How to conquer Shumbha and Nishumbha: Navarathri and the Gunas, Part III

In the previous two posts, we examined the slaying of Mahishasura and Raktabija, the asuras that represent tamas and rajas, respectively. Navarathri is deeply symbolic of the spiritual path and the systematic transformation of the gunas, resulting in increasing levels of sattva with its associated qualities of clarity, contentment and sweetness and decreasing levels of heaviness or inertia (tamas) and restlessness and ambition (rajas).

Ultimately, the quality of our desires determine the quality of our gunas and vice versa. The following verse from the Bhagavad Gita sums up this conundrum:

Just as smoke veils fire, dirt veils a mirror, and a womb veils a fetus, so does desire veil Self-knowledge. (3.38)

In the previous post, we examined the analogies of the baby in the womb and the dusty mirror for tamasic and rajasic desires. Here, we will explore the veiling effect of sattvic desires.

If the above statement caught you by surprise, you’re not alone. Many spiritual seekers find it unsettling. The veiling effect of sattvic desire? Does this mean that we are not “done” with the inner transformation with the acquisition of sattva?

The Devi Mahatmyam would suggest that the slaying of Mahishasura and Raktabija were only precursors to the war that is yet to come with two of the most powerful asuras yet – Shumbha and Nishumbha.

A Bit About the Asura Brothers

In the final episode of the Devi Mahatmyam, the devas once again find themselves ousted out of their celestial positions by the joint strength of the asura brothers, Shumbha and Nishumbha. They call upon Shakti to help. This time, she takes the form of Saraswati. Exceedingly beautiful, she attracts the attention of the asura brothers’ messengers who decide that their kings must possess this unearthly creature (they have everything else of value after all).

In response to the messengers’ crude suggestions to give herself to the asura brothers, Devi sweetly states that she would gladly do so but has to abide by an ill-considered oath she had taken long ago that she would only marry the man who defeats her in battle. Enraged at her impunity, Shumbha and Nishumbha send their best generals to capture her and “drag her by her hair” to them. Devi, to their dismay and growing rage, kills them all with surprising ease. With the death of Raktabija, their last great general, the brothers are forced to face her themselves.

Their attack is full-forced and well-executed. Devi stands alone, having absorbed all the various Shaktis into herself. When her weapon temporarily stuns Nishumbha, Shumbha is beside himself since his younger brother is, as the narrator states, “more dear to him than life itself.” He plunges into battle with Devi. When he is disarmed, Nishumbha rises to fight in his place. When Nishumbha is disarmed, Shumbha rises to fight Devi. Eventually, Nishumbha meets his end at Devi’s hands, followed by Shumbha. Devi’s victory is marked by absolute peace and silence. The Devi Mahatmyam ends with the devas bowing to Shakti, and her promise to humanity to appear whenever she is called upon to destroy evil and establish harmony.

Shumbha and Nishumbha in Us

We know now that the Devi Mahatmyam is much more than an entertaining story. It is symbolic of the various obstacles within us that prevent the realization of our true nature. Shumbha represents the ego and his brother Nishumbha (who is dearer to him than life itself) is symbolic of attachment. They are inseparable, each rising to keep the other alive in the great battle toward self-realization.

The ego is ordinarily thought of as an exaggerated sense of self-importance or pride. However, in the current context, the ego is simply what we take ourselves to be. Pause for a moment and consider this. If you were to be asked who you were, what would your response be? If you’re like most of us, you might respond with your name, where you come from, your family, language and so on. However, if you think about it, your greatest sense of self lies in your likes and dislikes, which result in attachment or aversion.

Attachment and ego are inseparable; attachment to what we like and aversion to what we don’t like come to define who we think we are (the ego). It is impossible to kill off attachment (Nishumbha) without a stable foundation of knowledge, because the ego (Shumbha) springs up to keep them both alive. Have you ever tried giving up attachment to your way of life, your beliefs, what you think is right or wrong, your spiritual teaching or teacher, your spiritual circle and what you consider to be good? It is like trying to blow away smoke from around a fire in order to see the flame, as Lord Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita.

You can blow on the smoke and it will part a bit to show you the flame, but will soon cloud over again. Unlike the baby in the womb or the dusty mirror, this cloud of smoke kind of creeps up on us. We can still see the flame but not very clearly and it remains stubbornly out of reach. This is the predicament of sattvic desires, which tend to be very subtle and hard to see in ourselves. Take for example the desire to be part of a spiritual community. The original intention of wanting inner transformation was genuine, of course. Somewhere along the way, tamasic and rajasic desires  give way to shiny new ones. We can want to appear spiritual, virtuous, better than others (like those who might spend time chasing worldly things), appear a certain way, gain approval of the spiritual teacher or leader and so on.

The subtlest of all desires is the desire for knowledge. Seeking itself can become an obstacle to true Self-knowledge, where we can spend our time discussing, arguing, agreeing or disagreeing with teachings or fellow seekers, or intimidate others with our intellectual prowess. Knowledge gained thus is the greatest obstacle to knowing. We can know everything there is to know about the Self without ever tasting it, which is much like writing a doctoral dissertation on a strawberry without ever biting into it. Knowledge is so seductive that we become attached to it and it becomes our identity, where we come to define who we think we are by what we think we know. The smoke keeps clouding over the flame again and again, keeping it out of our reach.

Saraswati symbolizes Self-knowledge, the knowing of one’s true nature that is beyond words, teachings and pointers. Ordinary knowledge is empirical, where I know of something. Our entire education system is based on empirical knowledge – we go to school to gain knowledge about something that is not us. Thus, I go to school to become a doctor, someone who knows about medicine. I don’t become medicine. It is the object of my knowledge. I can feel like I possess this knowledge because I have a degree.

However, Self-knowledge is the curious phenomenon of becoming the Self, or rather, discovering that we have always been the Self. It is knowledge about the subject. Unlike objects, it cannot be possessed. Like the haughty messengers who want Devi to be owned by their masters, our desires sully our pursuit of Self-knowledge by the need to own it. The ego wishes to possess Self-knowledge because it would feel better about itself and how it defines itself. The paradox is that knowledge about Vedanta, yoga or tantra are not Self-knowledge and until the desire to own such knowledge remains, the Self cannot be known. In other words, liberation is not for the ego but from it.

By destroying Shumbha and Nishumbha in us, Devi shows us the way to the most difficult journey of all: the one from the head to the heart. It is through her grace that we come to lose sattvic attachments to the spiritual path, teachings and objective knowledge. In the light of her grace, Self-knowledge results in a shift of identity from the ego to the Self. We come to see that no teaching or words could ever describe the beauty of our true nature. Peace and absolute silence (from loss of the chatter of objective or empirical knowledge) are the result of Self-knowledge.

Jnana Yoga, the Antidote to Sattvic Desire

Recall from the previous post that karma yoga had two essential components: (1) to perform action without attachment to its consequences, and (2) to give up doership. Performing action without attachment is relatively easy, as we have seen. Giving up doership, on the other hand, is a bear.

Giving up doership essentially means losing identification with the ego, for our likes and dislikes not only determine who we think we are but also gives us the strong sense of being the one who is choosing and acting. I act in certain ways based on my likes and dislikes. I also think I have a choice in how I act, but in reality my actions are based on my past experiences and my attachments and aversions.

“Giving up” doership is a great misnomer because it implies that I as the ego can give myself up. From the story of the Devi Mahatmyam, does it appear that Shumbha is suicidal? On the contrary, he tries to hang on to dear life right to the very end! Such is the issue with the ego – trying to give up doership is another subtle way for the ego to reinforce itself. The only path out of this conundrum is through self-inquiry or the path of knowledge, also known as jnana yoga.

For successful self-inquiry, a certain degree of inner silence is required in addition to the ability to witness our inner processes in a non-judgmental fashion. Without either of these, self-inquiry can become a mind game and yet another of Shumbha and Nishumbha’s many tricks to remain strong and kicking.

In the Radical Beauty Ritual below, we will examine the basic process of self-inquiry.

