The Feminine Mystic

Most forms of meditation involve a discipline aimed at taming the mind, but do they sometimes go too far and break the spirit? Viewed from a conventional feminist perspective, the answer is often yes. The self-denying disciplines of higher awareness can look all too much like the self-destroying subjugation that women have endured for ages.

The feminist writer Carol Lee Flinders has been practicing meditation for more than 30 years. While others might argue that her two passions — feminism and spirituality — are incompatible, Flinders disagrees. In her new book, At the Root of This Longing: Reconciling a Spiritual Hunger and a Feminist Thirst (HarperSanFrancisco), she contends that these seemingly disparate paths have much in common and may, in fact, be destined to converge.

Flinders was a 23-year-old graduate student in comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1967 when she met Eknath Easwaran, a Hindu master who has been her teacher ever since. One of the lessons he taught her, she says, is to focus on the ‘experiential realization of what we call God, or divine consciousness.’ This is the truth that all great religions share: ‘the possibility of complete union with that force, within oneself, and recognizing it within the people around you.’

Flinders, the co-author of a popular vegetarian cookbook, Laurel’s Kitchen, now lives with her husband and son at the Blue Mountain Center of Meditation near Petaluma, California. The child of ‘cheerful agnostics,’ she has no inherited faith, but in her practice she draws on the teachings of many traditions — including Native American prayers, Taoist verses, the Bible, and the Upanishads. ‘I cannot describe my spiritual practice as Buddhist . or as Hindu or Catholic or Sufi,’ she writes, ‘though I feel that in a sense it is all of these.’

Even so, as a feminist, Flinders is well aware of the mysogynistic aspects of the major religions. But what about her own practice? Is there also something inherently anti-feminist about a life given to spiritual contemplation?

In her book, Flinders boils the problem down to its simplest terms. Spiritual seekers must learn to be silent, restrain the ego, resist desire, and remove themselves from the world. But the feminist credo is just the opposite: Find your voice, know who you are, reclaim your body and its desires, and move in the world freely, without fear. In the feminist view, she adds, ‘unless a woman can choose them freely, knowing that she could come and go as she likes, say what she wishes, and be somebody, then her apparent embrace of those renunciations is relatively meaningless and surely can’t be expected to bear fruit.’

For Flinders, the simple act of defining this paradox was the first step toward resolving it. She eventually concluded that, for her, feminism and spirituality ‘were mutually necessary: for either to be fully realized, both would have to be accommodated.’ Both originated in the same deep desire for self-knowledge and meaning. And both could be used to mend her broken ties to other women.

Connection is a recurring theme for Flinders: connecting with worshipers of other faiths, connecting with women of other ages, connecting with deeper awareness in herself. Yet another connection is the wide-scale one she’d like to see someday between her two passions. Something similar has happened before, she notes, in the work of Mahatma Gandhi and the American civil rights movement. ‘Feminism will really catch fire,’ she concludes, ‘when it re-establishes itself as a resistance movement based in spirituality.


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