Mar 12 2021
Coursing in emptiness
English version by Coleman Barks
Coursing in emptiness,
dropped off body and mind,
and stepped into the Secret Self.
Look: Lalla the sedgeflower
blossomed a lotus.
— from Women in Praise of the Sacred: 43 Centuries of Spiritual Poetry by Women, Edited by Jane Hirshfield
/ Image by Crystalline Radical /
Yesterday was Maha Shivaratri, a celebration in honor of the Hindu god Shiva. So I thought we should have a poem dedicated to Lord Shiva…
I love the opening phrase in this poem’s translation: “Coursing in emptiness…” Reality is recognized as being vast and empty — but a living emptiness! — like a great formless sea. And the point of awareness, though supremely at rest, covers the entire spaciousness like one reclined on a coursing clipper ship carried along by a gentle, steady wind.
And in this pure state of awareness, the agitated ego-mind that constantly chants “I, me, mine!” — that part of the mind that we normally think of as ourselves — it grows thin and ghost-like until it disappears. Even the physical body becomes unreal to us and the awareness of it can completely fade away.
…Yet we remain. The collection of mental processes and agitations that we thought was our identity has ceased. The body has become at most an idea, a form of expression. It is a tool for interacting with an idea world. The body has dropped off, yet we remain. Completely stilled and settled, we are returned to the natural experience of bliss and wholeness. In the deepest way possible, we are at home, at one. We finally know who and what we really are. This is the return to the Secret Self. This is the way to step into the Secret Self.
Lalla’s final pair of lines — “Look: Lalla the sedgeflower / blossomed a lotus” — expresses the utter surprise and delight of this first recognition. A sedgeflower grows low among the grasses, close to the ground, hardly noticed. How can something so humble, something so lost among the weeds and dust of earthly existence come to such vibrant life? How could this little thing I call “me” have stepped into the radiant enlightenment that blossoms like a lotus in the crown? The sedgeflower — the little self — discovers within it the scintillating lotus of the True Self!
A personal note about Shiva–
I have always felt a special appreciation for the imagery of Shiva. When I was younger and more of an ascetic myself, I loved the iconography of Shiva as the bone-thin yogi with long matted hair meditating in bliss in the Himalayas. Austere, pure, the embodiment of what is essential and meaningful in existence.
These days I am fascinated by the image of Shiva Nataraj, the Lord of the Dance. Shiva, ecstatically dancing, creating and dissolving the universe with each step, his long hair flying about his shoulders as he spins in his perfect balance. To me this is an image of the way the Eternal expresses both stillness and movement, how the Divine moves masterfully through existence, how all life is an expression of the underlying joyful impulse to move and express.
Shiva Nataraj teaches us how to dance through life!
Have a beautiful day!
Lalla, also affectionately called Lalli, Lal Ded, Lal Diddi (“Granny Lal”), or Lalleshwari, was born near Srinagar in Kashmir in northern India/Pakistan.
Little is known with certainty about her life, other than hints that come to us through her poetry and songs.
She was a young bride, married, tradition says, at the age of twelve. After moving into her husband’s family home, she was abused by her mother-in-law and ignored by her husband.
A story is told about “Lalla’s Lake” — one day when returning from the well with a clay water jug on her head, her husband lost his temper over her delay and struck the jug in his anger. The clay vessel broke but, miraculously, the water held its shape above her head. This becomes an important symbol of the heavenly nectar that rains down from the crown.
Finally, Lalla could endure no more mistreatment and, in her early 20s, she left. She became a disciple of a respected saint in the Kashmir Shaivism tradition of yoga and she took up the life of a holy woman dedicated God in the form of Shiva. Lalla began wandering about, village to village, going naked or nearly naked, and singing songs of enlightenment.
Lalla’s songs are short, using the simple, direct language of the common people, yet she touches on complex yogic techniques and the most elevated states of awareness.
The name Lalla can be translated as either “seeker” or “darling.”
Lalla is deeply loved by both Hindus and Muslims in Kashmir today, even amidst the terrible fighting ravaging the land. There is a saying that in Kashmir only two words have any meaning: Allah and Lalla.