Some preliminary comments
(Skip down to the next section if don’t need the context for our discussion today)
When I was a little girl, I used to get scathing criticism from my parents’ friends about how “sensitive” I was. I was easily hurt, the tears flowed continuously and I would spend extended periods of time by myself dealing with whatever emotional challenge that surfaced for me that day. One of my best friends in high school repeatedly told me I needed to develop a “thicker skin” and my mother-in-law still tells me that I am “intense” and “have a lot of feelings.” I only recently rolled out the welcome mat for my sensitive, emotional nature. Because I had been criticized for my sensitivity and emotionality all my life, it had never occurred to me that I had internalized all the negative messages I was getting from the outside and had become my own biggest critic.
In my adulthood, I have constantly struggled with the stereotype that women are more sensitive than men by nature. I am not a big believer that anything is inherently in us because of our gender. Society shapes us in a lot more ways than we think.
Which brings me to our topic today: Feminine Spirituality. Because we have all implicitly (and arbitrarily) agreed that there are some qualities that are inherently “feminine” and some that are “masculine,” and that the feminine qualities are somehow less ideal than masculine, many of us walk around not living out our full and authentic selves. Everybody has a mixture of both the yin and yang to varying degrees–and suppressing any of the qualities that dwell within us because we are told to either “man up” or “act like a lady” results in emotional wounds and traumas that need healing.
So when I talk about Feminine Spirituality, I am not only talking about a spirituality directed at those who are gendered as women, I am also talking about a form of spirituality that addresses the qualities of all human beings that we label feminine but that are really just human and that are often overlooked in spiritual practice; qualities like emotionality, resistance, nurture, withdrawal, and unpredictability.
Differences between Feminine and Masculine Spirituality
Just to make my point from above absolutely clear: there is nothing inherently womanlike or manlike about personality traits. We all get angry and cry, get aggressive and feel like we need to care for others. BUT there are things we have labelled feminine and masculine that become associated with the gender identity of a woman or man.
The whole of my religious and spiritual life has been dominated by masculine leaders with masculine ideas of spirituality; like you have to discipline yourself, battle your ego, suppress your lower nature and impulses, and travel a straight path up to realization (possibly with some setbacks along the way). This type of spirituality emphasizes reward and punishment, hierarchies, and rigid structures of knowledge as well as rigid ideas of right and wrong.
This is all I knew until I came into contact with a female Sufi master who was kind enough to talk to me about feminine spirituality in an open and candid way. She said to me,
“When it comes to the spirituality of women and men, I do believe that the approach is a bit different. We [women] are naturally initiated by the rhythm of nature and we have even without any teachings a deep understanding of the unity of life and the preciousness and holiness of life. Men need hierarchy and structure.”
The approach to feminine spirituality I take is an embodied journey of self-understanding that aligns with one’s natural cycles of joy and sorrow, that dances with our dark side and also harnesses our inner light to share it with others.
Our world can be so unforgiving of flaws, of mental illness and emotional breakdowns, of needing days of rest as well as days of pushing past our comfort zones. Our world understands mental stability and spiritual fortitude as being the same person, day in and day out. But we are not like that as human beings. Some days are great and some aren’t. Something we could have handled with strength and grace one day may be the fast-track to an anxiety attack and a mental breakdown the next day.
So my yogic practice is, at heart, a feminine approach to Muslim-Yogic spirituality that is meant for everybody (including men!). Through it we can rediscover the suppressed feminine qualities that we have been trained to ignore. It is a path of love and self-forgiveness. It is a journey to the deepest and darkest corners of our hearts where we can get to know ourselves in our totality and with no limitations.
There are so many different paths to self-realization that honour the different dominant traits we hold within us as well as the neglected traits in each of our hearts. If we can find a way to include both the dominant and neglected qualities of ourselves in our spiritual path, we can approach our lives from a place of true wholeness.
Let me leave you with one last message from my Sufi teacher, who I think beautifully puts into words why the feminine side of things is so important for our spiritual practice:
Often we resist emotions and try to copy the idealized masculine approach to life. We are trained to try to solve all our life and problems with the mind, forgetting to use our divine true nature, there where God has given us peace, knowledge, wisdom and love. We often think that giving emotions little space makes us stronger and we also find acknowledgement in the rational masculine world. But without emotions we cannot reach our core nor can we reach God. The path of unity asks us to accept all parts in us first, we have to find unity inside of us before we can live it on the outside. Life does not flow between the shores of do and do not. Life is a mystery that asks of us to let the divine parts in us flow into our humanity, but first we have to experience the divine. If we don’t do that, we will always be ruled by anger, fear and sadness.
May you be filled with peace,
If you want to learn more about feminine spirituality, here are some resources that helped me shape my own views:
- Sara Avant Stover’s two books: The Way of the Happy Woman, and The Book of She – which discuss how to integrate feminine dimensions and natural cycles into yoga and spirituality
- Michael Stoeber’s section on “Feminist Concerns” in this article on Comparative Mysticism
- Dominique Christina’s This is Woman’s Work – a good example of how many different parts of us get ignored when we don’t explore all the different aspects of our personality
- Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble – which discusses how socially constructed ideas of “female” and “male” are formed