Reimagining The Divine: Part Two

This post is the second of a pair, and it’s the fourth post in a series of writings on Ayahuasca, Tantra and yoga.

“Facts are verified; myths are interpreted.”
–Douglas Brooks, Scholar of Indian Religions

When I started working with Ayahuasca, the Goddess traditions of Tantra came alive for me. This happened on several levels. The first point pertains to perhaps the most common, seemingly universal aspect of drinking Ayahuasca: that those who consume it experience the plant as a distinctly feminine presence. So much so, in fact, that Ayahuasca is often referred to as “Mother Ayahuasca.” Euphemistically, people use the pronoun “She” when referring to Ayahuasca.

Of all the things that I experienced on Ayahuasca this was the most clear, consistent and unmistakable: the presence of a distinctly feminine spirit. On a very visceral level I felt like I understood why so many traditional cultures around the world have historically worshipped the Earth as Goddess. Finally, I understood why we’ve come to colloquially refer to this planet as “Mother Nature.”

Fully acknowledging that we are stepping into the realm of myths (which are interpreted) and not facts (which are verified), I will say that the Goddess traditions of Tantra provided me with a set of archetypes, symbols, and narratives through which I could construct meaning of my experience.

This is a gift that mythology bequeaths to us: rich, colorful, kaleidoscopic lenses through which we can refine, rediscover, and reimagine our world.

On the highest, most impersonal level I experienced Ayahuasca as the Maha Shakti: the ultimate, formless, Divine Energy that both permeates every corner of this universe and is the very fabric of the universe Herself. This is a view of the Divine as Mother in a radically nondual sense.

I’m not referring to a Creator deity that is separate from us. I’m invoking the term Divine in its original sense, from the verbal root in Sanskrit “dev,” which means to “shine” or to “illuminate.”

Yet this intelligence, this Great Light of Consciousness, is inert without the energy that animates it: this life force, this Maha (Great) Shakti, that is the Mother. This vital partnership of consciousness and energy is not only transcendent but immanent: it is the all pervasive code underwriting the software of this universe.

On the next level I experienced the Divine Mother in multiple forms, as individual Goddesses. While in one sense the Shakti is completely beyond form, at the same time she assumes many forms across time and space and beyond these dimensions. When the Shakti descends she assumes many incarnations, just as we know from modern physics that energy indeed assumes many forms–as light and sound, as particle and wave.

In moments of intense bliss I experienced Ayahuasca as Lalita Tripura Sundari, the Goddess of ecstasy and bliss. Overwhelmed with feelings of love and abundance, Mother Ayahuasca was Lakshmi. There was the vast voidness of Bhuvaneswari: the infinite spaciousness in which universes are born.

And she was also Kali: the Goddess with the power to dispel our illusion, to shatter our small sense of self and to liberate us from our bondage.

Image: Kali dancing on the body of Shiva.

This is one of the many, great paradoxes of the Shakti: the diversity that exists within the singularity. She takes countless forms and yet she’s totally beyond form. So it is also with Mother Ayahuasca. While in one sense Mother Ayahuasca was always the Maha Shakti (the ultimate, formless Divine Energy), she incarnates in countless ways.

She is the dancer, the dance, and the stage on which She dances. Transcendent yet immanent.

This is one function of deities in myths: they serve as entry points into archetypal truths that are fundamental to the human condition. They also represent our attempt to point towards a kind of knowledge that lies beyond concepts and the language in which these ideas are enclosed.

If I were to take the most conservative view of my experience, at the very least I would have to concede that the pantheon of Tantric Goddesses provided me with a far richer framework through which to interpret my Ayahuasca journeys than I would have otherwise had.

Thus, I’d like to underscore a takeaway, even for the most skeptical of readers: if you have no use for any form of theism or no particular affinity for this Hindu Tantric cast of characters, recognize the power of myths and metaphors to reimagine the world.

There is an implicit yet crucial point that I’ve ignored up until point. Earlier I argued for the value of myths by contending that the mythology of Nondual Shaiva Tantra provided me with a set of archetypes, symbols, and narratives through which I could construct meaning of my experience.

