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Gender and Self: Gods and Goddesses Within
by Elizabeth Lesser

Excerpted with permission from The Seeker's Guide (previously
published as The New American Spirituality
by Elizabeth Lesser (Villard, October 3, 2000) .

Gender and Self: Gods and Goddesses Within

"The motif of the return of the Great Goddess and her consort is encountered over and over again in the dreams and unconscious fantasies of people who seek psychological help to overcome the deadness of their lives. Arts, films, literature, and political upheavals also reflect increasingly the same dynamics. The changes they demand entail new understanding of masculinity and femininity in both men and women and the relations between the sexes as well as new views of reality."
--Edward C. Whitmont

When psychology and spirituality are used in tandem on the spiritual path, sooner or later we are called into the puzzling and productive territory of gender. As we use psychological wisdom to peel away the myths and illusions that have misinformed us, we inevitably confront our place in the world as a man or a woman. So many of our misconstrued notions about our selves are rooted in gender. It helps to explore this territory if we want to uncover our essential, spiritual nature.

It wasn't clear to me when I first set out on the spiritual path how my natural affinity for feminism could be compatible with my interest in spirituality. In fact it seemed that the basic foundations of most traditional spiritual paths were in direct conflict with the women's movement that I had been a part of in college. When I became a formal student of my spiritual teacher, Pir Vilayat Khan, in the 1970s, I moved down a few rungs on the evolutionary ladder, as far as I was concerned as a woman. The leadership of his organization was mostly male, the gender of the prayers was masculine, some of the traditional Islamic practices were segregated, and the subtle and not-so-subtle messages about daily life elevated the male perspective and negated women's ways of seeing the world. Even though the type of spiritual organization I joined was influenced by the "liberated" sixties, the experience remained for me vastly similar to the experiences women have always had within the patriarchal systems of religious institutions.

I use the word patriarchal with hesitancy. Its common usage implies a black and white situation where brutal men rule the world and innocent women suffer the consequences. I am more comfortable with another kind of definition: "By patriarchy," writes the Jungian scholar Marion Woodman, "I mean a culture whose driving force is power. Individuals within that culture are driven to seek control over others and themselves in an inhuman desire for perfection."
I often turn to Jungian psychology to better understand issues of gender. Jung separated personalities not so much into male and female, but into unique blends of masculine and feminine qualities, which he believed were found in all human psyches in varying degrees of potency. The masculine principle, or archetype, as Jung called it, celebrates rational thinking, heroic power, goal-oriented achievement, and independence. It is transcendent, visionary, mindful. The feminine principle loves to feel; it compels us to nurture; it links sexuality with relationship; and it reveres life and death as natural cycles of nature. It is embodied, intuitive, heartful.

The feminine is that part of the self that is vulnerable, receptive, open; the part that values connection and communication. It likes to put all the cards on the table and doesn't want to hold back or keep secrets. It the part that is comfortable right here on earth with all of its pain and messiness; the part that does not want to run away from life or try to change nature's rules. This is the feminine archetype. The masculine archetype sees beyond this life, looks outside of itself, identifies with the eternal, and wants to move ever forward. It plans and negotiates, is reasonable and rational. It is on a mission to achieve, invent, build, make a mark. It is the part of the self that is determined, loyal, judicious, and steady.

A great pair, the feminine and the masculine. A person who cultivates his or her masculine and feminine qualities is able to balance power with love, inventiveness with sustainability, brilliance with wisdom. Of course, most of us are not naturally balanced within ourselves. We usually have more of one archetype than the other and it usually is true that women are much more heavily endowed with the feminine principle and men with the masculine principle. The point of working to balance our masculine and feminine energies is not to move toward androgyny. It is to become aware of the inner forces at play within each one of us and within the culture. Even as we strive for inner and outer balance, we still can depend on each other to fill in the missing pieces. In fact, the more we value both archetypes, the less pulled each one of us will feel to be "perfect," and the less likely we will be to misunderstand the basic nature of our counterparts. We will be able to stand in for each other as we all grow toward wholeness.