Radical Beauty Ritual

  • Lifestyle changes. Continue with the lifestyle modifications that overcome tamas, including fasting and waking up early.
  • Meditate daily. Cultivating inner silence is the most effective way of cultivating the witness.
  • Self-inquiry. Try this practice immediately after meditation, when inner silence is most prominent. Are you aware of your body? Thoughts? Feelings?  If you are aware of your body, thoughts and feelings, how can you be them? Notice that all sensations, thoughts and feelings come and go, but you as awareness remain. Just like the background of this web page upon which the letters appear, all of your experiences, memories, ideas, beliefs and knowledge appear to awareness. That awareness is who you are, which is knowingness of all experience. You are the knower of your thoughts, feelings, memories and beliefs, actions, choices and their consequences. You are the sole subject of all the experiences arising in you as objects. All your likes and dislikes, labels and roles that define you are objects that arise and subside in you, awareness.
  • Continued self-inquiry. Self-inquiry is particularly helpful when performed in a systematic way that questions all that we innocently take to be true, such as our assumptions about ourselves, our bodies, the world, our minds, moods and states. I recommend The Direct Path – User Guide by Dr. Greg Goode as a superb resource for effective self-inquiry.

The final war in the Devi Mahatmyam is the longest one. So it is on the inner journey to transformation. We will find that desire can be lodged so deep that the process of weeding them out through self-inquiry can be tedious. This inner war takes incredible patience and self-honesty. We have to be willing to look at ourselves in a critical and compassionate way. Devi eventually comes to our aid, systematically blowing away the smoke that cunningly covers the flame.

Hope you found this minseries on Navarathri helpful. May Devi’s grace shine on you as you face your own inner asuras.

Vanquishing Raktabija: Navarathri and the Gunas, Part II

In the previous post, we examined the symbolism of the Devi Mahatmyam, the text that is most widely read during Navarathri.  The asuras (evil forces) of creation take over and the result is utter pandemonium. The arch enemies of the asuras are the devas, who represent the forces of nature that maintain balance. For example, Indra, the lord of the devas symbolizes rain and wields a thunderbolt as his weapon. Agni, Surya, Varuna and Chandra represent fire, the sun, water bodies and the moon, respectively. Asuras then are the opposing forces that result in disharmony.

On the individual level, the devas represent the harmony of sattva while the asuras are symbolic of the qualities in us that result in inner and outer conflict. When dark and heavy, they form a dense veil over our inherent wisdom and constitute tamas. When hyperactive or restless, the veil is less denser but still covers the light of self-knowledge (knowledge of our true nature) as rajas. Sattva is the lightest of the veils and most conducive to Self-knowledge (but is still a veil). All three gunas arise as a result of desire. The quality of our desires represents the quality of our inner state and vice versa.

Desire and Knowledge

What is it about desire that binds us? It has to do with becoming attached to the outcome of that wanting. When I become attached to wanting a particular result, not getting what I want causes me disappointment and/or resentment. When I get what I want, a strange thing happens – there is momentary peace because the energy of wanting subsides temporarily but I mistakenly think that peace was the result of getting what I want. Naturally, I think that if I get more of what I want, perhaps I might get to a place of permanent peace. However, that never happens because I don’t always get what I want. In fact, there is no way for me to predict that my actions will certainly get me a particular result or that even if I get it, I won’t lose it. So not only is there no guarantee that I’ll get what I want but when I do, I worry about losing it! Either way, attachment to the outcome of desire binds me in a cascade of actions. My desires keep morphing and growing, binding me further in cycles of disappointment or temporary elation followed by fear.

Desires are so seductive that eventually, they become the labels through which we start to define ourselves. Our likes and dislikes become our identity, the veils that cover our true (divine) nature. The denser the desire, the heavier the veil.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna describes the gunas of desire in this way:

Just as smoke veils fire, dirt veils a mirror, and a womb veils a fetus, so does desire veil Self-knowledge. (3.38)

A baby is so well-covered by the womb that it is engulfed in darkness. Similarly, tamas engulfs our divine nature in darkness and our likes and dislikes are so strong that we are unable to see beyond them. We lose perspective entirely, being entirely at the mercy of the fulfillment of our desires (which, remember, is never guaranteed and works in our favor only about half the time). Just as we have to nurture the pregnancy through proper nutrition and other measures and patiently wait to see the baby, so too do the lifestyle measures of fasting, exercising and cultivating inner silence aid in thinning of the tamasic veil.

If you’ve ever cleaned an old dusty mirror, you know the effort it takes!  This is the case with rajas, which is defined by hyperactivity, restlessness, greed, ambition, inability to sit still, racing thoughts and conditions like anxiety. Under its influence, our desires keep proliferating, one giving rise to several others. Like the mirror under the layer of dust, our divine nature is concealed under the layer of desires. In the Devi Mahatmyam, this all-too-common predicament is depicted by Raktabija (rakta=blood, bija=seed), an asura with unique abilities.

Raktabija Meets His End

After the slaying of Mahishasura, peace is restored and Shakti disappears. In another era, the devas are once again defeated by the asuras and call for her. The ever-compassionate Devi comes to their aid once again to restore order in the cosmos. This time she takes the form of Lakshmi and Saraswati and the asura brothers Shumbha and Nishumbha are the main villains. They assign several generals with the task of destroying her and Devi in turn slays them all effortlessly, until Raktabija makes an appearance on the battlefield.

His superpower is that a horde of clones are created spontaneously from every drop of his shed blood. All of Devi’s weapons therefore end up creating an increasingly bigger army of his clones. Devi summons the Shaktis (powers) of the various devas and deities to ward off the clones – Brahmani, the Shakti of Brahma, Aindri, the Shakti of Indra, Varuni, the Shakti of Varuna, and so on. Devi’s army marches on, slaying the clones by the thousands. Unfortunately, in the place of each of Raktabija’s clone arise thousands more. Devi frowns in concentration as she devises a plan, and from the power of her energy, Kali springs to life and leaps on to the battlefield.

Devi asks Kali to devour the clones before any of their blood is spilled. Kali opens her great mouth and consumes the clones struck by Devi and her army. Drained of his blood, Raktabija eventually falls.

Rajasic desires are like Raktabija’s blood. Each one forms the seed for scores more, keeping us engaged on the never-ending path of desire-fulfillment. These are the desires that drive us to seek wealth, money, fame, success and relationships. Rajas is easier to conquer compared to tamas – remember how Mahishasura keeps changing his form, which is the natural cunning of tamas that is steeped in likes and dislikes. Raktabija is relatively straightforward in comparison. With the right amount of vigilance and the practice of karma yoga, his clones can be devoured before they spill their blood.

What happens when we act on our desires without consideration of how it might affect our lives and those of others? This kind of indiscriminate action is the “spilling of blood,” where we are like a leaf in the wind, blown this way and that by our uncontrolled likes and dislikes. Every time we fulfill the desire for a drink, a cigarette or browsing the internet, we create deeper grooves of habit and eventually become slaves to it. Eventually, we “have” to have that drink, the cigarette or that browse time. The habits we cultivate come to determine the company we keep and the stories we tell ourselves about others. Like the layer of dust on the mirror, they keep us from discovering the bliss of our true nature.

Karma Yoga, the Cure for Uncontrolled Desire

You may have heard that karma yoga is selfless service. It is, but it is a bit more. Karma yoga is the gateway to Self-knowledge because it literally thins out the veil of rajas by sucking up the lifeblood of desire. There are two important aspects of karma yoga: (1) to perform action without attachment to its consequence and, (2) to give up doership.

Both of these aspects are easier said than done.

Performing action without attachment to its fruit is difficult because it takes a reprogramming of our ways of thinking and acting. However, it is made easier by understanding that the only thing we have control over is our actions. You can do your best in any situation knowing that what will happen next is largely out of your control. Now, there are of course physical laws with predictable outcomes – if you don’t know how to swim and jump into a 20-foot pool, you will drown quite predictably. What we are discussing here are the actions we perform throughout the day based on our mental and emotional assessment of a situation.

You can do all your research for your new project, invest in it and work 16-hour days to get it off the ground. Whether it will take off or not is largely dependent on factors out of your control, such as the national economy, natural disasters, technology, competition, market interest and so on. If you had visualized success to look a particular way and it looks different in comparison, you will suffer. On the other hand, if you realize that “what will be will be,” without fixed ideas about the consequences of your hard work, the effort will be joyful for its own sake.

