Dashamahavidya Chinnamasta

written originally April 10, 2011, revised and posted April 28

This afternoon my home was filled with a brilliant constellation of yogis who came over for an Indian lunch and teachings drawn forth from my tantric lineage of Sri Vidya, or Auspicious Wisdom. My wife and I have come to celebrate this monthly ritual as a time to seriously tidy up the house – I get down and dirty with my toilet bowl for a deep, deep clean. We also prepare by immersing ourselves with extra dedication in the days prior to these Sundays in the contemplative practices of mantra we’ve come to love over many years of dedicated study. This weekend’s topic was Chinnamasta, the Self-Decapitating Goddess. Always a crazy, sexy, cool topic for yogic inquiry. I’ve been pretty obsessed with Chinnamasta of late.

I’ve written about her before here on this blog, but to summarize – she stands for the capacity to self-reflect so sharply, so profoundly, that she is no longer willing to listen to old, limiting beliefs. She has given herself permission to move beyond her ordinary thoughts and instead affirms the inherent power inside her so radically that she’s willing to cut off her own head to drink it up. Yum.

We spent a lot of time this afternoon digesting not only our lunches, but more than a little technical history of tantric thought as it’s evolved in time. Chinnamasta is an important character for the Shakta (Goddess) lineages of tantra because she proposes a vision of empowerment that happens from the inside out. Traditionally, Shaktipat is defined as the “descent of power” and a process of initiation by which a guru empowers a disciple’s spiritual practice. Chinnamasta radically subverts that traditional approach. Instead she embodies a process by which one relies not on an outsider or guru for such a gift, but rather, one’s own power of self-inquiry and self-reflection. The sword with which she removes her own head is that blade of inquiry. Chopping off her very own head is not a violent, injurious act; but rather an outcome of desire and self-permission. My teacher Douglas has said about her, “We all feel things profoundly and deeply and Chinnamasta is that presence in us – the desire and permission to experience the whole of ourselves. She is the longing we all have to imbibe the power of our own direct experience.”

The weapon she uses makes a horizontal cut. In this way the flow of her power swings laterally along the horizon. And so she is a powerful representation of flow and movement for the information age. I have come to reflect on my own life so much more clearly over the past few years because I’ve been reading blogs and other material written by a community of fellow seekers. To read about someone else’s insights is a lateral process of discovery. I don’t have to get privileged access to a singular being who has all the answers. The community itself is the power – and the process of reading and reflecting moves across a horizon of ever-expanding knowledge. That lateral swing then gives me access to my own power. And I get to imbibe the resonance of my own direct experience through someone else’s writing- often in the form of a silly or snarky quip that is a friend’s status update!

So what happens when a group of seekers come together in person to meditate on such an energy? In Shakta lineages, the “guru” is not a single solitary figure who dispenses spiritual power. Instead, the community of seekers itself is the guru. As I’ve already described it above, this is a great model for our time. Shaktipat is then not the thing we get, but the thing we come together to have – and share. Rather than going to a guru to get an initiation, we come together to have an experience, to share. I taught today’s group Chinnamasta’s bija mantra as it was passed to me. And then we sat and breathed and closed our eyes and took it to heart.

Lately I’ve been cueing my students to ask the particular form of deity we’re exploring in meditation, “What do I need to know from you today?” “What insight would be valuable for me at this moment?” In my own practice I’ve discovered that going into meditation, particularly deity meditation, becomes more fruitful with an open question such as this. The more we do not know, the more we can know. Ask and you shall receive. And so, having spent several minutes entering the Chinnamasta bandwidth so to speak, we asked this question, “Chinnamasta, what would you like to share with me today?” A few seconds later, a jazz saxophonist literally started to blow his horn right outside my house. It sounded like he made a home for his music on my front stoop. Now, I do live in Sugar Hill, Harlem, a neighborhood in which most of the most famous jazz musicians of NYC live or have lived. But the timing of his play was pretty uncanny and I can’t remember a time when a street musician took up residence directly on my stoop. (Or maybe it was a she? I always think of sax players as men, but soulful Lisa Simpson subverts that expectation nicely.) So this sax player moved through a wild riff of explosive notes – some pretty, some vulgar – and then culminated with a rendition of “Summertime.” Summertime, and the livin’ is easy.

