Is there a dimension of divine wisdom particularly natural to women? And if so, what role is it playing in the spiritual evolution of humanity?
These questions led me from a Buddhist monastery in the golden-green foothills of the Himalayas to Glastonbury, a place of Arthurian legends; from the mayhem of Las Vegas to the warm darkness of a sweat lodge in Denver. For two years I worked closely with eight mystics – seven women and one man – from a wide range of traditions including Lakota Sioux, Sufism, Buddhism, and West-African Shamanism, all the time looking for clues that would help unveil the many faces of a spiritual consciousness one contributor calls the Unknown She.
These mystics answered my questions with power and clarity, indicating that a feminine dimension of the divine is emerging into our collective consciousness, and that by aligning ourselves with this wisdom we can help the world move into the next phase of its spiritual evolution. They point out that this world and its resources – human, ecological, and spiritual – are being quickly depleted in part by outdated patriarchal values regarding life and our relationship to God. A patriarchal orientation, which has guided much of our spiritual understanding of the last two thousand years, has revealed the sacred beyond the limitations of worldly life, allowed a detachment from the restrictions of the body, and awoken us to realities far beyond the physical world. But the divine is alive and changing, and longs to reveal itself in new ways. The heavens are no longer the source of our spiritual sustenance. As we look heavenward for answers which are no longer there, we leave the world behind in a fog of forgetfulness, alienation and spiritual despair.
By aligning ourselves with divine feminine consciousness we can call God down from the heavens and begin to rectify the split between spirit and matter, light and darkness, and heaven and earth which has characterized our recent age. This is not a return to matriarchal times, but a union of ageless feminine wisdom with the fruits of contemporary masculine consciousness, a new balance that will birth the next era in spiritual awareness. In this turn of the spiral in our evolution we can awaken within a consciousness of oneness that life has never known. Life itself will become alive in a new way, the heart of the world can begin to open, and undiscovered resources of the planet will begin to reveal themselves.
When I met with these inspiring teachers – Sobonfu Somé, Ani Tenzin Palmo, Lynn Barron, Angela Fischer, Andrew Harvey, Ginny Matthews, Pansy Hawk Wing and Jackie Crovetto – I asked for practical instructions in how to mend these splits and recognize divine presence within life. Each one directed me to turn toward the feminine qualities within myself and honour the feminine qualities in the world. For feminine spiritual traditions, they pointed out, and the mystical elements within many spiritual traditions, have always shown us that the created world is sacred, that light is hidden within darkness, and that the way Home is through loving service to the organic oneness of which we are all a part.
Men and women both have a role to play in these times. Feminine wisdom holds many answers, and we have a responsibility to acknowledge its presence, and allow it to emerge as a force in the world. And women have a particular responsibility in this process. Women’s spiritual consciousness, which holds the secret of how spirit and matter come together to create new life, is needed for the mystical process that is taking place within the whole. In order to serve the needs of this new era, women must really live who they are without hesitation, and leave behind patterns of insecurity, dependency, and fear that have inhibited them from expressing what they know is real. Men can serve by developing their own feminine nature, and also by supporting and protecting women as they accept their responsibilities during these changing times.
How do we uncover and live our feminine wisdom? The first step, many of these mystics agree, is to come down from the mountain, to descend from the transcendent stance that has characterized our spirituality for so long, and really become part of life.
Descending from transcendence
The Unknown She
The Unknown She is a mystical state of pure being, names and described by Lynn Barron, a Sufi mystic. She says:
'The Unknown She is a state of love in which there are no intermediaries between you and the divine. This is a state of silence and emptiness. It is an active, dynamic state of radiating luminous black light. In this state of being, silence and emptiness exist in oneness. This is out natural harmonious state of being. We've never given it conscious recognition as part of who we are because we hadn't evolved there yet in our understanding of ourselves as THAT. But now we can give conscious recognition to this natural state so it can become manifest'.
