Female versus Male Path?
A question I am often asked is if there is a difference between the spiritual path for women and men. The goal, of course, is the same for both – Self-realisation, becoming who you really are, always were and always will be but have lost sight of what that is.
What causes the problem in the first place is what Buddhists refer to as us having been conditioned through the beliefs and assumptions we picked up from our culture and the world around us about who or what we are and how we should be. We have been brainwashed into thinking that we are something which we are not and this is the root of our suffering. But we all existed prior to this conditioning, in our true state. As a consequence of this conditioning we lose sight of who we really are. We take on an identity which is not us in essence.
The messages women pick up about being a woman are different from the messages men pick up about being a man in this world. In this sense men and women are conditioned differently but both are conditioned and this is the fundamental issue.
In very broad strokes, the male is attributed the traits of rationality, logic, systematic and mechanistic skills and assertiveness. Women are attributed traits of intuition, emotional, empathetic, with co-operative or with a submissive outlook. In other words women are generally seen as people- people and men as things-people. Or to put it another way, women are feelers and men are thinkers. This leads us as individuals to develop in a lopsided way. The conditioning throws us askew, first of by telling us that we are a person (a body/mind complex) and then telling us what sort of particular complex we are. Conditioning shrinks us all from what we really are.
In order to adapt to societies demands we learn to think in particular ways and this at a very deep level imposes on us how to think and act according to the sex of our bodies. In other words we take on the role of being either male or female. We become identified according to our gender role as well as an individual. This means that we minimise or dismiss aspects of ourselves in order to fit in to our role in the world. Conditioning is one of diminishment rather than enhancement. This is the condition of the human being.
I find from the letters I get that women express themselves in emotional language and men do not. Women trust their feelings more than their thoughts as a way of interpreting their experience. If it feels right then it is right. Men tend to trust rational thought as a way understanding their experience. A man works it out, a woman feels it. “Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus” was the title of a very popular book about this phenomenon in the 1990’s.
But, the thing is that all emotions have a thought aspect to them and many thoughts, especially belief laden thoughts, have an emotional effect in the body. I am not including pure intellectual thought as having an emotional aspect but many of our daily thoughts are not intellectual.
Every individual has both thoughts and emotions and most have a conditioned preference between them. In other words we have developed a lop-sided way of interpreting our experience.
Some don’t feel their feelings because they have learned to suppress them and others allow their emotions to dominate their thinking, thereby losing the habit of thinking clearly.
All of us also have the capacity to redress our weakness. If our aim is to become whole again we need to reclaim what we have lost in the process of our conditioning.
In order to become whole again, to become our true selves we need to undo the conditioning. This means that it is necessary for each individual to develop their “weak side” and this takes conscious effort. In a wide sweeping stroke this can be stated as, generally men benefit from becoming more aware of their bodily sensations and emotions and women benefit from becoming clearer and more precise in their thinking.
It also means that both men and women need to become self-determining and accept responsibility for their own maturation. This may be more difficult for women who define themselves in relationships. Men tend to define themselves in relation to the world. Same problem but with a different emphasis.
In spiritual teaching from the past, an idea that is often encountered is that of the “spiritual or mystic marriage”. This is nothing to do with the marriage between two individuals in the world. It is a reference to a transformation that can happen within an individual psyche. It refers to a stage of psychic integration that is often mentioned in mystical literature. This inner marriage happens when both aspects of our psyche are relatively well matched in terms of how they function – hence the need to work our weak side.
Modern science under the speciality of neuroscience has also been learning a lot about how the brain works in recent years. For a long time it has been known that the human brain is made up of two hemispheres which are connected to each other by a bridge of neuronal fibres known as the corpus colossum. It is right at the centre of our brains.
We have all heard the left-brain/right-brain theory of how our brains work and of course there is a close connection between brain and mind even though nobody has yet been able to say what that is.
The left hemisphere of the brain interprets the world in terms of rationality and logic, it reduces what it experiences to a form that can be articulated, categorises things and people and relationships according to rules and principles, separates the world into clear definable areas, such as time, space and relationships etc.
The right hemisphere of the brain interprets the world from a wholistic perpsective, seeing how everything and everyone is interconnected, the relationships between things and persons. It is more interested in the overall picture rather than the individual parts.
To be overly left-brain dominated can be seen in persons who are blind to other peoples emotional and mental state.
An overly right-brained person places little value on rationality and logic. They want what they want, and they feel what they feel and understand that everyone operates out of the same mode.
Neuroscience is now telling us that the well functioning brain and consequently the more wholesome human being is one in which both hemispheres are optimally active. When this happens there is more neuronal traffic between the two hemispheres and the corpus collosum is fully functioning. A stage of whole brain functioning happens when both hemispheres of the brain are fully activated and the traffic between them flows freely in both directions.
Recent research is showing that what we think affects how our brains work, at a neuronal level. Much of this work is coming from Dr. Jill Bolte-Taylor, a brain doctor who had a stroke herself and from it was able to interpret what what actually happening in her brain during the stroke. “A Stroke of Insight” by J Bolte-Taylor.
Dr Rick Hanson and colleagues, also neuroscientists and practising Buddhists are also doing work showing how traditional Buddhist practises lead to whole brain functioning. “Buddhas Brain, -he practical neuroscience of happiness, love and wisdom by Rick Hanson. More information at www.newharbinger.com
In religious language this transformation is described as the union or our male and female essence and is referred to as the mystical marriage. In Jungian psychological terms it is described as the union of the animus and the anima, which he described as leading to a state of “individuation”
This unification initiates your return to the whole-brain functioning in which the two hemispheres of your brain act as one unit.
This unified state is not Self-realisation but it prepares the individual for the next stage of the journey home, which is to find what you are prior to all conditioning.
So, back to the start of this article, the essence of spiritual journey is the same for men and women in that it is a return to who you are prior to all conditioning but the first part looks different in that women are recovering their intellectual facility and men are recovering their emotional facility.