Skip to content

The Spiritual Journey of Motherhood

May 10, 2013

Two things are asked of us as we move through the journey that is motherhood – that we open our hearts ever wider, and that we let go, let go, let go. Motherhood is a journey of loving and letting go. The same can be said of the journey of awakening, of enlightenment. Historically this wasn’t recognized by most of the world’s major spiritual traditions, which honored monasticism and retreat from the world as the greatest pathways to spiritual realization. But now that is changing, and we are finding ways for our lives to be our paths, as mothers, as career women, as everything that we are.

In honor of Mother’s Day, I wanted to explore the spiritual journey of motherhood, through goddesses, symbols, and my own thoughts. Whether you are a mother yourself or not, I hope that this speaks to you, as we all – mother or not, man or woman – have these energies within us, and we all have this opportunity to move from our personal loves to universal love to knowing ourselves as love.

Three Ages of Woman - Mother and Child by Gustav Klimt

Three Ages of Women – (mother and child portion) – by Gustav Klimt

Many a woman has said ‘I never knew I could love someone so much’ upon becoming a mother. There is an intensity to maternal love that can catch us off guard. Our whole body – and our subtle body – is ready to sacrifice on our child’s behalf. We may be torn by this, exhausted, even resentful, as we long for sleep and solitude, while at the same time we want nothing more than to hold our child. A torrent of emotions is released. And in the best moments there is this tender love, captured in Klimt’s beautiful portrait, this closeness and bond that we feel can never be sundered. There is a vulnerability too – as Elizabeth Stone puts it in her oft-quoted statement, “Making the decision to have a child — it’s momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”

Early Hindu Mother Goddess, Norton Simon Museum Collection

Early Hindu Mother Goddess, approx 575-625. She holds a sword in one hand and her child in the other.

There is a fullness too, that comes with motherhood, and a fierce protectiveness. Early Hindu mother goddesses hold a child in one hand and sword in the other. We quickly learn that there is a part of us that would do anything to protect our child. Working with this intense tribal feeling – tribal in that it is focused on our child, our world, even at the expense of others – is perhaps one of the greatest spiritual challenges of motherhood. It is easy to be consumed by wanting only what is best for our own children, with little thought as to how it impacts others. Unchecked this can drive us to push our children, or push others away in judgement or from fear (think ‘mommy wars’.) This is the spiritual calling of motherhood then – how to allow the opening of our heart to expand, rather than contract, our world view and understanding.

Parvati

Parvati – Hindu wife of Shiva, mother of Ganesh, represents the gentle, nurturing feminine aspect

Part of our pathway towards this understanding is the acceptance that motherhood brings out in us – the acceptance born of gentleness. Several Hindu female deities are associated with motherhood, but Parvati is the one most closely aligned with the nurturing, gentle, yin side of us. This is the part of us that comforts our toddler when she’s sick, or our 10-year old son when he strikes out at bat, or our high school senior when she doesn’t get into her first choice of college. In these moments, we know how to accept our children’s pain, without judgement, without fixing – just being there with them, with their pain. This is acceptance, this is presence. For all the talk of ‘being in the now’, there are few moments in our life when we are more fully present then when we are comforting our child in pain.

Mut - one of the Egyptian goddesses associated with motherhood

Mut – Egyptian ‘world mother’, connected with the ancient, primordial powers of creation

Through our children we experience the passage of time so acutely. ‘It seems like just yesterday she was [fill in the blank].” Any parent of grown children will tell you, ‘it passes in the blink of an eye.’ Through this we have the opportunity to feel ourselves connected to an ancient cycle – THE ancient cycle – of birth, maturation, and death. We are not the first to raise children, and we won’t be the last. In Ancient Egypt, Mut was the original ‘world mother’ or ‘mother of the gods’ (although many goddesses, especially Isis, took on her qualities as time passed.) Mut represented the ancient, primordial aspects of birth and mothering – the endless cycle of which we are, in our own point in time and space, just one reflection. When we recognize ourselves as part of this larger cycle, this larger expanse, we are humbled and connected to the universe.

