A Female-Friendly Approach to Meditation
In the past, yoga was not about women’s voices or women’s bodies. For the last 45 years, it is a new game. In the modern West, most practitioners of yoga meditation are women. This is a great thing.
The integrity of yoga is that it is always about the bodies and hearts and essential nature of the students. So Instinctive Meditation and Pranava Meditation are just doing the traditional thing, which is to adapt the teachings to the need of the students. So that they thrive with the practice.
Here are some selections from Meditation Secrets for Women, which Camille and I wrote together in 1990:
Come Home to Yourself
The sensuous ebb and flow of the breath,
The warmth of the sun on the skin,
The touch of light on the eyelids, like a kiss,
The soothing sound of leaves rustling in the breeze,
The satisfying release of bodyweight into the support of the Earth –
Nothing in particular to do or be,
Just savoring the texture of life in this moment...
Relaxing, melting, softening into lusciousness.
Sinking down, letting go, deeper, deeper…
Breath spreading, massaging everywhere inside, a gentle caress…Ah…
Muscles release, a sigh of relief, all the way to the bones.
Here, now, the movement of life, touching me,
Healing me, revealing its simple truth –
I am immersed in the embrace of life.
Yes, I hear the Yes.
And my response, Yes.
I am this movement.
I am home.
This is meditation – luxuriating in the sensory world, resting in the simplicity of your own being, enjoying yourself shamelessly.
“What?” you ask, “But I thought you had to sit in silence to meditate. I thought you had to detach, override desire, empty the mind?” Our answer, from more than 50 years of experience between us, is a resounding NO.
Nature designed us to blossom in the bodily state of pleasure. When we give over to this basic need, every cell, every fiber of body and soul, gets to receive and come alive. Something way down inside is met and satisfied, that primitive place "underneath" our everyday human personality. Touched and fed with pleasure something awakens, like an animal purring into health and power, or a tender plant blossoming into glorious vibrant color.
This simple pleasure of being completely at home in the body puts us in rapport with the ongoing rhythms of nature. It is a tangible sense of ourselves as an organism within the larger natural environment – connected, contained, safe. As we relax in enjoyment within ourselves we feel free to release, deep inside, into a condition of easy flow. The pulsings of breath and blood slow into a soothing dance. Our senses dilate; we feel closer to the processes of life.
This openness to the touch of life is at once deeply healing and nutritive. The body opens up to receive, and we are informed – in-formed – by the vast, fecund, life-giving natural world. And we know:
Life is here. I am here. I am alive.
Your meditation time is the perfect place to cultivate this primary connection. It may seem like an indulgence, a luxury. But it is actually a vital necessity. For women to be healthy in meditation, it must be based in this primary sense of pleasure. No denial of the body, of the instincts, of emotion, it should be a deeply intimate relationship with yourself, with breath, with life. Deep pleasure is like a stem leading down into your feminine roots, connecting you to the rich, fertile ground of being, and drawing life force back up so that your individual essence can bloom. With pleasure at its foundation, your meditation is a coming to your senses, a coming home.
Meditation is time carved out for yourself – sacred space – to feel that underlying “Yes” from life, the affirmation of your being. In this spacious welcoming, you may feel the “Yes” of your own response to life welling up from the depths – not from discipline, but from pleasure; not from demand, but from love.
What woman doesn’t yearn for time for herself, without having to be anything for anyone else? To rest, to restore, to settle in. To catch up with all the thoughts that fly in and out all day. To sort out her feelings from the tangle of everyone else’s. To be in touch with herself, her body, her rhythm. To clarify her own sense of things. To get back to her essence…
We hear this all the time from the women we work with. But when we mention meditation, resistance rears its head: “I want to meditate, but I just don’t have the time. I can’t sit still, forget about cross-legged – it hurts my knees. Cleanse my mind of thoughts? Are you kidding? Be calm and love everybody? Get real. I can’t stop the whirring in my head. I don’t have the discipline. Meditation’s supposed to be good for you, right? But it sounds so dry and boring. I would never want to deny so much of myself.”
What if we told you that there really are no odious rules to follow – that meditation is just being yourself? What if we told you that you don’t have to change yourself in any way to reap the benefits of meditation?
Well, that’s what this book is all about.
The marvelous truth is that you already know how to meditate. We’re just here to give you permission to do it – and to do it in your own unique way. If you set up favorable conditions, meditation happens spontaneously. This book is about how to set up those conditions for yourself. Meditation is a rest deeper than sleep, and is refreshing and rejuvenating. It’s good for your health, enables you to better deal with stress, and helps you live in harmony with your world. Hundreds of scientific studies map out these beneficial effects. But you’ll receive these benefits most fully if you figure out a female way that works for your individual life and not against it.