But here’s a debate at the heart of any discussion around religious narratives: did the stories provide me with the language and concepts with which to construct my experience? Or was the truth revealed to me by the medicine?

Here’s what I’d like to see as the middle path between these two. On the one hand, I find the notion of revelation at the heart of many religions at best flawed and frankly dangerous. Historically when human beings decide to view any text, any set of ideas, or any human being as infallible–and therefore not subject to critical discussion–really, really bad things tend to follow, to put it mildly.

With that preface in place, multiple ceremonies left me with the unmistakable impression that Ayahuasca has a way of communicating to us. As I mentioned in my first post “The Power of Plant Medicine”, this is perhaps the most unique and defining aspect of Ayahuasca, relative to other psychedelics: this power to teach us lessons that feels different than the insights that I’ve experienced on other psychedelics.

In this sense, I can’t help but conclude that Ayahuasca, like one of the Five Acts of the Shakti, has the power to reveal. This is what makes Ayahuasca such sacred medicine: it is Divine in that original meaning of the word: it “shines,” it “illuminates.”

What does She Illuminate? That which lies in the shadows.

Yet like the mythological tale of Ganesha’s inception reminds us, we should be wary of taking things too literally. Ayahuasca does indeed communicate to us yet she often does so through metaphors.

Image: In one version of the creation story of Ganesha, his father, Shiva, cut off the young boy’s head in a fit of anger for attempting to prevent Shiva from visiting his wife and Ganesha’s mother, Parvati. The moral of this story warns against taking things too literally.

One essential limb of yoga that’s often overlooked in the modern yoga’s world’s emphasis on Patanjali’s eight limbs of ashtanga yoga is tarka: “discernment” or “discriminative awareness.” Tantrik critiques of the classical yoga of Patanjali argue that it is tarka, not samadhi, that is the highest limb of yoga: for the razor sharp sword of discernment is necessary to cut through our samskaras and to separate true wisdom from the impurities that obscure our perception of it.

So we should be receptive to what Ayahuasca has to teach us, while also being prudent in how we interpret her signs and messages. Remembering the story of Ganesha, we are wary of literal interpretations of her signs and understanding that she often speaks in metaphors.

Ayahuasca spoke to me through metaphors that resonated with me: the mythology of Tantric, Shakta (Goddess) traditions.
She is the Mother (Earth) that nurtures us. She is the Shakti that drives us and inspires us. She is Kali: the Liberator with the power to cut through the ropes of our bondage.

Maha Shakti. The Great Goddess. The Divine Mother.

She shines. She illuminates. She extends the hand of grace that pulls us onto a brighter path.

Reimagining The Divine: Part One

This post is the first of a pair, both of which are part of a series on Ayahuasca, yoga and Nondual Shaiva Tantra. 

“The world is full of magic things, patiently waiting for our senses to grow sharper.”

–William Butler Yeats

 Since adolescence I have not been a big fan of organized religion. From my own cultural perspective growing up in the midwest of the United States, religion seemed to carry a lot of baggage. My studies of History, especially of the West and of the Middle East, offered a mountain of evidence for serious issues that I had with organized religion.

 Like nationalism, religion seemed yet another form of glorified tribalism at the heart of which lies an “in group vs out group” mentality whose greatest legacy resides in the propagation of division, conflict and violence in the world. I found the assaults on reason, freedom of speech, and the subjugation of women and minorities as distasteful as most contemporary readers would, though I was, and still am, incredulous as to how so many people could so easily overlook these passages in their own holy books.

 I’ve read a lot of the work of the New Atheists, in particular the work of Sam Harris–someone for whom I have a great deal of respect. His book, Waking Up: Spirituality without Religion, is a book that I would highly recommend for those who find themselves interested in exploring questions around consciousness and spirituality without the baggage and dogma of much of organized religion. Like Sam, I find far more issues with those religions that fall within the Abrahamic tradition, though many problems are common across religious traditions. 

