A long time ago, I was working with a therapist who used hypnosis to try to cull information from my subconscious. I was very focused at that time on answering the big question: will I ever become a wife and mother? In one particular session, while under hypnosis, my therapist suggested that I try to “see” what that might look like.
When I began teaching yoga in an alternative high school, I imagined myself somewhat like this tree, moving with the same grounded aura through the halls toward my sanctuary-esque classroom. In this dream, I provided shelter despite artificial lighting, warmth in spite of cold, gray tile floors, and I cultivated in my students the ability to examine their deepest, most personal places by sharing simple breathing techniques and yoga asana. And all this I wanted within the first week of work.
In Cosmos and Psyche, Richard Tarnas makes essentially this same argument, pointing out that the reduction of our cosmic understanding at a certain historical juncture (the dawn of Enlightenment science) to the tenets of Newtonian mechanics - which posits the universe as an impersonal, clock-like machine - is largely responsible for our blindness to the “personality” of the universe. In such a Newtonian understanding, there is no room for visions of the cosmos as “psychological” - with moods, emotions, and all the other unpredictable qualities that constitute human beings.
For Carly and Hillary, both are bashed for their looks while the white guys around them chuckle and high five like a fraternity debate club. The glass ceiling of ego and opportunity seems almost impossible to chip, let alone crack, even with saber and skull in hand. It was almost silly to countenance someone like Sarah Palin as a serious VP candidate, and Elizabeth Dole seemed way past her prime and two decades too soon. The Geraldine Ferrero’s of the world and their second-in-line assembly has been documented, hypothesized and tucked neatly away like a cocktail napkin in a coat pocket. This is now a woman’s race - or stands to be anyway - unlike any of the second place VP-candidates of the past. Both have ten arms in intellect and articulation; both broads are tough enough to heave that gilded hammer so stoutly swung they stand to shatter all glass ceilings from this point on. Taking a page from the Frau Angela Merkel playbook, it would appear that perhaps, perchance, times, they are a changing. But are we ready?
The astrologer said, “The appearance of the High Priestess means that your intuition is trying to send you a message. It is stronger than any other force no matter how much you try to suppress it. Be open to it. What would accepting femininity in your life bring? Let that be your guide as you discover your hidden potential – you have a lot of work to do in this world. And it is time to do it.”
It is often said that everything comes in threes. From the strongest geometrical symbol (the triangle) to the number of lights in a traffic light; from the Hanson brothers to Destiny’s child to Freud’s theory of the personality (id, ego, superego). There is something undoubtedly resonant about the number three. It strikes us as a strong, and perhaps complete, number.
Christians are not the only religious tradition to speak of a trinity of deities. Most with even a cursory knowledge of Hinduism will have heard of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. Brahma is referred to as the god of creation. Vishnu is the god of preservation, and Shiva is the god of destruction.
Every deity in the Hindu tradition has a nirgun, or formless, expression (without attributes or characteristics) and a sagun, a formed, expression (with attributes and characteristics). The images that you see in artistic renderings is the sagun, while the nurgun is the quality, essence or vibration that the symbolic rendering represents. Another way of putting this would be to say that deities are archetypal; they are personified expressions of fundamental metaphysical qualities. To arrive at an experience of the formless (nirgun) aspect of these qualities, we utilize symbols (sagun) to direct us toward that experience. Thus, the deities are important tools in helping us to connect with these transcendental qualities, but they are perhaps best seen as guideposts, pointing us in the direction of bringing those qualities to life.
Granted, this is not the position of some branches of religious Hinduism. According to many, the deities should be seen as personal and not simply allegorical or archetypal. In our consideration here, however, it seems that if we externalize these deities and make them personal (“there is”, for example, “an actual blue god named Krishna”), we run the risk of losing the forest for the trees. In the final adjudication, the qualities that the deity archetypes represent are qualities within us. By acknowledging and cultivating these qualities within our lives, we become flexible in the face of the sometimes dramatic changes, situations, and events that we experience.
The nirgun and sagun expressions of deities corresponds smoothly with the “as above, so below” symbolism of the Tarot’s Magician archetype. With one hand pointing toward the stars and the other hand gesturing toward the earth, he reminds us that at all levels of existence are to be found these qualities of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
Let’s look again at these deities and their corresponding qualities:
Brahma, the creator: creation, manifestation, rebirth, reorientation
Vishnu, the preserver: persistence, love, sustaining a good thing, perseverance
Shiva, the destroyer: dissolution, recycling, shedding what isn’t serving you, letting go
It is important to note that Shiva’s destruction is not an obliterating, negative destruction, but the good, necessary kind of destruction - the kind that conditions the possibility of future creation. Relatedly, then, these three qualities are not aspects of a linear timeline - for example, seeing Brahma as Genesis, Vishnu as the time in between (including the time we are in) and then Shiva as the “last days”. Instead, the wisdom of the Eastern tradition reminds us that time is cyclical. We are always cycling from Brahma to Vishnu to Shiva and back to Brahma, and so on and so forth, at all levels of experience.
Let's look at some examples...
