Women Taking Aim at the Future

The Ultimate Spiritual Practice for Women

Posted on December 6th, by Elizabeth Debold in Blog, Uncategorized, Women's liberation. 27 comments

When you think about women and spiritual practice, what pops into your mind? Leggy ladies in tights doing a downward dog? Wafty women in white flowing robes dancing among flickering candles? Pop cultural images of women interested in spirituality often imply that the goal of spiritual practice for women is to become hyperfeminine. (Click for a send up of the “Yoga Girl” image.) Yoga or sacred dance are beautiful, and we certainly need more beauty in the world. And yoga can lead to significant transformation—the inspiring story of Ana Forrest is just one testament to that—but too few of us set our sights on real, tangible, spiritual evolution as the goal of our practice. Becoming more fit and calm and lovely is fine. But becoming more femme is hardly a transformation that’s going to rock the world. As Ken Wilber once wrote on the pages of What Is Enlightenment? magazine,

Transformative spirituality does not seek to bolster or legitimate any present worldview at all, but rather to provide true authenticity by shattering what the world takes as legitimate.

Meditation is a practice of transformative spirituality. Why? Because it challenges who we think we are at the most fundamental level. It reveals to us an ever-present dimension of reality beyond mind, time, and our embodiment through which we can recognize that we are not some object clinging for security to the surface of this spinning planet. No, we are WHAT IS. The infinite unmoveable perfection of Being, the ground of everything, itself. This realization, when taken seriously, frees us from our false identification with our personal history and all the ways things have been. The door opens to true, shattering transformation.

And for women, discovering a different ground of self rather than our conditioned sense of need, control, insecurity or the thousands of ways that we are looking, looking, looking for anything outside of ourselves to validate who we are and give us direction and purpose, well, that is essential. It’s essential if we want to transform and, through our transformation, shatter the world that we know has to change at the core.

Now, when I speak to women about meditation, I often get some puzzling responses. “I don’t sit down to meditate, I get into meditation when I do housework.” Or “I meditate when I knit.” Or even, “I don’t like to meditate, it’s a waste of time—all I do when I try to meditate is make lists of all the things I should be doing rather than sitting there meditating!” Traditionally, meditation has been seen as a practice for men. (But isn’t “traditionally” what we want to change—in ourselves and in the culture we live in?) Spiritual warriors like Tenzin Palmo have had to fight against the Buddhist establishment to be allowed to meditate—she spent thirteen years in a cave in the Himalayas because there was no monastery in which she could be deeply trained. Women have typically been given more devotional practices—what is known as bhakti. It’s not that women were just given the short end of the stick, relegated to lighting candles rather than sitting on a cushion, but that women didn’t take to meditation—devotion seemed a quicker path to the surrender that opens the way to depth.

In fact, I would even go so far as to say that women have something of an aversion to meditation—and that aversion is what I hear in these women’s comments. How do I know? That was my own experience for years—I sat down, but I wouldn’t really let go, drop my identification with thought, feeling, sensation and the whole ball of wax that is my experience as a separate individual. I’d drop into a certain level of depth and then I’d intentionally distract myself just to avoid confronting the truth that, at the heart of it ALL, is NO THING, nothing at all. Including my ideas of who I am. Indian spiritual master Vimala Thakar, who I think may have been one of the most enlightened women of the 20th century, has said that “women very rarely take to meditation.” In a remarkable interview with my spiritual sister Mary Adams, Vimala, who had to fight against the Hindu and Vendantic authorities to pursue her own enlightenment, explained:

Nothingness, nobodyness, emptiness—even the intellectual understanding of this frightens women. It frightens women! At the depth of our being there is fear because of our physical vulnerability, because of our secondary role in human civilization. It is in the subconscious, not in the consciousness. On a subconscious level there is fear. If I get converted into or if I mature into nonduality, into nothingness, into nobodyness, what will happen to my physical existence? Will it be more vulnerable? Will I be able to defend myself in case of difficulty, in case of some attack against me? That is a basic fear among women.

This fear is burrowed so deep into women’s self-sense that most of the time we don’t even notice it. Vimala Thakar observed that women “don’t find any resistance on the conscious level. They will say, ‘No, we do not resist,’ and they are being honest. And yet at the deeper level of their being there is an unverbalized resistance.” Just take a moment, and sit with yourself: Can you feel the depth and stillness of no movement at all? Or does your attention light on a wavering, a slight anxious tension, the need to quickly look around and wonder who is watching? For us “liberated,” I-can-do-whatever-I-want-to-do women of the 21st century, it seems pretty ridiculous but underneath the control, efficiency, ambition, skills, and sometimes bravado, it’s just there. We don’t like to notice it for what it is. It’s scary.

