Ellen is a medical student, and thinks of herself as a rational person who doesn't go in for mystical experiences. But one day as she closed her eyes and relaxed in Savasana, Ellen felt a powerful maternal energy around her and "saw" the Hindu goddess Durga, whose picture graced the yoga studio's back wall. For a moment, the many-armed goddess's face lingered in front of her, looking alive and full of compassionate love. Then the image disappeared—though the sweet, strong energy stayed with Ellen for hours.
Months later, at a meditation workshop, she asked me what I thought her experience meant. After learning that she'd been in the thick of medical school pressures, I said that maybe the Great Mother was offering a bit of support.
When Ellen looked at me blankly, I suggested she try to access the energy again. "No preconceptions. Just sit in meditation and ask the Durga energy to be with you. Then notice how you feel." Sounding extremely tentative, Ellen asked me what she should expect. I resisted the temptation to say something inscrutable, like "Don't expect anything," and told her, "You'll probably feel some empowering and benign energy—energy that can open you up to a deeper source of strength."
The practice I suggested to Ellen is called deity yoga, and it isn't specific to the Hindu tradition. Christians do a similar practice, invoking Christ or Mary or other saints. Buddhists invoke different forms of the Buddha. In yoga traditions, the goddess is considered the embodiment of life-giving energy. Whether we encounter this energy spontaneously, as Ellen did, or explore it deliberately as a practice, the energy of the divine feminine can open us to our own inner source of empowerment.
The yogic sages—especially in the Hindu and Buddhist branches of Tantra—anticipated quantum physics by claiming that a subtle vibratory energy is the substratum of everything we know. Unlike physicists, however, yogic seers experience this energy not simply as a neutral vibration but as the expression of the divine feminine power, called shakti. Reality, the tradition says, is shakti's dance, which takes form as our body, our thoughts, our perceptions, and also the physical world.
The Hindu traditions are comfortable with the idea that absolute reality, while formless, also manifests itself as divine entities. So shakti, the formless source of everything, is understood to take on forms: goddesses, or personifications of the energies that make up the world and our consciousness. Whether or not we "believe" in goddesses, contemplating them can help us become intimate with universal forces that otherwise can seem vast and impersonal. Paradoxically, goddess practice can also reveal how the forces that move our thoughts and emotions are ultimately not personal but are archetypal energies we all share.
Of Gods and Men
Jung and his followers looked at mythology as the self-revelation of the archetypal psyche. The Hindu deities are just as much a part of humanity's psychic structure. Like any other powerful symbolic form, the Hindu deities represent, and can also uncover, helpful psychological forces. They personify energies that we feel but may never have thought to name.
This understanding lies behind the practice of deity meditation, which advanced practitioners in the Tantric traditions have developed into a living science for transforming consciousness. Deity meditation can unsnarl psychological knots—for instance, issues with power or love—and call forth specific transformative forces within the mind and heart. It puts us in touch with the protective power within us and can change the way we see the world. This is particularly true of the goddess energies of the Hindu tradition. So, looking for your inner goddess isn't just a girl thing. The goddess transcends gender, and men as well as women benefit from tuning in to these vibrant forces.
An obvious way to tap into goddess energy is by contemplating Durga/Kali, Lakshmi, and Saraswati—the personified powers of strength, beauty, and wisdom. There are many legends about these goddesses. My favorite is the story of Durga and the demon kings Shumbha and Nishumbha.
The two demons had taken over the world and thrown the gods out of heaven. At their wits' end, the deities knelt in prayer and supplicated Durga to defeat the demons. Durga consented and took form as a beautiful woman, then flitted into the garden of the demon kings. Connoisseurs of beauty, the demons were delighted and sent an emissary to invite her to join their stable of wives. "I'd love it!" the goddess exclaimed. "But there's just one little thing first: When I was a child, I took a vow that I would marry only a man who was able to defeat me in battle."
So the demons sent their vast armies against her. As the battle raged, a series of beautiful goddesses—Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kali—emerged out of Durga's body. These seemingly delicate ladies laid waste to the armies, and the demon kings protested. "Not fair! You said you'd fight us alone, and look at all these helpers!"
"These aren't helpers," the goddess retorted. "They are aspects of myself!" To prove it, she drew the other goddesses back into her body and went on to kill the demons single-handed—proving that the power of the eternal shakti is invincible.
Hear Me Roar
Durga (her name means "the unfathomable one") is the cosmic warrior, the force within consciousness that battles ignorance and darkness. Durga rides a lion, and her arms bristle with weapons, which she uses to slay an assortment of demons and negative forces. Her face, however, shines with peace and compassion.
Durga is the power behind dramatic breakthroughs; she's the strength you can draw on when facing a challenging situation or even a deep backbend. I also like to think of Durga as a patron goddess for overscheduled working moms, inspiring them to deal with the challenges of juggling a job, a family, and countless daily emergencies.
Durga's most fearsome manifestation, Kali ("the black one"), represents both the consuming power of time (which dissolves all things) and the timelessness of deep meditation. Kali—her tongue sticking out—is the energy that takes us beyond convention. She's adorned with a garland of human heads, which represents the sound vibrations that are manifested as thoughts, all of which are "devoured" when we enter the stillness of meditation.
Lakshmi ("good fortune"), on the other hand, is the essence of everything we hold desirable. As the deity of wealth, good fortune, and happiness (in a happy linguistic coincidence, her name is pronounced "Luck-shmi"), she stands atop an open lotus flower, as lovely as a Bollywood film star. Gold coins drip from one of her four arms, symbolizing her overflowing generosity.
In some parts of India, business people worship their money and ledgers as Lakshmi, for she is money. But Lakshmi also gives spiritual gifts—the feeling of bliss, for example, is a sure sign of her subtle presence. One of her other names, Shri (or Shree), means auspiciousness, and everything about this goddess conveys beauty, goodness, and harmony.