Gaia

Gaia, on the left, is shown here partially emerged from the earth in order to hand her newborn son Erikhthonios over to Athene, who fosters him. From around 440 BC.

Just as we connect to time in a new way, so we often connect to nature in a new way too. Motherhood has always been connected with the earth – Gaia, goddess of the earth, is the original ‘earth mother’. Through motherhood we come to know our own bodies as part of nature in a pronounced way – they create, nurture and sustain physical life. Our cycles are not just our own, but part of the larger cycles of nature, linked to the moon, fertility, and food. Motherhood grounds us, psychologically, energetically, and spiritually, and this grounding offers us a foundation from which to grow on all of these levels too.

Turtle as symbol of motherhood

The turtle is associated with the earth mother in many Native American traditions. The underbellies of many turtles have 13 sections, linking it to lunar cycles and the feminine.

This new level of grounding, this foundation, can help us see ourselves differently in relationship to humanity and the earth – as guardians, and protectors of more than just our own children. The turtle is associated with Maka, the immortal earth mother, in many Native American traditions. In legends the turtle saves humanity from the great flood that threatens its destruction. It is our guardian mother energy – whether we mother physical children or not – that urges us to work on behalf of earth and others.

Mary

Mother Mary – as mother of Jesus, she became goddess-like within some (not all) Christian denominations, and in Islam as well, representing feminine purity.

Motherhood opens us to new dimensions of purity in our love too, both in terms of selflessness and intent. This purity came to its most famous expression through the exaltation of Mother Mary, or Virgin mother. ‘Virgin’ means pure, but unfortunately in historical Christian teachings purity became associated with celibacy and virginity, and feminine sexual energy with impurity. We are moving beyond this prudish view now (at least those of you reading this I hope!) – purity of mind, of heart, and of intent is the purity motherhood opens us to. Then we begin to experience the opening of our heart as connection to pure Source – or rather, ourselves as an expression of its Light.

schuon's-divine-mother2

schuon's-divine-mother1

The many faces of Mary by Sufi mystic Frithjof Schuon, or Sidi Isa Nur. She appeared to him as the universal ‘divine mother, beyond theology.’

When we begin to experience this, we open to ourselves as expressions of the ‘Divine Mother’ – mother of existence itself. Many saints and mystics have encountered the Divine Mother, in embodied or abstract form. Sufi mystic Sidi Isa Nur encountered the Divine Mother in the form of Mary and was transformed. He spent much of the rest of his life devoted to painting her in many different forms, outside of any cultural representation, ‘beyond theology’ as he put it.

Manibhadra

Manibhadra – ‘The Model Wife’ or ‘Happy Housewife’ siddha. One of only four women amongst the 84 classic Tibetan Buddhist ‘mahasiddhas’ or ‘great adepts.’

But how do we remain true to these experiences? How do we transform them into more than isolated insights? Integration of this sort is traditionally forged through formal spiritual practice, but one of the greatest challenges of motherhood is lack of time. How do we meditate, pray, retreat, journal or perform other ritual practices and fulfill the 24/7 responsibilities of motherhood? Most of us can’t, at least not to the degree we could before our children were born or after they leave home, but we can embrace our lives as practice. In Vajrayana Buddhism there are teaching stories of 84 Mahasiddhas, or ‘great practitioners’, each of whom transformed their lives into pathways to enlightenment, without living as monks. Manibhadra, one of only 4 women mahasiddhas in this group,  transformed her life as loyal wife and mother into practice, achieving full liberation. Our lives are but the outer form – enlightenment doesn’t ‘look’ only one way from the outside, and neither do the paths to it.

Rhea

Rhea – originally the daughter of the Greek sky god Uranus and earth goddess Gaia, in classical Greece she became known as the mother of the Olympian gods and goddesses.

