The following interview with Christina Feldman and Michele McDonald took place on August 12, 1985 at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts on the occasion of the second annual Women’s Spirituality Course. Since then, Christina and Michele also led a retreat for women in Santa Rosa, California. Each course was attended by approximately forty to fifty women.
In this course, the daily schedule consists of alternating periods of sitting and walking meditation with two periods in which the silence is broken: each morning women gather for 1½ hours in small groups of five or six women for discussion of selected topics; each afternoon the women gather in one large group for discussion and sharing. There is, therefore, more contact and talking among participants than in the usual vipassana retreat situation.
Christina Feldman trained extensively in Asia in both the Tibetan Mahayana and the Theravadan traditions. She has been teaching vipassana meditation for the past ten years in many parts if the world. She now makes her home in Devon, England with her husband and two small children where she is a guiding teacher at nearby Gaia House. She is currently writing a book on women’s spirituality.
Michele McDonald has been studying and practicing vipassana meditation for the past eleven years. She currently teaches vipassana meditation classes in Honolulu, Hawaii, her home when she is not in residence at the Insight Meditation Society where she teaches during the annual three-month intensive retreat.
Anna Douglas conducted the interview; Barbara Gates edited.
Anna Douglas: Do the traditional Theravadan teachings meet the needs of contemporary women living in Western cultures? Are there important perspectives that have been left out or de-emphasized?
Christina Feldman: The traditional teachings present a path of spirituality that emphasizes a particular way of seeing ourselves and the world. In the traditional teachings the world is generally seen as empty, therefore something to get out of as quickly as possible. This worldview is frequently accompanied by a value system in which relationships, connection with nature and social activism are considered inferior to a fully dedicated spiritual life. In the inner life of the individual, the body, sensations and emotions are devalued as “empty” or as things “to get over,” “to be transcended.”
There are many women who find it difficult to reconcile this approach to spirituality with the inner and outer work they are doing to establish a relationship of integrity and sensitivity to the world. They’ve spent a lot of time overcoming negative conditioning about their bodies and exploring the impact and importance of their feelings in their lives. In my view a balanced approach to spirituality is not limited to “getting over” or “getting out of” worldly relations, the body and feelings, but also nurtures those things which act as vehicles for understanding in our lives. Our total life experience is a vehicle for understanding if it is used skillfully, in the way of love and compassion. This approach to spirituality seems to be more conducive to actually giving it to the world and developing spiritual wholeness. It breeds a sense of connectedness with life, rather than a divorce.
Michele McDonald: What I feel is most important is how these traditional teachings are expressed. Each teacher interprets them in her or his own way based on her or his own depth of maturity and wisdom. Some key concepts are easily misunderstood in ways that may create particular problems for women students, for example, detachment and anatta.
Detachment is the quality of letting go, a freedom from habitual reactions of clinging and aversion; when you are truly living a life of nonattachment you are able to respond with equanimity and compassion, with a balanced mind and heart. Detachment, however, can be misinterpreted and reinforce fear of, and aversion for, emotions, relationships, the world.
Anatta is usually translated as “emptiness” or “not self.” Emptiness can also be easily misinterpreted, and used to reinforce one’s aversion to life. For some people “emptiness” has a negative connotation; it implies a lack of heart. This is a misunderstanding. When a true understanding of anatta corresponds with the immediate experience of interconnectedness, then feelings of empathy with all that appears in our universe will naturally follow. So the essence of anatta can also be expressed as “fullness” or “completeness.”
Any way of expressing the concept of anatta in words is usually confusing. Using the word “fullness” captures the feeling tone of anatta, but may mistakenly imply solidity or substantiality. On the other hand, using the word “emptiness” recognizes the lack of substantiality, but may also imply a feeling of annihilation or death. Meditation practice allows a deeper understanding of anatta. This understanding has given me a lot of joy and relief and a sense of completeness.