All of the progress that we today value in the West came about really in spite of The Church, not because of it. Scientific progress, technological advancement, the ideals of the Enlightenment–the Church vehemently fought these bedrock values of modernity at every twist and turn, as it sought to preserves its privilege at the perch of power and influence in European society. Religion seemed to be the ideological justification for power, wealth, and status for a Church swimming in corruption.

 Whenever I read passages of The Bible as a teenager the book struck me not as something divinely inspired but as a document clearly reflective of the species who wrote it: full of jealousy, anger, pride, and judgment. If an omnipotent Creator exists why is he so preoccupied with the extent to which this puny species worships Him or not? Apparently, God had an ego and a BAD temper. Apparently, He also had the gender of a human, even though He was allegedly transcendent.

Suffice it to say that I could write many, many posts (an entire blog really) about my qualms with organized religion. Yet while I still appreciate the work of those who push back on religious dogma anywhere, I’ve come to see that focusing solely on the negative aspects of religion is a big mistake as well. One significant way in which some of these New Atheist authors miss the mark is that they underweight the important functions that myths have to play in human societies.

  Myths allow us to interpret experience in different but equally important ways. Most developed countries appear to be largely disenchanted with myths. We find ourselves torn between two extremes. On the one hand, there is religious literalism. This view insists myths are literally true, rather than appreciating them as the far more nuanced, rich, and metaphorical lenses through which humans can interpret and explain fundamental experiences of the human condition. Past and present is littered with examples of the collateral damage of this world view.

Of course, myths live on in other ways precisely because it is part of our basic need as a species to answer the same set of eternal questions: Why are we here? How did we get here? What is our purpose?

One space in which modern societies perpetuate myths is in their History textbooks. While I don’t think History textbooks should be a place for telling myths so much as a forum for teaching critical thinking the fact that they do so in ever society highlights the need of our collective unconscious to tell the story of who we are as a people. Of course Hollywood plays a role in retelling myths; the popularity of the Marvel action series speaks to this in some ways.

 While modern science provides far more persuasive answer to some of these questions, science can’t do the job alone. There’s a good reason that we should read novels, along with non fiction. We need epic stories with compelling characters, rich metaphors and resonant themes that both help us to reflect on and even to reimagine the human condition. Telling and retelling these stories is an integral part of the project of human flourishing itself.

Without science and reason humans tend towards dogmatism and authoritarianism. Without myth and metaphor life becomes too dry and mechanical. Without savoring stories we don’t taste the rasa–the juice, the flavor, the essence–of life.

I’ve come to view literalism–rigidity of thought–as the larger problem. This isn’t to discount the contents of religious doctrine–some ideas can be more dangerous than others when followed literally–but rather to acknowledge the real culprit. Literalism not only affects religious thought but other types of ideologies: economic, political, even science. This is part of the work of our yoga: to make our minds more malleable and responsive to varying contexts and conditions.

The Lord Ganesha, son of Shiva and Parvati. In one version of the Ganesha story, Shiva cutt off Ganesha’s human head because Ganesha had taken instructions too literally and, in a fit of anger, Shiva sliced off the young boy’s head, which he later replaced with the head of an elephant. The moral of the story warns listeners against the perils of thinking too literally. 

Source: Lord Ganesha

 Over the past year I’ve come to appreciate the power of myths and metaphor and the role of many religious traditions in passing down these stories. I’m indebted to several teachers including Richard Freeman and Mary Taylor, Sally KemptonDouglas Brooks, Hareesh Wallis and Paul Muller Ortega for helping me to appreciate the importance of myths and metaphors. Studying a school of yoga known as Nondual Shaiva Tantra (NST) has allowed me to fuse rigorous intellectual inquiry and critical thinking with a profound sense of mystery and mythology. Reading the work of Joseph Campbell has also inspired my interest in myths. 

  In forging a new relationship with the Divine, it’s instructive to return to the root of the word itself. This term comes to the English language via Old French (deus), which in turn originates from the Latin word “divus” (godlike). However, an older antecedent of this word reveals a richer layer of meaning: the Latin root “divus” ultimately derives from the Sanskrit word “deva,” whose verbal root before “div” means “to shine,” or “to illuminate.” Thus, we can conceive of the Divine as that which illuminates. Conceiving of the Divine in this sense is central to the views of Nondual Shaiva Tantra and to the way that I’ve come to think about the Divine as well.

