The Monkey and the Tiger: The Synergy of Effort and Grace in Spiritual Practice
By Tasha Friedman
“Krishna may embrace me in love or trample me under His feet. He may break my heart by hiding Himself from me. Let that debauchee do whatever He likes, but He will always be the only Lord of my life.”
–Lord Chaitanya Mahaprabhu
As you find your way through that mysterious open space that we call the spiritual path, are you a baby monkey or a baby tiger?
A teacher recently shared this metaphor from the Upanishads with me, and I will share it with you since it might help to illuminate that synergy of effort and grace through which we all navigate.
The baby monkey is afraid to fall and clings to its mother for safety, for life itself, as she climbs and jumps from tree to tree, high above the ground. It knows it will die if it slips off, but it trusts its mother, and it knows there is nothing to fear as long as it holds on tight. Its entire being is bent towards this, towards the mother monkey and maintaining its hold.
The baby tiger is carried by its mother, and its only task is remaining completely passive and relaxed to allow her to take it around. A tiger, like all felines, is born completely helpless: blind and deaf, unable to regulate its body temperature or even urinate without its mother’s help. It’s hard to imagine a more humble existence. Yet it will grow to be the most fearsome creature in the forest.
And the mother tiger, that 150 kilos of muscle, razor claws, jaws that can snap a cow’s spine with a single bite—is the very image of tenderness with her little ones. It would never occur to her cubs to be wary of the giant teeth digging into their necks as they are carried from place to place.
The monkey and the tiger represent two seemingly opposite yet complementary modes in our spiritual life. We need to be both, at different times and measures.
Sometimes, like the baby monkey, we are on the path of ascent through personal effort. Clinging to that intuition of truth in our hearts, we aspire to reach it through our will and constant practice.
And sometimes, like the baby tiger, the path is only to surrender. All we can do is open and allow ourselves to be moved by grace.
The Benevolent Movement of Grace
The baby monkey and tiger also demonstrate the combination of fearlessness and awe that we might experience as we open to the depth of our being: awe, or even a kind of terror, as we come to realize the vastness of the Cosmos and our vulnerability within it; the constant turning of the wheel of samsara; how narrow is the path that we must walk upon to be free from the traps of our minds.
And fearlessness, as we recognize that all of this existence is so benevolent, that it loves each of us beyond any understanding, and that it cares only to support us in returning to union.
Lord Krishna may appear as ferocious Narasimha, or wielding the discus and mace, but only in defense of His devotees—only to cut through the snares of the ego. To those who take shelter in Him, who trust completely in the Heart, He is sweet Govinda. Those who love God have no fear of any manifestation, knowing that the ultimate reality is Love.
You begin in Love, and you end in Love, so all that happens in the middle must, in whatever mysterious way, also be nothing but Love. There is no more potent force; nothing excepted from this absolute principle.
In this game, there’s no losing, no possibility of falling from your mother’s back, and no harm that could come to you. What could harm you when you are Existence itself, eternal and unchanging?
Even the story of the soul, all its yearnings and aspirations, its wandering in the realm of duality and returning to union with its source, is held within this Love, playing out within the unwavering gaze of the Self. No soul is lost forever; all rivers flow into the same ocean.
“However men try to reach me,
I return their love with my love;
whatever path they may travel,
it leads to me in the end.”
–Bhagavad Gita, 4:11
From a higher sense, you could say that we are always the baby tiger, or you might notice that the baby monkey is always being carried and protected by the mother. Always it is the flow of grace that takes precedence, whether it reveals itself as itself or takes form as the ego and all its struggles.
Always life is moving of its own accord, while we’re just along for the ride.
Surrender within Effort
Yet part of the game, the divine play, is that sometimes you must act like the stakes are very high indeed, and feel that you’re at great risk of falling from your mother’s back. At these times, you practice like your life depends on it.
At other times, you are basking in grace. Everything comes naturally, all doors are open without you even having to knock.
