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Coming to Terms: The Use of Gender in Spiritual & Esoteric Communities

Coming to Terms: The Use of Gender in Spiritual & Esoteric Communities

When we say male/female or man/woman there are ideas and behaviours that we associate with those words, and those ideas don’t disappear in spiritual, religious or esoteric communities. The framework of woman-man is meaningful in our culture and I make no pretence about doing away with those concepts; but rather I seek to deepen our understanding of how we shape our lives by making some important contrasts: most pertinent to this conversation, and what informs my existential philosophy, is that to say feminine and masculine is not the same as to say man or woman.

I first started thinking seriously about gender when I was introduced to Black feminist thought in my late teens. Prolific intellectuals and theorists bell hooks and Patricia Hill Collins inspired me to pay attention to the things I had assumed were an ordinary part of being a Black girl becoming a woman. Things I had unconsciously associated with my sense of place and value in the world; namely, to give as much of myself as possible in service of others. There is some virtue in that belief, but Black feminism showed me how fragile and undeveloped my sense of self was. As well as the deep debt of love I was accumulating in a culture that had nothing to say about how Black girls could care for themselves.

This was in part due to the repudiation of ‘feminine’ traits that demands that boys be disconnected from the deeply caring and intuitive aspects of their personhood. As a consequence, too often, the work of male feeling has been outsourced to women and girls; and in this way we have ceaselessly repeated a destructive and ever narrowing cycle of interpersonal labour that creates dysfunctional families and communities.

Now, as an academic and cultural sociologist, I understand gender in even more complex ways. I understand that we co-produce meanings of man and woman through our daily practices. Increasingly, we are seeing individuals and artists experiment and transgress these imagined boundaries in their self-expression. The late great Prince, for example, was one of the best to have ever done it.

In the classroom when I’m teaching critical race theory I discuss hegemonic masculinity with my students, particularly the ways it casts non-white men as insufficiently masculine or subordinate. We debate the consequences of this as a type of compensatory masculinity: behaviours that are sometimes referred to as hypermasculine, as an archetypal Black male character in the drama of life.

That being so, when I talk about feminine and masculine in the context of spirituality I know it is being encroached upon by all of those ideas and so many more. For example, what do the terms feminine/masculine mean for transgendered identities; or those who are same gender loving; or simply those who reject the norms of feminine and masculine in ways that aren’t necessarily about sexuality, ‘tomboys’ for example? It was the weight of these questions that brought me to adopting the words yin-yang in place of male-female in the spiritual context.

Frantz Fanon wrote in Black Skins White Masks “to speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.” By using yin-yang, which comes from Chinese philosophy, I am able to circumvent some of the above gendered connotations, because I am not inheriting the same cultural logic.

That is not to say that gender normative ideas about the meanings of man and woman are not present in Mandarin, but simply that I have not been socialised into Chinese cultural thought, and so in terms of simple linguistics I encounter the words yin-yang free of preconception. That is, yin is not a synonym for woman in my mind.

So why does any of this matter to spirituality? It matters because understanding the balance between feminine-masculine/yin-yang energy is what brought me to a profounder level of healing after my breakdown in early 2016:

So here are the basics: In Taoism Yin and Yang are opposites on a continuum of energetic expression. Yin (feminine/-) is represented as passive and receptive whilst yang (masculine/+) is active and directive. Together they create harmony. We all possess both of these energies at all times, but in varying degrees of balance.

To apply this, in popular and mainstream Black theoretical and cultural thought we have developed an understanding of hypermasculinity as damaging, but little is thought of the alternate expression of hyperfemininity. We have diminished the nuance of imbalanced feminine energy (especially in Black women) to hypersexuality. However, there is more to the imbalanced feminine energy than reckless or compulsive sexual behaviour.

Personally speaking, imbalanced feminine energy expressed in my life as being frequently depressed, very susceptible to emotional wounding, highly conscious of being a victim, creative and visionary to the extent of mental escapism, insecure, dependent, expectant of being abandoned, and rejecting of myself. I was unknowingly suppressing my yang/masculine energy which being imbalanced expressed as defensiveness, hypervigilance, the constant sense of threat and never feeling secure. A lack of drive and focus, and an inability to follow through on plans or execute creative visions. A haphazard relationship to money, not finding assertion in my communication, and the list goes on.

Yin-yang energies are not just embodied by us, but replicated at the level of the natural and material world. I see our lived experiences of man and woman as an outward expression of this inner energetic polarity. We certainly have proclivities to one energy or the other as a result of social and cultural conditioning, but I also suspect there is something rather innate in where we are located on the feminine-masculine energy spectrum, and that location differs from person to person. However, the nuances get lost when we conflate gender with sexuality – which has a long and complex social history of its own.

To set sexuality aside for a moment, what kind of Black world opens up for us when we allow ourselves to pass through the threshold of a spiritual perspective. To not just think about the Black body and aesthetics, the black body and sexuality, the black body and desire, or the Black body and trauma; but the Black body as a landscape of energy with infinite creative possibility?

Well that points us to a completely different locus in our collective efforts to find Black love, Black joy, and Black healing. As we find our varying needs going unmet by state health care provisions, what if we began by healing ourselves? By taking the time to balance ourselves at the foundation? By reaching into what has been unconscious and looking at the feminine and masculine energies that direct our choices and behaviours?

I began this work on myself by giving up the victim-consciousness that was a symptom of my unhealed feminine energy. That was not to say that I was not genuinely wrongfully wounded, betrayed, abandoned etc. But that rehearsing that story in my self-talk kept me connected to a constant supply of pain; and just like the physical body responds to a painful stimuli, emotionally I was flinching, retracting and running away as a reflex. Even when it was not necessary. When there was no threat. When people in my life just wanted to know me. To love me.

Instead I made a vow to show up for myself. To always make my needs and my self-care a priority the best way I knew how. I chose to live in the reality that I could never be abandoned whilst I remained committed to myself, and my belief in the universe’s unconditional love for me. I healed/am healing slowly.

I thought about the lack of discipline in my life and my tendency toward mental escapism. Every time I wanted to sleep in, send that email later, pay that bill tomorrow, I would remind myself of my masculine energy and choose ‘now’ instead. I got so good at this that I started to exhaust myself. My inner Virgo perfectionist was excited by my new masculine task master and I took things to an extreme. But with practice I found my rhythm. The point was not to integrate the masculine energy to the total exclusion of the feminine. But to know the source of each, and how to call on either energy according to my needs.

I found more ways to assert my masculinity. By saying no for example. No more ceaseless Black feminine giving. I stopped blaming my parents for everything they had failed to teach me and the limitations I felt that created for me, and I started to be both mother and father to myself.

No more ceaseless Black feminine giving.

I am super feminine, but and in exploring my masculine energy I have started to become more comfortable with my personal power. Not just the raw womb-like potential of it. But the material exertion. To command. To be declarative. To ignite and bring to life. And god said let there be light. And Leona said let this be a radically-black love-based reality.

I am a woman. It is one of my favourite things about myself. I enjoy it fully. Unapologetically. I love the blend of feminine and masculine that is me. The way I colour my world. My heart and my mind. All my choices. Whole. Complete.

Leona Nichole Black

Artist Credit: @Sifanattan on Instagram