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From the Editors



This issue of What Is Enlightenment? was inspired by spiritual teacher and WIE founder Andrew Cohen's teaching about the radical possibility of liberation from all rigid and limiting ideas about our gender and sexual orientation—a teaching that he has come to call "liberation without a face." As we launched into our far-ranging investigation for this issue of the magazine, this original teaching provoked countless questions about what it really means to be a liberated man or woman, tangibly challenging some of the most cherished ideas we have about ourselves and pulling us ever deeper into a thrilling and multifaceted exploration of the relationship between gender and enlightenment. What better place to begin, we thought, than with Andrew Cohen's own penetrating investigation into this often volatile subject, brought out in an in-depth interview with noted feminist author and one of his students, Elizabeth Debold? And so began the creation of this issue: "Men's Liberation? Women's Liberation? Gay Liberation? How Free Do We Really Want to Be?"

The more we immersed ourselves in this exploration of spiritual freedom in relationship to gender and sexual orientation, the more we began to see how wildly diverse the views on this challenging topic could be. For it seems that when it comes to the subject of gender today, some matters that we used to think were pretty black and white are now open for debate. In a recent survey on sexuality and spirituality in a popular spiritual magazine, when readers were polled about their gender, instead of the customary two options, they were given three: male, female or transgender. When we spoke with self-identified "gender activist" and postoperative transsexual Kate Bornstein, we learned that she would likely have included a few more, or a write-in option for "other." For Bornstein, who approaches the challenge of deconstructing gender identity in a rather nuts-and-bolts fashion, going to sleep not entirely certain which gender we are, or experiencing some bewilderment about which public bathroom to use, could actually be a sign of real progress! Then, during our visit to the secluded St. Joseph's Abbey, the radiant Father Basil Pennington, celibate Trappist monk for the last fifty years, confidently told us that anybody who's really free knows they're bisexual. And then, Buddhist scholar and gay activist Jose Cabezon informed us that in the celibate Buddhist monastic environment, when the "monks engage in sexual acts with each other, they take care not to violate the letter of the law." We didn't know quite where to go from here as unexpected revelations came at us from all directions.

Jungian theorists like Marion Woodman teach that for us to reach wholeness, we need to balance the masculine and feminine energies within. Others believe that our ultimate aim is the realization of an androgynous condition, where differences between men and women are no longer necessarily ordained by our biology. Lately, there's been a resurgence of interest in traditional religious views, such as Orthodox Judaism, which emphasize distinct roles for men and women. And there are those in the enlightenment traditions who, like Brooklyn-born Tibetan tulku Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, teach a path of transcendence, where the significance of gender differences pales in light of the ultimate goal.

Is the goal of the spiritual path androgyny? A balance of the masculine and feminine energies within? Or a leap beyond any identification with our gender whatsoever? And once we get clear on our goal, how are we to know what path will truly help us to get there? Some say the path is to cultivate our masculine qualities if we're feminine or our feminine qualities if we're masculine. Others encourage women to nurture their femininity and men to fortify their masculinity. Some say we're as different as Mars and Venus. Others say our essential nature is the same. For every approach to liberating ourselves from fixed ideas about our manhood and womanhood, we found alternate approaches that recommend a 180-degree counterview. So what is the relationship between enlightenment and gender? What does it mean to be a man or a woman if we want to be free?
I had always been convinced that when people talked about women who were identified with being a woman, they were talking about all those other women. I was sure that I had gone far beyond the conventional ideas that define "woman" long ago . . . you see, I had been a feminist. In college I read everything I could find by radical feminists and went to meetings in women-only centers in the small liberal town of Ithaca, New York, one of the hotbeds of radical separatist feminism in the early 1980s. I was so passionate about the plague of patriarchy, at the time I even felt guilty for not being a lesbian. Nothing seemed off-limits to the nineteen-year-old extremist that I was because, like most girls of my generation, I had grown up with Helen Reddy's anthem for women as my fourth-grade theme song: "I am strong, I am invincible, I am woman." To prove that women were not inferior to, or even different from men, at five-foot-two, 115 pounds, I went to Eastern Montana to roughneck on an oil rig alongside all the big, burly guys—only to find myself, two weeks later, leg in traction, explaining to the nurses how it all happened. After this fiasco in "experiential" feminism, I gave myself to the spiritual search, thinking I had come to the close of my women's lib agenda. I went to India to meditate, and took long, daring treks alone across the snowy Himalayas where I slept in caves and dreamt about the great Tibetan yoginis who had achieved enlightenment through arduous practices. And in spite of all signs to the contrary, I remained oblivious to the gendered glasses through which I saw the world.

