A Feminist who has a Male Spiritual Teacher?
Fourteen years ago, I was forty years old, had recently received my doctorate from Harvard where I’d worked with Carol Gilligan in a small research collective that was charting new developmental pathways for girls and women, and had co-authored a bestselling book about how to transform the mother-daughter relationship in the hopes that the next generations of women could grow into fullness and power. While I couldn’t say that it was consciously intentional, my life was an almost systematic search for the keys that would unleash new potentials in women, and between women and men, that would transform our culture. I started with feminist activism and consciousness raising, moved to psychotherapy, tried assertiveness and other forms of skill-building training, and then to the dynamics of human development. Where was the lynchpin? I asked. How could true partnership and equality between the sexes become a living reality? What did that mean for women and their development? These were the questions that drove me. So, you can imagine the surprise, and even shock, among my sisters-at-arms in the women’s movement when I became the committed student of a male spiritual teacher, Andrew Cohen.
What was that about? they wondered. I remember having dinner with a friend, a powerful voice for women’s participation in politics, and saw her watch me for signs of…insanity, imbalance, or something that would give her a clue as to why, at this rising point in my life, I had seemingly jumped the rails and gone so off track. Was it the well-documented fear of success that had been studied in women? Could it be that some deep longing for a father figure had overtaken my desire for autonomy? Another dear friend, an author who had written several groundbreaking books on women, squinted at me, and asked if I was in love with this man, this spiritual teacher? There had to be something, some reason that I would have been compelled to turn away from the life I had been living and join a spiritual experiment led by this man, Andrew Cohen.
There certainly was a reason, but its source was not the usual psychological dynamics that we are all so familiar with. Sure, structures of insecurity and dependence are part of any woman’s psyche. But that wasn’t it. While I had not even articulated this to myself yet, it was slowly dawning on me that feminism, and women-centered psychology, had hit a dead end in the path toward a genuinely new future. I don’t mean that there was anything wrong or misguided in women’s search for voice, empowerment, deeper relationship, and self-worth. In fact, such work still is essential to our collective development as women. But all of that was somehow remedial and rooted in victimization, rather than transformative. If women’s liberation was essential to the further liberation and development of humanity, which I believed, then what would that look like? In culture, including within feminist enclaves, we only really had two models: the kind of achievement and ambition that had been defined by men or the caring, relationality and nurturance that had defined women. The feminist movement swung between the two, advocating that women deserved equal rights or that we spoke with a different voice. Was it possible to integrate the two? Was such integration even desirable? We were caught between two poles, poles that had been defined by the opposition that created the biases and dynamics between the sexes in the first place. Nothing truly new or liberated existed in either position.
In meeting Andrew Cohen, another possibility awoke in me–something that at the time I couldn’t articulate but found so compelling that I had to pursue it. Andrew, knowing of my life’s work, spoke to me then with great urgency about women’s spiritual liberation–how important it was, and how committed he was to creating the context in which a group of women could realize that liberation. Simultaneously and paradoxically, I found his words absolutely frightening and absolutely thrilling. I had never really defined myself as a “spiritual” person, but what he was saying made deep sense to me. If we were to go beyond what was now possible for women and men in culture, we would have to change fundamentally. Whatever was meant by “spiritual” seemed to point to the level at which that change would have to happen.
A few weeks later, I got a glimpse of what that might mean. I wasn’t doing anything in particular when, like a smack on the back of my head, I realized something about my encounter with Andrew. He wanted nothing from me. He only wanted my liberation. In an instant, I saw that every encounter that I had had with men was tangled up in an unvoiced reciprocal web of wanting–and I don’t simply mean sexual desire or flirtation. It went deeper than that–as though in every encounter there were subtle trade-offs by which we constantly validated each other and created each other as the women and men we are now. In the next second, I realized that this was true, but in a different way, in my relationships with women. But Andrew wasn’t part of that suffocating web of need and want. He was free of it. And in that recognition simultaneously was my own freedom. More importantly, in standing in that freedom together, I knew that women and men could meet on entirely new ground.
Even so, had you asked me, I might have said that Andrew’s being a man and my teacher was something like a cosmic accident. He just happened to be male, which was helpful because it gave him a very clear perspective on limitations that I took for granted. It was only years later, that I realized how significant this fact is. I now appreciate that everything I needed to know was in that first meeting–that moment seems to exist in a dimension outside of time and each choice in my life plays out against a backdrop of the potential that was enfolded in it. On this occasion, Andrew said to me and a few of my spiritual sisters, “If you realized that I am a man, and through me you have realized liberation, that could take you all the way.” For a few moments, my feminist alarm bells started to clang, ringing out the usual messages of mistrust and warnings of oppression: What? Who does he think he is to say that his being a man would liberate us women? But I knew that wasn’t what he meant. For days, those words of his burrowed beneath my superficial feminist habits and reactions, hitting home in a place in myself that went beyond my identification with being a woman or with him being a man. Suddenly I got it: the fact that in meeting him, I met the new, the unconditioned and free in myself meant that freedom has no gender. In meeting a true teacher, the sages say, one encounters one’s True Self–simultaneously as the teacher and as the deepest truth of who one is. In that place there is no separation, no opposition between female and male. In fact, there is no Other.
Amazingly, I’ve come to realize that Andrew being a man is essential to my liberation. Why, said one well-intentioned feminist friend, if you wanted to dive into the spiritual life, couldn’t you have found a woman teacher? But had I done so, I would have clung steadfastly to my identification with being a woman, first, as the most essential aspect of who I am. And it is not! In this dimension of freedom, this place before and beyond time that is who we all are most deeply, there is no gender–because freedom has no history. It has no past, and in the spiritual work we are doing, that freedom from the past is the first step. As Andrew has written, “Truth has no gender. It has no name and has no face. That’s why it is a mystery and that’s why it will always be a mystery….” Through that mystery, an enormous potential is born that releases us from the limitations of who we have been–personally and culturally. It is up to us to make good on that potential. And then discover and create who we are as women and men based on that truth that has no gender.