Devotion is the most common yoga technique in the world, though it is rarely called
"yoga." The focus of desire on a spiritual ideal is so common that the great
religions are called "belief systems" or "faiths," as if nothing else
but devotion exists in spiritual practice. Why is devotion so important?
Placing an ideal to strive for in our heart is more than a simple psychological
mechanism. Directed emotional energy has great power. The act of desiring a high ideal is
a transforming power. This alone will be changing us inside before we ever sit to
meditate. Devotion is the first yoga practice, and the fire that lights all advanced yoga
Like any of our spiritual abilities, devotion is a natural product of our opening
nervous system. It is the most visible spiritual ability in everyone. There is a branch of
yoga called, "Bhakti" that is concerned with optimising desire and devotion to
the highest level of spiritual effectiveness. Having a basic knowledge of the methods of
bhakti can have a huge effect on the course of our spiritual life.
Bhakti means, "love of God, " which means love of our highest ideal or truth.
Whatever that is for us, loving it will change us, and inspire us to pursue spiritual
methods. We know that love changes us. When we care about something or someone more than
ourselves, we are changed. As the Beatles sang, "All you need is love." If we
had listened, the earth would be paradise by now. We are not there yet, but we are on the
way. Love was the right thing then, and it is the right thing now.
Who decides what our highest ideal is? Our guru? Our mullah? Our priest? Our rabbi?
There will be plenty of suggestions. Everyone wants us to love their ideal. It is a game
we have played for thousands of years. Love my ideal, will you please? Or else!
Only you can choose your ideal. It is what burns brightest in your heart. Maybe it is
Jesus. Maybe Krishna. Maybe Allah. Maybe your guru. Maybe the inner light. It can be
anything. Only you can know. It is personal. You will know it when you see it -- all
goodness, all progress, projecting no harm. It will lead you home to peace and bliss.
In the language of bhakti, the chosen ideal is called, "ishta." If nothing
burns bright inside, it is okay. You are reading these words, so you are moving toward
your ishta. Your highest ideal is in your studying and in your interest to practice yoga.
Your ishta is in you, and your desire is leading you to it.
Bhakti begins with that very first question: "Is there something more?"
First it is a fuzzy notion, a vague desire, a sense of wonder. That opening brings
knowledge in. Who knows from where it will come? We grab on and start doing some
practices. Some inner experiences come, some blissful silence, some clarity. We read the
scriptures, and words that were just words before come alive with radiant meaning.
Gradually, our ishta becomes clearer. We find ourselves in a relationship with what is
happening inside us. Bhakti is getting stronger, and we are falling deeper into the divine
There is a method to bhakti. There are always desires. We want this thing. We want
money. We want a lover. Even anger and frustration are desires - desires that have hit a
wall, so the energy goes haywire, sending us hither and yon. The method of bhakti is in
redirecting our desires. This is possible when there is silence inside from daily
meditation. Our sense of self goes underneath the desires bubbling up, so we can see them
like objects. Then we can nudge them toward our ideal. We favor our ideal when emotional
energy comes surging up.
Suppose we are stuck at a traffic light, frustrated because we are late. A lot of
emotional energy is there. We can take our frustration and redirect it. We let the red
light go as the object of our frustration, and bring in our ishta as the object. It is
like meditation. We easily favor one thought object over another. So now we are frustrated
about our ideal. "Ishta! Why am I not merged with you yet? I am frustrated!" Now
we have real motivation not to miss daily meditation. Not only that, our emotional energy,
directed in this way, produces spiritual changes inside. It opens our nervous system. It
is ironic that we can't change a red light with our emotions, but we can open our nervous
system to God.
This method can be done with every emotion. We can quietly cultivate a habit of bhakti
in life so the wheels of bhakti will always be turning. More spiritual intensity will come
up. It is called "tapas." Tapas is bhakti that never stops, like an endless
flame in us, and all of life becomes spiritual practice.
Mother Theresa of Calcutta said she saw Jesus in the eyes of every child she helped.
That is tapas.
Remember the method of bhakti in your daily life, especially if you find yourself in a
storm of emotional energy. That is prime time for bhakti. Just an awareness of the method
of bhakti will open doors inside when emotions flare up.
The great nineteenth-century saint, Ramakrishna Paramhansa, was a master at creating
huge waves of bhakti. He would sob on the floor at the statue of his Divine Mother,
craving her inner touch. The more desperate he got the more he would direct it toward his
ishta. He seemed like a crazy man. All the while his bhakti was working like a laser beam,
burning every obstruction in his nervous system. By bhakti alone he became the divine.
Bhakti is a systematic approach to the application of a specialized kind of knowledge.
Bhakti is the science of devotion -- a powerful science indeed.
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