This Navarathri has been a time of intense contemplation and inquiry for me, specifically in beginning to understand what it means to open to femininity. It’s ironic, isn’t it, that a woman has to learn to open to what she has had access to all her life? This is the predicament of the overpowering patriarchy that we grow up in, where we have lost the understanding of our own bodies and energies, in favor of what is fed to us.
And the feeding is tainted and shaped by everything our mothers, grandmothers and girlfriends have learned about themselves – mostly from men. As we have struggled to take a stand in the last hundred years or so, we have unwittingly taken on more of the masculine, for that has been the only way to establish our equality. Even though we intuitively understand that equality does not mean sameness, we have fallen into that trap anyway.
Some of the women I’ve met have preserved their intimacy with the feminine, either because they were groomed this way by their female relatives from a tender age, or have a highly developed sense of where they stand – comfortably in their own skin. I’m in awe of these women, for neither did I have that upbringing nor did I have an inherent acceptance of the feminine in me.
On the contrary, I believed strongly in going after what I wanted, working hard for my goals, and enjoying my “hard earned” benefit, or wallowing in my “unfair loss.” Driven and ambitious, I’d been a poster child in some ways for what a woman can accomplish.
In the process, I’d lost touch with the feminine.
Some years ago, I was in a meeting with my colleagues. As it happens often, I was the only woman in the room. I heard myself speak and my voice stopped me in my tracks – I wondered how and when my thought process had become identical to theirs. I had always considered myself to be a fierce feminist, but it was shocking to see that I was going about it the only way I knew how – the patriarchal way of being a go-getter.
A second realization hit home – I didn’t know another way.
Spirituality and Femininity
If we turn to spirituality to learn to open to the feminine, we can be similarly disappointed and/or surprised. Most of modern spirituality isn’t really catered to opening to femininity.
Let me explain.
The spiritual path is a dance of two movements – the rise of effort and the descent of grace.
The Sanskrit word for effort is purushartha, which is a bit telling. Purushartha is a word that applies to the four universal desires or goals of life, explained in detail in my book, Shakti Rising.
It also means self-effort, particularly as it applies to the spiritual path. The word Purusha has many meanings, one of which is cosmic man. The esoteric meaning of the word is the atman or Brahman, or the unchanging, eternal Self. However, the word has decidedly masculine roots.
If we examine our worship of effort as a society, we come to understand the overwhelming influence of the masculine on everything we do. Especially in the western world, we are taught that we can achieve anything with effort. We adore those that we think have risen to the top entirely by their own merit. We abhor those that cannot put in enough effort or “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.” We strongly believe that change happens entirely through effort.
Purushartha is the domain of the masculine, be it in a man or a woman. On the spiritual journey, we are told again and again that to realize our true divine nature, we must put in the effort to practice and study. Effort is given the highest priority in most paths, especially those of yoga and Vedanta. Through sheer will and determination, we hold that yoga pose, sit for meditation, go to satsang, and study the various prescribed texts.
Effort certainly has its place, particularly when we keep things in perspective and realize the value of grace. Prarabdha is the word for it. Prarabdha refers to karma, or the accumulated effects of all past actions. It is one of three different types of karma, also explained in my book.
How is this related to grace? Let’s take a look.
Grace is Needed Even for Effort
The whole concept of making something out of nothing as it relates to being “self-made” makes little or no sense. If we examine the life of anyone who has accomplished anything, we will see that they were assisted by a stream of people and circumstances that made their success possible. If you have to succeed at your business, for instance, you need to have an audience interested in it, a bank or other agency to give you a loan, the exact circumstances that make it possible for you to create a store, set up the logistics and open the doors to the public. Of course, you may do your homework diligently and pick your location and partners very carefully but grace is needed to even make those intelligent decisions.