There is one sobering but ultimately liberating truth that you need to understand right off the bat. The ancient meditation techniques were not designed for women’s bodies and psyches. For years Lorin and I have asked, “What is a female-savvy approach to meditation? Why do some women thrive in meditation while others languish or quit?”
In listening to women talk about their meditation experience, there is something we have both consistently heard and seen. Women are natural meditators. Given the chance, they will settle into deep meditation and stay there for quite awhile, even if they have never meditated before. Lorin has discovered that many people spontaneously invent meditation techniques and practice them for years with very good results – often unwittingly recreating those in the classic texts. Likewise, many women have come to work with me because they want to explore in an embodied mode through subtle sensing and movement. As we stretch their understanding of what meditation can be, they enter profound and transforming states of awareness.
Bottom line: women need a different kind of meditation approach. Every woman needs a handful of techniques, not just one. The old rigid time frames, rules about immobility, and devices for blocking feeling deny a woman her basic rights to crave, taste, and experience life as she truly does. Women live right inside the natural rhythms of life – an emotional and physical connection that must be honored and satisfied.
In Meditation Secrets for Women, we invite you to use meditation as a way to connect with that natural rhythm, not contort it, to embrace yourself and all of your experiences, whatever mood you’re in, without having to deny or push away what’s really going on. Meditation should be joyful, sensuous, engaged, alive. It should be rooted in pleasure.
The Secrets are so simple that they could easily be overlooked. Why is the value of deep pleasure for women such a secret? It is a state so natural and fundamental, so life-affirming, that you would think we would all celebrate it, almost take it for granted, accept it as second nature, or in fact, as the first nature it really is. Many of us find it difficult to allow ourselves to dwell in that most basic and nurturing of states. As if we need permission! As if the world will fall apart if we let go, or we will be stoned to death or burned at the stake if we give in to our natural sensuality. When we relax into ourselves with pleasure, we eventually encounter deep-seated cultural taboos against sensuality, against loving our bodies, against resting in our feminine selves. There is a hidden judgment that this is hedonistic, selfish, base, naughty, shallow, frivolous, or sinful. (Care to supply your own adjectives?) So when you meditate, you will probably have to face those taboos – all the control structures that you’ve been taught as a woman. All your judgments and criticisms about yourself are sure to surface too. The beautiful thing about meditation is that it gives you the chance to rest in your own nature and learn to celebrate it.
Enter Secrets as you might a doorway into a world you’ve always longed for and suspected was there all along. And please, please come as you are. Don’t feel you have to change or “improve” yourself – you don’t have to be reverent, you don’t have to be serious. Come any way you are at the moment: curious, laughing, tired, rebellious, loving, grumpy, nervous, playful, buzzing with energy or sleepy. Come on in. Step into this wide-open embrace. Welcome all of who you are, from the small to the vast, the tender to the wise, the mundane to the divine. You'll find that meditation nourishes your heart, and like a visit to an inner therapist, a quick vacation, an emotional tune-up, or a magic healing treatment, you'll emerge more whole and real and empowered to be your best self.
A Healthy Approach
So here we are in the modern world where millions of people of every walk of life are meditating every day and far less than 1% of them are monks. Over half of the meditators are female: athletes, businesswomen, teachers, artists, singers, therapists, actors, moms, kids, and healers of all kinds. Women have become part of the spiritual equation, not just as followers and devotees, but as teachers and leaders. Yet of the thousands of books on meditation, the vast majority are by men from within the various monkish paths. In general, the meditative traditions of the world have perpetuated the following ideas:
Better to sit still than to dance;
Better to be desireless than to have desires;
Better to be detached than to be involved;
Better to be compassionate than passionate;
Better to be aloof than to love;
Better to be obedient than defiant;
Better to submit than to be independent;
Better to follow the tried and proved path than to find your own.
Better to kill your ego than to live your individuality.
Monks take vows of celibacy, poverty and obedience, and so of course their meditation practice is intended to strengthen these vows; any contrary impulses must be crushed. But monasticism has little to do with meditation, though they are often confused. The Dalai Lama voices this wisdom, which we heartily celebrate: “Don’t be a monk, don’t be a Tibetan. Be in your own life and religion. Just meditate, be happy, and have compassion for all beings.”
A meditation technique is a procedure for dealing with your thoughts, emotions, senses and attention that fosters a deep and peaceful state of repose. It is a kind of software you run in your brain, and when it works, it can lead to an inner harmony that is wonderfully revitalizing. What happens, though, when you impose someone else’s mental process on yourself? What happens if you impose the style or “mental software” on yourself that was designed for a different kind of person with a different purpose? You usually get a degree of confusion and a high failure rate.
