Secrets of the Goddess: Dance with Ecstasy
The other day I was given the gift of chatting with Sally Kempton for this interview. I first heard of Sally years ago through my yoga teacher training and was familiar with her as a meditation teacher who wrote books that made the elusive practice of sitting accessible, desirous and available.
A few years back I had the good fortune of taking a weekend workshop with Sally. What struck me was the breadth of her embrace in how she approached the divine and taught meditation. She is a Bhakti, one who practices devotion, yet she knows her philosophy and history. More than that, she understands the paradox of the mystery of being, and that as much as we seek answers we will always be held by our questions.
Her extensive time with Swami Muktananda and her daily practice enrich her offerings for not only has she danced the dance, she understands the steps and can lead a willing student to the floor so that the student can find his or her way in the process. I also practice with Sally Kempton on Yogaglo, an online site where she leads meditation classes and helps me find the way into my heart and at times, gives me the tools to reach into yours.
EL: First off, what inspired your new book, Awakening Shakti?
SK: I had been giving classes on the goddesses Kali, Lakshmi and Saraswati for a couple of years. I’d noticed that both women and men were having strong experiences from practicing with the stories and contemplations on these deities. And I was having a lot of fun invoking them. Goddess energies can be intense, but when you really connect to them, they can give you enormous ecstasy and inner power. The word Shakti, of course, means power, and goddess energies are literally powers. In the tantric traditions in India, it was understood that goddess energies were the source of many forms of inner power—worldly abilities as well as yogic transformation.
At the same time, I have always been interested in how the Hindu goddess energies manifest in the human psyche. There’s a typology of goddess energies that you can learn to recognize in yourself and other people—men as well as women. So the book also looks at the psychological manifestations of different goddess energies, as well as the ways in which invoking them can be a source of transformation and blessing.
EL: Your first experience with the goddess was a long time ago, right?
SK: Yes, I first ‘discovered’ the goddesses in the early 70s; but my real engagement came after a kind of initiation I received during a goddess festival, Navaratri, in India in the early 90s. It happened while I was telling a story about the goddess. I describe that in the opening to the book.
One of the things I talk about in the book is how there are certain portals that let us enter into the experience of these goddesses. One of the great portals is story. The myths have layers of meaning that start to unfold themselves when we hear them or read them. And the core myths have their own mojo, partly from having been told and re-told by so many generations of lovers of the divine.
The second portal is mantra. In the tantric traditions, mantra is considered to be the actual sound form of a deity. And this is something you experience when you practice with a mantra. Mantras are highly concentrated energy packets. When you focus on a mantra, and hold it internally, it will open up in the inner body, and unfold deeper and deeper layers of intimate experience of the energy of the deity.
EL: My guess is story gives them a form so we can go deeper…energetically…and as archetypes…
SK: Yes. Story creates a frame that lets us tune into their subtle presence. Mantra deepens that subtle presence, and forges an energetic connection to the inner form of the deity. And when you imagine the deity in visual form, that can often bring the deity even more intensely present. I also find that calling the deity, actually talking to the deity helps me get a tactile sense of her presence. The combination of mantra, visualization, kinesthetically sensing the deity’s energy, and internal conversation is very powerful.
EL: And in your book, do you give ways to use mantra?
SK: Yes. The book offers a lot of mantras and includes instructions for them. The book is very oriented towards practice. Exercises are layered through each chapter, with mantras, meditations, and ways of contemplating the deity as a force in your life.
EL: I thought you were more kinesthetic.
SK: I am kinesthetic; when the goddess shows up in my meditation, she usually arises as energy and as a strong feeling of presence, power, and especially, love.
EL: But your experience initially was more spontaneous, wasn’t it?
SK: Yes, it was and continues to be spontaneous.
EL: Does it usually happen when sitting or does it just happen, say going for groceries…
SK: It usually happens when I’m sitting or writing, but actually, I’m often aware of a very soft sense of presence in my heart, which I identify with the Goddess
EL: And you mention one goddess in particular “wrote” the book with you…
SK: Yes; there is a group of tantric goddesses called Mahavidyas, or ‘Great Wisdom Goddesses.’ They are forms of Kali, very important in the process of self-realization in the tantric tradition.
One of the Mahavidyas is called Matangi. She’s a goddess of speech and intuition. As I understand this, one of Matangi’s functions in the inner world is to help us translate very subtle ideas into practical reality. She offers a kind of interface between the human mind and realms of experience that are beyond words. Its like she downloads subtle information in a form that allows it to be communicated in words.
EL: So appropriate with this book. Did she find you?
SK: Yes, and since my own interest is in making subtle teachings practical, it seems we had a natural relationship. A friend who ‘sees’ energetic presences told me that there was a goddess who wanted to help. Through a process of inquiry, I identified the presence I was feeling as Matangi. In the mythology, she’s a forest goddess, very mysterious, who had a human form as the daughter of an elephant tamer. So you could say that she is comfortable dealing with the earthy, nitty-gritty elements of the human world.
