If you approach life as a student matriculating through levels of spiritual growth, what most people call ruts are more like semester breaks. Or, to switch metaphors, if you’re on an ever-ascending spiritual path, the ruts are plateaus. In my own life, and when working with people who feel spiritually stagnant, I find that the feeling of a rut comes with a sense that something is missing.
Therefore, the usual question—“Should I stop doing what feels like a rut?”—is incomplete without also asking, “What else can I do?” We are fortunate nowadays to have a vast curriculum to choose from—although the number of choices can be paralyzing in itself. In that context, I find it helpful to think in terms of the four classical yogas, or pathways.
1. Jnana yoga, the path of the mind. Generally speaking, this is the road traveled by those inclined to study sacred texts and contemplate spiritual concepts. In its purest form, however, it trains the aspirant to distinguish the real from the unreal, the eternal from the perishable, the Self from the non-Self, the Truth from illusion. The ultimate goal is to transport the mind beyond itself, to the realm of absolute spirit. The approach of learning, however, can serve the interim purpose of giving us insight and fresh understanding.
2. Bhakti yoga, the path of the heart. Worship, devotion and love are the hallmarks of this road. It is favored by those who are driven more by feeling than by thought. The object of worship might be a god-like incarnation such as Jesus or Krishna, a revered figure from religious history such as Buddha or the prophet Muhammad, or a living personage such as a guru or a revered cleric—any of whom might be adored as a representative of the ultimate Reality. For some, the focal point of devotion is a spouse, a child or the unspoiled natural world.
3. Karma yoga, the path of action. Favored by individuals who are drawn to the pursuit of worthy goals, this approach demands ego-free detachment from the fruits of one’s efforts. One works selflessly, with no thought of personal gain and with complete absorption, as if every action were an offering to the Divine.
4. Raja yoga, psycho-physiological path. This pragmatic path emphasizes the disciplined use of mental and physical practices. Meditation, prayer, yoga postures, chanting, breathing exercises and the like are systematically used to open the mind to the Sacred and to cultivate within the nervous system the capacity to sustain higher states of awareness.
Those are the four broad pathways, and aspirants will favor one of them over the course of their lives, according to their personalities and preferences. But few of us confine our path to only one. We incorporate elements of all four, because they complement one another, and the proportions shift as our developmental needs change. That’s why the perspective is useful when ruts/semester breaks/plateaus come along. It can help you sort out the possibilities when you ask yourself, “What do I need at this stage of development?”
Maybe what you need to move into the next phase is something for your mind. Do you need to gather information? Learn something new? Find out what wise ones have to say about something that perplexes you?
Or do you need some bhakti? Maybe you’ve been in your head too much, and what seems like a rut is your heart calling out for some nourishment. What would crack open the love? Worship? Chanting? A silent walk in nature? Spending time with children?
Maybe the rut-like feeling comes from thinking about your problems too much. If so, maybe you need a dose of karma yoga. Serve a cause. Volunteer. Do something entirely selfless for someone.
Or maybe you need to shake up your nervous system with a new practice of some kind. A different type of yoga? A new form of meditation? A fast, or a different diet?
You get the picture. The point is, instead of focusing on what feels boring or dull—the rut itself—shift to what might be missing and how to fill the void.
I looked up the origin of the word rut. It shares a common ancestor with route and roar. Somehow, I find that inspiring. A rut is on the route to higher being, and we can burst through it with a roar.