Part 2: What is Shakti?
A conversation with Sally Kempton, facilitated by Vera de Chalambert
Vera: The Chamunda mantra leads me into the question that I’d like to start with. I ask this of all of our teachers in the beginning and I wanted to ask you as well. What do you see as emerging collectively in our spiritual culture, in our culture at large? What’s emerging for you personally and how do you see what’s unfolding for us? And what do we need now in your perspective?
S. Kempton: That is a huge, great question, Vera. It’s one that I think a lot of us are contemplating now, especially in this country, in the United States – and certainly in Europe. A lot of us got a big shock discovering that a . . . let’s call him a strong man, an unusual human being . . . was elected president. It began to look in this country as though the gains of the recent progressive era are being rolled back. We have no idea, but there is a feeling that the world itself in its physical aspects is really in a deep crisis.
What I found in turning to the traditional understandings of cycles, is the way in which light and dark times succeed each other, the way in which entering into darkness is really necessary in order for the new forms of light to emerge. That’s really what I’ve been contemplating for the last six months.
The thing that I’ve come up with in watching the cycles of my own life and the cycles of the world as we’ve experienced it in these unbelievably transformative . . . the last 70 years that I’ve been alive – is that in the process of moving outward into various forms of destruction and creation, we’re always being asked to remember the opposite cycle and continually turn back with a desire to find the source, and to act from a sense of connection to that source.
I find myself being brought back again and again to the question, “Okay, what can I do in this moment to connect to that which is the heart, that which is pure consciousness, that which is the awakening form of divine energy, of Shakti? What’s the method for now?”
My own practice for many years has essentially been not so much about the paradigm but about constantly finding a skillful means, an upaya as they say in Sanskrit, that will let me return to the source at moments when everything is turning me towards fear or excitement, et cetera. To recognize that there is no one modality that is going to work every single time and therefore, as a spiritual teacher, my responsibility and my gift is to try to feel into the moment and see what is going to awaken people to what lies beneath it all in that moment.
You could say it’s not that something is emerging, it’s that the challenges seem really big right now. The planetary awakening seems to be very, very present.
Vera: We hear so much spoken these days, gratefully so, about the awakening of the divine feminine, about feminine spirituality.
S. Kempton: Yes, widespread. Yes.
Vera: Yes, widespread, exactly. I feel like we throw around this term but it’s referring to something quite profound. What is feminine spirituality, really? Why is it emerging at this time, do you think, if it is? What is it? What is Shakti?
S. Kempton: What is Shakti? Yeah.
Vera: What is Shakti and how is it arising, and what is its connection to this feminine spirituality that is spoken of so much right now?
S. Kempton: The question “What is Shakti?” is a very big question and I like to answer in terms of what we could call ultimacy. I’m a practitioner of an Indian tantric tradition. Tantra is a complicated category. Essentially tantra means weaving or tapestry. It’s really in many ways about the resolution of opposites. At the heart of tantra is this recognition that reality is not one monolithic suchness. It’s a single suchness that has two aspects to it, which we call different things. I call it awareness and love, or consciousness and bliss, or Satchitananda – pure being, pure awareness, pure bliss. All the Indian traditions, and actually a lot of Buddhist traditions, share this recognition, that behind everything there’s silence, there’s stillness.
What’s unique to tantra is that it finds the dynamic inside the absolute. It doesn’t make a separation between . . . let’s call it God or pure consciousness, and the so-called creation, because the understanding is it is all arising inside one field. I know there’s a lot of conversation in the realm of quantum physics about this field, the dynamic power inside the field, which is called Shakti. That simply means power.
The masculine in this tradition is called Shiva. I like to translate the word Shiva as that which lies beneath, that which underlies everything, which is that pure consciousness that is the source, within which there is a constant, emergent, creative energy. This ecstatic urgency to make newness, to do something, to be something, to make particulars – to individuate, if you will.
That’s what the tradition calls Shakti. Shakti has, of course, traditionally been identified with the feminine even though at that level there is really no such thing as masculine and feminine. When people say, “How can you be talking about masculine and feminine when everyone knows the nondual has no duality, it has no masculine/feminine. At that level masculine and feminine simply means stillness and dynamism, these two qualities of reality.
I find it very important that the tantric tradition speaks of power as feminine. It’s not the way we see power in the West. In the West we see power as a masculine quality. In tantra the understanding is that the source of power is internal, and that it is essentially a feminine power in the sense that the feminine holds creation in its womb and gives birth to particulars. I believe that’s the reason that the creative aspect of consciousness has been identified as feminine.
In the traditions, in the Eastern traditions, and I’m not going to go into the historicity of it because apparently the original religious traditions were worshipers of Goddess. They saw the natural world, they saw how plants die and go into the earth, and then the earth gives birth to new life, so they based their religion on their understanding of the earth world.
Then at some point what we could call the Sky People came into the world of the Earth People. Somehow the Sky People were worshipers of a Sky God, so God began to be called He and Goddess spirituality began to be really pretty much demonized in the western world and, though not demonized in India, certainly subordinated in India.
The feminine goddesses became consorts, submissive wives of male gods, and spirituality became more and more absolutist, tending to see the split between the spiritual world and the physical world, with the physical world somehow downgraded, somehow less real – and demonized in many traditions.
You have the desert fathers leaving their homes and going out to live in caves, and seeing every emotion that arose, every temptation to enjoy the physical world, as a manifestation of demonic energy. Literally. They demonized the particular, the feminine, and the earth.