[Warning: Video somewhat NSFW].
Discussions concerning the masculine and feminine have a long and controversial history in the cultures of spiritual practice.
The key commonality to teachings that use masculine and feminine in spiritual discourse is to assume the existence of a masculine and a feminine principle. These principles are said to be universal (even cosmic) in nature and therefore trans-cultural. Further, the masculine and feminine qua principles are not to be defined solely as men and women. That is a man can be said to have a feminine side and women a masculine side.
This idea of the masculine and feminine principle runs through the teachings of Tantricism as well as the Taoism traditions. The teaching has a long and honorable heritage. Just so in the (self-named) integral world the terms masculine and feminine (as principles) are bandied about quite frequently, and in my experience typically in quite ignorant and deluding fashion.
There is quite a bit of criticism out there about the use of the terms masculine and feminine in integral thought (our own Sr. Vanessa is one of the experts on this conversation), which has to my mind too often been categorized as postmodern and therefore deficient (and therefore able to be ignored). A brilliant counter-example to that trend—one that takes seriously these issues and offers a substantive critique is this article on the Divine Feminine by Elizabeth Debold (highly recommended). Also, this one by Elizabeth.
Into that fray, I offer this post. It is meant to be controversial and generate intense thought and discussion. Before I go there, however, I want to make clear that just because I’m taking a fairly critical stance on this one issue (the use of masculine/feminine) in relation to spiritual teachers in the integral world does not mean I think they have nothing to offer. I’ve learned a great deal from many of them and appreciate much of what they do. The main reason I offer this criticism is because I think it is creating an unnecessary barrier to the dissemination of their teachings. Here less would be so much more.
I’ll begin with the video at the top of this article by David Deida, perhaps the most (in)famous contemporary teacher of masculine and feminine. I should say upfront that I actually think David often gets a bum rap. This video is good because you hear David’s own words rather than summarized versions (whether pro or con) of his ideas. Nevertheless I still think there is a serious categorical error in what he says.
Deida clearly articulates the idea of a masculine and feminine principle. The Masculine, Deida says, is the Witness or the Unmoved aspect of Consciousness. The Feminine, in contrast, is Light or Energy-Radiance, the Manifest Form of Consciousness.
This teaching is the classic teaching of the Shiva-Shakti Tantric tradition. Lord Shiva is Dark and Unmoved, The Deathless Ease of Consciousness. Goddess Shakti is the Dancing Wild Energy of Manifestation.
Now you’ll note that David says his description of Consciousness and Light as Masculine and Feminine is how he paints, a form of art, and a description (really an interpretation I would say). Too often people have forgotten how this is an artistic painting and not a scientific description of reality.
Another teacher who uses Masculine and Feminine in integral spiritual discourse is Genpo Roshi (Big Mind/Big Heart teaching). This article lays out nicely Roshi’s views on the matter. Genpo is more influenced by the Taoist tradition of the Yin/Yang symbol than the Shiva-Shakti imagery.
In fact though the Yin-Yang and Shiva-Shakti imagery are often thought to be interchangeable, it’s worth asking whether they are so. Notice that in the Taoist symbol it is the Feminine (Yin) that is dark, receptive, and unmoved while in the Tantric system it is The Masculine (Shiva) who arguably exhibits those traits. In the Taoist system it is the Masculine (Yang) that is energetic, the force of evolution, something akin to the Shakti (Feminine) in the Tantric system.
I don’t want to push those distinctions too far, but notice that in some sense, the language and categorization is a bit arbitrary.
Third, Sofia Diaz, one of the leaders of Integral Feminism. She writes:
So we’re basically talking about something that is invisible because it is so present all the time. And it is important to make the distinction between the terms feminine, woman, and female. The Feminine is an aspect of existence that is independent of women. A more absolute definition would be that, relative to the Masculine Principle of absolute infinity, the Feminine Principle is everything that appears, everything that is noticed, even the noticer himself or herself. However, in terms of human embodiment, it is expressed as a woman’s body, because the Feminine is the receptive principle and the masculine is the penetrative principle. Our relationship to the Feminine is our relationship to embodiment.
I think this equation of Embodiment with the Feminine and Infinity with the Masculine (as trans-personal Principles) is deeply flawed. By interpreting, naming, and labeling the principle of Consciousness-Agency as Masculine and Embodiment-Radiance as Feminine, we end up converting what are (in many cases) specific cultural and historical expressions of gender into Cosmic Archetypes of the Universe. The technical philosophical term for such a mistake is essentializing—making what is specific, chosen, and open to change into something eternal, essential, and given in the Universe. This doesn't mean I think their teachings, practices or ways are invalid--I'm simply talking about interpretation and categorization here.
I’ll have more to say about that criticism in a moment; I should note I’m hardly the first or the most eloquent proponent of that criticism.
