The Full Side of Awakening

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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:


Wisdom is

so kind and wise

that wherever you may look

you can learn something

about God.



would not

the omnipresent

teach that




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.catherine

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?”

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  • Comment Link Kitty Wilson-Pote Monday, 14 November 2011 18:36 posted by Kitty Wilson-Pote

    Thanks for this thoughtful reminder of what Gale Garnett long ago dubbed The Holy Both. Corresponding opposites without and within generate a dynamic balancing force, all right. This is a reminder my recent dreams have been offering too!

    My favourite passage from your words here: "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."

    So glad to have found this today, tho' I have nothing to add!

  • Comment Link Saskia Tait Monday, 14 November 2011 21:12 posted by Saskia Tait

    Ah, but you've added so much (including missing words in your favourite passage—thank you!). Are you referring to the singer, Gale Garnett, or to somebody else? I would love to know more about this reference to the "holy both". It seems inevitable that this theme appears repeatedly—it seems there are an infinite variety of ways to say the same thing! And yet, it's a whole other thing to recognize this moment to moment in our lives, when "besieged by the demons" of suffering (confusion, shame, anger, self-hatred, anxiety, loss and so on). There's a passage in a book that I have long treasured (Daniel Odier's translation of the Yoga Spandakarika, published by Inner Traditions in 2004), that describes the extraordinary experience of, in a moment, allowing the "demons" to do their thing without exerting the same tired energy of avoiding or distracting them. I will share a short passage:

    "It happens one day, during our practice, that we have these two experiences simultaneously. This is an extraordinary moment: we are suffering and, simultaneously, we are immersed in an ocean of tranquility... We experience that it is possible to suffer, and at the same time, to be in a state of absolute claim. Once we have lived that, even if only fleetingly, our whole relationship with suffering has transformed. Suddenly, we are much less afraid of suffering because it is no longer something that is irreversible. As we permit ourselves to allow suffering to occur, we perceive that if we no longer constrain it in any way whatsoever, it foes away very quickly... Once we have these experiences, we get a little smile on our face when suffering returns, even if it is very violent, because we know that from now on it can leave again as quickly as it came... And when we have had the experience several times, it brings about a sort of fundamental confidence in life, a sort of return to the Self, to one's own nature. We sense that whatever the energy entering into this sphere, it is taking part in the natural movement of being a human." (p. 30).

    It's a very old and persistent teaching! What makes us suffer is none other than the tendency to want to choose some things (emotions, feelings, thoughts, experiences) over others, and this is what obstructs the flow of energy that embraces all.

    I opened Ladinsky's book again just now to this passage from Meister Eckhart:

    Everything I see, hear, touch, feel, taste,
    speak, think,
    is completing a perfect circle
    God has drawn.

    In response, Catherine says bemused, "Why would not the omnipresent teach that way?"

    Thanks for inviting this dialogue, Kitty.


  • Comment Link TJ Dawe Wednesday, 16 November 2011 18:55 posted by TJ Dawe

    That passage from Tsultrim Allione really blew me away, especially as it seems to fly in the face of a First Nations folktale I've got in mind to use in an upcoming piece:

    A native elder said "Inside of me there are two dogs. One of the dogs is mean and evil. The other dog is good. The mean dog fights the good dog, all of the time." When asked which dog wins, he reflected for a moment and replied "The one I feed the most."

    Perhaps the difference lies in feeding one's demon - or evil dog - in small, manageable quantities that keeps it alive and "healthy," as opposed to feeding the demon fully, giving it more than it wants, exposing it to the light, thus robbing it of its power, letting the light show the frightened, contracted part of oneself it actually is.

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