In the following Radical Beauty Ritual, we will explore karma yoga, which gradually vanquishes the inner Raktabija.

Radical Beauty Ritual: Overcoming Rajas

  • Lifestyle changes. Continue with the lifestyle modifications that overcome tamas, including fasting and waking up early.
  • Meditate daily. Cultivating inner silence is the most effective way of cultivating sattva.
  • Pause before acting. The problem that most of us run into is that we almost always react and rarely do we respond. Reactions arise immediately and viscerally from the deep grooves of conditioning created by our likes and dislikes. Response, on the other hand, arises from stepping out of the situation and examining the facts with dispassion (non-attachment to our likes and dislikes). It helps to pause and pay attention to our inner landscape before jumping into action. Pause. Observe your breath – is it shallow and rapid, or slow and relaxed? How are you holding your body? Is there tension in your shoulders, belly, chest? Can you feel your heartbeat? When we take the focus out of the mind’s activity and put it on physiological processes, we begin to free ourselves from its slavery.
  • Pause again before acting. Once you’ve observed your body, breath and heartbeat, pause and ask yourself what you want to do and why. Do you need to respond? Can you choose to respond differently regardless of what you like or don’t like? Practice putting aside your preferences and step out of your comfort zone. After a while, this will become natural and liberating.
  • Cultivate devotion. Consider how selfless we can be as parents. When it comes to our children, we put aside our personal feelings and preferences and do what they need. This is because we are devoted to them. The Devi Mahatmyam is a text that evokes great devotion to the goddess as the Divine Mother. When we become devoted to a deity, we naturally come to dedicate everything to him or her. Cultivate devotion to your ideal – read about the deity, spiritual teacher, guru or prophet and emulate him or her in daily life. One practice that I’ve found very helpful is to make a promise every morning to my ideal – “Thy will, my Lord, not mine.” It is a reminder that whatever happens is a gift and what we ask for is merely the grace to know this.
  • Practice Inquiry. Inner silence cultivated through meditation enables us to stand back from our mental processes and observe our thoughts as they arise. This inner awareness is the great mother Kali, who consumes thoughts as they arise to deplete the mass of desire that Raktabija represents. Become curious about your desires – where do they come from? See that the basis of all desire is to be happy. Examine how often a fulfilled desire has brought your permanent happiness. What would happen if you didn’t frantically pursue every desire?

The color of rajas is red, symbolic of the blood shed that occurs on the battlefield. It is the color of fire and dynamism that keeps us engaged in the mundane without ever touching the divine within. The middle three days of Navarathri are dedicated to goddess Lakshmi, whose grace is needed to obtain the wealth of Self-knowledge. The power of desire is so strong that we will need the help of all the Shaktis to overcome them – Brahmani’s wisdom, Aindri’s vigilance, Varuni’s fluidity, and so on. So we invoke the great Devi who embodies all these qualities to help us in this quest for freedom from the tyranny of desire.

The most difficult war is yet to come. In the final three days of Navarathri, we will have to weed out the subtlest form of desire that resides in sattva. This is when we will have to examine the second aspect of karma yoga – doership, which is impossible to let go of without the grace of Saraswati. We will examine this great inner war in the next post.

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How to Destroy Mahishasura: Navarathri and the Gunas

Navarathri is here! Literally translating to “nine nights,” Navarathri is a an all-out celebration of the divine feminine (Shakti) and occurs twice a year in the spring and autumn. While there are many ways to celebrate Navarathri, we can use the cosmic energy of this period for deep inner work.

The Devi Mahatmyam (also known as Durga Sapthashati or Chandi Paath) is a lush text that is widely read during Navarathri. Composed by Sage Markandeya a millennium ago, it consists of 700 verses that describe the victory of Shakti over evil. The saga begins when creation is taken over by evil forces, the asuras. The disheartened devas (good forces) regroup after an epic defeat and invoke Shakti as the last resort. This supreme goddess has powers that surpass all of theirs combined. She promises to save them not just this time, but through eternity. She keeps her promise and appears through the eons in innumerable forms, the most famous of which are Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati.

The Devi Mahatmyam is a lyrical exposition of devotion to Shakti, with several well-known Devi chants embedded throughout its course. The verses take us on a journey of despair (of the Devas), hope (the appearance of Shakti and her promise to fight for them), gore (the bloody battles), peace (that comes about from her kept promises over thousands of years) and devotion (through the evoking verses praising the supreme goddess). The real gift of the Devi Mahatmyam, however, lies in its symbolic power. The particular forms that Devi takes in sequence have to do with with the path of inner transformation and the refining of our gunas.

What is a Guna?

Guna is quality, tendency or aptitude. All of creation can be seen to be composed of three gunas: tamas, rajas and sattva.

Tamas refers to the quality of inertia, darkness, and/or heaviness, rajas of movement, action, dynamism and sattva of purity, lightness, light. Tamas makes up the structure of the universe, rajas provides movement, and sattva its intelligence. In all creatures (including us), these qualities in specific combinations make up the individual psyche, nature or personality. When we talk about a particular guna dominating our body-minds, it doesn’t mean that the other two are absent. Everything in nature has a combination of the three; the predominant one shows up in our mental patterns and physical actions.

Tamas results in inertia, lack of motivation and laziness. When tamas predominates, we are unable to think clearly and feel like we’re in a mental fog. Even when we know what we need to do, we are unable to do it and feel somewhat paralyzed. We become excessively identified with our problems and our issues, feeling as though they define who we are. In the tamasic state, we are unmotivated to do any spiritual practices and lack the ability to look critically at ourselves to see our part in our problems. Tamas is a state of heaviness and under its influence, we are unable to see our own divine nature.

Rajas with its penchant for dynamism results in activity (and hyperactivity), movement, determination, accomplishment and restless tendencies. Many of us in the fast-paced modern culture have these rajasic tendencies, particularly when we are used to multi-tasking and being on the move. When rajas predominates, we are unable to sit still and meditation is difficult. While tamas feels like an oppressive windless summer day, rajas can be like a hurricane, with racing thoughts, inability to sleep, anxiety, worry and constant rumination over our problems. We can become impatient easily and have little or no tolerance for others. Because of its dynamism, rajas sometimes gives us clarity that quickly evaporates and leaves us confused and wanting more of it. We can sometimes see our divine nature, but not all the time.

Predominance of sattva results in a quiet mind, clarity, purity of being and qualities of sweetness and contentment. In sattva, the constant chatter of the mind has come to a rest and we live in a state of alert calmness. Because of loss of mental modifications, we are able to access the deep well-spring of peace, creativity, tranquility, wisdom and compassion. A mind influenced by sattva is like a crystal-clear mirror in which the reflection of the divine is well seen. Having overcome tamas and rajas, we are able to clearly see our own divine nature.

Spiritual evolution moves us from tamas to rajas to sattva. The stories of the Devi Mahatmyam point to this inner journey of transformation, where the form that Shakti takes and the particular asuras that she destroys represent our own innate wisdom destroying the obstructive qualities that keep us from recognizing our own divine nature.

The nine nights of Navarathri are divided into three sets of three and each set dedicated to one of the three deities: Durga, Lakshmi and Saraswati.

In the first three days, we invoke the grace of Durga, who, in the Devi Mahatmyam is called upon to destroy the fierce demon, Mahishasura who is an odd half-human, half-buffalo demon. In his younger years, Mahishasura performs intense spiritual practices and gains the favor of Brahma, the creator and asks for the boon of immortality. Since immortality is impractical, Brahma asks him to choose another boon. Mahishasura cunningly asks to be slain by a woman, thinking that there would be no way that a woman could face him in battle. Considering this to be his boon of immortality, he terrorizes the devas who end up invoking Shakti to come to their aid.

The battle is a bloody one. Mahishasura is not only powerful but a gifted warrior and holds Durga at bay through his skills in warfare. He has the uncanny ability to change forms at will and continues to evade her weapons by turning into various beasts. Finally, Durga’s spear finds its mark just as he turning into a buffalo. He dies in his original half-human, half-beast form.

