Can Women Lead a Transformation in Global Consciousness?

Part One & Two

By Dena Merriam
TSDS7161

Dena Merriam & Ven. Mae Chee Sansanee of Thailand & young Kashmiri women, Srinagar 2015

There is perhaps no more critical undertaking now than to bring together women who have the
commitment, knowledge and vision to make a difference in bringing about the needed global transformations.  It is increasingly clear that we have arrived at a pivotal moment in the history of the world.  There are forces  pulling us forward toward the next stage in human evolution, and there are forces resisting this advance, seeking to pull us backward or at least to keep us from progressing.  In almost every region of the world, we feel this tension between a movement forward and the resistance. Even for those of us who feel the forces of advancement, it is not clear where we are going, what is the next stage in our social evolution. We know that the current systems are not working but we don’t know the new formations that are quietly arising.  This inability to put our current situation into larger context is creating anxiety.  How do we ease this tension?
I would describe the new mindset that is emerging as one based on a sense of unity –human unity and unity with the natural world – and I would describe the old mindset as one based on a sense of separateness and division. We see these forces playing out around the world.   Globalization and communications technology brought us together in the physical sense.  Now something akin to this is happening on a spiritual level.  The interfaith movement played a role in that, bringing people into much deeper spiritual exchange.  But now we have moved beyond interfaith into a new experience of spiritual unity.  In response to this new reality, retraction is also occurring – people retreating into their separateness, into known and comfortable identities.  But this retreat can only be temporary because the movement of evolution is a forward one.   
 In addition to the tension between unity and separateness, we are feeling the tension of shifting from a paradigm of domination, which has lasted for millennia and is deeply imbedded in our psyches, to one of collaboration.  The urge to dominate is based on fear and for a period in human evolution this fear was a necessity – it was self-preservation.  But it has outlived its usefulness and has now become destructive.  This shift is not a cosmetic or minor change in thinking but entails a significant growth in consciousness and involves deep systemic changes that will affect all aspects of our economic, political, social and religious life.  This shift in consciousness away from a domination mentality applies to how we interact as a human community and to how we interact with the rest of the created world.  So much of human history has been about one ethnic, national, religious or racial group seeking to dominate another, one gender seeking to dominate the other, and one species, the human species, seeking to dominate all that resides on Earth for our sole benefit.  These old mental patterns no longer serve us.  In fact, they threaten our survival.  
What we are experiencing now as a global community is the breaking down of old patterns and the beginning of the formation of new ones.  This is a painful process.  As women know, it is only by passing through the agony of labor that we give birth to new life.   This is not an easy or quick task. For an individual it takes a long time to change habits.   For a global collective, the formation of new modes of behavior could take decades,  but at least we can lay the foundations, and we do this essentially through our understanding of what is taking place and by changing our own consciousness.
If you look at what is happening in the world today, on the surface, it can seem dismal.  It almost feels like we are moving backward.  Every region is experiencing tension – conflict, human barbarity, climate changes, environmental degradation, increasing economic disparity, the list goes on and on.  In the US, on a political level we are in a state of deep polarization and paralysis. But spiritually something else is happening and a deeply unifying spiritual movement is emerging.   The spiritual landscape of the country is changing quite rapidly, and in a positive direction, because it is based on unity rather than division.  How long will it take for this to affect the political and economic life of the country – that is an unknown.

 This unifying spiritual movement, which is emerging around the world,  is drawing upon our many faith traditions.  It is not negating our difference but rather it is using this diversity as a unifying force. Instead of dividing people,  the world’s incredible religious diversity can and should unify people of all faiths.   The premise for this is to embrace the “other” rather than to feel threatened by it. The old competitive pattern of judging which religion is right or superior is discarded, replaced by a new thought pattern of appreciating the special gifts of the “other.”    The old pattern of seeking to convert others to our way of thinking is replaced by a celebration of the “other.”  This shift will occur when we move away from the fear-based domination way of thinking.
Just as we must evolve beyond our need to dominate other groups of people,  we must evolve beyond the need to dominate the natural world.   This will give rise to a newborn sense of love for the Earth and Her vast communities of life, and the feeling that we must do all we can to protect Earth’s precious life forms.  The climate crisis presents a great challenge to the human community but also a great opportunity to change the way we view the Earth and to come together as a global society.  We can choose which direction we will take, greater unity, or greater division.  I believe the forces of unity are stronger and will eventually pull us forward.  
 
