“In a dark time, the eye begins to see…”
– first line of Theodore Roethke’s ‘In a Dark Time’, you can read the entire poem here
Where does your eye go when looking at the photo to the left? To the flame of course – the source of light, despite the fact that the darkness takes up much more space. This, to me, beautifully illustrates the meaning of Roethke’s famous line – in the dark our vision is simplified and clarified, stripped down to the bare essentials, and we are able to truly see.
Whether you are in a personally dark time, think our nation or the world is in a dark time, or all of the above, consider the ways that your vision has been clarified. Within yourself, what fears, biases, or personal shadows have risen to the surface of your consciousness? Within society, what forces have come out of the shadows? In a dark time all is laid bare, and that is uncomfortable and scary, but it also creates the opportunity for liberating or healing these forces, because they are ‘up’. They are not hiding in the crevices of your consciousness, or the corners of our society.
I have started many blog posts the last couple of months, all struggling to identify and offer advice on working with the energetic forces at work in the U.S. election. As you can see from my long silence, none of them quite came together. I realize now I never could quite see clearly enough what was going on, or what could be helpful. This is not a political blog, and won’t start to be one now, but in many of my client sessions, and in my own personal work on myself, it has been clear the growing divisiveness and vitriol of this election took a toll. Many of the sexual assault and abuse survivors I work with felt retraumatized by news events, doubly so this week with the outcome. It is hurtful to them that so much could be overlooked by so many voters. Of course many other individuals and communities around the country are feeling the same way about the racist, xenophobic, and anti-gay rhetoric. Reports of hate crimes in the aftermath of the election have fueled the sense that the darkest energies of our country have been unleashed, and feel empowered.
How do we work personally with all of this? Much has been written about anger in this election – the anger of voters on both sides, how it fueled the result, and how it is fueling the response. But I think the more relevant emotion right now is fear. Anger is so often a response to real fear – it is the emotional equivalent of the ‘fight’ response in ‘fight, flight, or freeze’. (Escapism is flight, denial is freeze.) Anger feels less vulnerable, more active. So we slide quickly from fear to anger, sometimes so fast we can’t even feel the fear. And once anger is unleashed it has a tsunami-like momentum. It grows larger and larger so quickly we can’t predict exactly where it will hit or how far it will reach. Fear becomes anger becomes hatred in no time. History has shown us this over and over.
I’ve written about the idea of the ‘kali yuga’ before – this phase of human history that according to many Indian and Tibetan traditions we are now in. The kali yuga is a time of growing darkness, and one of the ways this unfolds is through a greater solidification, or hardening, of physical and emotional forces within human awareness. Our bodies and the emotions we feel within them literally feel denser, and we have a harder time accessing the lighter end of the human awareness spectrum. Anger is a heavy emotion, and while it has its place, and its clarifying value, when so much of the human population is weighed down by it at once, it creates a darkness very difficult to see through. Anger is also the ultimate ‘otherizing’ emotion – when we are in the grip of anger, it is always ‘us’ and ‘them’.
The course then is to find the root of the anger, the initial triggering fear, and work with it directly. Taking the time right now to really identify for yourself the fears that have been triggered, and where you feel them in your body and subtle body, creates the opportunity for you to liberate them. Some of the triggered fears may be connected to emotional wounds or patterns you have carried for a long time. If you can liberate the root fears within yourself, or at least loosen them, you can work clearly, without the dark cloud of anger, to surface and liberate them in the outside world. This is truly what it means to be a part of the change you want to see in the world.
So this really, is what I feel is the foundation for working personally on yourself at this time:
- Recognize that darkness is clarifying, and look honestly at what it has surfaced, both within yourself and in the world.
- Explore the fine line between fear and anger within yourself. Work with the fear directly.
As for how to work with fear, there are many modalities, and you can use what works for you. I’ve listed some books at the end of this post that you can consider, depending on what you are working with. But to the extent that this blog focuses on chakra and energetics work, I wanted to provide a straightforward way of doing so. The following may be done as a visual meditation sequence:
- Who or what are you most angry with? This is an inquiry process that you may do alone, through conversation with another, journaling or whatever works for you.
