In this post, I'm sharing one of the most powerful teachings from the tradition of Tantra, one that students in my 40-day Awareness Challenge have said is the most impactful for them: the teaching traditionally called the 'Pure Motive' but which is more accurately 'Effective Motive'. This teaching addresses the all-important topic of why we do spiritual practice, and invites us to become aware of those (sometimes unconscious) motives arising from our conditioning that actually undermine the practice and inhibit the attainment of the goal.
Let's look at the three 'impure motives' first, because only then can we understand the power of the Pure Motive. And don't let the word 'impure' rattle you -- here impure really just means ineffective. In Indian folktales, it's said that the milk of a lioness is so powerful, it can only be held in a container of pure gold — any impurities in the container are revealed when the milk eats through the vessel at those points. So a container free of 'impurities' is simply one that is effective at holding the powerful substance. When this metaphor is applied to yoga, the body is the container, the lioness' milk is the transformational energy generated by yogic practice, and the impurities are motivations for practice that are subtly out of aligned with the goal (which is, for all branches of yoga, awakening and liberation). So an impure motive is simply one that is ineffective for attaining the goal.
Having said that, we all begin the practice of yoga (or any form of spiritual discipline) with impure motive. If the practice is to bear fruit, we must in time discover and embrace the Pure Motive. If at this point in the discussion you are skeptical, I don't blame you! Your healthy skepticism will, I'm guessing, dissolve as soon as you understand what the impure and pure motives actually are.
Impure motive #1: holding a vision of yourself as broken, damaged, or sinful, and doing yoga in order to 'fix' yourself.
This motive for practice is does not allow the practitioner to attain the goal, because it is based in a view of reality that is fundamentally out of alignment with reality itself. In this paradigm, you think there is something wrong with you as you are, and you look to yoga to solve the problem or 'fix the broken self.' But it's not true — there's nothing actually wrong with you other than the belief that there's something wrong with you, so doing your practice with this motive undermines the practice itself.
In this paradigm, yoga is part of a 'self-improvement project' which is designed to make you 'a better person' because, if you're honest, you think the person you are now is just not good enough. The self-improvement project is doomed to failure since it rests on flawed foundations: a misperception of your real nature. In fact, your essence-nature is already perfect and so needs no improvement, and your body-mind is eternally imperfect and simply needs to be accepted as such. There's nothing wrong with working to refine and improve the body-mind, of course, but if this work is based on the presumption that you need to be different from how you already are to be worthy of love or acceptance, then you're shooting yourself in the foot before you start the race.
Let's turn to impure motive #2:
Practicing yoga (or any spiritual discipline) to feel good, to get high, and/or to attain altered states of consciousness, is the second ineffective motive.
'What??', you might be thinking, 'I thought the purpose of yoga was precisely to feel better about yourself and about life! What are you, some kind of yoga puritan?' Of course yoga, of both physical and mental varieties, makes us feel good, and of course there's nothing wrong with feeling good! But is it the motive for practice? If it is, the tradition says, the ultimate goal will not be achieved. Why is this? Because in order to achieve the goal of being fully awake to your true nature (bodha) and free of all falsehood and delusion (moksha) you must necessarily aim your practice at truth, not at pleasure or bliss. If your practice is aimed at feeling good (subconsciously or not), you will tend to avoid the aspects of the practice that make you more intimate with your pain, sorrow, and grief. And there is no way to become free & awake without a willingness to be intimate with every part of your being. Grasping toward pleasure and avoiding pain has nothing to do with the path of awakening. However, if you want truth more than anything else, you will experience it — and bliss (ānanda) is a natural byproduct of seeing the truth. If you then attach to the bliss and want it more than truth, the process gets off-track again.
In the paradigm of impure motive #2, the spiritual path is seen as something that leads us to 'higher states of consciousness', a path by which we transcend the mundane and become the transcendent divine beings which we were always meant to be. In fact, as one of my teachers says so cogently, 'fascination with states leads to bondage and dependency.' This is not a path of becoming a different sort of being, but rather of coming into profound loving acceptance of ourselves as we are. It is not a path of transcending the ordinary, but if seeing the divinity in it. It is not a path of rising above the rest of humanity, but of becoming truly grounded in the real and loving the whole of what is.
Impure motive #3 is not as common among yoga students, but quite common among yoga teachers (and other kinds of spiritual teachers):
Practicing yoga (or any spiritual discipline) to gain power over others, to 'win friends and influence people', or to bolster the ego through receiving recognition and admiration.
Clearly, that motive does not allow one to attain the goal of the practice. Traditionally, impure motive #3 is seen as a subset of #2, since such power and influence feels good — but is only a pale shadow of the bliss that arises from intimate connection with the truth of your fundamental being.
What, then, is the Pure Motive? As already explained in the videos above, the Pure Motive antidotes all three of the impure motives and provides a reason for practice that is guaranteed to empower the practice enough for it to bear its full fruit.
- Walking the path in order to know the truth of your being, out of love for yourself and to benefit everyone is the Pure Motive.
- Walking the path to discover your already existent innate divinity, because that is your natural heart's desire, and to offer the fruit of that discovery to all beings is the Pure Motive.
- To walk the path with reverence and love, simply because it is your nature to do so, is the Pure Motive.
Above I state the Pure Motive in three different ways because there is no single formulation that can perfectly capture it. I invite you to contemplate how these three different formulations each antidote all three of the impure motives.
Spiritual practice can only be fullly effective with the Pure Motive; but like I said, we all start off with one or more of the impure motives for practice. Therefore, it is traditional to start each practice with the prayer, 'May I have the Pure Motive.' You shouldn't pretend to have it if you don't — just ask for it, pray for it, long for the sweet nectar of authentically feeling it, and it will come. When it does, all the spiritual practices will suddenly increase in efficacy to a degree which may surprise you.
There is simply no turning point in the spiritual life more powerful than attaining the Pure Motive. May all who read this teaching experience flowing nectar of the Pure Motive! And may all beings benefit.
This video explains more about the ineffective motives and their antidotes:
* Those who know Buddhist Tantra will recognize that attaining the Pure Motive is equivalent to generating bodhichitta, a mind bent on awakening for the benefit of all beings.