I travel continually and I see these feelings shared by people around the world, regardless of culture or region.   It is an undercurrent but one that is growing and will soon have enough momentum to trigger change – a sudden change in a positive direction.  There is no denying that we are up against formidable structures that resist change.  I believe women have a great role to play in guiding the human community through this transition, in building this momentum, but to do this we must fully come into our feminine awareness.  Before going into what this feminine awareness is, I want to share a bit of my history and how I founded the Global Peace Initiative of Women to provide a global platform for the spiritual contributions of women.

I began working in the interfaith world nearly 20 years ago when I was invited to help organize a large religious summit at the United Nations headquarters in NY for the millennial year, the year 2000.  The then Secretary- General of the United Nations, His Excellency Kofi Annan, consented to the organization of the Millennium World Peace Summit of Religious and Spiritual Leaders, to be held in

A few incidents occurred during the process of organizing the summit that deeply affected me. The Secretary General’s office had put together an advisory council from the United Nations, and we kept them informed and updated on how things were progressing.  One woman on the council, an under-secretary general of the UN, was particularly concerned about having women religious leaders participate in the Summit.  I was unaware of any problem in this regard, and so began to seek out women religious leaders.
I was seated at a dinner at Oxford, England with a group of religious leaders when I happened to mention to the man seated next to me that we were having trouble finding women religious leaders for the Summit at the UN.  I was only trying to make dinner conversation, but he reacted strongly to my remark and asked in a rather stern voice,   “Why do you need women religious leaders?”  When he saw the surprise on my face, he added, “take my advice and stay away from that issue or you might find that nobody will come to your summit.”  That was in 1999.
 
We had difficulty finding women religious leaders and so we compensated by finding women public figures.  I was not happy with this solution, but I was still in a learning phase.  Much of our time during the organization of the Summit was involved in dealing with political issues – like the fact that the Dalai Lama could not be invited to the United Nations because China would object, and the response from some prominent religious leaders who said they would not come if the Dalai Lama was not invited.  So the gender issue got lost amid the political negotiations.
On the opening day, as we were waiting for the religious leaders to enter the General Assembly Hall to begin their prayers, we encountered another gender crisis.  A prominent monk was to open the prayers, but he wasn’t permitted by his particular order to come in close contact with any woman, and there was a Buddhist nun, the only woman in a delegation of about a dozen Thai Buddhist monks, who was seated near the entrance where he was to enter.  I was told she had to be moved, and when I asked why, the response came, “because she is a woman.”  A number of people on our staff had tried to get her to move, but she didn’t understand English and refused to be separated from the monks of her delegation.  The clock was ticking and we had to begin, and so I was told that I had to move her.  It was a difficult moment for me.  But when I went up to her and took her hand, she smiled and followed me. The crisis was solved but it left a deep imprint in my mind.  Later when the Thai delegation came to greet me, I apologized to her, and we became fast friends.  Ven. Mae Chee Sansanee became  one of the founding co-chairs of the Global Peace Initiative of Women.
There were very few women religious leaders at the Summit, and they were not happy.  They requested a follow-up Summit specifically for women religious leaders.  We went back to the Secretary-General’s office and he agreed, suggesting that we hold it at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.  Work began with the religious communities in Geneva, and the first response that I received was, “we don’t want your American feminism here.  We don’t have women religious leaders.”  I was again taken aback, because I never thought of this work as a feminist matter, and I began to wonder why this issue was threatening to so many.  In order to get around the subject of women religious leaders, the Geneva community suggested we change the title of our event from “The Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders” to “The Role of Women in the Faith Communities.”  I refused to give up on the idea of women religious leaders, and so began the difficult process of bringing this vision to fruition.   
 
In 2002, we managed to bring over 500 women leaders, mostly from the religious communities but also some from business and government, from over 75 countries to the Palais des Nations. Whereas there were many political issues and much competitiveness at the 2000 world peace summit in New York, there were no politics at the Geneva Summit.  It was a far greater success.  We had no thought of forming an organization out of this gathering, but we immediately received requests to come to conflict areas and help organize peace dialogues, and so The Global Peace Initiative of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders was born.   We later shortened the name to The Global Peace Initiative of Women (GPIW).
un-group

Photo: Jonah Sutherland

We spent our first five years organizing dialogues with those in conflict and post-conflict areas ––  including Israel and Palestine, Iraq, Sudan, Afghanistan, Cambodia, and between India and Pakistan.   The dialogues were initially with women, and then young leaders, then both male and female religious leaders, and finally a mix of everyone.  What was distinctive about these dialogues is that they were shaped and led by a diverse group of women religious leaders, always balanced between East and West.  So we brought Buddhist nuns and women swamis to meet with the group from Sudan, Iraq and other conflict areas.  This had a tremendously positive impact as it opened the participants to the wider world and they saw the role women can play in other cultures.

