Everyone wants a deep purpose in life. Whether we seek deep inner peace or personal spiritual growth, we can accept the everyday rewards of our relationships and work only for so long; for we crave for some sign from deep within that tells us, your path is the right one and I, your deepest self, am pleased. Even as great a saint as Mother Teresa confessed in her memoirs that, much as she craved this assurance, she had for decades to work tirelessly without it. It is almost as if we have to continually revisit what we believe to be our connection with this deepest self, soul, God, or whatever you choose to call it. Whether in strength or weakness, here are four ways to monitor and assess whether or not your life is moving toward that meaning we all crave so much.

(1) If you pray with a group, does it still resonate with ideals you joined it for? Traditionally, humanity has hoped to commune with the deepest self through religious observances, usually within a group of similarly minded seekers. The ideal, for example, of blessing them that curse you, which we see in the life of great teachers like Jesus and the Buddha, can set us on fire with zeal to behave in this way ourselves. But we don’t know how, so we search for those who profess themselves able to teach us. A religion or group may promise instruction in how to live not for narrow personal gain, but for the benefit and uplift of all humanity; but over the years, we seldom notice how imperceptibly the group itself becomes the entity all should strive to benefit, though lip service may still be paid to helping the homeless, starving, poverty stricken, or desolate. Make sure such an association still resonates with and serves your own spiritual needs. If it does not, as the Buddha says, “Tread the path alone, like the rhinoceros.”

(2) Does my spiritual practice encompass my deepest personal issues? The balance between working on our own issues and giving of ourselves to help others is an age-old spiritual conundrum. It is not too hard to pray for someone else, or even to help them in ways very much appreciated. But it is all too easy in the process to overlook or override our own needs and neglect urgent inner work. Say, for example, as you give freely of your time to help at the homeless shelter, those who run it reward you with gratefulness and a kind of spiritual prestige. You may even get a mention in the local paper. How very difficult, in contrast, it is to feel such palpable rewards when we painfully revisit those painful childhood events that make it easier to lose ourselves in the work at the shelter and harder to spend time with our own family. It is appropriate to keep mindful watch on the possibility that high spiritual work and position, however wonderfully they may benefit those in need, might actually help us hide from inner conflicts that urgently need healing attention.

(3) What is better, being regarded as spiritual, or opening to view the darkness inside? According to the Buddha, spirituality is most authentically emergence from the darkness that conceals from us our real nature, “like a chick shattering its eggshell into the brightness of day.” Someone with a weighty position and authority, whether at the head of a church or prominent in a company or university, may never feel impelled to open to their inner darkness, the patterns and behaviors that steal upon us unawares, as in a sudden outburst of anger or an attack by an addiction. In this sense, a fall or a huge blunder can actually be the greatest grace, because this darkness has now manifested itself and can be gradually, painfully brought into conscious awareness. That is why the late Henry Nouwen, a devout Catholic who wrote many bestselling books, gave up the prestigious Ivy League professorship his talents justified to live in a community for the handicapped, where people gathered each day to talk about their weaknesses and gain collective strength to face them.

(4) Are my expectations for my spiritual practice reasonable, or is there something vital avoided and left out? My generation took to meditation with the desire for intense inner experience. As the Tibetan teacher Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche says, we wished “to rise above life’s mundane trappings and see a new view that would dissolve the feeling of alienation and penetrate life’s very meaning.” In the flush of youthful enthusiasm, few of us would have tolerated the charge that such experience-or the mere promissory hope of it-might have merely been a drug, a self-medication shielding us from trauma and hurt we were forever running away from. So if you are having doubts about how your chosen path has failed to help you control your anger, be honest with your spouse, or elevate your own sunken idea of your inner capabilities, try through reflection or journal writing, or with your therapist or 12-step group, to revisit a pivotal event or childhood-era decision back in your past that typifies the pattern you want to say goodbye to. It might not be pain-free to bring it back, but try it; you will be glad to have the chance to learn to decide differently as an adult. Then you will begin to taste the true fruits of your spiritual practice, in which trauma has been blocking your progress. And most wonderfully, you will experience the freedom that is the very most precious in this life: to be the person you want to be.

Dr. Stephen Ruppenthal is the author of The Path of Direct Awakening: Passages for Meditation. He is also the co-author of Eknath Easwaran’s edition of The Dhammapada and the author of Keats and Zen. He has taught meditation and courses on Han Shan at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University. Dr. Ruppenthal has published numerous articles on such sites as Beliefnet.com and Healthy Wealthy ‘n Wise. Visit Stephen’s work at www.directawakenings.com.