AD: That’s very interesting. The ways these key concepts are expressed is so important. I wonder how important it is to find language appropriate to the particular perspectives of women or men—which brings me to my next question: Many Buddhist teachers say that the identification with one’s sex—male or female—is just another limiting concept which must be dropped on the path to liberation. At what point is it useful to explore the identification with being a woman or a man and at what point is it useful to drop it?
MM: To be truly free a person must be able to explore whatever arises in her or his mind or life, whether it is swirling particles or anger, being a man or being a woman. Exploration, if done with true awareness, does not mean identification. Sometimes one needs to explore formlessness, letting go of boundaries. At other times one needs to explore being a human—a solid, caring, grounded being—to develop integrity and sensitivity in the world. Some people are adept at merging and need to balance that by learning to have boundaries. And vice versa. I feel that it is important to be able to honor the worlds of both form and formlessness.
Respect for one’s own or another’s path is also essential. Some choose to have families; others choose to be nuns or monks throughout their lives; some choose lives of service. Some may need to explore formlessness for lifetimes, or to explore form for lifetimes. Some may never take form again. Who can judge? We all grow and balance ourselves in our own unique ways, in our own time.
The key is learning to trust one’s heart and path, and to be honest, even ruthlessly honest, with oneself. Whether one is a woman or a man, the question to ask is, ”Am I avoiding what I have to explore, or am I doing what I need to do to be free from suffering?”
AD: You have been teaching Women’s Spirituality for several years now. When did you first conceive of the course?
CF: Around four years ago I observed a lack of balance in the way spirituality was presented. I felt that this path of striving and erasure of the self was one-sided, and neglected a whole other dimension, the path of the heart. I noticed further that on retreat women expressed their social conditioning through passivity and feelings of being “not quite as good” on the spiritual scene. I sensed that the path of spirituality that I practiced and taught was culturally conditioned in ways that did not address the needs of women students. I decided to offer a Women’s Spirituality retreat.
MM: While sitting a month-long retreat with you, Christina, and Christopher Titmuss in 1979, I noticed that I was relating to each of you differently. This was due not only to who both of you were as individuals, but to my conditioning—how I expected to relate to male and female teachers. I would talk to Christina about my “emotional” experiences and to Christopher about my “meditative” experiences. This reflected a split between my emotional and spiritual life, and how much I valued each. Have you noticed this with other students, Christina?
CF: Oh yes, very much. When I taught with Christopher, I really noticed that both men and women would come to me when they wanted to cry, or they wanted to express one of those “deep dark secrets”! But even when Christopher and I sat in front of the room together, gave the same number of talks and the same number of interviews, in the minds of many people, the man was the authority. And “mother” was there—if she was needed! [laughter]
MM: That course seven years ago was the first time that I saw my conditioning so clearly and it was painful. So then I purposely started going to you for my meditative experiences and to Christopher for my emotional experiences. This began an exploration into my emotional and spiritual lives, because I felt a need within myself to understand why I separated them.
AD: What is the main way that the women you teach are limited by their conditioning?
CF: They experience feelings of powerlessness, which is basically an expression of not trusting themselves.
MM: They need to develop the ability to listen to their own hearts, accept what their hearts are saying, and to be able to act on what they hear.
AD: In the Women’s Spirituality course students make contact with one another in discussions rather than remain silent for the entire retreat. With this experimentation, isn’t there a risk of losing some essential aspects of practice?
CF: To me the form of practice is very simple: being with oneself, being still and experimenting with the various practices available within that stillness to cultivate awareness. We experiment because all of the practices call upon different aspects of ourselves. I’ve experimented with the form many times in my own practice. It’s never been a detriment as long as I stay with the essence—to be aware. Anything which contributes to awareness is bound to be helpful.
AD: With all of the interaction and discussion it would seem that the level of concentration that occurs in a silent retreat is unlikely to develop.
CF: To be sure, it’s not possible to get the same depth of inner stillness. But this retreat is serving a particular need—to listen and explore as well as sit.
MM: This kind of retreat is harder because one is mostly in silence, yet one is also connecting with others in a very deep way during the discussion groups. So, there is connection and then being alone with oneself.
