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Even disregarding all the scandals and questionable gender politics that have been inherent in Buddhism since its beginnings, Buddhism is a religion or school of spirituality that was created for men by men. It is a patriarchy in one of its purest forms.
This is reflected in a number of ways, but is no more apparent to me than the way that the heart states are taught and expressed through it.
The heart states are an intrinsic part of our being. And I believe that cultivating them is vital in our capacity to wake up.
Buddhism describes these heart states as loving kindness, equanimity, sympathetic joy and compassion.
These states are nice and good things to have access to, but there is a flaw in the system. The way they are taught and described are geared towards helping those who are most powerful.
Recognising Power Imbalances
If you are a man reading this, you may not be aware of this, but there is a huge part of a woman’s system that is built around purely surviving. To avoid being destroyed by the power imbalance that we live in, we have had to adopt coping mechanisms that men don’t have to think about – for example, being kind to people all the time or manipulating situations with passive aggression.
This also happens to men and there is a time and a place for talking about the masculine and the feminine in the way that it impacts all of us, which is the stance that I normally take, but this is not that place.
The truth is that the feminine has been oppressed in all of us, which impacts everyone, but it tends to impact women much worse.
Burned on the back of my eyelids is a cork board I spent an afternoon looking at while at an art gallery. It was at an exhibition about women’s oppression and the invitation was for women to share the ways in which they had been oppressed. There were hundreds of post-it notes pinned to the board of examples of all different types of micro and macro oppressions that women had experienced and what struck me was not how shocking I found it, but how I related to every single one of them. How I was so used to being undermined, oppressed, belittled, underestimated, kept small and abused because of my gender that it was like the most obvious thing in the world.
Written into my heart is the fact that if you get any group of women together in a safe space and start to talk about sexual abuse, every single one of them will have a story that usually starts, ‘it’s not a big deal, but…’ after which they will reveal some sexual abuse that happened to them that is in fact always a big deal.
“Cool Girls never get angry; they only smile in a chagrined, loving manner and let their men do whatever they want. Go ahead, shit on me, I don’t mind, I’m the Cool Girl.” Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn
Women’s empowerment has come a long way, but be under no pretence that it is either safe or comfortable to be a woman in this world.
Women are significantly more likely to be depressed than men. They are significantly more likely to be unhappy in their marriages. They are significantly more likely to attempt suicide.
The last one is a little known fact because everyone always talks about the high male suicide rate, which is probably largely to do with the fact that men are more likely to be successful in their attempts because they are more aggressive.
This is reflected with how we frame everything. Men’s issues get far more attention than women’s.
Just one example of this is that erectile dysfunction studies outnumber PMS research by five to one.
Privilege and Power
As animals, we are always subconsciously hyper-aware of who will win in a fight with the people around us. This impacts how we behave all the time.
As a woman, you are always in the weaker category. You know that you can’t win anything by physical force, so conflict becomes a shadow for you. You learn to avoid it, either by being super nice or by being passive aggressive and manipulative.
Just imagine being surrounded by people who not only are physically bigger and stronger than you, but who have been in positions of power their whole life. Walking into the office for a woman, is like walking into the middle of an elite private school rugby team for a man. You are surrounded by people who have privilege and power over you at all times. And most of them aren’t willing or able to recognise it.
Take a moment to imagine that all the people in your life are genderless beings and you will probably notice how their behaviour differs. Both how they act differently and how the expectations that you have of them are completely different, based on their gender.
For a woman, escalating a conflict is almost always a bad idea, so as a woman, you learn to use techniques that avoid it.
Depending on whether you tend to internalise or externalise your shadow this will either be through pacifying others through kindness or manipulating them through passive aggression.
The Shadow Side of the Brahma Viharas
These are the Buddhist heart states and some common examples of how women, and those in a position of submissiveness, have learned to adopt them to survive.
Loving Kindness – assume the best of people, don’t tell a man they are wrong or do anything that might humiliate them, be nice and you might get what you want/ not get hurt
Equanimity – boys will be boys, men are less emotionally mature, you will do more emotional and domestic labour, you will have to work harder for less money and less recognition, just accept this
Sympathetic Joy – you will laugh at hurtful jokes, you will get less pleasure in bed, you will make more sacrifices for your male partner to succeed, you will take joy in the lives of your children rather than your own successes
Compassion – you will be expected to be naturally empathic and understanding, you will be expected to take care of people around you, when you don’t do this and you express clear boundaries you will be much more likely to be considered rude and selfish
Adopting these heart states only works when you are already in a position of power.
If you could win by being aggressive and instead choose kindness. If you could take control of a situation and instead choose equanimity. If you can be greedy and hoard things to yourself and instead choose to be happy for others and if you are able to be selfish and instead choose to care for others.
If you don’t have that option, because you have no power in the system, then you are just expected to adopt these states to appease others. Studies back this up showing that those who are lower status do not get recognised for being kind – it’s just expected of them.
We do not need to ask women to be more kind – we need to empower them to take up their space in a healthy and functioning way.
To reclaim the space that has been kept from them.
Empowered Heart States
The way that I teach the heart states is different. It is about connecting in with our capacity for fierce love.
It is about empowering ourselves to move from a place where we know what matters most deeply in life and are willing to do what it takes to stand up for that in the world. At its core it is about deep care and respect for ourselves and each other and the courage to face the truth, even when it’s an absolute cluster-fuck.
Cultivating this version of the heart states is more about connecting with what is already on the inside for you than it is about how you treat other people. It’s about feeling an embodied sense of love rather than being a good boy or girl.
It comes from connecting with the emotional truth of what we find inside of us – rather than dictating our behaviour based on fixed (and often patriarchal) ideas. It includes all the darkness and heart-break.
These are my versions of the heart states:
Friendliness – How can I stay open-minded to receiving the truth of the situation that is happening here? How can I feel into this in an open and relaxed way, even if it’s really hard or dark?
Inclusion – What information is important to recognise here? What information am I oppressing or ignoring and how can I open to including and accepting it?
Joy – What is something here that I can connect to in a joyful way? Is there something dark or absurd about the situation that I can find joy in?
Embodied Compassion – What do I care about in this situation? Do I need to set a boundary to ensure that people are safe and my own needs are being met?
As far as I am concerned spirituality is ultimately about freedom, beauty, truth and love.
We cannot be cultivating these things in the world when half the population is systemically abused and oppressed. Spirituality needs to give us the tools to face this truth and find loving ways to create more freedom and beauty in the world by integrating our darkness, rather than turning away from it.
The first step of this is recognising how disempowering some of the ways that spirituality is taught can be and consider how we can do a better job.
Guided Loving Kindness
Girls are taught to be caring
Before all else
Which means that
When we grow up to be women
We will laugh at derogatory jokes
We will swallow our hurt
We will have sex with a man
We’ve gone home with
Rather than tell them we’ve changed our minds
And risk upsetting them
When you have been made to believe
That other people’s feelings are your responsibility
You do not need to be taught loving kindness
When you have been told the only way to protect yourself
From the pain of being a woman in this world
Is to perfect the art of kindness
Then the best thing you could hear is
‘Sometimes you need to be cruel to be kind’