Category Archives: power and gender

Why I teach a women’s group

kwan yinWhen I guest teach elsewhere people often come up to me afterwards and ask where else I teach. When I tell them I lead a weekly women’s group, the women smile and seem to completely understand why that would be a good thing. If their schedule allows, they want come on a Thursday morning and give it a try.

But, not surprisingly, when men hear my answer they have a very different response: ‘Isn’t that sexist?’ ‘Why exclude men?’ And I agree with them, or at least I did until relatively recently.

When I began teaching insight meditation ten years ago, it was at the request of a few friends who happened to be women. There was no particular intention to create a ‘women’s meditation group’, but as the sangha grew by word of mouth, the members invited women friends, sisters and daughters. For whatever reason, they did not invite their husbands or male friends to come along. After a few years, the students started asking if we could call it a women’s group and limit it to women. I repeatedly said no, explaining that I felt strongly it should be an open group, even if no men show up. These teachings are universal, I told them, and it would be wrong to withhold them from anyone who wanted to learn them.

Then I spent a couple of weeks traveling around Morocco. It was my first exposure to a culture where women are truly hidden away. We saw men everywhere but very rarely did we see women walking about or filling any jobs in public places. It was a big deal when we saw a lone woman in the countryside carrying a bunch of firewood on her head. The tour arranged for us to be invited into people’s homes for occasional meals, which was lovely. But where were the women? The men sat at the table and engaged us in conversation, while the women were off in the kitchen cooking up dishes that they served us before disappearing again. They didn’t set a place for themselves at the table.

Hmm. There was something both sad and familiar in this. My mother-in-law often did the same, saying she had already ‘eaten’ while she was cooking and tasting. And I recognized that many women everywhere have some degree of this feeling of exclusion, an ingrained sense that we don’t have a seat at the table of life, that we are meant to remain in the background.

What does it take for us to awaken to the realization that we do have seats at the table, just by virtue of having been born? Our seat has always been there for us. We just didn’t know it was ours. We’ve been waiting around for an invitation or for someone to pull out a chair. Well, hello, we don’t need an invitation! It’s our table, too! We can sit down and enjoy the fruits of our own labors, whatever they may be. Why is this so difficult for so many of us to do?

When I returned from Morocco, I finally understood in a deep way how important it was that in our meditation group we are always actively addressing these issues, applying the Buddha’s teachings to the specific challenges we face as women. And yes, okay, let’s call it a women’s group and acknowledge the importance of creating a safe haven for directed exploration of our own experience. That is, after all, what we had been doing all along, but finally I could see the  value in naming and claiming it, something I had not understood until that journey to a land of invisible women.

It’s important to create a safe space to question these long-held assumptions of who we are in the world. This is not a gripe session or a victims’ support group. But it is an opportunity to look at the whole of our experience, and not just the subset where it overlaps the experiences of men.

But why do we still need this? Sure, women have made great strides, but look around! The challenges are ever-present. And even if the world were a perfect place where girls and women were no longer objectified, belittled and dis-empowered in a myriad of ways, gross and subtle, we would still be living with the cultural ripples, the patterns of thought and emotion that have been embedded in our psyches, handed down from generation to generation for millennia. Acknowledging this is empowering and crucial right now because we can see that our passive acceptance of male domination has put not just us but all life on this planet in jeopardy. Not only do we have a seat at the table if we feel like it, we need to take our seats and speak our truth out of love for all beings. Now more than ever!

Speaking our truth can be scary. I am fortified again and again by the insight I had on one silent retreat. I realized that “I have nothing to hide. I have nothing to prove. I have nothing to fear. I have something to give.” This helps me counter the shy little girl inside who doesn’t want to make a fuss. Forget that! Let’s make that ‘fuss’! We can let go of our fear of being seen and judged.  (I also need to give a shout out and a recommendation to check out Toastmasters if you are afraid to speak your truth in public. Participating in a local club can change your life! It did mine.)

