The Divine Mother and Groundlessness

January 24, 2024

Shambhavi talks about Durga, Kali, and experiencing groundlessness when we step out of embodied concepts. A podcast from Satsang with Shambhavi

One of the names of Durga is Mahishasura Mardini, the killer of the demon.

When I was in India one time, I was staying on this island in Madhya Pradesh called Omkareshwar, where there's a beautiful temple. Lots of temples, really ancient temples.

And there's a parikrama, which is a circular little yatric-like walk that you go on that takes maybe eight hours.

Along this walk are these just incredible temple bas-relief statues of Mahishasura Mardini. Twice as tall as life. And the whole temple has fallen to the ground. These bas-relief sculptures are on these giant rectangles and Durga is coming out.

And the demons at her feet, they're just littered about the property. They're not really attached to anything anymore. You can still see bits of orange paint on there, painted with sindoor, this orangey-red stuff.

The reason why you can call on her is that she is the concentration of all shakti.

In her stories, the regular gods, the male gods [laughter], Vishnu, Bramha, and Shiva try to defeat the demon. It's always the demon of our limitations. That's what the demon always stands for.

They can't do it. They fail.

And so they so externalize their shakti into the form of Mahishasura Mardini, and they give her all of their weapons. The bow and arrow, and the discus, and whatever other weapons they have. And she goes out to fight the demon.

She is also unable to vanquish the demon in her form that she's in at that point.

She gives birth to Kali out of her third eye.

Durga, in that story, is the essence of all shakti, in all time and space. But Kali is, like, the absolute concentration of that.

So, in that story, Durga is the mother of Kali. And it's a parthenogenic birth, meaning that– birth without sexual union. So, Kali just comes out of the third eye of Durga. And Kali vanquishes the demon.

So, when you call on Durga, you're calling on the divine mother. This is the quality. She's, like, the fierce mother.

When you're calling on Kali, you're calling on the daughter who has no ties to any other beings. And who's, like, this just unstoppable force of nature, and without hesitation and without any mercy will chop off your head.

This is why if you're not ready to have your head chopped off, better to propitiate or do mantra for Durga. She's a little bit more workable [laughs] in her role as a mother. And– she's a warrior mother, but...

Once you get to Kali, you have totally surrendered any preferences about what's about to happen to you.

So Durga is called on for immediate assistance in the way that you would call on your mother.

Kali's like, this is what needs to happen. It doesn't even say that. It doesn't even give you a moment to hear what she's planning. Whatever it is, it's happening now.

Understanding the demon as representing our own limitations. What's the span of that?

Ubiquitous. I can't really say what is the span of it in historical time. I have no idea. But certainly it's the understanding of it in the Mahabharata.

It's also the understanding in the Ramayana that this is an externalized play of what we need to do in order to wake up.

THIS IS an externalized play of what we need to do in order to wake up.

And the story that we read in an epic or something is just another version of it. Because this is also God's story.

I've got a question about the divine mother.

In modern Western culture, the body and nature and things are associated with the feminine and are kind of degraded. Is it– Shakti also that nature and the body?

Who is Shakti in the tradition we're in? If we're looking even further back behind that creation of appearings of things, what do we find that Shakti is?

Vimarsha. She's the power of self-reflection. The power of self-reflection in and of itself.

The power to have an internal dualistic experience of reflecting on oneself, which brings all flavor and interest into life. If we couldn't reflect on ourselves, it's not even imaginable what life would be or if it would even be worth living.

In this tradition, in the View teachings and in the practice, there's no denigration of Shakti whatsoever.

Now, that doesn't mean that in actual lineages or actual bodies of teachers and students that there isn't sexism and misogyny. I'm sure there is, and I'm sure there was from the beginning of time.

But the way that the tradition describes itself and the way that the practices are, at least the potential is there for there to be absolutely no denigration.

And of course, there's a long history of women teachers in the traditions from Kashmir and Pakistan. There's also embodiments of this non-denigration at the same time that I'm sure there was denigration.

And, I mean, there's what I consider to be lesser tantras from that part of the world, North Indian Tantra in general, where women are just basically talked about as battery packs for male practitioners.

Those texts tend to focus on that heroic male protagonist who's wielding powers and learning to control nature, doing magical things.

But that is part of the tradition, but it's not the only part of the tradition. It's definitely, from my perspective, the less interesting part of the tradition.

My experience as a practitioner is that the more you practice and the more your sense of embodiment doesn't end at your skin, the more you don't feel like you have 'your' energy.

The more you feel that your energy is just somehow part of that ocean of energy, that ubiquitous sounding.

I would say that men, and I have met one or two of these men, who think that they're going to draw energy from beautiful young...women, usually....

I think they're just duped by their own limited experience as practitioners.

Anybody who thinks that they're giving someone else energy or taking energy from somebody else has a very limited experience of energy.

Because the real energy is the same everywhere and it's freely available in all beings and even just in the air itself.

We have some sort of experience of this quasi-individuality and a quasi-individualized body. But the further along we go, the less sense of boundary there is to that body.

Even though there could be some localized phenomena that we associate with our bodies, the sense of the energy that we're drawing on or being made of is not contained within our body.

What are we doing when we're doing most kriyas? We're breathing energy in.

We're basically breaking down the sense of boundary between ourself and others. That's where it's all at as far as I'm concerned.

Concepts can be embodied. Someone could have a concept that a young woman is their Tantrik battery pack. And maybe they're having some kind of experience. But that's all based on concepts. Very limited concepts, I think.

Being around people who light you up versus people who bring you down. What's that about in terms of energetic sharing?

Well, to my mind, it's about getting into a larger field of energy. When we feel like we're being narrowed and collapsed and condensed, that's when we feel like the energy is too heavy. Right? [Student 3: Mhmm.]

And when we feel like things are getting more expansive, that's what we feel enlivened by. And that's kind of a taste of what it feels like when THE energy is enlivening, when you have that understanding.

But [if] I'm around somebody who's just more cheerful and open and energetic than I am, there's a way that I am now in a bigger field.

And if the conditions are right, but not always, then maybe that could make me feel better.

But it's not like someone's going to check our pulses and we're suddenly going to have all this kidney energy that we didn't have before. [laughs] It's some other more subtle thing that's happening.

But I remember when I was in my 20s, I was living in New York City. Up until I was about 27, I guess, I was still eating gluten. I didn't know that I had a gluten allergy. And I was very often chronically depressed or having this low or not-so-low level of depression.

I remember that I would go outside into the city to feel better. And just the extreme vibratory quality of the city pulled me out of that feeling of condensed heaviness.

I think that's a similar thing that happens in spiritual practice. We just hook up with a larger energy.

But, you know, I still had to stop eating gluten. [laughs]

It's kind of, what are we identifying with?

Can you speak about groundlessness and how to work with that and what that is?

Well, wanting to work with groundlessness is basically saying, how can I find ground.

Groundlessness is an experience that happens when embodied concepts that we held prove to not be how things actually are.

We have many embodied concepts about ourselves and other people about what reality is and how things really are, that, when we're divested of them, we have this experience of not quite knowing who we are, where we are, what's going on.

For instance, most of us think we're bodies in space and that we have discrete boundaries.

And when we start to have more experiences that that's not true, then our whole embodied concept of what it means to be a body gets eroded, and there can be an experience of groundlessness.

And the experience of groundlessness is not always something that's scary. Sometimes it's pleasurable, also, or some other thing.

But it's an absolutely necessary, unavoidable part of this kind of practice. Because we're really trying to learn how things are, how we are, what we are.

And what we are is not what we think we are. So we're going to go through these kinds of experiences.

They can be very minor, just in a few minutes or a few days. But they can also be things that take us a very long time to kind of digest and make our new normal.

But it's generally considered to be an experience of some kind of emptiness. Because our concepts about things are filling for– you know, they fill space, they fill our minds, they fill our bodies, they make everything seem very solid and known.

And so when we have big moments of groundlessness—that's called shunya—those can be signifiers of important stages of growth in our spiritual life.

In some traditions, those experiences called shunya are considered to be enlightenment itself. But in this tradition, that's not true. That's not true in any of the direct realization traditions.

From our perspective, shunya is a step along the way. And then we have to discover beyond that experience of groundlessness that everything is full of awareness and energy.

There's not a speck of emptiness anywhere.

When we enter into experiences of groundlessness or states of groundlessness, the best thing to do is relax and see what happens. Not do anything. Just relax and go into freefall and see what happens.

[The] feeling of groundlessness is going to do its own thing in you. You have to just get out of the way. So try lying on the ground and being more physically vulnerable and see what happens.

Most people get distracted. Most people's whole lives are one long distraction.

But just for as long as you can, you're doing nothing.

I think it would be good for me if I could get less worked up about being worried about getting distracted.

Well, that's another entertainment. Worrying is basically entertainment.

There's– stuff happens in life. It's very, very simple. Stuff happens. [laughter] And we can make choices about how to engage with it.

Worrying is just basically entertainment. Worrying is a way of trying to get control of things.

But we can just put some kind of practicalness in the place of that.

Things are what they are. They do what they do. I'm here. I'm going to engage with it somehow. How am I going to engage with what's happening right now?

Because that's the only thing you have even an nth degree of control over. You have some little part to play in what's happening right now.

What happens after that? Who knows?

All worrying is about something that's going to happen. Or what someone's going to say, or what they're going to think, or what they're going to feel, or what we're going to lose, or something like that, we're not going to do it right....

It's just also expressing a lot of fear of actual engagement with the liveliness of life. Worrying is like a secondary life sitting behind actual life.

But we really don't have any choice other than to just deal with what happens.

And if worrying is our way of dealing with what happens, then we'll be way less powerful actors in the world.

It's hard, though, because I can't really stop it.

Well, you can interrupt it. You can interrupt it. Even if just for moments at a time.

You can interrupt it with mantra. You can interrupt it with any practice that you've learned. You can interrupt it forcibly by just interrupting it.

You can interrupt it by asking yourself, what am I going to do next? What's the practical thing to do next? You can interrupt it.

And when you interrupt it, at least at first, you're going to experience groundlessness. Because the worry itself is creating ground for you.

When we just start dealing with, okay, this happened, now I'm engaging with it how? We experience groundlessness when we do that.

That's what Namkhai Norbu called the ordinary present. Just what's happening is the ordinary present.

And when we just decide, okay, I'm just going to deal with that in some practical way, then groundlessness comes up because we're not trying to control anything anymore. We're just making a gesture and then that's it. We see what happens next.

What happens if you're playing a computer game? What if you worried your way through a computer game about what was going to happen and if you were going to make a mistake?

In a computer game, you just have to decide and act. In fact, the process isn't even that broken up. You're just almost acting without deciding.

You're just using whatever skill you have in the moment to move to the next place.

I mean, you don't know what's going to happen. But if you sat around worrying, the game would be over so quickly. You would lose so quickly. So be more like in a video game or computer game.


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