The only way out is to let go of it all—to drop our mistaken identification with the whole package that has developed around and out of that fundamental fear. Meditation is that complete letting go, that dropping of our identification with the shallows of our selves. Again, Vimala offers us perfect guidance when she says that:

Woman has to understand that nobodyness or nothingness, the emptiness of consciousness in samadhi or meditation, generates a different kind of energy and awareness which is more protective than self-conscious defensiveness.

We find a completely different kind of protection because we discover that in the realization of No Thing, empty of self, the Infinite becomes our home, our resting place. That certainly doesn’t mean we won’t feel fear or insecurity or any of the whole range of thoughts and feelings that make up our psychological experience. But it matters less and less and less. We have discovered depth, space—a crack in the world as we have known it. That’s when the authentic transformative power of spiritual practice begins to take hold and, like a wind at your back, push you forward, making transparent the apparent solidity of who you have been. With that goes woman as we have known her—liberated from all of the ideas of what it means to be female that we’ve been enslaved to. Meditation is the practice for a new women’s liberation, one that shatters the world and opens the way to a different future.

Creating that future is the inspiration that fuels my commitment to the practice of meditation. I’d like to invite you to join me in celebrating the potential of our own transformation by honoring Vimala Thakar on her birthday this year, April 15, with an all-night meditation from 9:00 pm EDT on April 14 to 6:00 am EDT on April 15. United in Being across the globe, we will deepen a new context for what it means to be human beings, embodied as women, who are liberated to pioneer a new stage in human culture.

27 responses to “The Ultimate Spiritual Practice for Women”

  1. […] check Elizabeth’s new blog post entitled, “The Ultimate Spiritual Practice for Women”. Listen to the rally call with Elizabeth […]

  2. Danielle W. says:

    Thank-you for your incredible conviction Elizabeth. It will be my honor to stand in nothingness with you for 36 hours. Outrageous!

  3. Petra Tak says:

    Dear Elizabeth, YES!! I will join you in shattering the status quo of woman’s self-sense and meditate for 36 hours with you!

    Thanks so much for your most inspiring blog, you’re providing the perfect context before going into the meditation marathon for women, what it means to really take advantage of these 36, 24 or any amount of hours we will sit down, to really go deep, letting go into nothingness… beyond any of my ideas of what nothingness is into the real depths of Being and realize what my true home is.

    Also, I’m looking forward very much to your “Meditation for Women” workshop with Mary Adams and Diane Hamilton coming spring. And I remember you talking to Diane a year or so ago, when she mentioned that we women often tend to ‘leave our bodies’ instead of going more deeply inward. I think there is a link between what she said then and what you’re describing in your blog, and I’m completely triggered by something I do not yét know, but I intuit to be true and am destined to find out – that in the depths of who I really am I do not want to escape or fly out of my body, but instead I am deeply grounded as a woman, beyond any identification of gender or ideas of myself.


  4. Françoise Lautard says:

    Thank you Elisabeth for this bright article. THIS is positive leadership for women. A (r-)evolutionary position.

  5. Nisha says:

    Thank you so much for your incredible fire power behind the New Women’s Liberation! I will be sitting right beside you in this 36 hour challenge!

  6. Joanna says:

    Agreed. :-)

  7. Mary says:

    Thank you Elizabeth for such a clear transmission concerning authentic intelligent spiritual work for women. As a long time spiritual practitioner every word on this page rings refreshingly and startlingly true. Meditation is the deep well we women all must be prepared to plunge into on an ongoing basis. Out of this springs our realness and authenticity. Thank you so much for such a clear articulation and your passionate call!

  8. dorothy friedman says:

    I am a zen sensei and will be participating in a retreat from fri nite 6pmto Sun 5 pm.The synchronicity of your marathon and this retreat seems made for all of us.
    I am delighted to participate with all these women, however money is not available at this time

  9. Mei says:

    Such a high and great experience reading your article,completely agree!
    Thank you very much for everything you have done, bring the light on
    “The Ultimate Spiritual Practice for Women”!!!

  10. Mei says:

    I wish i can join you for the 36 hours,but after my 24 hours meditation marathon, i am prepareing a dance interview for the broadcasting!!My spirit is with you go deep go!!LOVE for “The Ultimate Spiritual Practice for Women”!!!

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Thanks so much, Mei! Good luck with your boradcast–we want more and more people to see you as the evolutionary dance spirit that you are.

  11. Danielle Castronis says:

    A deep thank you for this beautiful and inspiring blog Elizabeth.
    I too will take the opportunity that this Marathon offers to let go into nothingness. This is a gift of the Spirit that should not be missed.
    To do this with each other’s support, and for the development of the One woman is a priviledge.
    I will have to start on Friday evening, but I’ll be there.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Great, Danielle! I hear you are really going out of your way to be able to meditate more than the 24 hours with us–what fantastic spirit!

