The Fundamental Urge of the Universe: An interview with Michael Murphy

WIE: Back when the great religious traditions were developing, nobody knew about evolution. It hadn’t been discovered yet. Therefore, all the transformative spiritual practices that emerged within those traditions naturally lacked an evolutionary worldview. But times have changed. What does our growing understanding of evolution mean for spiritual practice today? Does the evolutionary perspective change the spiritual path itself?

Michael Murphy: Absolutely—because this evolving universe is now the context of spiritual practice. I think that today, anybody who is the least bit thoughtful has to slow down enough to say: “Okay, evolution is a fact.” Any educated person has to say that. The evolutionary story is continually being disclosed to us. Literally every day, there’s some new discovery in some field.

The story of evolution is bringing all other stories together. It’s the great myth of our time, if you want to call it a myth. So if you’re thoughtful and you accept that fact, then you have to conclude that all human activity has that as its context, including all long-term transformative practice of any kind. Today, practice means getting yourself in sync with the most fundamental urge of the universe itself—namely, to develop, to evolve in a progressive way.

If all transformative practice—including all contemplative practice, Buddhist practice, shamanic practice, whatever—is indeed embedded in an evolving world, we need to find out what that means. We’re driven to find out more and more about it, to become conscious of the fact that evolutionary progress is in our being as well. Spiritual practice is evolving; vision is evolving; realization is evolving.

Enlightenment itself is evolving, no matter what you mean by enlightenment. The experience of consciousness is changing, in all sorts of unexpected ways. Take golf for instance. Why is it that thousands of people are now having these mini-satori experiences playing golf? That’s fascinating in its own right. People who’ve never heard of satori, who’ve never even heard of Zen, who have no spiritual aspiration whatsoever—all these guys out there having spiritual experiences. I think that golf is a mystery school for Republicans.

We could make a catalogue of the ways in which the evolutionary vision serves transformation, but one of them is that it’s a paradigm buster. So there’s the thrust of the new, but there’s also the death of the old. Just look at the troubles of the church. Look at the hideous forms of Islamic and Christian and Jewish fundamentalism—it’s like we’re witnessing the decay of these old religions right in front of us while this new thing is being born. And more and more people are disaffected.

The snake is growing a new skin, but the old skin is really getting old and it’s ready to slough off. It’s like Yeats’ line from “The Second Coming”: What rough beast, its hour come round at last/ Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born? It’s this worldview that’s slowly emerging, this rough beast. But it’s unfinished. And folks, we’ve all got to go out there and contribute to it. I mean, either we do it, or we don’t and we sink back into the next cataclysm. Because it ain’t predetermined. It’s all up to us. And we know that deep down—we know it’s up to us. Now, we can work at it in many different ways. We don’t all have to be philosophers. But at the heart of it is transformative practice itself, which is about what you actually do. Because in the end, we have to live it. We have to want to live it.

Michael Murphy is the cofounder of Esalen Institute and author of Golf in the Kingdom.

Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power By Laura Amazzone

The research and writing of this book is a personal journey that not only brings together forgotten wisdom about the origins of sacred female power and Durga, but changes the author in the process. Her personal story is compelling and it shows us that this ancient myth and Goddess are a living, transformative power that is completely relevant to our daily lives and a much-needed guide at this time in our history.

Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power explores the many faces of the Goddess Durga in ancient and contemporary culture. This book takes us on a pilgrimage to goddess temples and natural shrines, to visit shamans and living goddesses in the Kathmandu Valley of Nepal, and to India for the annual ten-day Durga Festival. The mythology, rituals, philosophy, and spiritual practices of this distinctly female-centered and millennia-old tradition of Durga offer an alternative model of female potential and empowerment, focusing on peace, healing, spiritual liberation, and realization of inherent divinity

We are at a global crossroads. Environmental devastation, economic upheaval, political corruption and unconscionable acts of man-made violence threaten the precious equilibrium of our planet. Racism, sexism, homophobia, war, violence, genocide, human trafficking — it is hard not to feel overwhelmed by the massive injustice perpetuated by humans against our own species and ultimately the fragile web of all life on this planet. How do we make sense of the destruction? When all seems futile, how do we approach formidable life experiences from a place of compassion for both self and other? To whom do we turn for guidance?

