A FEMINIST TAOIST VOICE PART 1: MY DIALOGUE WITH ELISA FON, ACUPUNCTURIST, TAOIST, FEMINIST AND FRIEND by Sara Frykenberg


“So it all kind of depends… even in men compared to men, and women compared to women, you would have to have a counterpart to judge something as yin or yang—you are never statically just yin or just yang…”

Elisa Fon is a student of acupuncture, graduating this semester from Yo San University in Santa Monica, CA.  She also studies reiki, energy healing, meditation and yoga.  Elisa and I have known each other for most of our lives as friends, as one another’s support and as chosen family.  Over the last few years, however, we have more consciously fostered an intentional aspect of our intimacy: a challenge to each other to live more authentically, to walk counter-abusively and to live towards physical, spiritual and emotional empowerment.  One privilege of this relationship has been the opportunity to create a language together in order to speak across our differences and share our respective passions: feminist theo/alogies (mine) and Chinese medicine/ healing arts (Elisa’s).

Searching for a way to better understand and teach feminist Taoism, I reached out to Elisa for dialogue and language, which gave birth to the following interview about the relationship of one feminist to Taoism, or a Taoist to feminism.

Sara: How do you define feminism? What does it mean to you? How is it a part of your practice?

Elisa:  It’s difficult to stereotype or label your self as feminist or as Taoist in general, because it conjures up whatever someone else is going to say about it.  So it’s a little difficult for me to label myself as such, but I think that for me, feminism is about authenticity and about brining that back to the world—seeing where people were oppressed and allowing the freedom to express that.  So for me, feminism is about being authentically a woman, whatever that means on a personal level: to really allow that space to be ok…

Sara: You and I have talked a lot about authenticity…its common language for us, so to clarify, what is authenticity to you? …

Elisa: Authenticity is about being what you want to be, for yourself, whatever that is: despite what you think society wants you to do, what your parents want you to do or what you feel you should morally do. It’s your vision of what you want for your life, setting goals that bring more health, happiness, whatever you want to bring into your life.

Sara: So it’s what is most important: what is causing you to be the most of who you are…

Elisa: Yes.  My authentic self values freedom.  Beyond being a feminist, I’m a humanitarian here to fight for the rights of people, animals, causes… any place where someone isn’t allowed to be who they really are is an inauthentic, almost abusive place… which is why that labeling becomes so uncomfortable.  I don’t want someone to say, “Oh, you’re a feminist. That means you’re  ‘a,’ plus ‘b,’ and you equal ‘c,’” because every person is so much more beyond that.

Sara: What is Taoism, for people who don’t know?  What does it mean to you? …

Elisa: I first got into Taoism because of studying Chinese medicine… Chinese medicine and Taoism are very intertwined.  As to what Taoism is about, the basics, well, the Tao is described as being a subtle and indescribable force.  To me, it’s the balanced, natural, living force of the universe.  It can be religious, but can exist separately as more of a philosophy: a lens to view life through, to apply to how you experience life and how you try to bring balance to life.  Which for me is one of the fundamental parts of both the medicine and philosophy: finding balance, and in that balance there is authenticity or true health. … The Tao does encompass yin and yang, which are the feminine and the masculine energies.  They work together, totally interrelated— kind of dependent on each other to exist— and how they flow back and forth into each other, that’s what creates the Tao and that’s what creates life.

Sara: …In Western religion, gender is so often attached to the physical body… In your practice of this medicine or understanding of it, how does this concept of yin and yang relate to our actual physicality? 

Elisa:  In terms of seeing things as yin or yang in comparison to others things: for example, I am yin, feminine, in my body in comparison to my boyfriend who is male, who is yang in body.  But there are other comparisons that could be totally different—it changes depending on the relationship.  So maybe my personality might be more yang-aggressive or yang-outgoing, and not as involved in home life.  But my partner could… want to stay at home or not want a lot of excitement, and that’s considered a more yin personality. So it all kind of depends… even in men compared to men, and women compared to women, you would have to have a counterpart to judge something as yin or yang—you are never statically just yin or just yang…

Sara: … one thing that we read in my class was that [Taoism] is a very individual practice—in this discussion of relationship, do you find that to be true? …

