Sally Kempton

Doorways to the Infinite

How to be Fierce

Being a yogi doesn’t always mean being nice. Unleash your inner strength with the goddess Kali.

“You need to find your Kali side,” I told Annie. You may know someone like Annie; in fact, maybe you have an Annie in your yoga class. She’s a production manager at a local tv station, a single mom with a busy schedule, and a really nice person. She values yoga as a doorway into peace and well-being, teaches it to troubled teens, and always stresses the importance of equanimity and other yogic virtues — non-violence, surrender, contentment, detachment.

But Annie’s approach to yoga is like her approach to life: she is so conflict averse, that its hard for her even to admit that she has negative feelings. She rarely raises her voice, and she once told me that she can’t remember the last time she felt anger. But at this moment, mired in a family conflict that involves stolen money, elder abuse, and shady lawyers, Annie senses that her carefully cultivated tendency to seek peace over conflict is not helping her. She’s called me for advice: she wants to be told how to keep a good relationship with her brother and sister, and still stop them from cheating her mother out of her property. In other words, she wants me to give her a prescription for non-violent conflict from the yogic playbook.

Instead, what pops out of my mouth is, “You need to find your Kali side.” I suppose I could have put it differently. I could have told Annie about that moment in theBhagavad Gita when Krishna tells Arjuna to stand up and fight. Or, I could have simply said that yoga isn’t just about being peaceful; it’s also about being strong, and wild, and forceful. Yoga, I could have told her, includes Warrior II, which is basically the posture you take when you’re aiming an arrow at someone’s heart.

But my intuition was that Annie needed not so much a rational argument as an image, something to bypass the cultural conditioning of her left-brain dominated mind. Annie, like so many people who practice yoga, had a half-conscious tendency to confuse ‘being yogic’ with being nice. Not that kindness and equanimity aren’t essential yogic qualities. It was just that people close to Annie often noticed that her practiced yogic calm looked like a way of papering over difficult emotions, knotty feelings, and desires that felt dangerous, or at least not socially acceptable.

She had yet to recognize that even though in the west we tend to privilege the calming, rejuvenating and stress-reducing aspects of yoga, that yoga is also a path to bringing out, then taming and channeling our wildness. To go deep into yoga will not just calm down or induce well-being. It will also at some point ask us to confront those parts of ourselves that may have been suppressed by fear, trauma, or social conditioning, and which may be shutting down our joy, undercutting our confidence or our passion, sabotaging our health. To bring forth our repressed passion, and purify it into pure energy, or give us access to a transpersonal level of anger and wisdom that when owned and channeled can renew our bodies and give us the power to act skillfully–these are some of the hidden gifts that yogic technology can offer. Hidden in texts like the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, or the Shiva Samhita, strewn through the texts of tantra, are verses on deity yoga, verses that are not just casual meditation, but point to one of the most powerful known technologies for unlocking our hidden powers.

Deity yoga is a path that uses ‘forms’–images, mantras, ritual, and simple invocation–to touch and become familiar with different aspects of the transpersonal divine. Indian deities represent not simply aspects of the one divine vastness (who as in every other religious tradition is understood to be pure impersonal spirit). They also have powerful psychological roots, which is why deity yoga can have such important psychological effects.

In Jungian language, a deity image is an archetype, a personification of qualities deeply embedded in the human. The archetypes are the underlying forces in human life, which all of us tap into in our most primal human moments –for instance, as parents, as lovers, as soldiers, as students or teachers. Deities are archetypes of higher, transpersonal forces, forces that may not be accessible to us, but which are embedded within the psyche nevertheless. Yogic practice has always offered practices for tuning into these archetypal forces. The mantras we recite at the beginning of many yoga classes are actually methods discovered by sages for tapping into deity energy–Ganesh mantras for protection against obstacles, Saraswati mantras for literary inspiration, Lakshmi mantras for prosperity. The statues we see in yoga studios are meant not just as decoration, but as meditation aids, focal points for ritual, and as reminders of powers that we hold within. When someone waves incense in front of a stature or picture, you might think of this as weird, or (especially if you were brought up Jewish) as idolotrous and reject them. Or you can approach ritual, mantra, and especially the powerful practice of directly invoking a deity energy, as a way of opening yourself to energies within yourself, powers that can support, protect, and act with a kind of numinous power.

Kali shows up in yogic art almost as much as the elephant headed Ganesh. Kali is the one with the wild hair, the bare breasts, and the severed heads around her neck. She usually carries a sword, and one of the ways you know its Kali is that she’s sticking out her tongue. (Try it as you read! Sticking your tongue out, all the way out, is one of the quickest ways there is to get you in touch with your unconventional wild side!) She’s usually described as the goddess of destruction, and she looks scary, even though when you look at her face and body, you realize that she is also beautiful. Kali is supposed to have arisen out of the warrior-goddess Durga during a particularly fierce battle with some demons. The demons had a nasty skill: their spilled blood turned into more demon-warriors. Kali’s job was to lick the drops of blood from the slain demons, and she did it so well that Durga won the battle.

