DF Wisdom for a Crazy World

Sometimes a memory hits me out of the blue.

It’s the year 2000, and I’m sitting in a Mexican dive bar and restaurant, a block off of Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. I’m steadily working my way through a pack of cigarettes and a few too many margaritas, in deep conversation with a friend from work.

 The perfect setting for deep conversations.

The perfect setting for deep conversations.

I tell him that I won’t be satisfied with my life unless I’ve done something big and important, something that makes the world a better place. He laughs good-naturedly at this, and asks me why. Isn’t it enough to work hard, have a family and raise them well in a nice home? This is good enough for him, he tells me.

I’m a little envious of his low standards, even as I find myself piously looking down on them. Not good enough, I tell him. I have to do more.

“More” was a vague concept that never really got more detailed. I dreamed of quitting my job in PR and doing something more worthwhile. I thought a lot about teaching overseas. I fantasized about adopting children from impoverished countries.

Instead, I moved to California and started my own company. I tried to create a positive work environment, and I donated money to charities that promoted women’s career opportunities and girls’ education. Instead of adopting children, I had two of my own. In many ways, my life has looked a lot like the one my friend described, the one I was so dismissive of when I was in my early 20s.

 Two kids and a house in the 'burbs (dog included but not pictured).

Two kids and a house in the 'burbs (dog included but not pictured).

At the time, I didn’t understand that my need to save the world came from a sense of inadequacy and a desire to prove my own self-worth, with a dose of white savior complex added in for good measure. Those discoveries would take another decade and a half to sink in.

The memory of that conversation returned to me recently on one of my morning walks around my neighborhood. The world looks a lot different than it did in 2000, and the stakes seem so much higher now. I can barely tolerate the echo chamber of Facebook anymore. I hate seeing the lines being drawn in the sand, the absolute refusal to listen to anyone with a different viewpoint. And I can only take so much of the news before I sink into rage and hopelessness, which doesn’t seem to be helping anyone, either.   

Instead, I’ve been reading about social justice. I’ve been learning how the feminist movement has changed since I left grad school nearly 20 years ago.  And I’ve been reading about how spiritual communities and personal transformation can be places to hide from the harsh realities of the world. Once again I’ve been thinking about how I can contribute to a better world, and questioning what my contribution should be.

This is a harder question to sit with now. For one thing, I’m much more aware of how I’ve been unconsciously aiding the perpetuation of an unjust system by being an active participant in it. It’s a lot easier to write a check to a charity than turn the microscope back on myself and my daily life.

I thought I had things all figured out. When the DF showed up in my life a couple of years ago, my sense of purpose seemed crystal clear: I knew I had a responsibility to bring Her wisdom back to the forefront.  

 Ancient wisdom for a modern world. Pictured: the 5,000 year old Sleeping Goddess of Malta. 

Ancient wisdom for a modern world. Pictured: the 5,000 year old Sleeping Goddess of Malta. 

Every time I tune into the news, though, the doubt creeps in. What do ancient spiritual traditions that predate written records have in common with this messy, unbelievably cruel world we inhabit today?

Quite possibly nothing – which, I’m realizing, is exactly why they may be relevant and useful to our current predicament.

There is nothing in our culture today that exists outside of the “imperialist white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” to use the term coined by feminist theorist and activist bell hooks. We cannot find any corner that hasn’t been tainted by it, including and especially our spiritual traditions.  

In her book Radical Dharma, Reverend angel Kyoto williams notes this very challenge when employing Buddhist methodology to provide liberation from systemic racism; this methodology was still “forged within the very same constructs it seems to undermine: orientations toward divide and conquer, competition over cooperation, power over rather than with us and them,” writes williams.   

This is one reason why I find looking backwards to our ancient origins to be so intriguing. Have we ever lived outside of a repressive patriarchal system? Has there ever been a time when we as human beings were not hell bent on hierarchy and elevating the rights of one group at the expense of others? Have we ever resolved our differences without violence on a massive scale? The historical record of our goddess worshipping ancestors indicates that the answer is yes, which gives me hope. If we’ve lived differently before, we can learn how to do it again.

 An example of a Minoan fresco, from the island of Santorini. Beauty and nature are recurrent themes throughout Minoan art; completely missing is any depiction of conflict or war.  

An example of a Minoan fresco, from the island of Santorini. Beauty and nature are recurrent themes throughout Minoan art; completely missing is any depiction of conflict or war.  

Granted, the research that’s been done on ancient goddess worshipping traditions has still been conducted within the same societal framework we’re in now, and it’s mostly been conducted by white women, which limits its lens. But what the hell – it’s a place to start.

Sometimes it feels like everything is coming apart at the seams. Polls consistently indicate that trust levels in our government, our news media, our financial institutions and our healthcare system were already at at historic lows even before the last presidential election. If we can’t trust anyone, who do we put our faith in?

Ourselves, says the DF. She has taught me that our relationship with the Divine is inherently personal.  We need no institution to tell us what to do, and we need no savior outside of ourselves. Instead, we need to get quiet and begin really listening to the Divinity that lives within each of us.

She has also taught me about the power and beauty in darkness. The DF is the great void, the blackest of nights. It is in this darkness where the light is born. Our moments of personal and cultural darkness are also ripe with promise. The challenge is to lean into the darkness with courage, and trust that there is light waiting to emerge. For me, this means believing that we were all made to live in these times, and are completely capable of navigating them with heart and bravery.    

 Out of the darkness comes the light. 

Out of the darkness comes the light. 

The winter solstice, the darkest night of the year, has been celebrated for thousands of years – not because of the darkness, but because it marks the return of the light. This reflects another powerful lesson I’ve learned from the DF – honoring the cyclical, circular nature of life.

The circle, or spiral, began appearing in conjunction with ancient Goddess worship more than 20,000 years ago. Archeologist Marija Gimbutas described it as a symbol of regeneration. It appears on Neolithic pottery, covering the bodies of female statues, and features prominently in the art of Minoan Crete, a highly advanced, goddess-worshipping culture that flourished around 1500 BC.

The spiral not only reflected the cyclical rhythms of nature – birth, death, rebirth ; it may also have signified a completely different experience of time, one in which human beings were not immune from these cycles of nature, as we tend to think of ourselves now.

“What we call the beginning is often the end, and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from,” writes T.S. Eliot in his poem Little Gidding. This does not mean we don’t mourn what has died or appears to be dying. Instead, the DF has taught me to step away from the news, put my feet on the ground and take a deep breath – recognizing that all of life is ruled by natural rhythms. The perceived loss of something always creates space for new possibilities. Always.

This may seem like an easy way to dismiss terrible shit by simply saying “bad things will happen,” but I don’t see it that way. There’s no inflection point in a circle, no room for efforts based on ego or savior complexes. Recognizing the natural rhythm of life also puts me and my contributions in their proper place – in the context of a deeply interconnected web of life that is so, so much bigger than me.

In the end, perhaps this is the biggest lesson I’ve learned that the chain-smoking, 24-year-old version of me didn’t know all those years ago: the world is not mine to save. All I can do is bring the best version of myself to meet the needs of this particular moment. The DF will show me the way.

The Healing Power of Anger

Remind me how to lay my rage at the roots as an offering, in trust that new life will grow.
— Pixie Lighthorse, Prayers of Honoring Voice

It's unnerving to acknowledge the depths of my anger to myself, let alone publicly. Maybe it's even self-indulgent; I know I'm a privileged white woman with a pretty easy life, untouched by the vast array of suffering that so many people deal with every day.

That said, there is something powerful and healing about naming our emotions and experiences, and being willing to drag them out of the shadows and into the light. 

In her book Prayers of Honoring Voice, Pixie Lighthorse acknowledges the sacredness of anger. "Thank you for this day to get it up and out," she begins the prayer titled "Honoring Rage."  

I, too, need to honor rage, because my entire journey toward the DF was initially inspired by deep anger. And my willingness to face that anger head-on, which has not been easy, has propelled me forward in ways I could not have imagined. 

 My beautiful, fiery little girl - busting out of her swaddle from the first hour. 

My beautiful, fiery little girl - busting out of her swaddle from the first hour. 

