gatineau morning.

gatineau morning.
photo by douglas mcarthur.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Love and Death in the Kali Temple, by Shayla Wright.

Love and Death in the Kali Temple.

I was living in Calcutta, when I was twenty-one, working with Mother Teresa. I was doing spiritual practice and working in her children’s homes, which were beautiful, joyful places. Mother Teresa also had another home, in a huge Kali temple that had been given to her by the Kali priests of the city. This was her Home for the Dying. All the people in Calcutta that were usually left to die on the streets now had a place to depart with dignity, for the very first time. These were the lepers, the people dying of malaria, elephantiasis, and starvation. There were amazing stories about the Home for the Dying, and I really wanted to go and work there.
I spoke with one of the nurses who was part of the team at the Home for the Dying, and she told me to just show up, and they would put me to work. I was really happy to know that the way was open for me-this felt like such good news. And I couldn’t do it. I was young, and tender, and the thought of all that death in the Kali temple was pretty scary. Every morning I would get up with the intention of going to the temple. And every day would pass without me going anywhere near that realm of death and dying.
Sometimes I would go to the children’s homes and work. But as day after day and week after week passed, I grew more and more disheartened. Often I would just go out into the streets of the city and wander. Calcutta is a whole universe, so my wandering was like some kind of initiation, an intense and wild journey. I was in love with the city, and every single day it taught me something.
But I couldn’t appreciate this at the time. I felt that I had lost my way, that I had caved in to fear. I was full of shame and remorse. Finally one day, without even planning it, my feet carried me to the doors of the Kali Temple. I stepped inside and saw an enormous room with a domed ceiling, and rows and rows of beds circling the edges of the cavernous space. I approached a table where some nurses and assistants were sitting. I felt so nervous, my whole body was quivering.
“I’m here to help,” I said. “What can I do?”
One of the nurses gave me a brilliant smile. She picked up a white cloth and a pair of scissors.
“You can clip their toenails dear,” she said, “It’s time for that today.”
I took the scissors and lurched towards the first bed that I could see. I wanted her to give me a whole lecture on how to clip the toenails of people who were sick and dying. I didn’t know how to do any of this—how to approach them, how to be with them. I felt like a complete idiot.
I sat down at the end of the bed and looked up at the man who was lying there. He was pretty old, with long white hair, and covered right up with blankets, so I couldn’t really tell what he was dying from.
“I’m here to clip your toenails,” I said, tentatively pulling the blanket away from his feet. I was very relieved to see that he had all of his toes, and that they were clean—the assistants in the home bathed everyone who was there. I picked up his foot and started fumbling around with the scissors, praying that I would not hurt him as I cut his toenails. Then he started talking to me.
“What’s your name?” he asked me. As I told him, I looked up at his face. I suddenly realized that he not even slight self-preoccupied-he was completely aware of my state. He was talking to me so I could relax. Something flipped around inside me in that moment. I saw the truth of what was actually going on: I was not helping this man, he was helping me.
I took a deep breath and looked at him again. He has this radiance around his face. “How are you?” I asked, feeling it in my body now, that he was in a much more expanded state than I was. “I’m fine,” he said. “Isn’t it beautiful here?” I turned and slowly looked around the temple for the first time. I could feel my whole being settling down and my heart softening as I sat with this radiant old man. I was able to feel the energy in that room for the first time. It was filled with something luminous, a warmth, a loving presence. “It is beautiful here, yes.” I said, noticing that my words were like tiny little drops in the vastness of what we were sitting in. “What is this light?” He smiled at me. “It’s the light of love, my dear,” he said. “It’s simply the light of love.”
In that moment, without any warning, it became obvious to me that love is stronger than death. That love embraces death, just as it embraces birth. The radical clarity of this realization took over my body and mind. There wasn’t room for anything else. I said goodbye to that old man and went on to the next person. I spent many hours in that room, meeting person after person who was floating in the love that lived in that Home for the Dying.
Was it Mother Teresa who filled that room with light and love? Was it Jesus? Was it Kali? Was it the deep gratitude of all those people who had been picked up off the streets and brought there? I have no idea, and it doesn’t really matter. That moment of knowing that love is stronger than death has stayed with me. That bright clarity lives on; it doesn’t die.
In order to arrive at that moment, I had to wander. I had to get lost. That’s how it is for us humans. I couldn’t make that moment happen. All of my egoic intentions and willpower were just like dust in the wind. But there was something underneath, a deep longing in me that wouldn’t go away, that eventually carried me to the doors of that temple.
Following the deeper currents in our being, listening to our deepest longing, does not move us forward in a straight line. We have to meander, we have to wander, we have to visit the city of despair and darkness.  Evolution is very curvy; it’s not a bit linear. It’s like snakes and ladders. Just when you think you’ve totally lost your way, you find yourself in the perfect spot. There’s a river carrying us all, with its own intelligence and beauty. When we surrender to the flow of that river, our life finds its own way.

“I would love to live like a river flows, carried by the surprise of its own unfolding.”
~John O’Donohue

with love; shayla.

Shayla lives and teaches in Nelson, BC, Canada.
Check out her website: 'Wide Awake Heart.'
You can contact her by email:

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