Elisa: I think the individuality is an incredibly important part of Taoism and Chinese medicine, because everyone is so different.  Even the same disease pattern has a totally different way of manifesting.  So, you might have lower back pain but it could be from over working yourself, or it could be from sitting too long.  The cause could be stemming from having an excess or deficiency in something … so even though your symptoms are similar, the root causes and the reasons why you have that particular imbalance are completely different based on the individual…

Taoism definitely values everyone’s individual path; and for me, it’s a personal choice of whether you want to move forward, or sideways, or whichever way is right for you in the experience of life…

End Part 1 of “A Feminist Taoist Voice.”  Please look for Part 2 this Friday, as Elisa and I move from our discussion of definitions, interrelated individuality and the basic ideas of yin and yang to dialogue about the complementarity of yin and yang, circular verses linear thought, issues of sexuality, the importance of difference, change and interrelationship, and the implications of a Taoist conception of power in her feminist/ humanitarian ethic.

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.



Categories: Asian American, Ethics, Feminism, Gender and Sexuality, Identity Construction, Interreligious dialogue, Non-Theism, Relationality, Women's Spirituality

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16 replies

  1. This post was truly enlightening, the discussion of authenticity really resonated with me. Although labeling in Taoism is discouraged, I find my authenticity through my feminist identity. As Elisa said, “authenticity is about being what you want to be, for yourself…” for me is directly connected to my identity as a feminist, and my push against how society believes I should act or look. This can be seen in the idea of ying and yang, where society may encourage male bodied individuals to be primarily yang and female bodied individuals being yin. Taoism focused on the masculine and feminine energies which can be inside any individual regardless of the biological sex, therefore essentially distinguishing sex and gender. Additionally, I often draw on the connecting aspects of feminism and Taoism, especially with regards to how I view society. As mentioned in the interview, Taoism is a way of viewing the world which in my opinion is similar to the way many feminists use a feminist lens to interpret the society and its constructs. The link between Taoism and feminism are at time very compatible, while simultaneously incompatible yet it is comforting to know that there are efforts being made to transcend the lines between the two.

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    • Elisa’s commitment to authenticity is paramount and was a large part of our discussion (which was shortened for this post). She and I have talked a great deal about the importance of this, but it was cool for me, doing this interview, to see how she connected it to her definition of feminism as well. Thank you for reflecting on how it too, resonates with your understanding of feminism.
      I also agree,the idea of a lens is very important– particularly when we are asked to ‘change lenses’ so frequently! I like how Taoism is a lens that encourages this change-ability!

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  2. I get very nervous when a civil rights movement, a liberation movement gets labeled as an individual choice. Feminism is about the liberation of women, it is about freeing women from male supremacy and patriarchy. To me it is not at all about “equal rights” it is about freedom. I get nervous over this labeling as yin/yang male/female. It plays too much into complementarianism, and we all know what that’s about. My partner and I am both feminists, both women, and there is no “male” anywhere in our house, except our neutered dog.
    We don’t do ying / yang, we do lesbian life. Somehow, any time a male/female ideology gets constructed, we know that it is, yet again, the men who “assign” all the qualities they hate in themselves, all the things they don’t want to do to women… they define the yin/yang. Interestingly enough, the yins never seem to assign themselves childcare, household maintenance, and social calendar management.

    Chinese philosophy and religious practice, even though seemingly far away from the west, still is male supremacy. It still is patriarchy, and it needs to be seen as such. Patriarchy is a global phenomenon and it changes with each culture. Yin indeed.

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    • You’re missing the point, because the Daodejing and Daoism (Taoism) in general are considered Yin arts, which are based on receptivity, openness, and gentleness. An application of Yin/Yang theory would be considering two sides of any perspective- for instance,can Patriarchy exist without a relationship between men/women? What is out of balance in it? Can we restore balance? This view acknowledges that one thing depends on another thing. Its common sense and easily applicable. However, one can take an idea to its extreme to attempt to disprove it, but in my opinion that is not a valid argument. Lastly, there are many feminist scholars who appreciate the Daodejing/Daoism and see it as a device of personal enlightenment for all beings, having little to do with upholding patriarchy, if you take the time to read a bit more about it.

