Darkness and Light, Emptiness and Fullness, and Enjoy Your Enlightenment

January 18, 2023

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So I thought I would talk today just briefly about why we're celebrating the nine nights of the goddess, rather than the nine breakfasts, or the nine afternoons. In other words, why is night associated? And specifically, why is darkness associated with this time?

And this is a multilayered set of transmissions about the role of darkness and light, or the experiences of darkness and light. So, Navaratri starts with three nights of either some form of Kali or some form of Durga.

And there are other iterations of Navaratri in the Hindu tradition. The Hindu tradition is not centralized, and there are many different variations on things.

Just like kirtan, you know. There's different variations on the lines. And everything revolves around this kind of modulation and variation and differentiation. And basically an infinity of expressions.

It doesn't mean that anything goes. But when we look at traditions from the European and American landscape, they tend to be not entirely, but more monolithic. If somebody does something different, it's like a split that gets a wikipedia page. [laughter]

So I know that some, especially the students that have grown up in Indian families with Hindu traditions, you may have celebrated Navaratri differently or observed Navaratri differently. But this was the way that I was taught.

So the first three nights are some version of Kali or some version of Durga. And of course, Kali and Durga are the fierce forms of devi. And there are other fierce forms, but they are very fierce.

And they defeat the demons, which really are our limited sense of self. So this is happening at harvest time. It's starting with a fierce form of devi, whose job is to cut off our heads.

Kali is always wearing either a belt or a mala of chopped off heads. [laughs] And Durga is seen riding a tiger or a lion. Very fierce. And there are more motherly forms of these devis, but those tend to be historically later in time, as things got softened, to be more palatable.

In this sense, darkness or the night means losing our concepts of self and other. Losing the false sense of knowing. The false sense of understanding.

And entering into something like what's called shunya. So shunya means the void, and it doesn't literally mean nothingness at all. It just means that experience that we have when our concepts are cut away from us.

Our concepts of self. Our concepts of other. Our concepts of right and wrong. Our concepts of what a world is, what reality is, what stuff is. So, of course, all over the world, not everyone is experiencing this. [laughs] But we are celebrating this.

Another way of thinking about this that I hadn't really thought of before the last few days is that we celebrate the harvest as a time of abundance, but it begins with an act of murder.

So in order to have the harvest, you have to cut down all the growing things. Or you have to kill some things, right? So it starts with killing, and then you get the harvest. So this darkness means the absence of concepts, and entering into that experience of shunya.

I can tell you that this is not just a metaphor. That when we're doing practice and we have some, maybe more definitive, extraordinary, non-ordinary types of experiences of being catapulted into this concept-less condition.

Which has no ordinary thoughts in it, but it still has that sense of there's something contemplating it. It is an experience of going into literal darkness. There's an experience of the dark, and that dark is just pregnant with possibility. So I'm just talking from personal experience.

The other way that we can think of the night or darkness is that it's darkness that allows the light to become more visible. Another experience from sadhana is that when we enter into that experience of shunya or darkness, or even, I would say, the state, turiya, there's darkness, but there's also light in it.

And we're experiencing both at the same time. And in fact, I would say that there is never light without dark, and dark without light. Only because we could say, based on experience and based on the teachings of great teachers like Anandamayi Ma and many, many others.

That the fundamental quality of the awakened essence nature of all of reality is luminosity. At the same time that luminosity is giving rise to everything else. And everything else has different qualities of color and light, or absence of light. So when we look into that, we also see that.

So there's two experiences that we can have in our everyday lives, that are exact echoes of these two experiences of seeing the dark in the light and the light in the dark.

Seeing the light in the dark is when we're in a dark room and we're just sitting around in our bedroom or something, and it's nighttime. And if you have somewhat open inner eyes, if you look into that dark, you will see light.

If that is not your experience, I would just say just try it and relax and see if that can develop for you. But there's multicolored lights and little pinpoints of lights occurring in the darkness.

And what I discovered much later on in my life as a practitioner is that you can actually interact with these lights. I'm very cautious about defining anything as insight or a spiritual opening or anything like that. Extremely cautious.

I've been seeing lights in the dark since I was a little kid. I never thought anything of it, to tell you the truth. But when I was an adult and I thought, oh, maybe this is a thing. [laughter]

And it was also getting much, much stronger. I would be in the dark and it would just be teeming with lights. And teeming with something, livingness of some sort.

So I thought, wow, maybe my retinas are degenerating or something. [laughter] So I went to the eye doctor to get my eyes checked, and he said my eyes were fine.

But since that time, that was a long time ago, I've realized that you can actually interact with these lights. And that they can form patterns at times, which are called thigles in Dzogchen practice.

But again, having a certain level of open perceptivity, if you kind of move just your fingers like this into those masses of livingness across the room, you can see things move. There's an absolute interconnectedness between one point in space and another, and you can interact with that.

Seeing the light in the dark is absolutely something that a lot of people have an experience of. So in our sadhana, we're passing through this darkness, this shunya.

Which in some traditions, as I've said so many times before, is actually thought of as the endpoint of spiritual practice. You have this experience of emptiness or clarity or groundlessness, and that's supposed to be enlightenment. I can tell you it's not. [laughter]

But in our traditions, you're going through that experience to find fullness. And of course, the fullness is what's associated with that luminosity. The fullness of luminosity.

But then again, for instance, if you look into a brilliant blue sky, which is a very typical kind of Dzogchen practice, a very famous Dzogchen practice, sky gazing. If you relax and you look with your eyes open, you can also see darkness in the light-filled blue sky.

So everything is incipient or imminent to that luminosity. The multicoloredness, that represents some kind of manifestation is associated with that.

So, on the one hand, darkness and the nights of the goddess are about the fierceness with which we need to approach having our concepts cut away. And then, of course, the second three nights are Lakshmi. And so Lakshmi represents life's generosity and abundance.

So when we go through the dark, it represents the fullness that we find on the other side. This sort of empty concept-less zone. And then we find the fullness on the other side.

And then Sarasvati— the last three nights is like the real getting of wisdom. So this is a living symbol of our entire spiritual journey. And then the 10th day, which is the day of victory, which is really the day of the getting of wisdom or the entering into wisdom. Or wisdom virtue.

We also associate darkness with a painful experience of ignorance. And this is a very, very common experience that we have. Like stumbling around in the dark, not being able to see what's really happening.

So that's just another meaning. It's not necessarily part of the meaning of Navaratri, although we might realize how much we're stumbling around. But Navaratri, the nights, have to do with this relinquishment or cutting away of the limitations.

Of those limitations that cause us to stumble around. And entering into this sort of superior darkness. Or maha darkness, which then at the other end of that is fullness or luminosity.

But that has always been giving rise to anything in our lives and so contains every shade, every color, including the dark. And these are things that we can see on our own if we let ourselves and we give credence to it.

I can't even tell you how many times people have said oh, those are just specks in your eyes or I don't see this, or I don't see that. It's just like skepticism. People want some sort of scientific, mechanistic explanation for these phenomena.

But understand that these phenomena of light and dark have been written about by practitioners for thousands of years. This is not something made up by latter-day new age woo-woo people.

The greatest teachers on the planet have talked about these kind of visions and visualizations. And have used them to create sadhanas for people to do.

Dualistic experience is real. It doesn't define the nature of reality in any total way. But right now you are having an experience of being separate from the table that you're sitting at or other people. You have an experience of yourself being separate in space and you interact with the world that way.

You can't walk through walls. It matters what you eat. All of these things indicate that we're still having dualistic experience as our basis in some way or another.

So you can say duality isn't real, but it is a real experience and that's all that really matters for us. That's what we practice with. But it's a real experience.

What this tradition actually teaches, and I think something I've occasionally said, is that duality and nonduality themselves are concepts that we use to identify certain experiences so that we can understand what our condition is. The real basis, the natural state is one consciousness in its energy or one ocean of wisdom, or however you want to say it.

But the terms dual and nondual really don't capture what it is because really, it's made out of wisdom. Nonduality is a sort of a loose term for that, but it really doesn't capture everything about it.

We want to understand duality and nonduality as provisional terms that we're using until actually you don't feel like you need them anymore. So this wouldn't be something like—hi, we're having a class and everyone who's invited can graduate from the terms dual and nondual.

I mean, this isn't something that anyone could tell you or that you even are necessarily going to experience in this lifetime. But at some point, as it's taught in the beginning of Vijñana Bhairava Tantra and totally my experience also, you just do not care. [laughs]

Because there is just this life happening and to call it dual or nondual or to argue about those kind of terms is fun at some point, but pretty much utterly beside the point.

Other than as a useful sort of scaffolding for helping us to realize that we don't need the scaffolding. So I don't associate nonduality with light and duality with dark. I just have never had that association.

And when I think about it, it doesn't actually make sense from a relative point of view. You could say somehow suffering is, in the conventional sense, associated with darkness. And so then you discover continuity, nonduality and you're happier, and that's somehow associated with light.

But what the tradition really teaches—and this is hard because we have all these kinds of ideas floating around, backed up by a lot of other teachers in other kinds of traditions. But in this tradition, we're not really saying anything like that.

We're saying that duality, dualistic experience is a real experience being produced by this alive, aware reality for its own enjoyment. So when we are more awake and when the gates of our perceptions are more open, we're still experiencing all of this variety and enjoying having conversations with everybody, but from a base of experiencing our continuity.