I came to this path thanks to a profoundly female experience: childbirth. My children are the great loves of my life, but my experiences bringing each of them into the world were dramatically different. When my daughter was born, I was wracked with fear, confusion and anxiety. I was given an epidural before my contractions really even began, and I felt numb and bewildered throughout labor and delivery. It is painful to admit, but the only thing I really felt when she was placed into my arms was overwhelming, bone-crushing exhaustion. Thankfully, the bone-crushing love eventually followed, but her arrival was in no way a spiritual experience for me.  

Everything was different with my son. I'd had a spiritual epiphany of sorts while pregnant with him, and I came to feel as if he were guiding me along my path, helping me find my way. It's one of the reasons he is named Brendan, after the Catholic patron saint of navigators.

I've already written about how his arrival was a transcendent experience for me, and about how, after his birth, I went seeking spiritual guidance and came up empty-handed. At first, I was simply confused. Maybe I wasn’t looking hard enough or in the right places. Surely birth should be considered one of the most significant spiritual experiences a human being could have in her lifetime.

Her lifetime. That was when it hit me. Women aren’t the ones telling the spiritual stories. Is it any wonder a uniquely female experience would be overlooked among our major spiritual traditions? 

The search for spiritual meaning is a human experience, one that supersedes biology or gender. Still, the story and context of what it means to be a spiritually seeking woman seems to be subsumed by the assumption of a universal experience, one that encompasses both men and women. And that universal experience is always framed from the perspective of "he." Kind of like “all men are created equal.” Our inclusion is implied. 

It's hard to convey how deeply disappointed I was when I fully grasped this. I felt like I’d been kicked in the gut. I’d been a spiritual seeker (albeit a mostly closeted one) my whole life, wandering my way through Christianity, Buddhism and Shamanism. Now I felt betrayed by all of them, as though they were telling me that God didn't care about my story or experiences, and I understood why I’d never been able to fully commit to a particular spiritual path.

The anger didn't come right away. It was a long, slow burn as I began to fully recognize the impact of this one-sided spirituality on our world, and how far back it went. 

“Myth is the secret opening through which the inexhaustible energies of the cosmos pour into human cultural manifestations,” wrote Joseph Campbell. What happens when one-half of humanity is simply not accounted for in the sacred stories and myths that are intended to help us find meaning in our lives?  

Answer: we end up with a deeply imbalanced culture that caters exclusively to the needs and desires of an in-group, with the assumption that this group is the norm and representative of all. We end up with the patriarchal system we have now. 

“Patriarchy means the manifestation and institutionalization of male dominance over women and children in the family and the extension of male dominance over women in society in general,” writes Gerda Lerner.  It is a system that is unquestionably powered by an inherent belief in female inferiority and failings.     

Yeah, I know patriarchy is one of those words that angry feminists love to throw around. Critics can rightfully point out the tremendous progress women have made in the last 100+ years, and argue very persuasively that white, well-educated women like myself aren't exactly suffering in this country. Fair enough.

But here’s the tricky thing about patriarchy: it has shifted and morphed and changed, just as everything else has in the last 2,000 years. That doesn’t mean it has ceased to exist.

Patriarchy “does not imply that women are either totally powerless or totally deprived of rights, influence and resources,” writes Lerner. “One of the most challenging tasks of women’s history is to trace with precision the various forms and modes in which patriarchy appears historically, the shifts and changes in its structure and function, and the adaptations it makes to female pressures and demands.”

My initial realization that women’s spiritual stories didn’t exist was just the beginning of a long fall down a rabbit hole of understanding how patriarchy functions. I started connecting the dots and I suddenly saw the non-existent role women have played in shaping the world I now live in.

Our political systems. Our academic institutions. Our economic models. Our business world. And yes, our religious institutions. Even the traditions that I’d been turning to for comfort and insight didn’t have me in mind at all. None of it was created with female participation or perspective. Did it really matter if I now had nearly full and equal rights within all aspects of my society if that society was never designed to support me in the first place?

 Nothing to see here - just a bunch of old white dudes making decisions about women's healthcare.

Nothing to see here - just a bunch of old white dudes making decisions about women's healthcare.