To many in the West, the orthodox religious traditions we grew up within have failed to provide solace. Many of us are looking for a spiritual model that addresses the needs of the tumultuous 21st century and yet is grounded in respect for the interconnectedness of all life. While some have found guidance in indigenous beliefs, western mystical traditions or eastern philosophy, the ululating call of the divine feminine seems to be making itself heard across the board.

Most of us are familiar with Greek mythology and its pantheon of goddesses and gods; however, fewer are aware that there is a thriving tradition of goddess worship in South Asia where devotion to the divine as Compassionate Mother and Fiercely Protective Female Warrior has existed for millennia. In fact, there is not one, but thousands of manifestations of goddess in South Asia. In Hinduism human diversity is expressed by this vast pantheon of deities; and yet, as one of the most popular goddess myths reminds us, despite our differences, we are indeed all One.

The Devi Mahatmya or the Great Glory of the Goddess is a 5th century myth that offers potent teachings relevant to this day and age. The heroine of this story about the victory of good over evil is Durga, Goddess of Divine Justice, Invincible Power, and Impenetrable Compassion. Her name, Durga, means fortress, and speaks to the unassailable essence of our inherent nature. Durga is also known as the Remover of Fear and Difficulty for she always comes to the aid of any who call on her in distress.

According to the myth, demonic forces are threatening to conquer the world and take down any who do not agree with their agenda. Despite the gods’ intentions to stop the demons, the methods they use only perpetuate the violence. Moreover, this demon king has received a boon from the creator God Brahma, which makes him undefeatable by any man, god or demon. When Brahma asks the demon if he wants to be exempt from defeat by a female as well, the demon’s inflated ego puffs up with pride. To the demon, battling a woman is an easy win — he declines.

After eons of senseless violence, the male gods convene and call forth the Supreme Mother Goddess behind all existence. Only she is powerful enough to stop the bloodshed. The initial chapter of Durga’s mythic journey of restoring harmony to the world tells how the demon king learns a beautiful female is waiting to engage in battle with him. He orders his two favorite demon generals to bring her to him so he can force her into wedlock. However, the generals do not have a chance against the all-powerful goddess. As they approach her, the composed goddess emits a flame from her finger that restores them to a state of tranquility and compassion. Outraged, the demon demands that the goddess engage directly with him in battle. She does.

The demon becomes more and more furious as he faces the great goddess. He hurls mountains, uproots forests and causes earthquakes with his all-consuming anger against the possible loss of power and control. Every time one of Durga’s arrows flies at him, the demon changes form from water buffalo, to tiger, to man until finally she grabs him, pins his neck down with her foot and sends a spear through his heart.

Metaphorically, we can consider Durga as the wisdom of the heart, untainted by cultural, religious and societal conditioning. The buffalo demon symbolizes our ignorance, reactions and ego attachments. The constantly shifting appearance of the demon speaks to our irrational behavior and the need to pin down the destructive causes of our negative emotions: anger, jealousy, pride, greed and delusion. His shape shifting is symbolic of the grasping ignorant mind that continuously jumps from one desire to another.

The demon’s uncontrollable rage, destroying everything in its path without regard for the consequences, is a fitting analogy for the violence we face today. This myth asks us to consider how we choose to express our anger — whether we will use our rage against injustice in constructive ways, or if we will be divisive, fearful and blaming, thereby poisoning our environment. The fiercely compassionate divine feminine nature will help free us from the afflicted ego and return to the penetrating wisdom of divine love. Goddess Durga may not solve all the world’s problems at the moment, but as this ancient scripture teaches, she is the impenetrable place of calm within our hearts from which we can choose actions that promote harmony and unity rather than selfish harmful acts.