It’s a huge awakening to realize that we are not objects. We are the subjects of our own lives, and co-creators of life on this earth at this time. (In general men do not need to be told they are the subjects of their lives. Of course they are. They look completely baffled when confronted with this idea. What else would they be?) But we women have historically been taught to be completely focused on the needs of others before even wondering what our needs, interests and desires might be. To that end we continually reshape ourselves to suit each role, to be the best daughter, sister, wife, mother, aunt, employee, co-worker, employer, etc. that we can be so we will be loved, needed, appreciated, respected — safely held in the reflection of other people whose opinions we deeply care about. We can arrive at a point, as I certainly did years ago, where we totally lose sight of whoever it is we are outside of the roles we play.

In the Buddha’s teachings there is a strong focus on letting go of shoring up identity. Yes! It’s very important to recognize that we are not some isolated being encased in a bag of skin. But often for women there needs to be a period of discovery of who that person is even in the most common sense of the word — to develop a healthy ego — before we can soften our attachment to it. Could you give a moment here, guys?

In the previous post we looked at why I practice and teach insight meditation instead of some other form of Buddhism. A big reason is the post-meditative explorations that are part of the practice. That focus of interior investigation plays a big role in why we have a women’s group. If all we did was to sit together, then went out into the world refreshed, there would be no particular reason to have a gender-specific group. But there’s much more to an insight meditation class than that, isn’t there? We go deep! And in that depth are discoveries that are personal in nature, and we may, at least at times, feel safer to explore them in the company of people who understand from their own experience what we are talking about. It is about vulnerability. This is not about making men — or anyone — the enemy. Quite the opposite! Instead it is to allow for hidden truths to arise within us, and to support each other in that investigation. Perhaps later we can share our findings with the men in our lives so that they can understand us better. But in the investigation itself, in that vulnerable place, the shared experience and understanding is vital.

If you look at a Spirit Rock Meditation Center schedule, you’ll see that there are a number of classes and retreats specifically for certain groups: People of Color, LGBTQ, women, men, parents, teens, families, elders and more. At first glance it looks like segregation and my initial response to it was feeling confused and even fearful: Why am I being excluded? Am I perceived as a threat by that community? I don’t feel like I’m a threat. Aren’t we all made of the same stuff? What are they talking about in there? Are they making me the enemy? So, believe me, I understand when men pose the same question to me about teaching a women-only group.

To calm my sense of feeling excluded, I remind myself that when I first started going on retreats, I chose women-only retreats because I felt I could let go and be completely myself. After a few retreats, I no longer felt that having men around — all in silence and with no eye contact — was a problem. We were all there being very interior, dealing with our own thoughts and emotions, not interacting with others. One day sitting in the meditation hall, I heard a man weeping. It cracked open my heart to realize how much alike we all are at the core. I was grateful to be sitting in a sweet sangha of brothers and sisters, all vulnerable together.

But at first and still at times, I need to be with just my sangha sisters.

Of course, we all hope for a world in which everyone feels equally empowered, and that is part of what we are learning through meditation and investigation. But we don’t get there by denying what is true in this moment. We look at whatever is arising — the good, the bad and the ugly — and then, in a respectful and friendly way, question it. Is this true? How do I know this is true? How am I in relationship to whatever is arising? What am I afraid of here? And then we patiently listen in.

This is a universal investigation. We all have incorporated the harsh messages of our culture into the ongoing unquestioned messages we tell ourselves. But women, simply by virtue of being women, have different messages that keep coming up, and different ways of dealing with them.  Whether our brains are fundamentally different from men’s is a matter of scientific research, and some findings indicate that there are over 100 ways brains have physical, hormonal and chemical differences between the ‘average’ male and ‘average’ female. None of us are average, of course! We each fall somewhere on a spectrum between what have traditionally been considered masculine and feminine traits. And anywhere we fall on the spectrum is just fine. But what we can see clearly is that we have been and continue to be treated differently, creating within us some special challenges when it comes to awakening to our true natures. So we come together as ‘just us girls’ to ‘let our hair down.’ And we encourage the men to create community together, to explore through compassionate self-inquiry how personal and cultural messages have shaped previously unquestioned beliefs that may be causing them suffering.

In this way, we can all come together with greater understanding of ourselves and the nature of being alive in this moment, and recognize in a deep and meaningful way that we really are all made of the same stuff.

Is Somebody Pushing Your Buttons?