We see this process easily in the passing of days. A twenty-four hour day is born; it expands between the boundaries of night; and then it dissolves into sleep to be born again in the morning. Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva.
A yoga practice also expresses these qualities. We are born into a sixty- or a ninety-minute class by warming up the body and setting an intention (Brahma). We proceed through the arc of a sequence, telling a story through pose and breath (Vishnu), and then finally we dissolve slowly through the cool down to that final resting place of savasana (Shiva). Even the meaning of the word savasana, “corpse pose”, points toward this theme of rebirth (from Shiva into Brahma) that the symbol of an asana sequence represents.
When we sit down to meditate, we are often invited to abstract ourselves from the stream of thinking to observe thoughts as if they are passing clouds in the sky - taking form, floating by, and then dissolving back into the horizon. Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva.
The wisdom inspired by an internalization of this trinity teaches us the inevitable truth of flux and change. By meditating on how these deities are present in our lives, we make peace with the moments of creativity, of stasis, and of destruction as moments to be affirmed and not denied. This wisdom is welcome in a culture where attachment to forms of identity is the sin qua non of life’s meaning. We all want to know who we are.
The truth is that who we are is a changing thing, at least at the phenomenal level of Reality. What remains the same is the stage on which Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva play out the eternity of their cosmic dance -- the primordial ground of Being.
Contrary to popular interpretations, the path toward seeing the true Self does not involve destroying the egoic self. The egoic self is not the problem. It is a tool that everyone needs to function in the world. The problem arises when we attach ourselves to that narrower self, when we confuse our identifications with it. When we stop identifying with it, the ego will change, surely, but it will never leave completely. We wouldn't be able to navigate the world if it departed without remainder.
In the Guru Gita, it says “the first syllable ‘gu’ represents the principles such as maya, and the second syllable ‘ru’ the supreme knowledge that destroys the illusion of maya.” Part of that illusion is the idea of a separate self. Therefore, the guru is the name for that which reflects back the Truth of Brahman or Siva, the ground of consciousness from which all emanates and proceeds, and which is our true identity.
The guru as a person is simply a signpost for the experience of that reflection. Confusing the guru for a god, as has so often happened in our history, would be like sucking on the finger of someone pointing to the stars, mistaking the outstretched hand for the vast cosmos it is directing us toward.
It’s possible to use illusion to create a different reality for oneself, and sometimes even for entire groups of people. It’s possible, sometimes through sheer force of will, to manufacture positive change from negative experiences...On the individual level or on a larger social scale. It may take years, it will take work, and certainly much collaboration with others – no abracadabra here – but the alternative is to remain mired in the muck of illusion, waiting on someone else’s magic to make a change.
By day, my Grandfather was an accountant. His job was exacting, rigorous, and uncompromising – there was no gray area, the numbers had to add up. By night, he was a magician, a job that was fantastical, illusory, a play in an alternative reality. But these outward opposites were actually two sides of the same coin – it takes a tremendous amount of attention to detail to be a skillful accountant and a successful magician. I used to think his life was one big contradiction, but perhaps it wasn’t. My Grandfather applied his abilities in distinct disciplines and left us wondering how he did it – the real trick of the Magician...If we are able to accept the notion that two things that don’t appear to go together can actually stand side by side, there is a better chance that we will understand each other and ourselves. Because it is never just this or that, up or down, black or white, heaven or earth, illusion or reality. It is always both.
When I refer to this ground as zero, I do not mean there is nothing there. Or perhaps I do, in the sense that there is a nothing there which is also a something. It is only a nothing with regards to words and the objectified world of discrete objects. Because it is the very ground of the possibility of anything whatsoever, words cannot wrap themselves around it. The only way to speak of it is through seemingly paradoxical poetry, for it is the space in which emptiness and fullness and every opposite ever imagined lives comfortably. It is where contradiction and sense are not at odds.
We are not meant to analyze it into a logical equation, which is perhaps why this sort of Truth cannot be recognized by Western philosophical discourse. It is outside the realm of what that discourse deems legitimate - which is of course unfortunate, because it is a flat out denial of a well-documented world of diverse experiences.
To feel foolish can be a little scary. To some, following choices of the heart, or pursuing one’s dream, can seem impossible and therefore silly to chase. Instead of doing something, we sit on a rock, put our fist under our chin Winnie-the-Pooh-style, and ask, “Why bother?”
There are many fears that block any activity that requires foolish behavior. The fear of failure is a big one. So is the fear of rejection or criticism. Taking a crazy chance, whether within a relationship, hobby, or career, is often met with negativity, from both internal and external forces. Maybe your parents, or society doesn’t agree with your choice. Maybe your biggest critic is you.
Faith is not a hot word in today's culture. Most often, it is associated with a blind belief in an often biased and judgmental God. And yet even if the word itself has fallen out of favor, we nevertheless act on faith all of the time: in our relationships, in our professional lives, politically, and otherwise. Faith renews itself continuously in the idea that things will work out all right, or that they will continue to conform to our desires. Without such faith, everyone would give up in despair. There certainly is nothing objective to confirm that life will work out okay; we take that on faith, because we have no choice not to.
