Criteria for Authentic Spiritual Realization

© Copyright 2001 Timothy Conway, Ph.D.

A widely agreeable set of Criteria for Authentic Spiritual Realization is drastically needed across our sacred traditions so that we can all share basic ultimate values and have an underlying common ground from which we operate in our differing spiritual and/or religious lives. Such a set of criteria could be a crucial touchstone for whether claims made in the name of God and religion are valid or not. Such criteria could also serve as a non-rigid yet very appealing standard by which we aspire to live our lives.

In order to test whether there is, in fact, a shared wisdom of deep spirituality I embarked upon a doctoral dissertation project in the mid-1980s at the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) in San Francisco, determined to answer such questions as: a) How, precisely, is the summit of spirituality, call it God-realization, enlightenment, awakening, liberation, sanctification, or extreme well-being, posited across the Great Traditions? b) What are the shared characteristics and the differences posited by the religious traditions on this all-important subject of the spiritual goal?

I discovered, via an extensive review of the spiritual literature (many hundreds of spiritual biographies, autobiographies and books of instruction by eminent spiritual masters of past and present, East and West) and via detailed interviews that I conducted with contemporary spiritual leaders, that there are in fact clear-cut criteria for a quite similar, if not identical, goal state of spiritual realization articulated across sacred traditions. Temperamental and cultural differences certainly exist within and across our sacred traditions, but there is a similar deep-structure of “enlightenment qualities,” too. [1]

I list these shared criteria for spiritual realization below, so that the reader may better understand that a shared human spirituality does underlie the bewildering diversity of religious thought and practice. This will also serve to resolve the question that has for a few decades troubled Christian journalists, ministers, theologians and sociologists in their encounters with assorted religions and sects: “What is spirituality?” [2]

These core-factors of optimal well-being or extreme spiritual health can be found flourishing in the lives of the world’s most beloved mystics and saints, male and female, ancient and contemporary. (Don’t just take my word for it on these matters—go read the sacred biographical literature and meet contemporary spiritual adepts of the highest caliber.) These are the shared characteristics of our spiritual luminaries, underneath the differing complex theologies, philosophies, and cultural/linguistic conditioning that might operate on a mental level, and the differing rituals and regimens operating on a behavioral level. [3]

If we sincerely, earnestly dive deeply into spirituality, and if we let go all our reactionary ego-tendencies, then these factors of holiness/wholeness can also be true of us. Let me present here, in no particular order, these criteria for genuine spiritual realization at the core of our sacred traditions as they appear in the lives and teachings of our most eminent spiritual heroes and heroines:

*** Freedom from the egocentric, petty sense of “me.” Absence of any pride, narcissism, or narrow obsession with the bodymind personality. Transparent humility and “purity of heart.”

*** Profound peace and deeply relaxed openness. Freedom from restlessness, instability, discontent, and neurotic tensions.

*** Tremendous love for Reality, God or Goddess, Spirit, Buddhata, Brahman, or Dao. For the most mature mystics, the Absolute is realized in a nondual way as the only Reality. Accordingly, some sages, speaking from this utterly non-dual truth, will say: “When duality is outgrown, then there is no lover and no Beloved, just Love.”

*** A fairly consistent, if not unbroken awareness of Spirit (God, Buddha-nature, Reality), with few lapses into distraction or nonlucid “unconsciousness.”

*** Extraordinary love, empathy and compassion for one’s fellow beings, which manifests in a spontaneous spirit of serving them or being useful to them on their bodily, emotional and spiritual levels, without any thought of reward. This is an attitude of generous giving, not selfish taking, motivated by the welfare of all beings, who are not regarded as “other.” (“Love thy neighbor as thy Self.”) This is a real solidarity or oneness with all living beings.

*** Positive influence on sentient beings, inspiring greater ease, joy, love, unattachment, eagerness to serve the needy and other beautiful traits.

*** Equanimity or equipoise. Ability to flow with arising situations. Relaxation of binding attachments and aversions—i.e., freedom from greed, fear, anger, hatred, envy and other reactive, egocentric emotions. Certain emotions may still occasionally arise for our sanctified friends, like brief anger or sadness when encountering injustice or pain afflicting sentient beings; but these emotions don’t significantly throw them off balance, disturb their essential clarity, or interfere with effective action in the world.

*** A deep bliss, joyous ease or extreme wellness, not to be confused with a mere self-centered euphoria on the surface level of the mind. A positive radiance of pure aliveness and innocent exuberance.

*** Nondual presence. Dropping any sense of separation, alienation or loneliness. For the most deeply realized mystics this matures as actual identification with God-Self, Spirit, Absolute Being.

*** Spontaneity. Freedom from hesitation or rigid, inflexible patterns of behavior. Ability to freely do whatever the situation indicates as appropriate action, even if unconventional—yet always from a wholesome context. A sense that actions can flow fairly effortlessly due to the Divine Power, without deliberate, willful effort or planning by the egocentric sense of “me, the doer.” Attunement to what can be called Dao or Divine Will/Way.

*** Spontaneous thankfulness. A deep sense of gratitude to God, Spirit or Reality. (Again, for many holy ones this gratitude is nondual, free of any ultimate sense of separation from God, Spirit, Reality.)

*** A sense of being fully, consciously established in the eternal here-now (the nunc stans), free of obsessive or distracting memories or fantasies that abstract one out of the present. Obviously, memories may be accessed and plans get made, but one is not obsessed by past or future.

*** Superior quality of attention. Extraordinary sensitivity to and mindfulness of phenomena, including people, animals, plants, nature and basic sensations (sounds, colors, tactile sensations, etc.) and psychological processes (thoughts, emotions) as well as any psychic phenomena that may arise (ESP input, apparitions of beings on subtle-energy planes, and so on).

*** Nonattachment to any paranormal powers, psychic visions, or unusual experiences that may arise (and these states or powers often do arise for holy persons, since their consciousness has become highly refined and consciously aligned with the Source of manifestation).

*** Deep insight or intelligence—e.g., an ability to discern the Real (the unchanging Source-Awareness or God-Self) from unreal changing phenomena, the fleeting forms of the Formless.

*** An intuition that the changing, passing world is not so solid as most people think, but a cosmic dream, a “stage-play,” or “movie” conjured by God or Spirit out of primordial Divine No-thingness. Moreover, the most illustrious mystic sages/saints will affirm that whatever apparently happens in the phenomenal world is perfect, a wonderful expression of the Absolute; therefore, nothing that happens is ever truly a problem. Yet this is no license for apathy or irresponsibility; mystics urge us to empathize with the sufferings of our fellow beings and try to alleviate suffering. “It is all a dream, but one must act impeccably within the dream.”

*** “Moral intelligence”; acting in accordance with the Real (God’s Will) on behalf of the commonweal or public good and one’s highest nature.

*** Fearlessness. Courage. Freedom from neurotic aversion toward death, injury, disease, persecution, or any other form of so-called misfortune.

*** A greater sense of benign humor, innocent playfulness, and good cheer. “Enlightenment” is lightening up.

Not all of the above criteria for the spiritual goal or God-realization (or theosis, devekut, fana fi Allah, nirvana, moksha, ming-dao, etc.) are found in the case of every person regarded as a God-realized saint, sage, or mystic. But, uncannily, most of these factors do characterize the holy ones. Hence, these factors can be considered the genuine core of religion or spirituality, much more important than mere doctrines, rituals, and institutions—which should, ideally, promote these factors of God-Realization, not interfere with their development.

The liberated ones, the free beings, invite us to enjoy the same radical state of extreme spiritual wellness. Spiritual liberation, an incredible, optimal well-being, is our very birthright.


1. Timothy Conway, Ph.D. dissertation, “The Criteria for Spiritual Realization: An Investigation of Optimal Well-Being,” Ann Arbor, MI: University Microfilms International, 1989. To read chapters 1, 2, and 5 online, click HERE.

2. On this topic of spirituality, Russell Chandler, former religion reporter for The Los Angeles Times, heavily biased in favor of evangelical Christianity, in his book Racing Toward 2001 (Zondervan/HarperSF 1992), chronically airs suspicious, cynical and distorting remarks about Eastern spirituality, New Age spirituality, the self-help movement and anything else not quite in accord with his understanding of traditional Christianity (“authentic biblical faith”). His section on mysticism (pp. 204-6) is one of the very worst journalistic treatments of this topic in print, sadly confusing mysticism with the New Age movement. Chandler seems completely unaware that some of Christianity’s most respected mystical theologians have affirmed what he critiques, such as the immanence (as well as transcendence) of God, and the mystical idea that “the center of the soul is God,” as St. Anthony, Eriugena, Eckhart, John of Ruusbroec, John of the Cross, Catherine of Siena, and many others have posited.

In his chapter “Alternative Altars: Next Age Faiths,” Chandler raises the question, “What is ‘spirituality’”? and says, “Television journalist Bill Moyers believes the struggle to define what it means to be spiritual is the ‘biggest story of the century’” (p. 191-2) [Emphasis added--T.C.].

Hence the importance of the inventory of holiness factors or criteria for spiritual realization that I present here. Note that I, too, like Chandler, have some serious criticisms of the New Age, pop psychology, etc. But I believe that these must be criticized from the standpoint of the cross-cultural criteria for spiritual realization, i.e., the “Perennial Wisdom” or “Primordial Tradition” (see Huston Smith, Ken Wilber, et al.), not from the viewpoint of a narrow, bigoted, excessively rigid form of evangelical Christianity.

3. Most of these core factors of optimal well-being or characteristics of spiritual realization tend to be “less ramified,” not “highly ramified,” to utilize a critical distinction by the late Prof. Ninian Smart. In Smart’s view, low-ramified statements by/about mystics’ experiences or states of consciousness are those expressed in simple language and are nearer to experience descriptions than are highly ramified terms thick with the presuppositions of religious doctrines and dogmas, philosophical arguments, scriptural references, etc. For instance, the statement, “I experienced the redemptive grace of Jesus the Christ, the Word made flesh,” is a highly ramified utterance, heavy with theological “baggage,” whereas the statements, “I experienced a state of extraordinary serenity, bliss, and all-embracing love,” and “I experienced a state of formless consciousness, devoid of phenomena,” are both low-ramified statements, clear-cut references to unmediated experiential states.

The importance of unramified or low ramified statements is that they can be more usefully compared across cultures than high-ramified statements. Thus we can more reliably and validly state that two mystics from different religious backgrounds are “experiencing the same (or nearly the same) state” when we are comparing their low-ramified statements. See Ninian Smart, “Interpretation and Mystical Experience,” Religious Studies (Cambridge Univ. Press), Vol. 1, No. 1, Oct., 1965, pp. 75-87; reprinted in Richard Woods (Ed.), Understanding Mysticism, Doubleday, 1980, pp. 78-91. See section iv on this crucial distinction between high and low ramification in descriptions of mystical experience.