  12. Barbara Wallace says:

    An absolutely beautiful, meaningful statement on the true nature of women’s liberation. Thank you for it and for your wonderful challenge.

  13. Kathy Bayer says:

    Thank you Elizabeth for such a riveting discussion on meditation, the examples of women who have pushed beyond limits, and why it’s so important for us to dive into the depths of our Self in this way consistently. In the spirit that as you said “meditation is the practice for a new women’s liberation,” I look forward to joining you in the 36 hour-vigil.

  14. Rosa Claire Detève says:

    Beautiful and authentic clarification !
    It’s inspiring and transformative.
    It will help me to depass my own limitations for the Marathon.
    Also your reference to Vilama Thakar is so real : she’s always a vertical rocket into the consciousness !
    A lot of thanks Elizabeth

  15. Hi Elizabeth,

    Really appreciate your article for its honoring and encouraging woman to go deeper past the blocks of comfort.

    I wonder though that meditation in its intention of cutting through or penetrating past the superficial self, contractive patterns of safety, is not more of a masculine effort. Not male, but masculine. It seems to me that one reason why some women may avoid what might be called authentic or classic meditation is because their innate wiring is in fact more feminine, to be radically inclusive and giving self to the kosmic pulse, past the point of ‘who i am’ and into ‘what desires to flow through’. This can be just as challenging, exhilarating, and liberating as seated meditation. It takes training naturally from a qualified teacher but I believe it remains an equally valid means.

    I’m a counselor whose client base is mostly women for 10 years now. I seem to focus on facilitating a space for clients to increasingly deepen their move from mundane self-image to dharmically-driven purpose. It’s because of this bias that I have been actively investigating the possibility of a uniquely feminine, post-postmodern meditation form.

    I’m completely with you in your gusto and owning your message! And I wonder if a conversation may not want to ensue to explore this. There is a body of work behind this which I’d love to share more about with you if there’s interest.


    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Dear Adam,

      Yes, I would like to have a conversation about this. It’s one of my favorite subjects! Because I would go so far as to say that thinking about the feminine in a post-postmodern context may be a contradiction in terms. Most of the way that the masculine and feminine are divided are based in cultural structures, rooted in reproductive differences. Agency is frequently considered to be the defining “masculine” characteristic, and yet greater agency is the evolutionary direction of the Kosmos. Over 14 billion years, we see the emergence of greater consciousness, freedom of choice, and agentic action. When women are denied (in many different, internal and external) claiming agency as self, then what hope do we have of creating a higher order of integration within the self (male or female) and in culture?

      Having exhilarating experiences and reveling in the subtle energies of manifestation is no doubt a great experience to have and engage in. But for shifts in the entire structure of self to occur, you need to let go of the existing self and realize a deeper, absolute ground of Self that makes greater freedom and integration possible.

      Believe me, it’s hard. And women resist this like crazy. Trust me, I’ve been there!



  16. Helena Foss says:

    I have been meditating for 20-odd years – started out doing Osho meditations, which involve shaking, dance or catharsis to start with and THEN sitting silently. I think busy western male and female minds need that kind of expression first to clear the way to go into nothingness. I love the nothing – the void of pure potentiality. It is my favourite place in the world to be.
    However, I have t0 say that becoming aware of my female monthly cycle has taken my meditation and spirituality to a whole new level. Especially, when my awareness drops deep into my wombspace, I get really, really, bone-chillingly still.
    Women who talk about this stuff are often New Age wafty goddessy types – the antithesis of EnlightenNext intellectual types, but hey, you miss out SO MUCH by not really connecting to the feminine bodily essence inside. I would love to see EnlightenNext people take this more seriously. The feminine operates more from the heart than the mind and the heart is deeply, deeply intelligent.

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Dear Helena,

      You might be surprised that I agree with you in significant ways. Letting go means dropping into that deeper level of self, and from my own experience, I know how cut off (usually for protective reasons) we are from that place in ourselves. We often don’t want to be THAT embodied. I don’t interpret it as “womb energy”–because going to that depth of self is what men have to do, too. I just posted something on my FB author page about this. And this is, actually, what Vimala was speaking about. Postmodern women talk a lot about embodiment but that is driven by a deep dissociation from our bodies and an intense self-objectification. We too often look at ourselves from the outside in, policing, monitoring, judging, and are not deeply connected to our selves. Meditation, when done with deep intention, is profoundly integrative. The point is not to create some new overlay of ideas about the feminine on our experience and dig into our bodies in some psychological way, but to realize that we have never been and could never be separate from WHAT IS.

