Q: Thank you for joining us today, Mirabai. It is an honor, a privilege, and a great blessing to have you with us.
Thank you, Purnima. I love talking with you, so this is a joy for me, too. And you chose a really wonderful subject that makes us all think and rethink our assumptions.
Q: So what are the unique challenges and opportunities for a woman on a spiritual path?
I will probably speak as if I am speaking to all women. I realize that’s how I was thinking about these questions, and so for those men who are listening in, just imagine that you are privileged to be in this room with an extraordinary group of women. I am imagining the big circle of us who can’t see each other, but we know we are here.
Unique challenges and opportunities for a woman on the spiritual path? There’s so much, and there are layers of challenges. Of course, it’s different in different cultures, but it is probably global that women experience a certain amount of negative bias in different ways.
There are differences between men and women physically, mentally, and psychologically, but the spirit within us is one. How we wake up to that is, however, conditioned by our cultures. The first time I was in India, from 1970 to 1972, I remember a pretty strong belief that women couldn’t be enlightened. I was actually not looking for enlightenment in the sense of trying to be a saint, but I was looking toward waking up to the potential of who I could be as a human being.
I think part of my experience was because I learnt these practices inside monastic settings, and they were all men. All the teachers were men, and they didn’t have a lot of experience with women waking up spiritually. We didn’t challenge it in an activist way, but it’s obvious to us that of course, we can wake up, of course, we can know more deeply who we fully are.
It’s there in many ways in different cultures, and I do believe that globally we are working out of it. There is still a lot to be done, and we have to do it with love and kindness, and compassion for the whole so that it happens.
Even in situations where men and women are sharing more of the family responsibilities, women often have more time-consuming responsibilities, and that can keep us from creating a dedicated space for ourselves to do whatever practices we follow. That really can be a challenge. My experience is that women often have a stronger, bigger capacity for integrating body, mind, and spirit, including emotions, thoughts, and responsibilities. Women tend to have more integrated intelligence. It’s not to say that it doesn’t exist in men, or they can’t cultivate it, but I do think it comes more easily to us. I feel that we have been given that so that we can integrate all our roles.
We also often have multiple identities – as wife, mother, another person at work, something different with friends, grandmother, or granddaughter. There are so many identities we have, including whatever arts we are involved in. The advantage is that we are much less likely to get fixed on a single identity.
We all work on our identity; recognizing, earning, celebrating a particular identity, how we can trace it genetically. It’s been really important in this country, where we struggle a lot with racism. The most popular book on racism here right now is Caste by Isabel Wilkerson. Work on identity has been important for women.
We need to cultivate the ability to hold essentially two conflicting ideas in the mind at the same time: We are a certain age, gender, race, and all of that; and while we are all of those, yet we are not. We are more than that. They are not limiting. They are identifying, but they are not all we are. Because we are often moving in and out of our identities, it’s easier for us to recognize that there is a constant that is not any of them, our life's spirit that is the loving awareness of who we are. The important thing is to find our way to return home to the center of our being, to define our practice.
Heartfulness is such a great practice, but remember to return to the love at the center of it all so that you are not getting caught in all the different ways because as women we have lots of challenges.
Spend time with other women with whom you have a resonance, who might not be doing the same practice, or whose understanding may be somewhat different. It’s so important because in these conversations you allow whatever is there just beneath awareness to surface. That kind of support allows you to open up to things you may not be able to see otherwise. It’s been one of the most important spiritual practices in my life.
I have had a group of women (and men) who started the Seva Foundation, which is an International Public Health Organization. We started it after discovering our spirituality in India and Nepal, because we wanted to give back to those cultures, the countries and the people, not just to the teachers we honored, because we were allowed to live there for a couple of years and integrate what we were learning. When we returned to the West, we integrated it into a larger lifestyle. There were about ten of us women who were on the Board together for 20 years, and then we went off the Board to make space for younger people. We missed each other, so we started having a retreat once a year where we shared what was going on in our lives, what was important to us, how we were growing, what we were struggling with, and what our teachers also go through.
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