The Great Mother: the female principle in Dzogchen and Mayan shamanism
Wednesday, November 11th, 2020
The extent of division and disharmony in the individual and in the world at large is without end and, as John Donne wrote, the road back to healing is “cragged and steep”. The root of this division and the pathways to healing can be found within the female-male relationship at the heart of our psycho-emotional experience. Generational traumas and our karmic seeds create the conditions laid out in our family barn, born out through our emotional landscapes, family dynamics and survival strategies. The dualities of self and other, male and female, light and dark need to be integrated into a non-dual working practice where we can begin to work with both polarities as a unified and organic whole.
Recently I was with a client in a healing session and the words came through: “bring the moon back into the house”. By this I meant that only when we have reinstated our female energy as the base of everything and reunited her with the clarity and energy of the male, can we begin to find our way home, back to our centre, our rightful power, the enlightened and accomplished versions of ourselves, both individually and collectively. The client in question had lost her mother as a teenager to a painful and degenerative condition brought on by a deep trauma and subsequent loss of spirit. If we want to know something about our female energy, a good place to start is our personal mother.
In early life we experience the full enveloping of our family barn. The dynamics are complex and multi-layered, with ancestral influences and our own karmic conditioning woven together in a dense tapestry, where deep inner processes are mirrored by our immediate external environment, and vice versa. It’s a kind of cosmic joke; whatever we feel is being played out in front of us, and whatever is actually being played out reinforces what we feel. It’s hard to break the deadlock. Consequently, later in life we tend to repeat our parents’ patterns, or play out their unconscious ones, in order to get closer to the experience. However, unless we can really feel through the totality of our ancestral barn, we cannot hope to liberate ourselves from it. Time and time again I say to my clients: “You have to feel it!” This is not the same as understanding it, or thinking that you are feeling it. At this point, we have to depart from rational analysis – the narratives and reference points – and go way deeper into what I call “the mountain”, deep into our emotional body, our cellular memory, our breathing and, deeper still, into the darkness and richness of the sacred female experience.
This is where a lot of us become stuck on our healing journey. In our attempt to familiarise ourselves with our female energy, we encounter the wounded female, the angry or disempowered one, the hurt or rejected child. We start to feel the pain, but have trouble going far enough through it to reach the other shore. We start the journey, but tire of feeling our way through so many uncomfortable aspects of our experience, especially the ones that feed our addictions and suffering. So, we invariably default to the same old weary repetitive patterns. The criticisms and judgements of our parents become our judgements. It’s a cliché: if we don’t receive the nurturing love of parents early in life we recreate the same non-nurturing relationships as adults. The same is true of male energy, where its luminous dynamism is often buried beneath the speed and aggression of relentless and meaningless action. We need to slow down and to ask the female within to help. We need to reunite empowered action with the full female experience. Rather than rejecting or accepting, we need to go with the energy and not fight back. After a while it becomes clear where we are stuck, and we will intuitively find a way to free ourselves, to steady our boat and row all the way across. We can do this. But first we need to fully be what we are, rather than condemning what we are.
There are many roadmaps for this healing journey. In practice, these can be misleading, as the ego can turn everything to its advantage, especially spiritual practice. Inbuilt resistance blocks the process of welcoming in the darkness, of accepting what we have been trying our best not to feel all our lives: vulnerable, traumatised, dispossessed. At this point we must surrender fully to the female experience, its darkness and spaciousness, and not try to fix anything in particular, but to open and feel everything. It’s like taking a bath; before immersing yourself in the water, you first need to strip. There are many layers of clothing to peel away, many attachments to what we were, our stories, our past, the endless junk we accumulate in the meaningless pursuit of self-identification.
According to Dzogchen teachings, the Mother, the female principal of energy, is at the heart of everything. She is primordial wisdom and the emptiness of the natural state, experienced as the unborn essence of the mind. She accommodates everything and opens to everything. Her body encompasses infinite space from which everything is born, lives and dies. Her companion, male energy, is the dynamism and clarifying light of the natural state that irradiates the dark empty space of the Mother. Luminous self-awareness of the mind is the son of the mother space. Emptiness and clarity are inseparable, as symbolised by the union of the mother void and the son awareness. Emptiness is clarity and clarity is emptiness, they are a single unity.
We can experience luminous emptiness through our practice of meditation, where the activity of our mind dissolves into the base of emptiness, where all thoughts arise, manifest and dissolve. This is why meditation is so important, as we must all return to the great mother space one day, when the five elements dissolve into each other at the moment of death. We all fear returning to the mother void, so we try to ward off death and the death experience, rather than embrace both and the fullness of our mother experience.