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  3. I really enjoyed this discussion and look forward to reading part two when it is published on Friday. Ms. Fon brings up so many fascinating and imperative points about feminism that I think I tend to renounce. For instance, the label “feminist” and how polarizing it can truly be. I have always ardently embraced “feminism” and have spent so much of my young adult life defending myself and other women who are not just “stereotypes” or “caricatures,” but, the truth is, it is a very contentious and problematic term. People who have not thoroughly studied feminist theory (i.e., concepts such as intersectionality, the matrix of domination, kyriarchy, etc.) hear “feminism” and think “white, cisgendered, heterosexual, bourgeois women.” Moreover, from a myopic or ill-informed standpoint, “feminism” highlights gendered power imbalances or “the battle of the sexes” while seemingly facilitating the erasure of all other struggles against human oppression. Lastly, I find Taoism’s accentuation of individuality particularly relevant–that is to say, I daily grapple with negotiating capitalist alienation and sociopolitical solidarity, and I oftentimes feel guilty and shameful about my Western, industrial upbringing and the ways in which it has socialized so many U.S. citizens to favor the individual over the collective–and appreciate that Eastern traditions see autonomy and agency as invigorating and empowering, not necessarily indicative of selfish tyranny.

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    • I too, loved how the medicinal lens Elisa uses really drives home the importance of one’s own path in the creation of personal health and balance, and the relationship of the personal to this overall life energy. I think you will really enjoy part 2 as well, because we dive into more specific issues of being individuals in relation– the idea of harmony as allowing a space for others to move in their own path while you also move in yours. Thank you for your comments!

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  4. Two parts of this really stood out for me. The part on authenticity: “It’s your vision of what you want for your life, setting goals that bring more health, happiness, whatever you want to bring into your life.” People are often so worried about perceptions of themselves, and become distanced from themselves in the process. Each person needs to think and develop goals in their life that are right for them, and them need to embrace that as being okay regardless of what others tell us. It has taken me a long time to realize this fact, and through acts of “rebellion” (like shaving my head) was I able to more fully understand and embrace myself.

    The other part that I really enjoyed was the very last line: “Taoism definitely values everyone’s individual path; and for me, it’s a personal choice of whether you want to move forward, or sideways, or whichever way is right for you in the experience of life…” I have long felt that instead of driving or steering my life I have been floating in it, rather like a river. For a time, I felt content that if I trusted in this “river” it would take me where I want to go, though I may not even be able to see where that is. More recently, I have begun to worry that my laid back attitude is contributing to the stagnation that I sometimes feel. With this line, I was able to connect our discussion in class about Tao as a river, and by choosing to immerse myself in it, and trust in it, that is my choice. And that is okay.

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    • I’m glad that image of moving ‘forward, sideways, or whichever way’ resonated with you too– it really sat in my mind as well. So often, in our linear descriptions of reality, we push ourselves “forward,” really limiting a sense of what progress can be. The idea that developing on our path might mean taking a turn is so often thought of a floundering or a set back, or like we’ve done something wrong. In this more cyclical view, it’s a part of fluid (like in the image of the stream) movement towards balance or harmony. I really appreciated this description.

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  5. I really liked Elisa’s personal definition of freedom, and her statement that “any place where someone isn’t allowed to be who they really are is an inauthentic, almost abusive place.” I think we can find numerous examples of this in society, but also within feminist scholarship and movements. Dominant ideologies encourage us to “be somebody,” but not somebody too great, and certainly not someone who might rock the boat, whether it’s in the political, cultural, or religious arenas. I also loved her discussion of individualism in Taoism, and the example she gave about lower back pain. Even though that was a literal description, it seems that metaphorically that could translate to why people choose to support or fight for particular causes. The reasons may stem from very different places and might cause disagreement, but the end result, the fight to end that “lower back pain” remains the same. I think my favorite part of this piece was your description of the commitment you and Elisa have to each other within your friendship, to “challenge to each other to live more authentically, to walk counter-abusively and to live towards physical, spiritual and emotional empowerment,” as well as communicating through your differences. There seems to be no better way to grow and connect as humans than through what you just described.

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  6. “Authenticity is about being what you want to be, for yourself, whatever that is: despite what you think society wants you to do, what your parents want you to do or what you feel you should morally do.”

    Is authenticity really about being whoever we want to be?

    I feel like I have a pretty strong sense of self but sometimes I think I have a hard time really knowing how correct or authentic my idea is. I think that someone’s “desired self” can be different than their “authentic self” though. I think sometimes our desires can fool us and we can desire to be a “self” that is unhealthy. For example, a lot of people desire to fit in to society.

