On Friday night, Professor Douglas Brooks offered a satsang that was hosted by District Kula. One of the attendees, who said that she did no yoga, but taught Argentinian tango, wanted to know about what she had heard of yoga talking about the dance of masculine and feminine because that’s what tango is all about.
Douglas gave a quick overview of the idea of the tattvas as a foundation for an answer to the tango dancer’s question. As part of this background, he discussed the numerological aspect of the tattvas, saying that Shiva and Shakti relate like this: one is two becomes three becomes five. The two must separate, and the space between them makes three and teaches us the one. Because of the spaces between, we do not have one to two to four, but two (one because inseparable) to three to five. We know the one only when we know two, and the one is therefore part of three. (“Lovely dance of numbers; that makes perfect sense,” I thought, having a happy geekfest in my own mind. “I’ll enjoy pondering how that might be an explanation for there being five top tattvas and not six or four and wondering whether I had even begun finding an understanding, even though what Douglas was talking about is something I have been contemplating for years in various ways and contexts.)
Douglas then led into a description of the inseparable, inextricably intertwined nature of Shiva and Shakti. “It is like that in tango,” the dancer interjected at multiple points. “The better the leader, the more he is listening to the follower, thus allowing the follower to be the leader.” Each time Douglas refined his response, the dancer offered something else about her experience with tango. “Right, when they are dancing well, the man takes on some of the characteristics of the feminine, and the woman that of the man. The difference between them starts to dissolve into the dance itself.” Her eyes lit up, and she bubbled up with speech, in her excitement at finding in the tantric philosophy what appeared to be an explanation of what she experiences in the tango.
The tango dancer and the yoga texts assign specific roles and attributes to the masculine and the feminine, and we tend to fall into that tradition when we discuss the tantric philosophy. As much as the traditional tantrika or tango dancer might say that the masculine and feminine (when embodied) take on/have characteristics of each other, they have assigned masculine/feminine roles to play, and they are still stuck in a paradigm that keeps real humans in assigned roles. These assigned roles impact how male and female are permitted to act in society, regardless of any recognition that who is actually, rather than technically, in charge may be in flux on different levels.
The paradigm of tango dancing kept Friday night’s discussion within the context of typical and rigid roles for male and female, but I do not think that is a required way for us to think of how to bring the tantric yoga philosophy into our lives. When we think of the tattvas as abstract principles, we do not have to privilege in our lives or own thinking the traditional divide between male and female roles as the basis for understanding the play of opposites (though to be true to the text in its historical context we do).
I believe that the dance of shiva and shakti is as much about the dance between the universal and multiplicitous individuality as it is about the specific play between masculine and feminine in assigned roles. The one is two. The two (one) separates into three; when the two separate we discover the one (two), and after that the three becomes five. I remember a friend saying in our college days, “There are three of us in it: there is me, there is my loved one, and then there is our relationship.” To be in the world and relate fully, the tattvas (and dances with partners of either sex) teach us that two are inseparable by being in relationship. By recognizing the appearance of separation, the dance of Shiva and Shakti tattvas shows us the relationship — the oneness. Thus, all consciousness is one, but two, and then three, and yet still one.
How this informs me, other than enjoyable thoughts in my head, is that when we try to be spaciously and openly aware in all of our relationships of this elemental play of individual identity, separability, and indivisible unity, we see the other in ourselves and ourselves in the other. This helps much to inspire friendliness, understanding, and compassion. It also helps bring understanding of the leader when we are following, which it makes it easier to follow with discrimination, but without judgment. When it is our turn to lead, it helps us know that for those who might choose to or be required to follow us for some particular project, that to lead well we must listen to the followers. As the the Grateful Dead taught me decades ago, “you who choose to lead must follow.”
When I was eight or nine, a teacher asked everyone in my class to say what they wanted to be when they grew up. The other children named the various jobs or professions that appealed to them at the time. I responded that I wanted to be independently wealthy. At that age, I was expressing something I already knew from family issues. Though I did not have the words for it or a clear understanding, what I was saying was not just false precocity. I knew at a basic level what is taught in yoga: I would need enough material support (ardha) to follow my heart in love (kama) and work (dharma); then my life could be free (moksha).
When I was 22 and visiting my friend Dan, he asked me what I really wanted to do with my life. We had just graduated from college. Dan was working for a sculptor who was a professor in the art department; I had just moved back to New York, had just gotten over a failed attempt to serve as an office manager for an off-off Broadway theater, was in a place of deep emotional and financial struggle, and was trying to determine what work and corresponding further education I wanted. “I want to be content,” I said. “That’s too passive,” he replied. “No, that’s not what I mean,” I tried to explain. “For me being content being satisfied and engaged with my work and life, but still working hard and having goals. It’s not just hanging out.” I had all sorts of things that I found interesting and possibilities for a life path, but I didn’t have one specific career or life plan that I was certain would be more fulfilling than any of the others. They just would have satisfied me in different ways. Because of the dilemma of too many choices, I wanted to be able happy with whatever choice I made, even if it seemed like a compromise. I was conscious that once I picked, because of the inherent limitations of time and space, that I would either have to be content with my choice or be unhappy. I have since learned to think of contentment (samtosha), which is one of the niyamas of the path of yoga expounded by Patanjali, as a practice rather than a goal (and it is a very important and continuing practice for me). Contentment is not an end, as I had thought when I was 22; it is just one part of the path to a goal of living liberated (jivanmukti), experiencing self as spirit in all that one does.
On a recent telephone seminar, Paul Muller-Ortega, my meditation and philosophy teacher, in the midst of a broad dialogue regarding various studies and practices, spoke a little of ecstatic serenity. Memories of the discussions I had had long ago about what I wanted welled up in the forefront of my thoughts. In thinking about what is my intention now, especially with regard to my practice (sadhana), I witnessed my previously stated intentions as just stages on the path to this discovery. As soon as I heard Paul say the phrase, I thought, “that’s what I want; I want to be ecstatically serene.” I seek to be always in some part of my conscious being still and peaceful, while simultaneously being passionately engaged in what life brings to me and I bring to life.