October 4, 2015

If I Didn’t Practice Bhakti Yoga I’d be a Mad Woman.


If you’ve seen The Stones doing “Gimmie Shelter” with the phenom Lisa Fisher, you know the song is a tour de force and a thing of beauty.

Sometimes I watch this rendition purely for the courage it inspires in me to be myself and let it rip, and at other times to remind me of why I am a devotee in the bhakti (devotional) yoga tradition.

“Oh, a storm is threat’ning my very life today…”

I’ve watched the YouTube video of Lisa Fisher and Mick beggin’ for shelter again…and then again…and yet again.

Besides giving me chicken skin every time, it calls to mind the Buddha’s first noble truth: All life is suffering.

Well, actually, what the Buddha said was, life is dukkha.

The word “dukkha” is a difficult one to translate, apparently. I’ve read some translations that interpret it as life is “difficult to endure” and others that say life is “incapable of providing happiness.”

Some say that these translations don’t hit the mark and that what the Buddha meant by “life is dukkha” is a more complicated mix of pain, loss, grief, suffering, clinging, attachments, and cause and effect.

My layperson’s lame takeaway of what the Buddha was saying is that the human experience is a storm of both the painful and the pleasurable, and as hard as we humans try, we cannot attain happiness through avoiding the pain or seeking only pleasure.

To be clear, I’m not exactly a Buddhist. I am, however, a devotee of a Western guru in a bhakti tradition on a path that traces its origins to a mix of tantric Buddhism, Advaita Vedanta, and the Bauls of Bengal—something of a dog’s breakfast of spiritual traditions, each of which has a long history of the guru-devotee relationship.

Before meeting and becoming a devotee of a guru, I hailed from Christianity. More specifically, a baptized-in-the-Holy-Spirit-tongues-speaking-Jesus-junkie Christianity. It could be argued that I’ve got the genes for devotion, and some might argue that the guru-devotee-type devotion is a bit radical.

I wouldn’t disagree.

This bhakti guru approach isn’t for everyone. But for me the path is a direct means to surrendering my selfishness and egomaniac self to the Source of my heart’s deepest longing; my essential nature which the beloved represents.

And it is a means for meeting the painful realities of life that Lisa and Mick are singing about with an open heart and without “fading away.”

“If I don’t get some shelter…I’m gonna fade away…”

For insight and inspiration on the devotional path, or bhakti tradition, I have turned many times to the sixteenth-century Indian poet Mira Bai. So intense and radical was her devotion to her beloved Krishna that (back in the day) she was considered a radical heretic and, worse, a madwoman.

Her story is one of the great love affairs of Indian history, and her radical form of spiritual devotion inspired a heretical movement known as bhakti yoga. Mira’s poetry and bajans (songs) have endured for years, and she remains the single most quoted figure of India today.

“Rape, murder! It’s just a shot away…”

Picture a woman—about 25 but with the aura of one of forty-five who has suffered abuses. She’s sitting on a suitcase along an isolated stretch of road that hugs the black lava spine of the southeast edge of the Big Island of Hawaii. The byway cuts through a jungle canopy of albizia, banyan and coconut palm—ocean waves pounding the cliffs below in shimmering rounds of indigo, turquoise and foam.

My husband and I were new to the area on an extended vacation-turned-writer’s-retreat. For several days in a row we had seen this broken-looking woman and wondered what her story was. Was she a prostitute? Was she perhaps a local greeter, or just local color? Whatever her story was, she appeared lost in her own world, unconcerned with ours as we traveled the scenic road to our favorite swimming spot.

About day three she stepped forward into the road and waved us down. We stopped to see if she needed a ride somewhere.

“No, thank you,” she said, rather politely, then proceeded without pause to tell us her story…in its entirety.

Here are the cliff notes:

Two young lovers fly from LA to Hawaii.
The romance goes south in Honolulu.
Boy ditches girl and splits to the Big Island.
Girl is heartbroken.
Girl stalks boy.
Girl finds boy working at a retreat center in remote corner of the Big Island.
Girl camps out in jungle waiting to see her loverboy.

