Often words fall short. Trying to portray the subtleties of our own unique life experience and perspective can be so elusive. Sharing the emotions and feelings that swell up in our own heart – the depths of our tender suffering and the ecstasy of our pure joy – how could this ever be encapsulated into words? And then desperately trying to be heard and experienced by another?
For years now, I’ve been trying to find a way to express what the practice of Bhakti means to me. I wish it was just a simple sentence that we could wrap a bow around and say “this is Bhakti.” But it’s not that easy, so we start here and look at it’s beginning. The Bhakti movement started tens of centuries ago in southern India as a way for one to find their own unique path of devotion, placing their awareness on a specific God or Goddess that spoke to them – be it Shiva, Kali, Krishna or any others from the pantheon of Hinduism or beyond. This spiritual practice became enlivened by poet-saints and musicians of the day, finding ways to super-charge the devotional outpouring with the power of song and story – crying out in praise and offering. It truly became an art to practice this devotion, this was the Bhakti movement.
Still I implore, what is Bhakti to me? Here I am, a modern man from the West, raised in Montana of all places! And yet, this practice and these songs, these chants, stories and this art, it has built a home in my heart. It has revealed something so deep, so powerful and has enriched my day to day life beyond belief. So, what is it? Well, I can’t tell you what it should look like or feel like for you. What I can do is share my practice and how it moves through me. Perhaps in this way of experiencing, you can get a taste of the nectar – the Amrita.
I initially started chanting with a very dear teacher of mine, Rusty Wells. I’ve been chanting for years now and over this time, I’ve watched my voice open up. I think it all started with this liberation of my communication center. As that area (the vishuddha chakra) opened up it cleared a path to my beating heart (anahata chakra) and I realized my own heart had a calling – it had something to say! And I could finally hear it. From that space I began practicing better self-care, speaking up for my needs and even others. The more I did this, the more my heart opened. The more I became connected and could empathize, the more present I became with the beautiful beings walking along side me. Things exponentially opened in my world – my aperture for experiencing the richness of life was blasted open.
And the more I sang (and literally it was all the time!) the more my mind rested in moments of single pointed awareness. I have a vivid memory of driving home through treacherous rush hour traffic with a growling, hungry stomach and when I arrived home I was acutely aware that despite all of that, I was at absolute peace. I turned off the car and realized why. Silently in my mind, over and over, I had been chanting “Sri Ram Jai Ram Jai Jai Ram.” All of my worries, stresses and stories had dissolved and the mantra carried me on. We use these mantras (mind tools) to focus our ever-distracted minds. And why not on the names of the Divine?
Whether you chant to Hanuman, Ganesha, Durga or others, these are all names of the Divine embodied in different forms and energetic forces. We may call on a specific deity to try and activate something in us, or call out to simply remember that we also are divine, connected beings. Or, just to remember that we are not as alone as we think we are. It can be in more quiet forms of japa repetition (on mala beads) or more outward in ecstatic kirtans (group call and response).
In addition to chanting, the rich folklore and literature of Bhakti have enraptured me, weaving into my own life story. Illuminated texts like the Bhagavad Gita, The Ramayana and the Bhagavata Purana tell epic tales of Dharma, good vs. evil and spiritual awakening. For me, these stories are a deep part of my Svadhyaya practice. Svadhyaya is the fourth Niyama from Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga, it is translated as self study and study of revealed texts. Reflecting on these writings always helps illuminate my own awareness, witnessing certain archetypes and qualities that are alive within me.
If singing these names or hearing these stories seems foreign, I understand. In Bhakti, no one tells you what God should look or feel like. You place your faith in however you experience it, imbuing your own spiritual practice with your awareness. If you allow this practice in wholeheartedly, and water the seeds of devotion with steadfast practice, profound personal shifts can occur. Eventually in this way, my practice of devotion has become seeing the divine miracle in every being and every moment in front of me. In that way I am connected to God, which to me is the present moment. This breath and this life, not missing a beat of it. I sing out to You, I sing out to all beings. I bow down, humbly at your feet.
Om bolo shri sat guru bhagavan ki, jai!