When in the summer of 2015 I saw the breathtaking image of the goddess Kali, the great Hindu goddess of death, destruction, and liberation, tongue outstretched, third eye blazing, projected onto the top of the Empire State Building for the documentary Racing Extinction, I ranted, “This a sign of the times—Kali takes New York!” A year later, as the shocking 2016 election results were similarly projected onto the top of the Empire State Building and I saw Donald Trump’s smug smirk and sly gaze staring victoriously into the shaken soul of the country, I raved, “This is a sign of the times—Kali takes America!”
Last month, I picked up the New York Magazine’s infamous “Doomed Earth Catalog” issue and it opened right to the “The Uninhabitable Earth” centerfold. I have certainly not gone unfazed by the realities of climate change, nor escaped its oft-sensationalized overtones. But this article and its striking images, like a skeleton all decked out in Ray-Ban aviator shades melted straight into the concrete and graphic descriptions of being cooked from the inside as the earth temperature rises just a few more degrees, knocked the air right out of my lungs. I suddenly wanted to wail, but no sound came out.
I suddenly wanted to run, but there is nowhere to run from reality.
If you haven’t seen it, this issue is the only tantric iconography of the Great Mother that you will ever need. It does what every statue and image of the Dark Mother was always meant to do—make us unsettled, shake up our false selves and empty certainties, strip us of illusion. The voice roaring ruthlessly from the pages of the magazine was unmistakable. She might as well have been projected again up there on top of the world. This time, in every bone of my being I knew. This is the sign of the times—Kali takes the world!
In essence, the mythos of Kali is this: apocalypse has arrived. Demons are taking over the world. And, surprise, they can only be conquered by a woman! In desperation, the gods call upon the Devi.
The Goddess rides in on her pussy-tiger, magnificent and fierce. She fights valiantly, but as she wounds a great demon, with every drop of its blood, a thousand more demons arise. The Mother sees she is losing the battle for the world. “Not on my watch,” she roars.
In the last hour from her third eye, the deepest, darkest, most terrifying form of the feminine rises, and that is Kali. She is the most terrible. Nothing escapes her holy darkness. She licks up the blood of separation before it hits the ground, conquers the demons, and saves the world. Oh yes, then she dances.
“If you expect any benefits from your search, material, mental or spiritual, you have missed the point. Truth gives no advantage. It gives you no higher status, no power over others; all you get is truth and the freedom from the false.” ~ Nisargadatta Maharaj
Even as I write, Hurricane Harvey is still raging. Simultaneously this week, terrible floods in India, Bangladesh and Nepal have killed thousands and left millions homeless. As we stare in disbelief at images of entire neighborhoods swallowed under water, folks wading through the deep with their animals and their kids and their life in a black garbage bag, and thousands crowded into shelters, what is furiously seeping through into our collective psyche is that business as usual is over.
In our hearts we can’t help but intuit that this is only the first taste of such extreme weather cycles, that anyone of us might be next among the throngs of climate refugees, steeped in flood waters, or strung out by some future drought. Slowly, we are meeting the terrible gaze of Kali, her potent shaktipat (in Hinduism, the transmission of spiritual energy upon one person by another) meant to awaken us from our slumber of separation, burn away our prisms of illusion, mature our collective soul.
Stripped of our comforts and certainties and false assumptions about life, now faced with the vulnerability of existence, we come to feel more intimately the hollow of our bones. It is when things fall apart that we meet the un-ruined. To be planted, a seed must turn completely inside out, must break open, the old form utterly destroyed, in order to grow.
To those unfamiliar with the cycles of growth, fertility might look like annihilation. Similarly, those unfamiliar with the cycles of spiritual growth might not be able to recognize that darkening [precedes] illumination, kenosis is a condition for resurrection into divine life. Carl Jung said, “Only that which can destroy itself is fully alive.” Every fate eventually concedes to a dance in the fires of spiritual annihilation. It is important to honor holy darkness as we move through the seasons of our spiritual life. The darkness of the tomb of the ego becomes the gate into the holy darkness of the womb of the Great Mother.
Paradoxically, in spiritual life progress is marked by crisis and the only way towards intimacy with the divine is through entering the crucible again and again. Our spiritual growth is punctuated by dark nights of the soul—periods of difficulty, despair, disillusionment, and disappointment. These dark nights strip the soul of old spiritual ideas and attachments, and through radical spiritual disorientation, abandonment, and finally annihilation, they bring the soul into ultimate union.
This is why the great Mother so often appears wielding weapons, because truth cuts through illusion. Truth weans the soul from spiritual trinkets and false certainties. This is why her form is terrifying, because truth is pure terror—wrathful, uncompromising, ruthless. Truth offers no solace, no protection, yields only disappointment with the false self. This is why she appears naked, because she will strip us of all artificial safety, take away everything we use to hide and save ourselves from the real. She will shatter our most precious plans and rip off the masks we don to stay relevant, before cutting off our head, breaking our heart, and dancing on our ashes. There is no hope of improvement, no chance of resistance, no place to hide, no reason to argue with reality. Our only chance is to lean in for a kiss.
A total solar eclipse just passed across the heavens of North America and so many people looked up and were transfixed by the celestial darkening that traffic on Pornhub and Netflix hit an all-time low. An unprecedented number of Americans abandoned their addictions, gathered together—liberal and conservative alike—shared glasses, and looked up in awe.
Eclipses are oracles of change. Almost universally, eclipses are feared. They are often seen as inauspicious omens; they create terror and confusion; they can blind. In some cultures, folks lock themselves away in their homes; in others, they bang on pots or drums to scare away the demons that have swallowed the sun. And yet, of those who braved the darkness to experience totality, most report feeling profoundly transformed. Many express the sentiment that “It was like seeing the face of God.” This is the power of holy darkness: it disturbs, breeds awe, and reveals the Unseeable.