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99 tips for a better world (26 of 99): practice devotion

Image: Alexander Boden

Image: Alexander Boden


I spent two weeks in an ashram in India earlier this year. While I was there I wrote a few tips.

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On my first day in the ashram I enjoyed the yoga, I enjoyed the vegetarian dinner and I enjoyed the chanting. I took in the statues of Shiva and the swamis and contemplated what it meant to be in an ashram. Would I find something in this religious tradition that felt right to me? Was that even what I was looking for?

It didn’t take long to settle into my standard position in response to big religious questions: I enjoy the ritual and the symbolism employed to help mere humans contemplate questions of our existence. But I am devoutly agnostic – fundamentally not interested in answering the question, ‘Do I believe in God?’

Perhaps this question will one day be more important for me to answer, but for now I’m happy to leave it unanswered.

Although I had no desire to probe the “truthfulness” of the beliefs being followed in the ashram, I surrendered myself to the routine and practices. I made a deal with my rational brain – after two weeks I could leave this place and contemplate what I had experienced. Until then I was a devotee.

It was liberating.

By entering the ashram without the expectation of discovering something – a truth or a fraud – I switched off the part of my brain that incessantly asks questions, contemplates, critiques and ponders.

I visibly practiced devotion in a mixed group of believers and non-believers. I chanted as loudly as I could, diligently learning the Sanskrit words. At Satsang (the morning and evening meditation and chanting session) I recited the prayers with my hands pressed together in front of my chest. I even closed my eyes. At first it felt a bit awkward but I eased into the rhythm and felt the freedom of not caring what anyone thought.

Bowing down at the end of Satsang was the hardest practice to adopt; the action most foreign to me. Before long, though, bowing down low and touching my forehead to the ground became a release.

While prostrating one morning around 7.30am after an hour and a half of chanting and praying, I realised the nature of the liberation.

Much of what goes on in the ashram is just a concentrated and disciplined version of virtuous practices that make up religious and secular lives. We practice yoga twice a day for mental and physical fitness. We do our daily chores to keep the ashram running smoothly. We meditate to calm the mind. We listen to lectures to educate ourselves. It is not difficult to think of equivalent practices, and their multiple benefits, everyday life.

But devotional practice, Bakhti Yoga, has been all but erased from the secular mainstream in Australia. Unless you pray or go to religious service you’re probably not practicing devotion regularly.

We understand the physical and mental benefits of yoga and the strength and dignity gained from work, so experiencing these things in the ashram just reaffirmed my existing notions. But when I chant and pray and sway with my eyes closed and bow down, surrendering the ego, I experience a clarity and uplift that I experience in no other realm of life.

Allow me to reiterate that I do not “believe”, per se, in the Gods in front of me, so it clarifies to me that there is an attainable benefit from the practice of devotion without being religious. Probably the closest experience we have in non-religious life is awe-filled experiences in nature.

In my albeit limited experience of devotional practice I believe it comes down to surrender. In our lives we identify so strongly with the active self – we are perpetually moving forward. Even when we do yoga or meditate we are acting for ourselves, achieving something – even if the goal is to become a better and more useful version of ourselves. However, in the moment of bowing down in surrender, you cease to matter. Your life exists only in service to that which you surrender to. No wonder it was a bit hard to take at first.

We are conditioned to question, seek evidence, to critique – all skills I am grateful to have been taught. But we haven’t necessarily been taught how to put them aside to allow for the expansion and relaxation that comes from surrender. To know that, even if you believe in nothing, there is liberation in a moment when it’s not all about you.

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