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  7. There were two specific points in this article that caught my attention. First, when Elisa mentions how its hard for her to label herself as feminist because that is exactly how i feel. I am not sure if i can call myself a feminist but then again there are instances that i feel i am. When such instances happen i think to myself “what is a feminist anyway”? This is were Elisa’s comment resonates she states “…but I think that for me, feminism is about authenticity and about brining that back to the world—seeing where people were oppressed and allowing the freedom to express that”. Ultimately, this is what I believe feminism should be about liberating the oppressed and taking into consideration that what is oppresive to a group of people might not be oppressive to another group.
    Elisa’s second point that resonated with me was when she talked about individuality and how even an illness can be different according to the person for instance “you might have lower back pain but it could be from over working yourself, or it could be from sitting too long”. Her comment made me realize that our society tends to catergorize and label people without really taking into consideration the person’s life experience. We tend to believe that certain groups of people have the same experiences and its not the case.

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  8. Farah, I had to laugh at the stereotypical feminist…. white heterosexual etc…. and here I thought the stereotypical feminist was a lesbian! LOL

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  9. There are two aspects of this post that I would like to touch on. Elisa Fon’s response to the question about defining feminism reminds highlights the importance of everything else, that there is so much more than the feminist aspect of being a Taoist. The second aspect of the post, that really moved me was the hoiistic approach of Chinese Medicine. In the society that we live, in and the institutions that many of us navigate, there often isn’t a holistic approach to healing. Many of us are lumped into certain forms of education based on our birth dates and not our abilities. Just as many of us are lumped into a sex that we don’t agree with. In this way in a capitalistic society in the United States we are faced with violence to not only our bodies but our ideas of ourselves. This bleeds into western medicine which comodifies bodies and doesn’t take into consideration individualistic aspects of health such as personal experiences and habits environments and behavior.

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  10. I really enjoyed what Elisa had to say about authenticity and her authentic self. I like the humanitarian aspect that she incorporates and really relate to her explanation of how within the freedom and individuality of her authentic self, she develops as an individual who values being a humanitarian, and this drives her passion to fight for the rights of people and animals and causes. This is really interesting to me because her description of them and their relationship to one another seems to describe the way I experienced them too. It leads me to infer that there is more to this than meets the eye. This is a new understanding, or way of looking at it for me, and now I am curious to know if this is considered to be a natural growth process that occurs for people. I say this because just as she mentions, I too now have come to a place where I feel the drive to fight for the rights of people, animals and causes, but this drive was not always there. An interesting connection between the development into the authentic self, and how this “coming to terms” with oneself awakens a a newly recognized duty, drive or passion to advocate for the marginalized societies.

    I especially like this description: “any place where someone isn’t able to be themselves, is an “inauthentic, almost abusive place.” I really like that.

    I can also especially relate to her not wanting to accept “labels,” and like her use of the a+b=c assumption that I found so problematic in people’s understanding (or mis-understanding of one-another) really resented the repetitive experience of having one person or another try to squeeze me into a “one size fits all” textbook defined definition and diagnoses. I have always gotten a taken blow of

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  11. “Yin organs represent femininity, coldness, compression, darkness, and submission.
    Yang organs represent masculinity, expansion, heat, motion, and action.”
    from “The body in traditional Chinese medicine,” Wikipedia

    First, let me thank you for discussing this topic online. I was so happy to find your article.

    I have been familiar with yin and yang for a few decades, as with feminism. I can sum up my concern with the way it is presented in one sentence: Male chauvinists are doing two things: a) labeling these elemental energies masculine and feminine, and b) defining the characteristics of each in a way that assigns most of the undesirable qualities to the feminine.

    What else could we expect, after all?

    I think that our big responsibility as feminist fans of Asian philosophy–which is totally wonderful when taken as a whole–is to insist that both a and b are totally bogus. And not budge an inch on that. Yes, they are different and individual energies. Yes, they are complimentary (I don’t know about the antagonistic part; that might just be another bogus interjection that suits the domineering gender’s unfortunate interests). But they are definitely not masculine and feminine, as illustrated by your point in this article about individuality. So let’s drop that tired old way of looking at things once and for all. We will all be better off, yin and yang alike. (joke, people)

    Susan

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  1. A FEMINIST TAOIST VOICE PART 2: MY DIALOGUE WITH ELISA FON, ACUPUNCTURIST, TAOIST, FEMINIST AND FRIEND by Sara Frykenberg « Feminism and Religion

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