A Feminist-Buddhist Commentary on Sexual Violence

Over recent days, amidst all the difficult news surrounding the Stanford rape case, I have been writing - from my precarious Feminist-Buddhist perspective - about the stories and impacts of sexual violence. And even from my safe little writing desk in the woods, I am deeply aware that not one of us will escape the devastation of sexual violence, until we all do.

 

 

When I began my feminist studies program many years ago, I found myself drowning in anger and resentment for all the times I had experienced sexual violence as part and parcel of life as a woman. My personal familiarity with sexual violence has ranged from overtly rough sexual encounters that would be considered consensual in a court of law but were certainly not what I wanted, to a number of attacks in public places – walking down the street in Santa Barbara, on a beach in Mexico, on a dance floor among a dozen friends in my home city, in the back room of a police station in Peru and on a plane in Mumbai. Nowhere in the world is safe. Not even for a strong, independent, conservatively dressed woman who is not afraid to fight. And fight I have. Except for the time when I was passed out drunk and the man who had sex with me was my boyfriend.

The danger for women is real and pervasive. And it does not just occur for the submissive, or the provocatively dressed, or the drunk, or the weak. It occurs for all of us. Every woman. More than 50% of the human population faces danger simply because they have a vagina. Full stop.

In my work I see many women who have experienced sexual violence in one form or another. And most have endured it more than once. The devastation that sexual violence causes for the victim is immense. But more, the healing crisis that occurs as a victim works to reclaim their life is terribly difficult and troublesome. There are wounds embedded in all the bodies – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual - and these wounds can seem impossible to heal.  The impacts of sexual violence manifest in a myriad of ways, deeply disturbing life. And for those that brave them, it often takes years upon years, countless dollars and unimaginable amounts of energy to become an open and loving human being again. Yet some of us never do.

Sadly, in many cases, the impacts of sexual violence go unaddressed because the re-victimization of a healing process seems much worse than burying the pain and building a wall around the heart and the body for protection. Or worse, there just aren't any resources available. And so the divide and distrust and fear between women and men deepens.

When I think about men like the Stanford rapist, or the 30 men who gang raped a girl in Brazil, or the husband who beats and rapes his wife behind closed doors, or the soldiers that commit mass rapes as a weapon of war, I want to hate them. I really do. I want to rage at the thought of their existence and curse the day that they were born. Sometimes I viscerally rail against the sexism and the violence and the lack of accountability. I mock the systems that allow it to continue and I pray that I will get home safe. But none of that ever makes me feel any better. And as it seems, nothing changes either.

As a growing Buddhist with deepening devotion, I am asked to don the lens of compassion as a way of being. And I often accept this as my greatest challenge in a world that allows horrifying levels of violence to continue and a twisted sense of justice to rein. But I am also keenly aware that I am part of that very world and so, I too am responsible. Just like you. Just like all of us. And when I think of it like this, that we are all in this together, I find compassion much more accessible, even for those who have done horrible things. Because although they may have a terribly skewed view of what it means to have a vagina, they did not come out of a vagina that way. We made them that way. And if I can forgive us for that, I must forgive them as well.  

Still, none of this offers a solution. And solutions are what we need.

I don’t believe that the systems nor institutions that we have in place are working. Sexual violence is just as rampant as always and is even morphing in new and disturbing ways through technology and the like. We can’t regulate it out. We can’t punish it out. We can’t campaign it out. And we certainly can’t force it out. We’ve tried all of this with terrorists, and drugs and cancer and it just doesn’t work. The war on the problem just makes things worse. We need a new way. And I do realize how problematic that is for the warriors of the cause. But I am convinced that the paradigm must shift, and that we must shift with it.

Sexual violence is so pervasive that we use it to sell things. Just think about that for a moment. This means that at some level, even subconsciously, we have been convinced that we like it. There are massively powerful cultural institutions that stop at almost nothing to cover up sexual violence in their ranks and have the ability to divert attention with their money and power. Our entertainment is filled with sexual violence and if we happen to bat an eye, it is quickly written off as an important part of the plot. The right to sexual violence is written into the laws of a number of countries where women who are victims of it are the punished. And these are only a few examples of how deeply entrenched it is, there are so many more.

Our global society is sick with it. And the only way to become un-sick, is to heal. And to heal our society is up to us.

And so, if you ask me about solutions I say this. We have to work as individuals and communities to shift our awareness and strategies from fighting to HEALING. To recognize that the mind of a rapist must be a terrible place to be. To restore our society by spending our money and time on things that support healthy relationships between men and women and all gender choices in between. To forgive ourselves for our complacency and promise to do better when given the opportunity. To speak kindly to one another about it, even when we are angry and overwhelmed. But to speak just the same.

