I was a feminist before I would have considered myself a spiritual seeker. Growing up, I had an abundance of female role models who were politically active, outspoken, and unwavering in their march through patriarchy, whether they would have put it this way or not. I modeled much of their behavior, knowing that there was something we were pitting ourselves against but I could not have told you exactly what that was. To borrow a metaphor from Carol Lee Flinders, I was aware of a bad smell coming from somewhere but it took me awhile to begin discovering the source of this rotting stench.
I began practicing yoga at eighteen at the YMCA in my small Ontarian hometown; a class that consisted of only women. Even now, I can’t tell you what initially drew me to yoga but it seemed to stir up something in me. It gave me a framework to explore what it meant to be human and began to give me words for my human experience. Over the years I first started exploring yoga, I learned that yoga is personal. While similar internal obstacles and experiences may be shared, my engagement with yoga will be different from yours.
I first directly confronted the word ‘feminist’ in a training program for counseling of abused women and children in Toronto; a program consisting of only women. Together, we picked apart the word in the same way that I had begun picking apart the word yoga and similarly I learned that feminism is personal. My feminism will look different from yours, but there will likely be some similarities, ones that are distilled by external social factors and ones that are perhaps universal.
While my definitions for both yoga and feminism remain alive, it has been equally important to define for myself what they are not. Yoga is not just a physical practice, it is not a solitary practice, and it is not about turning inwards as a method of escape or avoidance. Feminism is not a movement against men, it is not a movement of one person alone, it is not a movement that will be entirely victorious in my life time (though we can always act with hope).
Both of these disciplines are essential to my life but I have felt points of tension between their ideologies. For years, spirituality and feminism were like my two secret lovers who I was afraid would one day meet. My internal world felt disjointed and on one hand I knew somehow that this was reconcilable (I was sure that they would appreciate one another) and on the other had no idea how that could strategically happen.
Now this is entering a kind of wilderness that I have just begun to stagger through, so I am going to lean heavily on one of the most valuable resources in this topic that I have found; a book titled At The Root of This Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst by Carol Lee Flinders.
Before we can see how we can integrate feminism and a meditative spiritual practice, we must identify points of tension. I’ll point out that the book doesn’t address yoga, specifically, but a broader definition of ‘meditative spiritual practices’. Flinders defines four common precepts to meditative practices as follows:
- Be silent. Curb speech, but still the mind as well, particularly thoughts of “I” and “my”. “He who speaks does not know,” says the Tao. “He who knows does not speak.”
- Put yourself last, or, in the words of Thomas à Kempis, “Seek always the lowest place, to be [sic] inferior to everyone.” Unseat the ego.
- Resist and rechannel your desires. Disidentify yourself with your body and senses. Learn, indeed, that your body does not belong to you.
- Enclose yourself. Turn inward, and move into a protective “container”. Disentangle yourself from as much external and public activity as you can.
Flinders defines these disciplines as not at all gender neutral. The opposites of the list above, which are the basic freedoms to ‘have a voice’, to hold a superior status, to enjoy worldly pleasures, and to roam freely in the world all point to male privilege. On the flip side of gender, women have not been able to abandon these bodily freedoms as we did not fully possess them in the first place.
Flinders then gives a list by contemporary feminists who urge women to
- Find your voice; tell your story, make yourself heard at the highest levels of every institution that affects your life.
- Know who you are. Establish your authentic identity of selfhood. Identify your needs and learn how to meet them.
- Reclaim your body, and its desires, from all who would objectify and demean it, whether it is the fashion industry, pornographers, or even the medical establishment. Recognize the hatred of the female body that pervades contemporary culture and oppose it.
- Move about freely and fearlessly. Take back the streets. Take back the night and the day.
If we were to look at these two lists in isolation and without further scrutiny, the two ideologies would seem to directly oppose one another in an irreconcilable way. These contrasting points illuminate some of the paradoxes that I wrestled with but didn’t yet have the words for. To be clear, these are oversimplified understandings of the most urgent calls of both feminism and meditative spirituality but consider it a starting point that requires a much deeper assessment.
Now, as said by Niels Bohr, “How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.”
Before we give up one of these ideologies for another, Flinders makes valuable points about the paradox of being silent and having a voice. She reminds us that the role of attentive listening (not just speaking out) is thought to be important in feminist understanding of women’s psychological development and also that “the long silence of a mystic-in-the-making usually gets broken eventually in prophetic utterance or call for reform or inspired teaching.” In short, each contradiction in the paradox is true and each must be pursued. So, it is not that we should always stay silent or that we should always speak out. We must cultivate the skill of discernment to learn when to be silent and when to speak out.
The second seeming conflict is that we must ‘identify our authentic selfhood’ and ‘unseat the ego’. We must first have a sense of our own ego before we can possibly detach ourselves from it. We must know our self; our personality, the thoughts and reactions of our mind shaped by experiences, preferences, habits, and fantasies before we can become distentangled from these limitations. This is an inner process where one cannot be controlled or forced to do so.
On the third point, we must have appreciation of our body’s ability as well as its limits. All bodies will eventually cease to exist, but their purpose now is not to suffer constant scrutiny, criticism, and abuse. We must insist and know that our body does not diminish with age, life experience, and altering of appearance while simultaneously recognizing the changing nature of our physical bodies, knowing too of its impermanence.
In response to the last gross generalization of feminism and meditative spirituality, forced isolation does not lead one directly to enlightenment. Feminism is saying that captivation is not acceptable for a crime not committed. At the same time, we must also retreat inward in order to begin dismantling the interior barriers we have in order to move freely and fearlessly through the world. Internal reflection will show us not only where the exterior world is putting up walls but where our inner scaffolding of ‘the lesser’ prevents us from moving forward.
One final essential point that I will reiterate from Flinders is that the issue of choice is essential. Unless a person chooses to live a silent, humble, and internal life that is disassociated from the senses, then a spiritual path in fruitless. A meditative spiritual practice requires that the practitioner make empowered choices that are not limited or controlled by external factors, and this is part of what feminism is fostering.
While a quick and superficial look at feminism and meditative spirituality might ring out as opposites, I have experienced in myself that they are mutually supportive. Not only that but I would state that, in my own life, they strengthen each other. It is not that these ideologies are incomplete on their own. Lovers do not make the other whole or valid, but they can reflect to the other a clearer image of their own wholeness. The paths of yoga and feminism can be lived together in discourse, pursuing the universal essence that makes us human while we deeply and wholly engage in a more just world.
While I attempted to parse out one small illuminating idea from At The Root of This Longing, I do recommend reading the book and researching other sources for a better understanding of the complex juncture of feminism and meditative spirituality.