The words devotion and vote both come from the Latin vovere, to vow, promise, or dedicate. To be devoted means that we commit fully. When we are devoted, we give tremendously of our time, energy, and attention—to a spouse, an instrument, a practice, a garden, a quality, or the sacred. This kind of wholehearted offering can include our rational intelligence, but it needn’t depend on it. Yes, devotion without reason can be dangerous, as history tragically demonstrates. But when our devotion leads to good and benefits others, we can feel confident that the object of our devotion is worthy, whether or not it makes sense rationally.
It took a long time for me to appreciate the value and beauty of Buddhist devotional practices like bowing, chanting, and offering incense. Learning more about their historical context gave me a new perspective on these practices. The Buddha radically challenged traditional views that holiness was about one’s birth (caste) and that spiritual purity or attainment could be found through rituals like bathing in the Ganges. He asserted that true righteousness lies in the heart, and that the primary value of ritual is symbolic. In ritual, intention matters more than action. Thus to offer incense to a Buddha statue is to offer gratitude for the Buddha’s teachings and respect for our own capacity for awakening.
Devotion expresses humility, gratitude, and appreciation; we may literally lower ourselves to honor another. In this way, bowing is a whole-body mudra (symbolic gesture) signifying deep respect. Devotion to the sacred, one’s ancestors, or a teacher uplifts the heart and calls forth our potential. Their goodness elicits the best in us.
We see the potency of devotion in a curious passage from the Buddhist Pali canon where the Buddha, just days after being enlightened, reflects, “It is painful to dwell without reverence. . . . Now what ascetic or brahmin can I honor, respect, and dwell in dependence on?” Realizing that his insight had surpassed that of everyone he knew, the Buddha decides to honor and respect the truth that set him free. This floored me when I first read it. One of the few records of the Buddha’s thoughts after his awakening is essentially, “How can I still show devotion?” This sentiment embodies a fundamental human longing to be in relationship with something sacred or worthy of our respect.
Without devotion we suffer from spiritual hunger; we sense something missing, perhaps without even knowing what it is. Without the opportunity to give ourselves to something worthwhile, our need for devotion may become displaced onto addictions to accumulation, substances, or appearances; onto entertainments and pleasures; or onto feelings of self-judgment, inadequacy, and self-loathing. In effect, we become what Buddhists call “hungry ghosts,” endlessly consuming, never fulfilled.
When we feel an absence of the sacred, we experience a void in our hearts, a pervasive emptiness. Materialism, hedonism, and hyperindividualism dislocate our need for devotion to something larger than ourselves, whether through religious observance, spiritual practice, or a transcendent experience of love. We may be devoted to art, to love or family, to the sacred, to social justice, or to all of these and more. Our devotion is not defined by its object but by the quality of attention and love we bring to it. When we act with full sincerity, connecting our heart with our purpose, even washing the dishes can be an act of devotion.
We don’t practice devotion to get something in return. We practice it for its own sake, as a complete offering of our heart.
Neglecting the heart and failing to integrate devotion into our lives inevitably erode our capacity for fulfillment in some way. If we don’t engage our hearts, life becomes dry and automatic. Relying exclusively on the logical and analytical part of our minds, we approach life mechanistically and lose touch with creativity and freshness. Caring for children, spearheading a new project or campaign, even meditating become obligations rather than empowering vocations, and we lose the deep joy of acting with sincerity.
Devotion expresses itself in a diverse mosaic beyond traditional ways of relating to the sacred. As the poet Rumi wrote, “There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” In 1965, when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched for voting rights with Dr. King, he famously said, “I felt like my legs were praying.” Activism, caregiving, service, singing, growing vegetables, planting a tree—all can be meaningful acts of devotion that connect us to something larger than ourselves.
We don’t practice devotion to get something in return. We practice it for its own sake, as a complete offering of our heart. Singing my son to sleep in my arms, lowering him gently into a warm bath, even wiping his bottom—done wholeheartedly these acts express full devotion. Shunryu Suzuki Roshi recounts how Dogen, the founder of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism, made a devotional act of fetching water from the river, taking only half a dipper and returning the rest “without throwing it away. . . . When we feel the beauty of the river, we intuitively do it in Dogen’s way.”
In deep devotion the quality of our presence transcends our actions. What we do with wholehearted devotion becomes a holistic expression of our being, an act of beauty and selflessness beyond the everyday realm of time, roles, and duties. Released from such daily pressures, we open to the transpersonal realm of the mythopoetic, the archetypal, and the sacred. A single moment of generosity, offered with complete devotion, connects us with all acts of generosity. Planting one tree with devotion connects us with the limitless capacity of life. Devotion thus reaches beyond discrete acts. Vows of love, aspiration, and justice require devotion. Long-term commitments like marriage, child-rearing, and ordination all call forth enduring devotion, as we show up again and again each day. Such devotional commitments, combined with resolve and awareness, power social change in the face of obstacles and repression.
When we give our whole being to anything skillful—be it for one moment of complete presence or a lifetime of tireless work—our being itself becomes a blessing.
