One of my concerns with the philosophy of contemporary women’s spirituality movement is what I see as uncritical adoption of views about body from patriarchal culture.
I feel that often the seemingly “new” and radical ideas about women’s bodies that originate from contemporary Sacred Feminine movement are simply reversals and counter statements to dominant patriarchal notions.
I myself have been working with my menstrual cycle. However, I also can say that this is one of the classic examples of a “reversal”. While patriarchy says that menstruation is something hidden, dirty and corrupt, the new view is that menstruation is something worthy of open discussion, sacred and a source of spiritual power.
Thus I am not arguing that all reversals are wrong. My argument is that with each such reversal we might want to think about how beneficial it is not only to us personally but to other people, the whole culture, and to future generations.
One example of a reversal that I definitely see as negative is the statement that woman’s body is sacred and special, as are its parts, for instance, the womb. This notion is quite clearly a reaction to centuries of patriarchal suppression and abuse of women’s bodies.
However, there is an issue with this approach. First of all, not all women have wombs. Some lost wombs due to surgery to treat a medical condition. Some women never had a womb. This controversy in pagan world about “women-only spaces” is quite well-known.
In addition, I fail to see spiritual significance of one internal organ, which, if shown to me, I would not be able to tell apart from any other internal organ – as I don’t have medical education.
Another quite common aberration of women’s spirituality way of thinking as I see it is regarding body as all about sex and sensual pleasure. The difference, of course, is that patriarchal culture has been suppressing sexual life and sensual pleasures in women’s life, whereas women’s spirituality today tends to glorify sexual life and sensual pleasures and assign them spiritual significance.
I believe that attaching “sex” and “sensual pleasure” to body is simply repeating what patriarchy has said. I think arriving to this conclusion without deeper exploration of body is a regrettable omission on the part of modern women’s spirituality movement.
Consider this: no human being has yet experienced anything outside of human body. Whatever happens to us, whatever dreams or visions we have, we experience it all in our bodies. Shamanic journeys, as I have experienced them and read about them, are all experienced by the body. We feel being squeezed through a hole in the earth, we will cold, we feel flight, we feel warmth, we experience ecstasy – it all happens to the body.
Buddhist practice can help to see body in whole new ways, independent of what patriarchy might or might not have said. One of the most useful teaching I have heard in Buddhism came from Rodney Smith, a teacher at Seattle Insight Meditation Society.
In one of the podcasts of the Society he said that people practising meditation like to concentrate on the actual meditation instructions and go out of their way to be good at whatever it is they are asked to do: counting breath, or visualisation. This can create tension. However, Rodney Smith said, people practising meditation often ignore a seemingly simple instruction which usually precedes the practice; i.e. “Relax”. Rodney Smith’s argument is that if you really manage to relax completely, the rest of meditation instructions almost become irrelevant.
If you are completely relaxed, it can be said you’re already there. What else would you desire, if you were really, completely relaxed? Hopefully we have all experienced such bliss in our lives: be it after physical exercise, or massage, or a really nice meal. In Nordic and Slavic cultures visiting a sauna has almost religious significance. The feeling of relief, cleanliness and overall relaxation after hot sauna (possibly combined with rolling in the snow) is seen as a spiritual experience. This can seem crass to people raised in Western culture. But is it?
When you are relaxed, aren’t you also happy? Do you not also feel benevolent to yourself and other beings? Does not your mind follow your body and become peaceful, accepting and loving? I am aware that I am using Western distinction here between “mind” and “body” – for the argument’s sake.
In Buddhism, we ask: who can point to the separation? Who can say with any degree of certainty: this phenomena is mind-produced, and this one is body-produced? Have you ever had indigestion because of mental stress? Have you ever experienced mental suffering and depression caused by a physical illness?
Let us turn to sex and sensual pleasure. Are they really just about the body? If we really take interest and explore our own bodies, we will see quite quickly that sexual pleasure is impossible without appropriate mental and emotional factors. Everybody knows how food, served with skill and in special surroundings can taste so much better.
Through Buddhist meditation I have found out for myself that body (in the same way as mind) is what it is. We can call it Nature, for simplicity. Body will do what body does. It is dependent on Universe: for its nutrients, strength and activity. Body and its constituent part will react, according to physical and biological laws, to things like gravity, radiation, pressure, temperature etc. Body will react according to conditioning within it: some biological – such as genetics, some psychological, such as all the habits that we have acquired through life.
Buddhist teaching maintains that it is possible through practice to change the habits. For instance, we can train ourselves not to tense at what we perceived as a stressful situation. We can even achieve Enlightenment – as Buddha specifically said, “In this very one-fathom long body along with perceptions and thoughts”.
However, whatever we think about our body is simply our thoughts, not the body. The only way to learn what body is in actual fact is to experience it. And when you experience it you usually find that body is something that happens, a process. It will follow its own course. You cannot make yourself fall asleep. You also cannot force yourself to stay awake when you’re really tired.
I believe it is important to maintain this humility and attitude of non-possession in relation to your body. I feel it is important to remember that whatever spiritual or cultural significance we assign a woman’s body is the result of our social lives, and does not follow directly from our bodies’ lives.
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.