Yes, we’ve made tremendous progress. But we’re making progress in a culture that still assumes what currently exists is the norm, that all we women need to do is just lean in, quit complaining and enjoy the seat at the table that we now (supposedly) have, rather than asking what I think are much more interesting questions: What would our society look like now if we hadn’t excluded 50 percent of the population at the outset? And how do we unlearn the cultural conditioning that we’ve all been unknowingly consuming and begin dreaming up a new, more equitable structure? 

We can't answer the first question, of course, although some feminists have argued that the initial subjugation of women, which we know is at least 2,000 years old, made it much easier to divide all of us into "in" and "out" groups and oppress a whole host of other people as well. Would our society be more balanced had women had a say in the beginning? I like to think so, but who the hell knows?  

As for dreaming up a more equitable structure, I don't know how to do that either, but I’m positive it can be done, and I know that women have an incredibly important role to play in doing so. The fact that so many of us have figured out how to not only survive but thrive in a world that was never built for us is a testament to our collective strength and resilience.  And reclaiming a fully empowered spiritual identity is an excellent place to start.

Gloria Steinem supposedly once said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will piss you off.”  For a long time I silently fumed, trying to figure out my next moves. I was afraid to talk about my feelings because I didn't trust myself to articulate them without erupting into unprompted, possibly unwarranted fury.

Eventually, however, my rage became a gateway to the realization of how much power I actually had within me. I kept falling down the rabbit hole. I read and read and read. I wrote and wrote and wrote, mostly for my eyes only. Gradually I found my voice, and with it, I found a way to heal. 

"Be there when my eyes clear, the thunderclouds part, and the layers shed - as I give voice to what I've been holding in for too long. Let me hold the black mass in my gentle hands and weep over it, and give thanks that I have overcome the ordeal of carrying it," writes Lighthorse. 

Seethe first, transmute later. For me, it's a process that works. 

 

 

The Sound of Silence

Women will starve in silence until new stories are created which confer on them the power of naming themselves.
— Sandra Gilbert & Susan Gubar

I am so damn tired of holding my tongue. It’s an impulse almost as natural as breathing for me, but with the opposite effect. Breathing keeps me alive. Shutting down my own voice is killing my soul.

The sound of silence. That’s what it sounds like on the outside. On the inside, it’s something else entirely. There are ideas, opinions, suggestions floating around, all mixed up with fear and anxiety about whether I’m smart enough or qualified enough to have those ideas, opinions and suggestions – all of it teeming in an unholy pool of frustration and anger at why this is such a common occurrence for me.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this. And I offer credit (or blame), at least in part, to my legacy as a woman.

A friend and I recently visited the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco for an exhibit called “Worshipping Women: Power and Devotion in Indian Painting.”

 One of a handful of paintings from the "Worshipping Women" exhibit. 

One of a handful of paintings from the "Worshipping Women" exhibit. 

The exhibit turned out to not really be an exhibit at all, only a handful of paintings along one short wall. The gallery surrounding it had a few sculptures of Hindu Goddesses, but overall I was disappointed.  I had expected more.

Museums, by nature, are quiet places. But as we walked from one gallery to the next, echoing in the silence I could hear the noise of men – the men who created the art, the men depicted in the sculptures, the men explaining the significance of the art. The silence of women was deafening.

Of course there are plenty of amazing women curating art collections and creating art today. But walking through the museum reminded me that the world of art, like all other aspects of our culture, is predominantly a world of men – offering us memorials to their ambitions, their faith, their achievements.  And I’m a little tired of hearing from them.

Where are the historical stories of women? I mean the real ones - not the stories told by men about women’s beauty or wickedness, but the stories told by women, about women?

 What would Eve say if she could speak for herself?

What would Eve say if she could speak for herself?

History is one long tale of men who have achieved dominion over the earth, other species, and other human beings. History would have us believe that women haven’t done much of anything for the last 2,000 years, or at least nothing that’s worth talking about. I call bullshit.

What history does give us is a long, mostly unspoken story of silencing the voices of women. And what have we, as women, learned from it? How to shut up, look pretty and keep the peace.

