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.
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.