Last week we finished a weekend seminar in Vienna: at one time the home of Mozart, Beethoven, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler and many others. My host took me to Theater an der Wien: the oldest opera house in the city, where The Magic Flute and many other great operas had their premiere. Afterwards we went to Vienna’s oldest coffee house, Cafe Sperl’s, where we sat on antique embroidered chairs, sipped Viennese coffee, most probably in the same seats that have been occupied by Freud and others.
During the weekend I was able to witness one of the greatest miracles awakening coaching can offer: the vastly important distinction between masculine and feminine practice.
There are many great tragedies that have befallen humanity. 250 years ago we still had slavery in America. Hard to believe now, isn’t it? Cruel dictators have frequently been allowed to oppress millions of people. And another great tragedy, just as important, is the way in which, women have tried to follow practices developed by and suited to men, for thousands of years,.
The group of people who attended the weekend intensive was about 65% women to 35% men. So on Sunday morning I talked a little bit about masculine and feminine practice. Of course we could write books about the subject, but in a nutshell let me say that men tend to find their center, their connection with themselves and their connection with the divine, by getting centered, still and silent.
When a man sits with a straight spine, closes his eyes and brings his attention to his breath, or even just to the movement of energy in his spine, he quickly discovers a centering, and knows peace, silence and well-being for no reason. There is, in fact, a biochemical explanation for all of this. One of the best books on the subject is John Gray’s Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice, where he explains that both men and women are subject to stress: to a build-up of overwhelming experiences that causes you to lose connection with yourself. In the body this means that the adrenal gland is dumping adrenaline and cortisol faster than it can be neutralized. A man overcomes stress through the release of testosterone. When he is able to stand up heroically and take action against insurmountable odds, his stress is dissipated. But if he goes on doing this for too long, he gets burned out. When he sits still with a straight spine, either with his eyes closed or staring into space, his body has a chance to replenish testosterone reserves. If you think back to our ancient ancestors living in caves, the men would go out hunting all day and then sit around the fire, their clubs laid by their side, staring into the fire and saying very little. They were replenishing their testosterone.
Besides having breasts and a vagina instead of a penis, women also have other important differences in their body. Women have about 1/30th as much testosterone in their system as men do, and they balance the stress hormones not through the release of testosterone but through the release of Oxytocin, sometimes known as the ‘feel good’ hormone. Oxytocin reserves are built up, not through sitting silently with a straight spine, but through any kind of a situation which allows a woman to deeply feel what she’s feeling. A study done at UCLA a few years ago demonstrated that for a woman, just going out to lunch with other women and talking about what is going on in their lives results in significant increase in oxytocin levels.
So there you have it: men release stress and come back to themselves through being silent and awake: hence meditation, Qijong or martial arts act as great stress busters and well as good spiritual practices. Women on the other hand, having different hormones moving through their bodies, release stress and come back to themselves through any opportunity to feel deeply. Feeling anything: sadness, joy, grief, excitement, jealousy for a woman is a portal into feeling love ~ and feeling love is a portal to feeling her true nature.
Now of course both men and women have both masculine and feminine energy; we don’t want to get too stereotyped here. Men also have feelings, women also benefit from meditation and everybody can find the right balance for themselves. The great tragedy I referred to earlier is this: we think we know what is spiritual practice, what is spiritual awakening, what is spiritual life. But historically we don’t really know this, we know the masculine expression of spirituality.
Think about it. Almost all of the great religions and spiritual traditions have been founded by… wait for it… men.
Jesus had how many disciples? That’s right, 12. What was the balance of men to women?
You get the point. All of Buddha’s first students (or arahats) were men, and it was only under great pressure from his mother-in-law, Mahaprajapati, that Buddha was willing to accept a small order of nuns into his original sangha. Until recently, priests, ministers, rabbis, yogis, sadhus, were almost entirely men. Hence spiritual teachings have heavily emphasized practices which benefit men. When a woman has a deep longing to come home to herself, to directly know and merge with the divine, she has often turned to masculine traditions, masculine teachings, masculine teachers, and masculine practices.
Just this last weekend in Vienna, I met a woman who told me in muffled tones during the break that she had been suffering from depression for many years. She said she had traveled to Asia and learned meditation techniques. She had gone deeply into meditation practice. But she was still depressed. And so, to honor this woman and everyone else who has tried to use practices that are not perfectly suited to their gender, I invited everyone to join in forty minutes of feminine spiritual practice. I apologized to the men in the room. “I know that feminine spiritual practice is not ideally suited to you,” I said to them, “so just do your best to join in. Let’s remember that for 5,000 years, women have been forced to do practices that are not suited to them. So we can take this forty minutes as a small re-conciliatory gesture.”
The practice we did was very simple. It is called ‘Feel Without A Story,’ and I recommend it to most of my women clients when they have difficulty in the free flow of feeling. It goes like this: We chose twelve feelings that are different enough from each other that they cover as much as possible the spectrum of feelings that we often have. In this case, we took vulnerability, anger, boredom, jealousy, embarrassment, excitement, guilt, lust, loneliness, fear, despair and devotion. I had already chosen a piece of music for each of these feelings, each one lasting about three minutes. When the music started, the participants would close their eyes ad allow themselves to feel this feeling, and express if fully throughout the body without attaching it to any story. For example, when the music for grief comes, they would enter into grief but without thinking of someone who has died or someone who has left. The art is to feel and experience and express grief without any reason. This can actually be a challenge, because we’re not used to it. We’re so habituated to saying ‘You made me feel.’ In this way we become emotionally reactive and dramatic and in fact lose the ability to feel our feelings deeply.
Some of the feelings in the list are what we would call ‘positive feelings,’ and others we would call ‘negative feelings,’ but actually we’re not thinking about that at all. In this practice, they are just simply feelings to be felt deeply. Then we discover that any feeling fully embraced leads you back into something deeper, into love for no reason. By the end of the forty minutes, almost everyone was glowing, they felt alive, vibrant, able to love again. Some of the men really got benefit from this practice too, and some did not, which is just as it should be. For those who could not relate, it gave them a taste of how the other half lives (or at least how the other half might like to live), and reassured them that the meditation cushion was the appropriate place for them.
Many years ago, I met a woman who had a natural affinity and mastery for feminine spiritual practice. She automatically clicked with how to feel without a story and how, for a woman, this could bring her home to herself. I was so impressed with her depth that I asked her to marry me ~ and she said yes.
And now my wife, Chameli Ardagh, has created an international school dedicated to the art of feminine spiritual practice. It is called the Awakening Women Institute and you can find out more about it here.
Since that weekend in Vienna, I have also visited Munich, another great city steeped in tradition. We had an evening event in Frieberg, and another weekend event in Stuttgart. Now on to Frankfurt, Mainz and Hamburg before my return to Chameli. My favorite thing about these tours is to help people discover exactly the right practice for them, to find the shoe that perfectly fits.