Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Sally Kempton. Sally is known both for her ability to lead students into deep states of meditation and for her gift of making yogic wisdom applicable to daily life. She has spent over 40 years practicing, studying, and teaching meditation and spiritual philosophy. A former swami, which is a type of monk, she lived and studied for many years with Indian masters, and received training in the Kashmir Shaivism tradition.
With Sounds True, Sally Kempton has created a new book called Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga, which is a book that provides a practical guide for activating the currents of the divine feminine in every aspect of life.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Sally and I spoke about how to seek guidance and blessings from a goddess. We talked about the role of imagination in invoking goddess energy and also how every goddess has a light and shadow side. We also talked about the relationship between the invocation of goddess energy and the awakening of kundalini in the human experience. Here’s my conversation with Sally Kempton.
Sally, your new book introduces the reader to eleven goddesses of yoga. And here at the beginning of our conversation, I want to talk about what or who are these goddesses to you? I can imagine someone listening who thinks of goddesses as symbols or archetypes or maybe a listener who says, no, they are actual real beings. They’re actually real beings in nonphysical space. So what are the goddesses to you?
Sally Kempton: Thank you, Tami. And there’s another question: why goddesses? But we’ll get to that later. I first came across these goddesses, these deities, in meditative space. So I first came across them as energies, as kind of feeling states that would appear in my meditation, not really visually so much as—I would, in meditation, fall into certain states of consciousness through working with mantras or through chants that would bring this very palpable sense of a presence that was not me, that was not my normal meditative space but actually had a kind of shimmering, ecstatic, and very individual energetic feel to it.
I, over years, began to, let’s say, be able to identify different qualities of energy, almost different personalities of energy that would come up when I contemplated a different deity figure. So who the goddesses are to me primarily are these energy vortexes that are energetically so real that they actually kind of come into the space. Each one of them has a particular quality of—I would call it love and power—that’s different from others. And when invoked, they kind of show up in the field, and they can be felt by other people who are in the field. So they’re energies. And I do actually—I don’t know whether the word is “believe”—but I have a very deep sense that they are actually real presences in a subtle universe.
But they are also—and that’s part of what I’ve been writing about in the book—they’re also—I mean, the word we usually use is “archetypes.” They’re aspects of consciousness that exist in human psychology and also exist, so to speak, cosmically. And once you start tuning into goddess energies, you actually start to feel the quality of one of these goddesses in the natural world. I mean, the classic example is that particular energy vortex called Kali, whom people often experience in a hurricane or in a very forceful aspect of nature, but who we also can experience as our own revolutionary impulses, our own—a particular kind of strength in ourselves.
So each one of these goddesses has a kind of signature that seems to manifest in the natural world, in our psychological world, and really as a conduit for blessing, for empowerment, for, kind of, divine grace.
TS: So I want to take this slowly for a moment. Here you are, you’re meditating, and there’s a quality of presence or energy that emerges. And you mentioned that it’s not that you had a visual experience of this quality of energy; it’s not like you saw a goddess. How did you know this is something that’s not just—something you could name with a word as a feeling that was moving through you? I mean, could you tell me the first time a goddess energy appeared for you in meditation and how you were able to identify it, as a goddess?
SK: Sure, sure. And a lot of my experience of deities has come about because I was a teacher for years in a Hindu-based spiritual tradition in which we would sometimes give courses and talks on deities, like on their mythological aspects or on their iconography. And it would often happen when I was actually preparing to teach something on one of these goddesses. So I would have focused intensely. I would have been reading about Kali or Lakshmi or Durga. I would be contemplating the stories and the symbology, and there would be a—well, the first time it happened, one of the first times it happened I describe in the book, but the one that really blew me away was when I was doing contemplations on Kali.
I had certain ideas about Kali, as most of us do—that she’s a kind of antinomian, wild, revolutionary, kind of left-handed, tantric goddess who I thought of as kind of epitomizing the wild feminine in her most extreme form. And at one point, as I was sitting with the thought of Kali—and I had been contemplating her for a couple of weeks, going for walks and thinking about her—and I was overtaken one day in meditation with this feeling of the fiercest love that I’ve ever felt in my life.
It was as if a feminine love force just came into my body and filled me with a feeling that is so unlike my own personality. It actually felt like being possessed or taken over by another force. And the experience was radically, radically ecstatic. It felt as though I was being loved from within by a great power.
My body began to shake, and I began to cry, and the boundaries between me and the room started to dissolve. It was literally a—in India, they actually talk about something they call “goddess possession” that happens to people, where it’s like the energy of the goddess, the energy of deities comes into people, and for a certain amount of time, they kind of embody that energy. So that was my first experience.
There was no visual, which is—at that time, I just never had visual meditations. I’m much more of a kinesthetic person. So it started a chain of deity meditations that—this is in the late 80’s, I guess—and ever since then, when I focus intensely on a deity figure, not only goddesses, but also masculine deities, they kind of show up in my field, and each one of them is very different.
So it’s basically an energetic experience of an “other.” You know what I mean? It doesn’t feel like me. I think that most of us, especially people who meditate a lot, we have a series of, let’s say, experiences of deep meditation that are part of, you know, my personal field as a meditator, I’m sure of yours, that are recognizable as Sally in meditation or Tami in meditation. In my case, they’re kind of non-dual, open, thought-free, witness-type states. They’re not particularly—they’re not necessarily full of color and dynamic energy.
So when these deity energies arrive, they’re very distinct from my so-called normal personal experience of inner states.
TS: Now, we started our conversation with what are these goddess energies, and you said, “And we have to talk about why.” So I want to make sure that we include what you were pointing to there with this question “why.”
SK: Do you mean why would somebody want to meditate on goddesses?
TS: Is that what you meant?
SK: That’s what I meant. But I would also say—it’s also interesting to kind of look at what the goddesses in the tantric traditions represent in the non-dual Hindu world. I mean, how they connect to the metaphysics of the tradition. But I would say, “Why meditate on goddesses?”—which is a question that I have very much, as I move around in the world of contemporary spirituality—that most of the people I know who meditate and follow the path that hopefully allows us to experience the ever present suchness of our liberated self—most people don’t bother with forms. They tend to do self-inquiry practice or meditation on consciousness itself. And truthfully, that’s kind of my own personal practice.
I think the reason I have found deity energies, goddess energies, to be incredibly significant in my practice and I’ve found them to be significant for people I’ve worked with and taught these practices is first of all because they literally have a capacity to open up aspects of consciousness that we aren’t normally aware of.
So goddesses are literally empowering. As you know, that’s part of the practice of the classical tantric traditions is that you—I know in Tibetan Buddhism, people have a yidam, or we would call it an Ishta Devata in our tradition—and you kind of find an aspect, a personified aspect of the divine that you can concentrate on. I mean, in a certain sense, deities are cognitive focusing devices, if you will, that let you tune into transpersonal qualities that may be more difficult to tune into if you’re trying to consider them in the abstract.
As you know, in classical tantric deity practice, you actually do very elaborate visualizations with mantras, and all the different things they have in their hands, and their clothes, and you kind of make the deity form a presence in your consciousness. In my experience, because I don’t tend to do it so much through visualization as through calling—I actually ask the deity to be present and ask with as much longing and desire as I can find in that moment.
And it feels to me as though these energies, these deity energies, are present in our field, in the field of the universe, perhaps in the field of our own subtle body and that by addressing them, by calling on them, by repeating their mantras, we bring forth powers in ourselves that we can experience as helpful, as giving blessings, or actually as awakening capacities in us that we may not have been aware of.
It’s a practice that, I would say—like all second person spiritual practice, it acknowledges that the divine is both inside and outside. So it allows you to actually befriend qualities of the transpersonal that you may not have been willing to allow yourself to possess. Like, it’s certainly hard for me to just affirm that I am the incarnation of divine beauty or that I have invincible strength because in my ordinary, limited Sally Kempton form, I don’t.