The fact that you’re in one kind of movement or another is not in itself so significant. Being in “baby monkey” mode is not a sign of failure, and being in “baby tiger” mode is not a sign of success. To describe it as a success would give credit to the ego, contrary to the very spirit of surrender!
They are simply different movements, or different qualities that Consciousness has chosen to take on.
Both attitudes are important for a being who has taken on the paradoxical goal of trying to surrender, though, at different times, one or the other might be dominant.
But can there be surrender within the effort? Even when the practice seems to move only through the sheer grinding force of personal willpower, and you’re dragging yourself around like a pile of bricks—can you relax into it?
Can your heart remain open whether or not you experience pleasure from it?
Even when the only thing that seems real is the mind’s stories, can you acknowledge an unseen truth?
Can you love God in His absence?
Love in Separation
Here we arrive at the jumping-off point into Bhakti Yoga, the path of devotion. For a devotee, the longing for God is always the guiding light, which, when supported by faith, can burn all the brighter in the lack of a response.
The divine romance of Krishna and Radha did not end in marriage and a “happily ever after,” but in long separation and many years of missing each other. Radha did not stop loving Krishna for all the years they spent apart. Her love only grew deeper and stronger, until when they finally met again in old age, with her dying breath, she merged into him.
It is this fire of vipralambha prema, love in separation, which a bhakta cherishes more than any passing glimpse of bliss.
Unlike an ordinary desire, this longing becomes even more intense in the presence of its object—more agonizing and more ecstatic all at once—until even this duality and all possibility of separation dissolve.
Radha merges into Krishna, and Krishna breaks his flute; nothing is left to be said.
So look again at those periods of increased effort, when grace seems far away. Those times call for absolute faith. They call for you to detach from bliss or peak experiences and to truly place your trust in God—to give everything and ask for nothing in return.
Through God’s mercy, you might discover that the effort—the aspiration, the searching, the yearning, the feeling of incompleteness, the heartbreak, the trying and trying again—is, in itself, grace.
When you are in love with something fundamentally unknowable, which can never be seen, understood, or even named, that very desire is the only thread that can bind you to it. The pain of its absence is the mark of its presence.
“This Longing You Express Is the Return Message”
It is as Rumi described so beautifully in one of his poems:
“One night a man was crying,
His lips grew sweet with the praising,
until a cynic said,
‘So! I have heard you
calling out, but have you ever
gotten any response?’
The man had no answer for that.
He quit praying and fell into a confused sleep.
He dreamed he saw Khidr, the guide of souls,
in a thick, green foliage,
‘Why did you stop praising?’
‘Because I’ve never heard anything back.’
‘This longing you express
is the return message.’
The grief you cry out from
draws you toward union.
Your pure sadness that wants help
is the secret cup.
Listen to the moan of a dog for its master.
That whining is the connection.
There are love dogs no one knows the names of.
Give your life to be one of them.”
The fact that your heart is alive enough to feel the need for Truth, that you have woken up enough to look at the structures of ordinary life and realize that something is missing, that there’s something essential you’re meant to remember, and it’s important enough that you feel frustrated when you don’t…
Don’t take this for granted! Many beings live their entire lives in a cocoon of the ordinary, never looking beyond the horizontal plane. Maybe they don’t know the agony of longing for God, but also, well, they don’t get to know the agony of longing for God!
Having once tasted that sweet despair, you would not trade it for a lifetime of comfort.
So spiritual practice itself might look very dualistic from the outside: “me” doing this, “me” trying to get there from here, “me” wanting to unite with something else. But when you recognize the impulse behind it as that perfection expressing itself, the experience is very different. It becomes a celebration of grace in its omnipresence.
In every practice, you are calling out to God, whether with your voice, your body, or your mind. Your soul uses whatever capacities it has available to pray for union.
Yet you do so with the understanding that in reality, you are only God calling out to God, the Heart calling out to the Heart, and that ache of separation is just like the empty space inside a flute through which the music flows.
Tasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.