The first component of bhakti is associating with an uplifting environment. This means that you now have to decide on your associations. You associate with those who can transform and uplift your life, who can make your heart sing with their optimism, positivity and clarity. Of course, it is very difficult to find somebody in the external world who can make one's heart sing, so naturally one is diverted towards the Cosmic Self, God, because it is God's energy which makes our hearts sing.
Some people associate this feeling and experience with God, others associate this relationship with guru. There are people who associate this feeling or relationship with someone who is knowledgeable, well versed in wisdom. Whatever the approach adopted externally, the main idea is that you make the choice. You choose the association. The connection has to take place with something that will always keep us connected to the transformative energy. That is the first step of bhakti yoga. It begins in meditation.
In the Bhagavad Gita, one of the spiritual scriptures of India, there is a beautiful statement about associations in the second chapter. When the mind associates with objects, it gives birth to desire. We all attempt to attain this desire. When we are unable to fulfil the desire, frustration is experienced internally.
When frustration is experienced, the mind loses its clarity and becomes obsessed by what it has not achieved or gained. There is a more intense drive to fulfil that desire or ambition. When the drive becomes more forceful, along with frustration and personal, self-oriented expectations, a split in the mind is created, destroying mental peace. The ability to discriminate disappears and the materialistic, obsessive nature becomes predominant, eventually leading to the death of the human character and human peace.
When a man thinks of the objects, attachment to them arises; from attachment desire is born; from desire anger arises. (2:62)
From anger comes delusion; from delusion the loss of memory; from loss of memory the destruction of discrimination; from the destruction of discrimination he perishes. (2:63)
We are not able to manage our associations because we are caught up in our own expectations and desires, too selfish and not selfless. It does not mean that everybody has to become selfless and ignore their own needs, but there has to be a balance between giving and taking. If you are fifty percent selfish, you have to be fifty percent selfless. It is as simple as that. A balance between selfishness and selflessness has to be achieved. If you renounce selfishness one hundred percent, then you become Swami Satyananda or Swami Sivananda, but if you are able to renounce fifty percent of your selfish nature and adopt fifty percent of your selfless nature, then you become a yogi. So in the first stage of bhakti yoga, we try to achieve a balance through meditation by re-analysing and observing our associations and connections to allow the emotions to express themselves in the form of strength, not weakness.
Extract of a lecture delivered during the International Yoga Convention, held from 20—22 May 2005, Bogotá, Colombia