Years ago I began to notice a mental pattern of getting annoyed and aggravated by women who were powerful. No matter how nice they were, something about them pushed my buttons. It wasn’t until after I started meditating regularly and began to notice the recurring pattern that I could see that these women were openly expressing what I was actively and covertly repressing in myself. I was stuffing my power so I resented them for ‘flaunting’ theirs.


This was a big discovery for me, the kind of discovery that happens quite naturally with the regular practice of insight meditation. Once I saw the pattern I was then able to see through it to the deep fear of allowing my own power to be expressed. (‘If I express my power, will I become an intolerable diva, unlikable by anyone I care about? Isn’t it much safer to stuff it?’ Good grief! Who needs external limits when I can so effectively dis-empower myself?)


This dislike of people who express what we’re repressing is an example of psychological projection. Does it ring any bells for you? Is there a certain personality trait that really pushes your buttons, causing a visceral negative reaction that activates judgments and fears that are out of proportion to the situation at hand.


Many of us have particular people in our lives who have the power to upset us. But the key to these relationships is the power they have over us, causing us to feel threatened. For example, we may have strong negative feelings about a sitting president, but once he is no longer in office our antipathy dissipates considerably. They are no longer perceived as a threat.


Likewise there may be a family member who we perceive as having power over us, even if it is not a physical power but the ability to break our hearts.


When someone is pushing our buttons but they don’t have any power over us, then it is something else. If this brings someone to mind, ask yourself:  Is it some particular trait that annoys or upsets you? Is it something that brings up a lot of emotional energy and tension in the body? Do you find there are a number of people with these same traits that activate this energy? If so, this is probably a case of projection.


Next time you feel your buttons pushed, take the opportunity to investigate. What is it that bothers you so much? Listen to the judgments you are making, the opinions so strongly stated in your mind. These are rich clues to let you know what aspect of yourself is being stuffed down, imprisoned deep within, rattling the bars and yelling for help.


Anytime we are doing an inner investigation, it is always beneficial to sense in to whatever physical sensations arise with the thoughts and emotions present. With the thoughts we may get caught up in a dense and circular story, or we go off on tangents that take us away from the heart of the investigation. If we focus on the felt sense of the experience, and breathe into the area that is tight or achy with compassion, we become more open in our thoughts and emotions as well.

I am happy to say that today I admire powerful women and enjoy their company. I accept leadership positions myself as a natural part of maturing. I make a point of learning how to be skillful with power, to be compassionate and generous, to listen, to collaborate and to bring all of who I am to whatever I do. And if someone finds being around me pushes their buttons, may they investigate the true cause. It ain’t me, babe!

The Art of Inner Conversation

Over the past weeks we have been exploring the characteristics of the inner aspects or sub-personalities that we have for so long mistaken for who we are. We have looked at how they are based in fear so that their intentions to protect us are tight, finite, constrained, skewed and distorted. We have looked at the greed, aversion and delusion – the three poisons defined by the Buddha as the cause of suffering – and how these aspects of self are expressions of them. And last week we looked at how they combine fear with our natural power and turn it into something toxic and potentially dangerous.

I have mentioned before the energetic quality of these aspects. Their voices have urgency, a caffeinated hyper-drive that is insistent, using the words ‘should,’ ‘must’ and ‘have to’ instead of acknowledging that we have infinite choices and free will in every moment. These voices are very much time-based, thus the urgency, and goal-oriented, wearing blinders to anything but what they fear will or won’t happen.

Meditation gives us the quiet spaciousness and clarity to notice these aspects and to distinguish them from the voice of our inner wisdom with its vaster view of the infinite nature of being. Listening to this voice gives us wiser options, but always as options. It brings our attention to the habituated pattern nature of our behavior and lets us see the beauty and bounty of each moment.

When I first encountered this inner wisdom in my adult life, I was a little concerned with this seemingly ‘don’t worry, be happy’ lackadaisical view. It activated fear-based aspects that were terrified that this vaster view wasn’t looking out for my survival. After all, from the infinite view, I am simply energy transformed into matter in a state of impermanence. What does it matter what happens to me? And that’s absolutely true in the grand scheme of things. Yikes!