And yet….And yet there’s something going on here that has I think enduring value. Now, let’s take it as true that there is a basic polarity to the universe: Consciousness and Light-Energy in one version. I actually believe these polarities to be real (or real enough).
The question I have is: why do we need to label these polarities Masculine and Feminine?
Is this interpretation helpful? What if instead I called these polarities Directive and Receptive and explicitly broke the link between Directive being Masculine and Receptive being Feminine (which is where I think the mistake is)?
Can we notice directive and receptive positions or energies in our being?
I think so. I believe I can anyway.
Are both energies necessary and therefore both worth inculcating in all of us, men and women?
Absolutely I believe so.
Consequently my question remains: what does calling these polarities Masculine and Feminine add?
Because I can certainly say that the use of those terms is loaded and immediately triggers all kinds of reactions. However much any teacher says Masculine does not equate men and Feminine does not equal women, in my experience, the reality is that is what people hear.
If Masculine does not equal men and Feminine does not women, then why call these Principles Masculine and Feminine? Those two terms if they tend to evoke anything in the minds of people (it seems to me), they evoke precisely men and women respectively.
Marc Gafni is another integral spiritual teacher who deploys the Masculine/Feminine Principles teaching. At last year’s Integral Theory Conference I was in the room when he spoke about a Rabbinic teaching concerning the two angels guarding the gates to the Garden of Eden, after the expulsion of Adam and Eve. According to this Rabbinic teaching, one angel’s sword went in a circular motion and the other in a cutting line motion. The Feminine he said is the Circular, the Masculine the Linear.
My question is: why add Feminine and Masculine there? Circle and line (for me) succinctly and non-confusedly make the point. Of all things to pile on this already subtle terrain, why gender for the love of God? Discussions of masculinity and femininity are just about the last context in which people speak, think, and act rationally.
I’m not being flippant. I mean all this sincerely—I really don’t get it.
With all of these Consciousness-Light, Directive-Receptive, Circle-Line, Infinity-Embodiment, let’s say those polarities are real (once more I actually think that is a valid distinction). Why add on Masculine and Feminine? Is it not sufficient simply to say Consciousness and Light or Line and Circle or Yin and Yang?
In this way we retain the brilliance of these spiritual teachings without adding the controversial brew of gender to the discussion.
What then about masculine and feminine? Are the terms meaningless? Do I think they should be abandoned altogether?
Not as I see it.
I believe masculine and feminine correctly point to gender (for the record, I’m open to debate here—this is more feeling out into a space of thought than a final declaration). By gender I understand the ways in which a society norms the relationships and the interactions between men and women.
This is the Gerewol ceremony of the Wodaabe people of Niger. It's a courting ritual. The men, as you can see in the photo, wear makeup and strut about while women gawk at them, making cat-calls at their favorites. The light-radiance polarity is clearly visible as is the witness-consciousness one but they are being performed by the reverse sex to what we Westerners expect. By my understanding, in this context, this action is masculine (and the act of the women watching, maybe even leering?, is feminine). I mean I wouldn't tell these dudes that they are acting like women because they would likely kick the s#@! out of me.
And yet this basic polarity shows up.
To flesh that last point out, I’d like to go back to the Genpo Roshi article, which is a partial transcript of a Big Mind process asking to speak to the feminine and masculine voices.
For the Feminine we get responses like:
As the Feminine, one of my characteristics is sensitivity.
As the Feminine, I’m in touch with my emotions and I express them.
There’s nothing that brings me more happiness and fulfillment than being generous, giving to and for the sake of others.
I’m very nurturing.
When it comes to the Masculine (not surprisingly) we get:
As the Masculine I protect.
As the Masculine, I create boundaries.
I take action, as the Masculine. I am very rooted, stable, and strong. I am also clear, directed and focused.
While I disagree with the labeling, I appreciate that the context of this teaching is about integration or the embracing of both sides of these dynamics. I think masculine and feminine just confuses the issue here (somewhat) but nevertheless the impulse to include both is deeply wise. That impulse can easily be honored without the use of the terms masculine and feminine.
Rebecca Bailin has pointed to the ways in which though these qualities really taking what were social roles of men and women (partially determined by biology and available technologies) and then applying them to gender.
My own view is that these qualities are types (polarities) that aren’t to be equated with sex or gender. As someone who has been deeply influenced by the Tantric path, I believe those polarities to be absolutely essential to the spiritual path I just don’t think we need to bring in sex/gender language on them.
So back to the question—what, if any, validity do the terms masculine and feminine have?
I do think masculine and feminine can still work in gender discussions, though I realize I might be trying to thread through the eye of the needle on this one. I’m open to the possibility that it might be easier to just abandon the terms completely—that they are beyond salvation as it were.
