When Kali Comes to Call
Armed with weapons, wild-eyed and ready to kill, carrying a garland of skulls and the severed head of a demon, standing over Shiva with her tongue out, dripping with blood, scanning the landscape vigilantly to catch that next drop before it spills to the ground and sprouts another manifestation of ego . . .
This is our image of Kali. She represents the raw, unfettered power required to face our most thickly concealed obstacles and shear away what is not needed. She is illogical, unpredictable and unaffected by reason. With her deafening screams and flailing arms (which vary in number from four to 32, depending on the narration), she destroys with swiftness and conviction. She acts now and thinks later, taking no prisoners as she unleashes her wrath on worldly confusion. To the uninitiated mind, these characteristics are repugnant or disturbing; no wonder we don’t see her image on gift cards or t-shirts in commercial yoga shops. But in the world of inner transformation, her image should be plastered everywhere because harnessing Kali’s power is essential to spiritual growth.
All saints and holy beings personify dormant energy that resides within each of us, showing aspects of ourselves in a form the mind can recognize. In the pantheon of Hindu goddesses, Kali is one of the most well known and widely worshipped. She does not sit calmly on a lotus flower throne, cruise in on a striped tiger chariot, carry a pot of gold in her arms or play ornate musical instruments like the more refined, venerated goddesses from the upscale side of town. She is dirty, haggard, obsessive and unkempt, with blood dripping from her weapons and mud stuck between her toes. But every serious practitioner recognizes the necessity of culling, destroying and re-creating, of that essential inward spiral that never officially started, and will never come to end. Without Kali’s sharply curved blades and jagged fangs, we are left with a weak, conditioned ego that lures us toward comfort and security every time.
We call on Kali’s power when we need to sever the cord, when we need to destroy what no longer serves, when we need to say no when we used to say yes. Sri Patanjali says that discernment dawns through the practice of yoga, but without Kali we have no drive to instigate change, and no momentum to follow through on those inspired commitments. A football team may have an excellent quarterback, but if the guards can’t keep the defensive linemen out of the way, any forward motion is quickly aborted. The defensive linemen are our mental demons, waiting to distract or dissuade our attention from making progress. Kali needs no offensive linemen, however. She single-handedly picks off our attachments – one by painful one – and swallows them whole, destroying what is not needed and making space for what will come.
How can we align ourselves with this process, rather than run from it in fear? In a word, surrender . . . a widely unfamiliar concept in a collective climate of individual rights and self-empowerment psychology. Surrender does not mean sitting around and hoping for the best, abdicating responsibility for growth, or lackadaisically ‘going with the flow’ without discernment. We are given tools and systems to take action, and we do so as part of our human dharma. Surrender is best acknowledged in the mind mind, in an ongoing recognition that there are things we don’t understand and that it’s okay that we don’t. When surrender is laid over the deeper undercurrent of trust, every aspect of life becomes spiritually significant and every action moves us closer to the Self. If we let go of fear just long enough to unlock the door, Kali busts it down to cut away what stands in our own way, even when we have deluded ourselves into believing it is good for us. And -- if we can't let go -- we leave her no choice but to pull us through the keyhole, to the other side of our own ignorance.
We must invoke Kali in times of great emotional pain and also in times of clarity. She is the power that gets us out of bed in the morning to practice, and the eventual dissolution of what kept us from doing it in the first place. Her blade severs the need to be liked and appreciated, preventing us from over-commitment and depletion. Her arms pull us out of toxic relationships, and her hands snip self-defeating judgments before they take root in the fertile soil of the mind. She places relentless honesty above all else, with no regard for what our friends, family or neighbors may think. Kali hurls her wrench to interrupt the machinery of the mind, challenging those droning thoughts about how badly we want inner transformation even though we are unwilling to do anything about it. As an "act now/think later" kind of gal, she forces us to recognize that using the mind to overcome itself is inherently a limited proposition.
When we bow down, befriend her and acknowledge her power, Kali becomes a protective, nurturing mother. All mothers need to be stern at times, imposing discipline when their children cannot do so for themselves. But in an ongoing mindset of surrender, even the most painful experiences have great purpose. In fact, if you look back over your life, notice how the most difficult times have been the most transformative. Then bow your head for a moment and acknowledge Kali’s excision, and the space for freedom she left behind.
Jai Maha Kali . . . Jai Ma! Jagadambe Mata Kijay!