Advanced Yoga Practices
New Visitors: It is recommended you read from the beginning of the archive, as previous lessons are prerequisite to this one. The first lesson is, "Why This Discussion?"
There are many forms of bhakti, as many as there are chosen ideals and attributes that we can imagine. Unlimited! Here, we will not get into well-known traditional expressions of bhakti very much. It is the province of the religions. For those who love to worship in their religious tradition, that is very good. For those who are not inclined that way, it is not the end of bhakti. Yoga and spiritual development can progress very well with or without traditional modes of worship. It can work either way, or both ways.
Directed desire is the essential ingredient in all spiritual practice. It is bhakti that gets us to our meditation seat each day. Then we easily favor the procedure of our practice. Daily yoga practices are designed to open us up steadily over time. Then we have a constantly purifying and opening nervous system, a growing desire for truth and enlightenment, and we are always hankering to go to the next level of unfoldment.
Our ever-evolving chosen ideal is what keeps this process going up and up.
While we know that desire leads to action, we also know that desire left on its own without the benefit of an underlying vision will be pulling us in many directions at the same time. Our emotion is a powerful fuel, but if it is not provided with a reliable channel for its expression through desire, not much good will come from it. The mind is also involved in this, because it is our emotions expressing as desires that inform the mind. From there, it is onward to action. So, it all begins with how we point our emotions. It is about what we favor with our emotional energy. Desire is always seeking more, and it is up to us to provide that more in the form of an inspired vision, our chosen ideal.
We have used the word "vision" to represent the channel for desire leading to action. This implies that desire can be focused through a fixed lens. While in theory this is true, especially in worldly endeavors, it is an over-simplification when we consider the much broader scope of human spiritual transformation. In that case, we are not seeking a particular material outcome, but the purification and opening of the human nervous system so it can express its full potential.
In considering a systematic approach to bhakti, the cultivation of unending desire for spiritual realization, the concept of "chosen ideal" provides the necessary flexibility. The Sanskrit word "ishta" means chosen ideal, and offers the range of expression we need to travel the continuum of bhakti from where we are today to the highest reaches of devotion, and the resulting outpouring of divine love coming from within us, leading to liberation in all aspects of life.
What do we mean by chosen ideal? Our well-meaning religious institutions may interpret it to be the god or ideal of our religion: Jesus, Krishna, Buddha, Allah, etc. This may be so if that is what resonates in our heart. But our chosen ideal can come in other forms also.
It can be a dedicated inquiry, such as, "Who am I, and what am I doing here?" Or the simple question, "Is there more than this which I am living now?"
It can be an affirmation, such as, "I will know the truth and the truth will set me free."
It can be an ideal of discrimination, such as, "This is true, and this is not true."
And so on ...
A chosen ideal is chosen by us, no one else. It is entirely personal. It can be a blend of ideals, such as the icons and ideals of our religion mixed with inquiry, affirmation and discrimination. And we will carry these through life, even as our ideal expands as we undergo the inner purification and opening associated with the ongoing process of human spiritual transformation.
Personality will play a role in ones chosen ideal. Those who are demonstratively devotional by nature may be inclined toward outer forms of devotion like worshipful conduct, singing, spiritual dancing, etc. Others who may be more analytical may be inclined toward introspection in stillness, self-inquiry and other less visible devotional acts.
Regardless of the choice of ishta, there will be devotion involved as we become committed to the course we have chosen. As our commitment deepens, our chosen ideal will evolve and change over time, according to our rising realization of truth. The more clearly we see what is emerging within us, the more concrete it will become, and our ideal will continue to evolve toward progressively more advanced stages.
Before the openings occur, there can be a tendency toward a more rigid view of the chosen ideal. This is certainly the case in most of the religions, where the ideal is often chosen for us rather than by us. And even in the individual there can be an inflexibility in the relationship with a chosen ideal. It is the difference between an icon representing a fixed view, or the same icon facilitating steadily expanding inner experience. Spiritual practices such as deep meditation and spinal breathing pranayama will unwind the rigidness that may be occurring in our relationship with a chosen ideal. Then a gradual shift in our relationship with our ideal can occur, according to need as inner awareness expands, with more inner silence moving in the outer expressions of our life.
As inner silence expands, our relationship with our ishta will expand also, through a constant gentle nudging coming from within. It is like the clothes we wear as we grow up. The bigger we become the bigger our clothes will become. Our ishta is like that too infinitely expandable. The more we can see, the further our vision will reach beyond the limits we have known before. While we may have begun with an icon we derived from our religion or elsewhere, filling us from within, in the end, we may see our ishta encompassing the whole of humanity, and beyond to the entire universe. The larger our spirit becomes, the more we are filled, and the larger our ishta becomes, even if it is still represented by the same small icon on the altar of our devotion, whether it be a physical icon, or a non-physical ishta in our heart. It can be all of these.
Our ishta does not have to be fixed. In fact, it is good if we allow ourselves the flexibility to see our ideal as ever-expanding, even if still represented by a relatively fixed object or idea. The expansion is natural as we move along on our spiritual path. The expansion of our ishta is facilitated by a gentle favoring of our chosen ideal and the practices we will be inspired to undertake, rather than rigid concentration on ishta or means. We will find the greatest progress in favoring and releasing, favoring and releasing.
There is a paradox in this, and that is that the path of yoga is ultimately a path of release, of letting go. The doing we do in yoga is an undoing. When letting go into the divine flow becomes the ideal, the ideal itself will dissolve. That is when we have become the thing itself. This is the stage of abiding inner silence, ecstatic bliss, and outpouring divine love in unity. This is enlightenment. We arrive in this state through practices and living a full life over the long term, so there is much doing in this letting go. It has also been called "active surrender."
Here are some general steps we may notice occurring as our chosen ideal evolves over time through the process of bhakti and yoga practices:
These steps may tend to overlap and we may not experience each of them clearly. The evolution of our chosen ideal is a process resulting from our inner purification and opening, which will be unique to our nature, and dependent on our bhakti and the practices we undertake. Nevertheless, the stages of an evolving ishta will be more or less along the lines given above beginning with our ideal forming around what inspires us, to increasingly more palpable experiences arising within and around us over time, which leave no doubt that great evolutionary forces are at work within us. As we expand from within, our ideal expands also, even as it becomes more real to us in every way.
So, an icon that inspires us, or a simple question like "Who am I?" asked with emotion, can lead to devotion to a high spiritual ideal, to many yoga practices, to a more peaceful and creative life, and ultimately to direct perception of the divine flow moving within and around us. It all leads to the divine seen as our own self in all who we may encounter. Then this becomes a life of personal self in sacred service to divine Self. It is an unending divine romance occurring within and all around us!
Our ishta evolves from a simple inspiration and longing for truth to the full expression of truth realized in daily living. The ideal continues to expand as we do. Throughout, we can have the same ishta we began with, in ever-expanding form, corresponding with our never-ending inner expansion. It is the journey of love and longing from separation to union. Through our evolution and the expansion of our view, we go beyond the bondage of orbiting opposites to the union of stillness in action. Then our ishta and our journey have become One.
The guru is in you.
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