“Ooh, see the fire is sweepin’ our very street today…mad bull lost its way.”

Do unsolicited opinions blurt out, spontaneous and random, in your head the way they do in mine?

It’s like an inner Tourette’s syndrome, isn’t it?

Fortunately, most of us have an inner sensor that edits these thoughts before they are aired, most of the time. After listening to the woman’s stream-of-consciousness story, my first knee-jerk opinions sounded something like,

“This chick is mad as a hatter…she’s lost it!”

Thank goodness my editor was working at that moment, because what came out of my mouth instead was,

“Is there anything you need? A ride? Money to help you get somewhere…?”

Seeming rational, she verbalized her inner dialogue:

“No. I don’t need anything for myself, thank you. I need to get word to my lover, tell him my heart is bleeding, I love him, I can’t sleep, I will wait here for him, please will you tell him? I will do anything…anything…if only he will come back…”

It was then that my truck driver Tourette’s started up like a raging bull and mad as hell:

“Wait a frikin minute. That son of an a-hole left her here!”

Then my psychic Tourette’s had to weigh in with “The dude has racked up some wicked karma points!”

My editor had to work overtime to zip my lips shut and tell my opinions to RFL (re-frikin-lax).

In the gap between my mind “losing it” and relaxing, I became aware of what the instantaneous and even raging opinions were covering up: heartbreak.


This woman’s raw heartbreak and her profound longing picked the scab off wounds in my own heart.

What was really going on behind all those opinions was my own pain. I began feeling the pain of times I’d carelessly broken another’s heart and times I’d been left longing for reunion. And deeper still was the universal pain that is the human condition.

I felt vulnerable. Powerless.

“War, children, it’s just a shot away…”

Feeling vulnerable led to practice: ditch the life-sucking opinions, surrender my egomaniacal need to control, and neither indulge nor deny the feelings. Radical surrender. I breathed into the rawness of the moment, as it was, which included no fixing her pain or mine.

When I finally spoke, I said something lame—something about “trusting,” or some other such nonsense. My words were empty, and as I said them I realized I had spoken too soon; I’d rushed too quickly to fill the gap and ease my discomfort. Not hers.

We said goodbye to the woman and I promised her I would inquire at the retreat center on her behalf.

I did.

They said they knew her. They said something about a restraining order against her. They said compassionate locals had offered her help—shelter, food—and regardless of what was offered, she always went back to the spot where we had seen her.

They said she was a “madwoman.”

On the drive home and in the days that followed, I found myself obsessing about this local “madwoman.”

I was conflicted.

Was what I had observed an objective manifestation of the surrender to the beloved that is at the heart of bhakti yoga? Or an example of the Buddha’s first noble truth: dukkha?

I wondered:

Is this a modern-day Mira or just a heartbroken woman, like me, driven mad by her refusal to meet her pain and telling stories that separate us from what is real in ourselves and in others?

I then cautioned myself not to be too quick to diagnose, to judge her or to lay on her some story I’d imagined, filled with cosmic meaning. And yet, and still, Christ was considered to be a madman in his day—and was crucified for it, for christsakes. And we know what became of the mystical lover Rumi as a consequence of his devotion to Shams.

It was Mira Bai, my bhakti heroine, who spoke of her longing this way: “I sweep his path in readiness, And gaze and gaze, Till my eyes turn blood-shot. I have no peace by night or day, My heart is fit to break…When will you come?”

“I tell you love, sister, it’s just a kiss away…it’s just a kiss away…”

As I watched the Stones and Lisa, their words at once objectively capturing the essence of the Buddha’s first noble truth and the remedy for our suffering, I felt into why I had devoted myself to this bhakti path with my heart guru.

Because I was a broken woman who had lost her way in a mad world.

Because I longed for Union through love, and to know it was just a kiss away.

And because if I didn’t practice bhakti yoga, I’d be a raging bull of a madwoman.



Stepping Out of Fear & Into a Yoga Practice.

Author: Tarini Bauliya

Apprentice Editor: Brandie Smith/Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Courtesy of the Author, Axel Naud/Flickr

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