Saraswati ("the flowing one") dresses in white and holds a book, a rosary, and a stringed instrument called a veena to represent the practice of mantra repletion. Her companion, the swan, is celebrated in Hindu iconography as the bird whose beak can separate the milk of wisdom from the water of material existence, for Saraswati's great gift is the discernment that lets us find divinity in the world. Saraswati is also the deity of language and music, the power behind creative inspiration.
The Dark Side
Each of these goddesses represents energies that are expressed in every arena of life—physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual. Yet traditionally, they are said to have two faces. When they aren't recognized as expressions of the divine, we can experience their energies in deluding, excessive, or even negative ways.
For example, Durga energy in its pure form is a sword that cuts through obstacles and rights imbalances. That same energy can show up as aggression or harshness, as in the sharply critical judgment directed at others or ourselves. When Lakshmi's abundance energy moves through the prism of ego, it might be experienced as greed or compulsive spending, as addictions to food or sex, as vanity or enslavement to pleasure. Saraswati's power of divine speech becomes the endless flood of information that plays on all channels of the modern world, or the uncontrollable thoughts and fantasies that parade through the mind.
The practice of deity yoga is a powerful way to free these archetypal energies from the nets cast by our egos, so they can reveal themselves in their purest, most sublime forms. Moreover, when we invoke the goddesses as a source of our own power, we train ourselves to stop identifying so personally with our skills and talents and gifts, and to open up to the subtle current of divine energy always present within us, ready to guide us if we let it.
This takes a radical trust and an experimental spirit, one that may feel strange when you're used to identifying yourself as the doer of your actions. Yet if you can embrace the feeling that divine energy flows through your actions, it will put you right into the state of flow, in which your actions are effortlessly graceful.
Relating to goddess energies is deity yoga, and like any other yoga, it works best if you engage it on several levels—through contemplation, physical and behavioral practice, and prayer and meditation. Here's a practice to engage your inner principle of abundance—your Lakshmi. (You can follow the same set of practices if you want to call on the inner warrior, Durga, or on the power of creativity, Saraswati.)
First, ask yourself how Lakshmi manifests in your life-looking at your relationship with beauty, wealth, and love. Are there areas where you feel lacking? Do you feel undeserving or unlucky?
Next, make two lists. On one, list the things you don't want in your life (perhaps "ugliness," "lack of money," and "lack of time" would be on that list). On the other, list the things you do want. Use these lists to create a practice of affirmative contemplation. You might do this by writing out statements like "I'm enjoying a life of love, abundance, and beauty now" and then reading and repeating them to yourself a few times a day.
As you work with these positive ideas, you also make conscious efforts to shift your physical behavior around abundance. The operative principle here is "Attract Lakshmi by becoming Lakshmi." How do you do that? You can adopt certain traditional Lakshmi-esque behaviors, like cleanliness and order about money matters. Budgeting, planning, and keeping track of your money are ways of respecting Lakshmi energy. You can also honor Lakshmi by taking care of the environment and the material objects in your life.
Kindness and generosity express the Lakshmi spirit—not only material generosity (though philanthropic giving is one of the great ways we can "be" Lakshmi), but also generous sentiments and generosity of time and assistance. Gratitude is a major Lakshmi attractor. So is a commitment to making the life around you beautiful, loving, and harmonious. Lakshmi is all about giving, but she's also about being open to receive. So look for ways not to block abundance from your life.
An Intimate Encounter
The forms of the goddesses are energy vortexes, and meditation on them is a powerful way of bringing them alive in your life. So repeating a Lakshmi mantra will bring specific Lakshmi energy into your environment. Imagining Lakshmi's presence will invest your consciousness with part of her energy. Here's one way to do it:
Sit comfortably, in an upright posture. If you have a picture of Lakshmi, place it in front of you and look at her face. (You can download one from the Web if you like.) Then close your eyes and imagine her. You don't have to visualize her exactly—it's enough to feel her presence. Imagine her qualities—love, blessings, harmony, and kindness—deeply present.
At this point you can invoke Lakshmi, using words like "Beautiful Lakshmi, auspicious one, you are every gracious thought. Please be present in all your loving generosity." Or, you can repeat one of her mantras, like Hreem shreem kreem mahalakshmyai namaha. ("Hreem," "shreem," and "kreem" are seed syllables that embody goddess energy. The last two words mean "Salutations to the great Lakshmi.")
Now, express your gratitude for the blessings in your life, and ask Lakshmi for her blessings. Feel that you are receiving those blessings. Feel her energy, like a golden stream, flowing into your heart and then flowing through your whole body. Even if you don't visualize the blessings coming toward you, it's important to give yourself time to feel a connection with them. The connection may at first be so subtle that it isn't apparent, but as you keep doing the practice, you'll definitely begin to feel the deity's energy.
Over time, you'll have different insights. You might notice a particular form of energy around you or feel shifts in your emotional patterns. You'll probably experience heightened consciousness in the related areas of your life. (For example, you could find yourself being more purposeful in the way you spend money.) Take time to record your experience of the practice, especially any inner or outer changes that seem to be related to it.
Finally, remember that deity practice is different for everyone. With time, you'll find your own ways of becoming intimate with goddess energy, just as you would with any close relationship. Let it unfold as it will. Invoking deity energies is a way to invoke your dormant powers, which are infinitely creative, surprising, and full of sweetness. Get to know them, understand that they are aspects of yourself, and one day you'll realize divinity is not something unfamiliar or strange, but the very essence of who you are.
Sally Kempton, also known as Durgananda, is an author, a meditation teacher, and the founder of the Dharana Institute. For more information, visit www.sallykempton.com.