“Fear of returning to the site of failure.”
There – I’ve named the fear keeping me from my practice, the reason preventing me from approaching the Mother’s altar for several days running.
Many, many devotional practitioners I’ve spoken to and read over the years express a particular pointed concern – they worry they aren’t doing their practice well. They think there’s something wrong with what they’re doing, they’re worried that they’re not doing enough, they fear that they’re failing to live up to some minimal standard of “being devoted”. It’d be nice if I could assure people that these are fears of early devotional life, but really – they’re not.
Anxiety and fear play a role in devotional practice. They certainly don’t seem to play a major role in everyone’s practice but they are common enough in people’s experience that I feel safe in naming them part of the greater body of lore regarding the devotional path.
(Perhaps there’s an element of personality at work here. Would I describe myself as an anxious person? Honestly, not really. I am, however, plagued with random thoughts of being hit by cars, by falling out of windows, by feeding my cats poison food, by being screamed at by strangers, by being told horrible things by people I love. My days are suffused by unbidden fantasies of disasters of one kind or another. I hate speaking on the phone and must wrestle with the near-debilitating thought that PEOPLE MIGHT SEE ME every time I leave the house. I don’t seem to be anxious about anything in particular but I do experience anxiety about all kinds of random things and most of them are rooted in various common and tedious neuroses. Given that I am anxious about so many things, it seems reasonable that I would also be anxious about my devotional practice and about its execution. Like I always say, we carry the whole of our selves into the practice.)
Given that there is no site of practice outside of the self, it seems reasonable to name anxiety and fear as part of (some people’s) devotional experience. Acknowledging that, I interrogated myself to see if I could find the diagnosis and solution to my concerns regarding my practice.
Problem: I feel like I’m not doing enough, that I’m not doing what the things I am doing to any kind of reasonable standard, that I’m letting someone down, that I’m failing to adhere to even the lowest standard of practice. I feel suffused in failure and despite telling myself that devotional failure is all but impossible, I still feel like I’ve failed. I don’t know how to overcome these feelings or manage them in a way that lets me resume practice.
Reality check: I’ve been doing *something*. I say Hi to Loki all the time, I light His candle. I made a temple video for Her. I like Santa Muerte’s candle and say Hi. I light candles for the other Powers and talk to Them. The things I have not done include daily japa, daily aarti, and Maa’s darshan. Is it accurate to say that I’ve done nothing?
What would I tell someone else in my position? I would remind them that standards are there to lift us up, not tear us down. We have standards to help guide our behavior in an optimal manner, not to punish us for deviation. I would say that addressing anxiety from a mental health direction would certainly help them improve their devotional practice; even though a problem might look like a problem pertaining primarily to devotion, it might actually be a problem related to another realm of life. Therefore, tackling a problem from multiple directions is advisable.
My beloved and honored traditions counsel me that daily practice is best because spiritual progress takes a very long time; however, if progress as such is not part of one’s paradigm then “standards” can and should mean different things. Furthermore, not everyone is interested in “progress” (leaving aside the fact that various progressive outcomes are a natural part of devotional engagement and are likely to happen sooner or later as a natural result). So, I must ask myself once again what my goals are. In this case, my goal is a sustained and meaningful relationship with Maa. What supports this goal? Oh – japa, aarti, darshan. You know. Those things. But there are other things, too.
All forms are Her forms, all names are Her names; She is all states of consciousness, including anxiety and fear. I must adjust my vision to see that this, too, is Her. I am confronted by the very relationship I’ve spent time trying to flee from.
The outward expressions of yearning for relationship are important. I will never say that daily practice is bad or that striving for high standards is bad but the heart has to be fixed in the correct posture. Remembering one’s yearning is enough. Remembering one’s priorities is enough. From this all actions spring.
A friend reminded me that I told her that there are no bad devotees. I *feel* like I’m a bad devotee. I feel like I’m a bad practitioner. I feel like I’ve failed in some very fundamental way. Coming back from this stance is difficult but it’s ultimately necessary. I can’t let the practice keep me from the practice – how does that even make sense?
“Doing it wrong” is a specter some of us battle against on a daily, maybe even hourly, basis. “Doing it wrong” is a weapon we use against ourselves perhaps even more than we do others. “Doing it wrong” is a punishment we use to justify our feelings of inadequacy and failure. None of these things have to do with loving the Gods. Therefore, it must be excised from the devotional path – although this is easier said than done.