Is the road to enlightenment different for women? Should it be?
This is a question that comes up often when I’m teaching or talking to other women. And it is a very good one, which I’ll try to explore in a series of posts.
Perhaps we should clarify what the spiritual path here is referring to. I’m specifically talking about the path of self-discovery, or the shift in identification from the limited body-mind to the undying, unborn, eternal Self.
Self-discovery, enlightenment, or awakening is the process of reclaiming our true identity with the Self, by seeing through false identification with who we think we are – our body-mind. Specifically, who we think we are consists of a complex construct of ideas, beliefs and habits that we have come to see as “me.” This conglomeration of stuff creates a dense matrix that clouds our inherent ability to see our true vast and limitless nature.
The Identity Matrix
How the matrix of false identification comes about is fascinating. It is innocently collected and nurtured, initially through well-meaning caregivers that teach us about ourselves and then through our life experiences that are based on a universal culture of false identity. We are taught to believe that we are this person with this body, this mind and this story enmeshed in our cultural, societal and moral constructs. These beliefs become so deeply embedded that they become our identity. We come to take our beliefs to be who we really are.
No matter who we are or where we come from, this story of “me” comes to be shaped around a fundamental sense of lack, which drives us to find completion in all kinds of ways. As soon as we are given a name and taught the concept of “me” and “not me,” the matrix begins to take shape and eventually turns into the entity we come to take as our self.
When it comes to the inner journey of self-discovery, the matrix that each of us will face is necessarily unique. Ultimately, regardless of what the matrix holds, we need to be able to see through it.
Gender and the Identity Matrix
Since the matrix is shaped by culture and society, there are big differences in the content of the stories that make up our identity as men and women. And yet, there is a curious phenomenon across all world traditions when it comes to the process of spiritual awakening – there are simply no widely-known women-specific paths. Almost all paths were created for men and have been adopted by women.
This phenomenon is strikingly similar to that of heart disease in women, one of my special interests as a cardiologist. Very few women were included in the large trials of the 1980s and 1990s that led to revolutionary treatment strategies for heart disease. We just assumed that these treatment strategies should work in women – only to find decades later that more women were dying from heart disease despite these treatments. The lack of data in women spurred national research agencies to change policy to ensure that equal numbers of men and women are included in trials. Despite these steps to set things right, we are now way behind when it comes to understanding the specific issues of heart disease in women.
Wouldn’t it make sense that the mechanics of disease and treatment should be different when our biology is so different?
Why would this not be applicable to the spiritual path? This is no different than knowing that coronary artery disease occurs due to blockages in the coronary arteries – how it happens differs between men and women. And thus, how we treat it must also differ.
So how does the identity matrix differ in women compared to men? Let’s see…
The Burden of Roles
While both men and women have a fundamental sense of lack that defines what comes to become the “me,” what makes up that identity is broadly different. Societal gender norms define us as men and women, of course, but women tend to be much more bound by roles than men do.
For instance, we are taught from infanthood that nurturing is (and should be) in our nature. In many cultures, a woman is taught and expected to think of herself primarily in relation to others throughout her life – daughter, sister, wife, mother, and grandmother. Nurturing is an expectation for women and often includes qualities such as self-sacrifice, self-effacement, and subservience. She is raised to be a giver.
Consequently, women are often discouraged from treading the spiritual path, which is individualistic to a large extent. Although our own spiritual journey and upliftment benefit everyone around us, it is one we must tread alone for the most part. Women who leave their families to pursue the path to enlightenment are comparatively fewer in number; while such an act is forgiven and even touted as noble for men, it is rarely accepted for women.
For a woman, a calling to the spiritual path can become a challenge, particularly if that means taking time away from her societal roles. These role expectations are so deeply ingrained in us that even when we have families that support our spiritual journeys, we can have a difficult time transcending our gender roles.
Traditional teachings that espouse extended time away from family responsibilities in retreats and satsangs rarely work for women with strong role expectations that form the sense of “me.” We resist the idea of re-prioritizing our lives to revolve around our own spiritual growth, as that can be seen as selfish and not nurturing – even by ourselves. Even taking the time to meditate everyday may be difficult for women who strongly feel that they could and should be spending time on their families instead.
