Kali, the Sacred Disruptor
Kali Ma is showing up in my life again.
Kali is the ferocious Hindu deity of illuminating darkness; a destroyer of illusions. Her ruthless compassion cuts through our obliviousness to how things really are.
On the spiritual path, Kali uses shake-ups and transformations to destroy subject-object consciousness and restore our intimacy with all things. Her path to liberation is swift and challenging.
Kali Ma can also represent a fierce advocacy for justice, as demonstrated by an amazing art installation projected onto the Empire State Building.
I came across these images right in between a difficult confrontation with my landlord, and a silent meditation retreat with my teacher.
When my landlord refused to honor his legal and ethical responsibilities to his tenants, I spoke up, even though I was frightened of repercussions. He yelled at me, calling me a “pain in the ass” for insisting that he listen and take action.
At the retreat my teacher invoked Kali several times. He explained that we need to open to her in order to awaken; that more of us need to embody her:
“We do not have many (Kali-style) teachers who can destroy our positive and negative storylines; lack of self-interest is required. A true guru will destroy the things inside you that veil your consciousness.”
This destroyer role is not only for teachers. Any of us can drop our self-interested fear and embody Kali when we or our people are in danger. Or when ”other” peoples and beings are harmed. Sometimes we need to shake things up and wake people up. Sometimes we need to fight.
Being a Disruptor
I had to fight at the retreat. I have some life-threatening food allergies. The host organization for the retreat forbids any outside food, and refuses to post the ingredients of the meals they provide. A double-bind for those of us with food allergies.
I explained this to the retreat administrators before the retreat. After much back and forth, they promised that the host organization would post a notice at any meal where my allergens were present, so that I could safely avoid them. I would still be out of luck if I could not eat the meal, but it was something.
This promise was retracted at the retreat. We were told that we would have to use handwritten signs (it was a silent retreat) to find out the ingredients of each meal.
We were told, “you will just have to work with it,” the implication being that this would be part of our spiritual practice. Then the food coordinator said to me, “I know how you feel, I have food sensitivities too.”
I pointed out that they had broken their promise to advocate for those of us with allergies, and had put the onus on each of us to protect ourselves.
She frowned as I spoke my truth. She obviously expected me to accept this ridiculous situation—and her acquiescence to it–with grace. Was this her idea of non-attachment? What nonsense.
She and the other retreat organizers expected us to sacrifice our basic safety and/or nourishment, and to silently find out each meal’s ingredients from the ever-changing kitchen staff roster.
They expected us to potentially forego some meals. Why should I sacrifice the truth to make her feel comfortable? She ought to feel uncomfortable about abandoning those of us with food allergies.
I walked away, muttering to myself with a mixture of self-righteousness and matter-of-fact anger. The food coordinator also had food sensitivities, yet she clearly expected me to “suck it up.”
So I made up a story about her. It could well be a projection on my part. Pure fiction. But, I have known plenty of WASP (white anglo saxon protestant) women like her, like me, who do fit my story.
White women who were taught as little girls to never make waves; to always be “good” girls. Not unruly, never disruptive. To keep the adults comfortable.
To white girls like I was, to white women like me, and to any other readers who have had to “suck it up” for someone else’s comfort, I offer this reflection:
Have you ever?
Have you ever been marginalized and betrayed? Asked to sacrifice your basic needs?
Have you ever been expected to act like everything is okay, as if you are content to be overlooked and abandoned?
Have you been expected to act like a pious, gracious, “good girl” while others dismissed your need to be alive or safe or fed, to express yourself, be cuddled, or have alone time, or space to daydream?
Probably all of us have. Being overlooked is a quintessential childhood experience. Even more so for girl children, trans children, poor children, children of color, children with disabilities.
When you had needs that did not fit the family or community or dominant institutions status quo. When you were called “weird” or “high maintenance.” When grown-ups decided you were “other.”
Those grown-ups looked at you, then through you. In their eyes you were a nuisance, a danger. A disruption of the familiar. They abandoned you. They made it clear: no exceptions, no accommodations will be made for you.
You were expected to accept your own sacrifice. To shut up, smile and make nice.
Fast forward to adulthood, long after you had internalized those messages: fit in; “suck it up;” don’t expect special treatment.
A Reparative Re-do Exercise
Now I am asking you to do a “re-do.”
Find a friend (or use a journal as your listening “friend”) and try out this practice:
Set aside 20-30 minutes for each of you. Choose who will speak and who will listen for this round.
It’s time for you to tell your story. Call up one of those times (either in childhood or more recently) when you were expected to roll with it as others rolled over you.
As your partner listens, express the feelings and sensations that you had at the time. You may feel grief or rage. You may feel your longing to be seen and loved. Do not hold back! This time you get to be heard and seen.
For now, don’t make excuses for those grown-ups or those who had power over you. This is your time, your space.
Your partner’s role is to ground themselves and receive your truth; to midwive your memories and realizations, to be moved by your long-untold story.
Feel the sensations in your body as you tell them how you were just trying to be, and instead were silenced, ignored or punished. If you feel like clenching your fists, stomping your feet, yelling or crying, go ahead.
Feel your spine lengthening as you take your dignity back.
