Friendships That Save Lives: For Rita M. Gross 1943-2015, by Carol P. Christ


Carol Eftalou - Michael HonnegerWhen Rita Gross visited me in Lesbos two summers ago, we spent many long hours discussing our lives and work. Rita and I met at the Conference of Women Theologians at Alverno College in June, 1971 when we were young women. We did not know it then, but our lives would continue to be intertwined through our common interests, first in the Women and Religion section of the American Academy of Religion, and then through our work on Goddesses and feminist theology.

When we met, Rita was a convert to Judaism working on her dissertation on Australian Aboriginal women’s religious lives, and I was a Christian about to begin a dissertation on Elie Wiesel’s stories that would lead me to express my own anger at God.

In the ensuing years, Rita would leave Judaism for Buddhism, and I would leave Christianity for Goddess feminism. These decisions helped to cement a bond between us, especially as we found ourselves increasingly isolated when Christian hegemony came to the fore in the field we had helped to create. Our shared belief that women need the Goddess in order to claim the full humanity of our minds and bodies was uppermost in our conversations in the days when to make such a claim was profoundly threatening, even to other feminists.

When we discussed our religious differences, I would ask Rita why she felt the need to become part of a religious tradition that seemed to me to be patriarchal. Rita would ask me why I wanted to set myself afloat with no anchor, if traditions such as Buddhism could provide important guidance in the feminist spiritual quest.

In our conversations in the summer of 2014, Rita and I reflected on our lives and work. I can report that, despite the fact that our work has not always recognized (as it should be) in our field, we both felt very proud of what we had achieved. Rita was particularly pleased that she had been named a Lopon or Senior Teacher by a female Rinpoche. This honor went a long way towards making up for the fact that Rita (like me) had never been offered a prestigious position in the field of religion. We expressed the hope (perhaps the conviction) that one day the influence of our work would prove our academic colleagues wrong.

We probed the differences between Rita’s nondualism and my process view that a compassionate and caring deity is in relation to all finite individuals in the world. Rita conceded that human beings need symbols of deity or deities, while insisting that the notion that any separate individuals “really exist” is false. I replied that though I had become “a kind of a Buddhist” insofar as I had come a long way toward renouncing the false ego(tism) that Buddhism describes, I found a relational worldview more congruent with my experience than nondualism. Rita responded that being “a kind of a Buddhist” is not the same thing as being a real Buddhist who practices meditation every day. On these matters, we agreed to disagree.

Rita and I also discussed our disappointment that, like many other strong, intelligent, and successful women in our time, neither of us had found a life partner. We remarked that we had both created beautiful homes and gardens that nurtured us and would not want to live without animal companionship. We concluded, laughing and clicking wine glasses, that “you can’t have everything,” adding that on balance we were both quite happy with our lives.

I had not been in contact with Rita over the summer and fall of 2015. Thus I was shocked when I learned that she had a massive stroke at the end of October that left her paralyzed and unable to communicate. I was relieved to be told that she had left clear instructions that she did not want to be kept alive in such a state and thus had been returned to her home with hospice care to die in familiar surroundings and in the company of her beloved cats. This is exactly what I would want for myself.

As Rita was dying, I was informed that she had entered into an advanced meditative state that would help her to accept the impermanence of life. I said to a mutual friend that I must be a Buddhist after all, because I accept the impermanence of life and do not fear death.

As I was preparing Rita’s essay “Buddhism and Feminism: Is Female Rebirth an Obstacle?” for republication on FAR, these words leapt off the page:

What I am describing is the process of dealing with kleshas (mental states that cloud the mind) as discussed in Mahamudra teachings. One is instructed to focus on troubling emotions, such as grasping or aggression, and to look directly into them without either accepting or rejecting them, thereby liberating their enlightened clarity and energy.

Rita insists that anger is a troubling emotion that should not be repressed or expressed, but rather transformed. This insight was helpful to me when I was thinking about the angry Goddesses while writing She Who Changes. I agree with Rita that anger can and should be transformed into enlightened clarity.

Like Rita, I have for the most part transformed my anger at the injustices in the world. Yet I am still sometimes unexpectedly hooked by another troubling emotion—my disappointment that I did not find a life partner. I can be caught off-guard by casual, insensitive comments of others. One of my friends likes to tell the story of how she met her husband; after describing her own struggles, she concludes, “When you are ready, you find the right person.” “So does that mean I wasn’t ready, or didn’t try hard enough?” I am likely to respond, angrily or with tears welling up in my eyes. I don’t get the response I am looking for.

The fact that I speak in anger or tears in response to someone else’s story suggests that I need to do some work on a mental state that is clouding my mind. What would happen if I could look into the well of my own pain (most or all of it in the past) without either accepting or rejecting it? What enlightened clarity might come from this? Could I listen to my friend without letting her words trigger my own troubling emotions? This does not mean agreeing with my friend. I know that my life is not as simple as her story suggests. And when the time is right, I can tell my own story.

I wish I could email Rita now to share this insight with her. I am sure she would have understood. Blessed be the friendships that nourish and shape our lives.

Carol P. Christ leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter).  Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be released in June 2016 by Fortress Press, while A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess will be published in the spring by FAR Press. Explore Carol’s writing. Photo of Carol by Michael Honegger.

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Categories: Academics, Activism, Buddhism, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, Goddess

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22 replies

  1. I’m very sorry to hear of Rita’s death. I greatly admire her writing on Buddhism and feminism. Thank you for this fine tribute, Carol.

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  2. Thank you for this beautiful tribute to Rita, and I’m so sorry to hear of her death. Her work and yours have changed many lives and will continue to do so for many generations forward.

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  3. This essay of Rita’s has been part of required reading in my year-long course for over a decade: Rita Gross, “Feminine Principle in Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism”. The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 1984 Vol. 16, No. 2 pp 179-192.

    and also, when I finished my M.A. in theology and philosophy (GTU 1982) I used to comment to people (and believed) that it was an eminently useless degree for a woman to have, especially when she had decided (as I had) to leave Christianity and commit to Goddess path. It has in the end served me well … down the path, outside the structures.

    and re your friend’s conclusion about “readiness” … what an assumption (imo), and as you say, (your) life is not that simple.
    blissings

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  4. I am sorry for the loss of your dear friend. Thank you for sharing bits of your lively conversations with Rita- oh to be a fly on the wall in those rooms!

    Looking into the abyss to find clarity- a really tough journey. I think you have to be an extremely strong person to do that, or have some good friends. Probably both.

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  5. I agree with you and Rita on the demands you undertook and met as feminists. Your writings, Carol, and editing and so many other contributions to the feminist community, including your current leadership at FAR, are essential. In my opinion, It’s not a question of sacrifice, or disappointment, it’s a question of one’s calling.

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  6. Going back to re-read your very moving tribute to Rita, I was again “caught” by the title: “friendships that save lives”. No comment; just sitting with that in gratitude for the friends I’ve been blessed with all my life. And gratitude for the work undertaken by Rita, yourself, and the awesome women here.

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  7. “What would happen if I could look into the well of my own pain (most or all of it in the past) without either accepting or rejecting it? What enlightened clarity might come from this?” Words I need today. Thank you for this wise essay.

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  8. Thank you for sharing this, Carol, very enlightening!
    So many rich points offered here, to be meditated on for a while I am sure.
    Blessed be the friends that nourish and shape our lives, indeed.

    Regarding :” What would happen if I could look into the well of my own pain (most or all of it in the past) without either accepting or rejecting it?”…has anyone looked into/ worked with EFT? For the while that I used it, I think there is nothing else out there that combines the acknowledgment of past trauma with the reality of the present to enable a truthful say into the future.
    Affirmations are tools by which one can direct life, akin to bridles to the horse’s mouth, but affirmations target the future, from the stance of today, which is unavoidably affected by yesterday’s traumas. Affirmations usually also stem from either naked fear or from sublimated fear, which makes any wish they call for to be naturally tainted, and therefore false.
    When combined, however, with a physical means of control that targets the senses and therefore the emotions, such as the tapping on pressure points at the core of EFT, affirmations become an invaluable tool for trauma diagnostic, of discarding the superfluous and false emotions, which reveals the knowledge of our being, needs and wishes.
    I highly recommend it.

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    • EFT (the Emotional Freedom Technique) has been very useful to me as well, especially in overcoming chronic back pain. the site I send folks to is Tapping Into Heaven (http://www.tapintoheaven.com/2eft/eftproce.shtml). It has a chart of where the acupressure points are that you have to tap, as well as a description of the technique itself. In many ways it provides a way of “looking into the well of pain” that Rita and Carol talk about and transforming it. I think it works, because it uses a physical and oral way of “imprinting” this change on the body. If I were working with clients or patients, I would add a third means of imprinting, namely visual, since for some people EFT doesn’t work. If people did it while looking into a mirror, I think it would work for everyone.

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      • Thanks for the link, Nancy.
        I am intrigued by the idea of a visual aspect to EFT, that would make it truly 3 dimensional.
        But yeah, anything that starts with “I truly and completely (and truthfully) forgive and accept my self…” sounds worthwhile.

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      • My set-up statement for EFTdoesn’t use the words “truly” or “forgive.” Instead I say, “Even though (fill in whatever emotion of pain I’m experiencing…often “that I’m afraid that I hurt my back”), I accept and love myself deeply and completely.” So this set-up statement encompasses whatever emotion or pain is running me, i.e. I look in to the well of pain, as well as my complete acceptance and love of myself despite this issue. Since this phrase is repeated over and over again during the practice of the technique, it gets imprinted very deeply.

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  9. Carol —

    What a lovely tribute to a woman who has been very important to the Goddess Community. Your final statement “Blessed be the friendships that nourish and shape our lives,” rings out loud and clear. It brings to mind my dear friend Farrell who died in April. We could and did talk about everything and anything, but my favorite discussions were about Goddess Feminism.

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  10. I didn’t want to make the blog too long, but as I was writing it, I was thinking that Alice Miller’s response to child abuse is a form of enlightened clarity. The first and most important thing an abused child or adult needs to hear is not “you can heal,” or “you should forgive,” but rather simply, “this was wrong, this should not have happened to anyone.” In other words, clearly seeing the violation, without (in the first instance) attempting to fix it.

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    • “this was wrong, this should not have happened to anyone.”
      Those were the most important words in my life Carol. Totally changed my perspective and allowed me to breathe.

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      • I cannot tell you how many times I say and have said those words, and they really are what is needed. I was told a version of this myself, by a therapist who said, “no one should have to feel the way that you do.”

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  11. Carol, thank you for this wonderful tribute to an authentic friendship. When you write, “Rita and I also discussed our disappointment that, like many other strong, intelligent, and successful women in our time, neither of us had found a life partner”, it resonates for me too… I was married nine thousand years ago to the father of my children, but had been single ever since… for a while this was painful but as time went by and my focus on my work (art) intensified, that longing to be partnered was replaced by my relationships with ideas, my garden, my animals, my grandchildren, and the natural splendor of the Drakenberg where I live. There is no longer a hole in my life. Should a partner suddenly materialize, I would not know where to put him/her!

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  12. Dear Carol,

    I too have never found a life partner. Sometimes I wish I had one especially when I could use some help around the house or wish I had someone to talk to face-face. Even so I have discovered that whether one is solitary or with a partner, there are challenges in both situations. People in long term relationships who also have children have many struggles as do we who are solitary. I tell people I have settled into a marriage with Lady Solitude and like any other life partner I have my struggles in my relationship with her. I am glad you are blessed with may meaningful friendships and admire your willingness to look deeply into those “kleshas”. Robin Riebsomer

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  13. Carol,
    Thank you so much for your loving words about Rita Gross and your friendship with her. This is how we grow each other is it not, through authentic heartfelt friendship over the years? As a Dharma Teacher and practitioner of Goddess Spiritualtiy I so much appreciated your sharing some of your differing and converging view points on Practice and Theory.
    Friendships that save lives also make lives.

    Thank you for this glimpse into the light that you both shared.

    Carol Newhouse

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  14. Thanks so much for the thoughtful reflection. On the one hand, I am still in shock at the loss, and on the other, I feel a certain christening or permission to embark on the end of life process when the time comes.

    Reflecting on the mahamudra verses that suggest to refrain from accepting or rejecting whatever happens (in lieu of apprehending the nature of mind itself as the ultimate liberating teacher), it is possible to take “accepting” more in the sense of habituated or compulsive striving, such that facing the reality as it is becomes a de facto form of acceptance, even if that means just accepting whatever painful emotions, grief,
    etc. come to mind. In that way, and in light of the buddhist laws of karma/action, it is not a renunciation of self-authoring, but keeping self-authoring sourced from wisdom rather than reactivity.

    May those who want companions or life partners or solitude obtain the situation most beneficial to themselves and others and be in peace!

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