In time, after much contemplation and some less-than-subtle nudges from my spiritual friends, I began to realize that although my images of womanhood were far from traditional, I was, nevertheless, very much identified with being a woman. Still, I was unprepared for the volatile eruptions that were to surface when we, both men and women on the editorial staff of WIE, leapt in together to wrestle with this multilimbed Goliath of a subject—the relationship between gender identification and spiritual freedom.

Our early research took us through verse after misogynistic verse from the scriptures of all the major religious traditions detailing the subordinate position of women. After one particularly grueling night of reading, we looked at each other, pretty depressed. Then I read: "The perfect Hindu wife should drink the water her husband uses to wash his feet before every rice meal." By that point, we weren't sure whether to laugh or scream. My boyfriend, attempting to inject some comic relief into our dismal meeting, blurted out, "Honey, how come you never did that for me?" Everyone cracked up. Everyone, that is, but me. Radical feminist Sally Miller Gearhart has a theory that the only way to save the world is to reduce the number of men to ten percent of the total population and at that moment, I have to admit I was beginning to wonder if maybe she might be on to something.
Throughout our research, I also had some difficulty seeing clearly what my own ideas of being a man actually were. Having left behind long ago my compulsive need to prove my manhood by climbing every mountain, kayaking every river and skiing off every cliff I could find, I was convinced that in my new incarnation as a sensitive, thoughtful, spiritual human being, I was no longer particularly identified with being a man. In the course of our exploration into spirituality and gender—and particularly through Sam Keen's lucid description of the influence of culture on the shaping of male identity—my eyes gradually began to open to how deep the currents of gender run in the male psyche. But it wasn't until one night near the end of our investigation that I experienced firsthand what my own male identity really was—and what it might mean to be free of it.

It was a warm, early summer evening and I was sitting on a grassy hilltop with a group of twenty spiritual brothers discussing the influence of "men's conditioning" in the pursuit of enlightenment. We had been speaking for several minutes about some of our particularly binding ideas about masculinity when one man asked a question that stopped all of us dead in our tracks: "What would it mean to step outside all of our ideas about what it means to be a man? What if this is one area where we really don't know?" As the silence behind my friend's words began to ripple through the group, I thought about the question he had posed. And as I did, suddenly, almost miraculously, a vast space began to open up inside me, as the core male identity, which had only minutes before been so close that I couldn't see it, began to fall away. For perhaps the first time in my life, it was as if all the ideas I had about being a man were laid out before me, crystal clear, and indeed were all part of one thing, one solid mass of identity that said, "I'm in control. I'm on top. I know where I'm going and I know how I'm going to get there." In a word, "I'm a Man!" As one after another, men began to describe their own experience of standing completely apart from any idea of being a man, the familiar sense of maleness gave way to a powerful collective recognition that who we really are is a mystery far beyond anything we can grasp.

What would a liberated expression of manhood be? As we sat there beneath the blue sky opening out in all directions around us, the core sense of self to which each of us had clung dissolving into emptiness between us, it was clear that none of us had any idea. But in that wide open space, we all knew that we really wanted to find out.


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This article is from
Our Gender Issue


More articles and interviews about similar subjects:
Gender Issues

Spiritual Awakening