Thursday, 8 December 2016

Get Your Head Out of Your Meditation Cushion

Statue of Shiva and Parvati

Once upon a time, the Lord of Yoga, the god Shiva the Destroyer, was heartbroken. After his wife Sati died, he retreated into such a deep meditation that he could not be roused to do his work. Shiva is responsible for endings, and with Brahma the Creator and Vishnu the Sustainer, he is a part of the wheel of life: the universe that must keep turning. Endings must happen in order for beginnings to be possible.

The gods were worried. They needed Shiva to do his work in the world, but he was resolutely alone, deep in the practice of renunciation. They needed Shakti, the great goddess, to help.  

Shakti heard the gods’ prayers and agreed to manifest as Parvati, a beautiful woman and yogini who would love Shiva and match him as a partner. The gods didn’t think she could pull him out of his meditation on her own, so they enlisted Kama, the God of Love, to help her. Kama crept into Shiva’s meditation grove while Parvati sat before him. Kama shot three arrows of desire into Shiva’s heart, and his eyes fluttered open, seeing the beautiful yogini in front of him. For a moment, he was entranced, but suddenly snapped out of it: “Who dares awaken desire in me!” he thundered, and shot a beam of fire out of his third eye, incinerating the God of Love into a pile of ash.

Parvati eventually does get through to Shiva through her own yogic powers, and the two begin a great love story. Kama eventually gets his life back, but not before a handful of his ashes are turned into a demon that the goddess Lalita, another manifestation of Shakti, must later vanquish.

The story has a happy ending, but Shiva’s actions (or rather, non-actions) do not come without collateral damage. Shiva’s insistence on hiding his grief away throws the universe out of balance and, briefly, destroys Love himself. Shiva does what many of us do when grief or pain overwhelms us: we hide behind our spiritual practices rather than use them to heal and reconnect. Certainly we all need times of quiet and repair, but we must eventually return to the world and each other. Loving another human being is one of the most powerful spiritual practices in the universe, and it simply can’t be done alone.

At its heart, the yoga practice is revolutionary: in a world that tells us what to want and what to feel, yoga can keep us honest; it can return our bodies to us. As our practices teach us to feel, we can learn critical thinking with our minds. We learn to look at things from both sides, to let go of attachment to our deeply held stories about what the world is supposed to look like. Then we can bravely engage with what’s actually happening.

The truth is, we live in connection with all the other humans, plants, and non-human animals on this planet, including the ones we fear or don’t understand. Our practices can teach us that while we certainly have a right to our viewpoints, so does everyone else. The work is to avoid turning away, to insist on continuing to see each other and build bridges where we can. That’s what love is: being willing to step outside of our selfish imaginings and make space for someone we don’t always agree with.

As painful as it may be to engage with this shifting world, we must not bury our heads in our meditation cushions. Like Shiva, we must let love teach us how to stay present in the wheel of the universe, with all its many painful, beautiful, difficult endings and beginnings.

Shooter_Sinha_Images/Thinkstock


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