Advanced Yoga Practices
Lesson 67 - Bhakti - The Science of Devotion
Date: Sun Jan 4, 2004 3:24pm
Devotion is the most commonly practiced yoga technique around the world, though it is rarely called “yoga.” Devotion, the continuous focus of desire on a particular spiritual ideal, is so common that the world’s great religions are called “belief systems” or “faiths,” as if nothing else but that exists in spiritual practice. What is this thing called devotion? Why is it so important?
The importance of desire was discussed early in these lessons, and has been mentioned often ever since. At first we looked at the purely logical aspects of devotion. If we have an idea about something, a vision of it, and an ongoing desire to attain it, then we have a mental and emotional vehicle that will enable us to act in order to get there. Considering a trip to a beautiful place called California was given as an example. If we never were able to imagine the place, had no knowledge of it, how could we ever decide to go there? So, first comes an image. Then desire merges into that image. Then action. Or maybe we have desire surging up first, undirected. We don’t know for what. For something more. It latches on to one thing, then another, and then another. Finally it latches on to something big, a big idea: “Enlightenment.” Then we set out for that, knowing it is the most we can attain. Desire is always looking for more. Desire is always looking for the biggest, the best, the most. All the desires that come up in us are divine in their origin, and seeking the greatest possible thing in life. Desire is the primordial form of the guru. Obviously, desire alone is not enough to get us there. It must be aimed in certain ways.
Devotion is more than the simple psychological mechanism of placing an ideal in the heart and mind which we can then strive for. There is much more to it than that. Directed emotional energy, desire, has great power. The act of devotion, the act of desiring the highest ideal we can imagine, is a transforming power itself. It creates changes deep in our nervous system. If we have devotion for a high ideal, this alone will be changing us inside before we ever sit to do any pranayama or meditation, or any of the rest of the advanced practices. Devotion is the first yoga practice, the main yoga practice, and the fire that lights everything on the path. Without it, everything else we do is just going through the motions. Devotion to our highest ideal is the guru in action in us.
Like all of the other abilities we have discussed here, devotion is a natural manifestation in our nervous system. It is the one that is most obvious, coming up in everyone in one way or another. Yoga methods work to stimulate and open up the natural abilities in us to full functioning. There is a branch of yoga called, “Bhakti” that is concerned with optimizing desire and devotion to the highest level of spiritual effectiveness. Having a basic knowledge of the methods of bhakti yoga, and applying them, can have a huge effect on the course of our spiritual life.
Bhakti means, “love of God.” If “God” is not the right word for you, use a phrase like, “love of highest ideal” or “love of highest truth.” Whatever represents the greatest attainment you can imagine. Whatever it is, loving it will change you, and inspire you to do all that you can to merge with that. We all know that love changes us. When we care about something or someone more than our own self, we are being changed. As the Beatles sung, “All you need is love.” Ah, if it were only that simple, the earth would be paradise by now and every religion would be producing saints by the millions. We are not there yet, but we are on the way. Love was the right start then, and it is the right start now. That is not love of anything and everything – scattered all around with no particular focus. That kind of universal love comes later, as the natural outflow of pure bliss consciousness and divine ecstasy come up. The kind of love that drives human spiritual transformation and all the yoga that brings it up is love of your highest ideal.
What is the highest ideal? Who decides what it is? Your guru? Your priest? Your rabbi? Your mullah? There will be plenty of suggestions. Everyone wants you to love their ideal. That’s okay. It is a game that we humans have played for thousands of years. Love my ideal, will you please? Or else!
But only you can choose. Only you know what burns brightest in your heart. That is your highest ideal, that which burns like a beacon in your heart. Maybe it is Jesus. Maybe Krishna. Maybe Allah. Maybe your guru. Maybe the light inside you. It can be anything. Only you can know. Whoever or whatever it is, it is yours. It is personal. You will know it when you see it because it will burn like a beacon in you. It will be all goodness, all progress, projecting no harm toward anyone. It is that which leads you home to pure bliss consciousness and divine ecstasy.
In the language of bhakti, it is called “ishta,” which means, “chosen ideal.” You choose it. If nothing comes up burning bright like that, it is okay. Guess what? You are reading these words, and therefore you are moving toward your highest ideal, your ishta. Your highest ideal is in your movement to study, and perhaps an inclination to practice yoga methods. Your ishta is in you somewhere. Your desire is leading you to something. This is as much ishta as having a clear vision in your heart. Your journey is your ishta.
Bhakti begins with that very first question: “Is there something more?”
