It was an especially humid February day for the island of Koh Samui. Rain, unseasonal that time of year, was in the air. Only moments before, I had participated in my first ever karma clearing ceremony. I sat quietly absorbing the thoughts, feelings, and indescribable sensations of that experience: the chanting, the incense, the fresh flowers, the variety of tropical fruits, the presence of a shamanic healer, and the bowl of ice cold water that she poured over my entire body at the end of the ceremony. The entire ritual was performed by Eve – the Thai shaman woman who would soon inspire me to give birth to my new name, Su-maya.
“It’s too much water,” she said, referring to my given first name. “You need more power. Like Parvati.” I made a puzzled face. “Poverty?” I asked. I clearly misunderstood her accent. “Parvati, wife of Shiva,” her partner chimed in from across the table. “Shiva, Shakti, Shiva, Shakti…” Eve’s words were mumbled as she continued to repeat the names of deities. I could sense the uncertainty under her breath.
“You are lost, hopeless, and holding onto a deep sadness,” she said to me. “Ganesha says it will get better soon. Keep holding on a little longer. You teach yoga?” “Yes,” I said. Not that I needed to respond to any of her questions, anyway. She already knew all the answers.
“I am jealous,” she said. “I can see it. You will travel around the world teaching. You don’t need much money. You just need to survive. It will be a good life.”
I will always remember this day as one of the most surreal experiences of my entire life.
I walked down the street and hailed a taxi back to my guesthouse across the island. I was exhausted. The accumulation of sleep deprivation over the past five weeks of travel was heavy. I fell asleep delicately holding a necklace in my hand that I had purchased the day prior for a special someone in my life. One hour later, I woke up from my nap, drank some tea, opened my laptop, and did exactly what any proper Millennial would do in the midst of an identity crisis. I made a post on social media about changing my name to Parvati.
That facebook post received more comments than anything I have ever posted in the entire history of my social media usage. The feedback ranged from positive to negative to mediocre. The topics included: intentions, professional vs. personal acceptance, western vs. eastern names, the five elements, the meaning of Parvati, choosing a Celtic goddess vs a Hindu goddess, finding a name that aligns with my ancestry, the meaning of my given name, changing my name vs adding a name, various manifestations of the Divine mother, and more.
This conversation was both necessary and cathartic for me. I felt conflicted about changing my name to Parvati for many reasons, but I understood the meaning behind what Eve said to me. It was time to for me to embrace my own personal power. It was time to for me rise above the watery-ness of my emotions and stand tall and firm like the “daughter of the mountain” (the literal translation of Parvati).
The search began for a new name. My intention in that moment was to find a name that embodied the meaning of Parvati without the obvious, exclusive relationship to a Hindu goddess. It felt important to recognize and understand the meaning of what Eve suggested about my name. Yet, it felt equally as important to make this transition with a deep awareness of the topic of appropriation. I researched names on the internet for countless hours before stumbling upon Maya – an alternate, but rarely used name for the warrior goddess Durga, who is another manifestation of Parvati (and the Divine Mother).
I felt an immediate connection to the translations of Maya. The very first Vedic translation I found was “extraordinary wisdom and power.” I also discovered that Queen Maya was the name of the Buddha’s mother. I reflected on the particular thread of the social media debate where I realized that it would be difficult to accept a name exclusively connected to either Vedic or Buddhist philosophy (as they have both so greatly influenced my life over the years). I immediately loved how Maya seemed to embody this connection to both traditions.
However, I continued to be conscious of the fact that I was hesitant to invite a new name into my life that felt exclusively tied to South Asia. As I continued to research Maya, it became apparent to me that this name has origins from literally across the globe: Mexico, Central America (Mayan civilization), Australia, Japan, Nepal, Greece, New Zealand, Germany, Brazil. It is currently one of the top one hundred names for young girls in United States, Canada, UK, Australia, Belgium, Norway, and Israel, among other countries. Mount Maya is a Japanese mountain named for the mother of Buddha. In New Zealand, “Maia” (same pronunciation with different spelling), means “courage or bravery.” In the Nepali language, Maya means “love.”
I was delighted by the idea of having a name that embodied a global, cross-cultural connection to these ideals. Yet, I came across another translation of Maya that left me feeling uncertain. One Vedic interpretation of Maya is that of “illusion.” According to this philosophy, Maya is our false perception of Divine Consciousness (or God or whatever name you give to this entity). I continued to sit with this interpretation, and in time began to feel that the name Maya itself was incomplete.
Yet another Vedic translation insists that Maya is Shakti, the yin or feminine aspect of Divine Consciousness. Maya is believed to be a manifestation of the Divine Mother, in addition to Durga and Parvati. I felt a strong sense of connection to the idea of embracing a Divine Mother identity into my life – especially in the wake of finding my own personal power while still grieving the death of my mother just over a year ago.