In the shamanic world of the Maya, as well as in many native traditions, the female principle is venerated as the nurturing and nourishing Mother Earth, the beneficent sacred force at the heart of all existence. She creates all life, supports and nourishes our spirits, then takes back the elements of our bodies at death, for regeneration and renewal, while our spirits enter the underworld to join our ancestors. Her compassion is boundless, her abundance unlimited and her ability to heal and restore is at the centre of her power. Where there is discord and disharmony, she brings forgiveness; where there is pain and suffering, she brings liberation; where there is disease, she brings medicine. As with the Dakini force in Tibetan Buddhism, and Kali in Hinduism, she also has her wrathful side and, when angered, can raise the fury of the elements to quell human greed and ignorance. Natural disasters, pandemics and the unpredictable nature of her will are examples of what Carl Jung called “the loving and terrible mother”. Balance is always the governing force at work within her divine consciousness. So, we must learn to respect her omnipotence, and the integrity of our planet and expanding cosmos as a whole.
The Earth Mother is also strongly connected to the moon, and the female cycles in nature. The 28-day lunar cycle moves the tides, emotions and menstrual cycles of earth dwellers. Through the seasons the tides come in and out, the new and full moons synchronise with menstruation and with ovulation, and the earth sways to the natural female rhythm that pervades all beings, regardless of gender or physical form. By observing the ebb and flow of the lunar pull in our bodies, and in our emotional and mental states, we can relax and use this energy to help us navigate our way and stay open to what is here and now: the fluid flux of life. This is the key to the female-male balance: feel everything, act accordingly. Sometimes, no action is the best action. Just be present. Feel the whole ground. Lao Tzu called it “the effectiveness of non-action.”
The Earth Mother also presides over the non-physical inhabitants of the underworld, those that guard the mountains and waterways, the caves and forests. These ancient spirits communicate between the physical and non-physical realms and act as guardians of the natural world. In the West we’re quick to dismiss all non-rational phenomena as superstition or unconscious manifestations of the psyche. But those of us who work in this field can vouch for the reality and power of this realm, and for how potently the unseen forces of the underworld continually influence our states of being, both positively and negatively.
Two years ago, during a water ceremony in the mountains of Bali, I felt the spirit of a female water serpent rise out of the river I was standing in and begin to merge her essence with my physical body. After a day and night of expunging her venom and slowly transforming it back into the pure essence of the water element, I felt her medicinal and purifying qualities flow through me, accompanied by a sublime oceanic feeling. All the tension in my body dissolved, all fear was gone, and I felt a huge expansion of compassion and connection to the divine feminine.
This may sound far removed from ordinary existence, but the deeper we go into the non-physical realms of existence, the more we find. Here, deep within the mountain, the divisions between physical and non-physical dissolve, form becomes emptiness and emptiness form, and the luminosity of the male energy unites with the dark infinite space of the female. Whatever realm we explore or choose to inhabit, the important thing is to work with the totality of the experience, learn how to transmute its toxic element and then use it for the benefit of our fellow creatures.
It’s not easy to stand back from our life, while also being its protagonist, trying to take the best course of action. Standing back means letting go of attachment towards action and outcome, to seeing the whole picture, to feeling the whole ground. It’s like going into space and seeing the earth from above, light and dark, and accepting both. There is human darkness and chaos. There is also loving kindness. When we home in on a specific point we have to keep the totality of the panoramic view in mind, otherwise we can easily get caught up in our own games, in our own self-fulfilling agendas and prophecies. Although we don’t want to get lost in space, we must be able to merge with it, be able to become space. Action often clouds our ability to be aware of ourselves and surroundings. When the 2005 tsunami of south-east Asia hit the beaches, many animals had already fled to safety, because they could feel the tremors in the earth and the change of energy. They were tuned into something bigger than themselves: the beating heart of the world. This is a prime example of the perfect balance of taking action that is deeply rooted in a firm respect and connection to the female principle.
This pandemic has forced us to accept that the earth is sick because we are sick and we need to heal. We cannot sustain such aggressive decimation of our natural habitats and ecosystems. We depend upon them for survival as we are all interconnected. Covid-19 has temporarily forced us to examine our behaviour more deeply and the root of our sickness. We must return to the female principle of cherishing and nurturing and open up avenues for healing and regeneration. In the words of the great Kagyu master, Chogyam Trungpa: “It is our turn to help the world.”
Female energy is always there and always available to us, on a personal and universal level. Mankind would do well to heed the wise counsel of the great Mother and the inexorable law of nature that sets limits to every being. Mother Nature is now setting limits to humanity. If we listen to her, we might not want to hear what she has to say. But, if we don’t listen, the consequences will be devastating. If we don’t process our emotions they will go underground, form splinter groups and attack us when we are least expecting it. If we stop speaking to our mother or daughter, or relating to the female space within, this division will lead to more karmic chain reactions of pain and misery. “We are all returning,” says the Koran. We must find a way home, a way to reunite and rebalance our female and male energies. We must bring the moon back into the house, and the human world back into check, before the hungry ghosts of greed and self-destruction consume us all, and the “loving and terrible Mother” Earth we live in.