Tamas in us is as cunning as Mahishasura. The buffalo in him is symbolic of the heaviness and dullness of tamas while the human represents the ability to think, but in a distorted way. With these qualities, Mahishasura in us takes many forms of self-deception to evade its own destruction. Tamas is what makes us make excuses for everything we can’t seem to do. It keeps us bound in inertia through distorted mental reasoning that keeps a particular non-serving behavior intact. This is what makes us justify being unkind to someone, subtly conning others into our ways of thinking, manipulating situations to get our way, and falsely enhancing our own qualities to look good. Under the influence of tamas, we end up like hamsters on a wheel, unable to step out of our binding habits of self-deception.

Navarathri to the Rescue

During the first three days and nights of Navarathri, we can invoke Shakti’s grace in the form of Durga to incinerate the heaviness and cunning of tamas. Mantras, contemplation and rituals during this time are meant for igniting the path to transformation.

This is also the time that we worship Kali, the fierce goddess that decapitates the ego. Kali is the Shakti of Shiva, the destroyer. Destruction of the old makes way for the new. Without the clearing out of our heavy tamasic burden, we can’t make way for the splendor of Lakshmi or the wisdom of Saraswati. Thus, we can’t get to sattva directly from tamas. The process is like removing sediments from a cup of water. A thick layer of sediment sinks to the bottom and we can’t really see past it. To get it out, we have to stir the water so that the sediment can be scooped out. So too with tamas; cultivation of rajas stirs up its heaviness so that it can be eliminated.

Sankalpa: Intend Well to Act Well

The intention with which we act makes all the difference when it comes to gunas. A surgeon wielding a knife acts with the intent of doing good as opposed to one brandishing the same knife with the intent to cause harm. The former is sattvic and the latter tamasic arising from hatred, greed and other Mahishasura-like qualities. A key element to inner transformation is to purify our intentions. In Sanskrit, the word used for this is sankalpa and when it comes to transformation of gunas, our intentions must be held to a very high standard.

Remember how Mahishasura keeps changing his form? Regardless of our sankalpa, tamas will pull us into our old ways and make all sorts of excuses to bypass the sankalpa. Take for instance your intention to create the daily habit of meditation. You may go to bed at night determined to wake up early enough to make time to sit for meditation. Come morning, the alarm goes off and what thoughts come to mind? “Oh, I haven’t gotten enough sleep. It’s ok, I’ll start tomorrow,” or, “There is no evidence that meditation really helps, so I’ll skip,” or, “I don’t really need meditation. I already know what to do,” and so on.

Remaining faithful to our sankalpa is like the bloody battle between Durga and Mahishasura!

Below is a Radical Beauty Ritual for the first three days of Navarathri, when we can focus on transformation of tamas to rajas. Before you begin, make a sankalpa to follow-through on the practices you decide to take up.

Radical Beauty Ritual: Incinerating Tamas

  • Fasting. Since tamas is characterized by stagnation in the body-mind, fasting works superbly well to mobilize it. Even if you can’t do a full-on fast on water (which I wouldn’t recommend), see if you can give up your favored food(s) for Navarathri. Eat light, nutritious meals and abstain from heavy, fried, greasy or stale foods and meats. The point of this exercise is to cultivate discipline through the sankalpa of fasting.
  • Fast your senses. Forego watching TV and read only uplifting things. Avoid harsh music, preferring pleasing and softer genres. Favor simple clothing.
  • Keep active. Tamas loves inertia and inactivity. Counter this with a daily walk or some type of exercise that keeps your body moving.
  • Meditate daily. There is simply nothing like cultivating inner silence for the transformation of the gunas. Here is a simple and effective meditation practice.
  • Examine your intentions. As you go about your day, question your intentions, actions, thoughts and words. Why do you do what you do? What do you hope to gain? What do you think will happen if you don’t get what you want? When you are interacting with others, what thoughts are simultaneously running in your mind? If it helps (and it does!), write down your observations since looking at words on paper clarifies what is often a jumbled ball of thoughts.
  • Recite a mantra. There are many mantras that are incredibly transformative because they purify our intentions, thoughts and actions. Since Durga represents the sword that slices through the Mahishasura of our minds, her mantra is very appropriate and powerful for long-term transformation. Here is a simple one: Om Doom Durgayai Namah.  You can chant it silently for 20-30 minutes, slowly allowing the syllables to arise and subside in your inner space.

Through the sankalpa of such internal worship, we invoke the grace of the deity in leaps and bounds. In the Devi Mahatmyam, once she is invoked, Shakti never lets the devas down – so too does she come to our aid again and again to slay our inner asuras.

In the next post, we will examine the significance and practices for the next three days of Navarathri.

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Do You Love Me?

Like an overfull reservoir, love flows outwardIt’s that time of year again. You know, the “love day” in honor of a martyred saint and popularized by a greeting card company.. It’s the day to give and receive gifts, tokens and declarations that promise to answer the age-old question: “Do you love me?”

Human life can be defined in infinite ways. Innovative, creative, loving, hateful, greedy, generous – the list that defines us as a race is endless! While we share these traits to greater or lesser extents, the one trait that binds us in its universal power is the need for love. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we seek it in one way or another.

Every culture is replete with stories, legends and myths of the power of love. Despite its omniscience however, love is often confused with need and longing that arise from our deep sense of lack, which is inherent in suffering. From the standpoint of awakening to Radical Beauty, it has to do with who we think we are.

Our sense of self rests on a mish-mash of what we were taught by our caregivers, teachers and peers, our roles in society, how we perceive ourselves and how we would like to be perceived by others. Fed by these concepts, we form an image of ourselves that has a specific nationality and race, performs certain roles (child, partner, parent, doctor, musician, plumber, priest and so on) and has unique personality characteristics (shy, smart, talented, dull, angry and so on). We then breathe life into this image by assigning abilities and properties to it. The image is reinforced by the constant commentary of the mind. We like and prefer things that validate the image and dislike and shun things that don’t. The image needs to be fed constantly to be sustained. And its food is validation. Without validation, the image would crumble, causing fear and pain for what would we be without the image? Where would our sense of self lie without it? Thus we constantly seek image validation, which makes us ask, “Do you love me?”

Seeking validation from others is a great recipe for suffering. We become slaves to the mercy of others’ approval and affection. When we get it, the image is validated and we feel good. When it is withdrawn, the image is threatened and we feel bad. Between good and bad, our lives are marred by a deep sense of unrest and lack.

When the image is validated by others’ affection, deep down we fear losing it. Fear of loss is a powerful motivator for rearranging our self-image. Women in particular can be willing to rearrange roles, beliefs, opinions and personalities to please others and gain approval. Our self-worth can be so dependent on approval that we can be prepared to overlook or tolerate abuse and exploitation. Again and again, we ask if we are loved, wanted and needed. Again and again, we look for someone or something else to “complete” us.

The remedy for the sense of lack is to discover the fullness that is the essence of who we are. In Sanskrit, this fullness is called Purnam. Simply allowing this word to arise in meditative stillness can result in a powerful shift. In the spacious energy the word evokes, we can examine the difference between the perpetual sense of lack that is that “hallmark” of self-image (pun intended!) and the knowledge that nothing is ever needed to complete us. Let’s try it.

Radical Beauty Ritual

  • Find a period of time where you will not be disturbed for 20-30 minutes, preferably when you don’t have pressing engagements immediately after.
  • Sit in a comfortable posture on the floor or on a chair. Close your eyes gently.
  • Take two slow, deep breaths. With each exhale, relax any tension in your body. Sigh deeply, releasing on to the ground or the chair.
  • Let go of any control over the breath. Notice how the chest and belly move, how the air feels during the in-breath and out-breath as it passes through the nose, the back of the throat and the windpipe. If thoughts come up, gently bring your attention back to the breath.
  • Notice the vast space within where the breath arises and subsides. Are there boundaries to this space?
  • Silently say the word Purnam (poor-num). Allow it to fill the inner space and subside. Notice the inner silence as the last vibrations of the word come to rest.
  • Think of how you define yourself. What comes up? Try to allow the sense to arise fully. Don’t rush through it. It can present itself as a visual image, a stream of thoughts or in some other way.
  • Allow the image or thought to subside and return your attention to the breath for several minutes.
  • Return to noticing the breath and space it arises in. Repeat Purnam again, allowing it to fill the space and come to rest naturally. How does the feeling of space compare to the feeling the image evokes? Does it feel constricting or freeing?
  • Bring back the image of yourself. How does it compare to the feeling of vastness? Does it feel constricting or freeing?
  • Go back and forth between the image and the space, focusing on the feeling each evokes. Notice the sense of contraction the image brings up and the expansiveness that is the sense of space.
  • Repeat Purnam again and rest in the spaciousness. Notice now if there is any need or longing here. Notice that the image comes and goes, but the space within which the image arises always remains. You are not the image that comes and goes. Who are you then? Don’t try to answer the question. Allow the silent fullness of being to show you.

