By Catherine Masters
My therapist told me a few months ago that I should explore my femininity.
I had been living at a Zen Buddhist temple for a little over a year and realized that I needed the aid of a person trained in the psychological sciences to help understand my root of suffering in addition to the aid provided by Buddhist teachings and insights so readily available to me at the temple. I, like most people in my generation, have gone through a steady rotation of anxiety and depression since hitting puberty. I moved to Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Marin County, California primarily with the intention of setting the internal groundwork for living a settled life, freed from the burdens of existing that plague those who suffer from consistent mental illness. Exploring this question has led me to deeply understand who I am as an individual, how I could love all that I saw there, and how that love could help meet the suffering of others. It has led to me to an understanding of my own inherent divinity.
When I was a little girl, it was apparent to me that there were two choices in how I could express myself: I could either be a “girly girl” or a “tom boy”. Even at an early age I had the inclination that living as a “girly girl” led to a life and womanhood of vapidity and shallow self-indulgence (without necessarily having the terms to fully understand it as such). This idea came from the images of what femininity looked like in pop culture then: well-groomed, provocative, overly emotional, and without any sort of deep substance.
It seemed to me that to live with the interests of a boy would be the far more interesting and engaging route. And so, I chose to cut my hair short and wear baseball caps backwards and obstinately reject getting manicures, going shopping, and wearing dresses as something worth my time. Of course, throughout all of that, I was not whole-heartedly feeling that being entirely like a boy was the true expression of who I was. I loved baby dolls and taking care of them; I loved having Barbies and marrying them to their respective Kens; I loved feeling pretty. I inhabited both roles, although one more secretly than the other.
My studies in Buddhism have highlighted for me the spaciousness created in understanding life and everything through the lens on non-duality. Being a human being (especially one raised in American culture), I was trained from an early age that things were one of two ways: they were either good or evil, right or wrong, just or unjust, fair or unfair, black or white, straight or gay, man or woman, tomboy or girly girl. In reality, all of life is so much more complex than any sort of binary that we create.
Part of the issue with the pervasive “male or female” dichotomy that our society and culture has prescribed to for so long is the rather rudimentary understanding of how sex and identity are “assigned” on a chromosomal basis when we are first conceived in our mother’s womb. It is not as clear a distinction as we are usually taught: there is a lot more to it beyond just the presence or lack thereof of a Y-chromosome. There are actually many genes that go into determining sex and gender. That means that, inherently, as biological beings, there is a lot of wiggle room for us to identify.
At other times, in other cultures, this was not a problem. There are quite a few shamanistic cultures that honored those who had fluid gender identity and sexuality. They were seen as beings who could inhabit multiple realities, who understood multiple points of view, and thus were those who could most easily help heal conflicts in understanding.
I guess, my point is, that there is no clear dichotomy in the proper way to express oneself as an individual. We’re all just apes with enlarged prefrontal cortexes trying to make sense of our mortality as best we can. The ultimate reality is too great for any of us to fully understand, especially if we limit ourselves to one point of view, to one way of things being correct. Man or woman, straight or gay, tomboy or girly girl.
So, my therapist asked me to explore my femininity. I was in one of my depressions, and suffering from very low self-esteem. I did not find myself physically attractive (a persistent concern throughout my life and the lives of all women that I know), and was frustrated that that was what was causing my suffering.
The same drive to be above the vapid concerns of “girly girls” that characterized me as a young girl characterize me still as an adult. I don’t want to be concerned about what I look like, I don’t want to be concerned about attracting guys, I don’t want to be concerned about such “trivial” matters as whether or not I feel better if I shave my legs or not, or if I’m having a good hair day or not. I mean, I live at a Zen temple. I should be sitting in meditation connecting to the nerve of the universe and dissolving into the emptiness of being.
I should not be feeling self-conscious about how my jawline looks from the side (a persistent insecurity of mine). I should not be falling in love with boys who want to be monks (an unfruitful venture, I can assure you). I should be the strong and beautiful woman I had in mind as a child when I idolized the women in “Charlie’s Angels” and feel it.
But what does it mean to be a woman? I identify as such, even though most of my close friends are guys and my main interests include Dungeons and Dragons and Science Fiction (unfortunately, both of which are still usually associated as male interests). I identify with being a woman even though I’m constantly meditating on what it means to be nothing but an accumulation of every other element in the universe, constantly shifting in and out of any sort of concrete identity.
I was born into this female body; I was born into a society rich with a history of using women as objects and oppressing them as something inferior to men. I was born into a world in which boys are taught to be afraid of their emotions because to do such a thing would be “feminine”.
I was born into a world at a time when it was correct to teach girls we could be anything and do anything that a boy was and does, and yet still operates as though that weren’t the case. I was born into a world in which men and boys are still taught to view women solely as objects of their desire; to be anything more would be a challenge to their rights and privileges as a human being.
According to well-known mythologist Joseph Campbell is his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the feminine was used widely in ancient cultures and myths as an expression of something sacred. It was not held as any better or worse than the masculine, but as only a different expression of the wholeness of being. The feminine, the goddess, is powerful–she is the creator and destroyer of life–she embodies and nourishes and then takes it all away.
In his words, “The goddess is red with the fire of life; the earth, the solar system, the galaxies of far-extending space, all swell within her womb. For she is the world creatrix, ever mother, ever virgin. She encompasses the encompassing, nourishes the nourishing, and is the life of everything that lives … She is also the death of everything that dies. The whole round of existence is accomplished within her sway.”