 If you’ve had issues with organized religion yet find yourself interested in exploring these fundamental questions around consciousness, this universe and our role within it perhaps you’ll find it helpful to return to this original meaning of the word Divine: that which shines or illuminates. 

 This is what myths and metaphors allow us to do: at their very least they enable us to see things in a new light; at their most potent they empower us to illuminate that which was dark. Like the endless embrace of Shiva and Shakti, of consciousness and energy, we find ourselves returning to the timeless imagery of light and shadow that appears in so many myths and religious texts.

What is the day without night? What is consciousness without energy? What is this universe without myth, mystery, magic?

Everything is Shiva

Everything is Shiva

Shiva as Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, a central piece of iconography in Nondual Shaiva Tantra.

Source: Shiva Nataraja

“Whatever you’re feeling or thinking. Whatever you notice. Whatever state of mind you’re in, is pervaded by Divine Consciousness. By Shiva. Wherever your mind goes, whether to the inside or to the outside: there’s nothing there but Shiva’s presence…Have the recognition that it’s divine consciousness, energy, Shakti that permeates every thought, every perception, every physical experience.

Doorways to the Infinite, by Sally Kempton

Intention for this Post:

 Myths can invite us into experiencing life with a new set of eyes. The various lineages within the broad category of “Nondual Shaiva Tantra” (NST) are particularly rich in motif and metaphor. These teachings resonate strongly with me, and with many other yoga practitioners, in no small part due to the beauty of the symbols and language surrounding these teachings.

 In this post I want to address how Ayahuasca unfolded for me a central teaching of NST: that everything in the universe is pervaded by a singular source of consciousness, which Tantrikas of this school refer to as Shiva.

Background on NST:

 NST is a non dual school of thought, meaning that the Divine is not some abstract deity to be worshiped but rather that the Divine is everywhere–in the stars, in the dirt, inside you, in the people you like, and in the people you don’t like. Though there is only One Absolute this school recognizes that humans need concepts, images, and metaphors in their attempts to get closer to fundamental truths that lie beyond the reach of thought.

 In NST, the “Divine” is an endless interplay between two forces: consciousness (Shiva) and energy (Shakti). Each set of forces has complementary characteristics that make them inseparable pairs. For example, Shiva is masculine and Shakti feminine; Shiva is static and Shakti dynamic. NST employs poetic language and draws on mythologies with fantastic narratives to explore ancient and timeless questions facing humans.

Though NST is over a thousand years old the inseparability of consciousness and energy makes a lot of sense from our modern, rational perspective as well. From my early studies of NST, it was pretty easy to relate to the teachings of Shakti. The assertions that NST makes around Shakti–that everything in this universe consists of a vibratory, pulsating energy which is ceaselessly dynamic and which permeates all things–is very much consistent with what we know from modern physics. Thus, the idea of Shakti made a lot of sense to me.

Shiva & Shakti are sometimes depicted as two halves of the same being, to emphasize their complementary, inseparable nature, as well as to underscore the duality that exists within unity.

Source: Shiva Shakti Images

 However, the claims that NST made around consciousness (Shiva) were far less clear to me. How does everything have consciousness? Plants? A grain of sand? A table? I found this particular teaching of NST to be elusive.

Ayahuasca Ceremony #6:

 During ceremony number six from my May retreat, Mother Ayahuasca took me deeper inside this teaching: that Everything is Shiva. But She did not take me to the light without bringing me through some very dark shadows. When the medicine came on it was overwhelming. There were extremely intense visions of fractal geometry. At one point I noted the interesting ways in which the visions seemed to resemble yantras, which certain Tantric schools assert are manifestations of the Divine in geometric form.

Yantras are a form of the Divine in a geometric shape. This particular yantra, the Sri Yantra, represents the Goddess Lalita Tripura Sundari.