Love is the magical force that holds the universe together. Its expression is one of overflow of Purnam, the fullness of being. It indiscriminately touches everything and everyone we come in contact with. Like a brimming reservoir, love flows outward from our own fullness.

This beautiful and profound verse from the Isha Upanishad sums it up:

Purnam adah purnam idam                                                                                             Purnat purnam udachyate                                                                                               Purnasya purnam adaya                                                                                                         Purnam eva Vashishyate                                                                                                              Om Shanti, Shanti, Shantih

That is full, this is full                                                                                        This fullness arises from that fullness                                                        When this fullness becomes one with that fullness                                         All that remains is fullness                                                                              Om Peace, Peace, Peace

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The routine that creates time, health and Radical Beauty

Wake up early to create a routine of health and beautyOne question I get asked quite often is, “How do you do it all?” Presumably the “all” is what many of us (especially women) do.  We juggle demanding careers, a busy family with partners and children, cook, clean and maintain homes, coordinate work, school and social calendars, and pursue soul-nourishing activities outside of work. While passion and curiosity are key ingredients for “doing it all,” the single most effective habit worth cultivating is to wake up early. This habit sets the tone for a routine that facilitates Radical Beauty.

Waking up early is one of life’s “hidden-in-plain-view” delights. There is something mystical and magical about the quiet of dawn. It is saturated with sacred energy. In Sanskrit, this time of the day is called Brahma-muhurta, the pre-dawn hours that lead to the ambrosia of immortality. The mind is particularly receptive to meditative practices at this time of day named after Brahma, the lord of creation. During this period, our potential to be born anew is at its greatest.

On a practical note, it is the only time I tend to have to myself. Here’s what my morning routine typically looks like:

  • Wake up between 4 and 5 AM.
  • Drink water.
  • Get breakfast going (typically, oatmeal or other hot cereal) in the cooker.
  • Meditate for 30-60 minutes (depending on how much time I have. In times of stress or pressing deadlines, I meditate for longer).
  • Make coffee.
  • Read or write for 20 minutes.
  • Pack lunches and put finishing touches on breakfast.
  • Wake up the kids with cuddling and cajoling (one of my favorite things to do every day).
  • Sit quietly with them as they meditate.
  • Exercise (typically yoga for 30-45 minutes or longer, depending on how much time I have).
  • Get ready for work.

The earlier I wake up, the more time there is to do all the things that nourish me deeply and set the tone for the day. Over the years, I’ve come to appreciate solitude so much that I’ve rearranged my life to accommodate this routine:

  • Waking up early necessitates retiring early. My bedtime is 10 PM.
  • I put the kids to bed at 9 PM and meditate in their room as they fall asleep.
  • In order to meditate at this time, I eat early (and light) to allow for a relatively empty stomach.
  • This in turn dictates that lunch must be the heaviest meal of the day.
  • Since lunch occurs in the middle of a busy day, it needs to be simple, light and healthy without causing lethargy.
  • To avoid busy work like cleaning the kitchen late at night, I’ve learned to become single-pointed and efficient while cooking and serving meals.
  • My children are expected to help with clean-up immediately after meals.
  • After dinner, the kitchen is used for beverages and fruit only.
  • Tying up loose ends at work ensures that I’m not doing busy work late at night (except during grant and manuscript deadlines). Thus, this requires me to be efficient and single-pointed at work as well.

Such a routine is facilitated by reorganizing our lives and routines with a conscious focus on peace. With every task, we are given the choice: peace or chaos? Chaos occurs with constant rushing around from the moment we wake up with no time for reflection, silence or solitude. It spills over to our partners, children and coworkers. It takes over our minds and fills us with aggression, anxiety or inertia. We resort to excessive talking and other influences that create noise, worry and further chaos.

When we consistently choose peace, we begin to see how every aspect of our lives is connected to every other aspect. If I want solitude in the midst of a busy life, I have to create it. A life centered around the ecstatic bliss of Radical Beauty calls for several adjustments. My diet has to be light, nutritious and conducive to peace and joy. My activities have to be in line with the lifestyle. Late-night parties, television or gatherings are rare occurrences. I prefer to keep my mind uncluttered, and so avoid excessive talking, TV or internet browsing. As much as possible, I try not to put off things because that clutters my mind and disrupts my peace-centered lifestyle.

Paradoxically, slowing down is the secret to getting more done. From the way we view ourselves and the world, work, interact with others, keep house, raise children and contribute to society, how we do everything is a reflection of our state of mind. Chaos begets chaos. Peace begets peace. It always starts here.

Radical Beauty Ritual:

  • If you’re not an early riser, start now.
  • Do it gradually.
  • Go to bed an hour earlier than usual, no later than 10:30 PM.
  • Set the alarm for 20 minutes earlier than your current wake-up time. Put the alarm on the other side of the room.
  • Reflect on your desire for peace before bed. Look forward to doing one task you have been wanting to do for your own joy (like art, music, writing and so on).
  • When the alarm goes off, scramble out of bed, turn off the alarm and walk out of the bedroom.
  • Wash your mouth and drink water.
  • Meditate for a few minutes.
  • Do the thing you’ve been looking forward to. Paint, write, play music or just enjoy a cup of coffee in the quiet of dawn. Soak in Brahma’s magical presence!

*Many people I meet classify themselves as “night owls.” When I recommend a routine change, some that try it stick to it and find that they sleep better, feel better and have more time to do the things that they have been meaning to (like meditate and exercise).

Why limit your possibilities by boxing yourself into a “day” or “night” person? You might be surprised to see that your body and mind actually respond better to having no limiting labels. Give it a fair try (a fair try for anything is 3-6 weeks).

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5 Ways In Which Meditation Leads to Radical Beauty

Meditation facilitates radical transformationFor years, I’ve taught meditation to lower stress and to improve health. Thousands of books, blogs and practitioners attest to its many benefits including calmness, focus and creativity. While these are all great reasons to meditate, here we will explore how this practice facilitates the flowering of Radical Beauty.

There are few things as mysterious as the mind. One day when I was ten, I was perched in a guava tree, “listening” to my mind as usual. I noticed that I couldn’t stop thoughts from arising even when I tried hard to stay focused on the clear blue sky, the rustle of the leaves and the smell of the earth.

It was fascinating that the thoughts that were coming up were not always about the sky, tree or earth – the objects of my focus. They were about other things. Astounded, I wondered how come my mind wasn’t in the same place as my body (up in the tree). Suddenly, I realized that all thoughts were referring to something that had already happened in the past (memory) or would happen in the future (imagination). I tried to look for a “present-thought.” There was none. By the time a thought arose about an event, the event was already in the past. I wondered, “So, what is actually here now?” Instantly, I became hyper-aware. The trees, birds, grass, sky and my body were suspended in 3-dimensional clarity and I lost track of time. I was disoriented coming out of the trance. I knew in some way that this was big, but didn’t have a way to explain it or even understand it.

These timeless moments of clarity continued to occur sporadically, particularly when I paid close attention to my mind. As I grew up, thoughts began to seem ephemeral and dream-like, colliding with the solidity of the outer world. I noticed that my moods were the direct result of what I was thinking. Changing how I thought about something changed how I felt about it. However, I couldn’t figure out how to overcome the mind’s powerful hold consistently. This sense of powerlessness caused great inner conflict and periods of melancholy. I felt alone. Nobody else seemed to be interested in this, and it seemed too intimate for casual chit-chat.