In northwestern India a hundred years ago, Badshah Khan’s devotion to nonviolence and education as forms of rebellion sparked a peaceful revolution that challenged at once British colonialism, the authority of local mullahs, and an ancient culture of violence. Advocating for a united, independent, secular India, Khan founded the world’s first nonviolent “army of peace,” which grew to one hundred thousand members in spite of brutal British repression. His visionary devotion drew global attention to the power of nonviolence and was vital to India’s liberation.
Devotion can transform protests into pilgrimage and demonstrations into ceremony. In 1978, advocating for tribal sovereignty and protesting threats to treaties and water rights, several hundred American Indian activists and supporters marched for five months across the United States, from San Francisco to Washington, DC. Known as the Longest Walk, this pilgrimage secured several legislative victories, including the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. More recently, in 2016, opposing the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline (an oil conduit that passes through ancestral burial grounds and under tribal water sources), Lakota elders at Standing Rock frequently reminded demonstrators that their actions were a form of ceremony.
In such efforts, we can glimpse devotion’s capacity to extend even beyond our lifetimes. Held strongly enough, and by enough people, devotion bridges generations in liberating visions—from emancipation, women’s suffrage, and marriage equality to ongoing movements for nuclear disarmament and for racial and climate justice. When we give our whole being to anything skillful—be it for one moment of complete presence or a lifetime of tireless work—our being itself becomes a blessing, and we drink from a source of strength and goodness beyond our personal history or identity.
Reflection: Getting Started
Take time to examine what you habitually devote yourself to. To what activities, persons, values, or habits do you unthinkingly give yourself ? Is part of you devoted to time, money, efficiency, or control? Consider how this serves and how it limits you. Now reflect on who or what is worthy of your devotion. Is there a person, activity, or value to which you would like to be more devoted? Perhaps your family, a craft or project, a social movement, or even a quality like generosity or gratitude? What would that look like for you?
Meditation: Going Deeper
Sit, stand, or recline and settle your mind and body in any way that feels supportive. Let yourself be completely natural, without trying to control your thoughts or focus in any special way. In your own time, when you’re ready, pose one of these questions to your heart:
- What is sacred to me?
- What do I hold dear in life?
- What upholds and supports me?
- What is the deepest truth I know?
- What is too important to forget?
Simply ask the question and listen to whatever arises. Make space for anything and everything—memories, images, sensations, and emotions, as well as discursive thought. Give more attention to the depth and quality of your question and your sincere listening than to finding an answer. Whenever your mind wanders, return to something simple and grounding in the present moment, such as your breath. Continue your inquiry by asking the question again or posing one of the others. Keep listening, honoring whatever arises, not needing to figure things out. If something clear emerges, shift your focus to appreciating your connection with whatever feels sacred, worthy, or true to you. When you feel ready, let go of the question and return to being present. Make a mental note of anything significant you want to remember.
Action: Engaging Devotion
Choose an activity to take on as a devotional practice for the next two weeks. This could be praying, bowing, chanting, or any other spiritual observance. It could equally be walking in the garden for ten minutes every morning, mindfully drinking a cup of tea, reading your child a bedtime story, or even cleaning your teeth! The quality of presence and intention you bring to the activity is what matters. If the activity you choose seems to lack meaning, create that meaning. For example, if you choose drinking water as your devotional act, when you drink you might focus on the wish that all creatures have access to clean water. If it’s cleaning your teeth, you might connect with the heartfelt wish that all creatures have the means necessary to care for their bodies.
Each day, before doing the activity, pause, gathering all of your attention. Set a clear and firm intention to give this activity your full attention. When you do it, do it wholeheartedly, connecting with the meaning this activity, person, or task has (or that you’ve created). As you act, stay attuned: Are you aware? Is your heart engaged? Are you rushing ahead or settling into the moment? Return to the aim of offering your entire being. As the days unfold, notice whether any resistance, impatience, or control comes up. If so, recall that meeting these habitual challenges is also a practice. What happens if you let go of having things the way you want and surrender to the process?
Alternatively, choose an ongoing commitment in your life that you’d like to reinvigorate with devotion. Can you notice ways devotion imbues not only this commitment but all great actions, such as parenting, intimate partnership, lifelong friendship, and following one’s vocation?
If You Have Difficulties
If terms like the sacred don’t speak to you, find ones that do. What connects you with something larger than yourself or your lifetime? What lights you up inside? If the word devotion turns you off, try using a synonym like commitment or wholeheartedness. Practice doing something with complete and total sincerity; put your whole heart into it. If you struggle to do this, use that as an opportunity to practice patience, forgiveness, and mindfulness and try again. If you find yourself growing tight, straining to do it “correctly,” pause in that very moment. Try relaxing your face and jaw. Exhale. Come back to the spirit of devotion: offering your heart to that which is worthy. Consider your time, energy, and presence a gift you can offer. To whom or what shall you offer it? Return to the practice of devotion with this new orientation.
From Your Heart Was Made For This: Contemplative Practices for Meeting a World in Crisis with Courage, Integrity, and Love © 2023 by Oren Jay Sofer. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.