I have been told more than once that one cannot technically be a true practitioner/believer in the tenets of Kashmir Shaivism without believing in some form of Godhead. As a nontheist who still finds the teachings and practices informative and useful for how best to live, I ask consistently whether that is really true.
I’m sure a purist (religious or academic) would say there’s no anything to the philosophy without being a full believer. But what I think one gets from practices designed to heighten awareness of a divinely connecting universality in the wild diversity of life without a belief that what is universal a priori points to “God” is a recognition that with all that is troubling and difficult and hurtful and evil in this world, the very complexity and outrageousness of being is yet wonderful and inspiring in itself.
In a word, when all else fails, laugh (and create and live) with an ecstatic fatalism.
Painting by Sandra Dooley. Cuba 2014
Last night another storm front passed us by with only a trace of rain, leaving us deeper in drought. The wind picked up, the temperature dropped, and the clouds scattered, leaving the sky scrubbed bright blue and the air fresh. Though this morning on my walk to work there was hardly a cloud in the sky, a rather menacing gray cloud hovered directly over the building where I work. Observing this odd cloud led me to ponder about how I often feel that I have my own personal cloud–everyone else has purpose in their lives and is worthy of love, but not me (this is a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea).
The reality is that all of us get such feelings to a greater or lesser degree some of the time. It can be a helpful step in clearing away feelings of unworthiness to remember that it is part of the human condition. The tantric yogis say that there are three cloaks or malas (anava mala, mayiya mala, and karma mala) that result from the manifestation of diversity from the pure universal out of its own play. The sense of unworthiness we sometimes feel (anava mala) comes from forgetting that we are spirit, and anava mala– in whatever form it appears to manifest–is just because of the loneliness of not remembering our true self. When we experience or create conflict or unhappiness out of the illusion (maya) that separateness and distinction are the only state of all that is real then we are in thrall to mayiya mala. When we think we are completely in charge and responsible for everything we do and how it impacts the world, that is karma mala at work.
We practice to pierce through the clouding of our individual consciousness by the malas. By inviting ourselves to open to the luminous space of consciousness and to surrender to the very fullness of our being, we reduce the impact of the malas on how we conduct our lives. Our practice helps us to remember our worthiness so that we can be happier and freer and do our work and engage in our relationships with more love and light. It helps us remember the light in each being so we are naturally drawn to respond with more compassion and friendliness to everything on the planet. The grace of dissolving kriya mala is that when it is not obscuring our vision, we can engage fully on our path, but still accept that we are ultimately not in charge and do not know what the universe truly has in store.
In classical yoga, the term maya, one of the meanings of which is “illusion,” refers to all of our embodied being — the physical, mental, and emotional. The perceptible world is not real; only spirit is real. In the tantric philosophy of Kashmir Shaivism, maya tattva means something different. Kashmir Shaivism does not hold that the perceptible world is unreal, but rather that it is a more concrete form of spirit and that its very manifestness gives rise to the illusion that it is other than spirit. Maya, as such, is the beginning of the measurable world of intellect and perception. In this sense, it does not mean that any aspect of being of either ourselves or the very whole of being is more real than any other. As maya tattva, it denotes the conceptual bridge between the unknowable idea of spirit and the manifest world of our day to day. As we think and perceive the world in progressively more concrete terms, we tend to see difference, division, and diversity. When we see only difference and not the pervading unity of spirit, it is maya, illusion.
Yesterday, following the election in Massachusetts, the headlines screamed that the Democrats had lost control of the Senate and that health care reform was in jeopardy. Perhaps the simple arithmetic and vocabulary I learned in elementary school has changed, but last time I checked, 41 out of 100 is not a majority. It is as though we are hunting for division, for us v. them. We are looking for ways to create difference and divisiveness. Would we be more likely to fund health care for all instead of two wars, if we could stop being so bound in the maya that we are not all equally of spirit? I think so. In this, I am divided from millions of my fellow voters, who prefer waterboarding to health care, war to building an environmentally sustainable infrastructure, etc. or at least vote that way In thinking this way, I too am caught up in the web of difference. How then do I see spirit in all people (regardless of how they vote and what they believe) when I feel so passionately about this divisiveness and all the conflict, destruction, and misery it engenders? How do I personally (as my own yoga) create less conflict, even while working for what I believe?
