I’ve written a great deal on this site (and elsewhere) on my disagreement with the notion of the divine masculine and feminine. I’m not going to rehash that whole argument here–if you’re interested see here, here, and here for example (I did say I wrote A LOT about it).
The basic issue I have with the masculine-feminine is that it uses terms (masculine and feminine) which are derived from human biology and gender to try to describe something that is, in theory anyway, not biologically or gender dependent.
To poke fun for a moment, this would be like if I were to attempt to describe a teaching, a polarity between burger (vegetarian) and bun (gluten-free). So burger and bun. One (burger) represents meatiness, solidity, and substance, while the other (bun) represents the energy of holding, containing, embracing. But as I say that it’s absolutely imperative you not think of an actual hamburger. Don’t think of actual food!!! It’s not food based because everyone has within them burger and bun.
Of course this analogy is purposefully a bit ludicrous. But in another way, not really. Notice that the energetic metaphors of meatiness, substance as well as containing and holding are derived from the concrete experience of eating a burger. The same goes for masculine and feminine as spiritual metaphors that are supposedly non-biological and non-gendered. When you get down to what each polarity is supposed to represent, you see they are metaphors drawn from concrete gender norming. The Masculine is said to be agentic, driven, and er penetrating. While the feminine is receptive, compassionate, and nurturing.
I’m not opposed to the idea (or even the practice) whereby there is a polarity between for example direction and reception. The problem I have is with labeling the one masculine and the other feminine, then trying to convince me that those have nothing to do with assumptions about gender (which they can’t but have since the words are themselves gender terms). Using language of Masculine and Feminine inevitably brings gender and biology debates to the fore (which is great actually) but then shuts that conversation down by saying it has nothing to do with gender and biology. Which again is like saying the polarity of burger and bun is not about food. Well yes, obviously it is, since that is what the words mean.
There’s lots of other problems that flow from that one, but for now that’s enough. As a consequence of that criticism I’ve been labeled (this is no exaggeration) all of the following: anti-woman, anti-male, secretly privileging androgyny, even anti-heterosexual. Which is equal parts hilarious and depressing given that I’m very (happily) a biological male, with a very dude gender identity whose 100% heterosexual. I’m not anti-myself. My point is simply that I don’t want metaphors drawn from my experience to be the one and only (and automatically assumed to be true and final and ultimately right) way of being for all others. Relatedly, I don’t experience energies like agency and reception have anything to do with gender, so why bring in gender terms to confuse the matter?
So given that I’ve written that much on the topic and have made clear repeatedly my disagreement with the language of Masculine and Feminine, I actually want to break custom here and actually use that very language. At least I want to explore one classic image in this tradition: The Shiva-Shakti symbol. In this symbolism, Shiva stands for Consciousness, The Masculine, Formless and Shakti is said to represent Manifestation, The Feminine, and Form. Shiva is Dark, Shakti is Light. Shiva is Unmoved, Shakti is Movement, Shiva is Heaven, Shakti is Earth, and so on.
Why do I want to write this way after all the time criticizing it? The answer is that even though I have a beef (no pun intended) with teaching Masculine and Feminine, if one is going to do it at least they should get it right on its own terms. Much as disagree with the framework, at least it should be honored and properly understood for its enduring truths.
I say that because what I’m noticing is a huge degree of misunderstanding of Shakti in particular. I would even go so far to say a deep denigration of her, under the guise of various attempts to be her devoted follower. There’s a lot of discussion, exchange, and controversy around Shakti-The Goddess nowadays. There probably always has been in some place or other but right now it’s taking a particularly, how shall I say, interesting form. It shows up in a lot of the Goddess Revival type work which I can appreciate on many levels for what it is attempting to accomplish but nevertheless I think there’s some significant flaws in what I’m seeing. I want to explore this territory because there’s deep value here but only (in my mind) if it’s held in an updated form.
In what follows then I’m going to use the traditional He-She language of Shiva-Shakti. I’ve made clear that I personally don’t buy into that framework in a metaphysical or literal sense but to honor that teaching I will use the language for this post.
But before we dive into why I think many of the invocations of Shakti are missing the mark, we need just a little bit of conceptual background. This conceptual background will help to make sense of why I think there are so many mistaken notions of Shakti floating around.
