I always thought that to truly be spiritual, or to live a spiritual life, that you had to pry yourself away from modern Western society and run off to the mountains in Tibet to spend years meditating in a cave, or surrendering yourself completely to the will of a teacher at a tucked away ashram. I thought that you had to drop all worldly desires, that you had to give up the things you enjoyed doing so you could be a celibate monk following scriptures to a tee and praying sunrise to sunset, donning robes and eating only light offerings. I had this idea in my head about what spirituality was, and exactly how I had to be to fit into the mold I had created for myself; a mold that I found out a little later on, that was just a schema boxing myself in from true spirituality in the Here and Now, and totally dismissing my incarnation as who I was in the West.
Bhakti yoga is the yoga of devotion. It’s a slippery path because rather than focusing fully on the totality of oneness and formlessness, bhakti yoga is actually a path of dualism. Bhatki yoga brings the many forms, down to the two (your awareness and whatever it is “aware-ing”), and through devotional love, merges the two into the One. This is why you’ll see bhatkas singing to the many various forms of Hindu Gods and Goddesses, and why there is such rich characterizing and visual symbolism surrounding these deities in stories and artistic representations. The thing about bhakti yoga, though, is that it sees all forms, all manifestations as embodiments of God. It’s a yoga, a style of union, which is all inclusive, denying no form, and using everything as a vehicle for merging and growth.
“The Best form to worship God is Every Form” – Neem Karoli Baba
This puts it all right Here. Whatever is Here is the Guru, is the lesson, is divine. This kind of spirituality, while it can certainly blossom through and be ripened by pilgrimages to the East, is not dependent on anything extraneous of one’s own self. It’s an inner journey and the path is to merge through love, with what is. This is where Karma and Householding come into play. We have Western karmas. We took incarnation in the West for a reason. We have Western attachments to work through, we have Western desires to fulfill, and if we are conscious enough of the cosmic predicament, we have individuals here in the West to serve and help along the path. This is householding. We may not be traditional monks, and many people may not even know that we have a rich spiritual life underneath the surface, but through bhakti, we Remember, we Love, and we Serve.
When I started getting into spirituality, I created a major dichotomy in my life, thinking I had to be this “holy” person and that I couldn’t go out and do the things I loved, like getting weird at festivals, enjoying live music, eating pizza, making love, drinking beer, playing Mario Kart, and just overall sensory enjoyment. I judged all of these things as unholy, or adharmic, but by doing so I ended up pushing away these things that really gave me so much joy and fulfilled me on so many levels. I wasn’t honoring who I was or what had brought me here. I wasn’t honoring how I could serve people on the festival scene, or how what I had been doing for years prior with live music was actually my first foray into the essence of bhakti yoga.
The Indian view on time is cyclical and broken up into 4 main sections, or yugas. (Satya, Treta, Dwepara and Kali -- listed from most connected to most separate). This time period we are in right now is considered the Kali Yuga, which is thought to be the most separated, divisive, and destructive yuga. During what Ram Dass would call my “phony holy” phase, I had a disdain for living in this period, wishing for the connection and flow of the more connected Satya Yuga, rather than this desirous attachment-filled era we live in now. KK Sah, though, who is known as Ram Dass’ Indian brother and a mentor to many devotees who have had the grace of meeting him, flipped the script for me. At a recorded talk at the Taos Hanuman Temple he stated how the Kali Yuga can be a wonderful one, for in this yuga we can fully get into our desires, taking in all the worldly pleasures that incarnating into a body has to offer, so long as we always remember God. He went on to describe how in other yugas, many practices to commune with divinity would be enacted and much time would be spent on these rituals, but here in the Kali Yuga, the only true practice that works is remembering and repeating the Sanskrit names of God, which is the main practice and spiritual core of bhakti yoga. The lesson was loud and clear: Do as you do, but remember the oneness and the interconnected love of everything.
I have a teacher I see weekly, a psychologist who has been swathed in bhakti yoga since the early 1970s. I brought up my “holy” dichotomy to him, shamefully telling him the sensory pleasures that I enjoy, and bringing up with my tail in between my legs that I had a pull to go to a String Cheese Incident concert rather than singing kirtan with satsang that week. He looked at me with loving eyes and gave me a true lesson of bhakti. He said that if something is fulfilling you, go for it. If that thing takes you to the place that you want to be, than go for it. It doesn’t matter the form that takes you to that place. The real journey of bhakti is an inward journey from the head to the heart, and if there is something that really fulfills you on that heart level, why would you push that away?
Through the lessons from KK and my teacher, I realized that if my personal path was a piece of clay or play-doh, that I had started molding it into whatever concept that I thought spirituality was. I created a rigidly structured form into the play-doh, and then tried to mold myself to fit into this form I had created. I was honoring the form of my schema of what I thought it meant to be spiritual, instead of fully getting into and honoring the form of my own incarnation. The real world is a dazzling array of constantly changing forms. It’s not about fitting into one, because you will block yourself up and get stuck in that particular mold. Instead, it’s about loving and jiving with all of them, the entire stream of forms as they change, and the best way I have found to do this, is to be true to yourself, because you are the one with the clay in your hands.