Spirit Rock: You’ve been teaching Insight Meditation retreats for women for almost 30 years. Why are women’s retreats important?
Julie Wester: I have come to trust that given even a little protected time and space, a woman can naturally begin to open to her intuitive wisdom and compassion. It is the most natural thing in the world for a woman to recognize the nature of life: we understand intimately the cycles of life. There is no better place for practice than in a woman’s body! Women care for birth and death and everything in between. And for many women, a community of women practicing together provides a safe container for relaxing and awakening—for recognizing our innate wisdom.
The capacity to attend to life, to care for and honor life tends to be well-developed in women. What a woman most often needs is permission to shift her attention from caring for others to begin to give focused attention to her own inner life. Protected time and space can be immensely precious and liberating for a woman. Retreats for women provide an opportunity to develop grounded, spacious awareness in the quiet company of other women.
SR: You include among your primary teachers the women of your own family lineage. Tell us more about that.
JW: My grandmother spent her whole life living on a farm in Georgia. She was a Methodist Sunday school teacher who embodied the universal teachings of the open heart. She always welcomed me home with open arms, whatever crazy thing I did, including moving to California and learning to meditate. I can still see her standing on the porch of the old farmhouse, waiting for me whenever I came to visit. She was my first spiritual teacher because she showed me the possibility of unconditional love.
A few years ago I had the honor of caring for my mother during the last months of her life. I had always thought that my mother and I were just so different. As her memory faded, the separations that had existed between us softened and we were able to just be together. I came to realize that we were actually very much alike. She prayed for me. I practiced loving-kindness meditation for her. In the end we could just be together and love each other, beyond separation.
SR: We live in a culture in which women have the freedom to pursue spiritual practice. Women can be Rabbis, Ministers and Buddhist meditation teachers. Some people may wonder if separate retreats for women are still necessary.
JW: A whole generation of practitioners has grown up with Spirit Rock as their spiritual home, in an atmosphere for practice in which women are equally represented both as practitioners and as teachers. On the main altars at Spirit Rock, Prajna Paramitta, the Mother of All Buddhas now sits beside the traditional Buddha image. Prajna Paramitta, like the Buddha, represents the non-dual awareness wisdom that sees beyond gender, beyond separation. Spirit Rock has been supportive of equal status for women monastics, hosting an ordination ceremony for the full ordination of nuns in October 2011 (read more here).
And yet for nearly two thousands years, women have not been equally included in the language and images of our major religious traditions—both eastern and western traditions. When I began practicing meditation in this tradition in the early 1970‘s there were no female images in the meditation hall. So generations of women have not seen themselves included in the images and stories of an awakened spiritual life. Even women who have grown up to be Rabbis and Ministers and Buddhist meditation teachers have been impacted by this legacy.
The scriptures (Tipitaka) of the Buddhist tradition repeatedly affirm that women are capable of awakening and give numerous powerful examples. However the teachings of the tradition that have been passed down to our generations incorporate later cultural views that women are not capable of spiritual awakening. Even if we don’t believe this, words have power, and impact women as well as men. For more on the history of women in the Buddhist tradition, follow this link to a YouTube video of Buddhist scholar Ayya Tathaaloka speaking on the "Early History of Women in Buddhism."
The female monastic lineage in the Theravada tradition was interrupted historically and those who are bravely working to re-establish a female monastic lineage are doing so without the full blessing and support of the existing monastic hierarchy in Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma. In many (but not all) traditional Asian Theravada tradition monasteries, even in the West, women still can’t receive full ordination, and newly ordained monks still walk ahead of women who have lived as nuns for 20 years. To learn more about the re-establishment of the female monastic lineage in the West visit the website for Ayya Tathaaloka ‘s community Dhammadharini ("Women Upholding the Dhamma") at dhammadharini.net. For information about the community founded by Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta in the Sierra Foothills, go to www.saranaloka.org.
We are living in an exciting time when lost female lineages are being recovered in every spiritual tradition. Lama Tsultrim Allione is re-establishing the ancient lineage of the Tibetan teacher Machig Labdrön, providing a path of practice through the lineage of a female teacher. The discovery of the Nag Hammadi gospels has led to the recognition that the place of women in the early Christian church was much different than previously imagined. They suggest that Mary Magdalene was actually a spiritual teacher in her own right, providing a radically new model for women in that tradition.
The stories we grow up with affect the way we see ourselves, impacting our spiritual lives. So this process of recognizing what has been lost, what has been forgotten, is being played out in very personal ways in the spiritual lives of individual women. For a woman to recognize her innate wisdom and to take the necessary steps to value and protect her inner life is still a revolutionary act. There is a lot of conditioning against this—both conscious and unconscious—for women as well as for men.
It is important to acknowledge that this conditioning is deep and that transformation takes time. Challenging more than a millenium of tradition activates so many emotions in all of us. There is a personal cost to those who speak about gender issues within established spiritual traditions. There is more healing to be done, and our practice of awareness is an important tool for that healing.
It is important for women as well as men to be open to recognizing our own conditioning. We are each called upon to take responsibility for working with the whole range of emotions that arise. Then each of us becomes part of healing our collective conditioning.
Retreats for women are especially important because within the sacred container of women practicing together, we can work directly with naming and healing the particular wounds and conditioning that women carry.
Our world needs every woman to recognize her natural access to wisdom so that she can live more and more from innate wisdom and clarity—this is what we mean when we speak about recognizing and restoring the sacred feminine. We are talking about the rebalancing of the world.
SR: How does our practice support us in healing our conditioning?
JW: First, it is important that we name and honor and bow to the truth of our experience including all the difficult emotions that arise as a result of our conditioning. Our practice of awareness invites us to shift out of our habitual ways of meeting our experience. We discover the possibility of receiving the moment with more spaciousness, with less reactivity.
We learn to just stay present with the direct experience of what we are actually feeling in the moment. So instead of following the thoughts—which we discover are endless—we drop into the sensations in the body. In a moment of grief or anger or confusion we might feel heaviness or warmth or vibration. And the nature of all this energy is to change and flow. Our practice is to rest in open awareness and allow the energy to flow, to transform.
So we breathe with the sensations—staying open to just what is happening in our bodies, staying open to the flow of energy, the flow of aliveness. In this way, the conditioning and the cellular memories can begin to unwind and resolve. We begin to discover that it’s all energy –thoughts, waves of emotion, sensations are all energy—and the nature of energy is to flow and change. Freedom arises as a direct experience.
Within the protected time and space of silent retreat, this process can be explored more deeply, which is why residential retreats are so helpful. The process of releasing conditioning happens naturally in a relaxed atmosphere in which there is not so much demand or expectation. A silent retreat is a rare opportunity to just be present and allow the unfolding of our lives.
A version of this interview was printed in the January 2012 Spirit Rock News & Schedule of Events.