This is a man’s world
But it wouldn’t be nothing, nothing
Without a woman or a girl.
I’ve been thinking about Vipassana training ever since I read the hilarious description of it in Sarah Macdonald’s book Holy Cow: An Indian Adventure. Vipassana is like Survivor for the spiritual seeker. Touted as having been discovered by the Buddha over 2500 years ago, Vipassana is a hard core mind-training regime with the aim of burning off all the impurities in the mind that separate the seeker from “the truth”. Without this separation, the seeker is on the high road to enlightenment.–Ontario Vipassana Centre
Who wouldn’t want that? Lord knows I relish the idea of someone or something cutting in on this infernal dance I do with my ever-changing mind! Peace? You offer peace and liberation? SIGN ME UP! My initial excitement, however, quickly turned to stomach-twisting dread as I began to research the process. 10 days in the company of strangers where not a word is to be spoken except during a participant’s meeting time with her spiritual advisor. Silence. Okay, I can handle that. You are not to connect with other participants at all. This means no physical contact, not even a light, supportive touch on the arm if someone appears to be emotionally distraught, no facial expressions and no eye contact with anyone around you. You are to move around one another without acknowledging one another. No pens. No paper. No cellphones. No music. No external distractions. This is a 100% commitment to spending time with nothing but your own mind, and it is done through hours and HOURS of seated meditation. When you’re not meditating you’re learning about a meditation technique. And when you’re not learning, you’re meditating some more.
Have you ever tried to sit on the floor for several hours at a time? When in India, we spent our days seated on the concrete floor of the ashram’s meditation hall. It took one day of this for the most fire-poker hot agony to set in on the body. People were writhing and shifting all day long. By day three people were losing their composure altogether and started crying. I was popping Advil like candy, something I do only in the most dire situations, and people were rolling around on hard sponge balls trying to work out their muscle cramps. But in India we could talk to one another. We could process and journal and hold one another if we fell apart. We could connect as we crumbled and that made all the difference in the world. In Vipassana there is none of this connecting and comforting and I began to wonder why we would need to be so harsh in order to reach enlightenment. Surely the Divine, the most compassionate force in existence, wouldn’t expect us to torture ourselves in order to be free!
Somewhere in the back of my head I began to hear James Brown singing, “This is a man’s world…” Images of hair shirts, self-flagellation Easter rituals, and women climbing holy steps on their knees crossed my mind. I know Catholicism like the back of my hand, having been immersed in it (and trying to recover from it) my whole life. It is a male-dominated religion with a focus on suffering as the path to liberation. I suppose somewhere in my naivete I thought Eastern religions and spiritual practices would be different somehow. Could it be Vipassana also falls into this “man’s world” spirituality where we push ourselves to extremes in order to free ourselves? I have to admit the idea of creating suffering in order to free ourselves from suffering has always baffled me.
There is another way. There is woman’s way. This woman’s way nurtures the body instead of strains it; Life stresses our bodies enough. It involves community and connection and if you think it’s less challenging to be vulnerable in the company of others, ask anyone how they felt when they broke down in front of a group of people. It involves yielding to what is, softening and embracing what Life throws our way. I have always had a strong sense of this woman’s way in spirituality but I could never put it together the way Judith Duerk does in her magical book Circle of Stones: Woman’s Journey to Herself:
How might your life have been different, if, as a young woman, there had been a place for you, a place where you could go to be among women…a place for you when you had feelings of darkness?…And, what if,…you knew that the [women] would come to be with you? And would sit quietly by as you went into your darkness to listen to your feelings and bring them to birth…So that, over the years, companioned by the [women], you learned to no longer fear your darkness, but to trust it…
How might our spiritual practices be different if we began to weave more of this into the fabric? I’m not saying one way is better than the other. I am certainly saying that the women’s way settles more easily into my spirit; I am Woman after all. But what amazing new things could come into our spirituality with a merging of both the feminine and masculine ways? Imagine a spirituality based on balance. Maybe that is the road to liberation!???
I don’t have the answer and maybe I never will. I do think, however, I’ll leave Vipassana to the “cool kids” and give it a pass. I think I’ll just settle my overworked mind and stressed-out body into the comfort of my women’s circle and work it out that way. In the end, all roads lead to god anyway…right? ;)
Many blessings and much love,