I think we can ask ourselves, what is meant by spirituality or spiritual levels? Are we all under the assumption that we have the same ideas of the spiritual goal?
I recently read a blog post by Christopher Wallis that talks about this, here’s a list of some of the various descriptions that he writes about:
In the Indian tradition, the single word that’s most often used to name the goal of the spiritual path is liberation (mokṣa or mukti). The word ‘liberation’ implies it’s the same goal but then you ask what liberation means and you find many different answers.
Liberation means, according to various scriptural authorities:
● escape from saṁsāra (cycle of birth and death)
● duḥkhānta (the end of suffering)
● the complete cessation of the desire for things to be other than as they are ( = nirvāṇa)
● separation from the material universe (kaivalya)
● attaining a heavenly realm
● the dissolution of the separate self
● the manifestation of one’s divinity (śivatva-abhivyakti)
● abiding nondual awareness
● limitless bliss
● godlike powers
● becoming a Śiva (i.e., identical in nearly all respects to the original Śiva)
● becoming one with God
● becoming one with the Absolute
● realizing your oneness with the Absolute
● and many more.
1. Escape from Samsara.
Liberation can mean an exit from saṁsāra, meaning escaping from the cycle of birth and death. This was, for many Indian traditions, the point of liberation. This is not a goal that modern people tend to relate to. Many say, “Life is wonderful, why would I want to stop being born again and again?” To be blunt, this statement is absolutely evidence of your great privilege. Most humans, in most of the history of the world, found that life mostly sucks, and there would be no need to prove this point to anyone except people living in developed nations in the late 20th or early 21st century. For most humans in history, to escape from the cycle of birth and death would seem like a perfectly reasonable goal, and a spiritual path that promises that is a very interesting and attractive one.
2. Other goals were also spoken of, described and promised, such as duḥkhānta. That's Sanskrit for the end of suffering. According to some, liberation is the end of all suffering. Others said, “No, it's the end of all mind-created suffering”—which is more than good enough because nearly all of your suffering is mind-created.
3. For other traditions, the goal of the spiritual path is the separation from the material universe, kaivalya. That word means separation, isolation, or aloneness, and many people are surprised to learn it’s the word used in Yoga-sūtra for the goal of the path. Kaivalya means escaping from and transcending the material universe entirely; liberation, on this view, is to be completely disentangled and separated from the material universe.
4. Some traditions, such as the Chaitanya Vaishnavas a.k.a. the Gaudiya Vaishnavas a.k.a. the Hare Krishnas, believe liberation is attaining a heavenly realm, specifically Goloka, the paradise of cows, an incredibly exquisitely beautiful pastoral setting, an idealized vision of pastoral India, where all the cows are beautiful and healthy, all the people are beautiful and healthy, and Krishna can multiply himself a million versions of himself and be with each devotee personally. There’s no merging with God on this view. That’s not the goal of the path.
5. Some Buddhist lineages, and neo-vedānta lineages, believe that the primary goal of the spiritual path is best articulated as the death of the separate self, the death of the false self, the annihilation of the ego. All those phrases mean exactly the same thing: the end of the person you thought you were, which turns out to be just a mental construct. Many people who undergo this experience it as a fairly cataclysmic event and others don’t. Others just find the separate self just slips away and doesn’t come back, that’s somewhat rare but it can happen. When the death of the separate self happens suddenly instead of slowly, the person undergoing it is nearly always convinced that they are literally going to die. The constructed selfhood of the psyche is so intense that when it’s shearing apart, the person undergoing that process often thinks or feels that that they couldn't possibly survive this process. It feels like impending death or possibly insanity; but neither actually occurs.
6. Another articulation of the goal of the spiritual path is unity-consciousness. This is the state of being one with everything while still possessing a self. People glimpse this state on psychedelics and ‘plant medicines’ and it's a pretty wonderful thing. Some then take it to be the goal of the path.
7. Closely related, but a little different is the notion of the goal in terms of abiding nondual awareness. This is not exactly the same as unity-consciousness because unity consciousness is a feeling, it’s a felt sense of merging. In unity-consciousness one experiences a state where they say, “I am one with everything” but there's still an ‘I’ present and that ‘I’ experiences itself as one with everything. This can be very enjoyable but in abiding nondual awareness, there’s not really an ‘I’ present. The separate self has dissolved and there’s only nondual awareness, meaning there’s no “I am one with everything” because that’s two things, ‘I’ and ‘everything’. There's just non-duality, there’s just one glorious whole. It’s rare, but possible, for human beings to permanently enter into nondual awareness.
8. Other traditions or other lineages within the same tradition, state that the goal of the path is something like ‘limitless bliss’.
9. According to yet others, the goal of the path is having godlike powers. Many of the yoga texts, I’m ashamed to say, speak about about the godlike powers you will have when you reach the state of yoga. It’s an embarrassing aspect of the tradition, really.
10. The culmination of the practice, according to some Shaivite traditions, is to become a Shiva, to become a Rudra. This means that you attain the same powers, abilities, vision, and capacity as the creator, sustainer, and destroyer of the whole universe. The only difference is you don’t create, sustain, and destroy the whole universe. You could, but you don’t, out of respect to the original Shiva. Sanskrit texts state that to become a Śiva you rise to Śiva’s level and you’re separate but equal, without merging with him. (This is the view of the Śaiva Siddhānta branch of the tradition.)
The above descriptions don’t even touch on some experiences that are already in this thread, like out of body experiences/astral projection. Is this even a goal of spirituality? What of those who do not have those experiences?
It seems to me that when we are talking seriously about spirituality, we may want to define what we mean by such a term so that we can talk on the same terms, with the same base of understanding.
Now, changing topic a little bit, what is the role of free will? How deeply has each of us looked into the idea of free will? How much are we REALLY in control of anything in our lives? I have sometimes experienced self awareness in such a way that it appears that we are aware of the processes in the mind to such a high degree that it feels as if we are controlling our thoughts and intentions, but in reality the thoughts and intentions are happening, we are aware of those and FEEL as if we are doing it. But then you must ask, who am I? Who am I who thinks that “I” am doing any of it? As I move back, back, back within myself, I cannot find that “I” who I think it is doing any of these things. That sense of “I” was an illusion, a creation of the mind, which is not who I really am.
I’m always reminded of Ramana Maharshi. He has obviously had a profound influence on many people. But look closely at him, and you will see that he did not do anything. Ramana went within himself, he realized who he was, and then he stayed there in that pure knowledge of his true self. Everything after that simply happened. Lives were changed, but by whom?
The grace that changed Ramana Maharshi is the same grace that changed the lives of those people who came into contact with him. Ramana did not have to do anything, the changes happened of their own accord. Who is doing the changing? Why do we think that we must do something? We only think that we must do something because we don’t know ourselves.
From Sri Ramana Maharshi, “Who Am I?”:
Whatever burdens are thrown on God, He bears them. Since the supreme power of God makes all things move, why should we, without submitting ourselves to it, constantly worry ourselves with thoughts as to what should be done and how, and what should not be done and how not? We know that the train carries all loads, so after getting on it why should we carry our small luggage on our head to our discomfort, instead of putting it down in the train and feeling at ease?