So there i was, speeding down a winding country road on a glorious day last fall, running through yellow lights, completely stressed out, trying to get to the meditation hall on time. I was teaching daily yoga classes at a women’s meditation retreat at Spirit Rock, a Buddhist center in a rural valley north of San Francisco. But my beloved babysitter, Megan—a twenty-something Zen student with beads and small electronic parts woven into her turquoise-and-blonde dreadlocks—had gotten caught in a traffic jam and arrived at my house an hour late, and then I had gotten stuck in the same freeway snarl myself. As I barreled along, I kept imagining a cop pulling me over: “But officer, it’s a dharma emergency!” I burned rubber into the Spirit Rock parking lot, walked to the meditation hall as fast as possible while still appearing mindful and serene, and got there with seconds to spare, just as the bell was ringing to end the last sitting period.
It was two days into the retreat, and I was exhausted. I would have loved to have participated in the entire schedule of this five-day silent intensive, whose title— “Reclaiming the Sacred Feminine”—hinted that it might explore some territory that wasn’t exactly mainstream Buddhist orthodoxy. But as the mother of a two-year-old, sitting a full retreat wasn’t possible. So I was flip-flopping identities: a mom all night and all morning, a yogini all afternoon and evening.
Unfortunately, Skye was cutting two molars. The previous night he had awakened me six times between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m., when I finally brought him into my bed—where he thrashed around for another two hours, whimpering and talking in his sleep. (“What’s that down there? It’s . . . it’s the gas pedal!” he cried out in delight; then half woke up and began rooting at my chest, mumbling, “More gas pedal!” in what appeared to be an archetypal male conflation of the car and the breast.)
And by day, he had been in classic two-year-old mode, exploring the limits of his personal power. All was harmonious as long as I let him indulge his current obsession: sniffing and identifying every jar in my spice drawer. That morning we had sat and smelled them together for over an hour—“nutmeg! cardamom! rosemary! turmeric!”—until my nose hummed and tingled, in what felt like a practice dreamed up by a Zen master on LSD.
But when I tried to pry him away to meet another mom and child at a nearby park, all hell broke loose. All Skye wanted to do was sit in his car seat listening to Al Green’s “Love and Happiness” nineteen times in a row, while taking periodic whiffs of his cinnamon bottle. I was starved for adult company, even if it was just comparing teething notes. The outing ended with the absurd spectacle of me grimly hauling a screaming, flailing child toward a playground, while he shrieked like I was carrying him off to the electric chair: “No slide! No swing! Just more ‘Love and Happiness’!”
So as I drove off to the retreat that afternoon, let’s just say I did not feel like the Divine Mother. But arriving at Spirit Rock felt like diving into a pool of peace. The center is tucked in a valley of burnt-gold hills; the autumn air was a musky, minty blend of sage and pennyroyal. After teaching two gentle yoga classes, I sat the rest of the afternoon in the meditation hall, dipping thirstily into a vast well of silence.
In two years of motherhood, my body had forgotten the exquisite and excruciating sensations of a meditation retreat. It was astonishing to find myself, even for a few hours, in the midst of a hundred silent women, all of them moving slowly, as if underwater—sometimes smiling, sometimes sobbing as they sat down in the middle of their hundred lives, each as vivid and complicated as my own. I sank into the luxury of having nothing to do but swim into the depths of my body and heart, breath by breath.
As I walked from my silent dinner toward the meditation hall—pausing to savor the crimson sunset and the wild turkeys rustling through the long grass—I found myself asking the perennial question of lay practitioners: How can I make my life feel more like a meditation retreat? How do I bridge the apparent gap between yogini and mom?
In a dharma talk that evening, Vipassana teacher and psychotherapist Debra Chamberlin-Taylor spoke about the qualities of the “sacred feminine”—a psychological term for an archetypal dimension that exists in both men and women. The feminine principle, she said, is nonlinear and receptive. It’s about being, rather than doing; feeling, rather than analyzing. It moves in spirals and circles, rather than lines and angles. It intuitively perceives all of life as an interconnected whole. It values the world, the body, the emotions, the relationships, the connections of the heart. And in our daily life—and even in our spiritual practice—it is often paved over by the more masculine attributes of action, analysis, and achievement.
In Buddhist practice, this powerful energy is symbolically represented by images such as Kuan-yin, the graceful female bodhisattva, with arms extended to ease the suffering of the world, or the compassionate goddess Tara, in her myriad forms and colors. In other spiritual traditions, it takes the form of a Divine Mother or consort such as Parvati or Mother Mary. Invoking such images, says Chamberlin-Taylor, can help us relax and expand our meditation practice to embrace the chaos of our ordinary lives, rather than trying to escape it.
“For women to come together and honor the sacred feminine can be powerful, liberating—and a new doorway into the Buddhist practice,” Chamberlin-Taylor says. Whether shaped by biology or by culture, women’s deep involvement with relationships, family, children, and home has traditionally been viewed primarily as an impediment to spiritual practice. “On a women’s retreat with women teachers, they will come into dharma interviews talking about their divorces, their hot flashes, the pain of leaving their children for the first time to go on retreat—things they say they have never dared to talk about on a meditation retreat.
“And when these things are seen as part of the sacred journey—rather than as something to be passed over en route to something more ‘spiritual’—the whole field of awareness opens up, and they can go deeper into their meditative practice than they have ever gone before.”
That night, Skye was restless again, waking and calling me over and over. He didn’t want to come to my bed, but he didn’t want to be alone in his crib. Finally, at three in the morning, I lay down on the floor of his bedroom, wrapped in a quilt, to keep him company as he drifted off.
The floor was too hard for me to sleep. So I lay there and felt my breath go in and out. I was trying to rest with exactly what was: the exhaustion. The aching bones. My beloved child lying in his crib, clutching his blue blankie and his stuffed lion. His earthy, yeasty smell, like a cross between fresh-cut grass and baking bread.
Tara, I remembered, does not hide from the world. She embraces it like a mother holding a child. I could find the sacred in the teething pains, the relationship struggles, the mound of dirty dishes, the guitar riffs of “Love and Happiness,” the smells of cardamom, nutmeg, and ginger. I could remember that rebirth is possible in every moment, and indeed, is only possible in this moment, in this life.
The next morning, still dressed in his polar-bear pajamas, Skye pointed to the beautiful sandalwood Buddha on my mantelpiece. “There’s the Buddha! Let’s go see him,” he suggested.
I handed him the statue. “Eskimo kiss for the Buddha!” he said, and rubbed his nose against the Buddha’s. “And now a butterfly kiss for the Buddha!” And he fluttered his eyelashes, intimately, against the Buddha’s cheek.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.