A long time ago, this was no joke. Women could and did die for going against the grain. And we're lucky here - in a lot of other places around the world, they still do. But we've also learned our survival strategies. Since women couldn’t own property, get an education or have a job, we linked ourselves with powerful men to keep ourselves and our children alive (those of us who could, anyway, which was mainly white women here in the US). And yes, we learned how to hold our tongues.

 The original women's march. 

The original women's march. 

So much has changed in the 100+ years since the women’s suffrage movement first began. And here I still am, agonizing over whether my words might call too much attention, especially the kind I don’t want.

We don’t have to look to ancient history to see the repercussions of women speaking up. We can see plenty of it today. We get insulted. We get mocked. We get formally silenced by the Senate.

At the same time, today we have more freedom and choice than in all of recorded history.  It’s a tricky situation: we’re probably not going to get killed for speaking up, but if we’re loud enough we’ll definitely see consequences. And I’m guessing most women, myself included, don’t want to be labeled an ignorant cunt for sharing our thoughts on the internet.

 No one wants to receive this kind of message.

No one wants to receive this kind of message.

In the days leading up to the 2016 election, I was fascinated by Pantsuit Nation. When I joined the group there were already 250,000 members, and by Election Day the number had grown to 3 million people. It was (and still is) made up of mostly female members, and by the looks of the postings I see, the majority of members are white.   

It’s also a private group, and this seemed of utmost importance prior to the election. I saw posts from many, many women in so-called red states who felt that they could not be open about their support of our first major party female presidential candidate. I’m sure they all had reasons, every one of which probably felt incredibly valid. But I do wonder about the power of those voices, all held in check by women themselves. What might have happened if those voices had been heard more broadly? What if my own voice had been louder and more assertive?

Fast forward to today, which is International Women’s Day. We’re 50 percent of the world population and we get a whole day to ourselves – wahoo! Sarcasm aside, the organizers of the Women’s March have called for an international strike to demonstrate the impact women have on the workforce and the economy. They’ve suggested we refrain from work today, paid or unpaid.

 We get a whole day just for ourselves! We all look like this in profile, too.

We get a whole day just for ourselves! We all look like this in profile, too.

I suppose my writing could be considered “work.” But given our history, silencing my voice today seems like the wrong thing to do. So I’ll honor all the women around the world who are participating in this strike by speaking up, even when it still feels scary as hell.  

I start by muffling the fears of my female ancestors that hum in my veins, telling me to keep myself small and not attract attention. In my mind, I thank them for their courage and sacrifices, and acknowledge that they’re trying to keep me safe…and then I ignore them and hit “publish” anyway.    

In Praise of Pilgrimage

Ever since the DF knocked on my door, I’ve been dreaming of a pilgrimage to find Her.

Many times, I’ve imagined what it might feel like to stand in the presence of the 35,000 year old Woman of Willendorf, or roam the land in the Dordogne region of France, where the 25,000 year old carving of the Venus of Laussel was discovered.

 Woman of Willendorf, estimated to be 35,000 years old.

Woman of Willendorf, estimated to be 35,000 years old.

Both of these, along with hundreds of other Paleolithic-era figurines, were discovered in areas spanning from Southwestern France all the way to Siberia. Virtually every figurine that’s been found from this time period is female, and many archeologists believe them to be some of the earliest indications of the spiritual practices of our ancestors. In other words, we were quite likely a Goddess worshipping culture long before our male Gods came roaring onto the scene.

I imagine what the air would smell like in these places. And I wonder about the intentions of our ancestors who created these artifacts, and if those dreams and ideas are somehow captured and held within these pieces of stone or the land itself.  

I’ve never made a pilgrimage. I never felt called to do so before this. It feels important, and it feels transformative. But lately I’ve been wondering if there’s another pilgrimage I’m supposed to undertake first.

 In her book Awakening Shakti: The Transformative Power of The Goddesses of Yoga, Sally Kempton shares the story of the Goddess Sati (She-Who-Is) - the incarnation of the Great Goddess who came to the world to become the consort of Shiva. In the version that Kempton recounts, the Great Goddess agrees to this request from the Gods on one condition: her soon-to-be-father, Dakshu, must always honor Her divinity. If not, She would instantly leave Her body, because She would know that the world was not yet ready for Her presence.