In the traditions of Vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism and Vedanta Hinduism there is the teaching of the three great realms: gross, subtle, and causal. Other traditions have other names for this same basic tripartite structure. For example Christianity has purification, illumination, and union. Gross, subtle, and causal I think works well (just so long as we remember this same overall teaching exists in other traditions).
The Gross is the world of waking consciousness. Gross as in most dense (not icky). Subtle is the world of dreams, illuminations, visions, ancestors, realms of the afterlife, The World Soul, and so on. Causal is the Groundless Ground of All Being. It is the Cause or Source, The Origin of All.
The Vajrayana-Vedanta traditions also speak of a fourth realization called Nonduality. This term (or the realization that the term points to) is available in other traditions. For example, in Christianity it’s called indistinct union. But again the term nondual perhaps has a more user-friendly quality about it or at least is more commonly used, so I’ll work with it.
Labeling nonduality a fourth in a series–gross, subtle, causal, and nondual–is in one way totally correct and in another way totally inaccurate. When one first awakens to nonduality it feels as if the space of nondual awakening is separate from the three realms of gross, subtle, and causal. It feels like a fourth thing. But as one steeps like tea in this space, they come to realize that there are only the three spaces of gross, subtle, and causal. The Nondual isn’t a separate state/reality apart from the gross, subtle, and causal. Rather nonduality is the Essence, the Deep Intensity of all gross, subtle, and causal.
The traditions describe this as first awakening to a kind of Sphere that encompasses and pervades everything and everyone (Shiva). And then one realizes that within this Sphere is Radiant Light blasting in all directions infinitely (Shakti).
In this deeper (more maturer) nonduality, there is nothing other than gross, subtle, and casual. One is awake (Shiva) and dancing (Shakti) through all the three realms. And at that point one has now come to experience true Shakti. There is only the shaking of Shakti on all levels which we call creation.
Before the realization of Consciousness (symbolized by Shiva), then one lives at the mercy of Shakti. Shakti plays her game on you. And she is fickle to put it (quite) mildly. Being bound to Shakti’s shake without realization is cruel and terrifying on so many levels. Being bound to Shakti is being unconsciously bound to the inevitable turnings of the wheel of life. One day you might be up, the next day you’re being crushed under the wheel. As the saying goes, the only constant is change. Affixing our minds, our sense of self to any form in life is a painful choice because that form–no matter how beautiful, alluring, or pleasurable–will inevitably decay and die. And to the degree you (or I) am identified with that form in death, you die with it. Some part of you dies with it.
Everything that has a beginning in time will eventually have an end. Our physical bodies last perhaps 80 or so years. Our legacy may live on perhaps somewhat longer but will die as well. Affixing our identities to those inherently mortal forms is to invite great suffering. If one follows this path they are at the mercy of Shakti’s play. She will play them and inevitably it will end badly. It’s only a matter of time.
Keep that in mind because it’s trendy nowadays to invoke the Goddess and talk about embracing our bodies and whatever else, but the searing, horrendous truth, is that we are being played. All of us, all of the time. Lauding one’s practice as an embodied spirituality is usually a lot of smoke and mirrors. To be truly and utterly free (as much as is possible for any of us as humans) is a true undoing. We are undone by Freedom, by God.
And nobody wants to be undone in God. Nobody wants to be undone by Lord Shiva. Everybody wants to be the Goddess. They want to be told that they can just do whatever it is they are already doing and then say it’s enlightened. They want assurance that whatever compulsion, whatever dissociation, whatever addictive distraction they are already up to is proof of their own liberation (rather than their actual enslavement). And if someone has money they will pay lots of it to anyone who confirms their belief that they are already awakened. It also helps if she (almost always a she) shows a lot of skin because The Goddess after all is fleshy and sexuality is (automatically) sacred.
Don’t you realize how all these evil awful old patriarchal religions suppressed sex and wealth and so now so long as we simply embrace those, voila, we’re enlightened?
Didn’t you get the memo? Being rich is spiritual.
Didn’t you read the status update? Your sex is your power.
Apparently that goes doubly for you ladies–at least that’s what many of the (self-appointed?) mouthpieces of the Goddess keep seem to be shouting in my ear.
Except for this…One can never really be Shakti unless one is Shiva. Here’s the uncomfortable, obliterating truth. Here’s the turd floating in this particular spiritual punchbowl.
There’s a reason Shiva hides in graveyards. He’s dead. He’s undone.
He’s unraveled, like a sweater. He ceases to get to be somebody, anybody, anything. A zombie in a graveyard. That’s like death three times over. The brutal irony there.
Weirdly, paradoxically, perhaps even perversely, only such a multiply dead one can be a true devotee of life.
In other words, anyone who wants to be a devotee of Life, of Shakti, must be undone like Shiva.
And being undone in the beautiful Lord (Shiva) is no Sunday picnic in the park let me tell you. Nor is it necessarily some epic story of victorious triumph. It can be quite boring. It might not win you thousands of social media followers. It might, it might not. But who cares either way?
The realization of Shiva alone however is no great help either. That represents the classic path of spiritual disconnection from life. If the problem of so much Shakti-spirituality nowadays is its negatively regressive and self-centered tendencies*, then the disease of Shiva is spiritually bypassing.
Shiva-ites bypass. Shakti-ites regress.
Both are of course flawed but its only nowadays that regression is being lauded as spiritual enlightenment. Bypassing has become the new taboo of our day so regression must be our mana.
Not so fast.
Only as Shiva can you feel that there is only Shakti. Only then can you realize that there are only the gross, subtle, and causal worlds. Causal becomes Deep Presence. Subtle becomes Radiance, Luminosity. Gross becomes the Creative Pulsation of each moment.
A person who is undone in God and realizes there is only Shakti, that person transmits. That person transmits the siddha, the sensible touch of Divinity. At that moment we could say everything is Shiva-Shakti or that there is only Shatki, or even still, that there is no longer Shiva or Shakti at all. They themselves are gone, as separate nameable realities.
That is what it is to be a devotee. To live with and as nothing other than Gross-Subtle-Causal. Nothing other than Shakti’s shake. Not bound to it. Radically Free AS it.
Only from such a place can one truly learn their part in the overall dance. No longer about finding your purpose or actualizing your potentials or living your fullest life or whatever. But simply recognizing the true compulsion of your soul. You are one dart in the Divine Quiver. You need to find your mark. That is the wisdom of your soul.
Your soul needs to flow out of this spiritual ground I’ve been exploring here. When there is only Shakti, when there is only gross-subtle-causal, then you find you are a distinct flavor, a distinct articulation of that whole. It is not that the part is in the whole. It is that the whole is in the part, entirely, as a singular part.
It’s not that you, as a drop, fall into to the ocean and are dispersed into the whole. It is that the ocean flows through your drop. Only to the degree that your drop, your essence is undone, is transparent, is utterly unwound, only to that degree can the ocean flow through.
This Ocean is no blue one however. This Ocean is Liquid Love. This Ocean is Iridescent Impulse.
Remember that saffron is both the most brilliant color of shine (Shakti) as well as the color of renunciation (Shiva). The two go hand in hand. Most only want to sell you or one or the ‘tother. Such persons, however well-meaning and sincere (or neither) are not ultimately trustworthy. Eventually they will be forced to let you down or worse directly betray you. Or you them. Or all of the above.
Here’s the crux of the problem.
Lauding Shakti without being undone inevitably creates new brutal dualities. Dualities that will indicate certain forms of life are “Radiant” and others that, by definition, are not. A most obvious version of illusion-based Shakti-derived duality are the constant declarations of “OMG, You’re a Radiant Goddess” to women spiritual practitioners who happen to adhere to conventional standards of physical hotness. This tendency is only magnified by the women who use their hotness to get declared a goddess. Others get called it without actually wanting it. But either way they are separated out from the whole and made into the only proper incarnation of the Goddess.
Which is a serious problem because then women who don’t meet those cultural beauty standards don’t get called Radiant Goddesses very much, if at all. When in spiritual fact they may well be far more truly radiant than some hot chic with a yoga butt.
A distinct but related problem with this ill-conceived Shakti spirituality is that it teaches (straight) men to not identify with Shakti and forever be searching for The Feminine, the alluring Other, principally in a woman, who exists no longer as her own being but as an Embodiment of a Principle. And once you put her on the pedestal and angelize her, it’s very easy to knock her off that pedestal and demonize her.
That’s terrible no doubt. But it gets worse. Or at least it gets subtler.
To realize, to confess that there is nothing other than Shakti means we see and experience Shakti in the midst of everything. And I mean everything. And that is a truly terrifying proposition. The false-Shakti religion around today will always be choosing only certain kinds of experiences as Radiant. Experiences that are empowering, full of light, desire, health, and beauty. But what about pain, loss, grief? Is Shakti absent from those? If so, she’s not worth worshipping. If she is indeed present in and through and as all those (as I believe She is) then how can we justify continuing to only glorify one set of her expressions? That’s idolatrous.
To truly follow Shakti is to worship her wherever you see her. But if you only see her in places that feel good for you, it’s not that she is absent from the others, it’s that you don’t want to look there. You don’t care then (ultimately) about Shakti for her own sake. You care more about how Shakti can you make you feel better. You don’t serve Shakti then, she serves you.
Ask not what Shakti can do you for you. Ask what you can do for Shakti.
To worship and transmit Shakti is to experience radiant glory in all circumstances. This is not to say that everything goes and that ethics are thrown out the window. It’s more about the redeemed, glorified essence of each moment. Shakti’s presence (which again is Shiva) may not be recognized and honored in many places–and the consequences of that denial are suffering–but She is always present. She is always shinning. But she might shine through one moment of a luminous darkness, another of ethereal light, or yet another of boring, neutral grey. All of them are her.
That’s why if you follow Shakti she turns you into Shiva.** Shakti wants you to stop choosing which forms of her manifestation you like and which ones you dislike. She wants you to be full of joy and radiant in all of them. That’s her purification. For how could one be so Joyous except at the cost of burning up? What would be left spiritually except a kind of Empty Death–Like character in the Graveyard (Shiva)?
You have to be Shiva to be Shakti but you have to be Shakti to be Shiva.
The Shakti-ite school in our day offers only side of Shakti (the light side) and never therefore brings one back to Shiva. At that point it is entirely a not so subtle campaign of politicking and jockeying for spiritual position. Once the game is set up in this horrible way, then the fight is on to look the most like Light Shakti. Because remember without Shiva all forms are inevitably heading to their death. A Shakti-Goddess religion, sans Shiva, is a created form that is very much time bound and therefore very much conditioned and very much mortal. Its adherents will therefore be compelled to keep up the charade, to keep feeding the beast and working to keep away the death (Shiva) just outside the door.
(And for the record invoking Kali or Dark Goddess imagery nowadays seems on the surface to be something different but really is just part of the same game. Because Kali is always seeming to be on the side of more ferocity, more rawness, more epic-ness. She’s just as culturally packaged now as Shakti.)
The cultural packaging—almost entirely for woman of course–is that being Shakti’s devotee will make you feel good. Many women feel badly about themselves because in large measure that is how they’re controlled. This reality is a deeply unmerciful and unjust one. But rather than confess that truth, rather than seek to heal it, rather than begin ask what is wrong that so many feel this way, too much effort is spent trying to alleviate the symptoms.
Shakti will not make you feel good. Shakti will make you FEEL period.
Feeling good is not the same as Joy. Sometimes Joy is ecstatically happy and pleasurable yes. Other times it’s worse than the worst pain imaginable. Still other times it’s as mind numbingly pedantic as it can get.
And I don’t mean epic pain, pain that is part of some great hero(ine)’s journey of profound meaning and purpose and fulfillment. If that happens great. But I’m talking pain and loss even where there is no great meaning. No epic narrative. No marketable story to tell. Times where things just fall apart, never to come back, and perhaps never to make sense. The small daily deaths. Tell me those are as much Shakti as the enormous epic times. Then I will believe.
Until then we need to inquire in each and every moment, “Where is Shakti in this experience and how can I worship her?”
* There is a place for regression in service of transcendence as well as healthy self-orientation. But these are typically not what is going on under the label of Shakti work.
** That’s what the imagery of Kali is all about. How the Radiant Light Shakti also eats up separation. She can therefore be depicted in both Her Glorious Compassionate expression but also her Terrible Numinous expression.