Practice Notes: Wot, no circle?
“Infinite and endless creations are threaded on me as pearls on a string. I myself am the lord that resides in the causal and subtle bodies of the jivas. I am Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. I am the sun, moon, and stars. I am the beasts and birds, the Brahmin and the untouchable. I am the noble soul as well as the hunter and the thief. I am male, female, and hermaphrodite. Whenever there is anything to be seen or heard, I am found there, within and without. There is nothing moving or unmoving that can exist without me.” Devi Gita
Pretty much all of the Pagan public rituals I have participated in over the last decade or so have shared a common feature – some kind of circle – which does not feature in my own practice of tantra puja. Whenever I facilitate open pujas, some of the commonest questions that arise are related to the differences between contemporary Pagan ritual processes and tantra puja as I practice it, so this post is an attempt to reflect on these very basic distinctions and how they are underwritten by very different ritual ontologies.
A very common rationale for casting a circle is that it “creates sacred space” – that is, it redefines a chosen ritual space as “sacred” against its “mundane” use (such as a bedroom, living room, a public park) – this is a very common explanation for why it is necessary to cast a circle, and can be found in numerous books on Pagan ritual practice.
However, within the particular shakta-oriented tantric streams from which I draw my practice, this basic distinction between “sacred” and “mundane” space isn’t really present. In Shakta theology, the goddess (or god) to whom a puja is directed – Lalita, or Kali for example – is held to be both all-pervasive and ever-present – and all things (objects, persons, etc) and activities share in her substance – so one might say that she is diffused through everything, you, me, the grass, the air we share, that styrofoam cup over there, this smartphone, etc. So this is one reason why I don’t tend to make a distinction between “sacred” and “mundane” space (see also Pondering Daily Practice for some related observations).
In order to try and explain why this is, for me, an important distinction, I’m going to dip into some aspects of Sri Vidya theology – the knowledge that underwrites, as it were, the logic of tantric ritual/living. In tantra, knowledge and action are interdependent – and knowledge is itself a form of practice.
In Sri Vidya theology, the goddess is the source and totality of all existence – hence she is sometimes addressed with the epithet Visvarupa Devi – “the Goddess whose form is the universe”. She is simultaneously transcendent and undivided, and many-formed and multiple. She is simultaneously unknowable, ungraspable and is present in all phenomenality. In Sri Vidya accounts of creation, the goddess Lalita Tripuraundari progressively contracts herself, emitting from herself the various stages or categories (Tattvas) emitting or producing the world of multiplicities out of the infinite plenitude of her being.
This is the goddess’ lila (“play”). Hence the epithet Lalita – “she who plays”. As part of this playful emission, the goddess veils or conceals herself, producing maya. Maya produces the sense of seperation and limitations between multiplicities – which (I’m simplifying hugely here) gives rise eventually to the human sense that we are seperate beings, cut off from the apprehension of divine consciousness. This is the state sometimes referred to as avidya – “ignorance.” Now maya is frequently understood as “illusion”, but within Sri Vidya, maya is the wondrous, creative, magical power of the goddess which gives rise to the world of forms and objects.
The Devi Gita expresses this principle:
I imagine into being the whole world, moving and unmoving, through the power of my Maya,
Yet that same Maya is not seperate from me; this is the highest truth.
… I, as Maya, create the whole world and then enter within it,
Accompanied by ignorance, actions and the like, and preceded by the vital breath, O Mountain
How else could souls be reborn into future lives?
They take on various births in accord with modifications of Maya.
So our forgetfulness – or if you like, our sense of disconnection from the goddess/world is not the result of a fall from grace (as it is often understood in Western theology) or a delusion (as it is sometimes given to be in other Indian philosophies) but a result of the goddess’ play, as is her power to generate accessible and limited forms of herself through which we can be liberated from the illusion of seperation from her. Our sense of being limited, seperate entities arises out of the goddess playing hide-and-seek with herself – and the same powers (saktis) which produce this sense of being seperate, ego-bound entities can also produce the liberated, expanded consciousness which is the goal of tantra.
Again, there is no “hard” distinction between the mundane vs. the spiritual, or the everyday vs. the sacred. As all phenomena share in the play of the goddess, so anything can, potentially, help us recognise that we are embedded within that divine play. So whilst ritual-meditation on the various forms of the goddess is one form of practice, so is momentary awareness on any activity – any cognition – sitting, walking around, being attentive to sounds, smells, sounds, tastes, touches – any activity, any moment can serve to momentarily intensify our awareness of the goddess’ play.
This process of movement from unity to differentiation is referred to as srsti – “emission”. Its converse is samhara – “reabsorption” – which reinstates the unity lost through differentiation. The universe is constantly cycling or oscillating between moments of expansion and contraction, emission and reabsorption, unfolding outwards and refolding inwards. This does not only occur at the level of cosmic creation/destruction though – it encompasses all other cyclical patterns, such as day and night, birth and death, down to each instant of consciousness or perception; and each inhaled and exhaled breath. Emission is often represented as a movement from a central point outwards, whilst reabsorption as moving inwards towards a central point – from multiplicities towards unity. Similarly, movements up the body’s central axis are reabsorptive, whilst movements down the body’s central axis are emissional.
These two principles also form the basis of what we might think of as tantric ritual logic.Tantra sadhana (“practice” – not only ritual but any life-activity) is ultimately oriented towards the reinstatement of unity with the divine. The goal can be thought of as the experiental collapsing of any distinction between one’s own consciousness and the cosmic pulse of the goddess.This can be thought of as the long-term goal, of which all activities ideally move the practitioner towards. Thus sadhana recapitulates that process in miniature – to engage in the practice is to recapitulate – from the perspective of one’s own consciousness the continuous pulsation of cosmic creation and dissolution.
A very simple ritual which recapitulates the pulsation of emission/reabsorption begins with the practitioner visualising a particular form of the goddess taking up residence in her or his heart. The heart-space is one of the dwelling-places of deity. After a period of meditating on that image, its qualities, etc., with the awareness that one is that goddess – the form is emitted (via an out-breath) into an image (a picture or a statue) and worshipped as a seperate entity with various offerings (water, food, song, music, incense, etc) after which the form is reabsorbed into the heart and meditated upon as an enternally-present flame, to which all experiences can be offered. So the meditation on the goddess dwelling in the heart and then being placed in an exterior form for worship recapitulates the emission -from creation towards multiplicity and the reabsorption of the goddess’ form back into the heart recapitulates the reinstatement of unity.