The Burden of Self-Doubt
In general, women are far more affected by self-doubt than men. We are conditioned to be highly critical of ourselves and to judge everything – our bodies, choice of clothing, the way we parent, and how we behave in boardrooms and bedrooms. When we come across teachings that emphasize humility, for instance, the already active self-doubt causes us to mistake our self-effacement and self-loathing for humility.
Traditional teachings about humility are targeted primarily toward arrogance and pride, qualities that are far more common in men. Yet, there are hardly any teachings that are geared toward self-doubt and the need to develop self-assurance, which most women need.
The Burden of Repression
Similarly, teachings about anger or celibacy hardly address the needs of women.
Women are much more ostracized for being angry; it is an undesirable trait for one who is supposed to be a giver. Anger is so feared, even by women themselves, that it finds its way to the dark recesses of the mind to become a looming shadow. Repressed anger takes on multiple forms, particularly in women, leading to numerous psychological and physiological disorders. While men are encouraged to express their anger in many traditions, women are rarely given the tools to dig up their anger, let alone express it.
The side-effect of individual and collective repression of anger in women is the emergence of the “goddess” complex. In an effort to justify their anger, we women can turn to the goddess archetypes that seemingly provide licentiousness for our unexamined rage. And so we see women everywhere taking on the Durga or the Kali personas without really understanding the symbolism of these goddesses. In this misguided move, women merely discard one identity matrix and take on another, which is really no closer to liberation. Taking on a “goddess” identity is ultimately no different than any other role, be it soccer mom or domestic diva.
Nearly every tradition talks about celibacy and the need for sexual continence. However, these teachings make little sense for women. For one, women are much more likely to suffer from sexual repression and if this is the case, celibacy is the easy way out – not because we are spiritually elevated but because of sexual trauma, unpleasant sexual memories, or simply because we haven’t been taught to explore our sexuality in meaningful ways. Once again, societal and moral roles place us so firmly in the virgin and the whore boxes that we dare not step out of them and face shame, guilt and rejection.
Moreover, women don’t lose vital energy with an orgasm the way men do. Vital energy is lost in our cycles of menstruation, ovulation, pregnancy, and childbirth. Thus, the issue of sexual continence to preserve vital energy is irrelevant for women.
And yet, there are no widely-known sexual practices that aid a woman’s spiritual journey.
The Burden of Femininity
We accumulate so many layers as part of the gender matrix that it becomes tricky to shed them. While women struggle to live up to the so-called feminine stereotypes of patience, softness, gentleness and other qualities that make up the nurturer, men have to struggle with the so-called masculine qualities that make up the provider – strength, courage, control and often, aggression. We innocently buy into these ideals, and they become our greatest hurdles on the spiritual path.
As gender roles become more fluid, we can end up with more stress. As we women step into fast-paced careers, we are expected to maintain the feminine qualities while working alongside men. This can result in a host of new issues around the “me” for women in the workplace. For instance, while aggression is commended in men as an essential drive, it is frowned upon in women as haughty ambition. This perception merely adds to the ever-present self-doubt that women in even high positions continue to harbor.
Women are generally able to see the whole picture and multi-task. We are able to simultaneously take in numerous situations that require our attention and almost automatically take care of them all. Yet, this is also the quality that probably prevents us from cultivating single-pointedness on the spiritual journey, which is required for deep inner work. The multi-tasking instinct can take over and prevent us from digging deep holes that matter, and instead create further layers of the identity matrix.
Of course, all of the above is overly generalized, and must not be taken to be the case for every woman (or every man). It also merely scratches the surface, considering the countless influences that go into these things. This post is not about fixing the ingrained societal practices that have created these suffocating gender roles. Fortunately, change is happening in all spheres related to these roles!
Ultimately, who we are has no gender or any other attributes. But how we get to this realization can be a meaningful and sweet journey, and the identity matrix can be unraveled in ways that are nurturing for a woman. How? I’ll discuss this in the next post.