Most of recorded human history is the story of one archetype -- the masculine -- not merely dominating, but also discounting the values of, the other -- the feminine. It's particularly ironic to note the suppression of the feminine in religious history, given that the basis for most religions is God's all-embracing inclusion and love of all creation. As the poet Jane Hirshfield says about God's egalitarian spirit, "the numinous does not discriminate...infinitude and oneness do not exclude anyone." But indeed, the feminine voice has been excluded in most religious traditions to the point where spiritual myths, images, and structures are primarily masculine. Even more harmful than their mere exclusion, feminine values have also been deemed inferior, even dangerous, in patriarchal cultures. Backed up by our earliest religious myths, from Adam and Eve, to Prometheus and Pandora, the message has been insidiously clear: feminine values are manipulative and untrustworthy, bound by the suffering of the earth, controlled by the dark side of the moon, and more related to the animals than to the angels.

It is the masculine principle within humans that is attracted to transcendent spirituality -- always moving forward, intent on self-improvement, compelled by the light of truth beyond the horizon. The feminine principle is more at home with the way things already are. Feminine energy moves in a circle, longing to know all by embracing all. In valuing one archetype and rejecting the other, as opposed to enjoying the fruits of the marriage of both, we have denied many people, not just women, their natural way of finding God.

Religions have perpetrated the myth of masculine superiority as much as any social system has; in fact, I think that until we rewrite our spiritual mythology, societal structures will continue to empower men and mistrust women. The first step of the women's movement has been the demanding of equal status for women within the patriarchy. This has been a critically important step. But it has also masked other, equally important steps: the celebration of feminine values in the world; the granting of respect, money, and power to the kind of work that nurtures families, teaches the young, connects communities, and cares for the earth; and the acceptance that while men's and women's wisdom may be different, each is real, precious, and necessary.

It's not enough to say that spirituality transcends gender, even if it ultimately does. Spirituality is the human search for eternal wisdom. It is not the wisdom itself. To humanize spirituality, we must not only look outside of ourselves to the limitless universe, but also inside of our own personhood -- the sum total of our gender, our conditioning, our genes, and our unique challenges and gifts. Obviously then, different people will respond better to different spiritual concepts and techniques. Some people will use their minds most effectively. Others will find it easier to search for God using the physical body or the emotions. Some people, when they think of the ultimate truth, use language and images of light and glory. Others relate to the stark aloofness of the ascetic's search. Still others discover truth right here on earth, inspired by the interconnection of all life and through service to others.

Both genders are capable of tapping into the masculine and feminine wisdom streams. But first we must question the patriarchal obsession with power and control in the culture, and widen the definition of reality to include the feminine principle. To some extent, this has been the role of feminism in our times. When feminism and spirituality combine forces, the feminine face of God will illuminate the path for all of us.

Motherhood, Midwifery, and My Own Awakening

It took a long time and an intensive training for me to begin to understand, trust, and embolden my own feminine wisdom. I consider this training as important in my spiritual work as learning to meditate and pray, and as educational as studying the great religious traditions. Men and women raised in a culture that disempowers the feminine archetype are denied wholeness. And spirituality is about becoming whole. To become whole we don't get rid of one thing and replace it with another; we don't now negate masculine values and elevate feminine values. The path to human wholeness is the inner marriage of masculine and feminine values. When each value system is held in equal esteem, when we love and respect both, harmony within the individual, health in the culture, and peace on the planet become attainable.

The feminine is awakened in different people in different ways. The story of my awakening traverses two distinct territories. First I visited childbirth, motherhood, and midwifery -- outposts in the territory of the Great Mother. Then I apprenticed with the Wild Woman and learned about power, voice, and leadership. I share my story for what it is -- one person's blunders and victories as she sought wholeness.

I became a mother at the ripe old age of 23. I think that part of the brain must go dormant during full-fledged mothering. When you're in the mother-zone, the rest of the world becomes fuzzy, while the most mundane priorities become very clear and all-consuming. And if you give an unqualified "yes" to the task, just as a great athlete or a devoted artist or a skilled worker must, then you chose to develop some parts of yourself at the expense of others. I am glad that I gave myself so fully to mothering in my twenties and early thirties. I had to develop qualities that I may not have been able to without the crucible of parenting. I consider these to be my most feminine qualities. Being a mother awoke within me greater compassion, earthiness, fierceness, and patience.

During my mothering years I was also a midwife. I had the chance to work with women and men who wanted to fully participate in the birth of their children. I taught weekly childbirth classes that focussed on female anatomy, cycles, and moods. Surrounded by my midwife friends and birthing women, I entered a world that honored the dark womb, the shifting emotions, and the animal noises, smells, and urges of physical creation. I witnessed the courage and power of women in labor and also the sweetness and vulnerability of men in a supportive role.

The world passed me by as I lived in the mother-zone by day and the mid-wife realm by night. I now know that the time I spent with my own babies and with pregnant women and their families was an apprenticeship with the Great Mother, the ancient archetype of feminine spirituality. But as far as the modern world was concerned, I had entered a back-water, an archaic experience of womanhood. Many in the women's movement would have agreed with this. While some women my age were getting their MBAs and entering corporate America, I was learning about the wonders of the female body, and teaching women how to bear down, birth a baby, and breast feed. I was saving my entry into the work world for later.

Ten years as a mother and midwife deeply changed the way I saw the world. It also eroded my tolerance for our patriarchal culture. Any culture that recognized only man to be the strong, able warrior, and reduced woman to the fickle follower was perpetuating a lie. Any power base that silenced the voices of more than 50% of its constituency was dubious at best, dangerous at worst. And any individual who, out of fear, ignorance, or arrogance, could not, or would not listen to the perspective of another, was not deserving of power. We all know this. But it took a total immersion in the female archetype for me to feel strong enough to do something about the it. The greatest gift that I received from my days and nights away from the work-a-day world, is a bed-rock belief in my own experience of what it means to be human.

The next part of my journey -- my apprenticeship with the Wild Woman -- took me into territories where the feminine value system was not appreciated. My apprenticeship with the Great Mother had taught me that I didn't need to be like a man to be powerful, courageous, and intelligent. The Wild Woman taught me the difficult lesson of speaking for feminine values in a masculine world. Clarissa Pinkola Estes, author of Women Who Run With the Wolves, calls this kind of speaking, singing. She writes, "'to sing' means to use one's soul voice. It means to say on the breath the truth of one's power and one's need." I learned to sing -- and am still learning to sing -- from my apprenticeship with the Wild Woman.

Feminine Spirituality in a Masculine World

Carol Gilligan, the author and researcher who brings one of the most balanced voices to feminist circles, speaks about how hard it is to represent the feminine in a culture that has always denied its legitimacy. "The gap between what women know through experience and what for years was socially constructed as reality explains why so many women have experienced difficulty in saying what they wanted to say or being listened to or heard, or believing that what they know through experience is true." When your reality is questioned -- whether you are a woman or a man whose values differ from patriarchal values -- it's hard to stand firm in what you believe. The feminine principle values emotional wisdom: deep feelings of connectedness, compassion, and empathy. Our culture was born out of the minds of the rational men of the Western world. Emotional wisdom, not a forte of rational men, has been at best ignored and mostly disdained as a second-rate, wimpy way of approaching life.

You won't find the language of deep feelings in the primer for patriarchal power. Emotions -- both the wise ones and the not-so-wise ones -- do not respond well to the patriarchal urges to predict and control. By their nature, emotions are unpredictable, sometimes out of control, and as changeable as the weather. Patriarchal cultures fear emotion. It is no coincidence that cultures with contempt for emotions also treat women and nature as objects to be contained and controlled. An interesting book about this phenomenon is News of the Universe, by the poet, Robert Bly. He uses poetry written over hundreds of years and from a variety of cultures to explore how the Western pride in human reason was elevated over time to exclude other human attributes. When the inclination to be rational and dominating are untempered by the inclination to be intuitive and the wild, a serious gap grows between reason-centered human beings and the rest of nature. And when human reason becomes the dominating force, "nature is to be watched, pitied, and taken care of if it behaves," writes Bly. Patriarchal culture then excuses its excesses -- war, greed, exploitation -- as normal and natural, as the way it just is. Bly writes: "We say to ourselves that this is true of the human world; yet once more by omission the entire non-human world has been denied consciousness."