When the Global Peace Initiative of Women was established in 2002, it was the only global interfaith organization founded and led by women.  Soon after other interfaith groups began to notice and develop special women’s programs.  But in my mind this missed the whole point.  Separate chapters or programs designed for women would not compensate for the lack of women’s participation in the leadership.  What we wanted to convey was that women must be empowered to shape and lead the interfaith and religious movements, along with men.  Without a true partnership,  only token changes would take place.  I cannot count the number of times when I have been invited to speak on a panel to find myself as the only woman speaker.  It is daunting to have to represent my entire gender!    Not surprisingly, the absence of women’s voice in the religious and interfaith world continues today. Just a few months back there was a major global interfaith gathering.  I was pleased to hear that for the first time they held a pre-conference one-day’s women’s summit.  But at the official opening of the event, during the opening plenary session,  among the array of men on the stage, I am told there was not one woman.  I don’t allow myself to be discouraged, but after 20 years of trying to make this point…..

After many years of advocating for a greater role for women in interfaith work, we began to realize that the gender issue was deeply embedded in our theologies, and without addressing theology, it would be hard to achieve true gender balance. So we organized a larger conference in India in 2008 on the theme of the Divine Feminine – the female aspect of Divinity.  Most people would acknowledge that the Divine has no gender, and yet in institutional religious life the Divine is always referred to as male – the Father – at least among the Abrahamic faiths.  Hinduism is an exception.  In India, it is far more common to refer to the Divine as the Mother, rather than the Father, and in fact this is what drew me to India when I was young.  The Mother relationship seems far more intimate and loving.

women-faith-leaders-retreat-master-sheng-yen

The conference that we organized on the Divine Feminine was revolutionary in many ways. One of our Co-chairs is a prominent and courageous Catholic nun from the US, who is very committed to women’s issues.  She was speaking at our conference in India and even for her, it was a stretch to talk about the Divine as Mother.  She approached me and said, “Dena, I don’t know if I can do this.  I have a theological problem with it.”She was clearly anxious.  I replied, “address the theme as you see fit.”Well, it forced her to do some deep reflection and she spoke beautifully on the Mother aspect of the Divine.   Since that conference, for years after, she spoke on the theme of the Divine Feminine – the Mother qualities of the Ultimate Reality.  Now, of course, there are many books and talks on this subject.

People would ask me why it was important to tackle the gender issue theologically. It has to do with deep subconscious feelings about oneself, feelings of which we may not even be aware.  I remember seeing a study some years ago that determined the one feeling most common among women across the world, regardless of income, education, status in society, etc. is that they don’t feel their voices are heard.  Women don’t feel that they have a voice.  If our concept of the All Knowing, the All Powerful, the All Beneficent Divine is male, than the female is subordinate, of lesser value.  But if this Divine power has both female and male aspects– there is gender balance, and this can serve as an inspiration and model for the rest of us.

Our inability to see the feminine aspects of the Divine has led to great gender imbalance, which affects so much about our world – from our economy to our social, political and religious structures.

What would the world look like if we could truly awaken the feminine wisdom and restore Her to Her rightful place?

For my generation, the challenge for women was to be able to rise to the top of their professions – to be heads of businesses, governments, etc., to break the glass ceiling. There was no talk at that time of what type of leadership would be natural for women.  There was no talk of the need for a transformation in our institutions.  Women were meant to just fit in and follow the mold.

I was born into a secular business family. I have two sisters, one older and one younger, and both became successful business women. I was less interested in business and more interested in literature and religion.   But after my divorce I had to go into the family business to support my sons.  I was told, and have been repeatedly told over the years, to cut my hair so I would look more businesslike.  I was told to stop wearing flowing skirts and to take up suits.  In other words to succeed in business, I had to fit into the male mold. Many women of my generation have had this experience.  If you wanted to succeed in business, politics and even religion, you had to downplay your female attributes.  This was very unfortunate because the very attributes that can bring about creative change were being dismissed and seen as a disadvantage.

So what are the qualities of the feminine? What is feminine wisdom and how can it help us address the challenges we face?

A few months ago we invited a delegation of spiritual teachers, men and women, to the UN Climate Summit in Paris to speak about the spiritual dimensions of the climate crisis. The formal negotiations were on ways to reduce carbon in the atmosphere. We were astounded that there was little mention of the spiritual perspective of climate crisis. We are causing an untold number of species to go extinct, killing how many millions of trees, destroying our soil through chemical inputs, and the list goes on – and we take no responsibility for this destruction?  We have brought spiritual teachers to most of the UN climate summits to speak about the moral dimensions of the issue, and increasingly the women in our gatherings are sharing dreams where the Earth, in a much weakened state, addresses them.  According to them, the soul of the Earth is crying out.  I have also heard this cry.  It is interesting to me that it is mostly the women who are hearing this.  Why is that?

Women are deeply connected to life. We have an intuitive knowing of that which gives and supports life.    Since the beginning of time our bodies and minds have been programmed for this.  We function from a space where we know the interconnections of life, this vast web, one part supporting every other.  That is, if we are tuned in to our feminine wisdom, if we have not repressed that aspect of our being in order to fit in to the prevailing mold.

And if we are more connected to life, we are more connected to Earth and the natural forces, because they are the systems that support life. So, more of us can hear the cry of the Earth now, the cry of the rivers and forests – all of which have been so degraded due to a domination mentality.    Rather that respecting and caring for these living forces of nature, we have abused them to the point that many of our ecosystems are dying.

The violence against the Earth and the suppression of women come from the same source – from a mindset that rationalizes the right to domination.   To restore the Earth, we must restore women.  To restore women to our rightful place, we must restore nature to its rightful place.  We must honor the natural world for its own intrinsic value rather than its monetary benefit.

In the Eastern or Dharma religious traditions, the feminine energy is considered to be the transformative power, the energy that brings change. There is the understanding in the East that the Ultimate Reality, the Divine, has both a masculine and feminine aspect.  One might say that the masculine maintains the universe, keeps everything functioning, but the feminine force drives it forward, providing the transformations that bring about new life.  This would apply both at the macrocosmic as well as the micro level, in the greater scheme of things and also in the movements of everyday life.

It is this evolutionary force, this driving forward that we very much need now to move us into a new global consciousness – which is intuitive, inclusive, non-hierarchical, more compassionate and balanced.

It is not only women who have access to this feminine force. We have found in our work that many men resonate with this energy, more than some women.   Ultimately, just as the Divine can be considered to have both a male and female aspect, so do we all.  What is desperately needed now to move the world out of its conflict, tension, and destructive tendencies, is to allow for the feminine wisdom to come forward.

img_3577

Gathering of the Women’s Partnership for Peace in the Middle East, Oslo, 2003 – Photo by Nancy Bundt

 

As long as the female is repressed, the world will be greatly out of balance, and imbalance creates tension and destruction. As long as the Earth is abused, the same will be true.  A similar imbalance would occur if the feminine forces were to overpower the male.  It is balance that is so essential, and this balance will help us move beyond the paradigm of fear, domination and division to one of greater collaboration, trust and unity.  Some of the themes that I have discussed may be obvious, and some are quite subtle.  This is because the issues that we face in our societies and globally reflect deeper shifts that have to do with larger movements of time.  The changes we seek may not manifest for centuries, but the only thing we can be sure of is that change will come.  Yet we must stay focused on the specifics of what we can do now.  What can we do as women in our everyday lives to help foster change?

I think the most important task for us now is to connect to our intuitive nature, and to begin to question what are the life-supporting actions and positions that we can take that will bring balance to our societies – not further polarization, not anger and distrust, but greater unity. Ultimately the greatest change will come about not through any action but through our changed consciousness. That is where true transformation begins.

Can we ourselves outgrow the fear and domination mentality and not see the “other” — be it the religious, ethnic or racial other – as in any way inferior?    Can we know ourselves to be an intrinsic part of the interconnected whole, not apart from it, but one with it?  Can we evoke the feeling of love for the Earth and truly see Her as a Mother?  Can we speak to Her and hear Her response? Can we feel our connection to the plant and animal worlds and know that they have as much right to life as we do?  Can we look beyond our limited time frame and know that we are providing the foundation for changes that may be decades, even centuries ahead, changes that we may never see but that will benefit our grandchildren?  Can we believe that if we ourselves overcome the consciousness of division, separation and domination that perhaps our grandchildren will know a more peaceful, balanced, inclusive and compassionate world?  This belief is what inspires my work.

2 Comments on “Can Women Lead a Transformation in Global Consciousness?

  1. Dena, thank you for articulating so poignantly what so many of us who are devoted to the work of women and the Sacred Feminine are holding in our hearts and minds. I will be reading this over and over, and sharing it with other spirit sisters in my own interspiritual/interfaith networks. It’s important that you put it out into the collective consciousness in the way that you have. May there be many more who will be inspired by it and also share it widely. Peace … Om Shanti … Salaam … Shalom … Lynda Terry

    Like

  2. Thank you for sharing this. It is critical now that we keep getting out the message. With much gratitude for our collective work, Dena

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: