We tend to measure success or failure in terms of specific results we see in our relatively short, individual lifetime, based on our preconceived or societally sanctioned ideas about what constitutes success or failure. When it comes to progress in spiritual development, however, this is not necessarily either the correct judgment term (time frame within which something can be evaluated), nor the correct criteria for deciding what constitutes success. Sometimes what appears to be a life of constant struggle and difficulty may actually be a blessing that shifts us out of some comfortable, but not inwardly beneficial, situation in life and moves our focus toward some deeper sense of being and a realisation based on the deeper truth of our existence. Similarly, in an evolutionary progression that occurs over many lifetimes, it is virtually impossible to either measure one’s own progress against that of others, or even some independent yardstick, or to determine the actual status of one’s spiritual development. Much of the inner growth actually takes place unseen and unnoticed until such time as it is ready to manifest. Whether this occurs in the current life, or in some future lifetime, is very much irrelevant to the developing soul, even if the surface being is impatient for results.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna propounds a question to Sri Krishna about whether effort undertaken in the life to achieve spiritual realisation can lead to failure both in the outer life and in the spiritual attempt if it does not come to fruition. Sri Krishna encourages Arjuna by pointing out that no effort is ever lost and that all spiritual focus and aspiration has its effect, even if not recognised by the practitioner. Thus, there is no need for despondency.
Sri Aurobindo observes: “But this is not always the manner of the commencement. The Sadhaka is often led gradually and there is a long space between the first turning of the mind and the full assent of the nature to the thing towards which it turns. There may at first be only a vivid intellectual interest, a forcible attraction towards the idea and some imperfect form of practice. Or perhaps there is an effort not favoured by the whole nature, a decision or a turn imposed by an intellectual influence or dictated by personal affection and admiration for someone who is himself consecrated and devoted to the Highest. In such cases, a long period of preparation may be necessary before there comes the irrevocable consecration; and in some instances it may not come. There may be some advance, there may be a strong effort, even much purification and many experiences other than those that are central or supreme; but the life will either be spent in preparation or, a certain stage having been reached, the mind pushed by an insufficient driving-force may rest content at the limit of the effort possible to it. Or there may even be a recoil to the lower life, — what is called in the ordinary parlance of Yoga a fall from the path. This lapse happens because there is a defect at the very centre. The intellect has been interested, the heart attracted, the will has strung itself to the effort, but the whole nature has not been taken captive by the Divine. It has only acquiesced in the interest, the attraction or the endeavour. There has been an experiment, perhaps even an eager experiment, but not a total self-giving to an imperative need of the soul or to an unforsakable ideal. Even such imperfect Yoga has not been wasted; for no upward effort is made in vain. Even if it fails in the present or arrives only at some preparatory stage or preliminary realisation, it has yet determined the soul’s future.”
“But if we desire to make the most of the opportunity that this life gives us, if we wish to respond adequately to the call we have received and to attain to the goal we have glimpsed, not merely advance a little towards it, it is essential that there should be an entire self-giving. The secret of success in Yoga is to regard it not as one of the aims to be pursued in life, but as the whole of life.”
Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, Growing Within: The Psychology of Inner Development, Chapter II Awakening of Consciousness, pp. 18-20