Fresh out of medical school, I attended a week-long workshop with a charismatic swami (monk). He talked about the mind and its complexities as the cause of suffering. It felt as though he was talking to me directly by addressing the very issues I’d ruminated on since childhood. I was home at last! He taught meditation as a tool to first become intimate with the mind and then to transcend it. Before I became fully established in the practice however, I got busy with life and work. It was set aside. The inner conflict intensified over the next few years, reaching a fever pitch. After the vivid vision I had at the time, I took up meditation again.

This time, I stuck with it.

Although meditation leads to stress reduction and health improvement, its gifts are far more precious. A stable meditation practice facilitates an irreversible rewiring of the mind leading to radical transformation. This occurs through its ability to cultivate:

  1. Awareness: We tend to live in a state where we aren’t aware of how our minds enslave us with inertia (tamas) or excessive activity (rajas). When we start meditating, we finally become aware of the “monkey mind.” At this point, it can be tempting to conclude that meditation is causing the mind noise and to give it up. In reality however, it just shows us how busy our minds really are!
  2. Single-pointedness: When our attention is split doing multiple things at once, we lose the ability to think creatively or deeply, to solve problems or to delve into existential questions. With a stable meditation practice, we become mindful, paying attention to one thing at a time. We gradually become creative and efficient. Importantly, single-pointedness facilitates self-inquiry (more on this in later posts).
  3. Inner silence: Perhaps the greatest gift of meditation is the quieting of the mind’s constant commentary. This is the familiar and incessant voice that judges and compares everything. It creates likes and dislikes, attraction and aversion, and all other dualistic states that propagate suffering. Mind chatter spills over into dreams, where we act out subconscious fears, pain and anxiety collected during waking hours. Ordinarily, the only rest we get from this voice is in deep sleep. Meditation results in cultivation of inner silence, where the commentator loses steam and quiets down. Inner silence eventually penetrates the dream state as the mind is no longer fueled by chatter. Notably, inner silence catalyzes the rise of the witness, with a shift in perspective.
  4. Perspective: When we are identified with our minds, it is like acting in a play and forgetting that it is a play. We never get out of character, delivering award-winning performances on a daily basis! A stable and long-term meditation practice gives us a 30,000-foot view of life and ourselves. We begin to see the play for what it is and learn to step out of character. We stop taking everything so personally.
  5. Letting go: Suffering is the result of not being able to let go of our ingrained habits, past hurts and emotional attachments. When our perspective changes, we realize that we are not who we thought we were, others are not who we thought they were and life is not what we thought it was. When we stop taking things personally, letting go happens and we arrive at a new level of transformation.

Now, none of these things happen overnight. It takes time to undo years of conditioning and habit. This work takes patience, courage and honesty. The path to transformation is made up of hills and valleys. Periods of absolute joy are often interspersed with deep despair. Like a butterfly emerging from a chrysalis, progress is usually gradual and onerous. Yet, like the butterfly, we emerge radically transformed.

Radical Beauty Ritual:

  • Do you want to meditate? Why? Contemplate on this (there are no right or wrong answers). If you take it up just because someone else is doing it, you are unlikely to commit to it. Explore your reasons thoroughly.
  • Do you have a meditation practice? If so, are you committed to it? If not, why not? Write it down.
  • If you feel that you are ready for meditation, contemplate on the following. What are you prepared to do to commit to the practice? How will you rearrange your schedule? Minimally, you will need twenty minutes twice a day. Can you do this?
  • Preparing thoughtfully for the practice is like tilling the soil to plant the seed. It is worth the time and effort. Take this time to be radically honest with yourself. Writing brings clarity to thought and intent.

If you find that you are not really ready for meditation, that is perfectly fine. Keep reading and exploring. There are many paths to Radical Beauty. Meditation is one of them.

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Fuel Desire to Create Destiny in 5 Simple Steps

The wheel of desire and destinyIn the last post, we delved into the need to uncover authentic desire. Whether we know it or not, our deepest desire drives our destiny. The mind can clutter and obscure authentic desire and we end up chasing things that never satisfy us. Not living our authentic desire leads to deep-seated dissatisfaction, causing inner conflict and restlessness. Not aligning with our authentic desire leaves us wanting more, like we haven’t lived to our fullest potential. To live fully, we need to unearth what it is that we really want. The “last-day-of-life meditation” is a powerful tool to unearth this desire. This desire can be used to fuel our actions and create our destiny.

It was exhilarating for me to discover my passion for writing even though it was not exactly a surprise. I’ve geeked out on syntax, grammar, word choice and creativity in language for as long as I remember. Well-written books and articles bring me to tears as much for the style of expression as the content. My love of writing was obscured by “other” desires and goals, like establishing a medical practice and raising a family. However, the authentic desire for expression never went away. It unconsciously drove my career choice where writing scientific papers, reviews and book chapters became facets of my daily work. When I started blogging years ago, I realized that writing nourished my soul. Whether it is a scientific paper, a blog post or a clinic note, the process of writing is deeply satisfying for its own sake. Whether or not a manuscript is accepted at my targeted journal or whether anyone is reading the blog post I painstakingly wrote  is irrelevant.

As important as it is to unearth our authentic desire, it is only the first step. The desire is most useful if it fuels our actions. Like a wheel, desire fuels consistent action. Consistent action opens us to deeper authentic desire and further clarity of purpose. Purposeful action creates our destiny. While this is a process we must traverse in our own unique ways, here are 5 simple steps that might be useful for you:

  1. Allow. Writing about yoga or the divine feminine has nothing to do with my job. When I first began writing, I worried about what my colleagues would think, and whether it would affect my credibility. The more I dug in to my own purpose, I realized that it didn’t matter. Not allowing this passion to arise and shape my life was stifling. Firstly, acknowledge your authentic desire. Don’t worry about whether it is right or wrong, whether it makes sense or not, and whether it is applicable to your life. Let your passion speak. Say you have a corporate desk job and what really drives you is music. Allow this love and dream of playing music to consume you. Sure, it has nothing to do with your job and you can’t make a career out of it (yet). Let it surface anyway. Allow the natural excitement of your interest to fill you up.
  2. Research. The next step in the desire-t0-destiny process is to research your passion. Become curious. Read up on the genre, the instrument and the musicians. Look up online and social media groups with similar interests. Join in the conversations. The advantage of living in this age of information is that there is no dearth of learning material or inspirational, like-minded folks. Use technology to your advantage. Cultivate enthusiasm for your desire.
  3. Apply. This is the critical next step. When I started blogging, I was periodically overcome with self-doubt and inertia. They arose from feeling that I was wasting time, that I should be doing something else, or that nobody was reading my writing. Again and again, I was pulled into writing despite the mind’s chatter because it was so joyful. It was not enough to research and read up on my favorite authors. I had to actually write. Take your interest and just do it (thanks, Nike!). Commit to 10 minutes initially (nobody can say they don’t have 10 minutes). Take the instrument out of the case. Tune it. Play it, even if it is for 5 minutes. The most important thing is your attitude. Bring your curiosity and enthusiasm from your research and discussions into the process. Make it fun.
  4. Re-evaluate. Check in when you are doing the activity. Does it feel joyful? Even if it is challenging, does it make you feel alive and vibrant? Do you lose yourself in it with no cares of the past or future? Do you love the activity for its own sake without worrying about what you will gain from it? Do you feel you could do this all day every day, given a choice? If the answer to all of the above is a resounding yes, you’ve nailed it. You’ve found your authentic desire. Become accustomed to this inner joy. Favor it every time. Soon, the activity will become a habit if you favor your joy.
  5. Intensify. Once my self-doubt about writing was mitigated, I began to write with abandon, participating in groups and learning from those whose style I love and admire. I enjoy interacting and learning from writing tasks. When the self-doubt arises, it is remedied by allowing the love of writing to take center stage again (Step 1). Once you’ve aligned yourself with the joy of doing, kick it up a notch (or several notches). Increase the time you commit to the activity. Reorganize your schedule. Practice more. Take a lesson. Or learn on your own.

