In classical Tantra and Hinduism there is a wild dark goddess known as Kali Ma. She is often depicted dancing on Shiva’s corpse, swords in her hands and a wreath of bleeding heads around her neck. In Tantra she is said to be the energy of timelessness, beyond space. She is the destruction of the ego…the heads around her neck are the dead ego selves. Shiva’s face is always in bliss as she dances on him…there is peace and bliss in his expression.
All of this is a bit far-fetched for most people raised in non-Hindu cultures. The most common interpretation of Kali you will hear in modern western tantric circles is using her name as an excuse for women having bad moods, anger outbursts and premenstrual tension. “I am in my Kali” is a great way to make one’s irritability seem like some sort of divine expression.
However, as I sank into a week of darkness last week on the Darkness Retreat, it struck me that the process that happens in the dark is exactly what this ancient imagery was trying to point towards. There is a kind of process that most people appear to go through when they enter the sensory deprivation of a darkness retreat. First of all is often facing fears. We avoid pure darkness so much that we have projected a lot of fear onto to the darkness. Many people feel fear when they even see a picture of Kali, and see her as a symbol of all that is dark and fearful.
Once you come face to face with endless darkness, these fears have nowhere to hide and they usually will arise into your field of consciousness. However, anyone who breathes deeply through this part of the experience (rather than panicking and running for the light switch) will soon find that these fears dissolve as they are met face on. Behind these fears is a darkness that is actually comforting, like being back in the mother’s womb.
In the next stage the person starts to drop deeper in. The body starts to detoxify, and a deep, deep relaxation of all of the muscles begins. Part of this detoxification is a clearing out of the subconscious mind. People may have flashbacks, visions, nightmares or strong dreams. This could be depicted as Kali coming and cutting away all that is not true, all that is no longer needed.
Over time in darkness and silence, the habitual ego defenses also start to melt away. There is nothing to defend and no one to defend from, and as the body relaxes, the effort that holds defenses in place starts to soften. This is like Kali chopping off the head of the ego. False masks roll away like heads that have been chopped! There is a delightful feeling on the face in the darkness…it becomes soft and expressionless. The masks have gone.
So what is there after the head of the ego is chopped and the fears have been cleared? Blissful Shiva: who in classical Tantra represents pure consciousness. The conscious self is in bliss, freed from false identity and masks. One goes beyond time and beyond space…neither time nor space can exist in a dark silent experience. This is the domain of Kali Ma. Much more profound than simply a woman in a bad mood!
And so in such experiences as a darkness retreat one can really touch some of the more esoteric principles of classical Tantra. Yet we discover that it is not so much about fairytale characters of gods and goddesses, but these are actually stories that can be used to point us towards certain states of consciousness.
At the end of a week in pure darkness I was ready to sing along to Kali bajans (devotional songs) with a genuine gratitude. Gratitude to the darkness, which comes like a goddess who kills off what is no longer serving highest consciousness. Thank you, Kali Ma! Jai Jai Kali Ma!
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