It’s easy to feel spiritual when things go our way. When we’re calm and content, we can imagine we’ve attained some grand mystical state. As soon as we lose our temper, the entire facade shatters.
I sit in meditation for a few minutes before bed, but I used to have nights when I felt I couldn’t. Maybe I’d just yelled at someone or I was feeling angry or upset. Whatever the reason, when I’d get these dark moods, I would feel unable to approach and sit before the altar, as though I wasn’t allowed to take my mood into that space.
A story from the Shiva Purana changed my practice profoundly. What follows is my own retelling from memory without looking at the text, so it’s filtered through the meaning it held for me:
Once upon a time there was a happily married couple who were unable to have children. The man was content with life the way it was, but his wife couldn’t stop wanting a child. She asked him to take a second wife and have a child. He was reluctant; their lives were good the way they were and perhaps a child was just not part of their destiny. His wife insisted that she’d only be happy if there was a child, so the husband took a second wife.
In time, the second wife had a son. He was raised to treat the first wife as his mother, and he did. He loved her and was a devoted son. But the first wife knew in her heart that he wasn’t really “her” son even though no one made her feel excluded. As the boy grew in strength and wisdom, her jealousy festered. Here was the perfect son, and he was not hers.
The son eventually took a wife, and the daughter-in-law moved into the household. She also treated the first wife like a mother and was devoted to her. This only fed the jealousy in the heart of the first wife: here was the perfect daughter-in-law, but she was not hers either.
Finally, one night when the daughter-in-law was menstruating (and therefore not sleeping in her husband’s bed), the first wife snuck into his room in the middle of the night and hacked the son to death with an ax. The entire room and the first wife were covered in blood when the sun rose.
What on earth is such a horrible story doing in a scripture? What can this tell us about how to live our lives?
The answer is that the first wife should have turned to Shiva when she was feeling these emotions. Our negative emotions, held inside, fester and become toxic. We can’t keep them in or they’ll destroy us. We can’t turn them outward or they’ll destroy those around us. What can we do but turn those emotions to Shiva?
Shiva is called Nilakantha (“blue-throated”) because when the cosmic ocean was churned, a horrible poison arose that threatened to destroy the world. The only one who could save the world was Shiva, because only the Destroyer could swallow the poison and not be harmed. When poisonous emotions arise within us, we can turn to Shiva because our emotions can’t hurt him the way they can hurt us and the people in our lives.Since the story in the Purana is a lesson, it ends with the first wife worshiping Shiva and the son being restored to life and everyone living happily ever after.
How has this story affected my own spiritual practice?
Now when I’m experiencing intense negative emotions, instead of thinking that I can’t approach the altar and sit in meditation because I’m so upset, I go immediately to the altar and sit. I may be too agitated to meditate, so I’ll just tell Shiva everything I feel. I won’t hold back and try to make myself sound like a better person. If I feel like I never want to forgive, then I’ll say so. No matter what I’m feeling, I simply pour it out to Shiva. Within minutes, a calm descends over me and the negative emotions are gone.
Here’s one thing I’ve learned: emotions are finite. When we’re feeling them, they feel infinite. We’re afraid they might go on forever so we pretend we aren’t feeling them at all. When we suppress them, we give them more power and they keep bubbling to the surface at unexpected times. But when we sit with our emotions and truly let ourselves feel (but not act on) them, they dissipate. They weren’t infinite after all, and once they’ve run their course, they’re gone forever. The more we do this, the less we’re tossed here and there by our emotions in the first place. Eventually we don’t need to avoid meditation when we’ve just yelled at someone because we’re starting to become the kind of person who rarely yells at people anymore.
In truth, you aren’t more spiritual when you’re happy and you haven’t suffered a setback when you’re angry. You start making progress when you keep up your spiritual practice whether you feel happy or angry or any other emotion. Emotions are fleeting and your true Self is beyond them. When the clouds of emotion pass and we feel profound peace, that’s when we start to catch a glimpse of who we really are.