I’ve probably posted this story before, but it’s been on my mind lately so it’s getting posted again. I cannot remember where I read it, most likely in Sivananda’s writings or maybe in The Gospel of Ramakrishna. My apologies for not citing the work (if anyone can provide a source, let me know and I’ll gladly document it):
Once upon a time, in India, an old wandering sadhu (holy man) sought shelter in a temple. The temple priest led the hermit to the meditation hall and left to prepare some food. When the priest returned, he was horrified to find the sadhu lying down with his feet pointed to the Shiva Lingam.
“Dear Brother! Please move your feet at once!” exclaimed the horrified priest. “Why do you disrespect Lord Shiva by pointing your feet toward his image?”
“I am tired and needed to rest,” replied the sadhu.
“It is a sacrilege to show your feet to the Lord!”
“If it bothers you that much, please move my feet so they do not point at the Lord,” the sadhu responded.
The priest immediately grabbed the feet of the sadhu and began to turn him. But in every direction he turned, the priest saw the Lord Shiva. The priest realized that the Lord is everywhere, not just in statues and rituals, and gained enlightenment.
Yes, we need to be organized, systematic, and disciplined about our practice. Rules and rituals are useful, especially in the beginning of our practice when we need to develop discipline. Yet we must remind ourselves that the goal of the practice is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. The "rules" are only tools to meet this goal. There are a wide variety of rules because there are a wide variety of people--all rules and methods do not work universally for all people. Obsessing over every bit of minutiae (Internally rotate your spleen to a 47.34 degree angle; each pose must be held for 5 breaths, no more no less; Are there ONIONS in that?! Onions are worse than meat!) increases fluctuations and decreases practice time.
When rules are trumping common sense and take over as the focus of the practice, it is time to lighten up a little. You won’t be smited for leading with the wrong foot. Your cushion won’t turn into brimstone because you mispronounced a word in that chant. The gates of Hell won’t open because you had a hamburger.
The Lord is just as present in ‘mistakes’ as in ‘perfection.’
Sincerity is more beneficial than precise mechanical repetition. Enjoy your practice and you will return to it, make it a source of stress and you will drift away from it.