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. It is more about thinking loving thoughts than actually being in direct contact with feeling our bodies – a reflection of how Buddhism favours the mind as the source of experience. This creates blind spots that discount the reality of a lot of the immediacy of directly felt experience.
Thinking loving thoughts is different to feeling love in our bodies.
If we only focus on thinking loving thoughts, this ends up creating a shadow where it reinforces the systemic oppression that exists in our collective karma. It results in us exiling huge parts of our own and other people’s experience; the bits that aren’t necessarily ‘nice’ or ‘light’. I talk more about the details of this here.
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. Women are constantly appeasing, accommodating, changing their truth, coping, absorbing abuse and more.
This is an incredibly draining experience to be in – it takes a huge amount of energy to maintain. This paper is an excellent overview of emotional energy and the ways that people in subordinate positions are impacted by power structures.
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.
We live in a world where men’s issues often get more attention, or are framed in more serious terms than women’s. Just one example of this is that erectile dysfunction studies outnumber PMS research by five to one. Largely unrecognised is the genuinely debilitating pain that PMS can create – women cope with unimaginable levels of pain because they have no choice, while society quips about ‘the time of the month’. This is deeply symbolic of how we treat the pain of being a woman in this world.
I can’t even imagine what this must be like for a black woman, a woman in serious poverty or a woman from any other oppressed section of society.
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, but aren’t willing or able to recognise it.
It’s a huge blind spot for everyone. The double bind of being a woman is that you can spend your entire time accommodating people and that gets taken for granted (so much so that a lot of women don’t even know they’re doing it) or you can stop accommodating people and people will disconnect from you and think you’re being an asshole.
The accommodating comes from covering up the darkness and difficulty in experience. People don’t have the capacity or inclination to be with the challenging bits of life, so someone has to pick up the slack and accommodate everyone else. This runs incredibly deeply through our energetics, sense-making, relationships and ways of looking at the world.
The energetic and emotional burden of this is huge. When alertness to physical safety is always on, experience takes a huge amount of energy to maintain.
Often, neither side can see the depths of how much of this goes on because men can’t even possibly imagine how much energy goes into accommodating and women can’t even possibly imagine what it would be like to not be afraid and accommodating people all the time.
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.
Where does this come from?
For a woman, creating or escalating a conflict is almost always a bad idea, so as a woman, you learn to use every possible technique to avoid it, including papering over serious challenges and incredibly deep pain or sweeping these things under the carpet.
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.
As people, one of the very first things we learn is that women are there to meet our needs and without this connection we will die, so most people learn to use every possible technique to avoid disconnection. For men, this includes dominating women if they think they might abandon them.
Showing up with love is about being willing to meet what is in experience without blaming or attacking anyone. This includes kindness, but studies have shown that we only recognise kindness when it is enacted by those who are higher status. People who are lower status are expected to be kind as a minimum behaviour.
They are required to carry the weight of the negative and challenging stuff in experience without making a fuss and when they don’t, people get angry at them.
When someone has power over you and they choose to be nice, that’s kindness
When someone is expected to be nice and it’s a problem when they aren’t, that’s systemic oppression
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 and cultivating more loving thoughts only works when you are already in a position of power. Otherwise you are stuck in the shadow sides of them.
They only work when you can choose to do their opposite.
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. Or you find passive aggressive ways around them.
The problem with the heart states is that we do not, in fact, need to ask or teach 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 would make things more balanced.
One of the biggest problems with this is that when women stop being super heartful in this way all the time, they are faced with fury and outrage from men. When women start taking up their space and stop appeasing everyone around them, it triggers people’s fears of being abandoned. As humans, this is one of the worst things that can happen to us, so our bodies go into strong fight and flight and we will do anything to stop this from happening.
Again, as the more powerful beings, men tend to win this fight. They use their power either overtly or subconsciously to enforce their dominance.
The ninja move around this is that we need to deescalate the fight, on both sides. We need to create a situation where there is space for both women and men to be authentically present without having to assert dominance.
There’s also a huge amount of benefit that opens up for men – there are large parts of their experience that have been oppressed by this system, too – but if we don’t start by recognising the entitlement they have, this gets bypassed.
In order to do this properly and sustainably, we all need to be able to do the work to firstly be aware of this dynamic and secondly be able to be with it in a more spacious way.
While it may be confronting for everyone initially and requires an acknowledgement and relinquishing of privilege from some people, there are deep benefits for everyone once you get out the other side of it.
This is the heart-work that is most needed in the world; it’s not about papering over the cracks and putting on a nice facade, it’s about showing up for the realness of what is going on in experience in a whole and courageous way to work through the underlying issues in a productive way.
This has the potential to create more freedom for everyone.
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.
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 thinking nice thoughts and being a good boy or girl.
It comes from connecting with the emotional truth of what we find inside of us. Heart-break and grief is the deepest door to these states.
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? What is the courageous thing to do or say here?
And I would also add gratitude and forgiveness to this list. In this context:
Gratitude – Some luxuries in life to be grateful for if you have them…
- People believing you when you tell the truth
- People listening to your truth at all (and not just the version where they get something from you)
- Having a comfort zone to go out of in the first place
- Having the space, resource and support to think your own thoughts and/or feel your own feelings
- Being allowed to be scared
Forgiveness – What feelings do I need to feel in order to process this, so that I can let go of surface-level blame and see and feel the situation clearly?
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, because of their gender.
Thinking more loving thoughts alone isn’t going to change that.
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 instead it can be used to create more space for the realness of these issues.
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’