Now imagine the child that you were back then being encouraged to speak up. Imagine yourself offering those grown-ups an amazing opportunity to open their hearts and widen their vision.
Imagine them freed from the limitations imposed on them by their caregivers. As they listen to you, they stop expecting you to sacrifice yourself. They are liberated, too.
Then switch roles.
After you both have had a turn, debrief your experience, sharing any insights or new self-commitments you are ready to make. Thank one another.
This practice is one way to reclaim our disavowed outrage, our childhood grief at having to sacrifice our health or safety or dignity to placate oblivious adults.
While we are at it, let’s reclaim our quirks, special needs, gifts, and inborn vocations that were/still are our beauty and our power. Your uniqueness lives in your bones, the same bones that hold your shape.
When I Have My Own Back I Am Okay With You Having Yours
I have found that practices like this one increase my capacity to tolerate others’ rage at
injustice and accept the necessary disruptions of “business as usual” that are core to
social justice work.
Finding my own dignified, dissenting voice has shifted some of that infamous “white
into appreciation for collective wake up calls by groups like
These wake up calls are ferociously loving invitations to grow our courage and authentic
belonging: “Join the human family—join us in healing ancient injustices.”
These invitations deserve to be met with a robust presence that is willing to be changed.
To access this robustness, I need to know I will fight for me! I need to know I have my
own back, that I will insist that my needs are acknowledged.
Knowing I will fight for myself has given me more internal room, more relaxed spacious
room to welcome disruptions of my business as usual, my status quo.
And you need to know that you will fight for you.
But it is not just about fighting. It’s also about grieving. We must have room to grieve
having been sacrificed and abandoned. Grief brings business as usual to a standstill. As it
(As it must if this planet is to survive. People with disabilities, forgotten people,
“disposable” people, island people, walruses and bees are screaming, wailing, pounding
at the smug, violent, oblivious corporate culture to STOP. Stop killing us all.)
Reclaiming our willingness to fight and grieve for ourselves enables more resilient
responses to sacred disruptions, whether by activists, tenants or children.
Knowing you have your own back helps you to recognize the “calling in” within “calling out.”
Sacred Disruptions Make Us Uncomfortable
A class mate of mine was upset with me one day for asking the class to treat me in a
different way than the established class norm. I had asked the group to ask me for my
consent before giving me advice or assessments. He was offended that I wanted “special
After our teacher encouraged him to dig deeper, it turned out his family and culture had
required him to sacrifice beloved parts of himself in order to belong. Anything else would
have been seen as “disloyal.” So he took my request as a rejection of him and the group.
As often happens when someone disrupts the status quo, some classmates initially
judged and blamed me for making them uncomfortable.
Our teacher then pointed out that “everyone has special needs; everyone can benefit
when someone opens up the possibility that we can ask for what we need.”
Such “special treatment” is not special at all, but is appropriately responsive to each
individual’s unique strengths and limitations.
My teacher told me that my request was vulnerable and courageous, and had opened up
space for others to ask for what they needed.
My “inner child” was touched to receive appreciation for being disruptive (!) and taking
care of myself. Wow. The class’s intense response to my request sparked a profound and
Receiving Sacred Disruptions
So now, I entreat you and myself: do not dismiss those who are different. Slow down,
listen to them. Allow yourself to be changed by them.
People with food sensitivities who need some TLC, people in wheelchairs who want to
attend, trans people who want to “pass” but cannot.
You are—or soon will be—different too. You will fall ill, you will age, you will lose your
money or your home, or your best friend will commit suicide.
You will be different, and you will need special consideration/accommodation. You will
need it and you will either demand it and insist on being seen,
you will follow the old script, “suck it up,” and sacrifice yourself. You will accept the
notion that your difference is an imposition, a nuisance. That you are on your own.
Your secret resentment will insist that others “suck it up” too. You had to. How dare they
ask for more?
And the cycle continues.
Oh no I say! You are NOT on your own. None of us is. Each of us who cries out to be seen,
whether in a harsh or trembling voice, opens the circle for ALL of us to be seen. In this
Following Kali Ma’s Lead
If you already know you are different, if you’ve never been allowed to forget even for a
second that you don’t belong, I’m asking you to love yourself and your difference. Love
your humanness that does not fit the status quo.
Please do NOT sacrifice yourself! Instead grieve for yourself. Fight for yourself! Fuel your
fight with love. Tenacious, ferocious love.
A love that knows you deserve care and consideration; knows that the people who you
disrupt deserve to expand their hearts to include difference. Your loving insistence is a
gift to them, their compassion wake up call.
Persist. Don’t wear yourself out, don’t do it all by yourself, but persist. Pray, play and
persist. For the sake of all beings, do not let others dehumanize you. Let your love for
yourself, just as you are, be ferocious and patient.
Ferocious like Kali Ma, whose outrage transforms injustice. Unlike the deities I was
taught to worship as a child, Kali does not sacrifice herself, or her children.
We are here to wake up our neighbors’ empathy and love. That is what “love thy neighbor
as thyself” means to me now–to be a sacred disrupter.
So yes, Mr. Landlord, I proudly accept your name for me. I AM a pain in the ass. I gladly
follow Kali Ma’s lead.
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