the way. These are the steps that draw you toward your true self. It silently attracts your attention all the time, even now, and by noticing this, you come ever closer to your source.
Practical application: You are already getting glimpses of your true self all the time. These are experiences of higher consciousness, although you might not use that term for them. Such experiences are known intimately as love, compassion, empathy, beauty, truth, creativity, insight, and bliss. By noticing these glimpses, you are beginning to know your true self directly.
4. The values you favor in your daily life either expand your awareness or cause it to contract.
Glimpse of the true self, or higher consciousness, come to everyone. But to actually create spiritual growth, you have to devote time and attention to them. Fleeting glimpses are like threshold experiences—you must cross the threshold to transcend the everyday active mind.
Practical application: Any time you decide to favor a glimpse of the true self, take the time to do three things, all of which occur “in here”:
- Notice the experience. Pause and let it sink in. Don’t mentally rush on to the next thing. Create a quiet space, and let this moment of love, beauty, compassion, insight, or any other higher value become your sole focus for a moment.
- Value the experience, savor the experience. Having paused, offer gratitude and appreciation for this glimpse. You don’t have to do anything verbally or even with a thought. It’s enough to put your attention on your heart and create a warm bond with what is happening. A smile in the heart is enough to open a link to your true self.
- Follow where the experience leads. Inside every glimpse of the true self is a hint of bliss, joy, and ecstasy. This hint, which can be strong at times, is directive. It pulls you to wanting more. So “follow your bliss” means following your truth, your calling, the life you were meant to live. Be confident that you have such a life, which is being organized by your true self the more you walk the path to reach it.
5. Creative intelligence knows, creates, and governs everything.
The flow of silent messages from your true self seems to be intermittent and hard to follow. Mistakes are made in everyone’s life; false starts and setbacks occur. The thinking mind dwells on the ups and downs, the flashes of inspiration followed by conflict and confusion. But from the perspective of the true self, creative intelligence is constant and knowing. It organizes the life you are meant to be living.
This scheme, known in Sanskrit as Dharma, becomes clear the closer you get to your true self. There are no banners in the sky for you to follow—there is instead a stream of desires that naturally make you want to be yourself. So the spiritual path is a path of desire. You can never get to a goal unless each step along the way is desirable.
Practical application: You are in your dharma when what you do every day brings fulfillment. Things comes easily. You feel naturally in the groove. Resistance and opposition are either not present or easily cleared away. A sense of inner contentment is felt, and you are certain that your life has meaning and purpose.
Obviously, countless people do not experience these signs of spiritual growth, but the choice is always there for change and transformation. Dharma is many things, but at the very foundation it is a vision of life that you feel uplifted and fulfilled by. Following your vision makes spiritual growth blissful. The path of desire comes down to going toward greater bliss.