There’s no reason meditating has to be painful, says staff writer JULIE PETERS. As long as you are in your own thoughts and feelings, meditation can happen anywhere.
PEOPLE ARE OFTEN SHOCKED when I tell them about my daily meditation practice: I sit on the couch and meditate while the coffee is brewing. If you’re not on a hard bench with a completely clear mind sitting rod straight for three hours at a time with discipline, they assume, it must not be meditation.
Women often struggle with feeling like they are not enough: not thin enough, not pretty enough, not a good enough mother. How could we be good enough at meditating if we’re not suffering for it on some level?
If yoga and meditation are spiritual, they must be outside of the realms of gender, class, race, and so on, right? Religions all over the world tend to preach equality and love for all beings. In practice, however, religious institutions generally award certain men with a lot of power. It’s very difficult to separate spiritual ideals from the norms, values, and realities of the cultures they came from.
Yoga and its associated practices originated in India, where the discriminatory caste system, which separates groups of people into specific hierarchies, has existed for centuries (and still exists to an extent today). The Hindu pantheon is filled with powerful, independent female deities, but in reality, women in India have less power, and less privilege, and are sometimes badly abused in deeply gendered ways. Despite the beauty and compassion of any religion, the way human beings interpret spiritual ideals has historically been, to put it mildly, imperfect.
Many traditions associate the body with the feminine and consciousness with the masculine. Women’s bodies, which bleed every month, swell with child, and then create new life from within, are seen as closer to the material, earthly plane. Being tied to a body is seen as a bad thing—that it’s our suffering, sickness, and pain that keep us separate from the divine, while our pure, rational thought might get us closer. Eve is, after all, the irrational woman who was seduced by her sensual desire to taste the fruit of knowledge, causing the fall of mankind. In the Bible, labor pains are womankind’s punishment for this original sensual act.
Not all religions see the body or femininity as a barrier to God. I’ve spent years getting to know a specific branch of Tantra (an offshoot of Hinduism) that focuses on worshiping the Goddess as the supreme deity of the universe. While I am most certainly drawn to this more feminine-loving worldview, I should mention that there is, of course, a longer story about Tantra in practice, and it is absolutely not immune to sexist practices. Tantra is an example of a nondualistic religion, which means that it holds as one of its highest truths that we are not separate from God. Everything that exists is a manifestation of the divine energy of the Goddess, including every caste, every human being, plant, animal, and piece of garbage in the universe. When we meditate from this perspective, we are not trying to tap into something separate from us, we are trying to remember something that is already true about who we are.
In yoga classes based more in a classical Hindu or Buddhist lineage, I would be encouraged to close my eyes and “clear my mind” (which felt impossible). I would be asked to focus on the breath, but warned not to “follow it in,” not to get distracted by what I might find inside my body. Once, I received a special secret word that I was told to repeat over and over and over and over and over (and over) again until my mind went quiet. These forms of meditations have benefits, to be sure, but I think they were trying to get me away from my earthly suffering—to distract me from my body.
One of my feminist principles is that the body matters. From the Tantric perspective, the body is the gateway to remembering that we are already divine. My body is not separate from me. It is me. When I follow my breath into my body, I get to discover the worlds in there: the imagination, the emotion, the fears, the hopes, the dreams. I get to know myself better. I get to hone my instincts and find the courage to fight for what I know is right.
In her book The Beauty Myth, feminist critic Naomi Wolf writes:
“[E]ver since I had looked at what I saw as the negative effect on women’s minds of such mundane “tracking” activities as calorie counting, I had the sense that the reason so many tasks women are expected to do in society involve this kind of thinking (e.g. scanning, list making, judging themselves critically, “measuring up”) had something to do with the suppressive effect this kind of thinking has on other, bolder kinds of intellectual or emotional leaps.”
For Wolf, a clear mind has space to think creatively. When we focus on counting calories, there is no room for innovation or radical acts of change. There’s no space to notice that the world is unjust, let alone to do anything about it. I felt that the purpose of the mantra meditation I learned was to crowd my mind so that I couldn’t think about anything else. Yes, that might be useful in some cases. For me, though, meditation is in part about getting intimate with what I feel, even and especially when what I feel is uncomfortable. It teaches me to sit with what’s happening with honesty and compassion, not so that I can try to fix or change it, but just so that I can feel it, so that I can be myself, whoever I happen to be that day.
In the book Meditation Secrets for Women, Camille Maureen and Lorin Roche write:
“Women need a different kind of meditation approach. Meditation should be joyful, sensuous, engaged, alive. It should be rooted in pleasure.”
Of course, men and other genders should have the same right to a stillness practice that feels genuinely good. But pleasure is often associated with femininity, and usually in a bad way. In order to be spiritually good, we’re told, we must be ascetics—we must prove that we are suffering for it somehow.
Allowing ourselves to experience pleasure means giving over to the wisdom and intuitions of our bodies in the present moment. When we are able to do this, we do not need to buy all the stuff that’s supposed to assuage the pain of being human. We do not need to rely on an authoritative male figure to mediate our experience of the divine. All we have to do to connect with spirit is to feel.
The truth is, meditation can be almost anything—lying down, walking slowly, staring out a car window on a long drive, imagining your favorite deity. If you are taking time to be in your own thoughts and feelings, you are already meditating. It’s enough.