Imagine a neighbor who is from another country with a spiritual path different from yours, the wrong political party, and who paints her/his house a funny color. Then one day, she/he cuts you off in traffic and takes your favorite parking space. A snap judgment is easy to make. Yet many of us end up with someone like that as a close friend or marriage partner. What one element of human life trumps/transcends all the numerous ways we divide, categorize and separate ourselves from one another?
Whatever Cosmic Force gave rise to all of creation has built into the human experience both a dilemma and the magic to solve it. As human life has evolved, we have made an ever deeper exploration of the material world, leading to ever greater advances in technology. This preoccupation with the physical level has shaped what is real to us, ie “…seeing is believing”.
The limitations of our physical senses have given rise to a belief that we are all separate beings—it sure looks that way–and a subsequent pursuit of happiness formed by that erroneous, though convincing perception.
Yoga teaches us that a life built on that outlook results in an endless effort to acquire the things and achieve the goals that we think will make us happy. Creating the conditions for happiness is a never-ending struggle that so preoccupies the mind that we fail to experience the source of real happiness that is already present. I have given a playful name to my own mind when it shifts into that old pattern of trying to put everything into place, calling it “the lone arranger”.
This way of thinking is so deeply engrained in us that even when our search for happiness fails to yield anything lasting, we continue looking for something more, better or different. We often find ourselves in competition with others who may be seeking the same job or parking space we are, or we are driven to impress each other, to be recognized as successful. All this effort keeps us dwelling in the head where egos clash, and we lose connection to our hearts.
Fortunately, one of the things we are most driven to find is love. Through the mysterious alchemy of hormones, the psychological need to connect and/or what we call love at first sight, we are drawn to someone and seek their friendship, or see them as a life partner. Most of the things we want to achieve require self-discipline and determination but this effortless event we sometimes refer to as “falling” in love. When this happens, our sense of separation from others changes dramatically. We find ourselves happily giving to someone else the very things that we have struggled to acquire and protect.
Of course, when our relationships are grounded in the misunderstanding of our true nature, our efforts to love someone are mixed with the belief that this person can make us happy. My teacher, Swami Satchidananda, sometimes role-played for us a conversation when one person says to the other, “Honey, I love you”, and then waits impatiently for the response, “Honey I love you too!” And if that response is not forthcoming, here come the divorce papers! Even our selfish attempts at love can teach us many lessons and bring us closer to the truth.
For example, when two people fall in love and decide to live together, the next thing you know there are children. There’s nothing like an angelic baby, completely helpless, to win your heart and motivate you to give up so many things you previously enjoyed. Parenthood constantly pushes you to your limits and demands that you learn non-attachment — whether you study Yoga philosophy or not. First, you’re called to take care of a child’s every need. Then, gradually you have to let go—you cannot follow your child to school and defend her/him on the playground. One day, you have to let go completely and allow this young adult to find his or her own way.
For most of us, there will be a long-term relationship that at some point breaks our hearts and brings us to our knees. Sooner or later, we are compelled to seek a deeper source of connection that is not subject to so much change. Peoples all over the world and throughout history have found countless ways of seeking and identifying this deeper source as a Spiritual Consciousness that dwells within everything. Since consciousness is too abstract for many of us to relate to, endless symbols, names and forms have been used to express this Presence.
This form, be it a deity, spiritual principle like Peace, or a picture of a saint, can help us cultivate a higher form of love. Love directed toward God in any form inspires us to feel protection and comfort, to access an inner strength and rise above selfish thinking. By acknowledging something beyond the ego-mind and its limited ideas, we humble ourselves and open our hearts to receive a grace that is always present. Just as raising the window shade allows the sun to shine in, we experience an inner Light when we let go of the habitual thoughts that define us and separate us from the Spirit within.
Yoga offers techniques to cultivate this deep love, which are collectively known as Bhakti Yoga. These practices include kirtan–chanting the names of God, puja–creating an altar and making offerings to it, and in general feeling devotion toward a specific form that represents the Divine Spirit.
As the presence and power of the Spirit becomes more real, it can become a part of everything we do. Such devotion can motivate us to dedicate everything we do as an offering and to access the Divine Will in our daily choices. It will guide us to recognize and serve that presence in each other. Whenever this happens, we begin to relate not so much to the ego-mind of another person, but to the Light that is within them, no matter how well hidden by the personality.
I once heard a story of a wealthy man who became attracted to Sri Ramakrishna, an Indian saint. This man was accustomed to all the sensual pleasure that money can buy: a luxurious home, fine wines and gourmet foods, and the company of prostitutes. His love of Ramakrishna grew enough that he asked to be accepted as a disciple, even though he had no intention of giving up his lifestyle.
Ramakrishna agreed to accept him on the condition that he would offer everything he consumed or did to Ramakrishna before partaking in it. The man readily agreed, thinking he had the best of both worlds. Before he ate or drank or did anything, he offered it mentally to Ramakrishna. But as his devotion grew and he sought to honor the saint with appropriate offerings, he gradually gave up all the old unhealthy habits.
Such is the power of higher love to transform us in ways that our will power alone may not. That is no doubt why various Yoga masters have said that the path of devotion is the easiest practice during this era of materialism. In a way, the goal of all spiritual practice can be summed up as a process of learning to love unconditionally. Rumi says it beautifully: “Let yourself be silently drawn by the strange pull of what you really love.”
“Love and intimacy are at the root of what makes us sick and what makes us well. If a new medication had the same impact, failure to prescribe it would be malpractice……We are hardwired to help each other. Science is documenting the healing value of love, intimacy, community, compassion, forgiveness, altruism, and service—values that are a part of almost all spiritual traditions as well as many secular ones. Seen in this context, being unselfish may be the most self-serving approach to life, for it helps free both the giver and the recipient from suffering, disease and premature death.”
From Love is Real Medicine, by Dean Ornish M.D., published in Newsweek