Four Paths to Freedom – Which Is Your Root Path?
For the next post in my mystic spirituality series (which I have to warn you I may meander through with lots of tangents, because I am after all a Pisces and just can’t help myself) I wanted to cover the four types of spiritual paths, which correspond to four types of mystic experiences. I don’t usually like categorizing much, but I find this particular classification system useful for:
1) understanding the religious and spiritual traditions of the world
2) understanding the different routes to ‘spiritual’ experiences, and
3) understanding your own spiritual proclivities
These four categories are based on ancient Hindu texts such as the Vedas and Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, but I first came across them in the biography of Vivekananda, one of the formost disciples of Sri Ramakrishna, and the first Indian ‘Swami’ to travel to Europe and the U.S. (he did this before Yogananda, founder of the Self-Realization Fellowship.)
In Vivekananda’s writings, he labels each path as a different type of yoga, or path to ‘union’ (which is what the word yoga means.) The root of any experience that we label as ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystic’ is a dissolution of boundaries, and therefore rooted in a sense of union with forces or a power larger than ourselves. Of course dividing life into ‘spiritual’ and ‘non-spiritual’ moments presents big problems, but for the sake of this post, let’s just not get worked up about that – I think we can all acknowledge that we have certain moments or experiences of opening that help define our spiritual lives. Personally I prefer the word ‘freedom’ to ‘union’ – as in, freedom from the forces that usually keep us tied down or separated. So I call this Four Paths to Freedom, but you can call it whatever you want!
Think about what you gravitate to the most as you read this. What has preceded your defining moments? What dissolves you? Which of these traditions have you gravitated to the most? Each path is traditionally associated with certain risks, which I have listed, so think also about whether you have ever been (or currently are) caught in any of these traps? Let me know in the comments!
Paths of Inquiry (Jnani Yoga)
These paths revolve around direct inquiry into the nature of reality, mind, personal identity, and God/source. While these start as intellectual exercises, the practices are meant to move you beyond intellect, dissolving subject and object and all the dualities of mind that cause us to believe we are separate from God/source/each other.
Motto: To Know (or even better, To Know the Knower)
Tradition Examples: Zen (all of Buddhism to some extent, but Zen in particular), Taoism, Vedanta, Hasidic Kabbalah (in terms of Talmudic study), Eckhart Tolle, Jungian-based symbolic psyche systems, the Enneagram
Risks of these paths: Getting trapped in the mind. Analysis paralysis. Mistaking intellectual understanding for wisdom, or self-awareness for realization.
Antidote: Surrender. Your intellect is your tool on this path, not who you are. It can bring you to the brink, and then you have to let go.
Paths of Devotion (Bhakti Yoga)
These paths revolve around devotion to an external representation of God, source, or love. Usually, this is devotion to a teacher, deity or other person meant to represent the liberated state. While initially these generate feelings of love for the object of worship, the idea is to collapse into the love itself, recognizing yourself as a pure expression of love, not an individual feeling love.
Motto: To Love (or even better, To Become Love)
Tradition Examples: Christianity (through devotion to Christ), Tantric/Vajrayana Buddhism (through mandala, deity, or guru identification), Sufism, ritualized Hinduism (deity devotion), Guru yoga
Risks of these paths: Getting trapped in external devotion. Never recognizing the same source inside yourself. Getting addicted to the ‘feelings’ of love or bliss that devotion can trigger, without taking the next step into becoming love. Sentimentality. Self-righteousness – when emotion becomes the sole psychological driver.
Antidote: Discrimination – as in the mental ability to take a knife to your ego, discriminate between the various forces at work there, and surgically dissect your emotional addictions (which can be considered a kind of jnani yoga – inquiry and devotion work together.) If you stay trapped in worship for the emotional ‘high’, your ‘object’ of worship has to remain external to yourself. Give up temporarily feeling good to be free.
Paths of Service (Karma Yoga)
These paths revolve around service to others, as a means to overcoming the ego’s self-interest. The goal is to live in selflessness, through service to others, in order to overcome all egoic attachments and thought patterns. Dissolution occurs through recognizing everyone (and yourself) as expressions of the same source. Service to others is service to self – there is no separation.
Motto: To Serve (or even better, To Serve as Source)
Tradition Examples: Christianity (think Mother Teresa), Judaism (in the principle of tikkun, or making the world ‘whole’ through compassionate action), Bodhisattva practice in Mahayana Buddhism (which includes Zen and Tibetan Buddhism, but some lineages stress service in action more than others, and fit better here), karma yoga monasteries like that established by Vivekananda himself (one of Gandhi’s inspirations)
Risks of these paths: Attachment to outcome – judging results instead of focusing on your inner relationship to service. Also, martyrdom or ‘service ego’ – attachment to others viewing you as a ‘good person’, which masks underlying insecurities. And finally, compassion fatigue – a shutting down due to sacrificing your own needs beyond a level that is sustainable long term.
Antidote: Solitude. Meditation. Pulling inward instead of going outward for a time, to reconnect to your source and recognize your true drives.
Paths of the Unseen (raja yoga)
Raja actually means ‘king’, and these paths are so called because they combine aspects of all the other paths, plus add in occult and energy studies. The idea is to study the unseen forces in our world – the patterns of energy and laws of existence that determine what we experience and how the world evolves. Or put another way, the laws of creation. Dissolution comes through the recognition that we ourselves create the world, as opposed to the focus being on an external ‘creator’. Any act of creation – from the creative arts to healing (which is a kind of re-creation) to magic and manifestation – can be a practice on this path.
Motto: To Create (or To Become Creation)
Seeking: Power – as in the power to Create/Manifest
Tradition Examples: Tantric/Vajrayana Buddhism, mystic Kabbalah, kundalini yoga, siddha yogic paths, Religious Science/New Thought Christianity, energy healing traditions practiced as part of a spiritual path, Evolutionary astrology, any occult or energy-based tradition (magick, divination, healing, even martial arts) that is practiced as part of a spiritual journey
Risks of these paths: Arrogance. Attachment to using power as an individual, to fulfill your own ego desires, instead of as a means for experiencing yourself as a conduit for creation. Also, disassociation – too much time in the ‘unseen’ can leave you emotionally disconnected from ‘real life’.
Antidote: Compassion, and service (the raja and karma paths can work to balance each other just as the bhakti and jnani can.) Focusing on your connection to others is the best way to keep yourself connected and balanced.
Many people label only devotional or occult paths as ‘mystic’, but as I said in my Are You a Mystic? post, I use it much more broadly. As for my own tendencies, in my life I have most definitely focused the most on the Paths of the Unseen, with a strong draw to Paths of Inquiry too. But interestingly, the main focus of my last few years – parenting – is a combination of the other two Paths, Devotion and Service. So I’ve been pulled to explore other aspects of myself – and spirituality – through that.
So what’s your tendency? What paths (formally or informally) have you been drawn to? What do you most seek – Truth, Connection, Selflessness or the Power to Create? What traps have you encountered? I’m interested to know…