Kali is the first Mahavidya because she represents time – the backdrop for creation.
With each step of her dance, she destroys the past to summon the future. Creation thus begins with time and is sustained through death.
Once we realize the I-self that is born in the cemetery of time is not who we really are, Kali’s fearsome imagery turns into a benevolent one. …freedom from the universal conundrum of all living creatures, the fear of death.
Kavitha Chinnaiyan, Shakti Rising
As true as this is, it can remain conceptual without the grace of a tantric teacher or guru (thank you Kavithaji) and the faith to persist. Our lives are Kālī’s cemetery. Entangled in time, there is nothing that arises for us, interior or exterior, that does not “pass away” – die. Particularly the body-mind!
We each have a life narrative, a personal story, who we imagine ourselves to be in time; unique individuated roles, relationships, family, jobs, culture, and so on that define “me.” This I-self is illusory but nonetheless tenaciously identified with and fiercely protected, because that I-self is me and I don’t want to die. Yet no matter how successful I am, the one thing I can’t change is that the body-mind will die, and that body-mind is my core identity. Kālī’s dance is the enactment of time in plain sight where the I-self is already dead, sustained only by past memory and future projection.
In my experience, the fear of the body-mind’s death is the root fear. You can pass through all sorts of deaths in life, deaths of intimate relationships, friendships, jobs, financial security, reputation, conventional beauty, faith, and so on. Yet the physical death of a dear loved one stops us in our tracks, and even stops time for a while. If it is our terminal disease and there are no tracks ahead, the past no longer matters and the future is gone. End of time. Just this. Here. Now.
Yet, with bodily death so hidden out of sight in most Western societies, how can we more directly access the experience of dying, and start loosening this knot of fear? Within intergenerational families living in the same home, death is often a part of everyday life, but that is rare now in this American society. Hospitals and nursing homes are the new dying grounds for up to about 75% of deaths. So how can we begin to feel our way into the inevitability of our own bodily death - our root identity and primary fear– and locate the radiance of Self that is behind linear time?
It is with this view that I offer my experience with deaths on my first 15-hour overnight shift as a chaplain at a large medical center hospital. I had previously worked for over 45 years, mostly as a nurse, and had encountered patient deaths in a wide variety of settings. I was not aware of any fears around dying, or death, in myself. Medical personnel are sometimes said to be emotionally detached in order to protect ourselves from experiencing what others would find abhorrent and shocking. Nonetheless, I was nervous as I began my first shift as a chaplain as there were no nursing or medical functions that I would be performing. I would be there only to provide “spiritual support.”
I invite you as you read to slow down and notice what arises for you in your body. It may trigger your own experiences of the death of a loved one, or receiving a serious diagnosis. What stories emerge? Can you remain in the stillness and allow them to arise and pass?
I arrive to the ICU as they’re working on an elderly man whose heart has stopped. Edward survives, however he might live only a few days or weeks. In the waiting room are his wife and son. She is worried about their grown children and grandkids, and “angry at God.” She also expresses what a loving man Edward has been, the many joys they have shared with each other and their family. As more family gather, she wants me to lead them in prayer. I offer a brief contemporaneous prayer and tell them they are each already a living prayer of love for Edward. I ask them to tell me about him in their own words. A trove of stories. Touching, intimate, quiet at first, then surprising and hilarious. One of the family starts to laugh through her tears. Such intimacy and vulnerability. The space is transfigured into a shining temple of love.
A middle-aged woman, Marsha, is on a ventilator and has a few hours left to live, maybe. Husband, sister, and grown children are in the room standing around her bed. I stand at the head of the bed and gently place my hand on her shoulder. She is conscious and tracks me with her eyes, occasionally nodding, unable to speak with the breathing tube down her throat. They ask me to offer a prayer. I speak a few brief words and invite them to tell me about her. How did she inspire them, love them, encourage them, bring joy into their hearts? The husband started, going back to how they met and that he knew right then they would marry. He wanders through the tapestry of life up until now, an outpouring of love. Then each of them comes forward with stories, places, ways, and times of love; especially of Marsha’s joy of singing. I tell them there is no prayer I or anyone else can offer that would ever match what they have just spoken - their love for her, and her love for them. Silence. More tears. I put my hands together in front of my heart in a gesture of gratitude.
Minutes before my shift concludes I’m called to be with a family where a young man, Tim, has just passed. Mother, father, wife, siblings crowded close around the lifeless body. Gaunt, frail, pale. They ask for a Catholic prayer and as I start reading, someone’s phone beeps. I stop. They silence the phone and start to apologize. “No worries,” I say, motioning toward Tim’s lifeless form. “There’s nothing that could interrupt the beep that Timothy has received.” One family member looks confused, and others smile and agree. “He sure has.” I invite them to tell me about Timothy. Each one’s share widens the invitation for the others to come forward. His dad is silent, looking away, and then he comes forward with deep, strong, loving recognition of his son who lays lifeless in front of him. The others call on Mary, Timothy’s mom. She sobs and sobs, barely able to get any words out. I squat down in front of her chair and place my hand on her arm while her sister lays hands on her shoulders. Slowly the words come through howling tears. Words of love so unimaginably vulnerable and potent; the heart’s eternal calling to mutually and freely express love. Everyone had offered their own living prayer of love.
Deep sorrow needs to be fully felt in the body, the same as that of deep joy. Each arising from and expressed as, or even realized as, the mystery of timeless Love, the Self. Each is dependent on the other to reveal Love. Any tendency to grasp and maintain joy in time, or to avoid and extinguish sorrow from time, is an expression of the I-self’s fear of death.
This obliteration of the usual stream of the mind in time is Kālī’s grace. The I-self’s usual concerns are beheaded, and her blade is now poised above the very head of “me” whether it is my pending death or the death of a precious other that graces me with the existential confrontation that has always been here, veiled. Yet, being on the chopping block of linear time may offer an acute clarity of mind and a heart opening where the essence of ever-present Love is revealed. To inquire perhaps as it passes through us, and to receive the living wisdom that Kālī and all the Mahāvidyās are gracing us with. Realization of the Self.