Are you a Bhakti? Are you a Jnani? Is Karma yoga your preferred path or is it Raja yoga?
These are the kinds of questions many seekers are pondering as they try and get a handle on who they are and what their brand of seeking requires. To me, it’s no different than a high school freshman wondering if they should hang out with the jocks, the nerds, the stoners or the goths.
Bhakti yoga – the path of realization through devotion to the Divine
Jnana yoga – the path of realization through philosophical introspection
Karma yoga – the path of realization through the fruits of ones labor
Raja yoga – the path of realization through mystical experiences
So what’s it going to be? Have to pick your path if you’re going to be serious about the self-realization business! Waffling simply won’t do…
Growing up in India as a high school student I often heard a similar refrain. What line of study do you want to pick? Is it going to be engineering? Medicine? Law? Business? No, don’t say literature! For the love of god, pick something you can make a living from! You don’t know? You want to figure it out as you go along?! Why don’t you just put in for welfare already?
In hindsight, of course, that sort of thinking is terribly myopic. Still, when the whole culture operates that way, there is a tremendous pressure one feels to pigeonhole oneself for fear of what may happen if things are left open ended.
Similarly, in spiritual culture it is common for people to use these labels and descriptors when they attempt to describe the “kind of seeker” they are. They believe that the journey to realization begins by picking a path, sticking to it and then further specializing within it just as one would a career.
But what are these four yogic paths in reality? When you filter away all the mystique, the religiosity, the centuries of revision and interpretation and the fact that any text written thousands of years ago exists in a cultural context radically different from our own and therefore must only be taken metaphorically: when you filter away all that, you are left with some rather ordinary truths.
The fact is that almost every human is already a jnani, a bhakti, a karma yogi and a mystic to some extent or another. We have no choice but to be. Those are simply the dimensions in which awareness exists. Those are the forms in which the human experience of life exists.
When I am immersed in thought or reflection of any kind – whether that be a mundane thought or a philosophical one, in that moment I am engaged in Jnana yoga – which is simply the movement of awareness to “know”. And all forms of thinking are essentially attempts at grasping something intellectually no matter how successful or misguided those attempts may be.
When I am at home with my family, whether hanging out with my kids or cooking with my wife, I am engaged in Bhakti yoga. This is a devotional act I am engaged in with my family. All my actions are designed with the purpose of serving the ones I love.
When I am at work or writing or doing housework or mending something, I am a karma yogi. In that moment, my entire universe is defined by my physical efforts and the fruits of their outcomes.
When I am sitting in silence watching the clouds pass or listening to the crow alert it’s friends of a potential meal, I am a raja yogi. I am immersed in silently witnessing the greater mystery of what is around me.
All of this sounds very ordinary and humdrum. I can hear advocates of Bhakti yoga objecting and claiming that a normal day with the family looks nothing like losing oneself in devotional hymns to the “beloved”.
But your devotional hymns are no different than my antics at home. Your “beloved” is no different than my beloveds.
We want to romanticize reality and make it something holy and unattainable and then we devise these extraordinary techniques of getting there. Singing songs all day to some imaginary entity, in my mind, is nothing more special than helping your child with their homework. In fact the latter, being far more grounded in reality, is likely a more direct path.
As a human being there are certain basic fundamental experiences we are all engaged in:
Thought, relationship, work and witnessing.
And each of these experiences acts as one leg on the chair upon which our reality sits. So, when the Hindu texts talk about the four basic forms of yoga, this is essentially what they are alluding to. Yoga is not a “choice” one has to make or a path one has to take. It is what is already happening. Whether one knows it or not one is engaged in jnana (knowledge), bhakti (relationship), karma (work) and raja (witnessing) all one’s waking hours.
Now, one could try and make a specialization out of one of these activities in an effort to further hone them. That’s like a person taking up running as a sport. Running is a basic function every human being is not only capable of but is already doing in some form or another in their everyday lives. Making it a sport doesn’t mean you have invented the action. Nor is it the only way to stay fit and active.
The ultimate goal of yoga is “union”. Now, with this word union again, many seekers take this as some mystical occurrence. Some glorious merging into the “divine”, whatever that means.
Yet, union is also an ordinary occurrence that is happening several times a day in your life. Any moment in which you become fully absorbed and forget yourself is a moment of such “union”.
Union is just the collapse of subject and object, and the sole experience of “what is happening” in the moment. That is essentially what the experience of FLOW is.
And flow can be experienced in any of the four aspects of experience.
When I’m immersed in washing the dishes, there is no experience of “me being there”. My attention is completely absorbed by the warm water, the clatter of the dishes and the soapy suds. This is the union of the karma yogi.
When I’m hanging out with the girls I’m completely absorbed in their little make believe games. This is the union of the Bhakti yogi.
When I’m lost in reflecting on some of the ideas that make their way to this page, that is the union of the Jnana Yogi.
When I’m just chilling with my cat and watching the trees sway in the breeze, that is the union of the Raja Yogi.
In fact, this “union” is nothing more than the experience of being fully present in one’s reality. And the experience that generates is one of effortless flow. That is ALL yoga is ever pointing to. One can only “know” reality if one is connected to it from one moment to the next.
So, it is counter intuitive to me to even desire to restrict one’s experience of reality to an narrowband of experience: such as ONLY Bhakti or ONLY karma. Because that’s not how life works. Life is the whole of it. And focusing on a singular aspect leads to an imbalance in a human being.
I could be extremely devoted to my career and love my job. Working hours in the office could be the greatest experience of flow. Yet, if that causes me to neglect my wife and my kids that is a lop-sided way of developing. And that imbalance is bound to generate suffering.
Or I could love writing my philosophical musings out on this page, but if that means the dishes continue remaining piled up in the sink, that’s a whole different kind of suffering that awaits me.
Flow is the experience of union with life AS IT HAPPENS not as we “want it to happen”. And if I can only feel flow in certain aspects of my life and not others then I am still out of sync with reality.
Union (flow) being the point of yoga, it makes no sense to limit how one is going to experience that flow. Life doesn’t limit itself. It blooms like a flower with each petal unfolding simultaneously from one moment to the next.
How to strike the right balance is really the whole art of it.
I can sense it viscerally when I’ve spent too much time with family and not enough silent time just witnessing. It feels like frustration.
I can feel it viscerally when I’ve spent too much time just sitting and not enough time attending to errands. It feels like lethargy.
I can feel it viscerally when I’ve spent too much time working but not enough time with wife just shooting the shit or watching our favourite sitcoms. It feels like depression.
Every imbalance manifests itself as a form of inner resistance. And so flow not only requires the capacity to become completely absorbed but also the capacity to shift gears out of that absorption into different dimensions of daily experience. In my life, absorption has never been my challenge. It’s the switching gears that has always been difficult for me.
And yet, this flexibility is a prerequisite if we are going to be able to adapt with the moment as it transforms from one frame of reference to another. Flow as dad, flow as philosopher, flow as employee, flow as witness. Back and forth, switch, switch.
That sort of adaptability only results when one’s identity is not glued to any one form of experience. When one isn’t “seeking oneself” in the activity. When I am not addicted to my image as a dad, or a writer, or a worker or a mystic. When I am free of my “attachments” to these identities then I am free to become absorbed and to re-emerge from those experiences as the moment requires.
To fixate upon ONE branch of life experience and say “I am a Jnana Yogi” is to deny that very flexibility. In pigeonholing oneself, one is reaffirming the very attachment yoga seeks to release.
In the end it’s really quite ordinary.
I think, I act, I love and I witness. Jnana, Karma, Bhakti, Raja.
And on that note, I must bring this piece to an abrupt end. Because I’ve over indulged myself…
…and the dishes, they are a-callin’…