Doing and Being Done
The verbal root of shakti is "sak", to be able.
Saw this amazing talk on TED.com yesterday from Elizabeth Gilbert, who was saying that the idea that the individual is the source of genius is not helpful to artists or creative people. She explained that the ancient Greeks had the idea of a daimon that helped artists, something OUTSIDE yourself that was the source of your creativity. In Rome, daimon morphed into something that actually was called a genius. She shared two moving examples of artists: Ruth Stone, a poet, and Tom Waits, the songwriter, who both came to view their creativity as being external. I heard Neil Young say the same thing the other night on Charlie Rose: He
This is a really cool idea for yogis to explore. We start from idea that universe is one undifferentiated, infinite, eternal conscious being. We can't say it's a field of consciousness, because fields have edges. All we can say is that it is a being. Because that's what it does--it "BEs". As I say to my students, "It IS and it loves to BE." It is alive and it exists and it loves being alive and existing. We call that BEing SHIVA.
We take the premise that this great, undifferentiated BEing chooses out of its own free will (and the infinite possibilities present for it) to "step down" into form, to manifest. To differentiate, which is to say, to take on a bunch of different forms. It actually chooses to hide a part of itself from itself. This may sound odd, but in fact, as human beings we do this every day. I can think of one example just off the top of my head from someone else; my brother in law wrote this play called Fat Selfish Bastard all about his struggles with dieting and food. He describes an epiphany in which he realizes that he had eaten a disgusting piece of pizza in three bites to HIDE it from himself. We all hide things from ourselves. One of my favorite things to do is to pretend I don't know what time it is when I am doing something I really enjoy, like writing in my blog. What Shiva does is more like if you were to hide money in your pocket so that you could find it later, or if you put an extra chocolate bar in the freezer so that later you can stumble upon it and be delighted.
Which answers the following question: why would this powerful, infinite, eternal BEing choose to manifest, anyway? For the same reason you cook your food with spices, or go skiing, or buy a new outfit, or paint a room a color that you like. For the same reason that you want children, or get a dog, or drink a good wine. For the sheer delight of it. For the sheer delight of your senses rubbing up against something else. He conceals himself for the pleasure of revealing himself to himself. John Friend calls it "cosmic peekaboo", which maybe sounds trite until you realize that peekaboo is the first "game" we learn; we start playing it the minute we are remotely aware there is anyone to play peekaboo with, and we play it all our lives in various ways. Maybe that's a topic for another post.
ANYHOO, in the philosophy of tantric yoga, one set of mechanisms whereby this great BEing hides itself are called malas. There are three of them. Anava mala is a mechanism that conceals from a part of the BEing its perfection and fullness. It gives a part of the BEing a sense of incompleteness, inadequacy, broken-ness, flawedness. Mayiya mala is a mechanism that conceals from a part of the BEing its unified, indivisible, whole nature. It creates a sense of separation, of difference, of alienation, and is associated with a feeling of anger (I am separate from that other being and that other being does stuff that pisses me off).
Karma mala is the one that pertains to our topic today. It is a mechanism that conceals from a part of the great BEing its omnipotence. It actually creates a sensation of AGENCY. It makes a person think that his little human consciousness and will is actually the will that is making things happen, the will that is doing things. My teacher, Paul Muller-Orgeta, gives the example that people sometimes say, "I'm digesting my food". Well, really, your individual consciousness or will is not digesting your food; what is digesting your food is the biological wisdom of what some might call Nature and what yogis would call Mahashakti. It's a mechanism of that a deep, innate intelligence has evolved over millions of years to sustain life. Actually, a better way to put it is to take out the idea of mechanism: a deep innate intelligence, with millions of years of experience at taking the form of a digestive tract and then BEing a digestive tract, is digesting. The part of you that you would associate with your very particular pattern of shakti, your personal consciousness, isn't actually doing anything. YOU'RE not doing anything. You're being done. Which can be a good time. Wink wink.
Who's doing you? SHAKTI.
Shakti is GOOD. TIMES.
Like many ideas originating in India, Shakti is an it and a she. Shakti is a philosophical idea that also has an anthropomorphized or deified or personified aspect that is a Hindu deity. (I don't know, historically, the origins of the goddess. Was she a philosophical idea first or a goddess first? Really though, aren't all deities ideas first? Aren't all deities embodiments of ideas? Or embodiments of ideals?)
Shakti is Shiva's consort. The way I have often heard it described is that is Shiva is the river, Shakti is the flow of the river. It is helpful, in considering their relationship, to remember that the Sanskrit verbal root of her name is shak, "to be able". She is the power that makes things go.
Shakti is deadly, deadly serious. She will breathe you until she's done, i.e. until you're dead. She means business. She is totally certain and merciless. She is fierce and unyielding. She is red in tooth and claw. She is profoundly destructive. She is a forlorn puppy in the rain with its hind legs splayed out at a funny angle in the middle of High Street in East Orange the night before Thanksgiving. Look at the world around you--how so many things seem to form into inescapable cycles of greed, destruction, misery. That's how she rolls: fierce, bug-eyed, and wearing a garland of human skulls.
Shakti is ecstatically playful and benevolent. She loves us like her children. Look at the world around you--how the seasons proceed apace, how everything is in order to develop and sustain life, how a little plant can push itself up between two concrete slabs. She is the two cop cars parked around the puppy and the cops making calls to handle the situation, and whoever called the cops in the first place. That's her.
We only know Shiva through Shakti. We only touch the Absolute through the relative. We only touch Pure Spirit through those we know and love. Some schools of Hindu Tantra totally emphazise Shiva. Some totally emphasize the importance of Shakti. Some emphasize both.
As yogis, as human BEings, it is helpful to remember that we're not actually in charge. We're not actually doing anything! This is not to say that you can lie in bed and wait for the shakti to move you. But it's helpful to recognize that your impulse to get up is in fact a deep impulse that comes from the powerful energy that underlies the entire universe, not just from the more limited part of yourself that gets jealous, feels anxious about her To Do list, gets tired, feels hopeless or hopeful. Your impulses, your entire life, the parts of yourself you like, the parts you don't, are all manifestations of the deep, joyous, infinite, ecstatic, serious, luminous energy that makes up the very fabric of reality.