How to Practice Bhakti?
Bhakti is the yoga practice tailored to cultivate divine love.
A practice of Bhakti elevates and spiritualizes mundane love. Though Bhakti may seem esoteric to some, it’s not foreign to us. To answer the question, How do you practice Bhakti? then let’s consider a few points about our experience of ordinary love in our quest for the divine.
In love, we want to see our beloved satisfied and happy. We want to spend time with the person we love. We want to care for them. We like to serve them. We want to nourish them and give them good food. We want to hear them when they speak and express our love for them in words and actions. When our love is unconditional, we don’t even think of self-interest. We say, “I will do anything for you.”
All these natural characteristics of love exist in divine love for our Beloved in an uninterrupted intensity that continually deepens and is ever fresh. We can hardly imagine such a love, or a state of being in love to such a degree, but it is a distinct possibility for each of us should we want to experience pure love.
Right now whatever love we do feel is selfish to one degree or another and tends to wane. How do we move from this lackluster love to divine love? Surprisingly, and encouragingly, it’s straightforward and easy.
In the Bhagavad Gita, Sri Krishna says,
“If one offers me with love and devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water, I will accept it. Whatever you do, whatever you eat, whatever you offer or give away, and whatever austerities you perform – do that as an offering to me.”
The essence of Bhakti is to develop an emotional bond with the Supreme Person by treating him as a person. We already looked at how ordinary love develops, in a similar way, we can develop love for the Supreme Person. We can spend time with him, offer service to him, give him good food, listen when he speaks, speak about him, and offer unconditional love.
To practice Bhakti we nurture feelings of affection for the Supreme in daily acts of devotion.
By engaging our mind and our sensual faculties: hearing, speaking, touching, smelling, and tasting in varieties of services and offerings to please our Beloved we spiritualize the senses and we’re also satisfied, gratified, and can become happy through these wholesome, enjoyable engagements. It’s not that we deny sensual gratification – which is a requisite in the other yogas – but in a practice of Bhakti we engage the body in spiritual acts.
What pleases our Divine Friend? The same thing that pleases us. When someone mentions our name and feelingly expresses appreciation for our good qualities or our activities, we’re genuinely grateful to be noticed and given some regard. If someone tells us they’re grateful for what we do for them, they get our attention. If someone gives us flowers, a birthday card, or other gifts we’re touched. If someone offers us a special meal with enjoy it with relish.
Bhakti is eminently intuitive and easy. What I’ve found is that the only problem with a practice of Bhakti is that we resist simplicity and devotion because our hearts are habituated to self-centeredness and selfishness and the false ego is a taker not a giver. To change the ancient patterns we learn, then, that the development of Bhakti is a process that requires practice.
With affection – or least we can begin with gratitude – put your Divine Friend at the center of your life. Think of him, serve him, make offerings to him. Read about him, speak about him, sing about him, learn about his qualities and activities.
Gratitude and appreciation mature into affection; affection evolves into love; a spark of love flourishes into a brilliant flame of pure love.
Love is cultured by focusing the mind on the object of our love and then offering acts of affection.
How do you develop a relationship with a person you can’t yet see? Well, much like with someone you can see. For instance, we frame pictures of the people we love and put them in our homes so that we can remember them. You can frame a picture of your Divine Friend and give it a special place in your home.
Many people create a sacred space in their homes. You can beautify a small (or large) area that you dedicate for worship and meditation, and the picture of your Divine Friend can be the center of the sacred space.
In the same way you would invite someone over to share a meal, you can do the same for your Divine Friend. When you do your menu planning and grocery shopping you can think of preparing wholesome meals for him and offering them to him.
When we cook for those who we love, we think of pleasing them. It is an act of love. If we place the Supreme Person at the center of the act, we nurture divine love. Think of your Friend as a family member. After making the meal, offer it on a plate set aside just for this purpose in front of the picture and ask him to accept your offering of love and thank you for providing the ingredients.
Bhakti makes the act of eating sacramental and in the process releases us from karmic bonds when we offer our food to Krishna before eating.
When food is first offered it becomes prasada or sanctified. Another meaning of prasada is “mercy.” When we eat prasada we are eating mercy, or eating love and devotion, two elements that were used as the special ingredients of our offering. It is the act of love for the Supreme that makes such food spiritual. We spiritualize our body by eating only prasada.
You can offer a stick of quality incense, fresh flowers, or other beautiful things while asking your Divine Friend to awaken love in your heart. You can offer anything, in fact. When you make a purchase of something you can place it before your Friend in gratitude and ask that you be given the vision and inclination to use the item in service to him and others.
You’ll find that through these simple acts you’ll develop a deeper appreciation and respect for what you have. And you’ll begin to see that you’re more of a steward than an owner. This will help you to cultivate detachment and to acknowledge that everything is on loan to us, even our bodies.
We come into the world emptyhanded, and we leave the same way. How we use what comes into our hands makes the difference in where we will go when we leave here.
What other things can you think of offering? Just as you would offer a guest a glass of water, you can buy a nice cup, fill it with fresh drinking water, and offer it to him in front of his picture when you wake in the morning. You can remember that water is required for life.
When you drink water yourself you can remember that Krishna says in the Gita, “I am the taste of water.” In this way your relationship even with water begins to shift and enable an expansion of consciousness.
What about offering a vase of flowers? The act of spending hard earned money on the flowers, the time spent picking them out, putting them in a vase and placing them before your Divine Friend becomes spiritual acts that not only purify the heart but then you have flowers to brighten your home and mind! See how friendly Bhakti is?