Yet I have learned that when I am really listening to inner wisdom, it is looking out for me. Just as it encourages the plant to grow to be its fullest expression, it wants me to be the fullest most natural and joyful expression of life. So if I am about to step off the curb into traffic, it wouldn’t say ‘Oh well, easy come easy go.’ It would say, ‘Pay attention, be here now.’ Being present in this moment is my greatest chance for survival in all situations. The fear-based aspects might scream at me to act quickly in a situation, but I may be so distracted by their yammering that I might do the very thing they are trying to warn me against. Think about a time when you’ve had an accident of some kind. Would being fully present have made a difference? When I tripped and fell last summer on a hike in the mountains, it happened right when I stopped being present, when I switched from focusing on where my foot was placing itself to looking forward to resting and having lunch. And down I went, face to face with hard granite. That’s a hard way to learn a lesson to be present! How many hard lessons do we need before we pay attention to our inner wisdom instead of the urgent voices that take us out of this moment with their greed, aversion and delusion?

Last week we talked about power: How these fear-based aspects can subvert, compress and misuse it, resulting in harmful actions, and how when acknowledged as an expression of our true nature, our Buddha nature, arising from the loving-kindness and compassionate nature of being, our power is a force of creativity, joy, clarity, honesty, and equality.

Since all the students in my class currently happen to be women brought up in a time when power was not something a woman was encouraged to express, to say the least, I feel it is important to bring up the discomfort that was felt in the room when I began to talk about power. The blog version is much shorter, so if you only read that, you probably didn’t feel it the same. That discomfort as I talked was a clue to how much in the shadow power lives in most of our lives. The discomfort was further illuminated in discussion, when one of the sangha members said that she had just been on a kindness retreat and had felt a surge of power within her, something that felt quite counter to what she thought she was there to experience, so she appreciated the timeliness of our talk.

Later in the week I was visiting with a friend, part of the Open Embrace Meditation blog-reading sangha. She had a challenge that called for her to use her innate creative power, but she was locked in an inner battle with the voice that said that to make her needs known would be selfish and that kindness is inherently passive. She said she thought the Buddha taught to always put everyone else’s needs before our own. This is such a deeply entrenched belief that she held it even though she has read and listened to all kinds of wisdom teachings telling her to ‘give from the overflow not from the well.’ How often we carry two conflicting beliefs at the same time. How do we do this? Well, if we can recognize that we have a number of inner aspects operating on different wave lengths with different fear-based concerns, it’s easier to understand how we can hold conflicting beliefs. The aspect that is most fearful and most urgent will dominate and win the arguments, and that’s what was happening in her case.

The Buddha spoke extensively of kindness and generosity. Those of us who were brought up to be not just courteous and considerate but subservient to men and devoted to meeting the needs of parents, children, friends and neighbors, have to be very careful how we hear this kindness teaching. Listen carefully! Hear deeply! The Buddha wasn’t suggesting we be doormats! If the Buddha didn’t talk that much about power, it’s because most of his students had no problem being forthright when it came to asking for what they wanted. While his students were not exclusively male, they were certainly predominantly male, and any teacher creates curriculum appropriate for their students’ needs. This is not to say that men are inherently unkind and self-serving! But culturally men are encouraged to use their power, while women historically have been discouraged from open displays of power. Younger women have a hard time believing the things we of earlier generations were taught in order to subvert our own natural power in order to make men feel strong, smart and powerful. Our mothers didn’t necessarily teach us we were powerless. They just told us our power had to be suppressed for the greater good. We were taught to be ‘the woman behind the man.’ It is much easier to see in retrospect how this was dishonest and disrespectful to both men and women.

Inspired by how the Buddha spoke to the specific needs of his students, I am addressing what I see as the needs expressed by my students and readers. Kindness is not passive! It is active and empowering! And when we have a voice telling us to put up with something that is unacceptable, that is harming us in some way, then it is not a kindness to ourselves to tolerate it. Remember that in all our kindness practice, the Buddha taught to send metta first to ourselves so that we can attune to that powerful force of love that is our Buddha nature. In this way we are giving infinite deeply-rooted kindness, not a finite grumpy fear-based so-you-like-me knock-off brand of kindness.