The rampant disregard for the feminine in our society is most clearly seen in the continuous raping of the most ultimate feminine icon, Mother Earth. Civilizations led by men for centuries have taken what they’ve wanted from the all-nourishing, from the giver of life–and she can’t take it for much longer. Soon enough she will be the death of everything that dies, unless there is a dramatic cultural and societal swing returning to a respect and adoration for the feminine in her totality.
This is not a world without the masculine–there can’t be such a thing. We need both parts in order to continue and thrive–because, of course, they can’t really be separated. As Campbell succinctly states: “Woman, in the picture language of mythology, represents the totality for what can be known. The hero (the masculine) is the one who comes to know.” Or, how I understand it, the feminine is the ultimate truth of what is and the masculine represents our best efforts with our limited human minds to come to know and love such truth.
In Zen Buddhism the “Perfection of Wisdom”, or the insight that everything is inherently empty of an independent existence, is given the female pronoun. The Perfection of Wisdom means that everything in the universe is dependently co-arisen. Or, in other words, that everything in the universe relies on everything else in the universe existing the way it does and always has. We are all reliant on every other part of the universe in order to exist as we do.
Everyday, in our service after our morning meditation we chant the following:
Homage to the Perfection of Wisdom, the lovely, the holy. The Perfection of Wisdom gives light. Unstained, the entire world cannot stain her. She is a source of light and from everyone in the triple world she removes darkness. Most excellent are her works. She brings light so that all fear and distress may be forsaken, and disperses the gloom and darkness of delusion. She herself is an organ of vision. She has a clear knowledge of the own-being of all dharmas, for she does not stray away from it. The Perfection of Wisdom of the buddhas sets in motion the wheel of dharma.
In most ways, however, I would describe my life at the temple to have a rather masculine energy. It is, after all, derived from the way that monks lived for thousands of years. It is not dissimilar to a military boot camp.
I wake up almost every day at 4:15a.m., and am engaged in a rigorous schedule until about 9 o’clock that night. To meditate in Zen is to sit perfectly still, unmoving, with no mantra or plaything for your mind, until you are released. It is largely (although not strictly) celibate. Life in a Zen temple is, in essence, living a life where everything is taken away, again and again, until you are left with the reality of nothing. And yet, there is a softness — because that reality of nothing is in and of itself the divine, loving, giving, and nurturing everything of the universe.
In true alignment with the concept of non-duality, the nothing that you are is the everything that you are. The more masculine rigidity of being stripped to your very core (and then having that stripped away as well) makes room for the all-expansive feminine universe — the one who gives you life and nurtures you and then takes it away. Or, looking at it through the framework of Campbell, the feminine Perfection of Wisdom is lovely — she is life and the universe and an expansive intimacy with both. The Zen practice is the more masculine means needed to come to know such wisdom.
One of the most prominent figures in Zen Buddhism is Kuan Yin who is the Chinese, female manifestation of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Kuan Yin is the one who hears and responds to the cries of the world. She is loving kindness manifest. She has been the most sincere and steadfast guide for me since I’ve embarked on this journey to discover my own femininity.
Early into my time at Green Gulch I began a practice of shifting my inner dialogue towards my anxiety and depression away from one of disgust and hatred and towards one of love. This primarily involved internally comforting my “anxiety” or “depression” instead of reactively attempting to push it away. Eventually I started to do this with all of my more reactive states: the guilt, the anger, the frustration, the arrogance, etc. Over time, I began to characterize my internal reactive state into the figure of “Lady Bird”, so whenever I was in a bad mood or the fog of mental illness started to rear its head, I would softly coo to Lady Bird to let it go.
I was talking to our abbess about this, and she suggested that the internal voice that took care of Lady Bird was my inner Kuan Yin. I was quite taken with this idea. Being able to identify with my nurturing side as the ultimate manifestation of compassion enabled that side to blossom within me further. Whenever Lady Bird acts up, Kuan Yin is there to comfort her, and nurture her.
This relationship with myself has enabled me to treat everything that I find hard about being a human being into something worthy of love, or something that needs to be nurtured — quite the transformation from how I treated such states for most of my adult life. Not only has this created a visceral sense of spaciousness around my thoughts and feelings, it also has enabled me to be more compassionate towards others who are likely in a reactive state. It has made it easier for me to see everything as worthy of love and nurturing.
Having Kuan Yin with me, guiding me, encouraging me, and teaching me how to more fully love and take care of myself and others seems like the ultimate manifestation on my quest to understand my femininity. It does not take the form that I had understood it to be most of my life — it is not wearing make up and looking sleek and sexy, it is not living in contention with the masculine, it is not having to prove myself in any way.
It is being whole-heartedly myself, and having that self be someone who loves and nurtures unconditionally. It is fully encompassing the divinity of living as a being of the universe, as one who creates and sustains life. It is one who is intimate with death and the beauty it can provide.
I am sure that this is not the end of my journey of discovery — indeed, it feels like I’m only on the threshold. Yet this feels profoundly important and true. Thinking back to when I was a little girl, I think that, above all, I wanted to be someone who was capable of great love and who, in turn, received great love manifold.
I wanted to be someone who was strong, and brave, and smart, and unabashedly herself. I wanted to be someone who found her own way towards a life of importance, beyond what society expected of her. I wanted to be divine. I am sure the younger me would be proud of me now.
Catherine currently lives at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in Muir Beach, California where she also works as a gardener. She spends her days meditating, tending to flowers, herbs, and fruit trees, bowing, walking in the perpetual mists, and listening to wise people.