April 22, 2011

The Hindu Goddess vs. the Mean Girls ~ Marthe Weyandt

Photo: The British Museum

WWKD? — What Would Kali Do?

Recently, I decided to grab a solo breakfast at a cozy local restaurant. A group of three women—two appeared to be in their twenties and one in her fifties—followed me in. They sat at the last available table, right next to me. They started talking.

“She ate two orders of fries once at McDonald’s. What a pig. Who does that?”

“She’s really starting to look so old. I don’t see why she doesn’t take better care of herself.”

“She’s almost forty. Her problem is that she needs a boyfriend. She’ll never find one.”

“She weighs too much. Did you see what she ate at the party?”

“Nobody would ever want her, anyway. She’s way too bossy.”

Like shrapnel from a guerrilla attack, the comments shatter all over the small restaurant space. Vindictive laughter explodes after each comment, like toxic little grenades.

I shift nervously in my seat, shuffle around my magazines, my newspapers. As much as I try not to intrude in the private conversations of others, I was finding it very difficult to concentrate, especially given the decibel level. Why do grown adults sometimes act like this? Why are they lambasting somebody who cannot defend herself, especially while so many young kids are within earshot?

I thought I was safe. This is, after all, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—a place synonymous with blue collardom and pick-up truck driving. Here, a rabid adherence to the Steelers and Iron City beer are as much a religion as pierogies, halupkis and early Mass on game day. Pittsburgh is a place where pretentiousness or elitism would appear as out-of-place as a Cleveland Browns jersey on game day.

What I had feared soon becomes a reality. The women redirect their offensive towards me.

Within a few seconds, they are staring at me, whispering. Although I cannot make out their hushed comments, I gather they are not complimentary. They are castigating my outfit, the fact that I am dining alone. This cycle continues for several minutes. Look up. Whisper. Snicker. Laugh. Look down. Whisper. Giggle.

Photo: Micah Sittig

In a space of ten minutes, I am teleported back in time, some twenty years. It is junior high school. And I am sitting alone in the school cafeteria. I am infuriated and, at the same time, feel a strange compulsion to hide.

As a yoga teacher, I believe our bodies speak our minds. So, what is mine trying to say? That is, other than expressing the fond desire to curl up like an armadillo and weather the storm from the relative sanctity of a desert rock?

My neck and shoulders are tight, my back clenches. There is a vice-like grip around my stomach. Something tells me I must protect my heart chakra, my solar plexus, my sacral chakra. My jaw tells me the opposite.

Cry out, it says. Scream out, if need be.

Oh, self-consciousness, my old friend, how the hell have you been?

On a rational level, I recognize that behaviors such as manipulation and gossip have deep roots in insecurity. It is not rocket science to suggest that adult life can carry with it the same stultifying dynamics as junior high. Work and social life can be rife with favoritism, cliquishness and nepotism. Mean girls sometimes grow into mean women; similarly, mean boys grow into mean men. Otherwise, we could not regularly atrophy our brains with pop culture gems like Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives series.

In the last twenty years, I have had experiences I never could have dreamed of as a thirteen year-old. I have travelled thousands of miles from that lunchroom. I have lived and worked on several continents, had the opportunity to befriend many kindhearted and fascinating people. Why do I feel blindsided by this? Why do I feel cornered like a preteen in a feeding room populated by voracious velociraptors?

My body is telling me, in no uncertain terms, that it is troubled by the situation. True, this is the kind of situation which pushes all of my judgmental buttons. In what instances have I been judgmental towards others? More importantly, how have I I been too judgmental towards myself? It is often common for people to dislike within others that which they find most problematic within themselves.

I try to turn the mirror inwards: In what ways have I looked for the affirmation of others, subjugated what I believe to be true for myself to the court of public opinion? Am I still giving away my own personal power, either tacitly or more overtly, to others? Why should I care if three grown women are making fun of my outfit in a restaurant?

Vedanta philosophy acknowledges that certain dark qualities have their roots in what is called ‘avidya,’ literally translated as ‘ignorance’ or ‘delusion.’ Avidya is the result of habituated patterns of many unconscious actions. Avidya prevents us from perceiving things as they truly are.

Avidya is frequently depicted as a tree trunk from from which the branches of ego, desire, refusal, and fear arise.

Photo: Clinton Steeds

The first branch, ego, or asmita, urges us to feel as if we are better than other people or that we are always correct.

The second branch, raga, can be thought of as desire or attachment. We desire various things—whether material goods, experiences, or social standing.

The third branch is dvesa, or refusal. In some ways, dvesa is the opposite of raga. Refusal refuses to move forward, by rejecting things that may have brought pain in the past.

The fourth branch is abhinivesa, or fear—specifically the fear that the life to which we have become accustomed may change.

Ego and dvesa are locked in a vicious tug-of-war in my psyche, as I sit at the breakfast table. I imagine them to be cartoon characters. Ego is a Tasmanian devil. Dvesa is Eeyore from Winnie the Pool.

“Knock your hot coffee all over them,” incites ego. “Scream ‘Karma’s a bitch and so are you guys!’ Then, run as fast as you can,” advises ego, laughing.

“Read your Travel and Leisure magazine,” drawls dvesa, lifting its head from the table only for long enough to give advice. “Hide. Think of exotic cruises and far-away safaris. Remember: dream, but don’t do. You’ll stay safer that way.”

As I sit alone with my breakfast and magazine, I try my best to acknowledge the situation for what it is: the Universe is trying to teach me something, have a bit of fun with me. (It is, in an ironic twist of fate, April Fool’s Day.)

Hey, it’s just gonna be one of those days, Universe says. Learn to deal with it. I recall the powerful words of Teddy Roosevelt: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” I cannot change other people, nor can I go bat shit on them in the restaurant; I must simply change the way in which I react to them. Nobody, after all, is perfect. I am far from it.

What to do? What to do? I invoke my inner Kali.

Photo: Jupiter Firelyte

The thousands-years old Hindu goddess Kali is strikingly apropos for the modern era. Upon first glance, Kali can truly appear gruesome or frightening. She wears a string of skulls around her neck. Her beet red tongue sticks out. Kali’s hair is wildish and unkempt; the front of Kali’s body is streaked with the blood of battle. Kali holds a sword in one hand, a severed head in another. Her left fingers are positioned in a mudra meant to dispel fear amongst her followers.

According to Subhamoy Das:

Kali’s fierce form is strewed with awesome symbols. Her black complexion symbolizes her all-embracing and transcendental nature. Says the Mahanirvana Tantra: “Just as all colors disappear in black, so all names and forms disappear in her.” Her nudity is primeval, fundamental, and transparent like Nature — the earth, sea, and sky. Kali is free from the illusory covering, for she is beyond the all maya or “false consciousness.”

Her girdle of severed human hands signifies work and liberation from the cycle of karma. Her white teeth show her inner purity, and her red lolling tongue indicates her omnivorous nature—”her indiscriminate enjoyment of all the world’s ‘flavors’.” Her sword is the destroyer of false consciousness and the eight bonds that bind us.”

Kali’s social message exudes openness, confidence, individuality and honesty. She is a woman of action; she presents a refreshing role model for our society, which can be overly fixated on appearance.

Kali is one-of-a-kind, neither a follower nor a shrinking violet.

As infuriating as it is to hear women’s social standing defined in terms of appearance, popularity and ability to attract a mate (as the women at breakfast are doing), it can be very common. Women are sometimes encouraged to repress those parts of ourselves—our wilder, more independent natures—for fear they will be unacceptable to society. Look like everyone else, we are told. Act like everyone else. Stay safe. Carry the latest purse, wear the latest sunglasses it says, as if these are talismans that will ensure safety, acceptance.

Sadly enough, many young girls are force fed a convoluted message from an early age. Mothers encourage their daughters to ‘just be themselves’ as they drop three hundred dollars on pricey cosmetics at the Sephora store just in time for prom.

What would Kali do?

What if truly ‘being yourself’ means having three heads, five eyes, halitosis potent enough to kill a flock of birds from the sky and a penchant for playing advanced Dungeons & Dragons every weekend? Eating lunch alone every day? Not having a salary commensurate with the architect of a Ponzi scheme? Shouldn’t you just rock this look if, in fact, this is your God-given way?

Heck, yes.

So, I bring Kali to the breakfast table with me. I also invite Teddy Roosevelt for good measure. (I actually believe they would actually have made fine dining companions, although that’s a whole new article.) We order a few plates of eggs and breakfast crepes. We eat, discuss the weather, talk a little American politics and swap muffin recipes. We finish up, wipe our mouths with napkins. We calmly get up, walk over to the three ladies, still exchanging toxic comments. We say, as one, “Could you please talk a little softer? Your comments are very hurtful to those around you.”


Marthe Weyandt is a Pittsburgh-based yoga instructor and freelance writer. She enjoys traveling and spending time in the great outdoors. She is currently learning to play guitar, albeit badly and at frequencies only dogs can hear. She believes in the power of the word, creatively and lovingly rendered, to create positive change in the world. She has a Bachelor’s in English and Religion from Dickinson College and a Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University. She spent two years as an English instructor with the United States Peace Corps in Madagascar. Check out some of her other work at shazaamazoid.blogspot.com.

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