EL: Love it.
SK: So, I would begin my writing day by chanting a mantra to Matangi, and then I’d ask her for help, and begin to type. I’ve always relied a lot on grace when I write, and I learned years ago that when I ask for help, everything goes better. There’s a prevailing idea in the spiritual world that its not ok to ask for divine help except to purify your heart, and for Self-realization. But I’ve always found basic petitionary prayer to be incredibly important for linking your actions in the mundane world with your life in the spiritual dimension.
EL: Honestly I think self-realization is over-rated…we all have moments of awareness. There are levels, layers…and we all have to eat.
SK: We do! And when you are on the spiritual path, who else are you going to ask? Rumi always said, in front of the divine, don’t be afraid to be needy. At a certain point, you realize that you have no one else to turn to, and that, paradoxically, asking the divine for help in your daily life actually brings you closer to your own sacred essence.
EL: Well, I say when push comes to shove and we’ve nowhere all to go, we all pray…no matter what your belief.
SK: Yes, I agree. The practices of prayer, invocation, etcetera—all the relational practices of the devotional traditions, help us to know that we are never on our own, always connected to higher energies, and to each other and the earth.
EL: So can you tie in your tantric tradition, Kashmir Shaivism, to your book?
SK: Kashmir Shaivism is a radically non-dual tradition that sees everything—everything—as one single sacred energy and awareness. But unlike Buddhist or vedantic non-dualism, it’s also theistic and devotional. The sages of Kashmir saw awareness and sacred energy not just as abstractions, but also as personal deities with whom they had deep devotional relationships.
So, at the ultimate level, Shiva and Shakti, the God and the Goddess, are two sides of the one inseparable, unified, formless, transcendent vastness. Shiva is pure awareness, and Shakti is bliss and creative power. So, we could say that Spirit has three faces: it is the formless substance out of which everything is composed; it is your innermost self and at the same time, it manifests as different divine personalities whom you can love, worship and have a relationship with.
The teachers of that tradition had a very rounded, inclusive, generous view. They also had wonderful technologies for realizing the divine within your own body and mind. One of their practices was based on the idea that we can all bring the full presence of the divine into the body and mind. In other words, that you can experience your entire being, including your physical body, as divine, as one with the deity.
SK: A total identification with the divine form.
EL: Has your life always focused on goddess energy?
SK: Well, you have to understand that I came to all this as a total non-theist. For years, I connected to the sacred feminine purely as my internal kundalini energy, rather than in a particular goddess form. Even today, my practice is quite informal, very much focused on my connection to the goddess as a subtle energy. That said, once you start to experience the inner presence of divine beings, it becomes completely alluring, even addictive.
EL: Can I ask how often you meditate?
SK: Daily for at least an hour in the morning, and usually a second thirty or forty minutes in the early evening.
EL: And now I see your online courses are going to work with the divine goddesses.
SK: Yes, I’m doing one next month, on a group of feminine deities called the Mahavidyas, or Great Wisdom Goddesses. These are energies that are specifically invoked for the transformation of your consciousness.
EL: So with Tami Simon, you said, Why Goddesses? The god’s don’t manifest the same way?
SK: Why Goddesses? In the tantric tradition, the goddesses are said to embody the bliss and power of the divine, while the gods embody awareness and light and peace. But these two faces of the divine, the masculine and the feminine, are ultimately inseparable. So, loving the goddesses will eventually take you to their masculine counterparts, and loving the masculine divine will eventually take you to the goddesses.
Yet at a certain point, I was intuitively drawn into an internal relationship with a distinctly feminine presence. It happened on its own.
That said, I’m a woman and I’ve always been conscious of the historical significance of emerging feminine consciousness in our time. In my twenties, I was very involved in the second-wave feminist movement. Then, when I started meditating, I realized that the true self is actually beyond gender. So, gender stopped being a big focus for me.
But the more I practiced, the more I began to see that there are definitely polarities in consciousness that can be best described as ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine.’ These qualities are in all of us, whether we are in a male or female body. I observed that the devotional, heart-centered approaches to spirituality have tended to be more attractive to the feminine side of our human nature, while the pursuit of heroic detachment has tended to be more attractive to our masculine side.
I’m drawn to both—my masculine side is attracted to classical formless meditation practices, meditations on pure awareness, the detached, witnessing aspect of consciousness. At the same time, I’ve always found that that those practices needed to be balanced with more emotional, energetic, feeling-based practices, like chanting and prayer and devotion. And over time, those energetic practices always led me to the Shakti, the divine feminine. When I tuned into the goddess energies, it would be like lighting a fire in my heart. Goddess practice literally kindled ecstasy, very palpable ecstasy.
So, basically, I began investigating goddesses because whenever I tuned into them, I’d feel ecstatic. And I like feeling ecstatic!
