Challenges (Vows) are essential for growth in Bhakti
A Challenge is like a Vow or Vrata (Sanskrit: “vow, resolve, devotion”)
Optimal Skill / Challenge Ratio = Bhakti Flow
“Flow” is the scientific term for optimal states of consciousness, peak moments of total absorption where the self vanishes, time flies, and all aspects of performance peak, as seen in athletes during competitions.
The dynamic relationship of Skill Level and Challenge Level can be seen below.
Flow = peak – at the best – all faculties merge into one solid stream, euphoria, ecstasy, as all faculties flow towards the tasks – samadhi
Challenge and Flow in Scripture
As told in the Indian epic Mahabharata, demonstrating the focus and commitment of Arjuna, the third Pandava prince, and the wisdom of his guru (teacher), Dronacharya.
Dronacharya was a master in advanced military arts and was appointed as the martial teacher for both the Pandava and Kaurava princes. He was renowned for his knowledge and skill in archery.
One day, Dronacharya decided to test his students. He set up a wooden bird on a tree branch and decided to assess his students’ focus on the target. He called his students one by one and asked them to aim at the bird’s eye.
First, he called Yudhishthira, the eldest Pandava prince. When Yudhishthira drew his bow, Dronacharya asked him, “What do you see?” Yudhishthira replied, “I see the bird, the tree, and my brothers around me.” Dronacharya asked him to step back.
Then Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kaurava princes, was called. Dronacharya asked him the same question. Duryodhana replied, “I see the bird, the tree, the sky, the clouds.” Dronacharya also asked him to step back.
Then came Arjuna’s turn. Dronacharya asked Arjuna, “What do you see?” Arjuna replied, “I see only the eye of the bird.” Dronacharya asked, “Don’t you see the bird, the tree?” Arjuna responded, “No, I only see the eye of the bird, nothing else.”
This answer pleased Dronacharya. He said, “Then shoot!” Arjuna released his arrow, and it struck directly at the eye of the bird, demonstrating his extraordinary focus and archery skills.
This story is often used to illustrate the level of focus and concentration required to master any skill or art. Just like Arjuna who was challenged by his guru Dronacharya, to only see his target (the bird’s eye) and nothing else, it suggests that we, too, must have laser-like focus on our goals, undistracted by the surrounding circumstances, if we are to achieve them.
What is Flow?
Imagine, you like to play chess. If your opponent is just beginning to learn chess, you may play 1 or 2 games with such a opponent, but loose interest very quickly, because it is too easy to win. If you play against a master chess player and you loose every time, you also loose interest in playing chess because you can never win. Only if you play against an opponent that is on your or slightly higher level of chess skill, you will be inspired to play chess and increase you chess skill to win the game.
Guru and Challenge
Traditionally, the guru is meant to have few disciples and personally challenge them directly to rise to higher levels of bhakti. However, due to the modern phenomenon of long-distance guru-disciple relationship, this often does not take place. A lack of such challenge can make it difficult for a disciple to achieve higher levels of bhakti. Flow is sometimes referred to as being “in the zone” and is essentially a state of complete immersion in an activity.
Flow states are often characterized by several elements:
- Challenge-Skill Balance: Flow tends to occur when the challenge of the task at hand is well-matched with your skill level. If it’s too easy, you get bored. If it’s too hard, you get anxious. But when the challenge and skill level are in balance, you’re more likely to experience flow.
- Clear Goals: Knowing what you’re supposed to do and how to do it can foster a flow state. This doesn’t mean you need a detailed step-by-step plan, but having a sense of direction and understanding of the task helps.
- Immediate Feedback: Getting immediate feedback about how well you’re doing can also contribute to flow. This helps you adjust your performance in real-time, keeping you engaged and improving your chances of success.
- Concentration and Focus: In a flow state, you are entirely absorbed in the task. You’re not distracted by thoughts of the past or future, or by irrelevant stimuli. You’re in the here and now, completely focused on what you’re doing.
- Control: Even though you may be doing something challenging, being in a flow state feels effortless. You have a sense of control over your actions and the task at hand.
- Loss of Self-Consciousness: During flow, you may lose awareness of yourself as separate from the actions you’re taking. You’re not worried about what others think of you or how you’re performing. You’re simply ‘one with the task’.
- Transformation of Time: People often report that time seems to change when they’re in flow. Hours can feel like minutes, or a moment can feel timeless.
Is the disciple is also meant to challenge the guru?
tad viddhi praṇipātena
upadekṣyanti te jñānaṁ
Just try to learn the truth by approaching a spiritual master. Inquire from him submissively and render service unto him. The self-realized souls can impart knowledge unto you because they have seen the truth. – BG 4.34
Experiencing flow can be incredibly fulfilling and can improve performance across a variety of activities in bhakti. To cultivate flow in your bhakti, you might consider
- setting clear goals
- seeking immediate feedback
- ensuring a balance between your skills and challenges
and finding ways to minimize distractions.
Stages of Bhakti
śravaṇa-daśā – hearing
varaṇa-daśā – acceptance
smaraṇā-daśa (vasthā) – constant remembrance – ecstasy
anusmṛti – uninterrupted meditation
samādhi – spiritual trance
sampatti-daśā – perfection
“In the neophyte stage one should always engage in hearing kṛṣṇa-kathā. This is called śravaṇa-daśā, the stage of hearing. By constantly hearing the transcendental holy name of Kṛṣṇa and hearing of His transcendental form, qualities and pastimes, one can attain to the stage of acceptance called varaṇa-daśā. When one attains this stage, he becomes attached to the hearing of kṛṣṇa-kathā. When one is able to chant in ecstasy, he attains the stage of smaraṇāvasthā, the stage of remembering. Recollection, absorption, meditation, constant remembrance and trance are the five items of progressive kṛṣṇa-smaraṇa. At first, remembrance of Kṛṣṇa may be interrupted at intervals, but later remembrance proceeds uninterrupted. When remembrance is uninterrupted, it becomes concentrated and is called meditation. When meditation expands and becomes constant, it is called anusmṛti. By uninterrupted and unceasing anusmṛti one enters the stage of samādhi, or spiritual trance. After smaraṇa-daśā or samādhi has fully developed, the soul comes to understand his original constitutional position. At that time he can perfectly and clearly understand his eternal relationship with Kṛṣṇa. That is called sampatti-daśā, the perfection of life.”
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