If you take your spiritual life seriously, you will, from time to time, get the feeling that you need to do something new or different to further your growth.
The primal yearning for intimate connection with the divine is so powerful that, once it’s recognized as a priority, it starts to serve as a beacon, signaling to us when we’ve veered off course or become stagnant. We often experience those signals as a sense of lack, triggering an insistent urge to find what’s missing and accelerate our progress.
Because we commonly run into key decision points as we move along the path, it’s a good idea to be familiar with an array of spiritual practices to call upon at appropriate times. In putting together a personal repertoire, it’s important to include an array of choices that, taken together, address all aspects of life that bear on your spiritual development.
One way of ensuring that your inventory is well integrated is to include practices from each of the four pathways described in the yogic tradition—and for which every other tradition has equivalents:
- The path of the mind. What is called jnana yoga in India is essentially a path of knowledge; it appeals primarily to people who are inclined to study spiritual texts and to contemplate spiritual or theological concepts. The practices associated with it entail rigorous study and deep inquiry. In its purest form, such practices train the student to distinguish the real from the unreal, the eternal from the perishable, the Self from the non-Self, the sacred from the profane. The ultimate goal is not just to achieve a higher level of intellectual understanding, but to take the mind beyond itself to the realm of pure spirit that underlies our incessant mental activity.
- The path of the heart. Worship, devotion and love are the hallmarks of this pathway, called bhakti by the yogis. It is favored by people who are driven by reverential feelings, and the practices can range from ordinary worship services to celebrations of sublime natural phenomena (starry nights, sunsets, equinoxes and solstices, etc.) to prayerful communion to ecstatic singing, chanting and dancing. The object of worship might be a god-like incarnation such as Jesus or Krishna, a revered figure from religious history such as Buddha or the prophet Muhammad, or a living personage such as a guru or a revered cleric—any of whom might be adored as a representative, or embodiment, of the Ultimate Reality. For some seekers, a spouse, a child or the unspoiled natural world is the focal point of devotion. In any case, it is the purity of surrender to selfless love that lights the way to the Holy.
- The path of action. Known as karma yoga, this path calls upon us to engage wholeheartedly in worthy activities with ego-free detachment from the fruits of our efforts. Those attracted to this approach are passionate about working selflessly for a higher good, whether in service to an institution, to charitable activities, to art, or another noble purpose. Ideally, they are to give no thought to personal gain, but to serve with complete absorption, making every action they undertake the equivalent of an offering to the Divine.
- The psycho-physiological path. What might be considered a variation of raja yoga (the eightfold path described in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras and often called ashtanga yoga), this pragmatic road to spiritual development emphasizes disciplines aimed at bringing the mind to the silent core within. Meditation, centering prayer, yoga postures, martial arts, breathing exercises and other mind-body disciplines are systematically used to awaken consciousness and cultivate the capacity to sustain higher, more enlightened states of awareness.
It would be a mistake to think you have to choose one of these categories as your own exclusive path. By virtue of personality and preference, most of us lean more toward one approach than the others, but very few aspirants confine themselves to only one.
Most teachings advocate that we incorporate elements of all four pathways into our personal routine. By finding practices in each category that resonate with you, you can employ them intelligently as you meander along the path and notice that your needs change.
Feeling confused about some point of spiritual knowledge? Maybe it’s time to emphasize the jnana way for a while, and take down some of those unread books from your shelves.
Feeling moved to express reverence or devotion? Could be bhakti time: go visit a church, synagogue, temple, or mosque; find ways to praise God or Spirit; find a group that sings and dances to sacred music; get out into nature and thank whatever or whomever you believe is responsible for the awesome beauty of creation.
Feeling moved to help those in need or lend a hand to a worthy cause? Roll up your sleeves and be a karma yogi, and leave your own ego needs at the doorstep.
As for the pragmatic mind-body practices associated with raja yoga, those are perhaps best thought of as complementary to all the other pathways.
Regardless of the overall emphasis of your personal path, and regardless of your needs and inclinations during any given time period, disciplines like meditation can be considered fundamental to your spiritual growth. The qualities of mind and body they help to cultivate will enable you to derive far more from the paths of knowledge, devotion and service-and contribute more as well.
One of the great blessings of living in a diverse culture with easy access to information is the spiritual freedom it affords. Because we are no longer limited to the teachings that happen to be available in the village or town we were born in, we have the flexibility to create a repertoire that integrates the spiritual into every relevant area of our lives.
By doing so, you can develop the equivalent of the Global Positioning Systems on cars—an internalized set of parameters that can direct you this way or that and keep you on track spiritually.