So there’s something about calling on the divine beauty of a transpersonal form or on the invincible strength of a transpersonal form, a deity figure. Or for me, as a writer, I spend a lot of time asking for divine help in helping me figure out what I actually want to be saying in an article or in a chapter. It’s been one of the ways that I find to overcome my sense of personal limitation—is by calling on something that’s without limitation and then kind of inhaling it and allowing it to take shape in me. So that’s one reason for “why goddesses.”
TS: This is very helpful, Sally, and I want to make sure to really ground it for our listeners. And to do that, I’m wondering if you could talk about a specific goddess that you have been calling on in the last year or two and really working with specifically, and how you do that, and what kind of change occurs in you through calling on that goddess.
SK: OK. Great questions. Well, the most interesting recent experiences I’ve had of, let’s say, working with a particular goddess was in this book because there were certain of the goddess—there are eleven goddesses in the book, and some of them—Kali, Lakshmi, Saraswati—are goddesses I’ve studied a lot and taught about a lot, and I’ve been interacting with them, so to speak, psychically, for years, but there were some of them that I wanted to include but who were really quite unfamiliar to me. I had never been initiated into their practices. They’re tantric wisdom goddesses, so they are quite mysterious, esoteric goddesses.
In the process, I began to kind of ask for help in unlocking the mysteries of some of these goddesses that I didn’t feel like I understood. And as I asked this, this particular energy coalesced in my field, and it was the energy of a goddess named Matangi, who is—her myth is that she was a human being who was the daughter of an elephant handler in the jungles of India. And she’s a form of the goddess Saraswati, who’s the deity of wisdom and learning and music and who’s a very beautiful, quite ethereal form of feminine energy. She’s the one that classical Indian musicians invoke before their performances and students invoke before the first day of school.
I had an intuition that there was an energy that was going to help me write the book, and her name started with an M. And I kind of went through various goddess energies with M names, and this was the one that kind of sparkled when I said her name. So what I would do is—I got a picture of her, which, as far as I know, looks nothing like her, but—there are a lot of pictures of her. And I started doing her mantras everyday. I would do the mantras, and then I would ask her for help. I basically asked her to write for me, which is my essential—the way I work with deities—I kind of ask them to do what I have to do.
So I would be writing about one of the goddesses whom I didn’t understand too well, and this energy would begin to come through my hands on the computer keys—because that’s kind of how I function as writer—it doesn’t so much happen in the mind; it sort of happens in the interaction of the hands on the keys. And at a certain point, I would actually begin to feel that there was something coming through me that came from a higher world, that was literally translating subtle energy, subtle knowledge, into an accessible form.
So in other words, I would be writing about one of the goddesses who was very mysterious to me, whose name is Lalita Tripura Sundari, who’s a very queenly tantric goddess, very sexy, and she’s the goddess who’s the deity of the Sri Yantra, the famous sort of diagram that leads you from the gross to the subtle to the super-subtle.
And I began to have images of how this energy operates in a human woman, what it is to be exquisitely beautiful and utterly powerful, completely confident, erotic, and spiritual, and executive, to have that quality of the feminine. I found that this energy was kind of enabling me to tune into Lalita and get inside her and describe her in a way that I believe is correct, is accurate. I could begin to see women who embodied that quality in one way or another and to be able to create exercises that helped me feel her presence inside myself.
So is that specific enough?
TS: Yes. That’s helpful. What it brings up for me is this question of asking a goddess energy for help and the traditional idea that you could pray and make offerings and ask a goddess for a boon: help me write my book. And I can imagine someone listening saying, “Isn’t this just sort of acquisitive spirituality?” “I’m going to get what I want.” I’m wondering what you think is the type of praying to a goddess that is really heart-based and will sort of bring out the best in that goddess and what’s more sort of grabby, “Can’t you just get me what I want?”
SK: Good question. So there are two aspects of this I want to talk about. First, the essence of tantric practice is that it’s a practice in which both bhukti and mukti, meaning worldly enjoyment and liberation, are “allowed.” So the sages of that tradition say you should ask the deity for everything because the more you rely on the deity—I mean, this is very second person devotional, and it’s in every tradition—the more you rely on the deity, the closer you bring the energy into yourself. Just as the great modern saint Sai Baba of Shirdi used to say famously, “I give people what they want so that they’ll want what I ultimately have to give them.”
That principle is very much a part of tantric practice, and it’s misused in certain corners of that world for sure. But the way I’ve always sorted it is that I ask for things that are for the greater good, that are for the benefit of other beings. I’ve never—actually, it’s only recently that I’ve actually felt OK about asking for help with my health, which I’ve started doing.
But when I was with my guru, he would ask me to do certain things that were very hard for me, that I really didn’t have the talent for, if you will. And he would say to me, ask Nityananda (who was his guru) to help you. So I formed the habit of asking for help from my lineage for things that were acts of service that I felt were beyond my normal capacities, and what I discovered was that when you’re in tune with grace, your capacities are much greater than they are when you’re considering yourself your ordinary bound self.
So basically, I would say the difference between acquisitive, petitionary prayer and petitionary prayer that’s sort of in tune with the will of the cosmos is that you’re essentially praying for things that are going to help you do things that will benefit others or are for others. Prayer for others, for things to go well for another person. For me, a lot of the way I pray is to really understand the truth in a situation so that if I’m writing something or if I’m teaching, that what I’m teaching is coming from a place of truth rather than from my own opinions or my own views.
I actually find that that kind of petitionary prayer sort of ensures that you’re aligned with the higher powers, with the higher truth. And for me, making it personal is very important. As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita, it’s much more difficult to stay in tune with unmanifest pure consciousness than it is to stay in tune with someone or something that is touchable or tangible. And for me, giving divine consciousness a name and a form actually helps me become more attuned to it.
TS: And I’m curious—someone who’s listening who might have the experience: I just don’t connect immediately to this goddess or that goddess, but if I start using my imagination, if I start kind of telling a story, then that opens the gateway. And I’m curious what you feel the role of imagination is in invoking a goddess energy.
SK: Beautiful question. Well, the ancients, of course, understood imagination as really the connection point between the human mental world and the world of higher forms, the archetypal world—so that by visual imagination, or by invocation, or by that experience of telling yourself a story—I mean, the mythic stories have so much capacity for creating a field in which these energies can appear. My own sense of what the imagination is, other than being a higher faculty of mind, is that it is actually the great creative vortex out of which worlds are made. In the ancient stories, the cosmic intelligence, the cosmic mind, kind of imagines a world of forms, and it takes shape, and all of this is the dream within the mind of the imagination of the cosmic being.
I think that points to, whether it’s true or not, whether it’s literally true or not, it does point to the incredible creative capacity of imagination. So if you’re going to use your imagination, which I don’t believe human beings are capable of not doing, then if you use your imagination to create beauty and to create sacredness and to create compassionate visions, then somehow it seems that you are influencing the whole field in a profoundly useful way.
What I would say to people who don’t connect to these energies is to actually spend some time with some of these stories and notice that some of the stories, some of the myths, for some reason resonate with you on an imaginative level. And when you feel that resonance, then recognize that there’s a lineage. Each mythological structure is connected to a lineage of energies that—if you relate to it, it probably has something to teach you, something to offer you.
So I’ve always found that the stories are a beautiful way into a sense of the lineage energies. And, of course, in many traditions, you know, your teacher will sense the connection to a particular deity energy and suggest or offer that you work with a mantra that’s connected to it or do a visualization that’s connected to it.
So there are different ways to test or sense whether you connect to deity energies. And it’s one path. It’s a path that, I would say, eventually requires some form of initiation, whether it’s an initiation by a teacher, or initiation by the deity itself, or the kind of initiation that kind of leaps out at you from the pages of a book—because it happens that way. But in a certain sense, our spiritual practice chooses us. Do you know what I mean?
TS: I do.
SK: So we can trust that we’ll be drawn to the practice that’s useful for us at a particular time. It may not be the only practice that’s ever useful for us, but I think that there—I run across people a lot, especially women, but men also, who just have an intuition that there’s something in these feminine powers that has something to reveal to them or show to them. So they become curious.
And just by reading a book like this and doing some of the exercises in it, which are pretty empowered, I would say, you start to feel the resonances. So everyone can go out and read this book and see which goddess you’re attuned to. I’m actually kind of serious. It’s one of the reasons I wanted to write it: was really to give people an accessible avenue into the goddesses of the Hindu tantric tradition because they are such incredible vehicles for blessings.
I’ve tried to make them accessible both through the stories and through human examples of what it feels like to kind of embody this energy—and through a lot of exercises.
TS: Sally, I want us to bring one of these goddesses into the space of this conversation. And to select which one, here’s my question to you. My question is: here in the West, we have certain biases about feminine power. “It’s like this. It’s like this. It’s like this.”
But we may not associate feminine power with that quality or some other quality that’s not really part of our current vocabulary about feminine power. And I thought it would be interesting to, first of all, ask you to name what that might be—what aspect of feminine power is under-recognized in the West today that we could find in one of these goddesses—and then to ask that goddess to come and be present with us in some form—to invoke her.
SK: Well, I think that the obvious example is Kali. Although she’s fairly popular among cultural leftists, so to speak, she represents qualities that we really don’t allow the feminine. Kali is a revolutionary. She’s fierce. She has fangs. She’s destructive. She’s naked. Her sexuality is unbound. She’s uncontrollable. She’s all the things that nice girls aren’t supposed to be—and that’s also true in India. In India, calling a woman a regular Kali is not a compliment. It usually means she’s a bitch or a scold or somehow uncontrollable. So there’s a quality of untamability and unstoppability in Kali that is not part of our vision of the feminine.
For example, one of the ways that Kali is seen is in natural disasters. She’s in the tsunami. She’s in battle, which is not something that we tend to associate with the feminine. So she’s a very scary goddess. And one of the things that I’ve found over the years, as I’ve worked with people with Kali energy, is that for many women especially, acknowledging the Kali-esque aspects in ourselves is radically liberating.
To look into your own wildness, your own anger, your own desire, let’s say, to dance uncontrollably or to run without limits or to just say the things to the people who’ve hurt you that you never would say in civilized conversation—it’s a deeply transformative thing to begin to tune into her energy.
For many of us, that Kali-esque quality is very deeply buried in the unconscious and of course it’s a deeply shadowed quality, that kind of Kali-esque rage. But what you discover, what I discover—I actually talk about it in the book, about a time in my life when I was very much repressing my rebellious and sort of anti-social qualities. I was living with an extremely rigid yogic world. I was a swami and all of my relationships were meant to be calm and compassionate and loving and sweet and so all the parts of me that weren’t like that were kind of repressed and in shadow. At one point I started to get sick. I would have these dreams about strange forces trying to get out of my body.
So I sat down one day and started to do one of those writing with both hands dialogues, where you write the question with your dominant and then you let your non-dominant hand write the answer. And as I was doing this, I asked this energy, “What is this energy that wants to get out?” And the words that came out were, “I’m Kali. I’m your wildness. I’m your rage. I’m your beauty. I’m your sexuality.” She began to just write through my hand and as she did, this feeling of enormous freedom and beauty and release began to pour through me.
I would say that when you begin to tune into the shadow Kali energy in yourself, it requires some discipline [in order] not to throw it on other people, which is sometimes what happens. As you begin to get in touch with her, you start to see that the feminine is much more mysterious, much stronger, much wilder, much more able to contain apparently contradictory qualities. And the quality of, let’s say, ego-driven anger or ego-driven sexuality can begin to be really transmuted into their divine inner qualities which are qualities of Kali. They’re transpersonal qualities that are then available to you for deep work rather than leaking out in recrimination and sort of abusive behavior, what Leonard Cohen called the “Homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen,” all of those qualities of the repressed feminine that show up in unskillful ways because we haven’t really learned to own our divine wrath, our divine wildness.
TS: Now in the book, you talk about how each of these eleven goddesses has a shadow side and light side, can you explain that in relationship to Kali, using Kali as the example here? What’s the shadow side and the light side?
SK: Well Kali, of course, is a great example of an energy that is often expressed in shadowy ways. For example, one of my friends is a deeply compassionate and beautiful person. She’s a psychotherapist. She’s got an amazing gift for empathy. Every now and then, she will have attacks of just terrifying rage, and you’ll be in the car with her, and you’ll feel that something you’ve said has offended her. And the whole car will fill with this intense anger, which, in my case, she doesn’t express, because we don’t know each other well enough, but which in her family she often does express in ways that make people really walk on eggshells around her.
The thing that I’ve seen from knowing her—that that side of her, that crazy rage, which is the shadow of it—that there’s a light side of it that’s actually the same energy which gives her the capacity to cut through bullshit, to turn an entire room full of people who are not getting to the heart of something, to actually take them to a very deep state of spiritual and psychological realization and it’s like that quality of being able to completely cut to the chase, to cut through the bullshit to find the truth. You know, that sort of—in Buddhism, that sort of Manjusri sword quality can be turned against people in very cruel ways, or it can be used to completely transform a situation towards beauty and truth.
I think with all the goddesses—you know, for example, Lakshmi, who is sort of everybody’s favorite Hindu goddess. She’s the goddess of abundance and money and beauty and you know, jewels and fertility and all these beautiful things. Her shadow side is this avid consumerism: greed and doing anything for the sake of money. It’s like Lakshmi turned toward the uses of the ego is a big destructive force in contemporary society, whereas Lakshmi in her light form is the sense of abundance, the sense of unshakable abundance that makes us loving and makes us able to find beauty in everything and makes us feel satisfied in deep ways of our life.
TS: So Sally, you made a comment that really struck me which was how part of your intention in writing this book on these eleven goddess is to give people a readily accessible tool that they can use to connect with these energies and to just put it right there for them—here’s the mantra, here’s the visualization, here are the stories, here’s your sort of self-starter kit to connect with this goddess, everything you need.
One of the questions that I have is that when somebody gets this book and starts seeing, “Oh, I relate to this goddess, I don’t relate to this goddess. Out of the eleven, there’s only one I relate to, or there’s two that I do, and one I can’t stand.” How do you suggest that the reader actually engage? I mean, you could spend your whole lifetime working with just one goddess energy, potentially, or you could experiment with all eleven.
SK: Yes. My suggestion in reading this book, and it’s true of my meditation book as well, is that you read it like a practice. So you know, read the chapter and there are exercises in all the chapters and there are mantras in all the chapters, and just practice them for a few minutes as you’re reading. To practice a meditation on Durga for five minutes is not the same thing as doing a lifetime sadhana of Durga practice but it will give you a sense of how this goddess feels, of whether you connect to her. And what my suggestion is that you read the book that way, and when you meet one who feels especially familiar to you—and [for] most people there’s more than one, you know, because most of us have several goddesses expressing themselves through our personhood—just spend a few days practicing with her. And yes, you are absolutely right, you could, and I hope that there are people who will, you could realize that you have a deep connection with one of these goddesses and decide that you’re actually going to investigate it.
Spend some time meditating with one of the practices for invoking the goddess. Work with her mantra, and let her energy kind of flower in you. And in my experience, if you do this for, if you practice with a goddess for week, you’ll start to get a sense of how her energy works in your life and you’ll start to get a sense of how to invoke her and when to invoke her. That’s how I suggest working with the book. The practices in it are really good for groups to do together. They’re great to do with a partner, or three or four people.
All of these energies are showing up in our daily life. Once you start contemplating Durga, for example, who is a goddess of protection and strength [and] who is a very accessible form of feminine energy in our time. We know a lot of women who are manifesting that Durga energy, that kind of “super mom” energy, the female executive, protective energy. You start to see her in your life and in yourself and to recognize there are certain circumstances in which it would be really, really useful to have a particular kind of feminine warrior strength in your field. And by meditating a little bit on Durga and starting to feel—because for me it’s always a question of actually feeling an energetic shift as you bring one of these goddesses into your field. You may not see her, in fact most people don’t, but generally speaking, you’ll feel something shift in your subtle body, in your energy field.
When you feel that shift, you know there’s been a connection, and at that point, you can begin experimenting with asking her to give you strength or to give you understanding, or to let you feel love or harmony or beauty, or to help you work with a situation that’s difficult Each one of the goddesses is particularly helpful in specific situations.
TS: So you’re suggestion is for people to start where they’re naturally drawn, and I’m wondering, if you meet a goddess in the book and you think, “Eh, don’t really care, has nothing to do with me, not connected.” Just move on?
SK: Yes, move on. When I was writing the book, I have a friend who has a book group and some of the people in the book group read four of the chapters. Everybody who read the book, for example, could relate to Durga; they are all professional women. Only one of them could relate to Rada, who’s the beloved of Krishna and she’s a very erotic, I could call her kind of a teenage goddess. They just decided, “OK, we’ll skip through Rada, we won’t go on with her.” So I think that’s great. What I’ve found is that, at some point, every one of these goddesses has an insight to give you, but if you know about all of them, then when that point comes in your life and you’re thinking, “Is there some wisdom about the feminine that I can look to a particular energy for?” And you think, “Well, what about her? What about this goddess that scared the shit out of me when I first read about her or that I just thought was irrelevant to my life?” So yes, go where you’re drawn.
TS: I just have one final question for you, Sally, which is, your new book is called Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga. And I want to talk a little bit about what this word “shakti” means and what the relationship is between invoking the power of these goddesses and the whole phenomenon of kundalini awakening in the human person.
SK: OK. Great question.
TS: It’s kind of a big question to end on, but I don’t want to end this conversation without talking about it.
SK: So, in the tantric traditions and in the Indian tradition in general, “shakti” literally means “power.” Shakti is the name for the creative, dynamic aspect of the cosmic intelligence. In Indian tradition, the divine has a yin/yang quality, but the yin is the masculine, and the yang is actually the feminine because in the tradition that I was trained in, the so-called masculine—of course we’re talking about a level which has nothing to do with gender—the so-called masculine is identified with awareness itself. The creative power, the love aspect of consciousness, is identified with the feminine. If you think of reality at its deepest level as being awareness, love, then the awareness is masculine and love is the feminine, but the power is in the love side. It’s love. It’s bliss. It’s creative urgency. You know, what some people call the “evolutionary urgency” or the “erotic urgency” to become something, is shakti. In the tradition, that ecstatic urgency that’s inherent in consciousness just becomes all these forms.
So the tantric view is that everything that exists and doesn’t exist is made out of permutations of this energy, this shakti, and that awareness is kind of present there as a witness and ground of all of it. So what kundalini [is] then, is the microcosmic form of that creative shakti which exists inside the human body and in everything as a life force—so the prana, in yogic terms—and does our life. If you, as you know, if you really get deeply into your own body, you’ll recognize that there’s a force that’s living your life that actually has nothing to do with your personal decisions and is even making those decisions before you know you’re making decisions, and that’s shakti.
And that’s kundalini, and when that energy is said to, in our ordinary limited state of consciousness, it’s said in a beautiful metaphor is that the energy of kundalini is asleep. What that actually means is that it’s functioning [in] what the tradition calls an “out-going” way. It’s functioning through our senses, it’s making our mind come up with thoughts, it’s acting through our bodies, but it’s never looking into what we are on an interior level, and the awakening of kundalini is the awakening of our capacity to interiorize consciousness.
So from a tantric point of view, every spiritual awakening is an awakening of kundalini because kundalini is simply our capacity for self-recognition. But of course, there’s another form of kundalini awakening that is very much about energy moving in the body and creates a whole series, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of manifestations of radical shifts in consciousness and physical movements and purifications and visual experiences, and that’s the form of kundalini awakening that traditionally sends energy up into the central channel in the subtle body and awakens the chakras.
And shakti, you know, the goddesses are deeply present in that energetic form of kundalini awakening as in all forms of spiritual practice. In the tradition, every center in the body is associated with a goddess or goddesses who are the pyschopomps, as it were—to use Jung’s language—the guardian energies who, when we invoke them, they can open our inner centers and open our higher capacities. When kundalini is active in the body, one of the gifts it gives us is a kind of heightened interior sensitivity so that we begin to be able to see with what the Christian writers call “the eye of the heart” or “the eye of the spirit” in a much more concrete way than in ordinary consciousness.
So this is just like the tips of the iceberg of an enormously complex topic but essentially, shakti is kundalini. When that active aspect of kundalini is awakened, it works in us, and I’ve talked about this a little bit in the book, it works in us in forms that are associated with different goddesses So for example, when you’re having an experience of upheaval and radical transformation, which often happens at certain stages of kundalini awakening, it’s said that the Kali aspect of the shakti is working inwardly in your system. When you have these great, expansive, heart-opening, sweet periods in your practice—it feels as though the boons of the universe are being showered on you and everything you ever wanted is coming to you—these are said to be expressions of the Lakshmi energy acting in you through kundalini.
The goddesses are very, very much associated with psycho-physical processes in our spiritual unfoldment that as you get to know them, you can start to track them in your practice and it helps you to recognize that your spiritual unfoldment is not happening—you know, it’s not under your control. It’s actually the unfoldment of powers that want to awaken as you, that have their own timing and their own intelligence and that you can trust.
TS: Beautiful! I’m talking with Sally Kempton and she has written an incredibly helpful guidebook to the transformative power of the goddesses of yoga, a book called Awakening Shakti. Eleven different goddesses are introduced, very thoroughly. There are stories, myths, beautiful images that have been hand-drawn by a gentleman named Ekabhumi. And maybe, Sally, you could just tell us briefly about the images that are contained in the book?
SK: Well, in goddess practice, one of the ways you familiarize yourself with deity is to look at an image, and for centuries there [has been] a tradition of creating images for meditation. There’s a very specific series of icons and images and clothes that when they’re brought together by an artist who is in touch with the deity energy, can actually help you recognize and come close to the deity energy.
There is a traditional way of studying and expressing sacred art that has been handed down from teachers to students for many generations and they’re different in different in part of India, but the artist Ekabhumi who did the sketches, who did the very beautiful line drawings in this book has studied with masters of the tradition and works in the traditional way where he meditates on the deity and draws it from a state of inspiration. So it’s a way—along with the mantas and the stories, the illustrations really help you tune into the deity. They’re great, great aids to meditation and they’re also very beautiful.
TS: Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga, a new book by Sally Kempton. Sally has also created an accompanying audio program called Shakti Meditations, which are guided practices to invoke some of the main goddesses that are profiled in the book. Sally has also published, with Sounds True, one of my favorite books on meditation. It’s called Meditation for the Love of It: Enjoying Your Own Deepest Experience, and an audio program that helps people start a meditation practices called Beginning Meditation.
Sally, as always, wonderful to talk with you, and congratulations on the publication of this book. I think it is a beautiful, helpful tool for people. I think it’s really going to make these goddesses accessible—that’s a great gift.
SK: Oh thank you Tami. It’s been a joy and of course, working with you is always illuminative, fun, and something that I’m really grateful for. It’s been a pleasure all around.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices. One journey. Thanks for listening.