CF: In a situation where we have so much discussion you need a steadiness of practice to keep you grounded. I would be apprehensive about losing a sense of being grounded through too much experimentation. Some would like to have music, and some would like to dance, and some would have rituals—it could be endless! So we have a basic commitment to formal sitting practice.
AD: I have some questions for each of you on how you integrate your personal lives with your practice and teaching. Christina, how has your experience of being a mother changed your perspective?
CF: The experience of being a mother has brought about a profound change for me. I really started looking at qualities of the heart as vehicles for connecting to the sense of oneness with life. Having children was an opening to a pure, all-embracing kind of love. The love that a mother has for her child allows her to cut through all the surface differences and dislikes, the mind games, to a much deeper heart connection. It’s very healing. Of course this experience transforms practice. Truly we can see how the same feeling that a mother has for her child is a feeling that has the potential to cut through a tremendous amount of separation.
AD: Michele, aside from your sitting practice, have you found other tools for growth or awareness that might be helpful to women?
MM: I find that opening to understanding the interconnectedness of one’s sexuality, one’s feelings, one’s heart is essential for the healing of very deep personal wounds. In a retreat situation the meditation can open up tremendous depths of feeling. There are not very many safe places to explore these depths. During one’s daily life the meditation may not be enough. It wasn’t for me. I’ve found it helpful to experiment with various forms at different times to explore my feelings: Therapy and acupuncture with people I trust, drawing and painting, as well as good friends, humor and stuffed animals, have been wonderful tools to integrate my mysterious mind-body process. A deepening understanding of anatta within my meditation practice has been essential in this exploration. It has given me a sense of resiliency and allowed perspective on the more difficult emotions.
AD: It sounds like you are pioneering new territory.
MM: I’m just trying to live life and this is all part of understanding life on many different levels. One word of caution, however. There are few therapists who understand the meditation practice, how open one can become from an intensive retreat and the relationship between that openness and an exploration of the depths of the psyche. Some therapists may not have been through the depths themselves, or may not have a basic trust in being with the full range of emotions. It’s important to find someone competent, compassionate and wise.
AD: And not afraid of what you’re going through . . .
MM: You can feel when someone lacks trust, because you won’t feel safe to explore deeply with them.
AD: What is your daily practice?
MM: Being as aware as I can in all aspects of my life is my daily practice: sitting as much as I can, my relationship with Steve, my friendships, my work, nature, garden, etc. Also, doing metta, lovingkindness meditation, has been a very effective form of protection and strength for me. It’s like bringing that quality of motherly love Christina talked about to myself. I don’t force it, but allow it and nurture it whenever it appears. As this feeling becomes more and more present and naturally extends beyond my own personal boundaries, it’s been surprisingly powerful and healing.
AD: One last question. Do you think it might be useful for a time to develop an exclusively women’s dharma or spirituality?
CF: The essence of spirituality for men and women is the same—it is concerned with freedom. I don’t think there is such a thing as an exclusively women’s spirituality. There are many dimensions of spirituality that transcend the boundaries of sex.
But it’s very important for women to establish a spirituality which addresses the totality of themselves, and calls upon their own resources. At the same time it’s crucial that women don’t develop a spirituality that derives its worth through comparison to men’s spirituality. Divisiveness can arise in comparing and trying to be equal. Spirituality is not concerned with equality. It is concerned with recognizing uniqueness.
Many women feel more freedom to explore and recognize their uniqueness in an environment where they experience the kind of support and trust created in a Women’s Spirituality course.
MM: For most Western women today, the ancient spiritual traditions that connect us to our feminine identity and power have been buried; they’re not supported by the culture. Women’s Spirituality courses can help women rediscover and honor feminine values within themselves. These feminine values, such as gentleness, nurturing and receptivity, are important for females and males. The re-emergence of these values contributes to the healing of everyone’s relationship to life.
There is just one heart, one truth. When we are truly mindful we are in harmony with this heart, within ourselves and within the universe. This is not exclusive—not exclusive to women or to men or to our species or to our planet. Dharma courses which express a sincere and in-depth look at our true nature can help nourish and strengthen this heart.