What is feminine wisdom? What is feminine power? What role can they play — for both men and women — in this time of such significant global change? Feminine wisdom is mysterious and multi-dimensional. By its very nature it is hidden in the depths of our being. And even after decades of -feminism and women’s empowerment, even though we now value the -importance of relationships and the sacredness of creation, we can easily miss the subtlety and “otherness” of this hidden feminine wisdom.
This wisdom has to do with our awareness of interconnection and our experience of earth’s sacredness. The qualities born of this wisdom help us to nourish each other and nourish life, and they have as much to do with the source of love as with love itself. They have to do with giving birth — but giving birth to what? If these qualities are so hidden, how do we see them? If they are so far from our conscious awareness, how can we live them?
What We Seek Is Alive Within
We do not grasp at the beauty of a flower; we watch for what it reveals. We cannot order another person to give us love; rather, we join with him or her in love. We do not want to learn about peace; we want to feel peace within. So it is with all that is alive. We can’t control life, but we can come to be in communion with it.
Feminine wisdom and power will not become manifest through our warrior nature, through our drive to succeed, or through our quest for knowledge. Rather, they need a fertile space of receptivity and vulnerability. They need our weakness and our longing. They need an attitude of awe, marvel, and gratitude and our desire for true communion. To awaken and play their part, feminine wisdom and power need themselves within us.
Weakness and Power
Who among us really wants to acknowledge the power of weakness and vulnerability? After all, weakness — physical, psychological, and economic — has left so many open to terrible violation. And it still does.
But there is a hidden potential in vulnerability. If we are mature enough, we will be able to acknowledge this vulnerability as one of the divine feminine’s most veiled gifts. And the more conscious we are of this gift, the less likely that it will be abused or violated by us or by the culture in which we live.
Weakness and need play their part in creation and in creativity at every level of life. To survive, we follow our hunger and thirst. To reproduce, we need the receptivity of a vagina and womb. To grow emotionally and psychologically, we must acknowledge our personal vulnerability. To transform spiritually, we need spiritual hunger — what the saints called longing — which magnetically draws us toward union with the Divine.
And feminine power has a role to play, collectively. Our world is facing many serious challenges, from climate change and resource depletion to global poverty, disease, and violence. Feminine power, rooted and realized in our weakness, can help us move through these difficult times.
How can weakness be of use collectively? The first step is to acknowledge and value its place in our individual lives. Consider a simple situation that most of us have been in: a woman sits in the passenger seat of a car while a husband or male friend is driving. But they are lost. The man keeps driving, challenging himself to find the right way, while the woman tells him to stop so they can ask for directions.
Admitting We Are Lost
It may seem unlikely that not knowing can be a strength, but scriptural literature has long referred to this potential. The ancient Taoist text Tao Te Ching points to this: Can you love the people and govern the state without resorting to action?
When the gates of heaven open and shut,
Are you capable of keeping to the role of the female?
When your discernment penetrates the four quarters
Are you capable of not knowing anything?
How mysterious this passage is! How can we govern without action? How can we discern what is needed without knowing anything? There is a clue in the middle line: Are you capable of keeping to the role of the female?
What is “the role of the female”? It is indescribable, but we know it in our hearts and in our blood. We live it when effort and even perseverance can no longer carry us through a challenge. When our own efforts have weakened, when the darkness of failure looms, when exhaustion demands surrender — this is so often the moment when something truly new takes place. Through vulnerability and non-action, another force continues the creative process.
We know this dynamic when we struggle in love. Often, it is when we give up trying to control someone or force affection that love is finally possible. And it is when we recognize the inadequacy of our efforts at some seemingly impossible task that we find a hidden doorway we never accessed before.
Kathleen Carlin, founding director of Men Stopping Violence (menstoppingviolence.org), an organization committed to breaking the cycle of domestic violence, writes of the practical potentials of not knowing in stopping men from battering. She describes what happens when a man refrains from violence and rests in the existential powerlessness of not acting out:
To sit in the midst of that not knowing bespeaks fundamental uncertainty, an untenable position for men for whom a sense of control is essential. But the batterer who traverses that time of not knowing begins the journey toward a new life. His own personal house of cards has fallen, but he now has access to the tools to build a new house, one founded on love instead of power, freedom instead of control, liberation instead of -oppression.
We live in a patriarchal culture — we have all learned to be batterers, to force what we want through will and effort. Not knowing is the frightening underbelly of these control dynamics. Uncertainty and personal helplessness usually evoke fear, panic, and compensating aggression. But if one endures and surrenders to the uncertainty of not knowing, cycles and habits can be broken, and the new might finally shine forth.
We naturally want to act to improve our own lives and our world. We might want to buy a hybrid car, protest the war, or vote a more balanced government into place. We want to go into therapy, meditate, heal ourselves, and become more compassionate and generous. These are all important intentions. But so much of our drive toward self-improvement or problem solving is fueled by collective habit — or worse, anxiety, panic, and a fear of losing control. There is something more important than solving problems, and it has to do with the deep feminine quality of being, not doing. The Tao Te Ching asks:
Can you remain unmoving till the right action arises itself?
The instinctual nature of the feminine wisdom in all of us knows that maintaining an inner vulnerability and openness is crucial at times of great change. Action is not always the best solution. When women give birth, they wait until just the right moment to push. They wait nine months! But when the time comes, they do what is needed, and new life emerges. Any mother will tell you that waiting, watching, and being attentive while being relaxed is often more difficult than following her compulsion to make determinations and take action. This kind of waiting requires intense focus and endurance. But have we learned to listen to the mothers?
