A Woman's Spirit: Interview with Joan Borysenko

Ask 100 people to define "spirituality" and you'll probably get 100 different answers. Everything from planting a seed to meditating in a cave counts as spirit-mindedness for someone.

Psychologist, author and speaker Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., shares her definition of spirituality in her book A Woman's Journey to God (Riverhead Books), an exploration of why women and men approach the divine differently.

Spirituality in masculine terms often involves going off on a quest for wisdom and bringing that wisdom back to the community, says Borysenko, who co-founded Harvard University's mind/body clinic. Feminine spirituality requires looking inward for the wisdom that exists inside us all. Our talk with Borysenko explored more of her perspective on the spiritual gender gap.


Gaiam: What is spirituality?

Borysenko: Spirituality is our deepest sense of connection to ourselves, to nature, and to God or Spirit as we understand it. For most people, joining with Spirit happens when we're connecting to ourselves or to someone else and are fully present in the moment, enabling us to feel love, harmony, beauty and the awe of belonging.

You call men's spirituality "Climbing Jacob's Ladder" and women's "Walking Sarah's Circle." Can you explain the differences between these two approaches to Spirit? What are the intrinsic dissimilarities between men and women that account for these differences?

"Climbing Jacob's Ladder" is based on the model of doing successive linear practices to accomplish communion with God. Bottom steps of the ladder may be moral precepts such as the Ten Commandments. Then come certain prayers or meditations meant to deliver you from one step of the ladder to the next. This is a beautiful model. It fits men and, since both male and female aspects exist in every person, at times women may find themselves climbing Jacob's ladder.

But for the most part, women walk Sarah's circle. If climbing Jacob's ladder requires stepping linearly and doing work, Sarah's circle is relational and spontaneous. Everyone and everything co-exist in the circle, and God is at the center. Because of this circular relationship, you can't tell where one presence begins and another ends. You don't have to climb a ladder to get to God; all you need to do is connect with the life that exists in the circle.

According to the male model of Jacob's ladder, relationship with God requires transcendence. Yet, for a woman, spirituality is an inward movement rather than an outward one. Can you explain this further?

In the original dream that Jacob had when he was on his hero's journey, he had left home and gone to a foreign land to seek a new life. On the way he lay down, went to sleep and had a dream. In the dream angels walked up and down a ladder that led to heaven and God. This model of the hero's journey has you leaving your home, going to a foreign place, and having a spiritual epiphany so you can come back to the community somehow changed. Therefore, it's the archetype for men to seek spirituality outside the usual circumstances of their lives.

Women don't go on a solitary hero's journey. Our journey is relational, so we find God in the details of ordinary life such as nursing our children rather on a journey to some distant place. Women as nurturers worship God by creating safe, warm places in which other people can grow and flower. This is a daily activity that we perform for people we care about. Our flights of mystical union are born of the practicalities of living.

Many women are angry about religious patriarchy and have abandoned their religions. One complaint is that rituals unique to women are missing from the practices of most structured religions. What are examples of practices related only to women that we seek to celebrate?

All religions have rituals pertaining to death. Yet, when a woman loses a child through the death of a born child or through the choice for abortion, special women's rituals can be uniquely healing. Even when a woman miscarries a child, it's difficult to find a place where she can express and move through that grief. Ritual circle provides a place to do that.

You say that those of us walking Sarah's Circle must learn to trust. What is it that we must trust?

We have to trust that God speaks to us from within, which means we have to trust our instincts and intuition. That's difficult for women because most of us have been taught to second guess ourselves, and we suffer from the disease of unworthiness. This causes us to turn our backs and close our ears to the voice of spirit.

You say that we must find our centers through which we connect with God by coming into a state of being rather than doing. How can we do this?

When we're in a state of being, people and things in our lives suddenly come alive with meaning and preciousness, and our hearts are filled to overflowing with gratitude. In this state of being, we're in a state of acceptance of what is, and our senses are as open as a daffodil creating a cup that catches the sun. Some people can enter this state by meditating, but I enter it after quieting my chronically busy nervous system with exercise or yoga.

Women's groups are cropping up all over the country. How might a woman connect with these groups or start a group of her own?

All it takes to form a woman's group is two women who are willing. Each of those women can then find another woman to bring into the circle. You need to develop some plan of what it is you want to do in the group. Some groups may decide to study books; some may be prayer groups in which you create a sacred alter space then sit in a circle and everyone prays out loud. There are as many kinds of women's groups as there are women. The most important thing is that there be an agreement of how the group will be run and that the purpose of the group is accomplished each time you meet.

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