- What fear is fueling that anger? This is an inquiry process best done alone. Identify what it is you are afraid will happen, or what fears the object of your anger (whether a person or situation) triggers.
- When you contemplate this fear directly, where do you feel it in your body/subtle body? Close your eyes, and bring to mind the fear you have just identified for yourself. Imagine what you fear occurring, or as present before you. Where do you feel this in your body/subtle body? (If this fear is related to a trauma, or the fear is overwhelming, skip this step and work with the fear as in your belly.) It’s important to let go of the story of the fear or anger – how justified it is, or how ‘right’ you are. Just let yourself find the energy in your body/subtle body. Feel into the energy of the emotion as you feel it, as opposed to staying in your mind and thinking about it.
- Now visualize a white light in your heart. This white light is wise, clear, compassionate, and bright. Take some time cultivating this. Imagine a ray of this light is emanating towards wherever you feel this fear is in your body/subtle body. The ray of white light brings soothing and balance. After a time, imagine the white light dissolving the fear energy entirely.
- Move the the ray of light to the chakra nearest to where you have been working. For example, if you feel the fear most acutely in your belly, direct the ray of light to your navel chakra. If you feel it in your head, shift the ray to your third eye. Imagine this chakra lit up with this white light as well. You now have two spheres of white light, one in your heart and one at the chakra nearest to where you most felt the fear. Sit with this visual for a bit.
- Now imagine you are sending white light from your heart and this chakra to the ‘object’ of your original anger – the person or a visual representing that which you were angry at. This white light is bringing wisdom and healing to this person or force (it is not empowering that person or force.)
- Dissolve the visual, and let yourself rest with the white light in your heart chakra. Let go into a feeling of peace and calm.
I want to be clear – there is nothing ‘wrong’ with anger. Anger is a very important emotion, as is fear. Women especially often need to first own their anger in order to own their power. But we can only wield anger productively as a force for change in our own lives or the world when it is not solely a vengeful or self-protective force. Doing this requires honestly looking at our motivations, and at our underlying insecurities and fears. Then we do not need to hunker down behind our anger, and can instead meet the challenges of the world bravely and clearly. It is the difference between yelling at someone with the intention to hurt them because they have hurt you, and yelling at a child when they are about to touch a hot stove or run into the street. In both cases you are loud and you are sharp, but with the child there is no intention to harm.
Obviously this is a big topic, in fact I would say it’s the core of the spiritual path. And as we navigate this phase in history, working with the energies of anger and fear will become even more important. Here are some books on other favorites approaches of mine that relate to this theme that you can consider, most of which I have mentioned here before:
Lama Tsultrim Allione’s Feeding Your Demons: Ancient Wisdom for Resolving Inner Conflict
May you find this helpful, and may all beings discover their inner wisdom and compassion at this time.
Note: This month I am participating in the Super Natural Healing Summit. Register and you will receive interviews and free gifts from many different healing practitioners once the summit begins on August 15th. This is an excellent FREE way to learn more about healing modalities of all types! My own interview will be featured on August 19th. Register here, and spread the news.
We are living through a very intense time right now, and in the coming months I’ll be focusing here on the energies of this particular phase of history, and how we all can deal with them. Today I want to start with the basics of caring for yourself as an empath. We are all empathic, because to be human means to be connected energetically to everything around you, whether you are aware of this or not. Just as our physical senses are constantly picking up sounds, sights, tastes, smells, and sensations, so our subtle body senses are constantly experiencing the energies present in our environment, emanating from the world mood at large, and from the people around us.
However, there is a spectrum of empathic sensitivity, and if you are reading this blog, which is almost entirely about energy, then you are probably higher than average on the empathic scale. Recently in my private session work, I have been working with many people, women in particular, who are struggling and have not realized just how much they are being weighed down by the energies of the world and people around them. These energies magnify whatever struggle we are personally experiencing. If we take on the dark energy of certain forces in the world, or from the struggles of those around us, it can add to whatever challenges we are facing to such an extent that we feel overwhelmed. While our tendency is to keep focusing on our individual problem or struggle, often just a little empathic self-care can help us just enough for us to break through the fog, and gain the clarity and personal power we need to see things in a new light.