The other thing that’s striking about goddess practice is that it’s very earthy. When you practice with the goddess energies, they seem to put you much more into your body energies, your emotional energies. On an esoteric level, when you invoke the goddess you are invoking the inner movement of kundalini. So in a very concrete way, the yoga tradition has always seen goddesses as key to inner transformation. They can open you in a second. Your heart, your awareness can be literally turned around in a moment through the blessing of the goddesses.
EL: And in your practice the purpose or goal is to awaken the kundalini to dance with the Shakti.
SK: It’s more that kundalini awakening is the starting point of my practice. As kundalini awakens, we learn to feel the movement of our internal energies, and to partner with them. Which means letting the goddess lead.
EL: And once it wakes…
SK: Once it wakes, guidance is crucial.
EL: Then there is relationship…
SK: Yes. So, in our interiority, the goddess in her transformative role manifests as the awakened kundalini. Awakened kundalini will move through your system and re-structure you in ways that can be very subtle but can also be dramatic. That’s why in the kundalini process, it’s very important to understand what’s happening, and for that, having a teacher is a big help. But it’s even more important to approach the energy lovingly, with honor, with delight. When we have a goddess practice, it’s much more likely that we’ll recognize the internal processes of kundalini as a gift, a blessing, and be able to dance with her manifestations in our energy body.
EL: Kundalini is the goddess…and then the dance is the form.
SK: Kundalini is the goddess, and she is also your own vital force. She’s non-dual.
EL: And the form can be any of the goddesses…
SK: Yes, and this is part of the mystery. She awakens within us, yet she also blesses us from ‘outside’, from a subtler plane, where these goddesses live as light forms. This is, again, the most mysterious and to me ecstatic part of the goddess path.
EL: So prana is just the way to feed the energy…it is the energy.
SK: Prana is the energy, but as you know, there are levels of prana. Through our practice, we experience an increasing subtlization of prana. When kundalini is awake, it works through the prana, to transform your inner bodies. Part of the activity of the kundalini is purificatory, so when there are toxins in the body, they’ll be brought up to be expelled, and sometimes that’s intense. That’s one reason guidance is so important.
EL: So Bhakti is vital. And I think a teacher who can manage this is rare, no?
SK: Yes, a teacher who can energetically manage a student’s kundalini is rare. In the tantric traditions, this is one of the marks of a genuine guru, as opposed to an acharya, or teacher. However, a teacher who is not necessarily a guru, but who has a strong lineage connection and a deep experiential knowledge of kundalini can guide students and help them manage their own process.
However, ultimately the kundalini herself will guide you.
EL: Did anyone in your family write?
SK: Writing is the family profession, actually. My father was a writer, and so is one of my brothers. Writing has always been one of my main doorways into the Self, actually. That’s why I loved writing this book…the subject matter was constantly turning me into the heart. So it was really a very ecstatic process, even with all the inevitable struggle and effort that goes into writing a book.
Can I give the readers a way to approach the book?
I recommend that people read it a chapter at a time and use it as a practice text. In other words, tune into goddess who’s being described in that chapter, read the story, practice the contemplations, and the mantras, and you’ll begin to get an energetic sense of that particular goddess.
SK: My intention with the book is that it can become a focus of group practice…that groups read the book together, do the practices, discuss their experience of the goddess in their life and their meditation.
And, I believe that the goddesses do have an intention to be known, to be experienced by us. People who read the book tell me that they do feel a real intimacy with these goddess presences. These beings are aspects of our inner world. They live in us as energies in the psyche. But they are also real, subtle, distinct personalities. We can come to know them, experience their unique blessing-quality. Then the goddesses become companions, guides, inner lovers. In the goddess workshop I taught this weekend, one man said that he experienced her as an inner lover. That is what she is. She is the lover who adores us in the most secret chambers of the heart, and her love is extraordinary.
And, as we open to it and to her, she fills us with real ecstasy. That’s the big secret of the goddesses! They are all about ecstasy!
Sally Kempton: One evening in the early 1970s, while sitting in her Manhattan living room, Sally Kempton was overcome by a feeling of all-encompassing, unconditional love that seemed to come out of nowhere. At the time, Kempton had a flourishing career as a New York journalist, writing on popular culture, the arts, and feminist issues for Esquire, the New York Times, New York magazine, and The Village Voice. An early voice in the second- wave feminist movement, spirituality was the last thing on her agenda. But her experience that night affected her so powerfully that within a year she had given up her career to immerse herself fully as a student and teacher of spiritual awareness.
Two years later, she encountered her Guru, the enlightened Siddha master, Swami Muktananda, and became his full time student. An enlightened master in the Indian yoga tradition, Muktananda (1908-1982) was known for his ability to ignite the latent meditation energy (kundalini) in others through a look or a touch. Kempton studied and traveled with Muktananda from 1974 until his passing in 1982. In 1982, Muktananda initiated her into the traditional Saraswati order of Indian swamis, or monks, and gave her the name Swami Durgananda. In 2002, Sally was inspired to put aside her monastic identity to create a teaching path that could help students deal directly with the challenges of 21st century life.
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Ed: Bryonie Wise