At some point, we may be tempted to ask, “Fine. What then? How is this going to pay my bills? Will I make money off of it?” The answer is maybe. Or maybe not. Making a living is a respectable goal. How we want to live is a different goal. When we allow our heart’s desire to sprout, the two goals may come together in unexpected ways. Keeping an open heart and allowing our inner wisdom to bloom are essential ingredients for magic!

Radical Beauty Ritual:

  • After you’ve applied the five steps for a few weeks, do the last-day-of-life meditation again.
  • What comes up now? Is the passion still the same?
  • If the five steps are in line with your authentic desire, it will come up again with clarity and certainty. As you get to the last moments of your life in meditation, a sense of peace will prevail.
  • If you’ve dabbled in the activity to fulfill superficial desires, you will quickly lose interest in it.
  • Here are some examples of inauthentic or “borrowed” desires that will not inspire you to keep up the commitment:

(a) Trying to live up to an ideal image of yourself.

(b) Trying to please someone else.

(c) Because it might be fun to try it.

(d) Because someone else is doing it.

(This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try something for fun, of course! We are talking about creating destiny here and not casual activities).

Hope this gives you something to ponder about and put in practice. As always, do share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Sharpening the tool of desire

Fire of desireIn the last post, we began to explore the requirements for Radical Beauty. Discovering authentic desire was the first one. If you struggled through the last ritual, take heart! It took me years to figure out what I wanted. It had to be delicately fished  out of the tangled mess of “planted” desires.

Recently, somebody asked me to describe how I came to choose medicine as a career choice. I had to laugh. In the past, I could’ve listed all the “correct” reasons: wanting to serve, love of the science and so on. These reasons are still very applicable, of course. When it comes down to it however, my desire to go to medical school was planted. My family made strong, repeated suggestions early on. It “stuck.” I adopted my family’s desire as my own and went through the rigmarole. Do I like what I do? No. I love what I do. I can’t think of any other way my life could have turned out. That doesn’t change the fact that my desire to be a doctor was not mine.

The “borrowing” of desire from family, peers and popular culture pervaded every area of my life. Eventually, borrowed desires became burdensome. As soon as one was fulfilled, there was another goal to be achieved. Nothing was overt. Nobody forced me to do anything. It was more like a TV commercial. You know the ones that send subliminal messages that you need the particular product in order to not be a loser? I was sucked in. I absorbed and internalized the American dream (and a few others) as the thing to want. I began to sag when I saw that this chain of desire was never going to end.

One morning nearly twelve years ago, I woke up early as usual. As the coffee brewed, I began to put away clean dishes from the night before. Opening the utensil drawer, my eyes fell upon the block of kitchen knives. I casually wondered what it would be like to die. I wasn’t suicidal or even depressed. The thought was one of genuine curiosity. As the thought faded, a vibrant vision arose. It was the trajectory of my life on the path of habitual seeking. I saw myself as an externally successful but deeply weary and unfulfilled middle-aged woman. As my awareness returned to the kitchen, I noticed that several minutes had passed and my hand was frozen in midair, still clutching a utensil. I sat down, shaking with gratitude. Now I knew! What I was really seeking was the end of seeking. And it had nothing whatsoever to do with gathering, achieving or acquiring. My spiritual path had begun.

My dear friend Tanya is a fifth-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do and owns a martial arts school. She states quite simply that in order to succeed, you need both devotion and dedication. It’s true. A magical thing happens when we become aligned with our authentic desire. As soon as it is uncovered, this desire begins to command the heart and the head. It expresses as devotion through the heart and as dedication through the head. Devotion + dedication ignite the fire of vision. Secondary and borrowed desires that don’t serve the vision are cast in the fire and burn away. For some of us, this might mean a total overhaul of life, work and relationships. For the rest of us, nothing may appear different externally. In every case however, authentic vision will utilize everything it can to manifest as meaningful action. Tanya exemplifies living a life aligned with authentic desire and vision.

Radical Beauty Ritual:

  • Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed for about 30 minutes. Keep your journal close by.
  • Take a few deep breaths and close your eyes. Fast forward to the end of your life. It is your last day here. Feel into this. How have you lived your life? Whose dream have you lived? Does it feel like you have fulfilled your unique destiny? Open your eyes and write it down.
  • Close your eyes again. Take another deep breath. Return to your last day of life. Is there still a longing? Zoom in on it. What is the longing for? What are you wishing you had done? Open your eyes and write it down.
  • Close your eyes again. Take another deep breath. Now it is your final hour. Are you fulfilled? Have your deepest longings been fulfilled? Are you at peace? Are you fearless about what awaits you? Do you feel that you have unfinished business? What is it? Open your eyes and write it down.
  • Close your eyes again. Bring your awareness to your body and the room. Lie down and rest for as long as you need.
  • Sit back up and read your notes. Look at what you longed for on the last day of your life. Does it resonate?
  • Spend the next week reflecting on what you learned about yourself. Have you identified your authentic desire?
  • Write down what your life would look like if your longing was fulfilled. Now you have your vision. Clarify and refine the vision. Take your time with this.


  • Take at least ten minutes for each step. Do not hurry through this ritual. Relax and allow things to bubble up naturally. Be open, receptive, patient and humble in your attitude to the process.
  • This profound meditation can be highly disorienting. If you have an anxiety disorder, severe depression or other psychological issues, please don’t do it. If this ritual brings up uncontrollable fear or anxiety, abandon it and rest. Instead of returning to this, continue a daily practice of sitting still and journaling your thoughts as in the last ritual. There will be other suitable rituals down the road.
  • If you are unable to gain insights the first time, it is perfectly fine. Practice again (only if you’re not affected emotionally by the ritual) when you feel like it and as many times as you need to.

Most of all, enjoy the process! Become curious about what you will find. Delight in the progress you make! If you do try it, I’d love to hear about your experience.

Tools for Inner Archaeology

The right tools make all the difference!So you’re ready for this digging expedition. Let’s get started! For success in any endeavor, we need to be adequately and thoughtfully prepared. If you’re like me, you’re probably familiar with the “blindly jumping in” syndrome. It has taken me years to slow down and take time to prepare for the journey, particularly those into mystical realms. Gathering the right tools for inner archaeology makes all the difference in how deep we can dig and what we will find.

The primary tools for unearthing Radical Beauty are Radical Commitment, Radical Honesty and Radical Willingness. “Radical” is an essential qualifier for each tool. Half-hearted honesty or willingness will get us nowhere. We know now that we cannot expect different results with the same old tools, which only result in rearranging the debris. If we want to transform, we will have to upgrade our tools.

In my travels, I’m astounded by the hardships that archaeologists face in their desire to dig up past treasures. It is backbreaking, methodical and delicate work that few are cut out for. Their commitment to working through challenges is worth emulating. In fact, steady and dogged commitment to a goal is the secret of success in any field. The form of Shakti known as Tripura Bhairavi symbolizes Radical Commitment.

Why is it so hard to commit to effort? The answer is simple. We can only commit to what we really want. Thus, the basis for commitment is desire, which leads to vision. My beloved yoga guru, Yogani incisively distills down achievement to be the result of desire + vision + action. This is true for whether we want to get through college, make a marriage work, or rise to the top of an organization. It is most definitely true for the path of inner exploration. If you don’t want it, you will not be committed. If you are not committed, you will not act. If you don’t act, you will not achieve. Simple. Radical Commitment translates desire and vision into consistent action.

Desire is a loaded word and concept. Many schools of spirituality shun desire as an evil trait that needs to be gotten rid of. I used to believe that too! It is common for spiritual aspirants to try to give up desire. However, trying to rid oneself of desire is a fruitless endeavor. The desire to give up desire binds us in a circular, nonserving argument. It is much more useful to hone down desire into a a sharp focus. When we become crystal clear about what we want, Bhairavi comes to our aid and cuts through everything that doesn’t serve that singular focus. She moves the whole universe to fulfill that desire. Bhairavi’s light leads to progressive refining of desire, which then explodes into love and beauty.

The tricky part of this is to know what we actually desire. We have been fed with ideas and concepts about what we should desire. This is particularly true for women. For example, we may have been indoctrinated into thinking that if we don’t desire a mate, children or stability, there is something wrong with us. Or that our place is at home, or some variation of “good girls don’t do xyz.” In the cacophony of voices that scream in our heads telling us what to want, the unique purpose for which we were created becomes thwarted. In the conflict between innate and fed desires, we can live unfulfilled lives, never discovering our unique gifts and abilities.

