Embracing the Divine Feminine, Darkness and All by Kavitha M. Chinnaiyan

Image of the goddess Kali with her tongue out

Embracing the Divine Feminine, Darkness and All
By Kavitha M. Chinnaiyan, author of Shakti Rising—available now!

Who gets to define the feminine divine?

If you’ve been in a bookstore lately or even on the Internet, you’ve probably heard about embracing the divine feminine. We are asked to step into our goddesshood in innumerable ways, from the way we dress and feel about ourselves to the way we talk and walk and go about living our lives. We are taught how to tap into our feminine selves.

This is a much-needed cultural, social, and spiritual revolution. However, it begs the following question—how do we define the feminine, especially the divine kind? And who gets to define it?

Myths and stories have saturated our minds with the supposed magical qualities of the goddess—an epitome of beauty with sensual curves and a lovely visage framed by a cascade of perfect hair; a lover par excellence and an exemplary mother, she is at once a tender flower and a fierce warrior against injustice. The goddess isn’t merely ethereal in appearance; she also wields extraordinary powers over nature. Importantly, she is worthy of worship.

We have no standards for the goddess other than those created in patriarchy.

Suspiciously enough, these attributes of the goddess we wish to discover in ourselves are steeped in patriarchy. Consciously or otherwise, we imbibe the prevalent standards of beauty and femininity, projecting them onto the goddess we wish to embody. Perhaps we don’t stop to think that, like everything else in our lives, we have no real feminine standards for the goddess other than those created in the throes of centuries-old patriarchy.

Naturally then, we may find that, despite being barraged by popular culture to open to the goddess, we are simply unable to identify with qualities that are impossible to achieve if we are not endowed with beauty, strength, or power as they’ve been conventionally defined.

As if the conventional problems of patriarchy in making us feel less than perfect are not enough, the goddess becomes yet another avenue for us to view ourselves with disdain for being deficient, incomplete, and imperfect.

Can the goddess be plain, destructive, conniving, entrapped in the confines of time and space?

On the other hand, the goddess has the potential to become a vehicle for spiritual bypassing, where our own unexamined sense of lack or low self-worth is replaced by her imagined qualities, creating false or contrived personas for acting and living in the world. Instead of digging deep into our insecurities and seeing their baselessness, we learn to cover them up with an exaggerated sense of self-worth. In addition to not resolving any of our deep-rooted issues, spiritual bypassing comes with the fear of losing this goddess mantle and returning to our dreaded ordinariness. The pain and insecurity we wish to push away or forget lurk just behind the goddess persona, ready to burst through with the slightest provocation.

The goddess brimming over with beauty, power, goodness, and light thus continues to remain a fantasy, an impossible goal to achieve. At some point, we may be tempted to ask—can the goddess be plain, destructive, conniving, and entrapped in the confines of time and space?

Few, if any, myths describe the goddess as being an embodiment of our darkness as much as the beauty and strength that we seek. If the goddess is much like us, what would we learn from her? What if the shadows and the light she embodies are universal, whether we are male or female? What if we tread the goddess path to discover that who we are is beyond the confines of the binary? How would we inhabit our bodies and minds while still breaking through the conventional norms of gender, race, age, beauty, grace, power, and peace?

This is where the Dasha Mahavidyas come in. Translating to “the ten wisdom goddesses,” the Mahavidyas are a peculiar group of goddesses that defy all conventional norms and definitions of what it means to be feminine.

In Sanskrit, Shakti is the creator, sustainer, and destroyer of the universe.

In Sanskrit, the supreme force that rules over creation is called Shakti. The word literally means “power.” Shakti is the creator, sustainer, and destroyer of the universe. Importantly, she is the creator, sustainer, and destroyer of our persona—the one that keeps us so effectively trapped in familiar ways of thinking and acting that we forget our divinity. The persona that we take to be who we are is a cover-up for who we really are, which is eternal bliss consciousness. Shakti is not just the great concealer of our divine nature; she is also its great revealer. Shakti’s ten great forms that represent various forces of creation are known as the Mahavidyas.

What sets the Mahavidyas apart from other goddesses is their singular fierceness. Their disheveled and naked bodies, lolling tongues, garlands made of skulls or human heads, and violent imagery cut through any binding concepts we may have of the divine feminine. Hidden in their iconography are the secrets of both the concealment and discovery of our divinity.

The only way to open to the light is by embracing our shadows.

By embodying the opposites of shadow and light, the Mahavidyas show us that one cannot be had without the other, be it in the world or within ourselves. The only way to fully open to the light is by owning and embracing our shadows. In their insistence on reconciling opposites, the Mahavidyas leave no room for spiritual bypassing. Through their “in-your-face” iconographies, they transcend all superficial definitions of the word “goddess,” defying patriarchal norms of beauty, power, strength, and forbearance.