Most importantly, we must raise children anew, as a global village – honestly and bravely, in a way that not only condemns the violence, but also condones the support of those who may commit it. We must teach young boys to love in safe and respectable ways. We must teach them to value life intrinsically no matter the genitalia. We must teach them about communication as a reciprocal experience and we must give them a safe place to work through the confusion without shame.

And for the little girls, we must teach them that it is their right to move through this world without fear. And then empower them to do it. And after all the times we have let them down, we must promise them again and again, despite all the horrific news, that we are doing absolutely everything we can to raise boys who will walk beside them in kind and decent ways.

It is up to us to heal this mess, and to forgive ourselves for letting it go on this long.

Om mani padme hum.

An Arbitrary Date

It is remarkable how a seemingly arbitrary date can suddenly mark the turn of a year.

My mom died one year ago yesterday. I woke in the morning, hit the trail on achy legs and challenged myself to feel every damn bit of it.

My sister and I let the snot fly as my cute as hell niece and nephew graduated from preschool and sang about how the skies are blue and it is a wonderful world. I surrendered to an inappropriately hot vinyasa class right after I forgave myself for becoming impatient in line behind a lovely woman with a developmental disability; impatient because I was rushing to make it to said vinyasa class. I had an honest giggle about how ma would have reminded me that I can still be an asshole just like everybody else, no matter how much yoga I do.

I have been dared like crazy to grow in the year since ma died. Madly productive growing pains, y’all.

Somehow I have finally embodied this idea that I should stay connected to my experience, no matter the mess. It is the old proverb about the lilies that grow from the muck and I have submitted to it. Okay, the truth is, I have taken a lorazepam, crawled under the covers, and checked out a couple of times. Three at most. But still I have learned that there is a deeply unpredictable, yet beautifully satisfying richness in a life lived by showing up in honor of the challenges. Not despite them. But in honor of them.

My relationship to fear has changed immensely in a year. It is certainly not that I have more courage, that could actually be dangerous for me. It is that I have become much more familiar with acceptance. In an intimate way.

I have learned this year that we are best served when we observe what terrifies us through the lens of curiosity. Of course, that is easier said than done. Just like allowing ourselves to love someone fully, even when they are nowhere to be found and have broken our hearts. There is a tremendous amount of freedom in staying vulnerable whilst unlatching. A sense of peace can be had in appreciating our lack of control over the circumstances of this life’s ride.  Because many times, the best thing we can do is to buckle in to the passenger seat of this speeding train and watch in awe - daringly trusting in the journey even as we are scared shitless.

Most notably perhaps, is that this past year has me thinking about paradigm shifts and belting Rita Coolidge as loud as I can.

Yesterday afternoon I spiritedly watched a handful of well-dressed high school girls run laughing hysterically through an intersection in the pouring rain. It reminded me that it was raining sheets the night ma died and that the mortician still showed up in a three-piece suit, despite having to maneuver a horribly muddy drive in the middle of the night. Yet, I didn’t even bother to get out of my dirty work overalls or wash my sweaty armpits or clean up the car before I picked up her ashes from the mortuary. And truth be told, I cussed about the funeral home racket, between bouts of tearful laughter and Bob Segar, all the way back to the farm that sunny day. And so I suppose I have realized that when we do the best we can with what we’ve been given, it’s good enough, damn it. And it might just provide some much needed comedic relief.

We all have arbitrary dates turned anniversaries and sometimes we are just terribly unprepared. And that’s okay. So what if we fall embarrassingly short of expectations – whether someone else’s or our own? Is that more important than surrendering to love and tears and laughter in the midst of it all? If we can just be honest and gentle with ourselves, stay engaged at whatever level is available, and maintain a sense of humor, even if it is an inappropriate one, everything is okay. It really is.

These kinds of anniversaries and the years that precede them can be downright relentless. But nowhere is it written that healing is meant to be easy y’all. And sometimes, as ma would have said, growth just hurts like hell.

Let the next year begin.

The Path.

I have just finished reading “Old Path White Clouds” written beautifully by Thich Nhat Hanh, for the second time. I recommend this book highly to anyone who is seeking a conscious life. It is the tale of the life of the Buddha and the way in which he walked his Path. It allows the Buddha’s humanity to be revealed and does nothing to shy from the difficulties he faced. It shines a light on being human and does nothing to avoid the darkness, but rather to embrace it.

There are so many tales in the story reminding us that suffering is real. It exists in forms and fantasies and all places in between. The Buddha himself walked hand in hand with his suffering for many, many years until his enlightenment. But perhaps the most stunning part of the story is the commitment that Buddha made to the Path, no matter the obstacles that crossed it. He always walked on; over mountains, through rivers and into territories that meant to kill him.  We need not be Buddhists to connect with the importance of this piece – we find it in stories across religious beliefs spanning land and time, from Jesus to Mohammed and beyond. The leaders we follow always continue on their Path, no matter the struggles they face.

 

In a session with a client recently we came to the conversation of her Path. She is seeking – looking high and low, near and far, for the Path that is marked for her. She does the work. She commits herself. It is an honorable way to live, but still she finds herself struggling to feel as if she is on the “right” Path and among the community for which she belongs. As we spoke about her efforts I heard her emphasis on responsibility and expectation above all else. And as we entered the silent and supportive space of energy medicine, messages began to seep through. Most prominent was the question: Is it the high expectations she has of herself that stand as obstacles in her Path?

As we discussed the possibility that she relieve herself of the expectations and instead focus her attention on having faith that her Path will be illuminated, tears welled up in her eyes. She is undoubtedly on her path, where else could she be? And so there is nothing to be expected of her except to follow the signs, just as the Buddha did. And in this simple but profound realization, the energy began to shift. Even in the very recognition that she can rest in the truth that she is supported, her posture changed and space was created where the obstacles once were. It was as beautiful as anything I’ve seen.

This is not to say that we are excused from the work. We most certainly are not. Choosing our Path each and every day, even if today the Path is under the covers with pint of ice cream, takes commitment. And if that happens to be your path today, the work is in forgiving and allowing yourself the space to be in bed with Ben & Jerry. The key is allowing for space. Even when we are purposefully on our path, we must allow room for Source to do its work alongside us.

There are so many conversations to be had about the ways in which we walk our Path – including a range of topics - intuition, transition, trauma, circumstance, culture and on and on.  But unquestionably, in order to have the conversation, we must be willing to admit that we are part of something larger.  Our individual experiences create a journey that is unique; still we are connected through so many channels, making our journey part of a larger web of human experience. In Old Path, the Buddha often speaks the dharma of dependent co-arising - this is because that is; this is not because that is not. Essentially, the meaning is that all things are connected - my Path to yours, and your Path to mine. In this way, and in the spirit of the Buddha, we must support one another in choosing our Path again and again, no matter the obstacles we might face. And that might mean part of your work on the Path is to let go of codependency among other things.

Whether you have been following a devoted path for years or have only just begun to consider choosing a conscious path, the value of your journey is no different. If you are drawn to the work of living a more conscious life, no matter your capacity to engage, you are on the Path. You can be nowhere else. Honor yourself for that.

Still, here are questions you can ask yourself to understand where you are and what the purpose of your Path might be: 

What level of sacrifice are you able to make for your good and for the good of others? And please consider that sacrifice is about giving something up, and that might just be your own expectations or the limitations you place on yourself and others.

Are you connected to your intuition? Do you know when something feels right and when something feels wrong? But most importantly, do you listen to those feelings and move forward with decisions accordingly.

Is there room in your life for expansion? Are you overly busy? Do you need space? Is your mind spinning on a regular basis? Do you have the tools to come to center and find calm so that you can see your Path clearly?

Are you focused on the opportunities or the obstacles? Listen to your inner dialogue and be honest with yourself about the focus – but please, try not to judge. Are you talking to yourself and others about all the reasons you cannot? Or are you engaging with all the possibilities available no matter the outcome? Can you gently expand your vision and open your awareness?

What is important to you? What are your priorities? Why?

 

In the end of Old Path the Buddha passes into Nirvana in a forest near a small, poor village of mud huts. His attendants beg him to wait for his passing until they can get him to a more suitable place for The Awakened One to move on from this world. But the Buddha is content to pass between two old trees knowing that he has walked his path honorably, through the whole of his experience, and ended in this place. And so it is perfect.

For me, this highlights the most important questions of all. When we have reached the end of our Path in this place, what will matter most? And how, despite all the troubles, have we honored that so that passing on is perfect?

Om mani padme hum.

The Spaciousness of Spring

I believe that the simplest way to understand the winter months and their impact on us is through the lens of excess. You can ascribe this to the holidays if you like - the overindulging in more ways than one. But it also applies to our general accumulation in the cold, wet and dark months of the year.  Just as many mammals hibernate in the winter, we humans tend to create insulation through our winter habits - we eat more, rest more, are more introspective in our thoughts and emotions, all the while moving less. Ayurveda refers to the winter months as a time associated with earth and cold - kapha increasing. The over-accumulation that naturally occurs in the winter months can be reflected in weight gain, sluggishness, lethargy, sleepiness, depression and other issues of density and heaviness.

But not to worry, nature always abides. So just as the winter months bring excess, the spring months encourage space and lightness if we address them with the intention of reducing winter kapha. The Spring Equinox reminds us of the natural opportunity to address that which we have accumulated through the winter and to begin creating space. Think "spring cleaning." There are number of practices that will help to clear excess from our koshas (the 5 bodies recognized in Vedic science). As always, listen closely to yourself and your unique needs, but I encourage you to bring some or all of these practices into your life as the spring emerges.

1. GET OUTSIDE.   The weather is warming and the light of the day is longer and longer. Take advantage and get out of the cave of your dwelling and into the space of nature. Allow the fresh air, expanse of sky and birthing of new growth to support and inspire you. A walk in the woods or the park does wonders for feelings of heaviness and lethargy. Convince yourself to leave the comfort and warmth of hunkering down to experience the uplift and enlightening advantage of time spent in the outdoors. Even if just for 15 minutes. And try to be consistent - the more you do it the lighter you will feel.

2. CLEAN OUT YOUR SPACE.  Reserve a day in the coming weeks to do some spring cleaning in your space. One of my teachers is adamant that each spring we should begin with a deep cleaning of the space we live in as a reflection of the space within. And it works. Clean out the fridge, the cabinets, the closets and drawers where excess has accumulated in your home. Get rid of things that you do not use or that are expired. Donate the dress that you never wear despite thinking it is adorable. Get rid of the condiment bottles that have seen nothing but the side shelf in the fridge since last year. Recycle the business cards that have stacked up in your wallet. Create space in your external environment and be prepared to enjoy a feeling of lightness in your internal environment.

3. IGNITE THE AGNI. In Yoga and Ayurveda we often refer to the digestive fire or Agni. This mechanism for digestion, metabolism and overall energy creation in the body is instrumental for moving out of the density of winter and into the lightness of spring. Igniting the agni is a great way to encourage a clearing of excess in the digestive track and build energy in the body. There are number of practices that can help. The first and perhaps the easiest is to consistently bring the breath deep into the belly. If you have a yoga practice, pay special attention to pulling the breath all the way to the root and be sure to exhale completely. A morning tonic of warm water and half a squeeze of lemon is a wonderful way to ignite the agni as metabolism first thing in the day. And many find this tonic helps to clear the bowels first thing, leaving a person feeling lighter in the step from the get go and making for a clearer meditation practice. Ginger tea any time of day is also lovely for digestive health and is recommended for all doshas; just be aware if you have a fiery constitution and keep it to a minimum. You may also consider working with the pranayama practice breath of fire and engaging with meaningful twists in your asana practice. But if you are not familiar with these practices, please make sure to find a suitable teacher to introduce these methods safely. 

4. FOCUS ON SPRING FOODS. Nature provides us with what we need and one of the fundamental beliefs in many theories of food as medicine tell us that we should eat what is in season for optimal health. Springtime is a wonderful time to engage with this idea. Notice that hardy leafy greens are in abundance - enjoy them steamed for a smooth transition between the dense foods of winter and the raw foods of summer. Enjoy salads featuring the micro-greens that are beginning to sprout and use the root vegetables that have sustained you through the winter in juices. And just as spring can be associated with water as the snow melts and the rivers run, the foods which serve to get our energy flowing contain water. Bring celery, cucumber and the like into your diet in moderation as long as your constitution tolerates. And finally, given you enjoy heat, spicy foods are a good choice this time of year and will help to increase energy and internal fire. 

5. SWEAT. The skin is the largest organ of the body and serves a very important role in excretion. Through our pores and sweat glands our bodies have the miraculous ability to safely store and then eliminate excess toxins. As we have been more stagnated in the winter months, it is certain that toxins have accumulated beneath the surface, and there is nothing like a good sweat to move them out! Whether you choose to engage in vigorous exercise or sit in the sauna, you will be well served to  open the pores and let the sweat carry away the excess toxins. I would recommend finding time for a good sweat at least 3 times per week as we move out of winter and into spring.

If nothing else, recognize that spring is a time of rebirth and growth. Allow yourself space to create and experience newness and freshness in your life. Look forward to longer days because you intend to enjoy them and move your body to clear out the cobwebs. Bring the concept of space into your awareness - notice the way you feel in the space around you. Do you feel crowded? Observe the quality of your internal space. Do you feel heavy? Whatever spaciousness might mean for you, bring it into your consciousness and let it do what it will do. Take notice of your need for space as we move forward from this first day of spring and be kind to yourself.

Om mani padme hum.