Sunday, January 23, 2011

Drinking Yogi tea with Mother Theresa

Mother Theresa would have been 101 years old this year. 

I learnt that whilst walking through the supermarket, from the cover of Time magazine. It was so refreshing to see her face smiling at me from the shelf. So many lines carved out by a life richly lived. Eyes that seem to have invented the twinkle. I read this birthday special edition dedicated to her life, cover-to-cover in one sitting.

This morning I was reading it again, sipping my tea and thinking about this post. And as if the yogi teabag could read my mind, it’s label announced, ‘Let love elevate you to excellence’.

It’s probably what most people think of when they remember Mother Theresa. Her huge capacity to love. And the excellent work she did in the world because of it. What else makes it possible to work day after day caring for the poorest of the poor, creating 517 missions all over the world?

However, Time Magazine also revealed something that I didn’t know about this saintly nun. Something that changed how I see her, in a radical way. She was already one of my heroines, this took my admiration to a new level.

She spent her life of service unable to feel the presence of God.


This woman who gave and gave of herself didn’t have some kind of deal going on with the big guy?? Apparently not. I was amazed to read her letters to her superiors – telling of a day-to-day loneliness, feelings of abandonment, a deep sense of loss.

When I read this about Teresa, I felt so much closer to her. She became more human. Not less saintly, just more human. It also reminded me of one of the darkest times in my life - when my own sense of connection fell away. And keeping faith felt almost impossible. Actually I’m still in the process of putting it back together.

It began when I was helping to run a yoga school a couple of years ago. I lived in a little concrete room, with a straw mattress and a swarm of mosquitos to keep me company. I poured all my waking hours into that school. There was a constant stream of students to help, floors to sweep, classes to teach, lectures to prepare, accounts to balance…

Life was a grind, and yet, it felt blooming brilliant. Effortless. Like I was being blown about the place by a huge, invisible fan. I saw the work as a way to live out my faith in the mystery that is ‘God’. It seemed to make even sweeping floors feel mystical.

And then the bubble popped. After going like a steam train for five months, I was knocked flat on my back for weeks. Things didn’t feel so blissful anymore. I couldn’t even move my body. But worse than that, someone had turned off the God fan! The flow of divine amrita stopped. And I felt emptier than a fuel tank on empty.

Reading Mother Theresa’s letters helped me to understand what happened. 

In the past, when I heard the word ‘Saint’, I imagined someone who never feels the negative emotions I feel. Someone who has an intravenous tap from God. Teresa has changed my mind about that. I don’t think her saintliness came from some kind of secret deal with God. I think she was a saint because she felt as hopeless and abandoned as most of us have felt, she continued to serve through her loneliness. And her faith never went walkabout.

So thank you Mother Theresa, for your incredible faith. It’s bringing me back to my own. And happy birthday! I hope you’re having the party you deserve.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Dancing on lava with a dakini - Vajrayogini

On a trip to Hawaii recently, where fast-flowing lava rivers carve up the landscape, I decided to paint the fiery goddess Vajrayogini. I had just finished when my man, Way came back from a volcano hike. He took one look and with wide eyes said,
‘Woah. She’s stunning and savage and sexy and scary.”

Vajrayogini isn’t technically a person, but she is still a heroine of mine. Anyway, if she was a person, you probably wouldn’t want to go near her. She’s not the kind of girl you could visit next door to ask for a cup of sugar. Like a cross between Tina Turner in the middle of a live show, and that volcano Way just climbed, erupting.

A Tibetan Buddhist deity, she is a Dakini – a wisdom goddess. She’s naked, wild, armed with fangs, a spear and what looks like a meat cleaver, although the Tibetans call it a vajra-chopper. She is always pictured dancing with wild abandon and she carries a cup made from a skull.

When I first heard about her I nearly ran a mile. I was new to Buddhism, and was frolicking at the wonderful Buddhafields festival in Devon…

After an afternoon of ecstatic dancing, I heard there was a Vajrayogini Buddhist ritual happening. Which sounded like a good way to relax for a while. Very wrong. I poked my head around the tent flap to gusts of incense, heaving crowds of people and drums banging. And I nearly walked right back out of there. Horns were blowing, hands clapping, bodies swaying. It was a bit like the dance scene in The Matrix, just a little more British. Every now and then the madness would quieten and a polite, well-spoken voice would lead us onto the next part…

“and now we imagine Vajrayogini dancing, drinking the blood-red nectar from her skull cup…”

Before long, I was mesmerized. Buddhism suddenly became a lot more interesting. Who was this red, wild, dancing woman? Adrenalin still pumping through my body from my afternoon of jiving, I could relate to her. Much more easily than with the Buddha sitting calmly under his tree. But how could a polite English girl like me, be like her?

Over the next few years I’ve got to know Vajrayogini a little more. I learnt that the skulls around her neck represent wisdom overcoming illusion. That the ‘blood’ she drinks is a symbol of the delicious nectar of truth. Yet I admit I’m still a little terrified of her ferocity.

One of the traditional places to meditate on the dakinis is on an active volcano. So, in Hawaii, I walked to a mile away from the glowing lava flow and sat on the freshly laid black rock. It was still warm from the magmas latest adventure to the sea. The warmth felt both comforting and frightening - any minute the volcano could decide to lay another layer of 3000 degree molten rock. Over me.

I took in the burnt, barren landscape. Great black chasms and red rips in the earth’s crust. And I thought about how life sometimes requires this determined ferociousness.

I remembered Way’s second comment about my Vajrayogini painting…
“it looks like she wouldn’t suffer fools gladly… or take anything but the deepest truth and integrity”.

And I realized why I was so attracted to Vajrayogini, and why I wanted to be like her. She isn’t just fierce. She is fiercely confident, fiercely brave. Because she is on a fierce quest for truth and goodness, and she won’t stand for anything less. And in a world where I all too often swallow my own truth, to make it ok for others, that is something I could do with copying.

Can I lay my lava down, even though it might not be polite? I looked down at the new, green, sprouting ferns already taking root in the charred swirls and cracks, and realized I could. And that I should. Now where did I put that vajra-chopper…?