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!
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.
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. Enter Durga. 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. And, 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 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 endarkenment is a condition for illumination, kenosis 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.
She appeared out of nowhere, as if from an explosion of smoke thrown by a cheap magician while I was meditating on another goddess. It was a mix of vision and cartoon unfolding on my confused mind-screen. She smelled like cemetery earth from my father’s recent burial. Her hair was white, disheveled, as if on fire, her nose was a huge hook, warts and all, just like I imagined it as a child when she still terrified me from the corner of every dark room. Baba Yaga, the infamous dark hag, the evil witch of every Russian fairytale, the one who eats children and lives in her house on chicken legs and rides a broomstick, was in my room and in my face, and she meant business. Her demeanor was urgent. She barked with a deadly seriousness, shoving a femur bone in my face. She spoke in Russian, “Hold on to your bones!” Then she was gone.
I felt shaken. The experience felt so real that I wondered about my grasp of reality. I would have been thrilled with a vision of a goddess… but a fairy tale character? From the Jungian psychoanalyst Jean Shinoda Bolen I would later learn that archetypes and especially goddesses appear to us as they damn well please—cartoon fairy tales, illustrious rooftops—and that when you are handed bones, that’s an initiation, if she’s ever seen one. I learned that Baba Yaga was a primordial form of Kali even before the Indo-Aryan march across the Russian steppes. Most importantly, as the next cycle of my personal dark night unfolded only a few months later and I began moving through the devastating pain and disorientation of divorce, I returned again and again to the wisdom of the hollowness of bones. I committed to keep choosing truth over safety, the real over the convenient. I embraced the groundlessness of the Mother’s hut on chicken legs. I wailed in her dark woods until I had no voice. I let her make a stew of me. Vast emptiness, no holiness. She offered only truth.
There comes a time when nothing is meaningful — except surrendering to Love.
Today, our very own postmodern Kali Yuga is upon us. The old world with its illusions of certainty and predictability is coming to an end. The Mother in her holy chaos is pulsing through every crevice of the planet, beginning her dance of change and transfiguration in the collective field. If you listen deeply, you can feel it too; we have been handed bones. I believe that Hurricane Harvey marks the first glimpse of what Andrew Harvey and Carolyn Baker in their brilliant upcoming book Savage Grace call the Dark Night of the Globe, a period of unprecedented global crisis, climate disaster, dissolution of old templates, and if we allow it, collective spiritual initiation. They prophesy that we are entering a dance that will either mark the end of civilization as we know it and possibly even human life on the planet or will force us to dive into the Mother’s cauldron of transfiguration and arise as what Andrew Harvey calls ‘divine humanity.’
In bemoaning the absence of the rights of passage in our culture, Marion Woodman explains the importance of undergoing a psychological or spiritual death. She says that unless we experience “a period of being in the dark hole of chaos, followed by a rebirth—then people don’t truly grow up.” She explains that in old cultures the young had to believe that during their coming-of-age rituals, they might die. This is how they would have to prove that they are mature enough to enter the adult world. Like it or not, for good or ill, this dark night of the world soul is upon us. And in the absence of rituals, this is all we’ve got as a global initiation into adulthood. Perhaps only such a deep collective reckoning can trigger the kind of spiritual maturation that is called for by our times. Only God knows if it will be enough to lead us to abandon our narcissistic notions of spirituality, to let go of the false promises and psychopathic tendencies of capitalism, to humble our hearts before the great Transparency, and to rise like the Mother for all living beings.
In ancient Greece, its own dark crone goddess Hecate was known as the goddess of the crossroads. It is at the crossroads that we find ourselves. In The Dark Places of Wisdom, Peter Kingsley says: “If you’re lucky, at some point in your life you’ll come to a complete dead end. Or to put it another way: if you’re lucky you’ll come to a crossroads and see that the path to the left leads to hell, that the path to the right leads to hell, that the road straight ahead leads to hell, and that if you try to turn around you’ll end up in complete and utter hell. Every way leads you to hell and there’s no way out, nothing left for you to do. Nothing can possibly satisfy you anymore. Then, if you’re ready, you’ll start to discover inside yourself what you always longed for but were never able to find.”
We are at the crossroads now and there is nowhere to run. Our world is dying and so the call from the deep is strong. The work before us is uneasy and long, but great powers work by our side. And it is only from this place of darkness, of radical uncertainty, of coming to the edge of all our limits, the end of all our old stories, that something new within our soul might emerge. Life is roaring in dialects of Kali—asking us to get real, to get committed to our spiritual lives, to each other, and to this world. To tolerate the growing pains of the dark nights given to us. To get exceptionally honest and do our shadow work. Are we willing to give up our spiritual materialism and surrender the accolades of the false paradigms of success? Are we willing to dare self-disclosure, to reveal how imperfect and lonely and messy it is to be human? Are we willing to meet our grief, our confusion, our heartbreak—the very real uncertainty of it all—and not send suffering into exile? The Mother has no orphans. Dr. Martin Luther King used to say, “We must meet suffering with soul force.” The Mother is the soul force.
The truth is that Kali has always had the world. Marrow of time, oracle of holy change, she is the great gate of transformation through which all must pass. Her medicine is darkness. Her initiation is by fire. Appearing in difficult periods of transition—death, disease, divorce, loss of structure—she is the devi of disillusionment. It is said any contact with her transfigures the soul. From the moment the Mother birthed the universe of her holy dark womb to the instant she swallows it up again, we are hers, and she only ever asks one thing: when all is stripped from you, what remains? Whatever your answer, she will throw it up against death. So we must listen deeply now. Our planet is in crisis. We live in messianic times. And, tag, you are it! We are not free until we are all free. So, what are you willing to rise for? What is your True North? What do you sit and stand for? What are you willing to give up for it? If all that can burn is burned up, what remains?
She rides in on a tiger, magnificent and fierce. She wields weapons; she slays demons. But, we are in the long game now. We must remain vigilant, relentless, grounded in the Real. We must pray and prepare. The night will be long. The night will be dark. The forces of separation are great. But She IS here now, and in the late hour, when all hope is lost and all that we most loathe to give is stripped from us, she will rise, even more terrible, as only Love can be. And She will win.