It is not only the entire non-human world that has been omitted from having its say in our culture. Those humans who are governed by the feminine heart, women and men, have also been left out and denied expression. The keepers of the heart, those beings who are sensitive to the shades and textures of feelings, have been so maligned and misunderstood over centuries of rational dominance, that we have few examples to model our own emotional development upon. Much of the art and literature of the modern world reflects a point of view that excludes feminine values. Western culture values control and a stiff upper lip. Our movies lionize the soldier. Our literature keeps its language in check for fear of being brandished sentimental or a "woman's novel." What we sometimes dismiss as the ranting of high-strung women or the fantasy of foolish lovers is emotional wisdom leaking out of the patriarchy's seams.

Not all cultures are like ours. I saw a documentary film about the Brazilian rain forest and its native peoples that clearly demonstrates this. A tribe, whose habitat of ancient trees and rivers was being destroyed, marched to the capital city to protest. They had never before been out of the forest. The men were dressed only in loincloths and ritual face paint. The women were bare chested, wearing skirts made of shaggy bark. The men went up the steps of the enormous stone capital building with their spears and their interpreter. They formed a circle around the Brazilian officials -- men wearing suits and carrying briefcases. The women circled the two groups of men As the men conversed, the women started to cry softly and then raise their voices, until finally they were wailing and yelling. Their cries were fierce. An interpreter yelled to the men what the women were screaming: "You are destroying our world and our children! Stop! You are ignorant! You are evil! Listen to us! We know something that you don't." The native men stopped talking and bowed their heads as the women yelled. The women were speaking -- or singing, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes would say -- for the heart of the community.

The government officials, trapped within the circle of native men and women, looked about nervously. They wore frozen smiles that mocked the native people. They looked like naughty little boys who had just been caught. I was amazed at the courage of the women and the primacy of their voices, and I was touched by the respect the men showed their fellow tribeswomen. I had nothing to compare the scene to in my own life. I knew what the native women knew, but had never trusted my heart enough to speak out with similar passion and conviction.

Certainly I had wanted to. When I left my ten-year Great Mother apprenticeship and entered the demanding work world of a large non-profit organization, my frustration would reach levels where I wanted to stand on a desk and beat my chest and wail. The only woman in power, I would sit in meetings tongue tied, with no common language for what I knew to be true. If I did try to represent my point of view, my colleagues wouldn't listen. They were more like the nervous and mocking Brazilian officials than the respectful tribesmen. I yearned to speak from the depth of my heart, to educate, to fill in the missing parts of the story -- to sing. I held back my songs and my tears many times.

Slowly I began to learn how to function in a masculine work environment. I learned things -- like how to think more clearly, how to say "no," how to plan, and compute, and negotiate -- that have helped me in all areas of my life. I am grateful for those skills. But the learning was one-way. I knew that I had a thing or two to teach my male colleagues as well. I was scared to do it. I didn't know how. I didn't even have the words. As I backed up my budget requests with numbers and graphs, I left out equally important information culled from my own experience, intuition, and feelings. When I tried to express what these feelings, my lack of confidence and my colleagues' lack of listening made my singing sounded like whining. Or, if I used masculine communication to express feminine values, what I said rang untrue. I felt and intuited; they wanted proof. They thought and calculated; I wanted depth. They were rational. I was emotional. I thought we were different and could learn from each other. They thought they were right and I should change. They had the power.

My frustration began to turn to rage. For a while I let myself be angry, very angry. I let the Wild Woman have her way. Instead of secretly imagining myself standing on the table and pounding my chest, I exploded in meetings. I yelled and cried and demanded. I did get heard; it was a necessary step for me; but I also lost touch with my "soul voice." I sensed personally how the dynamic of power and powerlessness had spiraled down into hateful frustration throughout history. I understood that my rage would, in the end, be my downfall. It would be my final succumbing to the kind of power-brokering I wanted to avoid.

Was there some way to express feminine values with positive strength? Some way to sing without screaming? Was there a way to take the feminine values I had learned to trust during my Great Mother apprenticeship and combine them with the masculine qualities I was honing at work? Could the Wild Woman and the Cowboys sit down at the table? Was this the "sacred marriage" talked about in the myths, where the Gods and Goddesses -- the masculine and feminine archetypes -- meet and mate?

Often it takes someone who has already made the journey to show us our own way. I looked around for models of women and men who were radical examples of the sacred marriage -- people who were both powerful and loving, clear-headed and open-hearted -- and could find very few. Those people who were even trying, struck me as heroic. They were not perfect; their lives were works in progress; but they were trying to move against the tide in the world and within themselves. They knew that as a culture, we had reached the end of the patriarchal road, and that for the sake of all human and non-human beings and the planet itself, they had to find a new way.

I had the good fortune of meeting and studying with several such people whose work is devoted to the sacred marriage: the Jungian analysts and authors Marion Woodman and Maureen Murdock; the poet Robert Bly; the feminist Carol Gilligan; the spiritual teachers Stephen and Ondrea Levine; and the poet Maya Angelou, were among the most influential models on my own journey. Meeting Maya Angelou was like being on the receiving end of a feminine thunderbolt of the same magnitude as the native Brazilian women. It was a turning point for me in my ability to speak what I knew to be true.

Maya Angelou's books have been a part of me since I read I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings in high school. I heard her speak at a civil rights gathering when I was in college, and although she was just a spec on a faraway platform in front of the Washington monument, I was overwhelmed by her voice and her bearing. Even at a distance, Maya Angelou was larger than life. Years later, I watched her read her poem, "On the Pulse of the Morning," on television, at President Bill Clinton's inauguration. Once again, I was struck by her powerful voice, and her unusual ability to project that voice from a soft, round place in her body. Surrounded by the leaders of the nation, she, a poet and a black woman, was the authoritative voice of the day. Her imposing figure and her raw emotions elevated and dignified the inauguration ceremony.

Therefore, when she agreed to deliver the keynote address at a conference I was helping to organize in New York City, I looked forward to experiencing her powerful heart at close range. I was also nervous. On the first day of the conference -- a cold New York City spring morning -- I waited on the curb in Times Square, shivering in my little suit, for a limousine to deliver her to the hotel. The Broadway traffic was heavy and loud in the morning rush. Out of the stream of cars came a long limousine. It pulled up to the curb and the back door opened. I reached in to greet Maya Angelou and she grabbed my hand and shook it warmly. "Welcome, Maya," I stammered.

She continued holding my hand and said in a firm, friendly, and round voice, "Won't you please call me Miss Angelou?"

I was confused and a little put off. "OK," I said, "Welcome, Miss Angelou."

"Do you know why I'd prefer that?" she asked. "Well, did you ever wonder why we say, 'Hello Miss Bernice,' 'Hello sister Ruth,' when we greet our sisters and aunts in church? We must dignify our names because in many cases that is all we had." She went on in this way, grasping my hand, pulling me closer, into the limousine, telling me a truth that she felt a responsibility to proclaim. She sing-sang a list of names, closing her eyes, calling up the strong ancestral women of her heritage. Some didn't have a last name, she said; only the surname of the slave master. Little white children called them Annie, called them Betsie. "That is why we call ourselves, Miss Anne, Miss Betsie." She was educating me. It didn't matter that we were on a Broadway curb or that she had a speech to deliver.

"I get it," I said.

"Good," she laughed, and got out of the limo. She was very tall, in a flowing dress and red high heels. Miss Angelou took my arm and we marched into the hotel lobby. Inside people walking by stopped in their tracks and came over to her: an African woman who had seen her years ago in Ghana and had never forgotten her; the elevator operator, familiar with her work; a business man rushing by with a briefcase, who just so happened to be carrying one of her books. She held each ones' hands and talked softy with the same kind of concentration that she had given me in the limousine. By the time we reached the 7th floor ballroom she had conversed with a string of admirers.

