On the last day of the yoga teachers training I was co-facilitating in northern India last month, our group of thirty sincere practitioners gathered for a closing circle. On a hunch, I had brought with me my copy of Daniel Ladinsky’s edited work, Love Poems from God. Just before we broke the circle, I randomly selected a poem to share with the group. This is what was written on the page I opened the book to:
so kind and wise
that wherever you may look
you can learn something
This poem was written by Catherine of Siena, a saint who lived in tumultuous 14th century Italy—famous for her life of active service to the infirm and destitute, as well as for the records she left in her book, The Dialogue (c. 1378), of a deep interior life of contemplation.
I smiled broadly and was filled with joy upon reading these words to the group because they sweetly summarized what lies at the very heart of the broad variety of teachings we had surveyed in our month-long foray into South Asian yoga philosophy, psychology and practice: The dynamism and changeful nature of life, of all of nature, is inescapably saturated with, steeped in, and expressive of God. It is through this body-mind, the psycho-sensory organism that we experience and express God. We need not attempt to extricate ourselves from the world or the senses to awaken; rather, it is inescapably in and through life—“wherever you may look”—that we awaken.
I felt moved to share this meditation on the marriage of sense and soul to welcome a week of writings on Beams and Struts on the “Dark Side of the Womb”. In religious and spiritual symbolism worldwide, the feminine is usually connected to nature and the full-spectrum of its physical and subtle qualities. In Indian philosophy, the qualities of nature (gunas) are condensed into three broad descending categories that include positive as well as negative or “dark” aspects—inertia, passion, and lucidity. It is just these qualities that many traditions attempt to dissociate from in the name of cultivating the ascending masculine attributes of wisdom, stillness and emptiness.
What we find in the writing of Catherine of Siena, is a gentle reminder that the two—masculine and feminine, stillness and movement, awareness and perceptions—are always inescapably united. Liberation can be found exactly where we are—not by avoiding the suffering of life, but by turning towards it with the love of a mother for a wayward child. The archetypal feminine invites us to embrace everything that the archetypal masculine spiritual journey shies away from—the messiness of birth, life and death, including (and perhaps especially) the “darker” sides of our nature, whether those of confusion, anger, shame, self-hatred, anxiety, fear, trauma, or loss. Author and Buddhist teacher, Tsultrim Allione, describes this as feeding, rather than starving or fighting, one’s “demons”:
Paradoxically, feeding our demons to complete satisfaction does not strengthen them; rather it allows the energy that has been locked up in them to become accessible. In this way, highly charged emotions that have been bottled up by inner conflict are released and become something beneficial. When we try to fight against or repress the disowned parts of ourselves that I call demons, they actually gain power and develop resistance. In feeding our demons we are not only rendering them harmless, we are also, by addressing them instead of running away from them, nurturing the shadow parts of ourselves, so that the energy caught in the struggle transforms into a positive protective force.
In this spirit, as we consider writings on the “dark side” of the feminine over the next week, let us consider it an opportunity to “feed our demons”—to turn toward life and nature with open eyes and a compassionate heart. “Why would not the omnipresent teach that way?”