Source: The Sri Yantra Diagram, Wikipedia.

 While spectacular at times, the intensity of the visions was overwhelming. I kept trying to come back to my breath, but the medicine was so strong that I was losing my center.  It wasn’t only the visions that were overwhelming, but there was this indescribable feeling throughout my body of constriction. I knew that my natural resistance to the medicine–for wishing that the Ayahuasca wasn’t so strong–was part of the block. I kept trying to let go but the feeling was simply too powerful. I was on my side, slithering all over my mat. Eventually, intense bouts of nausea motivated me to pick myself up and go outside for fresh air.  

 The next couple of hours were some of the longest, most difficult ones of my life. When I made it to the top of the stairs I ripped off my shirt, overcome with hot flashes. I felt like I was covered in serpents. I didn’t even see them; I just felt them. Everywhere. I was struggling with the most intense waves of nausea imaginable. I huddled into a corner and braced for what was hitting me.

 There really is no way to describe quite what this felt like. Suffice it to say that it took me to the brink of my sanity. I was wandering in the desert. At one point my mind flashed to the Old Testament. My God, I thought. That’s it: I am Job.

 Throughout all of this mind bending madness was this incredible resistance throughout my body that over the course of the next hour or two was slowly starting to crack, bit by bit.

 Then at one point, my mind flashed back to an image that I’d had from my previous ceremony: the unmistakable image of a serpent shedding its skin.

Author of the classical era yoga text The Yoga Sutras, Patanjali is often depicted with a series of cobra hoodies shooting up from his back. There are several ways in which serpents surround the mythology of Patanjali–for one, he is rumored to be an incarnation of Adishesha, the cosmic serpent on which the God Vishnu reclines.

Source: Patanjali Cobra Hoodies

 At the time I didn’t really know what to make of it but now I suddenly understood: the overwhelming feelings of the last two hours, the slithering on the ground, the very way that I felt this bag of resistance around me was cracking: I was that serpent, shedding its skin. The medicine had foreshadowed what was to come in my previous ceremony. And now the process was unfolding.

 In this very moment, I was dying and being reborn. I was experiencing the teachings around impermanence in a very poignant way. Birth and death is not only something that signals the beginning and end of the body; it happens in millions of small and big ways over the course of our life. We are constantly changing. Who we are today is not who we we were yesterday, and it’s certainly not who we were when we were 5 years old, or 15, or 35.

 This is the role of the Shakti: she destroys and creates without end. Just when you think you have a grip on things, She comes in and stirs things up. Life is ceaselessly dynamic: like the serpent it’s constantly moving, bending this way and that. What would life be without death? Or day without night?

 Among her many forms of the Shakti, Ayahuasca is the Maha Kali: the Goddess with the power to shatter your small sense of self. Shiva (consciousness) would be nothing without the Shakti (the divine energy) that animates it. Just as energy permeates every part of this universe so too does consciousness. Everything is Shiva.

 Over the course of the next hour my consciousness went through different bodies and planes of experience. After the serpent, I had the distinct experience of existing as a large cat, in particular a jaguar.

Jaguars are a common symbol for those who drink Ayahuasca–both visions of these big cats as well as feelings of being incarnated as these animals.

Source: Terra Gaia Medicine Woman Ayahuasca

 The medicine then took my consciousness through the forms of various animals and plants. I felt a sense of embodiment as an ant. Then a blade of grass. Then a tree that was swaying in the wind. When I came back to my body the thought arose: “Are you ready to accept the idea that EVERYTHING in this world is pervaded by divine consciousness? Do you finally understand that EVERYTHING is Shiva?”

 Like so many insights that I had on Ayahuasca, this lesson on consciousness was not a new idea, gifted to me by the medicine. Rather, the medicine created this sort of theater in which I played a role, one that was initially unclear to me though over the course of the night She revealed to me, along with deeper lessons underlying it.

 These were teachings that I had been studying for years and meditating on, but now the medicine was taking me through a lived, direct experience of these insights. In essence, Ayahuasca was helping me to move from a space of theoretical understanding to a deep, direct, lived experienced of these insights.

 In teaching me this axiom of NST that Everything is Shiva, Ayahuasca was building on an idea that I first encountered in the classical yoga of Patanjali: ahimsa. Embodying as an ant was particularly instructive for me. Living in Southeast Asia, my wife and I constantly deal with ants in our home. My wife, being a committed Buddhist, refuses to kill any of these insects. Though I appreciated her sentiments, I kept repeating my old patterns of “wiping” them off the counter. 

Ayahuasca was now saying to me:

  • “Are you ready to truly accept the teaching of ahimsa: to act with gentleness and non violence towards all creatures?
  • Do you see how savage it is to kill a living creature because it’s a nuisance for you to look at?
  • Do you see that Everything in this universe is Shiva, that consciousness is everywhere?”

 While the idea of ahimsa long predates Tantra, the NST view that Everything is Shiva profoundly enriches one’s appreciation for the meaning of this term. In a Tantrik view, one does not simply refrain from violence out of compassion for lessening the suffering of other sentient beings, but rather does so from the recognition that we are made from the same divine consciousness that permeates everything.

 This was one of the many moments on Ayahuasca that highlighted our interdependence with other beings and our natural environment. Paradoxically and simultaneously, we are nothing (no self, beyond ego) and everything (divine consciousness, Shiva, and energy, Shakti).


 One remarkable capacity of this plant medicine is the way in which She communicates to people through the language that makes the most sense to them. This is a characteristic of Ayahuasca noted by several teachers, including my own teachers at Lotus Vine Journeys.

 Interestingly and perhaps eerily, Ayahuasca demonstrates how human beings are deeply intertwined with one another. The morning after this ceremony, many other people in our group talked about how they experienced incarnations as animals. Many experienced Ayahuasca as a serpent; several people also said that they incarnated as a jaguar, as had I.

 Our consciousness, our energy, was somehow tied up with one another. I do not claim to know the reason for this; it simply happened with so many people and on so many occasions that it seems difficult to write off as mere coincidence.

 Ayahuasca spoke to me through the language of NST because these are teachings that resonate deeply with me. Ayahuasca allowed me to have a brief glimpse into the ineffable beauty and mystery of this universe. She wiped off some of the dirt and dust that usually obscures my perception of the world, and She allowed me to understand deeper truths about the universe and about myself.

 The medicine walked me through the shadows of deeply esoteric teachings and illuminated them in a clear, piercing light. It transformed my intellectual understanding of ideas into direct, experiential knowledge. It’s all well and good to say “it’s all one” but without direct realization of a profound teaching–such as the interdependence of all phenomena or that Everything is Shiva–the knowledge itself will not have a radical effect on one’s life. To transform our way of living in this world insight must move beyond the level of theoretical understanding.  

Crucially, experiencing such insights should not lead one to a feeling that one is special or superior to those who has not had them. The feeling is precisely the opposite: by stripping off the many layers of the ego, we come to know our true nature as Shiva: this pure awareness, this divine intelligence, that permeates everything in this universe.

Beyond the many masks of our persona, more than our flesh and bones, we are nothing but this sublime, conscious intelligence (Shiva), which comes to life through the undulating, dancing movements of this divine energy (Shakti).

 This is the dance of Nataraja: the manifestation of consciousness through energy, from the macro to the micro level. The same interplay of intelligence and energy that illuminates the cosmos also animates the play of your consciousness: the drama of thoughts, feelings, sensations, and images that unfolds across the screen of your awareness. This consciousness isn’t trapped in your head. It’s everywhere. He’s everywhere. Everything is Shiva.

Why do you practice yoga?

imgresWhy do you practice yoga (asana)?

This is a question into which I strongly encourage any yoga practitioner to inquire. It is a question to which I’ve repeatedly returned over the past few years. In particular, moments in which I’ve experienced injury and in which I’ve been unable to enjoy my asana practice have compelled me to take a long, hard look at this question.

The reasons that I brainstormed were many but most of them boiled down to a simple answer: health. Physical, mental, and emotional health.

Continue reading “Why do you practice yoga?”