Take Kali, for instance. Few goddesses have stirred up the collective subconscious of goddess worshipers as she has. Fierce and wild, Kali is worshiped as the embodiment of all that is rebellious in us. She is known to strip us of our false personas if rightly invoked. There are plenty of stories floating around about the compassion and grace that accompany her merciless beheading of any pretenses that make up our identities. As a Mahavidya, Kali symbolizes time, the great cosmic force. She is often depicted as a wild-haired woman with bloodshot eyes and fangs, a bloodied sword in one hand, and a freshly severed head in the other. Strewn around her are corpses, presumably her victims.

Every time we judge ourselves on contrived concepts of propriety, we fall prey to Kali’s shadow.

In our psyche, Kali represents the shadow of aggression as well as the light of nonviolence. Being entrapped in our past stories of hurts and slights, with the hope of getting even in the future, forms the very basis of violence. As time, Kali creates the illusion of a continuity between the past and the future, where we feel like we are on a linear timeline. Her dance among the corpses is telling—she beheads every moment, so that the next may be born. Standing on the corpses, she reminds us of the dead stories we carry around about ourselves. Even though the events behind the stories are long gone, we carry their wounds, which become the basis for how we behave in the present. Kali’s shadow of aggression makes us think that who we are today is a product of our parents, our culture, or world events, even when they occurred so long ago that nothing remains of them except memories. We dance on these corpses, viewing ourselves and others through the lens of judgment and comparison. Every time we judge ourselves based on contrived concepts of propriety, we stir up the corpses in our own personal cemetery and fall prey to Kali’s shadow.

The Mahavidyas are unique in that they show us the only way out is through. Kali simply doesn’t allow us to fake nonviolence or to neatly push away even our microaggressions. She forces us to clean up our acts by making us acutely aware of our own darkness. Every time we point a finger at someone, she bubbles up in our inner vision, her deafening laughter ringing in our inner ears. She mercilessly beheads our every attempt to ignore or bypass our issues, forcing us to wake up from the tyranny of time. She keeps at it until we do, until we have stepped out of her linear timeline entirely, for only then can we become truly nonviolent. She does away with all superficial definitions of the word, forcing us to see that, as important as kind words and deeds are, true nonviolence can only arise from being free of the hurts of the past and the hopes of the future. Kali’s radical nonviolence shows us that all aggressions and transgressions arise from being trapped in her shadow. We see that patriarchy is just as much a product of her shadow—Kali’s dance is evident in all manner of violence, whether it is a politician or lawmaker spewing hatred and divisiveness, or our own petty jealousies and temper tantrums.

When Kali stops her dance, we see that neither the past nor the future exist in the eternal now.

This understanding results in a radical shift in perspective. It evokes compassion for the perpetrator as much as for the victim. It forces forgiveness and opens creative ways of dealing with injustice. Social and cultural activism are infused with sweetness instead of righteous anger. Our own shadows thus become our allies when we embrace them. They form the catalyst for a deep makeover of our thinking and being. When Kali stops her dance in the cemetery, we come to see that neither the past nor the future exist in the eternal now. With the disappearance of linear time, we stop believing the stories we have been telling ourselves about who we really are. Our parents, culture, and world events are forgiven with the understanding that they, too, acted under the influence of Kali’s shadow.

Be it Kali’s fierceness, Bhuvaneshwari’s deceptive beauty, or Dhumavati’s uncouthness, each Mahavidya forces us to question our ingrained concepts about what it means to be a goddess. By breaking the chains of cultural and social norms that limit and define our identity, they open us to ever-deepening levels of inner freedom. The very darkness that we had tried to push away opens us to the light in ways we couldn’t have previously imagined.

It is about being rooted in authenticity.

The Mahavidyas’ radical lesson is this—embracing the divine feminine doesn’t look a particular way. It isn’t a false ego boost for those suffering from low self-worth. It isn’t about violent or hysterical rebellion against patriarchy. It’s certainly not about dressing, speaking, or behaving in patriarchally determined feminine patterns. It is about being rooted in authenticity.

What remains when all the concepts and beliefs we have been taught about ourselves are washed away? We come to see that who we are has no name, form, or gender. This light of understanding shines through us—through our unique shapes, forms, and life circumstances—and dances as unpredictably as Kali in the cemetery. Embracing the divine feminine is about being true only to that light of understanding, and refusing to be influenced by anyone or anything else.

"Shakti Rising" coverKavitha M. Chinnaiyan, MD, is an integrative cardiologist who blends her medical expertise with her knowledge of yoga, tantra, and the Direct Path to help patients discover the end of suffering. She is author of Shakti Rising: Embracing Shadow and Light on the Goddess Path to Wholeness, published by New Harbinger Publications. Copyright 2017.

Confessions of a Spiritual Teacher by Amoda Maa

Book heartConfessions of a Spiritual Teacher
By Amoda Maa Jeevan, author of Embodied Enlightenment

Even as a spiritual teacher, life is not always easy. There is an idea that after awakening, life just flows along in some kind of fluffy way—that there is nothing we have to do and nothing we want and nothing to work toward—and so we experience only the bliss of ease and happiness. But this is blatantly not true, at least not from the perspective of the human experience.

Yes, it is true from the perspective of the absolute, of no-self; the self as ego is actually not in charge of life, and there is a death of this belief and a cessation of the attempt to control anything. This is the surrender: the recognition that life manifests you; that life really does just happen, and you are responding to this; that you are not the creator but the servant of this intelligence that moves life—this is the deepest realization, and it is ever-present when awakening has fully matured. And of course, there is a great peace in this, a peace that has nothing to do with what happens or does not happen in the external world.

But I can tell you that for me, fifteen years after awakening, there is still a very human experience going on in which the waves of life keep coming. Of course, I could have “gone to sleep” after awakening, become passive, and stayed in my comfort zone; then everything would have been easy. But I hold a passion to grow in ways that are as yet unknown, I hold a dream that is unfolding within me, and I simply cannot ignore this. I’m willing to take risks by jumping into new adventures and walking through new pastures (even though there is discomfort and fear and insecurity)—just because this is the intelligence of life moving through me and I have to obey it. And so there is grit on the road, I am continuously being tested in my capacity to surf the waves, and there is an incessant demand to sacrifice any tendency to “play it small” in order to fulfill my destiny in the world. To be more accurate, it is not “my destiny,” but the destiny of life’s flow.

I hope that you, too, my friend, have the courage to live selflessly by listening to the deepest call within you—before or after awakening, it does not matter. In any case, none of it really matters because when you die, the whole movie comes to an end. What is there to lose, my friend? Only an illusory idea of comfort and security. What is there to gain? Just the deepest fulfillment of following what is true in you.

Embodied EnlightenmentAmoda Maa Jeevan is the author of Embodied Enlightenment: Living Your Awakening in Every Moment, published by New Harbinger Publications. Copyright 2017.

Releasing the Spiritual Superego

Eagle flying over misty mountains

By Stephan Bodian, author of Beyond Mindfulness—available now!

As a psychotherapist as well as a spiritual teacher, I’ve had the privilege of sharing in the inner lives of hundreds of meditators and seekers—and what I’ve discovered, not surprisingly, is that we can be incredibly hard on ourselves, even in the seemingly beneficent pursuit of spiritual awakening. Most of us grow up with some version of the belief “I’m not good enough” and spend the rest of our lives attempting to prove ourselves worthy—in our work, our families, our relationships—while judging ourselves harshly if we don’t live up to some predetermined standard.

When we engage in spiritual study and practice, even if we’re counseled to be especially kind to ourselves, we tend to transpose the same perfectionism to our meditation, our contemplation, our self-inquiry. Nothing we do is ever good enough—we exert too much effort, we have too many concepts, our understanding never quite measures up. In fact, spiritual seekers can be even more self-critical than most, because we have the most exalted examples to compare ourselves to—the Buddha, Jesus, the great Zen masters, Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj. We forget that awakening to our essential nature has nothing to do with perfection and everything to do with embracing life, including ourselves, just as it is. And we make the classic mistake of “comparing our inner to other people’s outer”—that is, comparing the public image that others project with the excruciating imperfection we constantly encounter in our own minds and hearts—and finding ourselves deficient. With so many different exemplars out there, we can become endlessly preoccupied with trying to imitate one and then the other, even though they express the truth in disparate ways, and end up losing sight of our own authenticity.

Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, one of my first teachers, once said, “We’re constantly losing our balance against a background of perfect balance.” As human beings, we’re imperfect creatures who stumble our way through life, doing our best and learning as we go—or not. But our essential nature—consciousness, timeless presence, the eternal ground of being, the One without a second—is inherently perfect, pure, and indestructible. None of our mistakes ever touches who we really are, and realizing this inherent perfection and embracing the non-dual paradox that we are both imperfect and perfect—or even more deeply, beyond any such dualities—provides the ultimate resolution to our endless self-criticism. In the words of Ramana, “Just rest as the Self and be as you are.”

<i>Beyond Mindfulness</i> coverStephan Bodian is the author of Beyond Mindfulness: The Direct Approach to Lasting Peace, Happiness, and Love, published by New Harbinger Publications. Copyright 2017.