Loving Your Highest Ideal
Essay by Avi Craimer
“Bhakti means, ‘love of God.’ If ‘God’ is not the right word for you, use a phrase like, ‘love of highest ideal’ or ‘love of highest truth.’ Whatever represents the greatest attainment you can imagine. Whatever it is, loving it will change you” — Yogani
One of the questions I often ask my meditations students is “why are you doing this practice?” or “what do you secretly hope meditation will do for you?” I find that beginners have little difficulty answering. They often say they are looking for a way to relax, or better focus, and some even have a vague sense of desiring a spiritual experience.
In contrast, when I ask this question to long-time practitioners, they have a lot more trouble with it. Some say they don’t desire anything, that practice just unfolds. While that’s a valid perspective, I often feel that it masks something, casting the true motivation into shadow.
As we progress in our practice, our motivation becomes more abstract, more elusive, and harder to put into words. But this doesn’t make it less real or important. In fact, reflecting on the “why practice” question, can be help us bring our own deepest desires and aspirations into focus.
When I ask this question of my own practice, I find that in some ways the answer is always changing, while in other ways it stays steady. Last month my practice was focused on overcoming obstacles to moving forward in various major projects. Next month my planned practice will be about healing my body from some old trauma.
I set myself these little goals month to month because it helps me keep my practice fresh and engaged. Yet, at the same time, I can see that my practice last month was about deepening my ability to relate to and manifest true goodness in the world, and my practice next month will be about the same thing. The surface of my practice changes, sometimes wildly, but my core orientation remains the same.
As we practice, we gradually discover what this core orientation is for us. It need not be simple, it can be multifaceted and hard to pin down. In the yoga tradition, this ideal is known as the Ishta Devata, the desired/chosen deity. For atheists, this doesn’t have to be thought of as anything supernatural, it can be anything you personally see as having ultimate value. It might be the pursuit of truth through rigorous skeptical inquiry, the promotion of human flourishing, or the cultivation of beauty through art.
As we come into relationship with an ideal through our practice, we may find that it is not simply a goal to be attained but also something we love for its own sake. That love for one’s ideal can be transformative in itself. In the yogic tradition, the love a seeker feels for their ideal is called bhakti, which is translated at devotion. Bhakti/devotion is a special kind of a love directed not toward mundane pursuits and ordinary relationships, but instead toward something higher, whatever that might be for you.
In India, there are hundreds of thousands of distinct deities who serve as a buffet of possible Ishta Devatas. Yogis are free to choose among them based on their own preferences. Some of these deities are worshiped by millions, others honoured by only a devoted few. The wisdom of this is that the value of a deity is not related to how many temples are dedicated to them, but in how authentically they embody the highest ideals of the devotee. Since there are many kinds of people in the world, we need many kinds of deities, many faces of the ultimate. Perhaps in the end there are as many ishtas as there are human beings.
Yet, despite this incredible diversity in our ideals, the curious thing is that the effects of bhakti itself is similar regardless of the difference in what is sought. Yogani describes it well, “The act of devotion, the act of desiring the highest ideal we can imagine, is a transforming power itself. It creates changes deep in our nervous system. If we have devotion for a high ideal, this alone will be changing us inside before we ever sit to do any…meditation”.
This is why we can speak of devotion as a spiritual path in its own right. Whatever ideal we cherish, the cherishing itself has a powerful effect on us.
In my own experience, I’ve found that reflecting on my ideal and consciously cultivating desire and love for it has been an important engine of my practice. Not only does this help me stay committed to doing my daily meditation, but it becomes a major focus within each sit. Instead of concentrating on body or breath alone, I concentrate on my ideal, focusing on its attractive, valuable qualities. This meditative focus raises up a delicious flow of love within me that spills out beyond the cushion.
This month at CEC we explore the path of devotion. Join us as we cultivate love for the the ideal which sits in each of our hearts.