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 men.
If you are a man reading this, you may not be aware of this, but women’s entire survival mechanisms in society are built around keeping other people happy. Particularly men. If this is making you angry reading this, you are probably one of the culprits whose reactivity is keeping this system in place. Take a moment to calm down and see if you can be open-minded to hear me out.
If you are a man who is nodding along knowingly and sympathetically, thank you for your allyship and please know that this article is not about villainising men.
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, and this is not that place.
The truth is that the feminine has been oppressed in all of us, which impacts everyone, but it impacts 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-its 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.
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. A large portion of women suffer from some form of near-crippling period pains or issues every single month, a small proportion of men suffer from erectile dysfunction at some point in their life. Go figure.
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 force, so you learn to avoid conflict.
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.
Women do not need to learn to cultivate more kindness. Kindness is built in to how they respond to things.
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 keep everyone happy.
The Shadow Side of the Brahma Viharas
These are the Buddhist heart states and some common examples of how women 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
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 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 have the choice to be aggressive and instead choose kindness. If you have the choice to be in control and instead choose equanimity. If you have the choice to be greedy and instead choose to be happy for others and if you have the choice to be selfish and instead choose to care for others.
If you don’t have that choice, they become enforcers of the systemic oppression that is already there. 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 hard.
When we are safe and empowered in a healthy way, our love naturally overflows to those around us.
Cultivating my version of the heart states is more about connecting with what is 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 trying to be a good boy or girl.
It comes from trusting in our heart’s inherent knowing and goodness – connecting with the emotional truth of what we find inside of us – rather than dictating our behaviour based on fixed (and often patriarchal) ideas.
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 hard?
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?
Care – What do I care about in this situation? Do I need to set a boundary to ensure that my needs are 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.
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.