      Warm regards,


    • Thank you Helena, I fully agree. I share your knowing, not by being a woman but by working with many women. And I sense strongly there is a unique access to the absolute ground of being through the feminine’s heart/bodily essence, rather than the mind. Such has been my experience with women.
      Feeling into the possibilities, I would guess the liberated state which results from the deep heart would not be identical to that produced by traditional meditation. It would have to differ perhaps in scope, or emphasis, or something(s) else.
      I do believe that our heart – man or woman – holds an emancipatory potential, beyond the state-chasing methods of “exhilaration” and “reveling in the subtle” as Elizabeth wrote in a response, just above.
      Terms used to describe such an experience, as well as a map of the samadhi-through-heart terrain, would be quite different as well! If the absolute ground of being is absolute, is there only one meta-approach there?

  17. Thanks for your response Elizabeth. I appreciate the wealth of background and exposure to so many traditions and perspectives you bring. I wonder if you’d be open to a chat? I value this opportunity to exchange ideas! Thanks very much, Adam

  18. Elizabeth – I know how deeply you and your colleagues have plunged into the depth of authentic self to overcome what you so perfectly capture in these words from your piece.

    “And for women, discovering a different ground of self rather than our conditioned sense of need, control, insecurity or the thousands of ways that we are looking, looking, looking for anything outside of ourselves to validate who we are and give us direction and purpose, well, that is essential. ”

    I am deeply inspired by your work. I teach in various women’s leadership programs – including most recently coaching at an IMD executive education program, Strategies for Leadership, for women business leaders and speaking at a global Womensphere summit hosted by Said Business School at Oxford University. And, while I always acknowledge external realities that have a real impact (i.e.: there still is a glass ceiling, etc) I emphasize the work we as women must do internally to step up to our full authority as leaders. My emphasis is on finding your authentic self and working to live from that place as fully and consistently as you can.

    I know you take that mandate to its deepest extension and I feel privileged to call you a friend. May your meditation marathon open ever deeper levels of your awareness. With great respect, – Nadine

    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Dear Nadine,

      Thank you so much for your heartfelt response–I deeply appreciate your commitment to women’s leadership. You have inspired so many. Have you seen my post on the leadership predicment of postmodern women? Click on this. Or go here: http://www.evolvewomen.com/the-puzzle-of-womens-leadership/

      It would be terrific if we could find a way to work together on this…Mary Adams and I have been teaching a new program on women’s evolutionary leadership.

      Wishing you the best in the New Year,


  19. I’ve been learning to source confidence in Life through meditative practice since 1968.

    The data: at nineteen, just weeks after delivering my baby and relinquishing him to the adoption system, I was set up, entrapped and held hostage. I was beaten and raped. The story is multi-layered and rich in the heroine’s journey. Three miscreants, ‘Angels from Hell’ snared and dragged me into the deep Underworld. The journey forced me to experience the darkest night of the soul so that I could return to the topside world with a message … but all must unfold in three dimensional time/space.

    The long road of recovery from brutality and post traumatic stress is paved with the humble awareness of ‘I know no thing’. Life amputated from the main stream… nothing to grasp.
    I was left with no home, no parents, no siblings, no child, no belongings, no connections or hope of my body being safe. All shattered.

    This level of violence against women is compared to a war zone. It can also be a door into spiritual awakening. Shortly after the experience I was miraculously led to a dedication to Raja Yoga and the Upanishads. This relationship opened a cavernous space within me… a place of confidence emanating from a very secreted place…‘in this world but not of this world’.

    There is a warm soft, soft as a baby, spot in the heart of all living beings from where a slow and steady flame emanates. From the warm ‘Bodhichitta’ heart there surfaces, and forms, a protective skin…a superlative resilient scar tissue. With this comes the possibility to face inward and move forward.

    I was led to “Save the self by the Self, and to not let the self droop down.” I was led to the depth of the Self where I learned that “the Self is the only friend of self and self is the only foe of Self.”

    In the aftermath I had nothing but numbness remaining…yet from this void I was given grounded and yet mystical tools…mostly I was given the concept of quieting the anxiety mind. Slowly…step by breath, day by week by month by year beneath the moon… learning to be quiet within.

    For years my companions were the soft glow of lanterns and the cocooning warmth of wood heat… gardening, making art, living simply. Quarterly, at each seasons turn, a ten day cleanse to clear my body of panic toxins.

    I hold a deep hope for the world as we learn together to share the many ways to live in meditative awareness.

    How beautiful…learning the joy of being sane, whole and balanced…confident/humble…imperfect evolutionary works in progress.


    • Elizabeth Debold says:

      Dear Donna,

      Thank you for this–and I hope and pray that this is not the initiation process for most women! You are very courageous, and you are right: this exists in all of us. Going beyond fear and anxiety, and living from the place that we often protect so much that we lose access to it, is the beginning of Life itself.


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