On a cold October evening I sit with Andrew Harvey, scholar, translator and mystic, in a desert park near his home in Las Vegas. Watching the vivid colours of the desert blaze across the cliffs before us, we discuss patriarchal religions’ emphasis on transcendence. For so long our world’s major religions have directed us to God through turning away from ordinary life on earth. Ascetic practices, which include a suppression or transmutation of instinctual energies such as sexuality and other desires, were emphasized. Spiritual aspirants strove to go beyond attachments and responsibilities in this world to be with a God who exists elsewhere. The shadow side to these approaches, Andrew explains, has alienated us from the glory and wonder of life itself.
'Everything you have ever been told about the divine is prejudiced by patriarchal distortions that define the divine almost obsessively in transcendent, not immanent terms', Andrew maintains. 'The addiction to transcendence keeps everybody in a coma. This addiction is in fact the ultimate heroin because it keeps you high, self absorbed, and falsely detached.'
During all my meetings the message was the same – we need to enter life fully, for this is where our love and attention is needed. When we develop our spiritual consciousness through involvement in life, we nourish life as part of our own process of evolution, and help awaken the world to its divine nature. Sitting with Angela Fischer at the picnic table at her home in northern Germany, her children playing behind us in the yard, this Sufi asks me, smiling, 'Why not go to God while embracing life? Why not surrender to Him while dancing, so that He can celebrate His beauty and His joy through us?'
Almost two years after my talks with Andrew and Angela, I meet with Ginny Mathews, a lay-ordained nun in the Rinzai Zen tradition, in her home in northern California. Drinking tea with Ginny on Sunday morning while her sons sleep in their bedrooms, we discuss the trap of many spiritual seekers to project God beyond our ordinary experience.
'I think we tend to wrongly identify spiritual states as "transcendent",' Ginny tells me. 'As though when one experiences these states one is above or beyond something. So we are encouraged to strive for something ‘above’ and ‘beyond’. Of course it’s true – one does go beyond the limitations of the ego. But isn’t it more accurate to say that these are states of real presence? They reflect something of us really being here? For me, they even depend on a rootedness to the earth. They include my centre of gravity, my physicality.'
Later, she continues, 'Everything dies into formlessness and emerges back out of formlessness. Everything dies and is born. But transcendence is neither the dying nor the being born. Transcendence is just an escape.'
Sobonfu Somé, a West African shaman, also stresses that the feminine way is not to transcend life, but to be fully connected within it. Talking with her in her California cottage one spring afternoon, her bright African dress and headscarf echoing the flowers outside, she explains, 'Feminine energy is an energy of connection. My power comes from being connected to the wholeness of life, to the great web of life and light that connects everything together.'
Through their natural relationality, women can easily become conscious of their connection to a web of oneness, of light and life, which flows through the world and beyond. 'The web of life and light contains wisdom, knowledge, and a healing energy for the whole world,' Sobonfu says. 'Healing energy that binds us together, and helps flush out what is not necessary from our lives.'
Pansy Hawk Wing, a Lakota Sioux elder whom I met in Denver, agrees that it is through connection that feminine power flows and allows what is needed to be given. One of Pansy’s aims is to encourage women to lead more Lakota ceremonies, thus bringing feminine power back to her tradition. The time of achievement through rising above others is over, she tells me as we sit at her kitchen table, watching the snow swirling outside the windows.
'The warrior is more into acquiring things. Being the head of a territory, exercising power over external things. Acquiring more land, more horses, more power. This is the focus of the warrior. Going outward. The feminine aspect is, you go inward and you nurture. You go in and you love, you go in and you bring balance. This way is stronger. It allows people freedom. The freedom to connect with Spirit, freedom to walk this earth, freedom have access to safety and nurturing and love.'
The feminine dimension of divine consciousness works through love. As Lynn Barron, a Sufi mystic, tells me when I visit her small house in the desert outside of Los Angeles, 'Love is the female element.'
Love is a power of connection, of relationship, of oneness. Love does not know boundaries or borders, it leads us to where we are needed, and brings us what we need. Love links us together on the physical level, and links us through many planes of existence so higher energies can flow into the world through our hearts.
