Bhakti implies that you feel devotion. From this comes effacement of ego and from this comes expanded awareness. Usually love and devotion are associated with and dependent on reciprocation; one loves and expects love in return. This is ego-centred love, not bhakti. Bhakti is love that expects no return. Bhakti means not taking, but giving.
As one treads the path of bhakti yoga, self-interest automatically starts to fade. There is a transformation into giving and more giving. Devotion increases as the awareness of the bhakta increases, as he recognizes and progressively removes his limitations and imperfections. The feeling of bhakti is intensified. The level of awareness is correspondingly intensified. The greater the level of bhakti, the less the ego. The aim is to reach a point where there is total identification with the object of worship. It is at this point that one can say the same thing that Hanuman (the monkey deity and the epitome of a bhakta) said to Rama: “0 Rama, when I identify with my body I am your servant. When I identify myself with the individual jiva (soul) then I am part of you. But when I lose all these identifications, I realize that I am you.” Valmiki Ramayana
Once bhakti starts to affect the heart, every experience becomes a lesson, a means to reduce pride and power of the ego. It is easy to attain some kind of success in something, work, study or whatever and think: “What a clever person I am.” The ego is so easily inflated, but it is a strange thing that when one feels egotistical, there quickly occurs something which deflates the ego. That is, while one is wallowing in a feeling of ego pride, something generally happens to highlight this false sense of pride so that one realizes how the ego was playing games and how it overpowered one’s being. On the path of bhakti yoga something always seems to occur to prevent this ego complacency. This is the grace of being a bhakta, even if only slightly. This is the way events seem to flow, continually knocking the bottom out of egotistical mental status.
Pride must be one of the greatest obstacles on the path to expanded awareness. There is a wonderful and very practical book called The Dark Night of the Soul, which deals with this subject in great detail. It was written by the Christian mystic, St. John of the Cross. He says that aspirants have to pass through the so-called dark night of the soul. As they gain some experience they become greedy for more. They become egotistical or think themselves more advanced spiritually than other people. They become caught in many ego traps. These are blocks to expanded awareness, and they occur in this so-called ‘dark night of the soul’, where one’s imperfections are purged.
This false pride, although an obstacle, is actually an important part of spiritual life.
These obstacles are a form of grace for without knowing and facing these ego distractions we would never know their existence and so would never remove them. There would be no progress along the path to expanded awareness. It is during this dark night of the soul that one comes to terms with one’s faults, recognizes them and takes steps to eliminate them. So these egotistical states are both obstacles and a necessary part of spiritual life. It depends on the point of view. In fact, St. John of the Cross says: “Aspirants are led into the dark night of the soul to be purified of imperfections. It is in this manner that they can progress further onwards.” So in a sense, these feelings of pride, achievement, status, etc. are necessary on the spiritual path. It is during this dark night of the soul that one’s imperfections are realized. This leads to more humility, which in turn leads to greater bhakti and communion.
Strangely enough, it is often during spells of this dark night, or during periods of spiritual regression or backsliding that one’s bhakti can be intensified. One is confronted clearly with a block or a misconception or a strong sense of ego, which was not obvious before. One realizes that one has come face to face with a further imperfection that can be purged. One realizes how important it is to experience these strong ego feelings. One’s darkness leads to more bhakti. This dark night of the soul eventually leads to more light. The ego is humbled so that one can know more bliss and harmony.
In this topic we have been concerned with some of the pitfalls of bhakti yoga. The aim has been to point out the more obvious and common misconceptions and traps. For this reason, this is probably the most important of this series of discussions on bhakti yoga2, for without recognizing these blocks it is very easy to lose one’s way on the path. Once one loses the way, especially with tbe more gross pitfalls such as hypocrisy and self-deception, it is very difficult to find the right direction again and to make progress.