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Four Paths to Freedom – Which Is Your Root Path?

March 18, 2009

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)

Seeking: Truth

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)

Seeking: Connection

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)

Seeking: Selflessness

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…

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. Paula permalink
    March 18, 2009 5:09 am

    Interesting post. I have been studying Zen for some time, and I wouldn’t have put it in the same category with some of the other intellectual paths you mention, because it seems very anti-intellectual to me, but I see what you mean about the real goal being breaking down subject and object. I do know what you mean about the traps though, getting trapped in your mind and emotionally dry.

  2. March 18, 2009 12:17 pm

    Interesting! Like you I don’t go for categorisations, but they can be useful tools for understandings.

    I spent my earlier years up to my early 20’s in Paths of Service. Definitely fell into the trap of ‘compassion fatigue’.

    I’ve spent most of the time after that in Path of Inquiry & Unseen. Yep, becoming too cerebral.

    And now I am in a combination of Inquiry, Service in a VERY different way, and Unseen.

    However, the Unseen category is focusing on Power and Creation. Whereas my own Unseen path is about personal power/realisation, but mostly connection to All.

    I can see how Shadows fit into the risk tendencies quite well.

  3. March 18, 2009 12:35 pm

    This could be quite a useful approach to questioning our own attitudes and actions.

    Immediately I recognised the Paths of Inquiry as something very familiar to me. I’m just trying to learn about surrender.

  4. TPP permalink
    March 19, 2009 3:20 am

    Interesting topic. I definitely am drawn to paths of inquiry and definitely caught in the trap of “trying to make sense of it all” So far I have not been able to get past it into surrender mode. I think I try to present myself in a Path of Service, but internally I know I don’t always serve for the right reasons, i.e., more for recognition and “service ego” than for dissolution. Thanks for inspiring self reflection!

  5. mommymystic permalink*
    March 19, 2009 5:22 pm

    Paula – I agree, in a way Zen properly practiced is an antidote to intellectualism, but somehow it’s very easy for the opposite to occur, and to get very cerebral. I have been working with this myself…

    Mon – Yes, this is why I love your shadow posts. To me, this is where so much spiritual ‘work’ occurs. Also, it’s interesting to me that you seem to be saying your ‘Path of the Unseen’ is less about creating, because I think writing on your blog is such a creative act. Of course I realize that’s just one part of your life, but good writing shifts us, and that’s what you do.

    Docwitch – Yes, I’m learning about surrender too. From what I’ve read of your writing though, you are such a natural poet, which to me seems to require a certain kind of intellectual surrender, that I personally don’t really have.

    TPP – Yes, ‘service ego’ is a tough one – so many of us are conditioned to seek approval. But as I always say, the recipients of our giving still benefit, so keep working it:-)

  6. March 20, 2009 3:19 am

    Very interesting post!! I learn something new and that’s great!!

    I see mine as a blend between Path to Inquiry and Path of the Unseen. In my path to inquiry, I am learning now to let go of the seeking, the craving to know and understand intellectually. In letting go, I move on to the Path of the Unseen. I am learning that there is a lot more that cannot be known through the five senses.

  7. Eloquent Bohemian permalink
    March 22, 2009 9:05 am

    An excellent essay. I had to return several times to re-read and contemplate as I didn’t feel that my path fit into any of the four categories. Upon reflction though, the closet would be Inquiry because its antidote is surrender, though my path is not all intellect or knowledge, more unknowing.

    I thoroughly enjoy reading your posts, so please do more! 🙂

  8. March 22, 2009 12:47 pm

    This is very useful information! As for myself, I follow all four paths simultaneously. I’m not sure if this is a good idea or not, because while I see the benefits from each path, I am also aware that I have fallen into pitfalls from all of them.

    It seems to me that they all work together. In my case, it is my Inquiry which led me to Devotion, and Devotion led me to the paths of Service and the Unseen. In other words, it was my questioning which led me to the Goddess, and wanting to serve the Goddess led me to Devotion. It was my devotion that caused me to want to serve others, and my devotion also caused me to begin studying Magick.

    Hmm. I think I have a new blog topic I want to cover 🙂

  9. mommymystic permalink*
    March 22, 2009 5:23 pm

    Evelyn – yes, the Akashic records are kind of the ultimate ‘path of the unseen, huh? I think my path is best described as a combo of Inquiry and Unseen too, for the same reasons – the limits of reason lead me to the unseen. Thanks for coming by, I have been really enjoying your blog lately.

    EB – From some of your posts, I would have guessed you would have said some element of Devotion too (in terms of the mystic union theme.) But it sounds like you too are more combo Inquiry/Unseen. I enjoy your posts too, so do more!!

    Jay – You know raja yoga is considered a mix of all of them, so that may be where you fit. I think most of us pursue all of these at some point, but at any given point in our lives we are focused one more than the others. And as issues arise, if our intent is pure, we ‘correct’ by pursuing another path for awhile. At least, that is certainly a theme in my own life.

  10. March 24, 2009 1:50 am

    Wonderful post, my wise friend. You give us much to think about here. I appreciate what you say about “correcting” ourselves, then pursuing another path for a while. That seems to have been my path over the years. Though I think as I get older, I’ve gotten softer toward myself about being on any one path. Moving beyond labels, forms, exact expressions and just holding what I have come to know as a “spirtual truth” in my heart. Being more alright with everything. Not needing to identify myself in any one way. Trusting that what I am drawn to in the moment is exactly what I might need in that moment and being flexible enough to honor that. Does that make sense? Hugs!