But as Kali ‘developed’ over the centuries, this image of the wild-eyed battle goddess came to symbolize both spiritual and psychological liberation. She came to be understood as a form of the archetypal Great Mother, not just the warrior, but also the protector and giver of boons. In fact, the way a practitioner approaches Kali depends on his level of consciousness.

There’s a ‘primitive’ version of Kali, often seen as a forest goddess, invoked for protective and magical purposes by many tribal people in India. As such, she is the object of village ceremonies and seasonal dances and ritual, and in the 18th and 19th centuries was the ‘goddess’ of the Thuggees, a tribe of bandits who supposedly sacrificed their victims to her. That Kali also symbolizes the death and rebirth cycle of agricultural societies.

At the level of orthodox Hindu religious practice, Kali is Kali Ma, a benign, respectable, garland-bedecked temple icon, invoked as the mother of the universe, worshipped as a source of blessing. At this level, her wildness is explained away as purely symbolic or metaphorical. The skulls around her neck become symbols of the sound syllables that create reality, while her apron of hands stands for the multiple powers of the divine. She is a warrior, yes, but the demons she slays are the demons of the ego, the attributes of our ignorance.

At the highest level, however, the level of serious spiritual aspirants and enlightened devotees, Kali represents the Absolute Reality itself. Her devotees–including the great 19th century universalist guru Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, the 20th century Siddha Ananda Mayi Ma, and the contemporary teacher, Amritananda Ma–regard her as the embodiment of the Shakti, the dynamic power aspect of divine Consciousness.

To them, and to anyone who seriously meditates on her and studies her, Kali is not only fierce, she is also motherly. Behind her scary face is the face of the Divine Lover, the almost overwhelmingly dynamic force of divine love. Her darkness is the mysterious darkness of the ultimate void, into which we can plunge and, in the words of the Bengali poet Kalidas, drown our individuality and merge with the ultimate.

From the point of view of esoteric practice, Kali is the dynamic force of liberation, the inner kundalini energy that awakens us and guides us to realization of our identity with divine Consciousness itself. In the great game of freedom and enlightenment, she is the one who cuts the nooses that tie us, smashing our concepts, freeing us of beliefs, false personal identities, and everything else that keeps us from recognizing our true identity.

In other words, part of what Kali represents in yoga is the power to cut away the false self, the persona, and to release that in you which is true–not only ultimate truth, but the truth that is uniquely yours. That power often remains in shadow, hidden behind our social masks, and even behind some of the masks we assume in yoga. So tuning into Kali in daily life often means tuning into aspects of ourselves that we normally don’t have access to, a power that can step outside the conventional and become bold and fierce, fierce in our love, fierce in our ecstasy, fierce in our willingness to stand up to the ‘demons’ in ourselves and others. We don’t become free just by going with the flow. We become free by knowing when to say “No,” to fight for what is right, to be appropriately ruthless, to engage with the fiercer forms of grace.

As an archetype of divine feminity, Kali is miles away from the image of Mary, the sweet intercessor, of Kuan Yin crying for the suffering of humanity, of the exiled Shekinah who must be returned to her original place within God, or, for that matter, of the perfect Hindu wife, Sita. Kali is tough. She’s harsh. She has no manners. In her spiritual essence, she epitomizes the demand that we ourselves become naked warriors for truth and freedom, ruthlessly sacrificing our own self-aggrandizing qualities for the sake of liberation.

So ‘finding your Kali’ is always about liberation. For someone like Annie, Kali can offer a kind of permission to find her warrior side. For someone else, a way of approaching the ‘darker’ side of grace, the power that takes away something in order to make room for something else. Kali is also discernment, the sword-like eye that sees through the disguises of the personal ego. That’s the Kali-esque quality of clarity, which wakes up at a certain point in our journey and shows you how much of what you’ve thought of as ‘me’ is actually a series of socially conditioned roles and responses, ‘stories’ about yourself, usually taken on in childhood.

For Annie, that meant seeing into the fear that lay behind her politeness, and then finding that in her which could stand up both to her fear and to her siblings. At one point, I had her imagine herself as Kali–strong, fearless, holding a sword aloft, and to notice how she felt in this role.

Her response was a huge “NO!” shouted to her siblings, but also to her own passivity. She started doing an ‘asana’ that she called Kali Pose: half a squat, raised arms, tongue stuck out, vocalizing: “Maaaaa!” or “Nooooo!” and finally, ne day, a strong, triumphant ‘Yes!’ That was the day she managed to talk her siblings into putting her mother’s money in trust, under a lawyer who was answerable to all three of them.

That was also the day that Annie’s siblings started, for the first time, treating her not as a little sister, but as someone who knew what to do.

Every one of us, at some point will be brought face to face with the need to discover and integrate Kali. Integrating Kali does not mean giving way to tantrums or violent impulses–in fact, people who have tantrums are people who are out of touch with the truth of Kali, because the liberated Kali energy will always bring consciousness to the unconsciously angry parts of ourselves, and allow them to transform.

However, it is also true that we are often drawn to look for Kali in those moments when our social face is breaking down, when suppressed anger or fear is threatening to overwhelm us, or when we’re faced with a crisis in which someone else’s anger seems to threaten our survival or sense of justice.