Lynn herself was annihilated in the fires of divine love, her ego burned away during a five-year mystical experience. She was taken by love and led deeper and deeper into her heart and beyond. Eventually she came to live in a consciousness she describes as the Unknown She, a state of pure being. Sitting by her woodstove one evening, in the darkness of the desert night, she describes the process of coming down from the heavens into her heart.
'The spiritual ascent is work, effort. You take one step at a time, pass through one stage after another, move closer and closer to the light. But suddenly the light becomes so bright it is black. And the descent begins. You have surrendered and it's not up to you. You are taken by love. You are gone. You are lost in the luminous black, the sweet silence, the dynamic, living emptiness of the Unknown She.'
Like Lynn, many of the mystics I spoke with emphasized the transformative power of love. To love fully requires incredible strength, for it awakens us to our deep connections within life and beyond, and leaves us vulnerable to how life and the divine need us.
When I traveled to England to visit another Sufi, Jackie Crovetto, a mother of three who works part time in a health clinic, I was offered the same message. Unconditional love for the Truth, she explains, burns away the attachments that arise within the ego, revealing an endless love that unifies all experience within a divine oneness. 'If you stay in the fire, true to Love, true to the deepest longing of your heart, a strange alchemy happens. Your expressions of love deepen and become more inclusive; an unfettered love starts to permeate all your relationships.'
Later she continues, her wild eyes shining, 'Love lies at the core of my being, and enters all my days. And to be in love is to live in love, is to be vitally alive! Every moment is born anew. This is love, love that knows no bounds, that flows through the created and uncreated world, that brings emptiness into form, and brings the freedom of death into each moment!'
Love is a divine energy within life, and flows into life from finer planes through the consciousness of our hearts. Love is a key to divine incarnation, to how spirit and matter intertwine, and how we can all relate to each other in a state of divine oneness. Ginny presents the paradoxical potential of love when she said to me in her kitchen, 'In the vastness of love we can really meet each other.'
When women really live the love that already exists in their lives, and accept the deep vulnerability love demands, they will be led by love in the spiritual work they need to do. As Angela told me, 'The transcendent and formless have become the goals, the world has been left behind. And yet for women this goes against our nature, which is to be involved, through love, in the entire process of creation.'
Guiding love and light into creation
Mystics – men and women alike – have always worked at the borderlands between this world and the unseen, guiding what is needed from the creative emptiness of the beyond into creation. Women intuitively know this process within the consciousness of their bodies; it manifests in how they receive the soul of a being into the womb. And women know that their responsibilities do not end with the birthing process, they remain connected through love to what they have guided into the world. We can all honour these instinctual qualities and allow them to nourish life.
How do we do this work? The first step is to access the dark silence within us. In many traditions the dark silent emptiness is described as the birthplace of all creation. Buddhism has traditionally identified emptiness as a feminine principle, as I learned on my trip to India to meet with Ani Tenzin Palmo, a British-born Tibetan Buddhist nun who moved to India when she was just nineteen and spent twelve years in retreat in a mountain cave.
Sitting in her small office – outside the monastery where the young nuns of her new nunnery are temporarily living, she summarizes a Buddhist understanding of emptiness. 'The feminine side is something open, inclusive, intuitive. That emptiness, that spacious quality, includes everything but within itself is not a thing.'
Jackie explains that emptiness is a quality of our being, sometimes recognized in love. 'Love has an element of endless space. In order to participate in life at a very deep level, we need to be aware of this space. And we all have the responsibility to be caretakers for that space – which is the receptive silence, the stillness, which is where the divine flows into life, a threshold where we can come to know God.'
And Lynn reminds us that emptiness is not just something we seek, but a living force seeking us: 'Remember, it is said that there is a hidden treasure that longs to be known. Enter Her light and Her light will take you to the treasure. Enter this luminous blackness, and She who is love itself will take you deeper and deeper into love.'
Accessing the emptiness of our real nature is the first step. Awake in the silence, we will be shown what is next. Vulnerable to love, we receive what is being given and guide it where it is needed.