In the myth, after the demon has finally been defeated and the gods gather to celebrate, Mother Durga promises to return whenever any of her children are in distress. As we face crises on both a personal and planetary level, might we call on this ancient divine female force of compassion and courage to help us confront and transform that which threatens the well being and contentment of all beings on this planet?

The Devi Mahatmya teaches that the grace of goddess is unconditional and will never be withheld from anyone — ego demon or not. Through her fierce love toward self and other, harmony will be restored within and around us. We need only invoke Durga to help us remember our true nature and that divine love conquers all.

Laura Amazzone is an author, teacher, jewelry artist, and Yoginī. She completed her master’s degree in philosophy and religion, with an emphasis in women’s
spirituality at the California Institute of Integral Studies in 2001. Her book, Goddess Durga and Sacred Female Power, explores the millennia-old rituals and manifestations of the Goddess in South Asia and honors female creative & sexual power as a divine force. Laura teaches classes and workshops on Goddess spirituality and Eastern religious traditions. She has published numerous articles discussing myth, ritual, adornment, and the significance of South Asian Goddesses as divine models of female empowerment. Laura has received initiation into the Shakta Tantra, Sri Vidya, and Kashmiri Shaivite lineages.

Happy Navratri – Durga Sooktam (Sanskrit Hymn)

Durga Sooktam
(Lyrics with meaning)
Jatavedase sunavama soma marathee yatho nidhahadhi veda,
Sa na parshadathi durgani viswa naaveva sindhum durithathyagni. 1

Our oblations of Soma to the fire god,
May he, the all knowing one destroy all those who do not like us,
May that divine fire lead us out of all perils,
Like a captain takes his boat across the sea,
And also save us from all wrongs.

Thaam agni varnaam thapasa jwalanthim vairochanim karma phaleshu jushtam,
Durgam devim saranamaham prapadhye, sutharasi tharase nama. 2

I take refuge in the divine mother Durga*,
Who shines like a fire due to her penances,
Who resides in actions and their fruits and makes them effective,
And I salute her who helps us cross our difficulties.
* It could be translated as Mother of difficulties also

Agne thwam paaraya navyo asmaan swasthibhirathi durgani viswa,
Pushscha prithwi bahula na urvee bhava thokaaya thanayaya shamyoh. 3

Oh God of fire, you are worthy of praise,
For by novel methods you help us cross,
The difficulties and make us happy,
May our land in this earth become extensive,
May the land for growing crops become large,
And be pleased to join our children and,
Their children with joy and happiness.

Vishvaani no durghaa jathaveda sindhunaa nava durithathi parshi,
Agne athrivan manasaa grina no asmakam bodhayithwa thanoo naam. 4

Oh Jatha Vedas who is the destroyer of all sins,
Make us cross all our troubles like a boat,
Which takes us to the other shore without problems,
Oh Fire, protect us like the sage Athri, who would take care of us,
Mindful of our safety and our happiness.

Prithana jitham saha mana mugram agnim huvema paramath sadhasthath,
Sa na parshadathi durgani viswa kshamaddhevo athi durithatyagni. 5

We invoke the fierce Fire God who is the leader of us all.
And who is the killer of all our enemies from the highest place,
To take us across all difficulties and all that is perishable and protect us.

Prathnoshika meedyo adhvareshu sanacha hota navyascha sadhsi,
Swacha agne piprayaswa asmabhyam cha soubhahya maya jaswa. 6

Oh Fire God, you are praised during sacrifices,
And always increase our happiness, and exist as sacrifices,
Which are olden and those which are new,
Please make us, who are only yourself, happy,
And grant us good fortune from all our sides.

Gobhir jushta mayujo nishithktham thavendra vishnor anusancharema,
Naa kasya prushtam abhisamvasaano vaishnavim loka iha madhayantham. 7

Oh Lord, you are not connected with sin and sorrow,
Permit us to always serve you who pervades all wealth,
May the Gods who live in the highest region make me,
Who adores Vishnu, delighted and happy and grant my wishes.

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