Asking for Help
There is a flip side to not knowing and not doing, a subtle twin to our willingness to admit our own powerlessness. It has to do with what has not yet been revealed. It has to do with the presence within possibility, the consciousness within not knowing, the power within weakness. How does this power and potential come to be known and lived?
Weakness and vulnerability give rise to the need to turn away from ourselves and seek help. Being willing to ask for help is a subtle but profound instinct. The shadow side of this gift is that it can lead us to become too dependent, to give away all our power — psychological dynamics that plague women, particularly. But once we experience the strength within asking for help, we undermine that shadow dynamic with one stroke. We know that something exists beyond our dynamics of control. We know we are not alone.
A woman finds the strength to endure a difficult pregnancy through the promise of her unborn child. Ask a great male artist, and he will tell you that the muse is real and that he needs her invisible hand to create something truly inspired. A Jungian therapist knows that in order for a man to grow, he needs a relationship with the anima — his contra-sexual feminine side. Our patriarchal world is like a young man, not yet aware of his need for feminine power. Each of us plays a part in this collective limitation.
The soul is described as feminine by so many traditions:
Wise men of old gave the soul a feminine name. Indeed she is female in her nature as well. She even has her womb. —“The Exegesis of the Soul”
We need a connection to our soul’s need, to its longing, which turns to prayer, drawing divine presence into life. In this way, we expand beyond our limitations, as an artist creates something new.
It is important to understand that even though we ask for help, asking does not necessarily make us feel better. Sometimes it even makes us feel worse, exposing even greater depths of vulnerability. Asking for help is not a solution; it is a state of being. How strange is this Sufi statement, pointing to the potential when longing is not fulfilled: Oh Lord, nourish me not with love but with the desire for love. —Ibn ‘Arabi
Our weakness is a treasure, a mysterious and energetic space of vast potential. Like a womb, like our emotional hunger, or like the longing of our hearts, our vulnerability has a magnetic receptivity that draws toward . . . what? That is for each of us to find out, for it will be different for everyone.
Help Will Be Given
It might take a very long time, and that which comes might be quite different from that which one expects or even wants, but it is a spiritual law that if the need is great enough, help will be given. The Gospel of Matthew declares, Ask and it shall be given you.
Sobonfu Somé, a West African spiritual teacher, describes an invisible network of energy that will provide us with what we need, if we turn toward it:
There is a web of connection, light and life, a web of feminine energy that goes from the earth to the moon to the other dimensions. The web of light and life contains wisdom, knowledge, and a healing energy for the whole world.
How do we connect to this web of healing energy and light? It runs through all life, so we are connected already. We need only become conscious of this connection through turning toward it with need and, as Somé continues, recognizing that it needs us.
We acknowledge that we are all part of this great web of life that gives us what we need. Then we offer ourselves to it with gratitude . . . we have to be grateful and give something of ourselves.
We need, and we are given to. In turn, we give ourselves. This mysterious convergence of need and receiving, of vulnerability and communion, is illustrated in the biblical passage that describes Jesus’ visit to Lazarus’ house. There, Jesus is welcomed by Lazarus’ sisters, Mary and Martha. Martha busily prepares a meal for Jesus, but Mary rests at Jesus’ feet. Martha complains that she is working while Mary does nothing, and she asks Jesus to tell her sister to help, but Jesus will not. Instead, he declares, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38–42)
What could Jesus mean? What is this “better part”? What is this “one thing” that Mary does or does not do at Jesus’ feet? Could allowing oneself to need sometimes be the one thing that’s needed? It is so radical and so mysterious — can our modern minds even consider it?
Something is happening in the very heart of our world. In our hubris, we have assumed that it is only human beings who evolve. But this is a limited view. All life evolves. How could it be otherwise, if we acknowledge the thread of light that weaves together all life? And in this evolution, just as in our own evolution, weakness has its part to play:
We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time . . .
But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. —Romans 8:22–25
And just as mysterious, in Corinthians 12:9, Christ explains to Paul that our unease has a part in how a greater power manifests:
My power is made perfect in weakness.
The great saints perfect God’s power by drawing it into their world through longing, transforming life itself into revelation. Thus, the saints offer a way for the divine to know itself through its creation, as expressed by the hadith:
I was a Hidden Treasure and I wanted to be known, so I created creatures in order to be known by them.
The greatest spiritual teachers understand this role of human consciousness in the way God manifests through life, and their imagery often reflects the feminine dimension of this process. St. Angela of Foligno declared:
And my soul in an excess of wonder cried out: “This world is pregnant with God!”
Life can be “just life” — desolate, impoverished, and on the threat of destruction — or life can be impregnated with the power of joy! How do we find this joy? We admit we are lost — individually and collectively. We turn for help with a need that we trust and are willing to endure. We protect our feminine qualities of vulnerability with our masculine focus and discipline, and in doing so, we allow our weakness and our longing to draw the power and love of the Creator into creation, transforming it beyond anything we could ever have accomplished on our own.
Hilary Hart, author of The Unknown She (The Golden Sufi Center, 2003, goldensufi.org), writes and lectures on women’s spirituality. She practiced Tibetan Buddhism for a number of years before meeting her teacher, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, of the Naqshbandi Sufi path. She lives on Whidley Island, Washington, where she is the guardian of a small retreat center. The Unknown She is a dynamic exploration into women’s unique spirituality and the role of feminine wisdom in our world today.