Kashmir shaivism, using the term spanda, talks of the ultimate pulsation of life itself, all being a vibration, everything a play of opposites, a constant dance of concealment and revelation.
Yesterday I when I went to see Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock, I thought about about what a dance of moments, desires, emotions, motivations, opportunities, and relationships made Woodstock the phenomenon it became.
I remembered when I was a teenager asking my mother why we had not gone; I had some idea that good family friends had made the trek from Long Island. She said it did not seem sensible to bring three girls under 10. I am sure that if we had gone, my memories would have been of being dirty, hungry, tired, wet, and overwhelmed. Instead, I grew up with the instant nostalgia of someone who was just a few years too young to make it up there on my own. In this contemplation, I marveled nearly as much at the play of spanda in my own life as in the world around me.
This morning my sit was full of lots of random thought waves. This was no doubt, in part, due to my having four meetings, a call, and a lunch scheduled. When I was finished, I went into the library, picked up the Christopher Isherwood/Swami Prabhavandananda version How to Know God and opened it randomly to see if it could help guide my thinking today. I opened to sutra I.40: “The mind of a yogi can concentrate upon any object of any size, from the atomic to the infinitely great.” My first thought was, “how nice.” My second thought was, “I need to look at another translation; that does not sound quite how I’ve read it elsewhere.”
I opened my trusted B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on the Yoga Sutra’s of Patanjali. The translation there is “Mastery of contemplation brings the power to extend from the finest particle to the greatest.”
These translations are not so different from each other. It was also most timely for me to read this classical sutra in connection with what I have been contemplating in the Pratyabijna Hrdyam.
I read the Isherwood translation as saying that as long as one concentrates as a yogi with full and loving attention, then all actions are in union (yoga). I understand the Iyengar translation to say that mastering yoga allows one to perceive in the most individual, differentiated being or object, the infinite universal. With that knowing, just as the Kashmir Shaivist teachings say, one is living liberated (jivanmukti).
However I read this thread of teaching, it is most relevant for how I live and what I must do today with the worldly commitments I have made. With the intention to stay present with yoga concentration and aims, I now head to my day of meetings.
The sanskrit is: “paramanu parammahattvantah asya vasikarah”
The shiva-shakti tattvas, the two highest tattvas, are completely subjective. The shiva tattva is, according to the philosophy, the ultimate reality, the pure “I,” undiminished and undifferentiated consciousness. As something purely subjective, it is both everywhere and nowhere, in every being and simultaneously beyond them. It is not dissimilar to Hegel’s Absolute (though I believe Douglas Brooks, who knows far more than I in this area, might disagree with me on this one), which “is and is not,” or Kant’s “unmoved mover.”
Shakti tattva is power — the power to tranform, create, manifest, diversify, cloak. Shakti is the power to become embodied in objective form. Shiva and shakti tattvas are thus inseparable. Ultimate unbounded consciousness and freedom (shiva) only has meaning to the extent the power to move, create, and diversify (shakti) pulses and transforms the subjective into the objective, the unimaginable to the observable.
In our yoga practice and meditation, we seek to use the practices to reveal to ourselves the ultimate pulsation (spanda) between the objective and subjective, the observable and the unknowable, the individual and the completely universal. One way I experience the first principle of Anusara yoga (open to grace), is taking the mat or my seat with an openness to sense and experience this ultimate pulsation (spanda) and play (lila), so that by using my body, mind, and will, I can better recognize the spirit that shines in all of us and use that recognition to inform how I relate to myself, society, and all beings.