You can offer a flower or some essential oil on a Q-tip to the picture of your Divine Friend. Thank him. Speak to him. Reveal your mind to him. Don’t go before him only to ask for this or that. Go there to be frank and real – and to hear. Listen. To learn how to serve, listen.
The more you think of personal interactions to engage in the more love is cultured and encouraged.
This is one track on which Bhakti works: make offerings to the Supreme and not only is your heart purified and uplifted – which gradually increases your capacity for pure love – but your environment becomes peaceful, your life choices transform into wholesome, joyful possibilities.
The other track, which is just as important as the one we’re discussing, is the core practice of mantra meditation in kirtan and japa. We’ll come to the science and power of sacred sound shortly, but let’s finish the current discussion.
You can meditate in your sacred space, make offerings of love, and culture the inner world of the real heart. The sacred space becomes the physical space where you begin a concrete relationship with the Supreme that leads into the interior landscape.
It’s an entry point into the inner realm, a portal into spirit. As your inner world takes shape, it will reflect in your physical environment and relationships. And as your culture progresses, you’ll be able to carry the wealth of the inner development into the ordinariness of your daily life.
You’ll be able to walk your meditation; your life will become the meditation. A Bhakti practice will completely change the way you view yourself, the world, and others and how you relate to them. These simple acts of devotion are meaningful and call our Divine Friend’s attention to us.
If you have children or have been around them, you might have had the experience of them wanting to give you a toy you bought them. You paid for the toy. You don’t want or need the toy, and therefore, on one level, receiving the toy has no use or significance. But children spontaneously, genuinely, naturally want to show you how they feel about you. They feel for you. This melts your heart because the exchange is a transaction of love. It is the feeling that we accept – not the thing – and it forms a bond between us.
In the same way, we can express feeling in practical acts of devotion for the Supreme Person. This develops further feeling.
As you begin to include your Friend in your life in these small ways, you’ll be guided from within how to bring him more and more into the center of your heart and life. You’ll find yourself thinking of ways to use your hard-earned income to give Bhakti to others or support those who are offering that service to others.
These acts will gradually remove any selfishness or smallness of mind and expand your capacity and inclination to be a giver. Your identity as a spark of spirit separate from the mind-body complex will come into focus.
As it does you, you become more inclined to act as who you really are with a desire to avoid that which is deluding. And you will simultaneously be gradually developing your spiritual identity that will grant you residence in the land beyond matter.
Gradually internal magic begins to happen.
Along with these types of offerings that work to awaken an awareness of our natural connection with our Source, there are 9 practices of Bhakti to engage in and they are as easy as these offerings.
A most important part of a practice of Bhakti yoga to purify the heart and culture divine love is mantra meditation or singing and chanting the names of our Beloved. Don’t we enjoy song that acknowledges and gives expression to the feelings of our heart?
Bhakti has developed this concept more than any other tradition. Therefore a practice of Bhakti includes kirtan, or group call-and-response singing, and japa, a private mantra meditation using mala, or rosary beads.
Through a kirtan and japa meditation practice we develop, step by step, a clearer understanding. First we begin to see our self rightly; we begin to see our real self beyond the mind-body. Then a spiritual vision of others develops that enables us to elevate our relationships above the mundane. Our hearts are cleansed and softened. Our minds are purged of the inclination toward inauspicious, impious actions and the desire to take from others. Grace descends, and we begin to have moments when we can perceive our Divine Friend.
It’s often said that Bhakti is the path of grace. We use the word grace, but grace is actually our Friend reciprocating our love with love of his own.
Who Is Bhakti For?
You’ll soon discover – if you haven’t deduced already by the nature of the practices – that Bhakti is for everyone; even children enjoy doing Bhakti practices. Bhakti is for anyone who wants the purest, highest love and is willing to endeavor sincerely and earnestly to attain it.
Creating a sacred space and making offerings and meditating in that space is done in our homes. But the practices of Bhakti such as singing and chanting can be done anywhere and everywhere. When we realize this, we become aware of moments we can fill with spiritual content while waiting in a line or commuting in the car or doing asanas or jogging. At those times we can repeat the mantra out loud or in our minds or we can play an MP3.
In Kirtan: The Easy Meditation we discuss the primary Bhakti mantra, the nature of sacred sound, and how to practice mantra meditation.
So sing or chant while driving, exercising, shopping, cooking, showering – whatever you’re doing, anywhere at any time. And you can pull out a book or listen to a lecture while you’re out and about too.
We become conscious of time and how to fill the mind with spiritual content when it would otherwise just be cycling over and over through old stories or well-worn, unproductive thoughts or nurturing unnecessary desires.
Filling the mind with such content is more powerful than affirmations, visualizations, and other mental health tools and practices for taming and changing subconscious patterns because it gets to the root of the subconscious material and the karmic implications that fuel it.
Where Can I Find Others Who Are Practicing?
We do better in a practice of Bhakti if we have the company of like-minded seekers. At the Resources tab we share some links to online places you can investigate.
The word marg is properly spelled marga in Sanskrit, but the final “a” is often not pronounced, so the “a” is often left out of the spelling. Marg means “path,” “passage,” “route,” “to journey,” or “trace out.”
Bhakti marg has the same meaning as Bhakti yoga. It means the path of Bhakti, the path of devotional service and divine love.
How Do You Pronounce Bhakti?
The phonetic spelling of Bhakti is buhk-tee. It’s pronounced like the two English words buck and tea. Listen to the pronunciation of Bhakti.