Sunday, August 5, 2012

"I Praise My Destroyer"

Wrathful deities, 70s style
The doctor was talking about lupus and all I knew was, I was shivering all the time (when I wasn't burning up), and my hands and pretty much the whole rest of me ached grievously. I'm said to be stubborn and--well, how else explain that it took me two weeks to be sitting there at the doctor's office hearing this ominous stuff?

It turned out to be some mystery bug, easily slain by a Thor's hammer of Rocephin, but I didn't meet with open arms this opportunity to do the yoga of disease and discomfort. It's true, I do remember one day feeling miserable and saying Kali's mantra and entering into a dreamworld of love for Her in which every note of the song on the radio became a hymn, a scripture, a caress, a grateful embrace... but mostly for two weeks I felt like shit and thought a lot about feeling like shit and acted, to recall Sojourner Truth's famous line, like God was dead. 

No, I wasn't reading Camus or shaking my fist at the heavens, but I wasn't trying very hard to live in Her lap, either, or to offer my pain to Her or find Her in it. Perhaps, being the stubborn and dense person I am, had I enjoyed four or eight or twenty more weeks of that aching, fevered malaise I'd have come to my senses and at last sprung into spiritual action like the Shakta commando I tell myself I should be--choking out bhajans during 103-degree seismic chill bouts, reading The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna with trembling, pierc├Ęd hands, until dropping it and praising Her gravity... aflame, shot through with pain,  all the while reminding myself "hot, cold, pleasure, pain--it's all just consciousness, just maya." That's the ideal version, which, now that my temperature's 98.6 degrees again, seems as absurd as the self-centered, "Ouch this hurts oh goddammit I don't feel like praying" version.

I'm not seriously suggesting that those two weeks of discomfort took me out of the orbit of God or bound me that much more tightly to the wheel of karma, but alas, I can't say that I let them bring me closer to Her, either. Hey, the pain kept me in the Now, man! Except it was the egocentric, illusory "now" of division and desire: what if this is Lyme disease? and this isn't such a great vacation with me hurting like hell the whole time.

Now is now: now was being hunched over in the passenger seat saying Her mantra, merging into Her as the notes of the song on the radio merged into time. Now is not I can do this, I can do this... if I just keep thinking of the whiskey sour and pain pill waiting for me when we get back from miniature golf. All "what ifs" and "this shoulds" and "how longs" and "if onlys" function as bungee cords for the ego, ensuring that, however close we come to the borders of infinity, our bondage to the material yanks us back into me, me, me. This is why God's grace, in the mystical literature and the stories of Flannery O'Connor, anyway, so often appears as a train wreck: we won't let it in any other way.

We're so cocooned in Me that we can't imagine not being (Me), and so our higher selves, our poets and prophets, shout terrible visions of the Cross, of blood-drenched Kali and cobra-wreathed Shiva, of Herukas and Hekate and Yahweh Sabaoth. Seers show us stigmata and the blasted tower; in Diane Ackerman's words, they

...praise life's bright catastrophes,
and all the ceremonies of grief.
I praise our real estate -- a shadow and a grave.
I praise my destroyer,
and will continue praising
until hours run like mercury
through my fingers, hope flares a final time
in the last throes of innocence,
and all the coins of sense are spent.

I found this poem in a book Sophia's reading, in which Ackerman describes her and her word-besotted husband's struggles after he has a stroke and loses his ability to speak and write. And now, as I write, Sophia's telling me about the Buddhist concept of shenpa: aggressive egotism that arises like a viper and strikes--not some outside enemy, but ourselves--with fangs of Not Enough, venom of wanting: wanting to be righteously angry or wanting to feel superior or wanting possessions or prestige. Shenpa whispers the neurotoxic lie that we must attain something outside ourselves in order to merit happiness, to deserve a pain-free existence.

I'm pretty sure, too, that shenpa is what makes me think I have to meet every challenge, every up and down, like a spiritual superhero. This post was brought to you by shenpa, shenpa whispering all the could-bes and should-have-dones, hindsight almighty, mocking God by pretending to bring me closer to Her. I wasn't ill in the right way, you see; I messed up. "You're doing it wrong...you're not spiritual enough" reads the sign on the door we need to smash down, the door we ourselves put in place by our desire for more, for higher. In now there's no enough, no not enough, no right, no wrong... life is the storm, now is the lightning, gone by the time we think to be astonished. Soften your gaze if you will see it; stop wanting it if you are to have it. 

So I'm trying to think about the ways I can let more of Kali into more of my life, give more of me to Her--but not fall over into a shenpa-fest of self-laceration. She whirled me together like sea and warm air whirl up a cyclone, but one day my winds and lightning will be spent, my clouds adrift in an opening blue sky. If I greet that sky with complaint, feel my dissipation as judgment, as pain--what kind of way is that to go? What right do I have, to inhabit a body and complain that my body goes the way of all bodies and, in time, of time itself? "In the fiddler's house, everyone dances," and in Her hurricane universe we must whirl, and be whirled.