Today, in the spiritual world at large, the sacred feminine is growing in influence. Almost every spiritual bookstore has a section devoted to women's spirituality, celebrating the return of the Mother, the laughter of Aphrodite, and the immanent love and power of the Goddess. There is a widespread call for contact with the inner female, interest in female teachers who are seen as human embodiments of the Divine Mother, and much hope being placed in a potent constellation of associated spiritual, psychological, ecological and political ideas centered around women or femininity as divine.
Although Hollywood's view on witchcraft has evolved little between yesterday's Rosemary's Baby
and today's The Craft
, many people are taking prepatriarchal woman-centered religions like Wicca seriously as viable spiritual paths.
And why not? Goddess-centered religion is anything but new. Archaeologists point to the existence of matrifocal Goddess-worshipping societies as long ago as the neolithic era, or even earlier. The remains of their cities show peaceful civilizations that lasted millennia until their destruction by invading patriarchal tribes of warlike nomads around 5,000 years ago. The Goddess-worshipping people, some archaeologists believe, lived in harmony with nature and enjoyed material abundance, an equitable distribution of wealth, an absence of oppressive hierarchies, equality between men and women and a rich earth-centered spirituality that celebrated life, art, sex, pleasure, and the richness of creation.
In contrast, 5,000 years of patriarchal religion have bequeathed us a world where people are alienated from the earth and from each other, where spirituality is often linked with suffering and with escape from this world, where warfare and ecological destruction is a constant and where violence, aggression and the oppression of women and minorities seem to be the norm. Who can say that the sacralization of women, and the reestablishment of a woman-centered spirituality, might not serve us better?
Along with the view that woman-centered spirituality might be the answer to many of our problems goes the widespread belief that we should cultivate traits which are usually viewed as feminine. We desperately need, it is felt, more empathy, nonviolence, attunement to the rhythms of nature, love and connectedness with others if we wish to save our dying planet.
In many ways, the logic of this perspective seems compelling. But when seen in the context of enlightenment, important questions immediately arise. Can absolute truth really be identified with a particular gender? Isn't enlightenment a perspective that is nondual, and that is therefore beyond all limits or identity—even sexual identity? If so, what role does gender play in spirituality? Can one gender really have, in this arena, an advantage over the other?
For people who are serious about spiritual liberation, these questions are anything but academic. In our own case, in the mixed community of men and women who are students of spiritual teacher Andrew Cohen, we were compelled to investigate these questions very deeply by certain surprising discoveries that emerged about the female condition. This edition of What Is Enlightenment?
came out of that investigation.
At first, like many people, we had assumed women as a group to be more spiritually inclined than men. In our community, initially women seemed to be able to more easily dissolve the boundaries between themselves and others. Their devotion and wholehearted willingness to give of themselves was far greater than the men's. In contrast, the men as a group were often more selfish, and tended to be overly intellectual, competitive and sometimes aggressive. But over time, when men and women were challenged as equals to meet in an impersonal investigation of the truth, the women collectively demonstrated a shocking disinterest in going beyond the boundaries of the personal. As a result, we found to our surprise that the women seemed to have a much more difficult time meeting beyond all limitations in true love and intimacy.
How could we make sense of what we were seeing in light of our prior assumptions about the spirituality of women, and in light of the modern spiritual world's growing regard for the sacred feminine? And, in the public forum for inquiry that is What Is Enlightenment?,
how could we open up such a subject without causing offense or misunderstanding?
Concerned about these matters, at one point while working on this edition of What Is Enlightenment?,
I decided to call my sister. I was curious what she, a lesbian feminist artist, a practitioner of feminist spirituality and a Buddhist, would think of some of the more controversial discoveries we were making.
"One thing we have seen," I began to explain cautiously, "is that, compared to the men, when the women come up against obstacles or difficult things in themselves, they often have a hard time—"
"Being objective," she said, completing my sentence.
"Yes!" I exclaimed, relieved, and amazed that she had chosen the very same word that I would have used. "What makes you say that?"
"I've seen it in the 12-step groups I've been going to lately. In fact, that's why I stopped attending the all-women group that I began with, and now go only to mixed groups. The women often seem to get too personally involved in their emotions, and sometimes lack a kind of objectivity that men seem able to provide."
My sister's remarks were surprising, yet confirmed that what we were finding in our own experience was neither as esoteric as we had thought, nor confined to our community. Our surprise—and the certainty that we were on to something important—grew when we interviewed for this issue well-known feminist psychologist Elizabeth Debold and the extraordinary female spiritual teacher Vimala Thakar. Elizabeth Debold is an advisor to the Ms. Foundation and the best-selling coauthor of Mother Daughter Revolution: From Good Girls to Great Women.
Vimala Thakar bears the distinction of being the only person whom the great J. Krishnamurti ever urged to teach (and he did so with great passion). She is an example of what real spiritual liberation for women can be. Both Vimala Thakar and Elizabeth Debold are strong, independent thinkers. Neither, by any stretch of the imagination, could be called a pawn of the patriarchy. Yet their personal experiences and observations revealed aspects of female conditioning that are serious obstacles to spiritual freedom. And most of the obstacles they described to us were strikingly similar to what the women in our community were facing.
Then what about the sacred feminine? We widened our investigation, drawing from the experiences and insights of noted spiritual authors Georg Feuerstein and Daniel Roumanoff, and spiritual teachers Andrew Cohen and Arnaud Desjardins, who examine the phenomenon of female saints such as Anandamayi Ma and Mother Meera. Their articles raise fascinating questions about the nature of the attainment of women who are viewed as avatars
, or human incarnations, of the Divine Mother.
To understand more deeply the popularity of Goddess spirituality in the West, we interviewed Wiccan high priestess Zsuzsanna Budapest, known as the mother of the feminist spirituality movement and the woman who coined its very name. Our conversation with her is a provocative exploration of the insights, and the possible limitations, of this perspective.
This edition of What Is Enlightenment?
is concerned, as always, with the nature of spiritual liberation. But in this issue enlightenment is explored in the context of the spiritual emancipation of women. And in order to understand and further women's spiritual liberation, we look into the unique obstacles that women face on the spiritual path.
We know that some people might feel that to discuss female conditioning or to question the sacred feminine is harsh or offensive in a world where women are still generally denied their birthright of being treated as equals to men. But when the goal is real spiritual emancipation this investigation appears in a different light. If the spiritual emancipation of women is the point, shouldn't every aspect of female conditioning that obstructs liberation be the subject of a passionate inquiry? And if enlightenment is a perspective that is unbounded, shouldn't its identification with a particular gender be questioned as potentially limited?
We feel that this kind of investigation is necessary, because spiritual liberation for women is so important, not only for women but for humanity as a whole. Like the proponents of views that sacralize the feminine, we want to see women spiritually and socially liberated. We want to see women who, like Vimala Thakar, are strong, enlightened, independent leaders. But in our view, this will not come about by mythologizing women (or men) or by elevating one gender over another. It will only happen by being willing to face any limiting conditioning that may exist. Ultimately, it is only through an investigation that pierces the veil of all limited or fixed ideas of self and other, even those as seemingly fundamental as gender, that spiritual freedom for women—and for humanity as a whole—will have the potential of becoming a living reality.