My last night on the island of Koh Samui was spent eating massaman curry and watching the sunset from a beachside restaurant. I asked the man next to me, “You know about heart kwan? When the heart spirit leaves?” He replied, “Yes, I know.” I then asked, “What is it called when you ask the heart spirit to come back after it leaves?”
“Su kwan,” he said.
The word su in Thai means “to invite.” In Sanskrit, it is a prefix that adds a positive connotation to the word that follows it. It can mean great, benevolent, or even beautiful. Su continued to appear in my interactions and conversations for the next several days of my journey in Thailand. This word held an especially significant meaning. I had been asking myself this question the entire six weeks of travel while writing my first book: how do you find the missing pieces of your heart kwan?
The answer to this question was su kwan.
The way to find your heart spirit after it has been lost is simply to invite it back.
Su-maya is my invitation to the Divine Mother consciousness to return to my life. Su-maya is the benevolent mother that I no longer have in the physical realm – but will infinitely have access to through meditation, prayer, and practices, and in my connections to my mother and her mother and all of the many great mothers before us. Su-maya is remembering that I am not lost without my mother. Su-maya is remembering that my ancestors still walk beside me every single day. I am strong and benevolent and wise because of the support of my ancestors and the support of Divine Mother consciousness.
I continued to reflect on yet another thread from my social media post about choosing a name from my own ancestry. I have zero connection to my father’s side of the family. I know that my mother was vastly Irish and Cherokee, but I had little to no relationship to these cultures/traditions during my childhood. I certainly had more of a connection to the Cherokee side of my family than the Irish side. Yet, was it more appropriative to choose a Cherokee name considering the limited, personal connection I have with that aspect of my ancestry?
In many ways, I chose to invite the Cherokee side of my ancestry into my life whenever I legally changed my last name to Owens. I was raised by an abusive father and changed my last name intentionally to my mother’s maiden name as a teenager. Owens is the last name of my Cherokee grandfather, my mother’s father. I also reflected on how my mother’s middle name was Kay. Donna Kay Owens was her full name. I decided at some point in my name-changing process that I would continue to use K. as my middle initial. It is both short for my given name and phonetically the same as my mother’s middle name. In this way, I feel that I have made space in this process for inviting my ancestry both into my name and into my life in a deeply meaningful way.
After returning home to Asheville, it became urgently necessary to create a space for a name-changing ceremony. On a cool, sunny March morning, I packed a bag full of candles, flowers, fruit, tarot cards, pictures of my mother, a pearl necklace that I wore in my sister’s wedding, and one very special earring.
I drove out to a waterfall in Candler near the Shiva temple. It felt significant to be in the presence of Shiva consciousness for this ceremony after hearing Eve mumble the words, “Shiva, Shakti, Shiva, Shakti.” I unpacked my bag and arranged my altar at the base of the waterfall. I called in the four directions – North, South, East, and West. I created an intention to have my ancestors present with me as I invited this new name to my life. I wrote a letter to both my mother and father, set them on fire, and let the ashes wash down the waterfall. I pulled one card out of my goddess tarot deck – a deck that I’ve had in my possession for over seven years including goddesses from various traditions around the world – and of course, the card I pulled was Lakshmi.
I gave my Lakshmi card her rightful place on the altar. I sat in prayer for only a few minutes before my hands and toes began to feel numb. There was still snow on the grass surrounding the waterfall. It was cold and gusty that morning, and I felt a sudden, physical necessity to bring the ceremony to a close.
I set fire to two beeswax candles gifted to me by my co-parent (chosen family). I watched the candles burn for several moments before picking them up and immersing their flames into the flowing water beneath the altar. I got up, stretched my arms and legs, and stood as tall as the daughter of a mountain.
I said, “My name is Su-maya.”
I left an earring, a necklace, and dried rose petals on the altar of the waterfall as I walked away in the snow. I felt my mother walking next to me. I felt her mother, and her mother, and her mother, too.
“Maya, meaning the power of creative illusion, or Matrika in Kashmir Shaivism. She is the feminine polarity, the Yin side, and she produces the hologram for the Oneness as the Observer that dwells in the Heart.
This Heart is not the physical heart that pumps blood around your body; it is the seat of consciousness in your being. The Observer within you remains connected to and united with the Oneness; it remains pure - untouched by any act good or evil.
The Observer is the ATMA/Soul or Spirit/Purusha.
Identify your consciousness with that Observer within you.
You are That. Tat Tvam Asi.
You have always been that. Remember.”
-V. Susan Ferguson