In our conversations, Lorin and I talked more about TM, which I had learned in 1968. He had studied Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi and taught the technique from 1970 to 1975. Lorin reflected on the distinction that Maharishi made – that there is a dramatic difference between the path of the recluse or monk and that of the householder. “He made it clear to me that householders – people who live in the world – evolve through the adventure of following their passions, daring to be attached, tolerating great intimacy, and dealing with the ever-changing structure of their relationships. The householder path is to get in touch with your inner peace for half an hour in meditation in the morning, then go out and be dynamic and actively work to make the world a better place. Always in teaching, he instructed us to give people ways of meditating that support their aspirations and their duties, not ones that may undermine them. If you are working with a businesswoman, give her techniques that help her be calm and happy in action. Encourage her ambition.”
Another of Maharishi’s insights was that if people have busy minds, one of the worst things you can do is to tell them that they have to stop thought – you’ll just tie them up in knots. They will get into a struggle with their own dynamism – a battle that they can’t win. This insight goes against the stereotype of meditation, stemming from ancient days – that it involves making your mind perfectly blank. This may be possible if you live in a cave or a religious order; your life is simplified to the extreme – you live in isolation, don’t have a job, don’t handle money, don’t have dreams, and just follow orders. If you live in the world, love people, feel passionately, and work, you cannot and should not try to impose stillness in meditation. It works much better to embrace motion, the motion of emotion and the movement of thoughts. If you do this, then you will get a sense of stillness-in-motion. It may last only a few seconds or minutes in your meditation, but it is there and you have touched it.
Women’s bodies and psyches have special needs and strengths. For us to be healthy in meditation it must take into account our:
body rhythms and hormonal fluctuations
emotional complexity and sophistication
home-base in relatedness
deep connection to the cycles of life
When these differences are not acknowledged in the techniques, it cheats women of the benefits. People can injure themselves in meditation, just as they can in running or dancing, when rigid techniques are imposed. Because meditation is such a profound state, you touch the depths where you are being recreated. You are installing a quality of energy in the nadis of your nervous system. So when you impose repression, it goes deep. Relaxation is sensual, even sexy and electric. But because many women are mentally focussed on the guru and the rules, they edit out their natural vigor. As a result they may be calm, but end up devitalized and pale. Meditating in a female-friendly way gives you a healthy sense of self, knowing who you are from deep within yourself. That connection to your core is precious, and is not to be denigrated.
As a woman who positively thrives in meditation, I can tell you it is one of my favorite things to do. Over the years I have joyfully studied several of the ancient methods – TM, esoteric yoga, Zen and Tibetan Buddhism – and cherish their techniques. But the more I have let go of the rigidity of outer forms and learned to listen within, the healthier I feel. I have come to trust the current of vibrancy that flows through me, and that informs me of the practice I need each day – always responsive to the movement of my life, and always deeply balancing.
One morning Lorin was in the kitchen feeding the cat and I came out from the bedroom. I had been up past midnight teaching a performance group and was grumpy, tired and bedraggled. My hair was sticking out at all angles, and that’s how I felt inside. I muttered, “I think I’m premenstrual,” and after making a cup of tea, I disappeared back into the bedroom to meditate. When I emerged half an hour later, Lorin looked at me and laughed, and said, “Amazing, how you do that. Now you look serene, smooth and refreshed, as if you’d spent the day at a health spa.”
“Serene? Ha! I spent the first five minutes growling, hissing and shaking. In the next five, my breath changed to sobs. Then for ten minutes more my body hummed and swayed with the currents of electricity. And the last few minutes I just sat there with my eyes open, smiling with dangerous glee. I’m more like a wild animal than serene. But I do feel all of one piece, my fur is smoothed out, and I have to admit, I am definitely refreshed!”
Lorin said, "You know, I’ve seen you work that magic on every mood and circumstance, day in and day out, year after year (we’d been together 15 years at that point). But what you do when you meditate is not on the maps. It would surprise a lot of people. Growling? Sobbing? That doesn’t sound very detached!” Lorin broke up in laughter. “It’s such a female approach, and so healthy – you are not repressing anything.” I knew what he meant; this sensual, instinctive vibrancy is just not what most people picture when they think of meditation.
Many women cry during meditation. If you’re likely to cry during movies, you will cry in meditation, because you will get a chance to let your heart melt, to surrender to all the love that you feel. Crying is not even mentioned in most meditation books, yet this complete melting is a way of transcendence through the heart. Life itself is the great teacher. If you are looking at someone or something with total adoration – a pet, or a baby, or your lover – in that moment, you are not being egotistical. You have a sense of being part of something larger. You feel connected. In and out of love, we learn about the ego. The realm of the personal leads to the transcendent, because all relationships change and create a tug inside our hearts to the extent that we are involved. Pay attention to that movement of change and you are instantly in meditation.
When women adapt meditation to fit their individuality, the little modifications they make seem like just “common sense” or “a hunch.” Women are shy about sharing these tips, which do not feel like wisdom to them; on the contrary, the women we have spoken to often have a sense of shame about not being able to fit themselves into the program.