The amazing thing about the process of bhakti is how it clarifies over time. At first, there is some fuzzy notion. Some desires coming up. A sense of mystery. That opening alone brings knowledge in. Who knows from where it will come? Then we grab on and start doing something. Some practices. Then some inner experiences start, some blissful silence, and then there is some clarity. Then we read the scriptures, and words that were just words before come alive with radiant meaning. After a while, our ishta becomes clearer. We find ourselves in a relationship with what is happening inside. All the while the bhakti is getting stronger, and we are falling deeper into the divine game.
Somewhere along the way we will find the techniques of bhakti, and falling into the divine accelerates. Maybe we will read about the techniques. Or maybe we discover them naturally.
So what are the techniques of bhakti? Well, there is really only one. It manifests in a thousand ways. It is not a practice we do while in our daily sessions of pranayama and meditation. It is something that gradually rises in our daily activity.
There are always desires coming. We want this. We want that. We want money. We want food. We want a lover. We want a new car. Even anger and frustration are desires – desires that have hit a wall, so the energy goes haywire in our nervous system. So many desires are flying all over the place, sending us hither and yon, crashing into each other. You name it. The technique of bhakti is in redirecting our desires, harnessing them. Some people naturally find this ability. For others, it comes up over time, as there is more silence in the mind and heart from meditation. The inner silence cultivated in meditation is underneath the desires bubbling up, so we can see them like moving objects. We are a bit detached from the emotional energy in us. Then we can nudge it toward our highest ideal. Just a very easy nudging. No forcing. No big campaign. It is just an easy favoring of our ideal when we notice some emotional energy surging up. It does not matter if it is positive or negative energy.
For example, suppose we are stuck at a traffic light and getting frustrated because we are late for an appointment. A lot of emotional energy is there getting frittered away. So we are frustrated. Take that frustration and redirect it. With your attention you can easily let the red light go as the object of the frustration simmering there. Easily bring in your highest ideal as the object. It is much like meditation. You easily favor one thought object over another. So now you are frustrated about your highest ideal. “God damned ishta! Why am I not merged with you yet? I am very frustrated!” Now you have a real motivation not to miss your daily meditation. Not only that, your emotional energy directed in that way produces spiritual changes inside your nervous system. It opens your nervous system to your ideal. It is ironic that we can’t change a red light with our emotions, but we can open our nervous system to the divine with them. It seems like a worthwhile thing to do, doesn’t it?
This kind of procedure can be done with every emotion, positive or negative – with our feelings about everything we do. Does it mean we stop doing the things we are doing and run off to meditate instead? No. We meditate when it is time to meditate, and in activity we do the things we have chosen to do in our life. Redirecting emotional energy to our highest ideal will animate our actions, whatever they may be, and it will turbo-charge our practices whenever we sit to do them. When in practices, we do the procedures of the practices, not the bhakti procedure. To the extent bhakti is simmering in us from the redirection of desires during the day, our practices will be enhanced. What we want is to quietly cultivate a habit of bhakti in life. We will look the same outside, but inside the wheels of bhakti will always be turning. We will experience a rise in our spiritual intensity. It is called “tapas.” Tapas is bhakti that is a habit and never stops, like an endless flame burning in us. With that kind of bhakti, all of life becomes spiritual practice.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta said she saw Jesus in the eyes of every disadvantaged child she helped. That is bhakti.
It won’t always work for us like that. It isn’t supposed to. Don’t judge yourself on whether or not you were able to transfer your frustration at the red light into a frustration for getting enlightened. Just remember this procedure from time to time as you go through your daily life, especially if you catch yourself in a whirlpool of emotional energy. That is prime time for bhakti. Just an awareness of this principle of bhakti will set things in motion inside when emotions flare up.
The great nineteenth-century Indian saint, Ramakrishna, was a master at creating huge outpourings of bhakti. He would writhe around on the floor at the base of the statue of Mother Divine he worshipped, sobbing and sobbing for the slightest touch from her inside. The more upset he got the more he would direct it toward his ishta, the statue. He seemed like a crazy man. All the while his bhakti was working like a laser beam, slicing through every obstruction in his nervous system. By bhakti alone he became the divine.
The extremes of bhakti are not necessarily what we are aiming for here in these lessons, though it is up to you. Even a little bhakti goes a very long way. There is great power in it. So much so that we have to remind ourselves that intense bhakti can have a big effect on the rise of our kundalini, both directly through the emotional energy, and in the turbo-charging effect that bhakti brings into all of our practices. As with all yoga practices, we can overdo bhakti, so we must be mindful about that. Our experience is the best measure of whether or not we are overdoing it. Everyone has their own time line, their own pace for the spiritual purification process. Let your experience be your guide.
Because the method of bhakti produces predictable results over and over again, we can say that it is a systematic application of knowledge. Bhakti is the science of devotion — a powerful science indeed.
Let’s go back to kundalini now and talk more about some of the symptoms that come up, and what to do if things seem to be a little out of balance.
The guru is in you.