So I encourage you to make these tips a priority for 2-3 weeks and see how you feel. Particularly if you are struggling with a personal issue, give the self-analysis and overthinking a rest for a bit, and just take care of yourself. Most likely you will begin to see the issue you have been struggling with in a new way within a week to 10 days.
One important note on this though – please don’t let this list add to any sense of self-judgment or unworthiness. I actually rarely feature lists like this here because they can so easily become a list of ‘shoulds’, creating a projection of what we ‘should’ do and who we ‘should’ be – a projection against which we always fall short, feeling inadequate. Let your self-care instead be a form of self-love and self-appreciation, of relishing yourself in the form of your body and subtle body.
10 Tips for Surviving and Thriving as an Empath
- Exercise. Yes, exercise! Move your body! Just as stress chemicals in our physical body can result in muscle tension, so energies that we take into our subtle body can become locked there. Exercise helps release and cleanse on both levels. Aerobic exercise is generally best for this, but mind-body modalities like yoga and tai chi, which are based on opening energy lines and centers through physical movement, are even better. Exercise is also helpful in grounding and connecting with your root chakra, which in turn is essential to being able to enforce energetic boundaries. A great way to make the most of this list (and your time) is to combine exercise with some of the other suggestions on this list – hike in nature (#2), swim (#3), or take a combo yoga/meditation (#8) class.
- Spend Time in Nature. Nature emanates its own vibration wholly apart from the human vibration that we are inundated with. Connecting with nature – or even better immersing yourself in it for periods of time – will cleanse human vibration from your system. In addition, the lower four chakras are each linked to specific elements – root/earth, sacral/water, navel/fire, heart/air – and so connecting to these vibrations within nature will particularly cleanse and empower the corresponding chakras. However, it’s important to be discerning – heavily populated parks may carry more human than natural vibration. On the other hand, safety needs to be a priority – don’t trek out on your own as far from all other humanity as you can, placing yourself at risk. In addition, some powerful natural spots are not suitable for spending a lot of time. That’s another whole topic unto itself, but in short, if you ever start feeling spacey or irritable in a location, leave. Pay attention to how a place makes you feel.
- Embrace Water. All the elements have powerful cleansing and healing potential, but water is particularly good for empaths. Water is the element of the second/sacral chakra, which is also linked to our emotional body, so water has a special ability to help cleanse emotions picked up from others from our subtle body. Drink water, sit by water, bathe in water, swim in water – embrace water!
- Limit Screen Time. Both the content and vibration of what we take in from television, the internet, and even books can greatly influence our awareness and lodge in our subtle body. Pay attention to how something makes you feel, and disengage if it’s not good. Yes, there is a place for discomfort in media, even for violence if it is portraying some truth for a greater purpose, but you need to make conscious choices about when, where, and how much to connect. As an empath, more than anything you need to prioritize the integrity of your own energy body, and give yourself enough time media-free to feel what that is like.
- Nest. Make your home a sanctuary, a true nest or womb-like space that creates a sense of nurturing, safety, and cleansing. Consciously select the décor, based on the colors and items that create this sense for you. Make sure there is one place in your home – a meditation corner for example – which is wholly yours, filled with only your energy. This spot can become your touchstone, and once you have spent enough time in it, every time you sit in it you will begin to shed any foreign energy lodged in your subtle body.
- Make Your Sleep Sacred. Sleep is our time to naturally cleanse and replenish, including on our subtle body level. Set yourself up for a good night’s sleep by paying special attention to what you watch or read before bed. Make your bed and bedroom a sanctuary, creating the best possible environment for a good night’s sleep. Bathe or shower before bed if you have had a particularly demanding day energetically. And visualize a radiant light as you fall asleep – intend to connect with deep, cleansing light. Each time you wake up in the night, reinforce this. There is a time and place for dreams, and certainly dreams can be a powerful intuitive force, but the most meaningful dreams will emerge from light. If we do not connect with this light early in the night, we will likely spend the entire night playing out the energies we have picked up during our day instead. Some psychological processing is needed, but cleansing and true rest are needed even more.
- Get Enough Protein. Our root and navel chakras are most directly involved in our creation of energetic boundaries and filters, and protein can really help to fuel our root chakra. Protein is grounding and provides a density to our energy field that we can use. You can read more about this in a prior post of mine, Eating for Your Subtle Body.
- Meditate. Any form of meditation will help you to discover the integrity of your own energy field, because you are returning your mind over and over to your own being, from wherever it has wandered. Chakra meditation or pranayama work (breathe based yogic work) has the additional benefit of activating the cleansing energies lodged deep in our subtle body. A chakra meditation with affirmations such as this one can serve this purpose. Of course if you have a more developed meditation practice of any style, build it into your routine.
- Affirm Boundaries. I have purposely waited to discuss boundaries until #9, because it is difficult to really establish and hold firm boundaries if you are not engaging in self-care along the lines of numbers 1-8. It’s also easy to get obsessed with boundaries and avoiding negative energy, focusing on isolating yourself, rather than on the self-care necessary to enable you to interact fully with the world and maintain the integrity of your energy body. Nevertheless, establishing a sense of energetic boundary can be very useful for an empath, especially if you have internal conditioning that you don’t deserve or can’t enforce bounaries (as is common for anyone who experienced abuse of any type as a child.) I have written about how to establish basic boundaries in other places though, so I won’t go into it here. Try this post, or my DailyOm course, which includes a class on boundaries.
- Be Like the Sky. The sky is often used as a reference point for meditation, or as a metaphor for our primordial awareness or essential spirit, because the sky is vast and open, and everything occurs within it. You can expend a lot of energy on boundaries, building a defense around your energy body, or you can expend a lot of energy on self-care and cleansing your energy body. But if you are connected to the open, vast spirit at the heart of your being, and if you are identifying with that rather than with your psychological triggers, much less foreign energy will ‘stick’ with or to you. It is our reactivity, our reaction to all that occurs around us, that pushes our internal buttons, causes us to latch on to it, and pulls energy into our being. The spiritual process is one of re-identifying ourselves with our skylike nature, rather than with our conditioned emotional patterns. It’s a lifelong endeavor (or multi-life!) But as you travel along it, as you become more spacious, the need for a certain kind of boundary and self-protection falls away. You still need to care for your body and subtle body, but being an empath becomes something else entirely. So be like the sky!
If you would really like to explore empathy from an energetic perspective on a deeper level, and how to own the related intuitive gifts, Cyndi Dale’s book on the subject is the best around:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. – MLK Jr.
It is the lightest day of the year here in the upper hemisphere, but I think it’s safe to say many of us are feeling the weight of the world’s darkness. The question for spiritual seekers, of any faith, is how to respond? How do we meet darkness, both in ourselves and others? When do we take a stand, and how do we do it in a way that does not just become opposition for its own sake, an ego-driven impulse to fight and be right – darkness attempting to drive out darkness? How do we bring forth the light within ourselves when we are fearful and doubt-filled? How do we respond and act from a place of love?
I’m not sure myself, but I do know that sometimes when we cannot find an answer, we need to drop the question, and just BE. The fear-generated mental activity prevents us from resting in the light and love that is the natural essence of our being. The more we try to figure out how to act from love, the further we get from feeling it. And even feeling it is not enough, for love is not simply a transient state, an emotion that ebbs and flows, it is the heart of our awareness itself. It is that which we all have in common, and is present in every being, regardless of how covered and distorted it may be in any given individual at any given time.
With that in mind I’ve created a free Solstice meditation, a heart chakra opener. The meditation is rooted in white light, the light I work with as the innermost level of the chakras. It is designed to be done for 1 week daily following Solstice or your birthday (a personal ‘Sun’ day), but really you could use it anytime. It has several energy work components:
- Beginning in your heart, you will link your heart chakra energy to the lower chakras and then the upper chakras in sequence, all using white light. This is the clearing portion of the work.
- You will then select a memory that constricts your heart chakra in some way, and imagine it dissolving.
- Then select someone for whom you feel great love, and release the ‘attached’ or ‘grasping’ part of that love, allowing it to be a conduit to a greater, non-specific state of love.
- Then you will practice self-love, generating waves of light to your body.
- Send waves of light and love out in greater and greater circles from yourself, until it encompasses the entire world.
- Center back in your heart and ground your energy, committing to bringing this light into this body, this plane, this life.
May this meditation bring you peace and light, and may this emanate from you into the world.
Solstice Heart Opening Meditation (13 minutes)
Download (right click and Save As):
Please don’t hesitate to email or post questions. Namaste-
P.S. The next round of my Energy Healing for Sexual Trauma teleseminar is beginning in August, and the next round of my Working with Chakra Levels course begins in September. Information and registration may be found at Enlightened Energetics.
Anxiety’s like a rocking chair. It gives you something to do, but it doesn’t get you very far. – Jodi Picoult, Sing You Home
Plenty has already been written elsewhere about the negative health effects of anxiety, and about the value of using meditation to deal with it. In this post I wanted to offer a chakra affirmation exercise for working with anxiety, because so often we have emotional patterns linked to anxiety lodged in our subtle body. The wonderful thing about chakra affirmation work is that it is something you can do in the moment, and even just a few seconds can help you to shift your response to a situation, or to halt the momentum of anxiety as it starts to build in your psyche.
But first, we need to explore two things: What is anxiety really? And what really are affirmations?
Anxiety is distinguished from fear, and from stress. Fear is specific – we fear a specific event, situation, person or object. Stress is an overload of our system in some form – physical, emotional, mental or all three. Either fear or stress can trigger the feeling of anxiety, but anxiety can also be free floating, and in fact can be the foundation feeling that generates states of fear and stress.
In other words, anxiety is often not linked to your external circumstances, especially if you feel chronically anxious. It is an energetic and emotional pattern locked into your being. As long as it’s there, it becomes a lens through which you see the world, and it will attach itself to anything that happens to you, generating anxious thoughts about whatever is going on (or even out of nothing) in order to feed itself. Then those thoughts generate more feelings of anxiety – more fuel – in a self-perpetuating cycle.
The key then is to break the cycle – free up, or transform, the energy locked in anxiety within your being. Because anxiety so often manifests in the form of physical symptoms, many methods for working with it involve physical exercise or movement because these can discharge the anxious energy. Meditation approaches it from a mental and emotional perspective, in terms of learning to let go of the anxious thoughts and feelings as they arise, cutting off their fuel.
Chakra affirmations work a little differently – they are about tapping into the energy as it specifically manifests in your subtle body, and working to transform that energy into a helpful form. Affirmations are not simply words we say out loud – the feeling we generate as we speak is the most important aspect, not the words. As we say a chakra affirmation, we are attempting to fully manifest the associated feeling and vibration in that chakra. This shift in our energy, and thus in our awareness, is the true practice. The words we speak are just part of the tool. We engage our entire mind, body, and subtle body in affirmation work, and this is why for those who connect with it, it can be so powerful a transformative tool.
We all hold anxiety in different parts of our subtle body, and to work with chakra affirmations most effectively, it’s helpful to try to identify your own patterns by thinking about your anxiety response. You may not always even be aware you are anxious, but engage in behavior or thought patterns that are the result of anxiety – for example, binging on comfort foods, getting defensive, or isolating yourself.
The chart below offers the most common Anxiety Response linked to each chakra – essentially the way in which that chakra becomes blocked when you are feeling anxious. Then the Focus section offers you ideas for where to shift your attention in order to begin to transform and free up that chakra’s natural energy and expression. The Affirmations are examples of statements you can use as you attempt to shift your energy into this new place.
Anxiety Response: Escapism – You seek to escape your anxiety through daydreaming, eating, drinking, watching television, gaming, online activities etc. Addictions of any type may be rooted in this tendency. From an energetics perspective, this pattern involves disconnecting from your root chakra.
Shift: Focus on grounding and presence – staying with reality and breathing into the anxiety – as you focus on your tailbone and sitbones, and/or your connection to the earth.
Affirmation: I am safe. I am supported. I am grounded in the earth. I am fully present to whatever arises.
Anxiety Response: Rigidity – You freeze up, are unable to adapt to new circumstances or to accept change. You may also have difficulty connecting with sensual and sexual experience. You may hold a lot of tension in your muscles, which can include holding others’ tension or stress as your own.
Shift: Focus on fluidity and adaptability – being ‘in the flow’. Focus on mindful sensual experience – allowing yourself pleasure in sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures.
Affirmation: I am adaptable. I am in the flow. I am connected to my body. I am fully present to the small pleasures of my day.
Anxiety Response: Control – you hold on tightly to your life, attempting to control others and outcomes. This is often combined with being judgmental, including towards yourself. At times, this may also develop into anger or aggression.
Shift: Focus on letting go and acceptance, including self-acceptance. Cultivate a sense of openness and appreciation for difference, diversity of style, and approaches to life.
Affirmation: I am relaxed. I am centered. I am accepting. I am fully present to others, however they express themselves.
Anxiety Response: Self-protection – you build emotional walls, which may evolve into pushing others away and isolating yourself. When feeling hurt or vulnerable, you often either move into self-defensive anger (outward expression) or feelings of unworthiness and self-loathing (inward expression.)
Shift: Focus on self-compassion and staying with vulnerable emotions, as opposed to blocking or fleeing them. Extend yourself healing light.
Affirmation: I love myself. I am at peace. I deserve happiness. I am fully present to my emotions, and allow myself to feel, and when necessary, heal, them.
Anxiety Response: People pleasing – you may overtalk or overshare as part of efforts to win people over, or you may constantly mediate your speech according to what you think people want to hear. You may fear others’ reactions to speaking your truth.
Shift: Focus on moving inward towards who you truly are, and communicating from that place. Let go of fears around how others will respond to you. Imagine a connection between your heart and mouth.
Affirmation: I am authentic. I am honest. I am clear. I am fully present to my truth, and communicate from that place within myself.
Anxiety Response: Frazzled – you have a busy mind, constantly worrying about the future, revisiting the past, or weighing options over and over. You have little connection to your intuition or a sense of ‘knowing’.
Shift: Focus on quieting your mind, and activities that shift your attention away from overthinking – exercise, music, artistic activities, or anything that gets you into your body and/or experiential level of mind.
Affirmation: I am centered. I am wise. I am intuitive. I am fully present to my connection with the universe.
Anxiety Response: Doubt – you feel disconnected from your spirituality, or from a sense of connection with spirit or the unseen. You spin in doubt, about self and/or beliefs, or swing between manic ‘forced’ positivity and doubt.
Shift: Focus on spiritual practice such as prayer or meditation, along with questioning or study directly aligned with any faith-related doubts that are arising (as opposed to just ‘spinning’ through doubt and faith phases.) In other words, actively seek – engage in being an active spiritual seeker, and doubts are ok as a part of that, if they are used to spur you forward towards more seeking.
Affirmation: I am seeking. I am open. I am connected to spirit. I am fully present to however spirit wants to interact with me.
You may recognize yourself in several of these descriptions, as we usually have 2-3 that we cycle through, and they may work together. For example, the third/navel chakra is linked to our mental body, and so anxiety-related patterns of the third chakra and the sixth chakra (third eye) often go together. We may worry and obsessively plan (blocked sixth chakra) in an attempt to control (third chakra) our circumstances, trying in vain to allay our anxiety through this sense of control. The second and fourth chakras also often go together – we may freeze up (blocked second chakra) and push people away through coldness or irritability (blocked heart) in an attempt to avoid any connection that might make us feel vulnerable.
There are really an endless number of ways we might respond to anxiety. In fact, at core an existential anxiety about our separation from Source is the root of the ego’s desire to establish itself as dominant. In this sense, anxiety is underneath many of our other emotions. When we get to this deeper level and begin to work directly with anxiety, we are closer to connecting with Source, spirit, and our natural enlightenment. Becoming comfortable with this anxiety and practicing relaxing into it is how we let go into light, and a necessary part of the awakening process.
However, in a moment when we are triggered, it is not always possible to access this level, and working with our subtle body through the chakras can be very helpful. You could do all of these affirmations for all of your chakras as a formal sitting meditation, and in fact that’s something I recommend on a regular basis for those working to really shift anxiety patterns lodged in the subtle body. But if you can’t, in the moment when you are feeling anxious, it’s most effective for you to strengthen the chakra directly related to the pattern most prominent for you. Even just 30 seconds of focusing in on the associated chakra and inwardly stating your affirmations while you attempt to shift into that energy will loosen the hold of whatever emotion is arising. Then later when you are out of the triggering situation, you may be able to work with your anxiety on a deeper level through other tools.
Of course you can always create your own affirmations, and add visualizations to help you connect with the chakra energy you are attempting to bring forth. Colors, sounds, nature elements, even scenes of places that you associate with these energies can help (look back at some of the associations in my Chakra Levels series for ideas.) Remember, affirmations are meant to be felt, not simply spoken (although speaking them is a start, and if it’s all you can muster in the moment, try it!)
May this be helpful and healing to you. Namaste-
P.S. April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and there are many ways you can further healing for survivors, pursue your own healing, or donate to causes dedicated to stopping sexual violence worldwide. Check out this wonderful post on the importance of a holistic approach to healing for survivors at The Breathe Network, and view their offerings on trauma-informed healing modalities while you are there. Or checkout RAINN or VDay for other resources, and ways to help. I will be offering the next round of my own Energy Work for Sexual Trauma teleseminar starting in July, followed by another round of my Working with Chakra Levels teleseminar in the Fall.
March is Women’s History Month, and so each year at this time I like to add to my Historical Women’s Mystics series. After reading an article about the U.S. Presidency being the final political glass ceiling, I found myself thinking about the religious glass ceiling – all five major world religions, and most smaller ones too, still deny women top level leadership roles. Of course the mystic’s journey is a personal one, and we can bypass religious hierarchy to commune directly with spirit/Source/awakening/God. All of the women I’ve featured in this series did so, and many emerged as prominent teachers and spiritual leaders within their time. But how many more might have followed their lead had more women leaders been present? What message is sent today to the vast majority of women who seek within Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism by the fact that top organizational positions are still not available to them? How many women seekers internalize the message that their relationship to spirit must be mediated by men?
Of course there have always been women’s spiritual communities, with their own leadership structures, many of which existed simultaneously with, or even within, patriarchal traditions. So I decided this month to highlight just a few. May you draw inspiration and guidance from them (and perhaps glimpse a past life!)
The guild associated with the Oracle of Delphi is one of the few Greek priestess guilds we have credible historical information on. The Oracle functioned in some form for well over a thousand years, from approximately the 8th century BC to 4th AD. While we think of the Pythia (the Oracle at any given time) as one woman, in fact three women were usually rotating between the position. A guild of priestesses cared for them, while others cared for the associated Apollo temple and trained the novices. The position was an exhausting one, with the trances required to function as Pythia for hours on end wearing on the body. The training was rigorous and esoteric, and only passed from woman to woman.
At its heyday, to be a member of the guild offered a freedom and status not accorded to other women, such as the right to income and property, freedom from taxation, and the freedom to live untethered to any man. This is in fact the original meaning of the word ‘virgin’ – living a life unattached to a man, although it later was extended to sexual virginity. While in its declining years the temple was run by priests, there’s a lot of evidence that for many hundreds of years prior to this the guild was an all-female mystery school focused on divine vision and prophecy. Other such guilds likely existed throughout early Ancient Greek society, particularly in Athens.
Another pre-Christian women’s priestess community was that of the ‘keepers of the flame of Brigid’ in Kildare, Ireland. Possibly part of a Druid tradition, or possibly their own independent tradition, the shrine at Kildare served as a training center for priestesses studying the healing and occult arts. A deep connection to nature was at the heart of this tradition, and many of the graduating priestesses seem to have traveled to other parts of the country to tend sacred groves, caves, or hills, or to serve as healers and priestesses in service to the goddess Brigid. Some believe a 30 year commitment was typical, with ten years of receiving training, ten years of fulfilling duties, and ten years of teaching others, followed by the freedom to continue on with the temple or marry and leave.
A sacred flame was tended day and night by the priestesses in Kildare, one that was adopted centuries later by nuns when a convent dedicated to St. Brigid (a Christianization of the goddess) was built. The nuns still tend this flame today, which means it has burned (mostly) continuously for thousands of years.
Christian convents, particularly in the medieval ages, formed their own unique women’s spiritual communities, and many appear to have functioned autonomously from the male-dominated church hierarchy. However, there were other interesting spiritual options for women during this time as well, most notably the Beguines. Inspired by two late twelfth century Belgium women, Ivetta of Huy and Mary of Oignies, the Beguines were groups of women within Northern European cities who belonged to a cloister but lived alone and dedicated their lives to good works without taking lifelong vows. At the movement’s height, a noviate would typically train with a ‘Grand Mistress’ along with other women, and make vows of chastity. After training she would live alone but travel out in the city to help the sick and poor. She might continue this way throughout her life, or eventually decide to marry and return to lay life.
Beguines were one of the few Christian communal structures entirely founded and run by women. The largest beguinage, in Ghent, had over a thousand members at one point. Some were later incorporated into the Third Order of St. Francis, while others eventually developed a more mystic bent, emphasizing mystic experience more than good works as the foundation for the religious path.
Sixteenth century Safed, Israel was site of one of the most important periods in the development of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism. Isaac Luria, sometimes called the father of modern Kabbalah, lived and taught there during this time, along with many fellow rabbis and students. But as Tirzah Firestone covers in her book The Receiving, a group of female visionaries also lived within Safed at this time, studying and receiving prophetic visions. Francesca Sarah was the most prominent of these women, and several surviving stories document the tremendous respect accorded her seeing. Other stories indicate that a group of such women existed and that they may have developed their own mystic practices together. In any case, they were definitely central to the development of Kabbalah, which is particularly notable in light of the fact that at the same time throughout Europe women were being burned at the stake for similar mystic visions.
I’ve saved my favorite historical women’s spiritual community for last – the Tantrikas of the Pala Period in India (8th-13th century.) As Miranda Shaw outlines in her excellent Passionate Enlightenment, during this time Tantric yoginis lived independently and in small communities of their own engaged in spiritual practice based on principles of embodiment, and the sacredness of the senses and all experience. This of course famously included Tantric practices of sacred sexuality, and some historians have tended to see these women as merely sexual partners for yogi counterparts. But in fact the women were often the teachers, and the union (on all levels!) of male Buddhist scholars and female Tantrikas birthed Tantric Buddhism at this time. Women were able to activate the kundalini more readily, and to become a conduit for divine energies. They studied these on their own, living independent lives devoted to spiritual practice, and emphasizing the divinity of daily life and experience, as opposed to considering monastic life the pinnacle of spiritual living. Their teachings and practices heavily influenced both the development of Buddhism and yoga in India at the time.
There are so, so many more fascinating women’s spiritual communities to explore – Ancient Egyptian priestesses, Druidess orders, female Sufi dervishes, Native American female shamans, the female-dominated Japanese religion of Oomoto, among many others. As we continue to surface and retell religious history with an eye to the women involved, may we all draw inspiration from their stories and questing. May it bring us closer to realizing the light within each of us, which exists beyond gender, beyond culture, beyond religion.
Namaste, and feel free to share any information about your own favorite historical women’s spiritual communities in the comments.