You may not remember all the details of your life from the moment you were born, but for you to succeed in any venture, everything in your life needed to happen exactly the way it did. And for your life to turn out the way it did, the whole cosmos needed to move as it did. Even a minute change in its scheme would have changed your life completely and you wouldn’t have been guaranteed success or the outcome you’ve had. Importantly, your life turning out the way it does is very intimately related to mine turning out in the specific way it does, along with the seven billion others we share the planet with.
In western societies, it is easier to think of “number one” all the time because the infrastructure and technological advances support it. Society has developed to foster the “put in the effort and you will succeed” mindset that works well in many aspects.
However, grace has been largely forgotten, and we don’t realize how fortunate we are to be in immensely privileged positions where we don’t have to think about the basic necessities of life like drinking water or having enough to eat. This is a result of grace.
On the spiritual path, everything begins with, is sustained by, and is brought to fruition by grace. Without it, we wouldn’t even be interested in the inner journey, let alone be led to the right teachers and practices, or have the sustained motivation to proceed onward.
Just as with our materialistic pursuits, we have lost the ability to be in tune with grace on the inner journey.
The Flow of the Feminine
Among other things, the Sri Yantra is the most beautiful depiction of the relationship between effort and grace. It is made up of nine triangles, four pointing upward and five pointing downward.
The four upward facing triangles represent Shiva, the masculine principle of effort.
The five downward facing triangles symbolize Shakti, the feminine principle of grace.
The Sri Yantra is very complex and its entire description is beyond the scope of this post. Suffice it to say that there are more triangles of grace than effort in it, giving us clues about the importance of opening to grace or to the feminine.
This opening entails the following:
- Cultivating faith, which as we have seen, is very different from belief. When faith is strong, we stop questioning the divine’s intentions.
- Understanding that we are always at the right place at the right time. Faith drives this understanding, which arises from seeing beyond individuality. To see that we are always at home, we have to be ok with who we are and that our sense of lack cannot be fulfilled through effort alone.
- Understanding that everyone is always at the right place at the right time. It is exceedingly easier to try to fix everyone else. That is the patriarchal way, after all. To understand that each of us is on a journey and to remain non-judgmental is nearly impossible if we aren’t in the flow of the feminine.
- Cultivating gratitude. Gratitude has the incredible effect of opening us to the flow of grace. The minute we acknowledge our smallness, the universe begins to reveal its secret workings.
- Being in the body. The way of the masculine is to live in the head, to analyze and overthink every concept and idea. Interestingly enough, self-inquiry doesn’t work with this masculine approach. Cultivation of inner silence promotes the flow of the feminine. Worry, anxiety, and stress are the result of the masculine approach to life of living in the head. When we step out of our heads, our bodies, breath and energy blossom and the flow of the feminine is distinctly experienced.
- Surrendering to what is. The way of the feminine is mysterious and mostly undefinable. Surrendering to the flow of the feminine changes the course of our lives and paths. Even though it goes against our grain, allowing grace to have her way paradoxically results in a stream of miracles. When we stop asking for things to be a certain way, they change in ways that we couldn’t even have asked for.
- Being part of the whole. The patriarchal approach is one of self-preservation and rising to the top at the cost of everyone else. The chaos we see around us stems from this approach. The feminine opens us to camaraderie without insane rivalry and competitiveness, because we are granted the divine vision of seeing the whole.
- Opening the heart. The most important result of opening to the feminine is an open heart. With an open heart, our approach toward work, colleagues, family, friends, and even our spiritual journey changes. It is suffused with softness and sweetness, stemming from the knowledge without a doubt that all is good. Instead of sheer will to get somewhere (presumably the Self), we learn to dance between grace and effort, always allowing grace to lead. Our lives become suffused with the nectar-like amrita, the coveted ambrosia of the gods.
Opening to femininity is to transcend our insecurities, fears and false hopes. It is a giving up of raw ambition and hunger in favor of feeling sated, complete, and intimately connected to all.
It is a new feeling, at least for me.
Image source – Sri Yantra: Wikipedia