Let’s just say I was having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. I had spent several concentrated days writing, in detail, about all of the moments in my life that have haunted me. Why on earth would anyone do this? Well, hopefully to map the patterns of thought, reaction and behavior that have created my life’s experience. I’ve been diving into this kind of reflective work alongside fellow seekers and yoga colleagues with The Handel Group for the past several months. And this is part of their process of “getting at the truth of one’s life.” The truth of one’s life is of course always subject to change. Just like the truth of college textbooks gets revised year after year. What I’m really investigating with Handel is the myth of my life. The story I’ve been telling that sometimes empowers and enriches me, and sometimes – often – leaves me feeling victimized by my choices.
In yoga speak, all of life is recursive. We humans do the same things over and over and over again. When these patterns are problematic, yoga traditions call that samsara. Traditionally samsara is described as a grand pattern of death and rebirth but really it’s anything you do over and over that’s not so good for you. Recently a student said to me, “I just broke up with another boyfriend. I keep dating the same guy. And he’s my father.” Yeah. Like that. One solution to samsara is anusara, that is to flow WITH the currents of life gracefully. And to do THAT, ya really gotta map it out. Know the ebbs and flows of your own life. See the recursive patterns objectively. Not always a fun inquiry.
With Handel, that process of mapping really stirs up some shit. But this goes hand in hand with walking the spiritual path. Seekers who long to stand in the company of the truth know that THE TRUTH (cue wah-wah horn) does one of three things. It soothes you, it expands you, and/or it churns the living crap out of you. Many of my most potent hauntings occurred when I was about 7 years old. To recognize that 30 years later I still like to process a good deal of my life like a 7 year old was both an exhilarating and confounding recognition. Some seriously bad shit went down with me at 7. No wonder I was having such a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
I picked up my son that day from his gymnastics class and boy he was so full of vitality and joy, the complete opposite of his gloomy papa. At the end of class he was gifted a bright orange helium balloon and as we walked toward the subway he regaled me with buoyant, bouncing chitter chater and tales of daring from the balance beam. As we walked along I tried to give myself a slap in the face, “Snap out of your fuckin funk! There’s a delightful spirit holding your hand in fact who wants nothing more than your loving attention and praise.” And yet I continued to frown, vaguely voicing some “hmmms? and “uh-o’s!” as I plodded along next to my vivacious 4 year old.
Earlier that day, I had cultivated a relationship with Dhumavati as part of my morning meditation practice. Dhumavati is one of the 10 Great Wisdom Goddesses, or Dashamahavidya. She is the widow goddess, the smoke goddess, and is sometimes depicted sitting in a cart without a horse. The widow character in the Indian imagination is often a woman stuck with nowhere to go. She keeps the company of black crows. Crows, always a marker of the inauspicious, are also clever creatures who know how to feast on unviable leftovers. Leftover food in ancient (or even contemporary) India – yuck. Probably not digestible and best avoided. Her energy and power takes the inauspicious and turns it into something of sanctity. The leftover, inauspicious moments of our life can be made sacred by this Dhumavati. The resonance of those terrible things that happened to us as 7 year olds can harden us – or with Dhumavati’s help they can become transmuted as memory. Instead of calloused scars, the inauspicious can be made into a form like smoke – something that lingers on our clothing after a fire, there and not there. Dhumavati carries a winnowing basket. Not every memory is as valuable as every other one – and so she helps us winnow out those nuggets worth investigating and reflecting upon more deeply.
My meditation practice with Dhumavati that morning was entirely forgettable. I worked with her mantras a bit. I asked half-heartedly for some healing insight having to do with the churning memories I had unearthed. And is often the case with mantra, not much happened. Until later.
As we approached Central Park West a sudden apparition appeared from around the corner, literally like a puff of smoke. An ancient dweller of the Upper West Side, she was dressed in a tattered cherry red cloche and thick, well worn brocade coat dress. Her eyes bulged like Barbara Bush’s in the cold spring wind and she secured her footing with a carved ebony cane and very practical old lady shoes. Dhumavati! Jasper and I practically crashed into her. Upon seeing his orange balloon her ghastly visage softened into something like jubilation. And she began to talk to us like we were long lost close neighbors in need of a pot of tea. She was obviously confused and insisted that we lived a few doors down the block. (I wish! It was a block of grand old townhomes off the park.) When I explained that we were just walking to the subway she told me that New York City was the best place in the world to raise a family, that she had done just that with great success in the very townhouse we were perched in front of, and that I must not listen to anyone who says otherwise. Yeah, I kinda really needed to hear that at that exact moment.
We chatted a bit more as one might with an alzheimer’s patient, answering her uneven questions on a variety of topics like the weather and blossoming trees. Then as we were walking away she touched my arm and as I remember it said with great gusto, “You know, once I ran into a little boy in Central Park with a balloon and he and I talked for quite some time. When I walked away another young man ran up to me and insisted that I go out with him for a drink. I said, no absolutely not, I cannot go with a strange man to a bar in the middle of the afternoon. He said that he had just listened to my conversation with the boy with the balloon and that he very much liked the way I was with him and that he liked balloons too and that we must go out for a drink that very afternoon. Would you believe, that man turned out to be my husband and the absolute love of my life?”
As she spoke this last sentence we both wept a stream of silent tears as Jasper looked on in silence with his orange balloon bobbing in the wind. This widow goddess of West 77th Street had cracked me out of my funk. She shared a story of daring connection. When we risk creating authentic connections with others, as she had all those years ago with the boy with the balloon, we create a circuitry that inspires more connection, more engagement – one that may even draw us toward the love of our life. In that moment of connection with this 77th Street widow goddess I learned that so many of those hauntings I had written about from age 7 all had a similar theme – I felt wronged by some authority and then didn’t speak up about it. I isolated myself, disconnected from a greater conversation. My silence gave me permission to be a victim of circumstances beyond my control. And I’ve played out variations on that theme again and again and again. Dhumavati takes the inauspicious, the unwanted, and gives it a home. Even our most undesirable memories must find a home in us. The question of this wisdom goddess then becomes, are we going to calcify those unwanted haunts from the past or are we willing to burn them through the processes of reflection?
I’m so grateful for the investment I’ve made getting to know the gods I love and treasure over the past decade or so. They are not merely interesting pictures, they are powerful energies we can access for the sake of a richer and more artful life experience. Dhumavati provided me a simple lesson. Instead of silence, speak up. Connect. Be daring. One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. The gods of yoga give us powerful and evocative tools with which to reflect. And heal. Dhumavati is just one of an infinite set of these powerful energies that we can endeavor to draw into our minds and hearts. To know the gods of yoga is to sit in conversation with greatness. And truth. May we enter those currents with grace and gratitude and a longing to know ourselves as the divinity we already are. Their power has a potential to crack us out of ourselves in ways that surprise and delight us. May we emerge with a capacity to flow with grace. And get better at doing those things we do over and over again.