A few years ago I spent a night in Flushing, Queens on the cold marble floors of the Ganesh Temple.
The temple was under construction so we sat beneath a network of precariously pieced-together pipes with overflowing insulation that snaked over our heads.
There were soft popping and shuffling sounds as women unzipped the parkas covering their saris and salwars. This blended with the most beautiful chanting that I had heard since my visit to South India just a few months earlier, except in Tamil country it had been warm and humid and we sweat through our clothing instead of shivering in the dry static air of a New York winter.
It was Maha Shivaratri, the all-night annual celebration of Shiva. We stayed till 3:30 a.m., sitting through the two out of the three ritual cycles for that were to carry us through dawn, then dreamily but exhaustedly found a half-hearted car service home after someone gave us a business card with a local number.
This year, a friend suggested we to go to the Broome Street Ganesh Temple in Soho.
We gathered at her apartment to dress and prepare. We placed fragrant white ash from Palani Temple and crimson kumkum from Thillai Kali Amman Temple on our foreheads and walked straight down the street to get there.
We climbed up the typical Soho factory building’s wooden steps lined with boots, shoes, and sneakers to enter. I immediately saw one friend at the door and then another friend with whom I had spent time in India. I thought you might be here, they both said.
We can leave whenever you want to, my friend said to her son. We’re staying, he responded emphatically. And so we did. Everything was comfortably coordinated from the chanting of the Rudram to the kirtan. The crowd was a mix of westerners and Indians, yoga teachers and practitioners. Music, chanting, puja, bell ringing, abhishekam, aarati, food, chai, and the warmth of a shared experience.
There is a relaxing sort of time warp that happens in these places at these moments because there is nothing to really do but sit, listen and participate when you feel like it.
No one tells you what to do and there is no sense of urgency. You sink into the story of the celebration and of the evening. You open to the experience and do what you like with what you find.
So all week I decided to teach about Shivaratri. The story, as I like to tell it, goes something like this:
Once, all of the gods and the demons joined together to churn the ocean in search of an amrita, a nectar of immortality.
They churned and churned, stirring up all sorts of things, for, as you may know, the mythic ocean is the ocean of consciousness, so everything is there: the things you dream of, the things you dread, your deepest desire and your most visceral fear. Even indifference. Even boredom. Even romance and sweetness and anguish and loneliness and anger that eats at you from inside and beauty so overwhelming that it is painful like a sliver of light shocking a dilated pupil.
It is like staring straight into the sun and it is like peering into complete darkness. It is every taste all at once. You have to be willing to dive in, to engage, to churn in order to find what is worth reaching for and receiving.
The beauty is worth the risks, and so they churned.
Things began to fly out of the ocean—a screeching animal soaring past your ear, claws outstretched and saliva-dripping jaws snapping, a soft sweet smelling field of flowers floating up and into the sky like a dandelion in late summer, the voices of everyone you’ve ever loved fleeting like a tease of a memory, and the most secretly dark trembling place inside your heart moving toward the surface.
All were lifting, flying, exploding, hovering, churned from the ocean of experience.
After hours of this cacophonous churning, a strange piercing noise started up, first like a humming then a buzzing then a loud watery crash as something happened that no one could really explain at the moment or even later, when gods and demons sat around discussing it, forgetting their enmity in the context of their shared experience. Some inexplicable something lifted out of the water with a presence so heavy and ominous that both gods and demons gasped in fear. The churning had stirred up a poison so toxic that no god or demon knew what to do with it.
They ceased churning and murmured to each other in their quietly rising panic. Where is Shiva? one of them yelled. Demons clung to gods and gods huddled close to demons. And they yelled and called to Shiva.
Someone went to look for him on the mountaintop.
Another went to search for him in the caves where he so loved to sit for meditation. A few looked in the forest, and seduced by the variegated light of the sun filtered through leaves, became forgetful and sunk to the ground in thought, vaguely confused.
There was one who knew where to look—in the darkest place of all—the cremation grounds where Shiva devoured time and returned each being to ash in the light of the moon. And there he was.
And so he came, his long matted hair swaying as he walked, a tiger skin draped and fastened around his hips, a slithering cobra ornamenting his ash-smeared body and neck as he moved, the Ganges pouring down off of his head and coursing through the countryside in his wake.
When he got there, all was still except for the hovering poison.
He laughed at it as everyone watched, drawing it into his open mouth. He closed his lips and swallowed. Panicking, his wife Parvati lunged toward him, wrapping her fingers around his throat, stopping the poison from slipping down any further. Shiva’s neck bulged beneath her gripping fingers. Unperturbed, he smiled, so she released him. The pressure marks of her fingers on his throat seemed to shift and blur, turning a pale lavender and then deepening to become indigo and darker still, until, like the bottom of the ocean, Shiva’s neck turned the deepest of blues.
The gods and demons offered him, as thanks, a new name: Neelakanta, the Blue-Throated One. He had neutralized the poison. He swallowed his experience and turned it to beauty, to nectar.
And just like that it was over.
I’m done. We’re leaving now, said my friend’s son.
And I left with them, pulling on my boots and zipping my coat up over my sari. We shared a cab up the street and parted ways just north of Bleeker Street. The air was crisp and cold and sweet.
We don’t get to choose what life presents to us, but we do get to choose who we want to be in relation to it.
It’s all about how we choose to hold our experience. Who do you want to be in relation to that? And to that? Experience is simply what it is. What you do with your experience is a different issue.
Ask yourself, Who do I want to be in the world and how do I want to be in the world?
That is where the story begins.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta