Eco-Feminist Spirituality: Growing A Network of Hope

Spirituality is central to the women’s movement because it is a struggle to
deal with reality as it is, without imposed limitations.

– Judy Davis and Juanita Weaver

My own consciousness somehow was shaped by an awareness of the unfairness of patriarchal social expectations at a very early age.  I know this because of an experience I had when I must have been around five or six years old.  I know that because of where we lived at the time, which was in the northwestern part of the state of New York.  We moved there when I was four, and left when I was eight.

The town in which we lived was old, very small, and in a river valley bounded by wooded hills. Across the street from our house lived two other families with young children, including one small boy about my age. On this particular day, the older children might have been in school, but the two of us younger ones were helping one of the mothers pick peas from her vegetable garden. I have a strong, vivid memory of this because I was enjoying very much the whole idea of harvesting food from a garden, and I was fascinated by the tiny, green peas we worked at removing from their hiding place within their tight, green cocoons.

I was quite happy. I was also very hot. It was a warm and humid day. At some point in our picking, my young male friend either decided himself or had it suggested to him that he take off his t-shirt, as it would be much cooler to work bare-chested. Seeing this, I must have either suggested that I do the same, or began to do it, with the immediate response from the adult woman that it simply was something “little girls don’t do.”

I recall that, externally, I complied with the suggestion, but internally I became a little boiling cauldron of rage. I was, after all, at that age, as flat-chested as my young friend, and I did not see at all why he could experience the freedom and coolness of going topless and I, simply by virtue of my being female, could not.

Looking back now I realize that experience may have been the moment that began my long journey of proving I could do anything and everything as well as my male friends: playing baseball, basketball, football, bicycling, climbing trees, or navigating the woods covering the foothills behind our houses. I developed a disdain for all “girl” things and activities, because accepting my girlhood also meant accepting limitations on my potential to be anyone I wanted to be. It has taken many years as an adult for me to accept myself as a woman.

As women – and men, too – our path to a full recovery from the unhealthy cultural influences of patriarchy is visible in the list of dualities within the culture identified by feminists and ecofeminists. These dualisms include male/female, strong/weak, aggressive/passive, competitive/collaborative, body/mind, and may others. The first step, of course, is simply recovering a holistic approach to reality that brings these polarities into honest tension. We have become so accustomed to an “either/or” way of thinking, that it is hard to acknowledge that both sides might have equal value.

The primary dualism from which we must recover, and which appears to in some way drive the valuing of all others, is the conceptual split of male and female, which within many of our cultural perceptions and practices shows up as concepts of “masculine,” and “feminine.” Feminists and ecofeminists argue that these gender-based conceptions are culturally created within a collective patriarchal consciousness.

How that divisive consciousness developed and became so dominant within a Universe that is One is a long, complex story. Some researchers are beginning to suggest that it can be traced through evolution to the emergence of distinctly male and female brains in humans. Neuropsychologists now suggest that while each human being possesses both skills to some degree, women naturally possess integrative skills and most men naturally possess analytical skills (Spretnak, p. xx).

In other words, the masculine brain, as a result of the process of evolution, is more adapted to separation, and the female to integration. When you add to the reality of differing brain development – which apparently aided in the survival of our ancient ancestors – the eventual development of male physical, social and economic dominance, you get a culture that is overwhelmingly focused on “separation, friction, fear, and competition.” (Spretnak, p. xxi).

In the early 1970’s, as women were beginning to recognize a link between patriarchal social structures and religion, Judy Davis and Juanita Weaver wrote to “raise the issue of spirituality for women, to begin to redefine it, and to say it is of vital importance to the women’s movement.”  They declared feminist spirituality to be about “a vision of personal freedom, self-definition, and…our struggle together for social and political change” (p. 368).

Then, as now, even choosing to associate the word “spirituality” with the movement was a risk, since it bears its own patriarchal baggage. As Davis and Weaver explain:

Because we do not have a new word for this struggle to comprehend this totality and incorporate that understanding into our action, we are calling it spirituality. We choose the word spirituality because this vision presupposes a reverence for life, a willingness to deal with more than just rational forces, and a commitment to positive life-generating forces that historically have been associated with a more limited definition of spirituality.” (pp. 368-369).

It was from such women as Davis and Weaver, that I first learned to speak about spirituality as “a radical change in the way we think, perceive, experience, and act” due to an “awareness of the oneness” and “inter-relatedness of all things.” (p. 370). Of course, this was not a change or new awareness required for many indigenous and other spiritual peoples. However, in a Western, patriarchal culture in love with pious separateness and afraid of “the other,” it was a completely new approach.

The agenda of this emerging feminist spirituality movement was as comprehensive as it was bold, and still is: “Our vision strives for fundamental changes in cultural beliefs, society’s institutions, and human relationships” (p. 369). The need for such an agenda is clear:

The body/mind dichotomy, the separation of spiritual from secular, technical and instrumental knowledge from the emotional and artistic, one class, race, and sex from another, has resulted in a world filled with starving, alienated, and warring people. We cannot, for very real practical reasons, continue in this way (pp. 369-370).

To this already comprehensive feminist agenda identified by Davis and Weaver in 1975, other women, who would come to call themselves “ecofeminists,” would later add the work of changing our relationship to Earth, and its total community of life.

And now, it is the year 2010, and we have before us an even more frightening prospect that Earth’s own “life-generating forces” may soon be so irreparably damaged by the unbridle effects of human overconsumption of resources and waste production.

Yet, this past week, once again I was able to join with other women and men in an experience of being moved from utter  despair to hope in the midst of our current, disturbing reality. Last Sunday, I attended a four-hour seminar hosted by my colleagues at a nearby spirituality center. The seminar is the creation of a group of people from the United States who are working in partnership with the Achuar, an indigenous group living in the Amazon basin in southeastern Ecuador. Together, they have formed “The Pachamama Alliance.” The seminar is one of their initiatives, called “Awakening the Dreamer; Changing the Dream.” Its mission is “bringing forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just human presence on Planet Earth.” From the perspective of the indigenous of Ecuador, the “dream” that needs to change is that of the peoples of the north. As stated on the organizers’ Web site:

The Old Dream is dying. Its demise becomes inevitable as we discover the devastation we’ve caused to our own planet home, as we count the rising cost of our inhumanity to each other and as we see how our current way of living fails to deliver lasting happiness.  All of these are the inevitable conclusions of an old dream rooted in acquisition, consumption and putting personal gain above communal good.

While much of the seminar was spent getting a good dose of the devastation currently plaguing the planet, it ends on a message of hope: much positive change is happening around the planet. If you are not already aware of it, one source of that hope I would like to share is the work of Paul Hawken, an environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and author of Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement In the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming (New York: Viking. 2007).

Hawken (2007) has catalogued many of the players in this growing global change movement. In a 6-minute video clip, shown as part of the Dreamer seminar, Hawken describes the growing numbers of organizations in countries all over the world that are engaging people in creative, transformative change. I recommend the video, which you can watch by clicking here.  Then, join me in spreading the news of this network of hope on to others.

Davis, J. and Weaver, J. (1982). Dimensions of spirituality. In Spretnak, C. (Ed.). The politics of women’s spirituality: Essays on the rise of spiritual power within the feminist movement, New York: Doubleday. [Opening quote p. 368]

Hawken, P. (2007). Blessed unrest: How the largest movement in the world came into being and why no one saw it coming. New York, NY: Viking.

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