Fierceness, Defensiveness, and Spiritual Opportunity

November 8, 2023

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Fierceness is a word that's attributed to certain forms of God, basically, of devi in particular. I mean, there are wrathful forms of all the deities. In this tradition and others like it, the direct realization traditions, they're a little bit rough and tumble compared to many other kinds of spiritual traditions.

And so a certain degree of fierceness is manifested by the teacher at different points. Now, that fierceness is related to anger, but it's related to a form of anger that is simply a quantity of energy that cuts through something.

And if we think about the more contracted forms of emotions, what is their characteristic? They repeat over and over again. They have a staleness to them. They hang around, they don't dissipate, and people cultivate stories around them, ad infinitum.

You can be angry about the same thing for your whole life, basically. That could happen. Or there's some intent to harm or just somebody getting their yah-yahs out, or something like that.

Because we all have the five elements showing up in our constitution. And fire element is one of the major constitutions. Pitta, each of the Ayurvedic doshas, vata, pitta, kapha, enjoys a different flavor of going out of balance.

It seems like a funny thing to say, but a vata person will enjoy to a certain extent, their all over the map-ness, their spacey-ness and being like, no, this, no that, no the other.

It might trip them up because all of these things are imbalances. They'll recognize that it trips them up. But they'll also be a quantity of enjoyment and being sort of frazzled.

And a kapha person will enjoy, to a certain extent, emotions and enjoy a bit of sloth. Enjoy a bit of kapha depression. And a pitta person will enjoy being aggro. [laughter]

So there can be a degree of just self-serving pleasure in more habitual, karmic forms of emotions. Like just enjoying stomping around being angry at people, criticizing people, whatever.

We have to remember that all of these manifestations of habitual emotions represent an attempt to be more intimate and an actual failure of intimacy. They're a way of reaching out and making contact, but they never succeed in the way that you want them to.

Because these habitual emotions are like, they're not fresh. They aren't really all that intimate. Even though they do make connections between you and other people.

So the more enlightened forms of emotions, including sadness and all the other ones, not just anger, have their moment where they're flashing forth. And they're expressing something that is completely unself-motivated. There's no personal gain from it.

As Abhinavagupta said, one of the many many ways of describing self-realization is that you just naturally are for others. It's not an ethical stance, it's not a moral stance.

It's not because of a rule or a precept or because it's a good thing, looks good on your spiritual resume. But it's just because you just naturally want to be of use to other people.

And so then different emotions are spontaneously happening for that purpose. So fierceness is a form of anger that's like a lightning bolt. Or a sword cutting through something that is very impacted, that needs like a sharpness to clear it.

Like a strike of lightning in a storm. You know, that smell of ozone afterwards. That clarity that comes into the air. So this is what fierceness means.

It doesn't mean just being nasty to people. It doesn't linger. That's one of the hallmarks of less habituated emotions that are not bound by karma. They are not habitual. They don't linger.

So the word for those deities, or any manifestation, is ugra. That's the word in Sanskrit that I've learned to express that fierceness, ugra.

And is Kali a representation of fierceness?


The main representation of fierceness?

Yeah. For some people, not for everyone. Yeah. But definitely. Do we have any pictures of her? Yeah. She's got a sword. She's ringed in fire. That's a bit ugra. [laughter] A skosh.

It's like anything in spiritual life, someone can take it and use it in a conceptual way or to manipulate people, or just to get their yah-yahs out. We have to be careful about that.

There should be a little shock. There's even mildly ugra mantras that we do that induce a little shock. To open up, to resolve concepts for a moment. To give you that experience of non-concept mind. So even if a teacher is not particularly fierce, or get fierce very often, it's built into the practice that at moments there will be little shocks.

Shambhavi, I want to hear about defensiveness. Like, what to do about it?

[laughs] Well, like any karma, you can't just decide not to have it. It's a long process of recognizing what you actually are and what's actually happening here.

Your defensiveness arises because of anavamala, our sense of separation. The stronger our sense of separation is, the more vulnerable we feel. And the more we're likely to want to defend that defenseless, vulnerable self that we think is very separate from others. And from other things.

So when we start to have more of an experience of continuity and connection, then our level of defensiveness just naturally drops. Because we recognize that there's really not anything to defend.

When we recognize what's actually happening here, we have a direct experience that everything here is arising from that same Self. That there actually isn't any other. There's no attacker. There's not anything to defend, but there's also no attacker.

And even if it's not a sense of defensiveness, but just something bad happens that makes us uncomfortable. If we're feeling really separate, we start blaming somebody, ourself or somebody else. Or we look for a reason that's quite ordinary. Or we just feel terrible about it, or whatever.

But if we're being practitioners, we're going to very quickly start to look for the wisdom in situations. That we're going to feel like every situation is God addressing us in some way or another.

So the thing isn't how can I stop being defensive? I think the first question is, how can I pause? How can I pause to remember the view or to remember whatever experience I have of the practice?

It's hard to do that because our karmas have momentum, and also stories attached to them. When we're being defensive, we have a big story about that usually. Like why it's necessary, justified, and right.

And so there's pleasure in that. There's pleasure in that way of being in the world. It's not a grand pleasure, but it's the one we're used to. Not only do those karmas have momentum, but they also are hooking us with these minor pleasures.

To pause is not as easy as it sounds. Because we have to pause and then we have to remember. And then we have to be willing to drag ourselves away from our habitual response to something. That's a tall order.

So the first thing is just when you feel that defensiveness arising, pause. And try to just relax in the heart as you know how to do a little bit at least. And then just see what happens.

Then a little bit later, start to think about, well, what is there here for me? I'm in this situation. What is there here for me? How can I grow in this situation? Maybe the answer is that there's something in the situation that's very helpful. Maybe the answer is leaving a situation.

I always have to say that every time someone asks this question. Because in this culture, we think we have to beat everything. If we're in a terrible situation, we think we have to stay in it and fix it or beat it or transcend it, but still be in it.

So I learned this lesson when I was studying years and years and years ago and living with a roommate, that was really not the right person for me. And the situation was really emotionally bad.

But I didn't want to leave because I thought I was supposed to be able to handle it. I think a lot of people think that and they think it's a failure if they decide they can't handle something. That's certainly what I thought.

Anyway, I'm not saying you should leave anything. I'm just saying [laughs] this is a general piece of advice that finding the wisdom in something could mean anything. You have to find it for yourself.

Something I feel defensiveness in, somebody's telling me to set a boundary, but I get scared setting a boundary.

About repercussions?

Yeah. And, so I'll just allow things that shouldn't happen to happen, sometimes.

This happens when we have a fear of abandonment. For a lot of reasons, that could happen. We think that the repercussion of showing up as ourselves and being stronger, the repercussion of being stronger, being wiser, is going to be abandonment.

So then we capitulate to a lot of things. And we're sort of in, and we're not in. So when we do that, it's like we're in a situation, we're capitulating, but we're also holding ourselves in reserve.

We're sort of there, not there. That's not a fun place to be. We're sort of putting up with the circumstance, hoping to not lose the thing that actually isn't right for us. [laughter]

But we do have to be willing to lose what needs to be lost. That's a rough one, but on the other side of that is relaxation. We're trying to avoid some pain, because we don't want to lose something or someone.

But if that thing or that person isn't right for us, on the other side of losing it is relaxation. And more intimacy, more confidence, more self-confidence. We can lose everything, including our lives, and still be fine.

I want to add my voice to the group of defenders. I suspect that part of what happens for me is that in my mind, I've done such a wonderful act for you.

I've ordered this powder for you. I didn't check with you to see if it's the one you wanted. And when you say so, then you've just ruined my act of benevolence. [laughter]

Well, gift-giving is a wonderful thing to contemplate as sadhana.

But sometimes I have to check to see if they want the gift.

Well, you either have to do that or you have to really spend a lot of time feeling into the person about what they would want. A lot of times people give gifts that's what they would want, not what the person they're giving it to would want. And so, you have to jettison that.

The reason it's good sadhana, because gift-giving is an instance where we can practice being all for others. Giving a good gift is you're giving it to the person. It's nothing for you, it's all for them.

That means that you have to actually feel the other. You have to observe, you have to know, you have to take the time. You have to dismiss the thing, whatever it was, you think would be cool.

