The Celts believed that the border between this world and the unknown becomes thin at this time of year, allowing spirits of all kinds to pass through. Those of us who meditate can relate to this experience, and even those who don’t. At times when we are most vulnerable and sensitive, when we have the thinnest skin, the most amazing memories and realizations and feelings, powerful spirits, can come wafting up from the depths. In Celtic times, ancestors were honored and invited home, while dangerous spirits were warded off. In ancient Scotland, young men dressed in white with masked, veiled, or blackened faces, impersonating harmful spirits to scare them away.
Yet the custom of assuming a fierce guise to stand up to danger isn’t limited to the ancient Celts. Mahakala is a fierce form taken by the great Tibetan Buddhist Lord of Compassion, Avalokiteshara. This wild looking, powerful being is described in ancient legends and texts as having the fierce energy and determination a mother has for her only child when that child is confronted by danger. Mahakala is a protector. Just as dressing up in scary costumes on Halloween was not always play, Mahakala reminds us that the practice we call mindfulness meditation is not always sweetness and light. The practice itself is comprised of different elements in addition to mindfulness itself, including energy and sometimes fierce determination. We are meant to meet the darkness with the light of awareness.
Enlightenment consists not merely in seeing luminous shapes and visions, but in making the darkness visible,” writes Carl Jung. “The latter procedure is more difficult and therefore, unpopular.” Most of us, understandably, want to skip the darkness and race to the light.
Firelight played a large part in the festivities of Samhain. Individual fires were doused and each home lit their hearth from the common bonfire. Imagine the impact of such a ritual in a world lit by fire. But there are times today when we can experience the kindling of a great elemental power and light in the midst of darkness. Once, when my baby was faced with danger, I became charged with the energy and awareness of Mahakula.Many years ago, I left a corporate job and a comfortable sun-filled studio on the Upper West Side, to move to a tenement apartment in East Village and an uncertain job as a freelance writer. I moved there for many reasons but under all those reasons there was a wish to draw closer to the fire of life. In those days, the East Village was on fire. These days it is chic. But in the mid-Eighties until the early 90’s, it was wild, full of little art galleries and clubs and wild creativity, but also truly dangerous. Every day was Halloween.
I reinvented myself as a writer, publishing magazine stories about wild events in the city. I visited a haunted apartment on Washington Square Park; I followed a pair of NYPD detectives on pickpocket patrol; I attended a Santeria ceremony, on and on. And at the same time, I meditated and studied spiritual books. I remember leaving for a meditation retreat one dawn as someone was trying to break into the shuttered bar next door with a crow bar.
Slowly, I began to sense that what stood between me and a deeper, more vibrant way of living wasn’t outside but inside. I discovered the Buddhist path and learned the different ways the mind grasps at life. We want this; we don’t want that. The situations that arise endlessly make us angry or worried or tired. The Buddhist tradition teaches us that our true mind or citta is luminous and vast. Yet we can’t see this boundless sky through the clouds of our grasping and delusion, our endless preoccupation with I, me, mine.
A few years after I moved to the East Village, I married and had a baby. Instantly, I began to experience life in a new way. I felt exquisitely vulnerable but also strong. I was determined to move my beautiful baby to a safer, more wholesome place, to the Promised Land of Brooklyn, as I thought of it then. I was no longer restless or worried or confused about the how to be vividly alive. When I was with my baby, I often experienced the clarity and ease that can appear when the body, the mind, and the feelings draw together. I experienced oneness within and with my baby and with the basic goodness of life.
But the neighborhood was still dangerous. My mother visited and advised me never to take my innocent, happy baby outside. She hoped we could just teleport to leafy Brooklyn. Inevitably though, I had to take my baby for a walk. I walked up Avenue A, past the Pyramid Bar, past King Tut’s Wah Wah Hut, and entered Tompkins Square Park. I did my best to pretend that this was an ordinary park, one that did not contain the tattered remnants of a tent city of junkies and dealers. Yet my baby, who rarely cried, started crying, as if she sensed the deep misery in that dark place.
Suddenly, a man with long dirty blond hair veered off his path and headed towards us fast. He smiled horribly, inches from my face. “I could get a lot of money for a cute baby like that.” A power surged through me, as if Mother Earth herself rose up to stand with me. I was supercharged with energy, focused, determined. No one was going to hurt my baby. Gavin de Becker, a world expert on danger, once said there is no more dangerous animal on the planet that the female of any species when her baby is threatened.
I realized that day that dangerous doesn’t necessarily mean violent but prepared, grounded and open and ready to respond. I learned why the ancient Chinese Buddhist monks studied martial arts and why the great Tibetan Buddhist teacher Trungpa calls people who step on this path of inner awakening “warriors.” Ever after, it would seem right that the word the Buddha used for the effort needed to wake up is virya, which is related to the English word “virile,” because it turns out that waking up to life and experiencing oneness is not an effortless effort. It requires the energy and determination of a hero, a willingness to meet life as it is.
The moment passed. The man ran off. The impression of that state of inner oneness and fierce determination remained. The obstacles to moving to Brooklyn melted away, and I looked at the East Village, and the whole of my life, with new eyes. When the mind and body are cut off from one another, I saw, when I am in my head alone, the world can seem very dark and my prospects hopeless. Yet when I come together, which can happen in meditation or in nature as well as in moments of danger, I remember I am part of the greater wholeness and goodness of life. And I draw strength and light from that common fire.
In the ancient Celtic festival, sometimes two bonfires would be built side-by-side, and people and their livestock would walk between them as a cleansing ritual. I think of this as a ritualized version of walking through fire, which we all must do at times. We must learn to welcome, if not celebrate, times of darkness.
Even if we think we’ve forgotten this ancient understanding, evidence of it remains. All-Hallows-Even or Eve (evening), falls on the night before All Hallows Day or All Saints Day, a traditional mass day of the saints. This is a celebration of the hallowed ones, the ones who have gone beyond the limitations, the likes and dislikes and blind spots that blind the rest of us. Renunciation and practice made these holy beings whole in the sense of being able to embrace all human possibilities and the wholeness of life, light and dark. Nothing human was foreign to them. Nothing was unforgivable and unlovable. Built right into our trick-or-treating holiday is the implication that we must dare to embrace the darkness, to be with the unknown and frightening, to fully love and live. ♦