“Chalo, chalo,” I urged the taxi driver through the winding turns. I was headed to a small house far from the touristy sections of Kathmandu, and the more chickens and goats we passed the more he’d realized he wasn’t going to find a return fare. When we finally pulled up alongside the house, a striking woman in a red sari and bright red lipstick walked out. Tipping the cabbie enough to mollify him, I followed her inside. The woman was Amira Mathai, a student of the late dzogchen master Tulku Urgyen, and I was here to study charya, a tantric dance that dates back a thousand years.
A few weeks before, in India, I attended a prayer ceremony held by Tibetan Buddhist master Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche. I sat in a massive hall alongside a thousand monks all chanting the Tara sadhana (prayer), in front of a shrine piled high with offerings: paintings of Tara’s twenty-one aspects, bottles of olive oil and whiskey, Indian sweets, cookies, coconuts, and lots of marigolds. At the end of the ceremony, a dancer stepped forward, dressed in white and gold. She looked familiar and I realized I knew her as one of Rinpoche’s students. Usually laid back, her demeanor had completely changed. Her expressions and gestures morphed from serene to magnetizing to wrathful, and she held a tightly coiled energy I’d never noticed in her before. As the dance progressed, to my surprise, I found tears rolling down my face. Watching her glide through the movements shifted something in me that I couldn’t understand, let alone articulate. All I knew was that I wanted more. I asked my friend whom she had learned this from. A month later, I was at Amira’s door.
Amira handed me a pair of chams—bells twisted around a rope—and taught me how to tie them tightly above my ankles. I sat on her couch, calves throbbing from the sensation of being bound, watching her students practice. Nepali high schoolers dressed in school uniforms, they giggled and pushed each other between dances. When they started dancing, however, they were transformed, the same way my friend had been. Once again I found myself in tears. I was bewildered. This was more tears than I’d seen in the last two years. Clearly, this dance affected me. I just didn’t know how or why.
“Charya communicates directly with the five elements of the body,” Amira said, noticing my reaction. “It penetrates the body and works with the chakras.” She went on to explain that charya bypassed the rational brain entirely. It made sense. My “rational” mind didn’t understand my emotions at all. Perhaps they never had. This dance was reaching them in a way I never could.
“The goal of the dancer is not just to invoke the dakini,” Amira said, talking about a sacred female spirit in Tibetan Buddhism. “By the end of the dance you are the dakini. This is what you have to believe.”
Amira’s statement reiterated the view that underscored all tantric teachings. My Buddhist teachers always said that the true nature of every sentient being was already enlightened. That a “path” was necessary only because we didn’t recognize this. For this reason we needed to pray, meditate, dance, chant, supplicate, and long for the dakini—all to bring us closer to this recognition. Ultimately, the dakini was none other than the true nature of our own minds.
On my way back from Amira’s place, my phone pinged. It was Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche, who wanted feedback on a draft of his film script. I’d worked with Rinpoche a little on his previous film Hema Hema, and we’d discussed his latest idea. The story centered around a young Tibetan entrepreneur, Tenzin, whose ambition was to open Kathmandu’s best coffee shop. As he rushed around the city, scouting locations and wooing investors, he was haunted by hallucinations of mystical women. He pushed them away but they persisted. Finally, he consulted a monk, only to be told that these were omens of his impending death. In order to save his own life, he needed to find a dakini who could return his life force. The problem? Tenzin had no idea what a dakini was, or how to find one. This script eventually became the film Looking for a Lady with Fangs and a Mustache.
As I read through Rinpoche’s story, I was struck by the similarities between Tenzin’s struggle and my own. Tenzin buried himself in his work, ambition and desire leading him to disconnect from his culture. I was also dedicated to work, albeit for different reasons. I’d come twenty years ago to America for college and stayed, while my parents and entire family remained in India. I focused on building a career to cover up the insecurity I felt in a new country, without the stabilizing effect of family or community.
As a freelance television director, I said “yes” to every show I was offered. Gigs meant money, money meant stability, and stability was what I craved in a country that was, at best, ambivalent about my presence. But 15 years into my career, I found myself listless and unhappy. My body, exhausted by ever-tightening network deadlines, shrinking budgets and my own creative perfectionism, had stopped finding joy in my work.
I take vacations, I reasoned, I sleep in on weekends. I get a massage every now and then. There’s no reason for me to be tired. My body’s signals didn’t seem “rational,” so I ignored them and kept going. But the signals only got worse. I started feeling as though I had leg-irons strapped to my ankles. Getting to work felt like wading through a river upstream. I stopped going out after work, too tired by the end of the day to enjoy my friends and the wealth of entertainment New York City offered.
I endured a year of this, forcing myself to continue working, although each month felt like a lifetime. Finally, I went into my boss’s office, intending to ask for a short vacation. Instead, I found myself quitting my job.
“I just need to go home,” I said, shocking both of us.
The moment I said that, relief flooded my body. This signal that I’d done the right thing was unmistakable and for once, I pushed aside the fear that without money or a career, survival in America would be impossible. Subletting my apartment, I went to India and then, eventually, found my way to Amira’s doorstep.
“White Tara is the healer,” Amira said. “Invoking the dakini will heal your mind and body.”
I hoped she was right. As I danced in her small, dark living room, the numb places in my shoulders burned as they reanimated. Practicing this dance felt like a celebration of this step I’d taken to move away from fear—away from a survival mindset that was shutting off the oxygen in my system, extinguishing the magic of the world.
Amira instructed me to offer everything to the dakini—not just flowers, incense or prayers, but also the emotions written into the biology of my body. The constant anxiety in my stomach, the numbness in my arms, the tingling in my neck. All the places I held fears—of failure, of pain, loneliness, insecurity, of showing weakness, of admitting vulnerability. In dancing over and over, I was exposing these places, offering them, releasing my belief that they defined me. Over the course of that summer in Kathmandu, as dancing re-introduced me to myself, I came to have renewed hope. Hope that a different ending was possible. That I could realign my body and mind, and reopen the borders of my trapped emotions. That I could live from a place of trust rather than fear.
In our last session together, Amira had me dance for her other students. Tightening my chams I performed the opening salutation. If life is a practice, I’d rather it be a dance, I thought, one where I am unafraid to make mistakes, to start over, and to find joy in it all. I didn’t know what my next steps would be. All I knew was that I would try to surrender, to listen, and that guidance would come. Then, stretching out my arms, I stepped into the dance. Invoking the dakini, becoming the dakini.
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