Teachers are the seen, but I also make an effort to maintain my muscle of a seer's questioning and examining of what is the teaching. I had lost some of that muscle memory over the course of studying under a particular system. When you lose sight of this as an educator, teacher, or mentor, you have lost something special. But it can become foolish when you fail to see that something’s missing, like a sartorially-bereft ‘avidyic’ King strutting amongst his loyal subjects.
Inevitably, we come to a place (sometimes long down the road) when all of that dismantles and the teachings as we know them, like suspensions in time, suddenly seem limited. It’s as if the moment something becomes dogma, locked in the permanence of ideologue, the lesson of the universe weaves a flaw in the fabric and the rubric starts to rimple. Svadyaya helped me see this: the coarseness of the rise and the discontinuity of pattern. I saw that I needed to come into my own expression as a teacher, no longer a puppet of another. Those teachings no longer sat well in the suit of my self. They belonged to another journeyman with a separate destiny.
Foolishness is often little more than an external judgment of our actions as abnormal. And choosing the path less traveled, when the clear, easy path is there for the taking, is abnormal, crazy, foolish. But even if you end right back smack dab in the middle of a battle you were trying to avoid in the first place (spoiler alert: just because a path is difficult and untrod doesn’t guarantee that it leads anywhere good), being foolish enough to question the expected will change the way you enter that battle. Although Arjuna is physically right back where he began when the record screeched to a stop and everyone froze, when the credits roll in my imaginary Bhagavad Gita film he is not the same warrior he was at the beginning. He emerges from his journey on the fool’s path with new perspective on active service and on the results of these actions, with new wisdom about himself and about God, and with the tools to act from reflection rather than from unexamined passion. And that, as the poet says, made all the difference.
Everyone relies on something or someone, even if that person has done a great job at convincing himself otherwise. We rely on partners, friends, family members, governments, organizations, healthcare systems, deities, systems, jobs, thoughts, emotions, and patterns of doing and thinking.
Surrendering to the unknown is an act of casting the reins out to that greatest of supporters, an unknown that has been given many names: Brahman, Siva, God, Mother Nature, Krishna, the Cosmos (or insert your cultural placeholder here). It is saying “I trust you” to a vastness that perhaps we’ll never quite comprehend. It is a letting-go to the flow that is always there, supporting the appearance of experience.
In spite of our best efforts, it seems we all invariably attach to our practice, especially us asana junkies. It is deeply satisfying to spend time upside down, and the moment our feet float away from the wall is undeniably sweet. But in that moment of feeling we have “nailed” our practice, we quietly tell our inner Self that practice is “X.” Practice becomes the thing that occurs when my feet float, or when I make it to the studio six days a week, or whichever "X" factor it may be. Practice stops when I encounter unforeseen financial trouble or emotional upset or fatigue. Over and over again we must remind ourselves that these instances are when the practice actually begins: in the face of change. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose what changes or when, we merely choose whether or not to accept the change and whether or not to go with the flow.
At a glance, a zero is an empty circle of no value, a phantom number. The zero's origins, it is believed, lie in ancient Arabia. Rows of pebbles were placed in sand as a means of measuring and quantifying. The pebbles left a circular indentation when removed; thus, the vacant number was born. What they did not know was that the source of an epiphany could be found in the void.
The archetype of the Fool is that essence of zero. It is the unspoken truth in the indentation, hidden under satire, self-deprecation, and irony. The "hidden" wisdom of the Fool, like its eponymous twins in a deck of cards, is often discarded, set aside because the player's focus remains seated in the ego, driven toward winning the game. The archetype of the Fool is often overlooked as just a void, barely making a dent in the sand of our consciousness. We never think the lessons of the Fool are for us.
My father said, “Life is a precious gift. It is not about what happens, but how you react to what happens. There is nothing on this Earth that is truer than what is inside of your heart. No matter what happens – good or bad – you are in charge of your heart. And your heart is as bright as the sun in the big blue sky.”
To my father, the sunrise represented that great new beginning, the opportunity to start anew. According to the iconography of the Fool, we initiate all of our life’s journeys under blue skies with joy and optimism, recognizing there may be uncertainty of what’s ahead, all the while realizing there is more to life than the material world. My father told me that my power is within me and is, at the same time, supported by a universal consciousness that connects us all.
Surya, the symbol of Hanuman's biggest mistake (confusing the sun for a mango) turns out to be his greatest teacher. The wisdom of this story invites us to consider a time in our lives when we leapt for something that we didn't fully understand, only to find out it was not what we expected. We took on a relationship, or a job, or a situation, or an experience that was overwhelming and that left us feeling burned and broken. Sounding familiar?
As values and concepts shift and change over time, those who “discover” new ways of thinking and seeing are often terrified at first by their discovery, because it means they have to give up who they think they are. The status quo of one’s identity is comforting and hard to just let go of. Also, with almost every radically new way of seeing or doing things, there is a reaction by those who don’t want to lose what they’ve become comfortable with. They would rather live with the old way than live in a more truthful way.