And so we can enjoy dualistic experience without suffering. That's really what jivanmukti means, liberated in life. Recognizing the real nature of things and enjoying the massive overproduction of experiences that's going on here. [laughter]

So Maya is a devi who is responsible for producing the tools that are used to carve out all of these experiences. They're called the kanchukas. For instance, we have an experience of linear time.

And that's one kind of experience that's being produced by Maya. You could say, well, that's limited. But it's actually also an interesting experience. It's not just a limitation.

So she's kind of the holder of all the tools of the artist. Lord Shiva is often called the artist or the magician. And she's revered in Trika Shaivism. But in some other Hindu traditions, she's kind of evil because she's causing all of this limitation to happen.

But in Trika, it's recognized that there's no art without limitation. So you can't really have certain kinds of experiences. Like we can't have an experience of a conversation without there being limitation.

And if this alive, aware reality is addicted to anything, it's communication. [laughter] It's kind of a communication junkie.

Are you saying that enjoyment is the end game?

I am, yes. What I'm saying is that this alive, aware reality in its totality is in a state of profound enjoyment of its own nature. It's enjoying itself, being itself.

It's enjoying what it does. It's enjoying its capacities. It's enjoying itself.

And does that enjoyment include all suffering?

Yes, in the sense that for instance—this is an example I've given many times, but—if you're an actor and you're playing the part of someone with some kind of suffering. Someone who's going through a painful divorce or someone who has some sort of physical ailment or someone who's impoverished, or these things that cause us suffering.

But if you're an actor playing that part, you're thoroughly enjoying it. You're like, OOH, I get to play this other kind of person. And you're bringing all of your skill and awareness into playing someone who has limited skill and maybe limited awareness or limited opportunity.

But you're enjoying the heck out of that. So it's enjoyment from the perspective of the player. The one playing all these roles. What causes suffering is not knowing our real nature.

Thinking we are just these bodies floating around in space, very fragile, and thinking we have these very limited capacities. And not having knowledge of how things really are.

When compassion arises, it arises out of enjoyment?

That's right. Compassion is built into everything. And it's one of the great flavors of this alive, aware reality. It's very enjoyable to feel compassion. It's also enjoyable to feel fear.

It's also enjoyable to experience loss. Death also has a kind of enjoyableness on some level. Which I'm not trying to say that's all they are for us, but if we're being honest with ourselves, there is some enjoyment in all of these experiences.

From the perspective of this entire reality, there is only a state of enjoyment and deep contemplation of the nature of the self. There's no pain involved in that.

There's experiences of pain, but they're more like, again, playing a part, exploring all one's capacity. The capacity to feel pain. The capacity to suffer. The capacity to experience all different kinds of limitations.

The power to appear as more limited beings. If any one of us could appear as all different other kinds of beings. That would actually be pretty darn fun, right? We can't. Or we think we can't.

When you say compassion, what do you mean by that?

Well, I think it's closer to feeling everything with a feeling of tenderness toward everyone and everything. So sometimes people talk about empathy or compassion as if it's like something that's hurting them. Like I'm feeling too much of everyone. But God is everyone.

It's hard to explain because I experienced it in a kind of overwhelming way through an encounter with Ma and it's really hard to describe. But what I can say is that that feeling of compassion, feeling with, and tenderness is just pouring out of every crevice of reality.

In the end, devotion and compassion, tenderness, mercy, curiosity, interest, empathy, kindness all these things are all rolled into one giant river pouring out from everything. Separating them into their component feelings is very, very difficult.

Empathy is the base state. Separation is the way that all of these different experiences are created. But our journey is always back to continuity. So the way that I was talking about darkness, moving into that shunya experience, is not really unknown.

It's actually closer to our real home than all of the things we thought we knew that we were trying to create ground out of. It's just that we go through a transition where we are leaving certain things behind, but there's nothing new coming in yet.

And that's kind of one of the aspects of the experience of shunya. Like the ground being taken out from underneath our feet. But that ground was made up of all kinds of limited things.

And the experience of darkness or the unknown is really a journey to the known. The thing that was known all along but that you forgot, right? And now you're remembering it.

There's nothing that feels more intimate than that darkness. One factor is how afraid you are. I think the degree of fear one has is really determines a lot how you experience that unknown or darkness.

Whether you go into it with a sense of thrill and that kind of thrill that comes from being groundless. Or whether you go into it kicking and screaming the whole way. And trying to rebuild even as you're being dismantled. [laughter]

When we let go of barriers and boundaries and concepts and performances. Then what is always there on the other side of any fear or sense of groundlessness that we have, what is always there, is more intimacy. Always. 100% of the time.

So if you can think back on other experiences you've had, of entering into that unknown through the letting go of old stale ways of being. And if you can identify that there is always intimacy always on the other side no matter how scary the interim seems. Maybe that will help.


Photo by Daniel Salcius


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