How do I know if I am on the right path? How do I measure my spiritual progress? And, what is the sign of a true spiritual experience? These are the three most common questions every sincere seeker asks me at some point in time on their journey. Often, they narrate their experience and ask me if what they felt was real.
It’s natural to doubt your experience, particularly when even after a supposedly profound spiritual episode, none of the problems in your life disappear. Having said that, the mere presence of doubt doesn’t void your experience. So, how to differentiate between a fleeting, illusory experience from a real one? Let me share a beautiful story.
Roughly 1700 years ago, a certain actor was in great demand in Rome. He would entertain people with his plays and comedy. Diocletian, the emperor of Rome was particularly fond of him. At every major event, he was called to act out his plays.
This actor known by the name of Genesius enthralled the royal audience by mocking Christianity. In his satires, he would make fun of Jesus Christ and ridicule Christian traditions. This was how he made his living and had the audience in splits. Mocking came to him naturally for he had no reverence in his heart for Christ or Christianity. (For you will never mock who/what you revere or even respect.)
One day, when the royal court was in full attendance, Genesius (also known as Gelasinus) was acting as usual. Today, he was lampooning a baptism and next to him lay a big vat full of water. To mock the Christian sacrament signifying spiritual cleansing and rebirth, he leaned forward to take some water from the tub while reciting biblical verses. Just then he slipped and fell into the vat.
He found himself immersed in water and when he stepped out, something deep inside had changed in him. He was no longer the Genesius who had fallen but a new man. Drenched in the grace of Christ, he proclaimed himself to be a Christian that very moment and promised to devote his life to serving the cause of his Lord God.
One experience was enough to reform him. The emperor lured and then coerced him to give up his belief but he stood his ground. They had him put in prison but the transformed actor was unmoved. Diocletian threatened him with a death sentence and yet Genesius refused to renounce his faith. Eventually, he was publicly beheaded in 303 CE while he remained calm with his mind yoked to the Jesus of Nazareth, his savior.
The sign of a real spiritual experience is transformation.
The deeper your experience, the more profound and lasting the transformation. To the ordinary mind, Genesius’s accidental slip and fall into the vat while mocking baptism could hardly be called spiritual. For Genesius, however, it was a life-transforming experience. So sacred and holy that ultimately he chose death over forsaking his newfound faith. So defining that from Genesius the clown-actor, he became St. Genesius. One dip was all it took.
If your experience didn’t transform you, in my view, there was no spiritual meaning to it. I’m not suggesting that every incident is life-altering. Yet, any true experience will change you for the better, however little.
If you dreamed of God all night or had his vision but you woke up with the same old feelings of jealousy, anger, negativity and so on, clearly there was nothing spiritual about that dream. Any experience that doesn’t nudge you to be more compassionate, loving and kind, can’t be a spiritual experience.
The only way to measure your progress on the path, the only way to know if you are treading the right ground is to ascertain the degree of your transformation. If you find yourself increasingly filled with grace, love, truth and sincerity, whatever it is that you are doing, keep doing it. It’s working for you. Any practice that makes you more rigid, negative, narrow-minded or angry couldn’t possibly be divine.
A lady took out the Bible and began reading it keenly as soon as the plane took off.
“You don’t really believe in all this, do you?” her co-passenger, an atheist, asked her.
“Of course, I do!” she exclaimed. “This is the word of God.”
“Come on!” the man said shaking his head, “Do you really think that guy Jonah lived in a whale for three nights?”
“And how do you think he survived there?”
“I’ll ask him when I get to heaven.”
“Yeah? What if Jonah is in hell?” he mocked.
“Then you ask him,” she said without batting an eye and went back to reading.
A spiritual belief or experience has no rationale and you don’t need to justify it to anyone. Spirituality is feeling not logical thinking. If you want logic, there are many other such disciplines as mathematics, the sciences and so on. Any discipline on the path of spirituality is to help you reach that state of pure ‘feeling’. A state where your faith takes a whole new dimension and you naturally develop altruistic concern for everyone around you.
Any experience that does not transform you has little utility, and the one that doesn’t fill you with love has no meaning. Any day, a more compassionate atheist is better than a cruel believer. For, spirituality is not if you believe in God. Instead, it is if you believe in love. It is not whether you pray but if you care.
Does that mean any spiritual discipline is pointless? Of course not. Any discipline or experience though must eventually lead to some insight. Like falling in the vat did for St. Genesius or a vision of Kali did for Ramakrishna Paramahamsa.
Regardless of any vision or experience or belief, the truth is that you are only as spiritual as your thoughts, words and conduct. The three pillars of spiritual harmony. The absoluteness of an experience is not as important as the realization you have from such an incident. After all, that’s what a blessed moment is — realization. And that’s what life is — blessed realization.
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