One afternoon in the early 80’s, Lorin was sitting in the cafeteria at Esalen, a seminar center perched on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur, California. He was there alone, having a cup of coffee, and there were only a couple of other people in the whole place, although it had seats for over a hundred. A beautiful woman came and sat next to him. From the way she moved, and the way she held her cup of coffee, he could see she had done a lot of awareness practice – every move she made was full of grace. Striking up a conversation, she asked him what was he doing there, and he said teaching meditation. She said, very brightly, that she did Zen, and that she and her husband were very involved in a Zen center and had been “sitting” for years.
Following a hunch, Lorin gently asked, “Don’t you think Zen is bad for women? All that sitting still and suppressing the urge to move? Where is the rhythm?”
The woman flinched for a second, as if she had been slapped by an invisible hand. Then, in a testament to her Zen practice, she recovered in a heartbeat and took advantage of the moment. She leaned forward, and told him the following story.
“Last year the women – the wives – at the Zen Center started getting together each week to talk and have tea. Over time we realized that many of us were having health problems of various sorts and we wondered what was going on. I mean, we all eat health food and meditate. Our lives aren’t particularly stressful. Finally one woman in the group said, ‘You know, I feel like my energy gets activated by the meditation, but then it doesn’t get to move. It just stays there and stagnates as we sit there for long hours. I feel like I need to move, to dance the energy.’ “That rang a bell with many of the other women. We had been doing hours and hours of sitting meditation for years.”
Lorin asked, “Did you talk to the teacher about it?”
She said, “Several of us went to talk to the roshi about this, but he brushed us off. We went back to the larger group of women and decided among ourselves to minimize the time we spend sitting, and to do walking meditation as our practice. We have been doing this for almost a year, and it seems to be working.”
“Did you tell your husbands about it?” he asked.
“No, our husbands are so earnest. And since the teacher rejected our idea, it would just make trouble.”
We have heard many such stories, in which women who love meditation adapt it to fit their needs. They find ways to juice it up, personalize and enjoy it. But often they find their creativity scorned by their (mostly male) teachers. Even though the women’s methods work and their ideas are practical and helpful, they are treated as heretics. Or they are told that it is “just their ego talking,” and they should surrender more. Consequently, women’s precious insights about meditation have not been gathered and used to improve the teaching methods, especially to teach women. Every woman has to discover, through trial and error, what works for her and what leads her into stagnation. This process can take many years.
Lorin worked with another woman, Cynthia, who had for seven years been doing a form of Buddhist meditation with very strict rules and fierce visualization practices. She had started meditating at 22 and she was now 29, and she talked for hours about her experiences. After several sessions, she finally said with considerable fear and trepidation, “Do you think it is possible…that these practices…were never designed for women?” It had taken her years of exploration, suffering, wonder, anguish and soul-searching to get to the point where she could say that. Cynthia had been trying to do the practices exactly as taught, in the mood and tone the teacher was putting forth, and she found that she was having to delete more and more of herself in order to fit. “I love meditation but I don’t think these rules apply to people like me.”
Monastic notions of “destroying the ego,” “detaching from desire,” and “killing the instincts” have little relevance to ordinary life, especially not to women’s lives. They are inappropriate and even harmful. The demands of work, family, and love strain a woman’s ego plenty. In meditation we should be looking to strengthen, not weaken, the ego. Ditto desire. We’ve been trained to detach from our desires for hundreds if not thousands of years. Ditto our instincts. It’s time to reclaim them all. And there’s no reason on Earth not to use our meditation time to do so.
We should give thanks to the lamas, yogis and roshis for preserving and disseminating the teachings of old. Responding to the global cry for help, they are generously and courageously sharing their path to peace. They’ve left their monasteries, traveled far from their own countries and learned our language; they have met us more than halfway. But we cannot expect them to have a clue about female wisdom; that is and has been for women to discover and evolve. As women, it is our job to stand on our own ground, in our own bodies and adapt meditation to the needs of our lives.
Women have learned all kinds of mantras and techniques, they’ve taken vows and followed gurus, but the power and beauty of their meditation have come through adaptation and integration. They found ways to meditate that really suited them, they just didn’t tell anybody. We consider this sacred knowledge. We wrote this book to gather what we can of the hints, discoveries, and insights about meditation that women have revealed to us. We consider it a progress report. The story of women and meditation will undoubtedly take decades to unfold, as women meditators and teachers share their own experiences. The point is to get and keep the conversation going.
We invite you to dabble, try on and experiment to find what works best for you. With these Secrets in hand, you should be well on your way to falling in love with a way of meditating that works for your body, your needs, your female way of being in the world.
Take a deep breath, right now – the kind you take in joy or satisfaction. Ah… There, you’ve already begun.
by Wendy Doniger