The Spiritual Journey of Motherhood
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.