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.