  11. mommymystic permalink*
    March 24, 2009 5:10 pm

    Jan, yes, to me it makes perfect sense, and I think this is more where I am too. This is partly why I said at the beginning of the post that i didn’t usually like categorizations like this, because it can freeze up our own intuition, getting us trapped in doing a certain path ‘right’. But I do think sometimes it’s helpful to look at things this way, as a lense for identifying blocks, and moving forward. Thanks as always for your comments.

  12. April 3, 2009 4:15 am

    That’s really interesting – I can’t say I belong to one type, but interesting to have this info. Thanks!

  13. April 3, 2009 4:16 am

    P.S. Just look at my post – doesn’t it show that really I am seking knowledge (Jnani Yoga)!!! lol!

  14. mommymystic permalink*
    April 3, 2009 10:33 pm

    HealingStones – lol, yes probably, alot of us bloggers seem to be like that!

  15. Angel permalink
    February 8, 2013 11:20 pm

    I would have to go with the Path unseen. I’m not really seeking power or even to create or manifest, well perhaps some manifesting. When looking to manifest anything it is for things we need, I really lack in manifesting things we want,lol. I prefer to see what is unseen.I realized a few years ago that mysticism is nothing more then experiencing realization. We can read a book a hundred times and it means nothing and then one tiny sentences brings forth that “a-ha” moment and then you realize something and your whole perspective changes because you don’t just know it, you understand it and it means something to you. It’s hits the core. It’s usually something so simple, but at that moment you feel it and experience it. I’ve walked through the veils my entire life and live in a wold of paradox and it’s a world I understand the best. To see all sides and to understand all sides. This is probably why I have such a problem making decisions,lol. Thanks for your site, it’s great here!

  16. February 10, 2013 3:44 pm

    Hi Angel, yes you are so right about those ‘aha’ moments, and they only happen when we are open and ‘ripe’ for them. The same book, teacher, or practice may mean nothing to us one day, and then when the timing is right, when we are ready, it is transformative. Blessings to you on your transformative journey.

  17. Lotus permalink
    September 4, 2014 10:37 am

    Hi Lisa ,Categorization is very useful as it teaches about our nature and tendencies which is part of knowing oneself. This gives us confidence to continue on our unique path of ‘pathless path’.
    I feel all paths are inter-connected. One who treads the path of devotion receives knowledge by default and one who starts with an inquiry develops devotion ultimately (not neccessarily in the same life time ).
    All paths end in devotion ultimately. Even a Raja yogi has to surrender completely in the end.
    Path of Karma is at the background of all paths, without this path, awakening to any level is not possible.
    I guess, most of us in this new age, who truly understand what spirituality is all about, combine all the paths. In earlier times, people were not much educated or were illiterate, hence devotion was the only option. They always got guidance from learned persons. St. Teresa of Avila has mentioned about this in her experiences.
    Intuitive and curious Minds tend to inquire and hence are drawn towards the path of Jnana, Emotional types are drawn towards devotion or Bhakti, while Active minded people are drawn to Karma path and finally, Raja Yoga Path can be successfully tread by minds of strong Will power.
    Initially, i was drawn to the path of Truth or Jnana combined with Hatha yoga practice which lead me to the beginning of Raja Yoga. This path needs the support of bhakti and Karma without which the obstacles cannot be conquered.
    On the path of Jnana, problems come in when the mind craves for more knowledge. Gurus prioritize meditation to knowledge aquired from books. As, S. Vivekananda had also pointed this problem of leaving speculation aside after the mind arrives at some general conclusion about its nature and the need to make it ‘one-pointed’ which is the aim of Raja Yoga.
    Speculative study needs to be ended and even reading different spiritual books may give us pleasure which leads us into delusion wrought by the play of Maya. This is definitely a trap.

    All philosophies, no matter how sublime can never truly represent reality, therefore a personal experience and realization is emphasized.

  18. November 9, 2015 9:19 am

    The path of the unseen resonates with me heavily. It seems to be an old soul way

  19. November 11, 2015 12:50 am


  20. Milena D permalink
    March 11, 2016 7:35 am

    Love your posts. I can re-read them and always find something new… I just had an epiphany! May be ”unity” and ”freedom” are the Yin and Yang aspects of the same search. I’ve been getting into David Deida over the past few years and love his talks. So, the beginning of your post resonated for me with his talk on the Masculine search for freedom and Feminine search for love.

    I personally feel naturally my soul’s evolution seem to be leading me towards a combined approach. Through life I’ve practiced Bhakti, as I’ve devoted myself to life teachers who I was inspired by, I’ve worshiped and wanted to become. Also, I was brought up in a very mind driven environment, so my Jnani inclination is strong. I also love Jung (and his work with archetypes), Tolle’s work and the teachings of Adyashanti. But I also feel very imprisoned by the mind’s dualistic and dry view of the world and, feel that my path is the path of heart and embodying power in service of life. Which lead me to questioning what is true power and seeking to expirience and master working with power and energy.

    Thank you for the timeless inspiration!


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