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.
Perhaps we should clarify what the spiritual path here is referring to. I’m specifically talking about the path of self-discovery, the shift out of identification with the limited body-mind.
Self-discovery, also known as enlightenment or awakening is the process of reclaiming our true identity with the eternal, unborn Self. In the process, we see through false identification with who we think we are – the body-mind. Specifically, who we think we are consists of a complex construct of ideas, beliefs and habits that we have erroneously come to associate with “me.” This conglomeration of “me” stuff creates a dense matrix that clouds our ability to know our true vast and limitless nature.
The Identity Matrix
How this matrix of “me” stuff happens is fascinating. It is innocently collected and nurtured through our life experiences. Beginning in childhood, we are taught to associate things with “me” – our names, our bodies, our belongings, our minds, our emotions. We come to believe that we are this person with this body, this mind and importantly, the “me” story that is 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 “me” story 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 take to be the self.
When it comes to the inner journey of self-discovery, each of us will need to untangle this “me” matrix to see what lies beyond it.
Gender and the Identity Matrix
Since the “me” matrix is shaped by culture and society, there are necessarily big differences in the content of the stories that make up our identity as men and women. Even when we may not identify as either gender or both, this conditioning cannot be escaped. When it comes to spiritual awakening and the collective “me” matrix of women, there are simply no widely-known women-specific paths. Nearly all paths are created by men for men. Women have simply adopted these paths and have tried to make it work.
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. The scientific community assumed that these treatment strategies should work in women, only to discover that decades later, more women are dying from heart disease. Realizing the acute problem of sex-specific data, national research agencies changed their funding policies to ensure that equal numbers of men and women would be included in future trials. Despite these steps to set things right, we are way behind when it comes to understanding the specific issues related to heart disease in women.
Wouldn’t it make sense that the mechanics of disease and treatment should be different when there is a fundamental difference in biology between the sexes?
Why would this not be applicable to the spiritual path?
This is no different than knowing that heart disease due to blockages occurs in men and women – how it happens differs between the sexes. 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 drives the formation of the “me” story, what makes up this identity story is broadly different. Although societal gender norms define gender heavily, women tend to be much more bound by roles.
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. In many cultures, not having children to nurture or raise fundamentally questions a woman’s identity.
Along the lines of being givers, (in many cultures) women are discouraged from treading the spiritual path, which is largely individualistic. Although our own spiritual journey and upliftment benefits everyone around us, for the most part, it is one we must tread alone. 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 who are expected to ignore such a calling for the sake of their families.
For a woman, a calling to the spiritual path can become a challenge, particularly if that means taking time away from her society-appointed 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 them.
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 “me” story. 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 every day 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 more extensively afflicted with self-doubt. We are conditioned to be highly critical of ourselves and consequently judge our bodies, choice of clothing, the way we parent, and how we behave in boardrooms and bedrooms. This becomes a problem when we come across teachings that emphasize humility, where we can mistake our self-effacement and self-loathing for humility.
Like most teachings, those about humility were also targeted toward men with the intention of healing arrogance and pride. Although men too can suffer from self-doubt, the complexity of it in women extends to how we treat other women and raise our daughters. Despite this seemingly universal issue, there are hardly any teachings that are geared toward self-doubt and the need to develop self-assurance, which is what most women need, along with the cultivation of humility and grace.
The Burden of Repression
Similarly, teachings about anger or celibacy do very little to address the needs of women.
Women are much more ostracized for being angry. Anger is an undesirable trait for those conditioned to be givers. Anger is thus feared, even by women to such an extent that it comfortably 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 our unexamined rage and anger, we can turn to the goddess archetypes that seemingly provide licentiousness for misguided behavior. And so we see women everywhere taking on the Durga or the Kali personas without really understanding the symbolism of these goddesses. In this move, women merely discard one identity matrix and take on another, which is really no closer to awakening. Taking on a “goddess” identity is ultimately no different than being a 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.
Moreover, women don’t lose vital energy with 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. Societal and moral roles place us so firmly in the virgin and the whore boxes that we dare not step out of them to face the repercussions of shame, guilt, and rejection.
We mistakenly turn to the teachings geared toward men, without tapping into the innate wisdom of the body and its cycles. If celibacy is the prescribed path for men and we adopt it because it suits our desire to “not go there,” we don’t transcend the complex issues surrounding our sexuality – we simply suppress them or bypass them.
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 also have to struggle with the so-called masculine qualities that make up the provider – strength, courage, control and often, aggression. We innocently buy into the ideals that become the greatest hurdles on the spiritual path.
As gender roles become more fluid, we can end up with more stress. As women step into fast-paced careers, we are expected to maintain feminine qualities while working alongside men. This can result in a host of new issues around the “me” story 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. We are expected to “play nice” while “boys will be boys,” adding to the ever-present self-doubt that women in even high positions continue to harbor.
Owing to the burden of roles and expectations, women are generally able to multi-task because we can see the whole picture. 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 cultivating enough inner silence or discernment that are required for the spiritual journey.
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 only scratches the surface, considering the countless influences that go into complex gender issues. Obviously, this post is not about fixing the ingrained societal practices that have created constricting gender roles. Fortunately, change is happening in all spheres related to gender.
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 future posts.