As mothers we are also the matriarchs of society. Motherhood is the middle stage in the traditional ‘maiden-mother-crone’ feminine phases model – ideally through motherhood we are transformed from maiden to wise woman. Motherhood forges us really, through love and pain, into a maturity and wisdom we could never have imagined. We can come to own our power, and our grandeur. It is this kind of maternity represented by the Greek goddess Rhea, mother-queen of the Olympian gods and goddesses, accompanied always by her regal lions.

Durga - the original tiger mom?

Durga – Hindu fierce form of the feminine, goddess of protection and inner strength.

That power in its fullest expression, at its fiercest, comes through in a pronounced way in the stories of Durga, another Hindu deity associated with motherhood, in its protector aspect. Interestingly Durga is also accompanied by a big cat – she is almost always depicted riding a tiger. Durga is our inner strength, unstoppable when fighting for what is right, and most particularly on behalf of justice for others. Durga will fight, but if she is fully developed in us she doesn’t fight for our petty or ego needs. She fights for goodness, and for the preservation of light in the world.

Binah on the Tree of Life

Binah, meaning ‘Understanding’ is the top left sephirot on the Tree of LIfe, and is considered feminine. It is paired with Chokmah. or ‘Wisdom’ on the right, considered masculine.

For the fierceness in us to be directed to the good, it must be balanced with discernment, with understanding. In the Kabbalah Tree of Life, the highest feminine principle is Binah – the uppermost lefthand sephirot. While in some traditions, the feminine is associated with the irrational, with unfettered emotion, and often depicted as unstable and even dangerous, Binah is actually associated with ‘processed wisdom’, with reasoning and the rational process. It is its male counterpart Chockmah that is considered the raw force. For any true idea to take shape through us, it must be processed through the ‘womb’ of Binah. The Bahir, a foundation Kabbalah text, states, “And you shall call Understanding Mother.” All the intense emotions of motherhood, when processed through true understanding, through Binah, have the opportunity to grow into wisdom.

Prajnaparamita

Prajnaparamita, which means ‘the Perfection of Transcendent Wisdom’, is personified as female in Tibetan Buddhism. To me she represents the meeting of heart and mind, compassion and discernment, love and wisdom – the path that motherhood can take us on if we so choose.

The Tibetan Buddhist principles of prajna and upaya mirror those of the Kabbalah model to some extent. Prajna, knowledge or wisdom, is the receptive feminine principle, while upaya, love or compassion, is the active male aspect. Prajnaparamita, ‘the perfection of Transcendent Wisdom’, is personified as female. This wisdom sees  beyond duality, beyond subject and object, male and female, mother and child.  It is where the ‘letting go’ side of motherhood takes its highest expression, if we allow it. We catch a glimpse of this when we are able to see that our children are never truly ours, that they are reflections of something much bigger, as are we. Surrendering to this insight might at first feel like a loss, as all letting go does, but ultimately it can open us to infinite love – love that does not need an attachment. This wisdom is a union of heart and mind, in which clarity and passion are not opposites but united.

May you discover your transcendent wisdom, mother or no! And as always, I welcome your sharing, particularly on how motherhood, or your internal maternal/feminine energies (if you are not a mother) has been/is part of your spiritual journey.

Namaste-

27 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2013 6:29 am

    Reblogged this on Blogging and commented:
    Reading this today was perfect timing as I lean into the power of surrendering. Full presence of being is required of me right now as I nurse my son during his chicken pox. This rite of childhood is an incredibly powerful and healing on so many levels, for both of us. We work together to breathe through the pain, the suffering, the desire (to itch, pick, scratch) and remember the bigger picture. Yes I had to give up my plans this week, let go of my own wishes in order to be fully present. But I chose this, and choose to be close, to nurture and love ever more deeply every day. And yes I also chose the pox; a few weeks ago I took him to a pox party, I wanted this to happen before he got older and it became a more intense illness (he is nearly nine).

    I feel blessed being reminding of the deep power of surrender, of love and of being a mother. I feel blessed knowing that the often invisible work, of parenting a child, I do is seen, by someone.

  2. May 10, 2013 6:38 am

    Thank you, Lisa, for this beautiful overview of mother symbols in mythology and religion. Your next-to-last paragraph is transcendent. Happy Mother’s Day!

  3. JustAnotherMom permalink
    May 10, 2013 7:09 am

    Thank you for this inspiring article ! Motherhood is, indeed, a spiritual path, I know this from my own experience as mother of two…I thank divinity for them, cause they teach me such valuable lessons every day ! Bless all of you moms out there !
    P.S. I wrote you months ago about a friend of mine that has lost her 6 year old son to cancer, and, indeed, she is transformed : she is a wiser, more loving and empathic person, her strength is amazing ! Her path was filled with thorns, but she used them to destroy her own ego…

  4. May 10, 2013 10:52 am

    I remember our pastor asking us how we knew that God exists. I said that my first glimpse came through my love for my children. It was so vast, so deep, surely it had to come from a larger Source than my own limited human heart. My children have taught me how to love unconditionally and to question the old beliefs that didn’t serve me. I’m a better person thanks to them. Yes, you are right, motherhood is a powerful spiritual path, if we choose it to be. Thank you, Lisa.

  5. May 10, 2013 1:10 pm

    Hazel, thanks so much for reblogging, and for sharing your story. Your experience is such a classic mother experience – making a difficult choice like that, knowing it will be the better thing for him long term. These are the kinds of things we can’t imagine pre-motherhood, but that shape us so much.

  6. May 10, 2013 1:11 pm

    Thank you Brenda, that means a lot to me, especially coming from you!

  7. May 10, 2013 1:13 pm

    JustAnotherMom – bless you tow. And thanks for the update on your friend. It wrenches my heart reading about her loss again, as two of my children are 6 years old (twins obviously) but I am glad to know that she is being forged by this fire of loss, and emerging stronger. This is her Durga side coming forth. Many blessings to you both.

  8. May 10, 2013 1:14 pm

    Maryse – ‘It was so vast, so deep, surely it had to come from a larger Source than my own limited human heart’- beautiful, thanks for sharing.

  9. May 10, 2013 2:49 pm

    Hi Lisa,
    This is so beautiful and so well said. I struggled so much in the past with finding time to incorporate my meditation practice but you are so right that your experiences/path of motherhood itself can be such a great opportunity to practice love without attachment. From my experince and maybe others could relate, but I feel divorce (especially when its not amicable ) often times can be an opportunity to practice this balance between love, fierceness and the ability to love without attachment or ego.

  10. May 10, 2013 3:14 pm

    Reblogged this on Journeying to the Goddess and commented:
    “In honor of Mother’s Day, I wanted to explore the spiritual journey of motherhood, through goddesses, symbols, and my own thoughts. Whether you are a mother yourself or not, I hope that this speaks to you, as we all – mother or not, man or woman – have these energies within us, and we all have this opportunity to move from our personal loves to universal love to knowing ourselves as love.” ~ Mommy Mystic

  11. Pema permalink
    May 10, 2013 4:07 pm

    I so love your blog. I hope our paths cross oneday somehow! :)

  12. May 10, 2013 5:40 pm

    I only just realised it was Mother’s Day in USA.

    Fabulous post – it really is important to hear about the many faces of the feminine, the mother. To see all facets within ourselves, and to appreciate how our culture impacts how we view our role.

    Astrologically (you knew I would) – I find the powerful influence of the Moon and of Venus intriguing. One is Mother, instinct, nurturing, security, the other is Love, sensuality, femininity, female power.
    The natal chart can show if a person (man or woman) holds a conflict between the roles of Nurturer and Lover. For a woman, it can show a schism within herself.

  13. May 10, 2013 8:00 pm

    Hi Tina, I think any life challenge offers us a lot of opportunity for growth, so divorce certainly does. And because it also is involving some of our strongest emotions, lots of competing feelings are bound to arise. I can see how having to allow your child to develop a relationship with an ex, even though you would just as soon have them out of your life, would bring all this to the surface. I think you also can probably relate especially well to the theme of letting go, since you have the age spread between your kids, and have already had one ‘leave the nest’. Thanks for sharing.

  14. May 10, 2013 8:00 pm

    Thanks so much for reblogging Daughter RavynStar!

  15. May 10, 2013 8:02 pm

    Hi Pema, our paths are crossed, here on the web! That is one of the wonderful things about blogging. But I know what you mean, ‘crossing’ in other ways would be wonderful too. I have many good friends I have made in the 5 years I have been blogging.

  16. May 10, 2013 8:05 pm

    Monica, I love this about the Moon and Venus, I had not thought of this before, but yes of course makes perfect sense. In my own case, my moon and Venus signs (Aquarius/Aries) are compatible with each other, but not particularly feminine and nurturing (in a traditional way anyway), and I can see how that has influenced the specific challenges I have faced in mothering. And I can also see what this makes me ‘good’ at as a mother – as you and I have discussed elsewhere before, we all have different gifts as mothers, there isn’t one way of being a good parent. XO

  17. Chez permalink
    May 11, 2013 3:41 am

    The power of Motherhood is beyond all imaginings. I love this blog and all the Mythical Mothers in history. Surely it makes us feel connected to the Divine Source that is the conductor in this concerto called “Life” of which we are all instruments playing the same tune. Bliss to my ears xx

  18. May 11, 2013 3:59 pm

    beautiful! thank you for sharing. will love to share your piece with my mother’s day post tomorrow. xoox!

  19. May 11, 2013 10:30 pm

    Chez, how poetic! GLad you enjoyed.

  20. May 11, 2013 10:31 pm

    Tania Marie, thank you I look forward to reading your post too and happy mother’s day!

  21. May 11, 2013 10:50 pm

    thank you so much! happy mother’s day to you as well <3 mine will be short, but the essence of what you share goes along with it so i feel it will be perfect to blend with linking to your wonderful and thorough sharing

  22. May 12, 2013 10:18 am

    Thank you . Lovely <3

  23. May 18, 2013 7:44 am

    Very thorough evaluations on the mother symbol throughout space and time, thank you! I can tell you put a lot of thought into this. I resonated especially with your telling of Manibadhra; I celebrated my first Mother’s Day as a mother this year. It has been a journey adapting to my new life with Isis Rose, discovering how our lives can reciprocally flow together. At first I found it difficult to stay in my center throughout the day, feeling ungrounded without my usual meditations and things. But I’m constantly finding new ways to make things work, and reminding myself that the aspects of motherhood are perfect forms of saddhana, like most anything else. I would like to check out the stories of the 84 Mahadisshas. Thanks again..

    .oO Blues Oo.

  24. May 18, 2013 6:50 pm

    Hi Blues, Robert Beer, a contempoary Tibetan thangka painter, has a fabulous book called Buddhist Masters of Enchantment that includes his paintings and the stories, but unforunately it’s out of print. But it looks like Keith Dowman, whose versions of the stories are included in the Beer book, now has a version out with fewer pictures. They are very interesting although highly symbolic so do require some help to understand at times. As for the flow of motherhood, yes this is really something I needed to learn to embrace also (and still work on.) Nothing will show you a fixation on routine or control that you might have like parenthood, since the best laid plans are continually being upended! And as you move through parenthood, the challenges (and gifts) shift – it is a complex and ever-changing journey. Blessings to you on yours!

Trackbacks

  1. The Spiritual Journey of Motherhood | Mommy Mystic | Jolie Doula Salisbury District
  2. Mother’s Day is a Celebration of Birth « Facets of Joy
  3. To All Mothers…And All Beings | Mommy Mystic

I love to hear from you...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 6,741 other followers

%d bloggers like this: