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Defining Women’s Spirituality for the 21st Century

November 17, 2008

It occurred to me recently that even though I have subtitled this blog Women’s Spirituality for the 21st Century, I have yet to write a post defining exactly what women’s spirituality means to me. Since I recently taught a workshop on the topic, and in the coming weeks will be reviewing several women’s spiritual books, I thought now was a great time to communicate exactly what I consider women’s spirituality to be.

First, I’ll say what it is NOT to me. It is not goddess worship or a redefinition of the divine exclusively in sacred feminine terms. I mention this because if you google ‘women’s spirituality’, a lot of the listings you will get back are along these lines, many of which highlight wicca and/or pagan traditions that emphasize feminine symbols of divinity. The popularity of these traditions has exploded in recent decades, partly as a reaction against the patriarchal leadership of the world’s major religions, and the role these religions have often historically played in the suppression and persecution of women.

I like female symbols of divinity, but to me, discarding the world’s major religions wholesale on sexist grounds, and/or redefining God as female, is missing the point. Spiritual knowledge and experience transcend gender. Light is not male or female, and neither is power. And mystics within every major religion have described very similar experiences of divine light and power. This includes women mystics, which is why one part of this site is devoted to profiling historic women mystics, particularly those that achieved their realizations within the major religions of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism or Hinduism.

So in that context, what are the components of a contemporary women’s spirituality? I think it has to address those aspects of women’s lives that are still different from men’s, because these aspects determine what parts of our spiritual paths might be different too. For example:

– How can we juggle work, family, our health, and a spiritual practice? Studies show that we still do the majority of child-rearing and housework, regardless of whether or not we work outside the home, in addition to parent and other caretaking, so juggling is a particularly challenging aspect of our lives. Many women put their spirituality entirely on hold until late in life. For me, finding ways that we can integrate spiritual practice into our days, and begin to see our daily lives as an instrument for spiritual growth, are key.

– How do our bodies and our image of them impact our spiritual journey? Many people tend to think of spirituality as anti-physical, but if you study the mystics in any tradition, you quickly learn nothing could be further from the truth. Our bodies are the instrument through which we experience sacred moments, whether the inspiration of a stunning sunset, the tug in our heart when we feel love for someone, or a more formal practice such as yoga or chakra meditation. And we women tend to have a difficult relationship to our bodies, always wanting to be thinner, curvier, taller, shorter or younger. How does that block our ability to embrace our body as an instrument of our practice? How does it impact our mental and even physical health? And how does having a female brain and body impact how we experience spiritual moments?

– Related to this is, how is our energy different, and how does that impact us spiritually? Many mystic traditions teach that we each have a non-physical energy body or energy centers through which we connect to the world in addition to our physical bodies. How are women’s energy bodies different? How does that impact how we experience both the world and spirituality? How does our energy change in relation to our body as we go through the different phases of our reproductive life cycle? I realize this might be too new-agey for some, but I have found that most women find this information extremely valuable.

– How does gender conditioning impact our path? Specifically, what messages have we received about what it means to be spiritual women, and are they empowering or disempowering? Many religions restrict women’s access to leadership positions, and emphasize nurturing and service as women’s primary religious roles. While these can be important parts of our path, an overemphasis on them can also keep us from pursuing contemplative practices and our full spiritual power. If you believe in enlightenment or full spiritual liberation (as I do), then these practices are an essential part of deepening our spiritual connection.

On this site, I am always on the lookout for books, techniques and other resources that address one or more of these questions in an accessible and contemporary fashion. At the same time, many of the resources offered here are not gender-specific, because much of the spiritual journey isn’t either. We are all trying to free ourselves from the constraints and obsessions of our egoic mind and emotions, and deepen our connection to God, Jehovah, Goddess, Allah, source, spirit, light, the Tao, nirvana (or whatever you prefer to call it.) Our gender impacts our pathway, but doesn’t change the destination.

If you are interested in some meditation techniques you can incorporate into your busy day, try the Meditation for Busy Women series. If you are interested in women’s spiritual books, try the Women’s Spiritual book list, or look over recent reviews on the Book page. Or go to the Women Mystics page for posts profiling both some contemporary and historic women mystics, or the Motherhood page for some recent posts on spirituality and motherhood.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 18, 2008 1:23 am

    I think I’d need convincing that there’s a “women’s spirituality” and a “men’s spirituality.” I think there are psychological differences. And patriarchal societies have given women second-class spiritual status in terms of their ability to rise in the ranks of church hierarchies.

    But at the level of spiritual experience – again, I’d distinguish this from psychology – I don’t see gender difference.

  2. mommymystic permalink*
    November 18, 2008 4:09 am

    I agree, that is part of what I am trying to say here, and part of the reason I am not comfortable with how women’s spirituality is often defined as worshipping female symbols of divinity. But at the level of psychology, and lifestyle, and I would also say at the level of certain energy patterns and physical experiences, there are differences that impact a woman’s path to spiritual experience. Since many of the current pathways, including some contemplation techniques, were mostly developed by men in monasteries, I think there is sometimes a gap in their applicability to women.

    This is the value that addressing women’s unique perspective and lives can sometimes add to their path. But as you allude to, the danger is in getting too caught up in the idea of separate women’s and men’s spiritualities, which misses the whole point that spiritual knowledge transcends these kinds of distinctions.

  3. November 19, 2008 2:46 pm

    Good post.

    For a long time I resisted the idea of feminine/women spirituality. Partly because I have never personally experienced any serious gender issues – home, workplace, etc. Partly because I viewed gender as irrelevant to spiritutality that transcends gender. And finally, because I never felt any kinship with feminine divinity and other elements you mention that is often connected to ‘women’s’ spirituality.

    However, as I have walked my own spiritual journey, and uncovered my own depth, I discovered parts within that were very much about the feminine. I came to accept that you know what, there IS a difference between us, and that’s okay. Not only okay, but essential to fully address your state on this earth. We might all be pure spirit on some other plane, but here, I AM a woman.

    If there is a psychological difference, then that impacts my spirit. It cannot be separated. Likewise historical, social, cultural, and mental differences.

    Our spiritual practice is part of the socio-cultural climate we live in. Issues such as body image may not be a uniquely female problem, but there is a uniqueness to how women have to deal with it.

    Sorry, long comment. lol

  4. mommymystic permalink*
    November 19, 2008 5:55 pm

    Mon, Thanks for your comment, my experience has been similar. I spent a long time studying with a Buddhist teacher very seriously, and did not focus on gender issues at all. But as my path progressed, and as I started to teach myself, I realized there were certain aspects of my experience as a women that influenced my path.

    Thanks also for your own great blog! Love the ‘breastapo’ post!

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