The Face of Glory
I’ve been getting a lot of reminders in life and in my practice lately, as well as in the life of many of my students, of the importance of accepting life as it is and of actively cultivating a capacity for equanimity. Most of us are drawn to practice because we believe something is wrong or we are suffering somehow. Our hamstrings aren’t flexible enough; we’re not strong enough; our mind is too scattered; we’re too stressed, and on and on. If we come into our practice simply looking to overcome these things, then we are at risk of creating more suffering through our practice, because if our practice doesn’t meet our expectations, then we suffer. Even if it does meet our expectations, then the mind is drawn into a new cycle of striving to get to the next goal, the next place, the next pose.
When our practice becomes an exploration of what is, of where our capacities lie in the moment, rather than where we think we should be or where we would like to get to, then we open up to an entirely new realm of practice. We’re not seeking to get somewhere in a pose, but rather to explore where we are, while we place our body in all these different positions. I often use the analogy of the breath in this situation. When we bring attention to our breath, our breath naturally deepens. It doesn’t require us to forcefully deepen our breath. The simple act of attention deepens our experience and fullness of breath. The same is true of every asana (posture). By simply bringing more attention to ourselves in the pose, we have a deeper experience of the pose, without striving, without pushing… Now of course, we must also, in this space of clear vision of what is, cultivate a space of equanimity. If we only cultivate our awareness, our ability to see, in our practice, then we are at risk of creating more suffering because what we see might not meet our expectations, or we might resist what arises in our practice. And so it is with all of this in mind that I want to share a short story about Shiva.
One day, Shiva is approached by the demon Rahu who says to Shiva, “I want your wife, Shakti, as my mistress.” Rahu is the demon who consumes the sun in the time of solar eclipses. While he represents many things in Indian theology, one of the things he represents is that force of the dark unconscious consuming the light of consciousness. This is the force of the unconscious looking to consume and take for himself Shiva’s consort Shakti, who represents all of our experience of embodied life and indeed, life itself.
Shiva is obviously insulted by this request. And in his anger he opens his third eye and a thunderbolt crashes to the earth with an explosive BANG! Once the dust settles from this massive explosion, a ravenous, starving monster appears who is created to devour the monster Rahu. Rahu sees this demon and instantly becomes afraid. He throws himself at Shiva’s feet and begs for his mercy. Now, an unspoken rule of the gods is that if someone throws him or herself on that god’s mercy, the god must grant it.
So Shiva turns to Rahu and says, “Ok, I grant you mercy.” He turns to the second monster and tells him, “You heard me grant Rahu mercy, don’t eat him.”
“Well,” says the second monster, “I’m hungry… and I don’t see anything else to eat.”
“I do,” says Shiva. “I see you. Why don’t you eat yourself?”
So the monster starts eating himself. Starting with his feet, he continues to gobble up his entire body, even his lower jaw, until nothing is left but his upper face. This image is the perfect image of the nature of life, the nature of which is to consume and eat itself. This is the image of the ferocity of life itself.
Shiva is so pleased when he sees this, he says, “You are wonderful! I will name you Kirtimukha, the Face of Glory, and I will place you over my shrines. No one who does not say, ‘Yes’ to you is worthy to come to me.” This same figure is used in Buddhist shrines to represent the whole realm of the world and its consumption of itself. One must move through this threshold to enter the realm of transcendence. This signifies absolute affirmation of the world as it is. The invitation of Shiva and of Tantra is to put yourself into accord with the world as it is, not as you think it ought to be. If you cannot accept that life consumes itself, that life is transient, messy, confusing, mysterious and ferocious, then you will not be able to enter the realm of Shiva, of supreme consciousness.
One is not able to truly see with the vision of Shiva, of transcendent consciousness, unless one can fully accept the experience of life as it is. Cultivating our capacity for equanimity is just as important in the practice of yoga (and indeed the experience of life) as our ability to see into the very nature of life itself. This can often lie in stark contrast to how you see yoga being practiced in the West. People look to control their bodies, control their minds, impose their own will on themselves and the world to manifest and create the world the way they think it should be. It comes from a basic rejection of the way the world is. People are disturbed by the way their bodies are, the way their mind is, the way the world is.
We return to the idea of Rahu, the demon, as the force of the unconscious, seeking to take life, Shakti, for himself. It’s the power of fully accepting life that allows the light to come into our lives. If we don’t accept the intensity of life, with all of its challenges, contradictions, ups and downs, pains and pleasures, then we will never actually see the world as it is and we will be stuck seeing it only as we’d like it to be. Every time the world we see is out of alignment with how we think it ought to be, we will suffer. It’s through our capacity to be equanimous in every situation in life that allows us to enter the realm of Shiva and move beyond suffering.
So next time you engage your practice, remember Kirtimukha, and remember the importance of accepting life as it is, of cultivating a capacity of equanimity, acceptance, evenness and compassion in your practice, otherwise you’ll never truly be able to enter into the realm of ultimate sight, of ultimate consciousness. You can never truly be free.
(Image of Kirtimukha created by Ekabhumi Ellik, www.oneearthsacredarts.com)