Climbing the Mountain
Spiritual growth is a mystifying process. Even the experts (priest/esses, popes, pastors, etc.) have trouble defining and describing it. Yet, anyone on a spiritual growth path wants to know when s/he is making progress. One wants to know how far along the path s/he is and how for is left to travel; when will s/he reach the mountain peak, be able to look back at what has been accomplished and receive that "rush" of wonder and fulfillment.
This desire is a natural part of the learning process and is part of the drive for "validation" which all of us seek in our lives. This validation is reasonably easily achieved in the mundane aspects of our lives. We get raises or reprimands on our jobs, we receive smiles or are ignored by our acquaintances, we go on to the next chapter in the lesson book or work longer on the current one. We and our progress are evaluated and validated by these concrete measuring rods.
In the metaphysical arena, however, it is not so easy to find measuring rods. Every person on any spiritual path has his/er own idea of what progress and levels of achievement are. These are measured by this teacher or that book; by one degree or another or no degree at all; or in some cases, simply by the quality of presence a person has (might be called glamour). Many times the person evaluating another cannot be certain that his/er evaluation is correct. A teacher can evaluate how well a student has mastered altar setup, whether s/he has memorized chants and/or spells, whether s/he can answer certain questions to the satisfaction of the teacher. But, that evaluation is, by necessity, generally based solely upon the perception of the teacher because the teacher is unable to get inside the heart of the one being evaluated. And in the end, the real measure is, indeed, in the heart.
When I was being taught, I was constantly asking my teacher how to know when I had reached a new level. My teacher was always sidestepping the answer. I was unsure whether s/he wanted me to discover the answers myself or whether s/he had the impression I believed I was further along than s/he thought I was. I found that extremely frustrating. All I ever wanted to know was what were the landmarks. How could I tell when I was ready to move on to the next step.
I have had people come to me with the same questions. Essentially, they want to know how they can be validated; how can they know whether they are making progress or running around in circles. They wonder why that sense of "wonderment" they feel at times seems to constantly slip away. Are they "backsliding?" Are they missing the point, or are they incompetent? Of course, the answer to these two vital questions, is "no."
So how can one tell how well s/he is doing and how far along the path s/he is? When I was in college, one of the topics discussed was something called "cognitive dissonance." Cognitive dissonance is that feeling you get in your gut when the boss calls you unexpectedly into his/er office. It is that feeling in your gut when a police officer stops you or the telephone rings at 2:00am. It is a feeling inside that, even though you don't know why, you know something is wrong or out of place. No one has to tell you and you are the only one who can feel it. Your boss does not feel, nor does the police officer, and certainly the telephone does not. Yet, you know there is something happening and it does not feel good.
In spiritual growth, there is another feeling that happen in the gut; a feeling you get in your gut that you know changes you forever. It takes you a step forward on your path (even if that was not the direction you intended to go) and you know you can never go back. You don't know how you know it, but it is there, you know it is right and you cannot deny it. Although there is no name for this feeling that I know, I would like to call it cognitive accord.
A person can read 30 books and have a profound intellectual knowledge of his/er spiritual path, yet may never experience cognitive accord until the day his/er mother dies and suddenly a passage read years before flashes back into his/er heart, s/he realizes a deep understanding, and s/he is changed forever. By the same token, one can read very few books, yet stand in the winter forest on a clear new moon night, gazing into the stars and suddenly have that cognitive accord that s/he is gazing into her/himself and is changed forever.
That cognitive accord is the only true measure of one's progress along a spiritual path. No one can recognize it or know it has happened except the person who feels it. Some who have been along that part of the path may recognize the internal wisdom which this person demonstrates, but it is not something that can be evaluated by anyone else's standards, because we each walk a different path.
The answer to the question, "why can't I always feel that way" is more simple than it may seem. At my level of understanding, I see two aspects to this. First, the cognitive accord one feels with a spiritual revelation can be very intense, especially some of the first ones. This intensity, if maintained, would be very difficult to deal with. You would be in a constant state of ecstasy. Although that might sound like a wonderful place to be, how many of us are able to operate in the physical world in the middle of a meditation? That is the mundane drawback. The spiritual drawback, is that I believe that being in a constant state of ecstasy would be too much for your system and you would simply burn yourself up. Perhaps that would result in ascension, but perhaps not.
The other aspect to the answer is a matter of how we progress in general. I like to compare spiritual progress to climbing a mountain. You begin at the foothills. When you walk up a hill, it takes a relatively short time to reach the top and look back. You can go back down, or you can go on to the next hill, which is probably higher, though there may also be some lower ones in between. That hill which you have just climbed, though climbing it may have been a thrill, will never again provide the same thrill as it did the first time you climbed it. Why? Because you are forever changed. You no longer wonder what it would be like to climb that hill. You know.
As you progress up higher and higher hills, you are changed with each one. You may reach plateaus which have to be crossed or where you rest before going on to the next steep climb. In fact, it on the tops of the hills and on the plateaus where you really do the learning, because instead of working, your are assimilating what you have accomplished. Without the resting points, there would be no learning, only work.
Once you reach the top of the mountain and look back at your accomplishments, you think you have accomplished your goal and attained validation. Yet, when you turn around, you see off in the distance, another mountain. But guess what. In order to reach the foothills of the other mountain, you have to climb down the other side of the one you just conquered. That does not mean you have learned the wrong thing climbing your mountain. It simply means that there are many things to learn and each one adds to your growth and spiritual knowledge; knowledge of the mind, and knowledge of the heart.