The marriage takes place and all goes well for eons, until Sati finds out Her father, Dakshu, has planned a fire ritual and invited every god, goddess and celestial being except for Shiva and herself. Apparently he’s never been much of a fan of Shiva, who spends his days meditating in the mountains and generally avoiding his divine duties.

When Sati discovers that She and Shiva have been snubbed, She is stunned and saddened. She’s already seen that men and the gods have begun to treat women as property, and she knows Dakshu has forgotten the promise he made to her. So “she sits in meditation, summons her inner yogic fire, and sends her life-force into the ether, leaving her body behind,” writes Kempton.

 Goddess Sati, She-Who-Is, summons Her inner yogic fire

Goddess Sati, She-Who-Is, summons Her inner yogic fire

When Shiva finds out, he is devastated and furious. He scoops up Her body and carries it throughout the world, leaving natural disasters and destruction in his wake. Finally the gods, in a bid to save the universe, send Saturn to retrieve Sati’s body and cut it into pieces. As the pieces fall to Earth, they become sacred sites around the world, hidden in humble spots in nature.

 Shiva carrying Sati's lifeless body

Shiva carrying Sati's lifeless body

The story of Sati (whose name also refers to the now obsolete Hindu practice of a wife throwing herself on the funeral pyre of her husband in the ultimate act of sacrifice) is a myth. In some ways, it is also feels like the story of modern women.

We, like Sati, have been carved into pieces – except instead of the gods taking on the job, we’ve done it to ourselves. We’re pretty damn good at slicing ourselves up and discarding the pieces that don’t meet the standards imposed on us by a culture that does not value women as our whole, complete and messy selves.

What are the pieces of ourselves that we’ve left scattered along the highway of our lives? There are so many pieces of me that I’ve tried to throw away that I’ve almost lost count.

The part whose temper was legendary in my family, even at a young age. The part that once wore tiny skirts, sported an always-exposed stomach and loved attracting the attention of men. The part that is frankly exhausted by the needs of my children on an almost daily basis. The part that is dying to let my freak flag fly as high and as freely as it will possibly go.

 This pretty much sums up college - bare midriff, soaking up whatever attention I could get and almost setting someone on fire with my cigarette.

This pretty much sums up college - bare midriff, soaking up whatever attention I could get and almost setting someone on fire with my cigarette.

At one point or another I’ve discarded them all, trying to forget about their very existence, convinced that I cannot be good, or smart or a responsible mother if I hold on to them.  

Who sets these rules? And who gets to decide which parts of me are sacred and which ones are not?

In The Myth of the Goddess, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford note that our Paleolithic ancestors were deeply connected to the cycles of the moon. They suggest that the fourth phase, that of the new moon and darkness, is in fact where all life is gestated, and where the new moon is “reborn” again each month. This darkness – that of the Sacred Mother who gives birth to all – transcends duality. In it is contained everything. The light and the dark, the beautiful and the ugly, the living and the dead.

 Of all of her phases, the dark moon is the most potent.

Of all of her phases, the dark moon is the most potent.

For our Paleolithic ancestors, “everything that existed, including themselves, was an expression of the Mother Goddess,” write Baring and Cashford. And all of it was sacred. Every single part. 

Maybe our journey back to the DF, then, begins right here, looking no further than ourselves. In order to breathe Her back into our world, we must experience a full awakening of ourselves as sacred – every last part. Like those sacred sites created by the pieces of Sati’s body, we also must treat the individual parts of ourselves as sacred, especially those that we’ve denied the most. We must make pilgrimages to each, dusting them off, understanding the memories that accompany them and why we discarded them in the first place.

This is not easy work. It will not be simple, and it will not be swift.  But if we’re willing to undertake the task, over time our lives can become pilgrimages of their own.

Maybe over time, we can approach these parts of ourselves, not with shame or rejection, but with reverence and wonder and gratitude. And each time we reclaim a piece of ourselves, each time we love it not despite its flaws but precisely because of its imperfections, its aching humanity, we breathe more life into a great awakening of ourselves and the DF – for the benefit of us all.