In order to sharpen the tool of Radical Commitment that will lead to consistent action toward self-discovery, we will need to tune into our heart’s desire and vision. That is the purpose of this next Beauty ritual.

Radical Beauty Ritual:

To embark on this expedition, I recommend that you acquire a good quality journal. This will become your best friend as you begin your inner explorations.

  • Make time to sit still for a few minutes daily. Set a timer so that you can be free of chores during this time. Take a few slow deep breaths and settle down into the chair. This exercise works best if you are in a relaxed state, like daydreaming. Become curious about what you will find. Gently ask: “I wonder what I really want.” Don’t expect an immediate answer! Explore what comes up. If it is something like, “I want a romantic partner,” sit with that. Turn it over in your mind. Wonder why you want it. When the timer goes off, take a few more deep slow breaths before you get up and go about your day.
  • Pay attention to how you feel about the different tasks you do on a daily basis. Write down the thoughts you have about the roles you play and the tasks you do. It is tempting to be cavalier and say you’d rather be sunning on the beach. Dig deeper. Beach bumming can become boring if that is all you did!
  • Write down the following. What do you really want now? This year? Over the next five years?


*Do share your thoughts in the comments below. What did you find? Have you discovered your heart’s desire? Are you Radically Committed?


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What is a Radical Beauty Ritual?

Shakti, the epitome of Radical BeautyIn the previous post, we examined the predicament of resolutions and the way to love and joy. Let’s explore what “Radical Beauty” means and what its rituals entail.

Some time ago, I wrote a series of blog posts on the many forms of Shakti, the divine feminine. Those writings were deeply meditative and resulted in profound insights, leading to great inner freedom and sweetness. The all-pervading nature of Shakti is useful to understand as we embark on the inner journey to freedom.

Who is Shakti and why should we care?

Shakti is not limited to the female body. As the energy that holds the cosmos together, she is the movement of the galaxies that creates new stars and black holes. As the digestive fire, she is agni that transforms food into the nutrients and strength. As the waking state, she appears as every thought, emotion and action. As the dream state, she is the play of the subconscious mind as it lives and acts out its fears and fantasies. As the deep sleep state, she is the absorption of consciousness into rest. As the evolutionary force of the planet, she is the movement of the tectonic plates that creates continents and oceans. As the great change, she is the earthquake, the tsunami and the volcano. Simply stated, there is nothing in existence that is not her.

Centuries ago, tantric sages gave names and forms to ten of the most significant facets of creation, calling them Dasha Mahavidya (dasha = ten, mahavidya = great wisdom). They are goddesses of profound transformation. They are called ‘maha’ (great) because they represent quantum aspects such as time and space.

On an individual level, Shakti represents both the shadows and the light within us. These opposing aspects are universal and occur in men and women. Shadows are destructive qualities that enhance ignorance and suffering. They are the debris we must wade through to find the light, which is Radical Beauty.

Kali, the first of the Mahavidyas represents renegade transformation. She symbolizes time, which is synonymous with evolution and change. Her shadow is one of aggression and violence. When we excavate through our tendencies for aggression, we find the light of non-violence. The process of transformation begins with Kali. The word “Radical” pays homage to her.

Our inner expedition takes us finally to Kamalatmika, the last of the Mahavidyas. She represents absolute delight, which saturates ordinary experiences and makes them extraordinary. When we dig through her shadow of inner conflict, we arrive at her light – contentment. The word “Beauty” is in her honor. Radical Beauty thus represents this sacred journey that traverses the path from Kali to Kamala, exploring every crevice in our psyche and washing it clean.

Ritualize it!

A ritual is a series of actions performed in a particular order. I find rituals deeply healing and use them to start the day, get ready, drive, see patients, write notes or manuscripts, cook, and so on. Rituals help bring focus and clarity to things we tend to do on auto-pilot mode. They help us slow down and savor small things.

Rituals can be as simple as stepping back briefly to breathe in the abundance of the moment, give heartfelt thanks, gain a wider perspective, recall our life’s purpose or inquire into experience. In these actions, we open to the possibility that life is much more than the details of our day-to-day existence.

A Radical Beauty Ritual is meant to bring the wisdom of the great goddesses into our lives in practical ways. In every post, you will find recommended practices and inquiries. Set time aside to delve into them. Note that these beauty rituals take time to ripen and provide results.  Be patient. Keep at it. Archaeology is not for the faint of heart. It is diligent, deliberate and delicate work!


  • Please use your discretion about practicing a certain ritual. Many of these are profound and have the potential to bring up hidden or suppressed trauma, emotions and life situations. If you don’t feel comfortable with it, please don’t do it.
  • If you are you are under therapy or treatment (or have a past history of) for significant trauma, anxiety, depression or other psychological conditions, please consult with your personal physician before taking on these practices.
  • This is a journey of self-discovery. The rituals are suggestions based on my experience. Each of us is responsible for our own journey. If you do take up these exercises, you are solely responsible for its effects.

Further reading:

  • The Ten Great Cosmic Powers Paperback by S. Shankaranarayanan (Samata Books; Second edition, August 19, 2013)
  • Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga by Sally Kempton (Sounds True; 1 edition, February 1, 2013)

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Unearthing Radical Beauty

The Parthenon: a metaphor for radical beautyWe just got back from a vacation in Greece, which was an absolute treat for the mind and senses. Along with the food, culture and the characteristic warmth of the Greek people, we absorbed the stories of history mingled with mythology, the wars and invasions that shaped the country and the rest of the world. The trip was a lesson in radical beauty.

Wandering through the ruins of the Bronze Age, it was easy to relive the legend of the Minotaur, the pet monster of the Minoan king of Crete a few hundred years before Christ. We admired the temple of Zeus, the Acropolis, the magnificent altar of Poseidon by the sea and of course, the hallowed Parthenon dedicated to the beautiful goddess Athena. The dignified structures speak silently of the turbulent and peaceful eras they have witnessed and withstood. If you are quiet enough, you can sense the presence of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hippocrates, Alexander the Great and others who changed the world as we know it.

Every archaeological site is shrouded in mystery. It turns out that as the scientists dig deeper at a given site, relics belonging to other ages reveal themselves, hidden under countless layers of debris. A 19th century church may hide the remnants of a mosque built two centuries earlier. If you keep digging, you might find a temple dedicated to an Olympian God constructed hundreds of years before the mosque. Keep excavating and you might find an altar meant for sacrifices to the mother goddess of the Bronze Age. I found this to be a delightful metaphor for the process of healing, particularly apt for this time of the year of resolutions and goals.

Most New Year’s resolutions are promptly forgotten by the end of January. Have you wondered why this is? To use the archaeology metaphor, resolutions can be a bit like trying to move debris obscuring the great treasure within. We instinctively know that the treasure exists, but mistakenly think that the way to get to it is by rearranging the debris. This invisible debris is made up of the judgments, thoughts and beliefs that we have about ourselves and the world around us. We try hard to change our lives and our attitudes, not knowing that they are held captive by the underlying beliefs and stories we tell ourselves. For example, if my deeply buried story is that I am unlovable, I  continually strive for approval. I keep rearranging debris without getting close to the treasure I seek. Rearranging does not lead to lasting joy and creates a cycle of never-ending seeking. This is why resolutions don’t work!

For transformation that catapults us into love and joy, we will need to excavate through the debris and zero in on the gold. We will need to wade through the layers of concepts that cunningly hide it. We will have to explore our dark shadows to realize that they cast by our own light. When we finally understand the falsity of limiting beliefs, they release us from their deadly grip.

Remember the great Wizard of Oz? He was just an ordinary man with a microphone! Our limitations (debris in this metaphor) arise from slavery to the nonexistent wizard with the loud voice. If we expose the wizard, the limitations will crumble into dust. Our lives will begin to change without the need for resolutions and goals. This is the way to radical beauty.

Are you ready for a new kind of resolution this year? What would you give for this kind of transformation?

Here is the invitation to join in for this journey. Maybe you will discover the radiant Athena within yourself!