If the terms were still going to have some resonance, they would need to be shorn of this confusion of polarities/types with the gender identity themselves. This may prove a very difficult or nearly impossible task. On the other hand, the danger I believe in abandoning the terms masculine and feminine (or some equivalent terms) altogether would be to head towards an androgynous spirituality under the guise of “transpersonality” or “impersonality.” I do however agree with Elizabeth that we should be critical of any claims that the Return of the Feminine is the future hope of our species.
I think what we need going forward is a much clearer sense of how we would like men and women to express themselves in a conscious, caring, loving, and sacrificial way for the good of life. My guess is that there will still be general tendencies among men and women within that showing up that will need some terms to help identity them. Masculine and feminine are (it seems to me) potentially helpful in this regard.
Admittedly we have no real good terms that I can think of to get at what I’m after here. So I’m trying to re-imagine and re-envision some older terms. The danger there being of course that folks will simply revert to the older understanding of the terms—again confusing what are polarities for essentialized gender distinctions.
An alternative to masculine and feminine could potentially be manhood and womanhood… I guess (note: commenters are invited to offer any others they think more useful in this context). I don’t think women and men work because those words (for me) don’t signify the question of developed identity. Women and men, for me, mostly signify male and female, largely biological qualities (i.e. what kind of “parts” you’ve got). I realize feminine may be too historically loaded—i.e. the “weaker” sex and all that—for it to be of use. I also admittedly have my own resistance to masculinity as it tends to mean either rampaging warriors or long-haired hippies smoking dope and banging on drums (neither of which is particularly appealing to me as a man).
Admittedly my understanding of masculine and feminine isn’t a perfect one. There’s a great deal more nuance that could be added, but I think it gets at a basic point. In integral-speak, gender is (in my book) mostly an expression of the Lower Left quadrant—the intersubjective, cultural mode of being.
Now this more gendered understanding goes against the way in which masculine and feminine is typically understood in integral circles: namely as individual types of the interior consciousness (Upper Left in the quadrants).
Lest I immediately be labeled a cultural relativist, let me say that I don’t think cultural conditioning is completely arbitrary. I do think there are universal (or at least quasi-universal) biological differences—what I call sex. Male and female refer to sex, masculine and feminine refer to gender, and Consciousness and Embodiment refer to Consciousness and Embodiment.
Contrary to the relativist position, cultural norming is also shaped quite strongly by the technological and economic dimension of a society (Lower Right Quadrant).
So we could draw it (again not perfectly but somewhat helpfully) as:
Upper Left: Orientation (Intentional Forms)
Upper Right: Biology/Sex (Behavioral-Biological Forms)
Lower Left: Gender (Cultural Forms)
Lower Right: Techno-economics (Social Forms)
In that case Consciousness-Light are more Polarities (Cosmic Types if you like—less individual types).
To clarify, that’s a very rough and ready account. Don’t quote me as some final authority. It’s a way of interpreting these issues, making some (I think valid) distinctions and relating them to one another. But it’s not some perfect description of reality. It’s a not the way to cognize this area. There are undoubtedly other valid ways of framing this subject.
This issue of Masculine and Feminine Principles is so close to us in the integral world, like our noses, we can’t see it.
Equating the Cosmic Poles of Direction and Reception with Masculine and Feminine leaves us open to make eternal and trans-temporal qualities which were a precise combination of biological, social, cultural, and psychological conditioning--conditioning which both has a history (and one to be respected) but also might be open to change.
I believe this elimination of the terms masculine and feminine in regard to the polarities of Consciousness-Embodiment allow for those teachers to teach everything they are teaching, just without equating Consciousness with Masculine and Embodiment with Feminine.
Masculine and feminine as gender would still be an open topic for inquiry in a spiritual teaching. It would be a fascinating inquiry and I think a very necessary one. It would I think allow the inquiry to be much open-ended then what occurs now where Consciousness is defined as masculine and Embodiment as feminine.
So as much as it may seem like I’m laying some massive critique and huge deconstruction, the fact of the matter is, it’s actually a very small step.
In sum, my proposition is a very simple one (that I’m happy to let go if someone can prove to me the converse):
1. Adding Masculine and Feminine to the Polarities of Consciousness and Embodiment adds nothing essential to the teaching that Consciousness and Embodiment doesn’t already convey.
2. Using Masculine and Feminine for Consciousness and Embodiment (or whatever the preferred polar terms are) creates much more confusion and resistance and also can end up incorrectly equating cultural historical patterns with universal traits.
3. Given the relative weight of #1 and #2, I think it’s worth dropping the terms Masculine and Feminine while retaining the teaching of the Polarities in non-gendered language.
I think that step—which again in the span of things is actually quite minimal--would make a huge difference in terms of what is often called “skillful means.”