The Ultimate Spiritual Practice for Women
When you think about women and spiritual practice, what pops into your mind? Leggy ladies in tights doing a downward dog? Wafty women in white flowing robes dancing among flickering candles? Pop cultural images of women interested in spirituality often imply that the goal of spiritual practice for women is to become hyperfeminine. (Click for a send up of the “Yoga Girl” image.) Yoga or sacred dance are beautiful, and we certainly need more beauty in the world. And yoga can lead to significant transformation—the inspiring story of Ana Forrest is just one testament to that—but too few of us set our sights on real, tangible, spiritual evolution as the goal of our practice. Becoming more fit and calm and lovely is fine. But becoming more femme is hardly a transformation that’s going to rock the world. As Ken Wilber once wrote on the pages of What Is Enlightenment? magazine,
Transformative spirituality does not seek to bolster or legitimate any present worldview at all, but rather to provide true authenticity by shattering what the world takes as legitimate.
Meditation is a practice of transformative spirituality. Why? Because it challenges who we think we are at the most fundamental level. It reveals to us an ever-present dimension of reality beyond mind, time, and our embodiment through which we can recognize that we are not some object clinging for security to the surface of this spinning planet. No, we are WHAT IS. The infinite unmoveable perfection of Being, the ground of everything, itself. This realization, when taken seriously, frees us from our false identification with our personal history and all the ways things have been. The door opens to true, shattering transformation.
And for women, discovering a different ground of self rather than our conditioned sense of need, control, insecurity or the thousands of ways that we are looking, looking, looking for anything outside of ourselves to validate who we are and give us direction and purpose, well, that is essential. It’s essential if we want to transform and, through our transformation, shatter the world that we know has to change at the core.
Now, when I speak to women about meditation, I often get some puzzling responses. “I don’t sit down to meditate, I get into meditation when I do housework.” Or “I meditate when I knit.” Or even, “I don’t like to meditate, it’s a waste of time—all I do when I try to meditate is make lists of all the things I should be doing rather than sitting there meditating!” Traditionally, meditation has been seen as a practice for men. (But isn’t “traditionally” what we want to change—in ourselves and in the culture we live in?) Spiritual warriors like Tenzin Palmo have had to fight against the Buddhist establishment to be allowed to meditate—she spent thirteen years in a cave in the Himalayas because there was no monastery in which she could be deeply trained. Women have typically been given more devotional practices—what is known as bhakti. It’s not that women were just given the short end of the stick, relegated to lighting candles rather than sitting on a cushion, but that women didn’t take to meditation—devotion seemed a quicker path to the surrender that opens the way to depth.
In fact, I would even go so far as to say that women have something of an aversion to meditation—and that aversion is what I hear in these women’s comments. How do I know? That was my own experience for years—I sat down, but I wouldn’t really let go, drop my identification with thought, feeling, sensation and the whole ball of wax that is my experience as a separate individual. I’d drop into a certain level of depth and then I’d intentionally distract myself just to avoid confronting the truth that, at the heart of it ALL, is NO THING, nothing at all. Including my ideas of who I am. Indian spiritual master Vimala Thakar, who I think may have been one of the most enlightened women of the 20th century, has said that “women very rarely take to meditation.” In a remarkable interview with my spiritual sister Mary Adams, Vimala, who had to fight against the Hindu and Vendantic authorities to pursue her own enlightenment, explained:
Nothingness, nobodyness, emptiness—even the intellectual understanding of this frightens women. It frightens women! At the depth of our being there is fear because of our physical vulnerability, because of our secondary role in human civilization. It is in the subconscious, not in the consciousness. On a subconscious level there is fear. If I get converted into or if I mature into nonduality, into nothingness, into nobodyness, what will happen to my physical existence? Will it be more vulnerable? Will I be able to defend myself in case of difficulty, in case of some attack against me? That is a basic fear among women.
This fear is burrowed so deep into women’s self-sense that most of the time we don’t even notice it. Vimala Thakar observed that women “don’t find any resistance on the conscious level. They will say, ‘No, we do not resist,’ and they are being honest. And yet at the deeper level of their being there is an unverbalized resistance.” Just take a moment, and sit with yourself: Can you feel the depth and stillness of no movement at all? Or does your attention light on a wavering, a slight anxious tension, the need to quickly look around and wonder who is watching? For us “liberated,” I-can-do-whatever-I-want-to-do women of the 21st century, it seems pretty ridiculous but underneath the control, efficiency, ambition, skills, and sometimes bravado, it’s just there. We don’t like to notice it for what it is. It’s scary.
The only way out is to let go of it all—to drop our mistaken identification with the whole package that has developed around and out of that fundamental fear. Meditation is that complete letting go, that dropping of our identification with the shallows of our selves. Again, Vimala offers us perfect guidance when she says that:
Woman has to understand that nobodyness or nothingness, the emptiness of consciousness in samadhi or meditation, generates a different kind of energy and awareness which is more protective than self-conscious defensiveness.
We find a completely different kind of protection because we discover that in the realization of No Thing, empty of self, the Infinite becomes our home, our resting place. That certainly doesn’t mean we won’t feel fear or insecurity or any of the whole range of thoughts and feelings that make up our psychological experience. But it matters less and less and less. We have discovered depth, space—a crack in the world as we have known it. That’s when the authentic transformative power of spiritual practice begins to take hold and, like a wind at your back, push you forward, making transparent the apparent solidity of who you have been. With that goes woman as we have known her—liberated from all of the ideas of what it means to be female that we’ve been enslaved to. Meditation is the practice for a new women’s liberation, one that shatters the world and opens the way to a different future.
Creating that future is the inspiration that fuels my commitment to the practice of meditation. I’d like to invite you to join me in celebrating the potential of our own transformation by honoring Vimala Thakar on her birthday this year, April 15, with an all-night meditation from 9:00 pm EDT on April 14 to 6:00 am EDT on April 15. United in Being across the globe, we will deepen a new context for what it means to be human beings, embodied as women, who are liberated to pioneer a new stage in human culture.