Devotion as a Habit
“The most important quality on the spiritual path is deep, selfless, heartfelt devotion and love for God.”
“The power of habit is specially important in the spiritual path.”
People usually think of habits as things that we do, rather than as thoughts and attitudes. But even our habitual actions have their origin in the mind and heart. Just as with actions, we can change habitual thoughts and feelings over time by replacing them with new ones. Even devotion can become a habit.
I’ve been experimenting the last few years with developing the habit of thinking more of God. I took this approach after finding it difficult to practice the presence of God in a general or vague way, in other words, “as often as I can,” or “all the time.”
I’ll describe just one small success story, but there are more, because the same approach can be applied in countless ways.
I found myself going through a period where I was becoming resistant to the alarm clock waking me in the morning, sometimes to give an early morning class (6:30am for Kriya Reviews, for example). I knew that it would be so much better to have my mind and heart on God as soon as the alarm went off, to replace that habit of grumbling when I was rudely awakened.
So I began playing a game. The goal was to see how soon after waking, whether first thing in the morning or in the middle of the night, my thought and feelings could turn to God.
After some small successes, I learned that the best way to succeed was to make a much more conscious effort to give my mind and heart completely to God as I was falling asleep. When, with deep devotion, I wholeheartedly offered myself to God as I was drifting into subconsciousness, my mind and heart were much more likely to turn immediately to God as I was coming out of subconsciousness.
I still wake up groggily sometimes, taking some minutes to come to my senses enough to begin that devotional conversation with God. But it has become more and more common to have the delightful and sweet feeling of greeting God as the very first awareness, often before I’m fully awake. Even the times of waking in the middle of the night are typically divinely sweet interludes to sleep.
This connection between how we fall asleep and how we wake was made especially clear to me last year when I had to go under full anesthesia for a surgery. During all of the previous times I had undergone anesthesia, I noticed that the anesthesiologists had a little trick up their sleeve, probably to help relax over-anxious patients. They wouldn’t tell me when I was about to go under, instead distracting me with casual conversation and questions, and then in the middle of a sentence, poof! I would be gone.
This time I asked the anesthesiologist, “Please tell me when you are about to put me under, because I want to think positive thoughts at that very moment.” He obliged, and I was able to close my eyes and think of my Guru, Yogananda, as my very last thought and feeling before going under.
My previous experiences with coming out of anesthesia were invariably slow, groggy, and somewhat disorienting. This time was quite different! My very first awareness was of hearing someone singing the beautiful chant by Swami Kriyananda with the simple words, “Sri Gurudeva Aum, Sri Gurudeva Amen….” It wasn’t a particularly beautiful rendition — in fact it was being sung almost drunkenly!
It took hearing it several times through to realize that I was singing it, and even my best effort still made it sound like I was singing a drinking song. By the time I was more awake I could still barely sing it properly, but only because the feeling of divine sweetness and grace was overwhelming.
In addition to falling asleep and waking, there are many other common transitions in daily life. Each one is an opportunity to create the habit of turning to God. These include such normally mundane things as: starting the car; turning on the computer; sitting down at your desk at work; brushing your teeth; going to the bathroom (really!). There are many more. Each of those transitions can become a time when you habitually turn all of your thought and feeling towards God.
Perhaps more important is the way that we react to certain situations and events. You would be surprised at how many of these reactions really are just habits, which you can also change!
Imagine if you had the habit of turning to God as the immediate and habitual reaction to: physical pain or suffering; emotional hurts; kindness in others; praise or blame; sickness or health; a driver cutting in front of you; certain fears; your ‘buttons’ being pushed in certain ways; etc. Yes, all of these reactions can be turned and changed into a devotional response. I’ve tried some of them, and I can testify that it is possible, even with the most challenging issues.
Try experimenting with just one or two of these daily transitions and reactions at first. You’ll find it easier in the beginning to focus on one or two, rather than in a more general, and therefore vague way. And I think that you’ll be quite delighted at the results, just as I have been.
Nayaswami Devarshi and other Ananda teachers will be leading a weekend program on Developing Deeper Love for God, from April 12-14, at Ananda’s Expanding Light retreat.