Being kind to ourselves first – true kindness and compassion, not shallow fear-based giving our greedy aspects everything they desire – is not selfish but wise. How can we serve the world if we are operating on empty? What are we really offering if we are coming from the finite fearful place that says we ‘should’ be kind? When we hear an inner aspect speaking, we need to notice it, get into dialog with it, understand its fears and work with its needs. But we don’t for a moment need to believe it to be right. It is shallow-rooted, tensed, clinging to its fear-based perceptions of the world. It doesn’t serve us, though it thinks it does. Because it is trying so hard to serve what it sees as our needs, we can find a way to be compassionate to these aspects without indulging them.

With this insight into the nature of these inner fear-based aspects and how their voices differ from that of our wise deeply-connected nature, we have many clues to begin to recognize when we are acting from our true nature and when we are following the ill-informed fear-based advice of inner voices that we may have always believed to be who we are.

I hope each of you will take the time, especially after your daily meditation practice when the energy is quieter and more spacious, to really listen in. I hope you will use these clues to notice the difference between your access to inner wisdom and your cast of fear-based characters. These habituated patterns of thought and emotion need noticing. They need harnessing. They need respect and appreciation for their intention, but they need to be herded by a wise shepherd, and that is you when you align with your true loving nature.

As an exercise in noticing, take a few minutes now to sit with your thoughts and emotions. When you find a thought that grabs your attention, write it down. Then look at it and see if your can tell where it is coming from. Is it fear-based? Is it speaking from greed, aversion or delusion? Is it time-based, expressing a sense of urgency? Is there an emotion it is displaying? Does it contain a threat of some kind? Is it full of judgment? Is there a tensing up in the body that you notice happening when it speaks? Breathing into the area in the body that tenses up can make this voice more approachable, calming its fears.

Or perhaps this thought grabbed your attention because it has a very different quality, and you can take this time to listen to that small still voice within, now that the other voices are still or at least less activated.

Perhaps you’ll notice both arising. Write them both down. Perhaps your inner wisdom says something, but then an inner aspect speaks up to slap it down. Your inner wisdom is not threatened by the fear-based heckling. Instead, it’s an opportunity for exploration.

In class the students said they were comfortable with simply sharing what fear-based voice they heard during our few minutes of quiet. They were given the opportunity to share the dialog they had with it, or to have me play the role of their wise inner voice in response to their sharing of what rude thing an inner aspect said to them. It was a very rich sharing.

It’s important to remember that our inner cast of characters may come and go but they are always available for cameos! It is just another fear-based aspect that believes that somehow awakening to being present will wipe the slate clean of all the habituated patterns of a life time. A powerful awakening will do that for a time, but even the Buddha had his cast of characters, his ongoing dealings with Maya, the tempter, in all its form.

But with the practice of awareness we are better able to see these aspects and recognize their true nature, just as the Buddha said, “Ah, Maya, I know you,” we say, “Ah, fearful aspect, I know you.” I have mentioned before that it is useful to give pet names to each aspect that we get to know. This is not to make them more real but to make them more easily recognizable when they crop up again so we don’t have to go through such a lengthy process each time. See an example of an inner dialog.

When we see and acknowledge them, imagine how wondrous it is for a frightened inner aspect to be known, to be acknowledged. Our inner aspects crave for us to awaken and take charge! They are like small children running amok because the babysitter wandered off with her boyfriend and the parents haven’t come home. You can feel their sense of thrill and terror. So we attune ourselves to the deep-rooted loving wisdom that is our true nature, and we come home to mind these inner aspects, to discover their concerns and to respectfully and responsibly negotiate solutions that have integrity.

Moderation is often the result of these inner dialogs. Needs get met but in a sustainable way. The Buddha talked so much about The Middle Way that finds a path between the extremes of austerity and over-indulgence. Finding of the Middle Way is an ongoing inner negotiation between the deeply rooted wise inner voice and the shallow rooted fear-based aspects. This is addressed in any discussion of Wise Effort. The fear-based inner aspect is trying so hard to do the right thing that it comes out all wrong. Why? Because it’s not about goals or how difficult it is or how much we sweat! It’s about sinking in to access the universal wisdom, and that’s a result of being here, now and relaxed, which requires intention but not tension. All the fear-based aspects are tense!! Uptight!! Freaked-out!! Attuned with inner wisdom we feel a compassionate affection for these voices, but we no longer let them lead us.

So, OUT OF KINDNESS, we lead our lives from that deep alignment, that sense of balance, empowerment, aliveness and joy.