By Sally Kempton
A couple of weeks ago, I was in London preparing to teach a workshop on Goddesses called “Dancing with the Divine Feminine.” At dinner one night, I asked a friend which goddess he most wanted to hear about. “I’d love you to talk about the goddess of disappointment,” he said.
The table went silent. “You’re kidding, right?” someone said. This guy is one of the more successful people I know, the author of more books than I hope to write in several lifetimes, married to a beautiful woman he loves. Why, we wondered, did he want to investigate disappointment?
I shouldn’t have been surprised. In the years since I started teaching the yoga of the Indian goddesses, I’ve noticed that many people with enviably successful lives feel a strange kinship with Dhumavati, the crone goddess whose name is synonymous with disappointment, despair, and difficulty. One reason, perhaps, is that even people who mostly succeed at life also know the taste of failure. Even those of us who desperately fear disappointment, know at some level that there is no real success without coming to terms with our fear of failing, and with the hidden gifts that failure offers.
Still, Dhumavati—her name means ‘the smoky one’ --is not at first glance a goddess you’d want to invoke. Skinny, poor, elderly, she is the very opposite of the auspicious goddesses like Lakshmi. One verse describes her as wearing dirty clothes, and riding in a chariot decorated with a crow banner. (In India, crows are birds of ill omen.) Another verse says, “Her complexion is like the black clouds that form at the time of cosmic dissolution… Her face is very wrinkled, she has disheveled hair, and her breasts are dry and withered.” Dhumavati, in short, is that familiar figure from both Eastern and Western mythology—the crone, the eternal bag lady, the witch. Moreover, Dhumavati personifies the feelings you might experience when your luck runs out, when your business tanks or your lover leaves you, when you get sick or injured or get rejected by your first choice college. In short, she’s everything that most people do their best to avoid.
Why then, would you want to get to know Dhumavati?
Perhaps because you intuit that there are certain gifts we can only attain if we’re willing to navigate disappointment. There are boons in difficulty, profound empowerments that come to us when we face into the inevitable disillusionment that exists in every human life. And Dhumavati, with her wizened, ugly face, is literally the guardian of those gifts. Her Shakti, her divine energy, is the primal guide along the path that can turn disappointment into enlightenment.
We need her. Without Dhumavati’s grace, we can remain trapped by our images of success and our fear of loss, especially the losses that come with age and sickness. When we have her grace, she empowers us to mine the exquisite wisdom hidden in the heart of life’s most difficult moments. On a worldly level, Dhumavati often shows up in your life to remind you of your fundamental human vulnerability. A friend of mine met Dhumavati when her back went out so badly that she couldn’t get out of bed for two months. Another discovered her when his business partner ran away with all the money in the company account. One of the most profound teachers I know has spent the last 15 years in daily, grinding pain from nerve damage brought on by an accident—and learned to walk through it with a grace that inspires everyone who meets her. Dhumavati has been her teacher.
One way Dhumavati teaches us is by asking the question, “Can you keep your equilibrium when everything collapses? Can you find your yogic groove when everything falls away?” This, of course, is one of the questions that yogic practice is meant to answer. And, in my experience, when we walk through a Dhumavati moment with full awareness of her presence, she carries with her the key to some very potent yogic secrets.
Dhumavati is one of the Ten Wisdom Goddesses, who each represent a stage of enlightened consciousness. Dhumavati represents that stage of the inner journey where the spiritual goals we started out with become empty of meaning, and we have no choice but to let go of our agendas. As such, she bestows the inner gifts of detachment and freedom, the power to soar beyond circumstances. In other words, she is not only the goddess of disappointment; she’s the goddess who shows us that within disappointment is the secret boon of true freedom. (Remember the old Kris Kristofferson line, “Freedom’s just another name for nothing left to lose.”)
Esoterically, Dhumavati represents the void state of meditation. This stage, which we might experience as an inner blackness, or as a pervasive feeling of dryness and disinterest in practice, is sometimes called the ‘dark night of the soul.’ However, according to the tantric teacher Ganapati Muni, this is actually the precursor to Samadhi, one of the highest forms of meditative immersion.
When you sit with the intention of going into a deep meditation, you have to let go of egoic concerns, of thoughts, of all of your various agendas. Without letting all this go, it’s very hard to experience the vastness of your unlimited awareness. Most of us, even when we want spiritual experience, deeply resist this level of letting go—in meditation and in life. That’s why we so often have to discover Dhumavati’s gifts by having something taken away from us.
And here’s the secret: when you can allow yourself, instead of resisting disappointment, to see it as a lesson in letting go, Dhumavati can help you discover the profound wisdom of non-attachment. Dhumavati doesn’t empower us in obvious ways, like Durga. She isn’t dramatic, like Kali, or beautiful, like Lakshmi or Parvati. Her gift is the strength that comes from letting ourselves empty out, and the profound freedom and peace that we achieve only when we’re willing to renounce something we wanted. Who knew–-especially in our success and beauty-worshipping culture--that not getting what we wanted could be liberating? Yet when we are willing to be fully present to our moments of disappointment and failure, Dhumavati’s Shakti can free your heart of worry, fear, and grievance—making room for possibilities far beyond anything you could imagine.
So, the next time things aren’t going the way you think they should, stop resisting for a moment. Embrace the feeling of disappointment. Whisper to yourself Dhumavati’s mantra, “Let go.” And notice how, if you allow her in, she will fill your heart not only with peace, not only with compassion, but also with her own flavor of intense love. The kind of love that only the Goddess can give you.
Sally Kempton is Yoga Journal’s Wisdom columnist. Her new book Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of the Goddesses of Yoga and her audio program, Shakti Meditations, explore the power of invoking the goddess energy into your life.