For me, it happened during a health crisis. At the time I was deep into a classically yogic lifestyle, actively ‘working on’ my anger and personal ambition through the time-honored practice of total denial. Like many people involved in spiritual self-training, I believed that any form of personal willfulness was selfish (ie, bad) and took for granted that being spiritual meant repressing, witnessing, and hopefully transcending my shadow qualities. Since I have a lot of rebellious and eccentric qualities, this was not easy or natural for me, and as nearly always happens when we disown our shadow, my creative energies went underground. I was tired all the time. My suppressed anger tended to pop out in sarcasm, or in sudden outbursts which created problems for me with other people. Finally, my digestion started to go south.

After a series of dreams in which I kept seeing animals trapped inside my body and eating their way out, I decided to start a process of dialogue with what I, like Annie, saw as my own suppressed Kali energy. It often happens this way: we seek Kali at the moment we realize that we are living in dissonance with parts of ourself which we may not fully understand or know.

Sometimes people do this kind of shadow work outloud; I did it as a written dialogue. I began by writing, with my right hand “I’d like to speak to Kali”, and then taking a pen in my left hand. As I did so, I felt a leaping in my heart, and saw these words flowing through my pen, “I am anger, I am power, I’m the girl in the corner, I’m the wild dancer, I’m you, I’m you, I’m you!” “What do you want?” I wrote. “I want out,” wrote my other hand. “to be free! To be wild! To be in control!”

The process went on for several hours, and ended only when I got a cramp in my hand that finally made it too uncomfortable to write. In the process, I could feel myself swinging from wild exhilaration to resentment and back again, but always with a feeling of mounting energy and excitement.

After a few weeks of this process–which I often came back to in the years since–I began to notice that near-miracle that occurs when we begin to tune into any divine archetype, and especially to allow it to consciously speak through us. I began to find that positive Kali qualities–a natural kind of assertiveness and freedom–were coming back into my life. My health improved, but more to the point, I began to be able to speak my truth in the moment in ways I hadn’t in years.

This was one of the the process I recommended to Annie. I didn’t suggest that she look into the reasons for her passivity in the face of others’ aggression, though often that kind of psychological help can be useful. Instead, I asked her to talk to the Kali energy inside, and see what it had to say to her. She has been dialoguing with Kali ever since. I notice that she’s a bit sharper than she used to be, but that there’s a freedom in her stride that wasn’t there before. More to the point, she’s beginning to be comfortable with confronting people–not just her siblings. Her friends find her more authentic, even though Annie doesn’t always know how to express her new found clarity. “I’m actually learning that when I let myself feel my angry, I can usually figure out how to say it in a way that doesn’t blow up the conversation. I actually think I’m learning how to manage conflict.”

This is one of Kali’s great and secret boons. In pointing you towards those parts of yourself that you have rejected, feared or ignored, she inspires you to transform your identity, and transform it again, letting go of rigid ideas of who you and others are, stretching your emotional range, your mind and life itself in delicious and liberating ways.

Dialoguing with Kali

Materials: To do this process, you’ll need pen and paper–enough paper so that you can continue writing as long as necessary.

I also recommend having an image of Kali–a picture or computer image–that you can use to summon the Kali energy.

The Process:

1) Spend a few moments in contemplation, recalling the symbology of Kali. Because the psyche responds to symbols and images far more readily than to words, I often find that to invoke archetypal imagery can open up realms of the personal unconscious that are otherwise unavailable. Find a picture of Kali, preferably a detailed and beautiful one. Look at the image, noting her beautiful face, her wild hair, her upraised sword, the way she is dancing. Look at the necklace of skulls. Notice the emotions that come up as you look at her. Notice especially such charged emotions as fear, excitement, aversion, confusion, or attraction.

2) With a notebook and pen close by, close your eyes and summon Kali inwardly. Ask that the Kali energy in you be present. Ask, “Let me speak to Kali.”

3) With your dominant hand, write,

Who are you, or “Tell me about yourself.”

Then, take the pen in your left hand, and write an answer.

4) Write, “What do you want?”

6) With the non dominant hand, write your answer.

7) Continue the dialogue as long as it has energy. You can always come back to it later.

8) Sit quietly for a few moments, being present with the breath. Notice the spaces between the inbreath and the outbreath, the outbreath and the inbreath. Without holding your breath, see if you can be aware of how the breath arises and subsides from stillness. This void space, or open space is the essential nature of the Kali energy.

9) Thank your inner Kali. Place the picture or image of Kali somewhere where you can see it.

10) Take an action that feels connected to the Kali energy you’ve accessed. Kali-like activities might include a physical expression, such as wild dancing or kicking, a verbal expression, speaking a truth you have been afraid to voice, asserting a preference, doing something you never did before.

11) Note any dreams, insights, or shifts that arise in the next few days.

12) Once you feel that the process is more or less complete, you may burn the image of Kali, or offer it into a body of flowing water. Do this with the feeling that you are offering the energy of the goddess back into the universe, and thus taking the insights you’ve received deeply into your own being.

© Copyright 2008. Sally Kempton/Dharana Institute. All Rights Reserved.