The Spiritual Essentials
Devotion and Meditation
The words meditation and devotion can conjure up different images in one’s mind. While the meditator might seem more clinical and less religious, the devotee comes across as emotional and probably, religious. Naturally, religion as it is commonly understood often has exclusivist connotations attached to it thereby making it non-palatable to a secular culture. In this article, we explore how these concepts are actually two sides of the same coin and can be used to great effect by the spiritual traveler.
Understanding Meditation: Postures, breathwork, etc.
Traditionally, the word meditation has been understood differently in Western and Eastern Cultures. The western, and more popular connotation views meditation as an act or practice (as confirmed by Dictionary.com and Wikipedia) of a technique to achieve the desired result (more focus, less thought, etc.). Eastern cultures, on the other hand, trace the concept of meditation to the Sanskrit word, Dhyan; also Chuan (Chinese), and Zen (Japanese). Here meditation is not so much an action as it is a state of consciousness. The aim of Dhyana is an uninterrupted state of this altered consciousness such that it no more remains a state, but in fact, becomes a trait of a given individual. This state is characterized by ecstasy, joy, non-attachment, and later, heightened feelings of love and compassion. Towards this end, there are many practices and methods such as Mindfulness, Vipassana, Ashtanga Yoga, Kundalini Yoga, Kriya Yoga, Tai-chi Chuan, etc. The evolution and systematic development of these techniques is a hallmark of eastern culture although similar processes also evolved in the West (such as the Sufi movements, and Kabbalistic methods). These techniques as a rule require disciplined and consistent effort and can involve some strict pre-requisites in terms of diet and exercise.
The mechanism of the meditation process tends to begin with posture and then moves to breathwork, and finally, more esoteric methods that lead to the emptiness of the mind, the experience of bliss, and eventually, the “zero” state. The effort needed initially is quite rigorous and can be difficult for the novice. Supernatural experiences and states can not only be experienced but also controlled. This sense of control is what makes the process a bit dangerous to the aspirant as it can produce within the practitioner the egotistical concept that “I can do something,” which acts as an impediment to achieving higher states of “nothingness,” love, and compassion.
Understanding Devotion: Nourishing and transforming emotion
The concept of devotion is more universal than that of meditation in that spiritual traditions across the globe have developed various devotional methods. Devotional forms are less restrictive and more flexible and they depend largely upon the emotional commitment of the individual rather than their will or ability to discipline themselves. Such practices seek to transform ordinary emotion into Divine emotion or love. When taken to their logical end, these practices lead to altered states of consciousness often expressed in ecstasy, bliss, and a loss of ego consciousness. Here again, the devotional state leads to compassion and love. And a lack of ego-awareness.
The devotional process is quite spontaneous and does not entail any specific postures or exercises. A routine for consistency is, however, quite useful. The basic pre-requisite is the desire to unite with the Object of Devotion. Traditionally, almost any spontaneous emotion is directed towards this Object. Thus, romantic love is converted to a Divine Romance (God as the Beloved), filial affection is reflected in the worship of the Divine Mother or Holy Father or the Divine Child. Devotion to the Divine can take the form of a friendly affection as well, hence the reference to God as Wali or Friend in the Quran. The devotion of a faithful servant to his master is another common motif and is exemplified in the lives of many spiritual giants. The process of Sainthood in Catholicism in fact begins with the stage “Servant of God.” In Islam and Hindu traditions, children are often named with an appellation such as Abdul or Das to reflect this attitude of service.
The finality of devotional practices lies in the consummation or unity between the devotee and the object of devotion, a loss of self (egoic) identification, and is accompanied by rapturous joy.
The danger on this path of course is that of narrow-minded sectarianism, which is a result of the devotee’s one-pointed devotion and egoic identification. This single-mindedness can take the form of exclusiveness and eventually, sectarian bigotry. It does not help that organized religions have made adherence to exclusiveness a matter of creed.
In the table below, the differences between devotional and meditation methods are presented. Note that despite differences there are commonalities as well. For example, the lives of advanced meditators and devotees often exhibit remarkable discipline and self-control. In general, the differences wane as the traveler on either path progresses towards the One Transcendent Goal.
- Pre-requisites: None
- Beginner’s Discipline: Emotive
- Self control and Rigor: Low
- Beginning difficulty: Low
- Use of Mantra (specific phrases): Very likely
- Breath Regulation: No
- Physical Postures: No
- Religious Orientation: More, but can be secular
- End States: Trances, ecstasy, love
- Egoic Expression: Pride about sect, religion
- Egoic Dissolution: “Everything is Divine”
- Pre-requisites: Yes
- Beginner’s Discipline: Will based
- Self Control and Rigor: High
- Beginning difficulty: High
- Use of Mantra (specific sounds): Possible, but not required
- Breath Regulation: Yes
- Physical Postures: Very likely
- Religious Orientation: Less, more secular
- End States: Calm, detached, joy, love
- Egoic Expression: Pride about ability
- Egoic Dissolution: “I am All, and All is Me”
The Essential Way – “Where the twain shall meet”
A study of spiritual traditions, our own experiences, and the guidance of our teachers have led us to the conclusion that since both types of practices lead to the same goal of egoless, beatific awareness, one may choose a way that suits their temperament and personality. Whereas meditative practices have gained popularity in recent times thanks to their non-affiliation with organized religion and its sectarian aspects, spiritual teachers tell us that devotional methods are eminently suitable to our times. Considering how deeply entwined our daily lives are with the materialistic, and time-consuming survival-related activities, it is very difficult for most people to create enough time to gain expertise in meditation. Nor is it easy to force ourselves to maintain strict postures let alone discipline the ever distracting thought process, aptly called “monkey mind” by the experts.
Our path led us to a method that combines aspects of both meditative and devotional elements. The essential Sufi uses certain non-denominational meditative practices to enhance devotion to their ideal, irrespective of the faith tradition that is followed. As such, practices such as the Zikr of Four only lead to the cultivation of greater love and compassion within each individual be they Christian, Muslim, Jew, or even Atheist. For a spiritual perspective on Atheism, please read our article, ‘An Atheist’s Faith: A Spiritual View on Belief & Faith’ The Zikr enhances focus and keeps a mind free of clutter while enforcing the universality requisite to any true spiritual aspiration. Consistency is the bottom line, irrespective of the path and method adopted. A little goes a long way, so long as it is done daily!
The idea here is to cultivate the taste of love via a calm center that is derived through the core meditative practice of the ZIkr of Four. This practice is supported by a variety of devotional practices such as the chanting of Divine Names, Litanies, Mantras, and Remedial measures such as fasts, the wearing of gemstones, charitable giving, and service. An effort to build an interfaith community of like-minded travelers is also a part of the work of Essential Spirituality. Towards this end, we have a weekly newsletter (see Productive Wisdom), and regular online meditation sessions as well. To learn more about topics such as spiritual practices and meditation, see the following articles: