“Banal” is not a word one should ever associate with devotional service but I would be lying if I said it never feels that way. Yes, we should always be enthusiastic and full of joy but reality is that we are just as often full of boredom and can’t be bothered.
The reason is simple – we are doing sādhana bhakti, which is not a “real thing”. There’s no spontaneity or selflessness in our service and it is always interrupted by one thing or another, which means it doesn’t deliver ātmā suprasīdati, complete satisfaction of the self (SB 1.2.6).
It might be argued that for many of us it’s not sādhana bhakti either but only vaidhī – where we simply follow the rules without any comprehension and loving attitude. Such service is not even supposed to be joyful.
That shouldn’t be off-putting, of course, but we should adjust our expectations accordingly and we should not be discouraged by a lack of bliss.
In fact, I would argue that we better not feel any joy at all, that it would be in line with our actual position. Of course we can’t stop feeling happiness and distress but I mean spiritual joy, which is not supposed to be happening to people on our level. Senior devotees say that occasionally we all should get glimpses of spiritual pleasure but the key word here is occasionally. Normally it shouldn’t be there, if we feeling it we must be mistaken.
We didn’t invent the word ecstasy, it’s a fairly common feeling available to all conditioned souls, there’s nothing particularly spiritual about it. We just feel ecstatic about different things. Ours are spiritually legitimate but that doesn’t mean they are fully spiritual.
There are thousands and thousands of devotees in our movement who eventually exchanged this “spiritual bliss” for pursuit of ordinary sense gratification, which is impossible by definition – whoever tasted the fruits of devotional service will never ever, under any circumstances, desire material sense gratification again, occasional slip-ups in enjoying interactions between senses and sense objects notwithstanding.
What we should admit, I think, is that by Kṛṣṇa’s grace we have been put in situations where our material happiness was derived from service to our guru. Waves of love and devotion that occasionally overcome us are powerful and uplifting but we perceive them with material senses and as such they can be duplicated by artificial means, which is what the rest of the world has dedicated itself to. Sometimes they are successful and that makes them as convinced in the correctness of their ways as we are convinced in ours.
I mean science works for them, democracy works for them, communal spirit works for them, sex works for them, money works for them, love works for them – everything works, just not at all times. People remember successes and that keeps them going even if they are heading over the cliff.
We aren’t much different – our “blissful” experiences are just as rare and just as memorable, and they are usually sufficient enough to take us over our cliffs, too. Except we are supposed to be caught by Kṛṣṇa and lifted to His world rather than fall into the depths of hell like the rest of Kali yuga population.
I hope this works but this means that whatever we are doing now would matter only at the moment of death, on its own it doesn’t have much value, unlike pure devotional service that immediately takes one beyond material perceptions of life and death and identifying oneself with one’s body. We don’t get that, not yet, maybe not ever, only after taking another birth closer to Kṛṣṇa.
That next birth isn’t supposed to be a lifetime of uninterrupted ecstasy either. We can read about people who were with the Lord in Kṛṣṇa Book or in biographies of Lord Caitanya and His associates. They led “normal” lives in that they were born, went to school, many were poor, some were sick, they all got old and they all died. None of that felt particularly blissful.
Śrīla Prabhupāda promised us that Kṛṣṇa consciousness would solve the problem of birth, death, old age, and disease but the solution is not that the material world would stop, old age would stop, death won’t happen – no, the solution is that we will be raised above such trivialities and eventually leave this world altogether.
Until that happens, however, the world will go on complete with all the usual suffering. We aren’t free from suffering now and we are not going to be free from suffering if/when we get born in Kṛṣṇa’s or Lord Caitanya’s presence.
Remember how Gadādhara Paṇḍita got so old he couldn’t put a garland on his deity, Ṭoṭa Gopīnātha, and how the deity then took a sitting form to accommodate him? I’m pretty sure Gadādhara Paṇḍita’s body didn’t feel great about it. Pain and incapacity were surely there like they are going to become daily reality for us in a few years or decades, too.
Remember sores oozing pus on Sanātana Gosvāmī’s body? They surely didn’t feel great and didn’t make Sanātana Gosvāmī ecstatic. He even thought that his body became useless for devotional service and decided to kill it, only to be stopped by the Lord Himself who assured him there was still great future for him despite his current condition.
Remember how shortly after that Sanātana Gosvāmī took a path along the beach to avoid touching servants of Lord Jagannātha downtown and hot sand burned his feet?
Being with the Lord does not guarantee material happiness, whatever we do with our bodies, however we engage them, it would always bring a mixed bag of pleasure and pain. Why should we only pick what feels good about our imperfect service and declare it “ecstasy”? What about bad things that happen to us? What if they outweigh the good ones for a while and force us to reconsider our commitment? What if what we perceive as bad is as pleasing to the Lord as what we perceive as ecstatic?
We can’t make such distinctions simply on the basis of our feelings, that would be unwise. The key to success in devotional service is steadiness and this means that a large part of our experience here would be banal. Would it make bhakti banal? No.
Returning to sādhana bhakti – what makes it work is not how it feels but our underlying dedication to our service. We are supposed to be satisfied by executing it regardless of our feelings, disregarding perceptions of good and bad altogether. That’s what makes it different from vaidhī bhakti where we force ourselves to perform our service for the sake of the future payoff, not because we see its spiritual value now.
So, there’s no banality in bhakti but this needs separation between our materialistic experiences and expectations and the as yet imperceptible spiritual side of our life. If we group it altogether than some things we do WILL appear as less inspiring than others so the banality CAN be observed even if it’s not really there.
It’s all in our minds, unavoidable as long as we are stuck on this relatively low level.