Marieke Slovin: Return to Love (a blog post)
I recently participated in the Saturday portion of a weekend workshop at the Tree of Life Yoga Studio in Tervuren, Belgium. Bill Mahony, a gentle, brilliant soul, led the workshop, titled “Return to Love.”
The focus of the weekend was a deep study of the Bhakti Sutras, an ancient yogic text. When I told my husband the title and emphasis of the workshop, he responded, “That’s perfect for you!”
Let’s just say that I have not been feeling a bounty of love since moving to Belgium over a year ago. I seem to have fallen into a funk where pretty much everything either stresses me out, causes extreme anxiety and panic, or just plain irritates me:
Public transit, which I pretty much always find vexing; the continued GI issues our dog has exhibited since we adopted him last fall (no need for descriptors there; if you have children, fur babies, or traveled to Africa, Mexico, or East Asia, you can imagine). It takes so little for me to dive into a whirlwind of negativity, completely forgetting the gift of life that is mine each and every day. I have my moments. I am not a completely ungrateful individual, and I recognize all of the privileges my life affords me. I just have not been able to transcend the propensity for going straight to the dark place in response to all the irritations of life, be they great or small.
My husband reminds me that in times of duress, we instinctively revert to learned behaviors. However, even armed with this knowledge I feel a bit helpless and overwhelmed. On my way to the retreat, while stressing out about getting there on time with the limited transit options on weekends, I decided to try thinking about something I was grateful for to help counter balance my frustration. I recently read in a New York Times article that the best way to change a deeply ingrained behavior pattern is to replace it with a different action. Feeling irritated with transit? Go for a walk. Drink a glass of water. Etc.
On this Saturday morning, en route to a workshop about love, I decided to share something I was grateful for on my Facebook page. Recognizing that simply posting to social media does not equal an authentic embodiment of a feeling, the next step was to really breathe in the feeling of gratitude, to embrace it with my entire being. I arrived with plenty of time to join the workshop. Phew! Breathing a little easier already, I organized my belongings in the coat room and went into the studio to create a nest for myself.
Everyone sat, waiting, with expectant expressions on their faces. Bill Mahony sat quietly for several moments. The squirrel in me turned impatient circles, but I set an expression of grace and calm over my face and body. Slowly, Bill brought his hands to his heart in Anjali Mudra and swept his gaze around the room, acknowledging each person in turn.
With this beginning and the Anusara invocation that followed, I felt an ease growing inside, a serenity that I did not have to work so very hard to create. I often experience this sense of letting go when I step into a truly authentic yoga space with an authentic teacher. Not all spaces are sanctuaries, and not all teachers create a safe, judgment-free zone, so I am always grateful when I enter one.
I chanted with the group, feeling the strength and soothing nature of the vibrations of our voices all joined together. I find a chant or even a single Om to be very powerful. The more voices, the better, and I especially love when there are deeper male voices along with the female that tend to dominate the yoga realm of study these days (as opposed to the beginnings of yoga when it was a strictly male-owner practice).
Bill continued by talking about the meanings of Namasté. There are myriad interpretations of Sankrit words, phrases, and yogic texts. I prefer the two he shared for Namasté:
The light in me sees the light in you (Bill noted that this was the preferred interpretation for Gandhi as well). In other words, Namasté can mean, “I honor your soul.” What better way to greet another person than this?
On a side note, my husband and I have been watching “The Good Place.” I was reticent at first because all of the plot lines wreaked havoc on my insides. A philosophical dilemma at every turn, my husband exclaimed on one viewing occasion. Isn’t it great! It makes my insides hurt, I responded, getting up to get some alka seltzer. Bill Mahony defined Philosophy as a “love of knowledge and wisdom.” You are all philosophers, he told the students in the room. I agreed; however, I definitely experienced some serious brain overload by the end of the day.
How do you do this all day every day, I asked my husband after the workshop. We moved to Brussels so he could study for his doctorate in the Philosophy of Technology, and he spends all day (and often the bulk of the evening), wallowing in philosophy. My brain hurt from one day of thinking with such intensity and intention. His response? Laughter.
The day was intense and intentional, to be sure. We deconstructed and discussed several of the Bhakti sutras, which Bill has spent his life interpreting, word for word for word. It was a day for exercising the muscles of the mind. Brain asana, if you will.
I felt the muscles of my heart being stretched and exercised as well. Some of those muscles were definitely out of shape, and I was grateful for the reminder that love does indeed exist in immense quantities within me.
In fact, one of the discussions I found most interesting was the dialogue around Love being the central energy, which created life on this planet and which is at the foundation of all emotions. When a person lashes out in anger, Love can be found at the outset of that emotion. It could be a mother lashing out to protect her child or an individual lashing out in response to an injustice. A person exhibiting hateful emotions may be retaliating from an absence of Love in their life. The list goes on.
Here Bhakti yoga connects once more to “The Good Place” with the idea, which Bill shared, that “Love is within our very foundation beneath every emotion. When we sense that at some level somebody’s dignity is not being honored, when we have the sense, ‘my inner worthiness is not being respected,’ that leads to anger.” So, when Eleanor Shellstrop questions why she should behave ethically, Michael (the immortal demon) explains, that it is because each person deserves to be treated with dignity.
Of course, not all of yoga philosophy or practice is an embodiment of Love with a capital L. At one point, I asked about the origin of the Bhakti sutras and the propensity in the beginnings of yoga to exclude people based on gender, social status, etc.
Bill explained that in essence, the Bhakti Sutras were created to counter some of the scriptures and practices that were more exclusionary. According to Bill Mahony’s interpretation of the Bhakti Sutras, “Love is the very deepest/highest quality of our existence.” Love is also not limited to existing within human beings. “It exists beyond the life force because it exists in things that are not living.
As with living with intention and engaging in the philosophical dilemmas of life, yoga invites us to participate in our life with awareness and intention. According to Bill, this begins with the breath:
In Bhakti, there is an active engagement with the world. It is not passive. It brings a stillness into the world. With each inhalation, you invite and embrace a new moment in your life. With each exhalation, you release that moment in order to invite the next moment, constantly embracing the present and being “in the now.”
When I feel anger arise, even if it is out of Love (of its absence), I can bring my awareness and heart into the present and create stillness and grace “simply” by breathing. I encircle the word simply with quotes because I know from experience that this is no simple practice. However, it is an extremely important one for reminding my Self that Love really is all there is.
As my favorite professor from undergraduate school told the students in my class, “Say yes to life!” I deeply wish to be present and awake for my life. I want to live it to its fullest, and I want that fullest existence to have Love with a capital L at its core.
In the illustrious words of a beloved captain, “Make it so!”
Deep gratitude to Bill Mahony for his words of wisdom and Love; to Silke Wilson for connecting with Bill to bring him to our humble corner of Belgium; and Courtenay Wilson for creating the space to host the “Return to Love” workshop at her beautiful studio.