I decided to run a little experiment and to explore the notion “woman” from inside meditation. I practice Anapanasati Meditation, or mindfulness of breath. I learnt it from Theravada teachers. However, through my Buddhist career I have studied in various Buddhist centres and from various schools. The latest one with which I went on retreats is the Western Chan Fellowship (Chan is one of the Chinese schools of Buddhism, from which Japanese Zen developed).
Anapanasati meditation involves mindfully staying with your breath and following it as it goes in and out of your body. It is supposed to both quieten the mind and to lead to more clear vision, or insight. In Chan tradition there is also a practice of asking one simple question in meditation, for instance: “What is this?” or “Who am I?” Sometimes exploration of other topics from within the mind which has been quietened and made clearer by meditation is also practiced.
I had an idea to start probing the concept “woman” once I get settled into meditation. In particular I was interested if I would notice whether my awareness and my observation is affected by the fact that I myself is a woman. I was wondering if I have reached the level of meditative absorption where gender becomes irrelevant. Naturally, I am also curious whether such a level exists at all. However, this cannot be found out other than through personal experience – as all things in Buddhism.
So I started my meditation of following the breath. Once I knew that my mind was fairly clear of everyday concerns, and that no deeper, perhaps, forgotten issues were coming, I started saying in my mind the word “woman” – just to see what initial reaction would be.
Immediately, I felt weight in the lower part of my chest, it seemed as if it was below my diaphragm, and it felt as there was something suppressed there. I also felt tension in my chest and almost tears ready to flow. I also sensed that this concept, “woman” referred to me.
One of the misconceptions that Western people who do not practice Buddhist meditation have about it is that it is vey cerebral. Nothing could be further from the truth. Buddhist meditation is first and foremost about the body. In some Zen schools you would spend months just developing the right meditation posture, for instance. Once you start practising any Buddhist meditation, from any school whatsoever, you will see plainly how much it is about the body. I experienced it clearly myself, when at the practice when my body truly relaxed for the first time, my mind also experienced a breakthrough.
When Western people mistakenly dismiss Buddhist practice as denying the body, they again simply project problems of our own Western spiritual thinking, with its roots in Greek classical (patriarchal) philosophy and that of Judeo-Christian (patriarchal) culture.
This is why when I attempted to explore the notion of “woman” from inside a Buddhist practice I was not surprised that answers came as sensations in my body. I sent this word “woman into my body for the second time. This time the tension had a characteristic of anger, something burning, ready to erupt.
I this while I was carrying on watching my breath. The third time I probed with the word “woman” I got an image of a naked female contour, dancing an ecstatic dance. This made me think (although it is not encouraged to follow a trace of thought during meditation) about the Maenads, the “raving ones”.
When I sent to Humanities Lyceum in my home town, one of our exceptional teachers who taught us Ancient Cultures, Dr Vadim Guriev, theorised that these Ancient Greek women’s ecstatic worship of Dionysus, with rites which might lead to bloody killing of an animal or even a human who happened on their path, had as their aim release of civilisation pressure, the stress of living in the first city republics in the history of humanity. Feminism was not on the books when I went to lyceum. However, now, I think it would be fair to add that these raving violent outbursts by women might also have been a reaction to patriarchy.
Thus, so far, from my investigation I got two senses of “woman”: one suppressed an angry and the other – ecstatic and dangerous. I looked closer to see if I could sense any “Motherly” or “Caring”, “Nurturing” aspect of womanhood, but I did not.
After a while I tried to sense whether I was a “woman” in this meditation. I got a sense that calling myself a “woman” was akin to putting like a helmet on my head, or a mask on my face, or a second skin, second layer, and armour.
Going deeper and deeper into concentration, at one point I started simply observing “man” and “woman” – and this process did not bring up any emotional response – which is what is supposed to happen in Buddhist meditation, where increased concentration cuts off many conditioned phenomena. Social constructs and our habitual reactions to those are of course an example of conditioned phenomena.
Finally by the end of my 30-minute practice I could see to a depth where “woman” a word like any other. I do not say that I have “reached’ a depth, because in Buddhism it is taught that mind is ordinarily like a muddy lake: the water is as clean and clear as it ever was, but our own comings and goings and stirrings bring up the mud from the floor which makes the water impenetrable to the eye. Once we become still through the practice of meditation the mud settles back down and we can see clearly to the very bottom of the lake/mind. Thus, in the clear – or as clear as I can get on my level of realisation – water of my mind, “woman” was a word.
Oxana Poberejnaia was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and has been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention, now in its 9th year. Oxana is now exploring the Sacred Feminine through marking seasonal festivals, working with her menstrual cycle, frame drumming and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Oxana is an artist and an author. She teaches frame drumming and meditation. Her works can be found on her blog.