I sat with her backstage waiting for the cue for her to take the podium. All the while she was asking me about myself. What was the favorite thing I had done with my life, she wanted to know?

I'd never been asked that question, so I let the first thing that popped into my mind be the answer. "Being a midwife, I guess."

"Did it disturb your soul and call you to grow?"

"Oh, yes," I answered.

"Tell me about it. Tell me about the smells and sounds." She closed her eyes and hunkered down for a story.

Right up to the time of the applause that called her to the stage, I told Miss Angelou about the smells and sounds of laboring women and newborn babies. I recalled the awful hour when I would inevitably be roused from sleep and called onto the empty road, and then into the family's house, hovering with expectation in the blue-black night. The sweet concern of the father, the fierce demands of the mother, the slow descent of the baby against the bones and muscle of the woman's insides. The miracle of birth was repeated once again: the surprising head, the slippery body, the braided cord, the first breath. I kept checking to see if Miss Angelou was really interested in this, my favorite thing. Her amazing face stayed fixed on my words. She was catching them. She was adding them to herself. She had given me a teaching and now she was receiving one back. When she finally was called to speak I was exhilarated and humbled, as if I had just completed a river trip through awesome and dangerous territory.

Miss Angelou went on to deliver a rousing speech. She put her whole body into her words. She was fierce and gentle, funny and deadly serious, outrageous and touching. She moved the crowd like no one else I had ever seen. But what struck me most was how she was purposefully moving people away from her words, into their own experience, and then out into the world. She was not using her power to focus on herself. Instead she was weaving a web of inclusiveness while at the same time teaching a lesson.

Later I discovered a new word that perfectly represented what I had seen in the women of the Amazon Indian tribe, and experienced in Miss Angelou. The word is womanist, coined by Alice Walker in her book In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: "Womanist 1. From womanish (Opp. of 'girlish,' i.e., frivolous, irresponsible, not serious.) A black feminist or feminist of color. From the black folk expression of mothers to female children, 'You acting womanish,' i.e., like a woman. Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered 'good' for one. Interested in grown-up doings. Acting grown up. Being grown up. Interchangeable with another black folk expression: 'You trying to be grown.' Responsible. In charge. Serious."

Toward a Spirituality of Wholeness

We're going to have to be serious to add enough of the feminine into the patriarchy so that what emerges is neither a patriarchy nor a matriarchy, but a human-archy. And not even that. What we need is a being-archy, where all beings are granted mutual respect and where decisions are made with the whole circle of life in mind.

In the their book on feminine psychology, The Goddess Within, Jennifer Barker Woolger and Roger Woolger speak to the loss of the feminine in the culture: "Jung once described a neurotic person as one-sided, by which he meant someone who overemphasizes one side of his personality to avoid dealing with the other.... What is true of individual neurotics is also true of whole cultures. This is where archetypal and feminine thinking converge. They are in agreement that our whole culture -- with its endless violence, homeless people on the streets, colossal nuclear arsenals, and global pollution is sick. It is sick because it is out of harmony with itself; it suffers from what the Hopi Indians call koyaanisqatsi, which is rendered in English, 'crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance.' What is missing is the feminine dimension in our spiritual and psychological lives; that deep mystical sense of the earth and her cycles and of the very cosmos as a living mystery. We have lost our inner connection to that momentous power that used to be called the Great Mother of us all."

And so, empowering the feminine dimension is more than a matter of raising woman's position within the status quo. It is much more upsetting than that. It questions some of the founding myths of the Judaeo/Christian world view and therefore changes our definition of what is real. In allowing the feminine principle to enlarge and change the way we define reality, our very way of life changes.

Recognition of the harm that patriarchy has caused to people and the planet does not mean that men are wrong and women are right; rather it is a call for new organizational forms and for relishing gender differences within a context of equality. We are in the first stages of this difficult process and are already making mistakes: sacrificing the care of children because we haven't figured out how both men and women can work and lead and raise healthy children at the same time; failing to understand that female leadership styles may look different from what we habitually assume "real" leadership looks like; and neglecting to train boys and girls from the earliest age to value and trust their emotional instincts.