The cool thing about this message from Chinnamasta is that we all got to interpret it personally. And yet the experience was collective and communal. And likely would not have happened had we not come together for the purpose of exploring this Chinnamasta this afternoon. For me, the song represents hope. And play. In my wildest dreams I could never have predicted that Chinnamasta would reveal her message in this way. Mantra can be like that if you want it to be, a playful unfolding in which anything can happen for no reason. When I hear Summertime, I am instantly transported to a good feeling. That musician just played her horn with no concern for technique or perfection or getting it right. Her riff sounded, interestingly, like one who deeply wanted to imbibe the power of a direct experience. The riffs at times were a mess, squaky and uneven. But there was also an ecstatic rendition of an American standard. And perhaps a message foreshadowing events for a brilliant summer 2011? Yes, I should think so.

Summertime,

And the livin’ is easy

Fish are jumpin’

And the cotton is high

Your daddy’s rich

And your mamma’s good lookin’

So hush little baby

Don’t you cry

One of these mornings

You’re going to rise up singing

Then you’ll spread your wings

And you’ll take to the sky

But till that morning

There’s a’nothing can harm you

With daddy and mamma standing by

Summertime,

And the livin’ is easy

Fish are jumpin’

And the cotton is high

Your daddy’s rich

And your mamma’s good lookin’

So hush little baby

Don’t you cry

Join me in Sugar Hill for another Sunday of good company, tantric philosophy, mantra meditation and lunch. Mother’s Day, May 8. We’ll explore Lalita Tripura Sundari, the ultimate Mama. RSVP to easnyc@gmail.com

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4 responses to “Dashamahavidya Chinnamasta

  1. thank you Eric,
    yes, it was a magical afternoon. nourishment for the body, soul and a feast for the senses…. ending with mantra and a light filled jazz tune, which became a “guru “for that moment, outside of our circle …
    I did take up a practice of Chnamasta’s mantra for 21 days. Which meant that at least once a day, I cut my head off ! in a morning just as part of my meditation practice, then during the day to stop a chatter of some limiting believes, and to let out the flow of my creative ideas. I think I will keep with this mantra a little longer, very cool.
    I look foreword to our next 2nd Sunday.
    Gosha

  2. Thank you so much for taking the time to reiterate our marvelous afternoon. It is a big treat for me to join in community and see some of my best friends in Sugar Hill. The two hour drive for me on a Sunday is a pleasure and exciting. The lunch is always amazing and your house a beautiful reflection of your love for dieties and style! I loved the Chinnamasta teachings. A powerful Goddess who radically affirms nourishment of her essence is the ultimate intoxication …………even over love making!! The community of mostly teachers and long time students definitely reflected the philosophy of Guru bhava . The saxophone players affirmed to me, remember all that you have and be content with that, its all good. Very dissapointed I’ll miss this weekend as I have a retreat to lead and Lalita is my favorite. Enjoy!

  3. Ihave had a dream where I am in a dark hall speaking deeply to myself I remember being totally absorbed in questioning myself in the dream. Then I look up and I see a young studious man running down a spiral staircase.its massive and we run up and then we enter this chamber and in it is neverending light and I see her what you call chinnamasta and she tells me that this is for me and she chopsbher head off and three beams of light emanate. From her decapitated body and I realose that I am that light so then following that logic I would be her. I don’t know what it means but I t has always disturbed me greatly. I live in queens

    • To become Chinnamasta, or even bear witness to her decapitation, is to be in the great company of one who is willing to “get out of one’s head” and participate in the ecstatic experience of tasting one’s essential life force. Perhaps you and the studious young man are like her attendants Varani and Dakani, or “Victory” and “Celebration.” This Chinnamasta is giving you a precious gift, and while it might seem initially disturbing – decapitation is after all pretty wild – this act of severing her head is not an act of injury, but rather an act of radical self reflection. The sword is the sharp blade of the human reflective process. I’m no master dream interpreter but I would read this dream like so… You’re in the dark, self-absorbed with questions that aren’t going anywhere. A very thoughtful and heady fellow (another version of you) comes along to help. Your journey in the dark is being guided by Chinnamasta – an uphill spiral you intuitively follow. This is the ascent of kundalini, the ascent of spiritual awakening. She’s doing some of the work and you’re doing the rest. She gives you her boon. And you become the ecstatic essence of light that you already are. She has shown you that you too are the Divine. Drink it up! Radically affirm life as a gift, not a problem to solve. Hope that helps!

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