Giving good gifts is just such an art form. I find it incredibly fun to do that. But it is a way of entering into through ordinary means, being all for someone else.

It's great sadhana, gift-giving. And it's fun to try to think of exactly the perfect thing for someone. I don't know, I just find that really fun. And you hit, strike the point.

I've been feeling so much lighter since the retreat. Like, I got the answers that I've been needing for a long time. And I'm just hoping that this lasts and not that I'm not just riding a high.

The way to have something not to fade is don't treat it as an experience. Treat it, as another teacher said, as a work order. When something opens up, don't treat it as an experience.

Then we just sit around and hope that it doesn't fade. We have to take that opening and go into it more deeply and make it our own in whatever way we can. So that it becomes our new normal, not just an experience.

That's really a lot of the work of spiritual life is taking whatever we get from teachers, from our practice, from reading, anything that feels like an opening and sitting down and feeling into that.

And exploring it and seeing if we can go deeper into it. And see if we can remember it when we're just walking around during the day, integrating that with our everyday lives.

This is really the most important thing because otherwise in this culture, we have this idea that spiritual life is just a bunch of experiences. Little peaks—like a lot of the books about spiritual life that people read or just like each chapter is some peak experience that somebody had.

It's a way of relating to spiritual practice that will make you miss a lot of opportunity. So if you are just trying to have a peak experience and then once having had it, you think, okay, now I've had it.

That's great. I had a peak experience. It was great. Now let me go tell everyone and talk about it on Facebook. This way of relating to practice 100% of the time doesn't get you very far.

Even if you do have some extraordinary experience, if you don't make it your own, then it just goes away. As I've said somewhere else, you got the snakeskin, but the snake got away.

This reality is totally enlightened. It's in that condition all the time. Lord Shiva is not just sitting around having peak experiences and then being bored the rest of the time.

So that's not what we should be thinking we're going to do. You know, I want to have a peak experience and I'm really frustrated I'm not having one. Why aren't I having one? It's been three months. [laughter] And then you have one and you're like, oh, thank God I had one.

My reputation is saved. [laughter] So, you have to be steady, as I like to say, go barefoot, day by day, whatever happens, happens. Peak experience, no peak experience. Most of the important stuff happens incrementally anyway, and you have no idea how long it's going to take.

And when you do find an opening in your way of experiencing things, the gates of perception open a bit. You must sit yourself down and address yourself to that and explore it.

And understand that now you have been given—like a door has opened. That you have to walk through the door. And you have to be living in that new landscape.

Otherwise, it's just a blip on a highway as you're driving by. So don't waste these things. They're not the point of spiritual life. They are beacons. They're important, but they're beacons. I really can't emphasize this enough.

I posted something on Facebook that said something like, marked safe from conversations about spirituality and neuroscience. [laughter] The reason why is because, first of all it's just boring.

But the reason the conversations are boring is because everyone is talking about peak experiences in some way or another. Or just an experience. You could have this experience if you stick this wire in your brain or whatever.

And that's not the sum total of it because there's other people talking about other things that are just rationalistic mechanism devoid of any actual wisdom. But in any case, this whole idea that that's what spirituality is, is so erroneous.

It's so still focused on the individual and gathering these experiences and then being able to talk about them. It's about how we are in the world every minute of every day. More like Lord Shiva.

Like Swami Lakshmanjoo said, I'm paraphrasing, but we can't be totally enlightened like Lord Shiva. Like this reality. But we can approach that as much as we can in one lifetime.

And the idea is we're going to be in that new condition all the time. Not just one time or two times or a handful of times. How do we treat people? How does that translate into how we are actually relating to other beings and to our world.

That's where the real rubber meets the road. I don't hear any of these neuroscience and spirituality people talking about how they're treating people. Yeah, I had this amazing experience. And then you know, I was so much nicer to everybody. They don't talk that way.

They're just saying, I have this great experience or this insight. Or the brain is producing this experience of some sort. That isn't what these traditions are saying. They're not talking about that.


Photo by David Sola


Satsang with Shambhavi is a weekly podcast about spirituality, love, death, devotion and waking up while living in a messy world.