It's going to take a long time to rectify hundreds of years of masculine domination within the culture. Some of the work needed is political; some is social; some is personal. And a lot of the work is already being undertaken. At major divinity schools throughout the country women now outnumber men, and their presence is transforming both the curriculum and the culture of American seminaries. Women are making similar inroads in law and medicine, as well as in business, education, psychology, journalism, and the arts. Their participation in large numbers in the institutions that define cultural reality will tip the scales in the direction of wholeness.

But the hardest and the most significant work is going to be the work each one of us does on ourselves, mining the psyche to make conscious our feminine and masculine natures. In a spiritual democracy it is an individual's responsibility to move toward wholeness -- to think clearly, to feel fully, to cultivate physical health, and to develop spiritual compassion and peace. If we are whole within ourselves, comfortable with both our feminine and our masculine identities, then we will project that wholeness onto the world. If we are blameful and imbalanced, responding to the world through the lens of an internal split, then the outer victories will ring hollow and will only replace one erroneous ethos with another.

The next chapters map a course through a spirituality of wholeness. Wholeness is not an easy path. It's always easier to address the most familiar parts of our nature. If we are at home in the thinking realm, then meditation will probably attract us as a comfortable spiritual practice. If we are naturally intrigued with our psychological make-up, then the realm of the heart will call. If our body already feels like the soul's home, then we will resonate with the kind of spiritual work that involves movement, sensuality, and nature. It is good to find practices where our soul feels at home. It is a delight. And it is also good to push ourselves into new territory; to take risks and to reach toward wholeness. When we undertake the journey toward wholeness, we need to be on the lookout for that neurotic person that Jung described as one-sided -- "someone who overemphasizes one side of his personality to avoid dealing with the other." That person is us. While it may not be easy, the path of spiritual wholeness ultimately leads to deep happiness and fuller aliveness. Probably the most difficult part of such a path is knowing the difference between superficial dabbling and a well-rounded search. It's important to stay awake to the seductions of spiritual materialism as you read the next chapters. You do not have to do everything. There is no time-frame. Move slowly and patiently, with a sense of humor and an attitude of compassion. You can focus for a while on meditation, or on therapy, or on body awareness, and balance things out later with other kinds of techniques and disciplines. In doing so, the sum total of your endeavors will affect each part of the self with the kind of transformation that an exclusive fixation on the body, or the mind, or the emotions, or the soul would never bring.

Excerpted with permission from The Seeker's Guide (previously
published as The New American Spirituality
by Elizabeth Lesser (Villard, October 3, 2000).

  Other excerpts from The Seeker's Guide by Elizabeth Lesser:

Excerpts from Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser:

Copyright © 2003 by Elizabeth Lesser


Elizabeth Lesser is the co-founder and senior advisor of Omega Institute, this country's largest adult education center focusing on health, wellness, spirituality, and creativity. She is the author of The New American Spirituality: A Seeker's Guide (published in paperback with the title The Seeker's Guide.) For 30 years she has studied and worked with leading figures in the field of healing-healing self and healing society. She attended Barnard College and San Francisco State University. Previous to her work at Omega, she was a midwife
and birth educator. The mother of three sons, she lives in the Hudson Valley with her husband.

Omega Institute is a holistic education center at the forefront of personal and professional development, dedicated to "awakening the best in the human spirit." More that 20,000 participants attend workshops and conferences each year on its 140-acre campus in Rhinebeck, New York, as well as at sites throughout the United States, including it's new center, The Crossings in Austin, Texas, and through travel programs in St. John, Virgin Islands, and Costa Rica. Founded in 1977, Omega is recognized worldwide for its broad-based curriculum and its unique community spirit. Its course work includes holistic
health trainings for medical professionals and lay people, spiritual retreats, sports clinics, cross-cultural arts workshops, and a wide variety of classes in human development. www.eomega.org


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