When I was nineteen I met my teacher, a Russian-born woman in her mid-sixties, recently returned from India where she had been trained by a Sufi master(1). Four years later, sitting in her small meditation group, I met and fell in love with a young woman recently arrived to London from Israel, who was to become my wife. As an intense young man, focused on meditation and aspiring to realize a formless Truth, the Sufi path unexpectedly opened me to the mystery of the feminine, and to the wonder of love both human and divine, formless and tangible.
Coming from an English middle-class family, I had spent the years from seven to seventeen in all-male boarding schools. At sixteen I had begun practicing Zen meditation, awakening to an inner world of emptiness, which also drew me to fasting and other ascetic practices. But now both my heart and my body were being touched in unforeseen ways, and the sacred feminine began to teach me, to awaken me to her wonder, the subtleties of a love that embraces both body and soul. I was being taken out of the monastery into a garden of beauty—fragrant, seductive, full of color and passion. Over the years that followed she was to teach me about her hidden nature, how she can open a soul to the Divine, infuse it with love and longing, and so give birth to one's spiritual self. And even more profound, how she carries in her body and being the sacred substance of creation, the deepest secret of life.(2)
For a young man deeply in love, beauty and passion, love and longing walk hand in hand. Both the soul and the body cry for union, there are tears and tenderness. I came to know about the feminine side of love, a longing that tears apart one's whole being. Sometimes this longing was for my physical beloved, and sometimes it was an invisible, inner lover who called and claimed me. How many nights I cried, how many tears I came to know. My teacher used to say that when she came back from India she brought a small handkerchief that had once been blue but was now white, bleached from all the tears she cried sitting in her teacher's garden. Real love is a powerful poison, again and again the heart seems to break. Only later did I come to know how this agony, these tears, are a part of the Sufi story, the way we are taken back to God by love's longing, how we are emptied of ourself so that we can be filled by a deeper presence. In Rumi's words:
"Sorrow for His sake is a treasure in my heart. My heart is light upon light, a beautiful Mary with Jesus in the womb."
The soul's passion is deeply feminine, the cry of the heart is a way that we are purified, prepared for a love that infuses every cell of the body as well as the very depths of the soul. Love's sorrow has a potency and a transformative quality. Rather than outer austerities, on the Sufi path it is this inner agony that draws us along the way, that burns us with both tenderness and fire.
And in this deepest spiritual mystery of the feminine—from within this cry, from these tears—something is born, unexpected, beyond anything we could imagine. I remember this first experience, when one afternoon in meditation I experienced a love that began like butterfly wings at the edge of my heart, and then touched every cell in my body. Like the first kiss of one's heart's beloved, I was alive with love, tender, intense. Over the years this love would come again and again, deeper, lasting longer, until at times all that remained was love—both body and mind dissolved. But this first time was a miracle I never expected. I knew the intense desire for Truth, and the intoxicating formless inner vistas of meditation. But this opening to love, awakening of love within the body, was like colors appearing in a grey world.
This feminine side of love taught me not just about passion and beauty, but I also learned many of the qualities of the feminine that later I understood as central to mystical life. Love, and a woman, can teach you about tenderness and the value of softness—how the heart has to be softened, tenderized for the Beloved. We are made soft by love, so that divine presence can be more easily infused into our being.
The lover also learns patience and waiting. One cannot demand or force love. The lover waits at the threshold—for days, weeks, sometimes years—knowing only longing or a dry desolation. Then one day, always unexpectedly, the door opens and love takes you to her chamber, where sweetness turns into ecstasy and rapture, lasting for a minute, an hour, an eternity. Then, bewildered, one is back at the doorway, bliss becoming despair. And so one is made unbearably vulnerable, turned inside out, broken by love until that touch comes again and one is made whole, complete, merged back into love.
She teaches us to wait, to be patient, for the ways of the Beloved are not our ways. And she reveals the importance of receptivity, the ultimate feminine mystery that belongs to creation and birth. For a mystic receptivity is a central practice, what is called "divine receptivity," in which we are inwardly attentive, listening and waiting for the call of our Beloved. Our heart becomes a space where we can listen with the ear of the heart, learn to see with the eye of the heart, and finally be a space for the Beloved to be born, to be a living presence within us.
In silence, receptivity, meditation, and stillness, we offer ourself to our Beloved every day. "I offer to Thee the only thing I have, my capacity to be filled by Thee." Love teaches us about surrender, about giving ourself. Later we learn the spiritual importance of surrender—how surrender takes us back to union—but at first it is lived, not as a spiritual concept, but belonging to the lane of love, that one-way street from which we can never return. In love we give ourself again and again, we open our heart and our body, and sometimes we are taken by love, but often we feel stranded, lost, or abandoned. In our sadness, in our tears, we do not know the deeper mystery of oneness: that our cry is our Beloved's cry, our prayer is Love's prayer.
I had been taken into this mystery by the eyes of a woman and a longing in my heart. The tangle of her hair, the softness of her body, had taken and taught me what spiritual texts could not. Divine love is a spiritual and physical experience, and in a woman the two are united, body and soul. The Indian poet and princess, Mirabai knew this secret. She was in love with Krishna, her "Dark Lord," and she left her palace to dance before him. She had experienced the soul's rapture with her Dark Lord, and speaks of the body's "hidden treasures":
O friend, understand: the body
is like the ocean,
rich with hidden treasures.
Open your innermost chamber and light its lamp.
Within the body are gardens,
rare flowers, the inner Music;
within the body a lake of bliss,
on it the white soul-swans take their joy.
And in the body, a vast market—
go there, trade,
sell yourself for a profit you can't spend.
Mira says, her Lord is beyond praising.
Allow her to dwell near your feet.
In her words of rapture are one of the deepest mysteries of the feminine: how in her body are "gardens, rare flowers, and the inner Music." This is not just erotic imagery, but alludes to the secret of creation, and the beauty and wonder that belong to this essential substance. Without this quality of the feminine there would be no joy, the magic of life would not be present. Colors and fragrances would fade into dull, grey days.
Because a woman, every woman, has the potential to give birth, to bring the light of a soul into the world of matter, she has this hidden substance, the sacred substance of creation. It is in the cells of her body and her spiritual nature. In it the visible and invisible are fused together. It belongs to the alchemy of love that is creation itself, born out of love. And it also carries the imprint of our deep love for the Earth, for the world that has given us life and sustenance—that has given us our existence.
That so many women do not even know of this essential substance within them is one of the great unnoticed tragedies of our present time. The Eleusinian mystery schools, where these mysteries were taught for centuries, have been forgotten, and because it was an oral tradition there is no written record. And the power of the patriarchy has censured it from our collective memory. There may be a trace of it in Jesus's relationship to Mary Magdalene, who was "loved by Jesus more than others," and in the symbolism that she was the first to see the risen Christ at the empty tomb.(3) But these are just echoes of an ancient esoteric tradition into which so many women used to be initiated. Now, sadly, it is forgotten and women have been denied their heritage.
It is this substance that turns a simple struggle for existence into a joyous experience of life with all of its colors and tastes, tragedies, heartaches and bliss. It is the seed of life's flower—and it is present in the body of a woman. And sadly, today, because the mysteries of the feminine are no longer taught, most women do not even consciously know of its existence. They may sense its presence in the seductive power of their sexuality, but this is only a small part of its magic. Because it is not just physical, but also spiritual—spirit in matter, fused together, united, bonded in love.
My wife taught me this central feminine mystery and how it relates to the sacred within life. It is one of the greatest gifts a woman can give to a man,(4) as it can help a man reconnect with his own soul as an embodied presence within life. It belongs to the mystery of love and brings beauty, magic—the gardens, flowers and inner music Mirabai describes—but also something indefinable—"here is the deepest secret nobody knows…. and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart."(5) It is through this simple secret that everyday existence becomes alive with a quality of meaning in which we are reconnected to life as a whole, a sparkling web of wonder.
The Earth today is dying, its rivers becoming sterile, the air polluted. Exploitation and consumerism are ravaging the planet, destroying the fragile web of life. And the inner world of the soul is also being desecrated by our forgetfulness of its sacred nature, made toxic from the effects of our greed. There is a vital need to heal and regenerate our planet, and this cannot just be done through green technology or carbon reduction. We have passed this "tipping point," and need a deeper transformation.
Without the feminine nothing new can be born—this is a simple and essential truth. At present our world is suffering from a masculine story of separation: that we are separate from each other and separate from the Earth. To redeem and heal this we need to give birth to a story that is based upon oneness, that we are interconnected and interdependent with all of creation—an integral part of the web of life—what the Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh calls "interbeing." It is the feminine that instinctively understands all the interconnections in life, the patterns of relationship that hold life together. She has a natural relationship to life's wholeness. She knows that everything is connected, not with the knowledge that comes from the mind, but from the deep knowing that belongs to life itself, to the cells of her body.
But even more essential is the need for the light held within the body of a woman, for her sacred substance, to bring healing and regeneration. This is the mystery of rebirth imaged in the myth of Demeter and Persephone that was central to the feminine mysteries, the descent into darkness from where regeneration came every spring. We are now in a time of darkness, having lost the light of the sacred in our daily lives. The simple rituals of cooking and cleaning, planting and harvesting, are no longer honored as sacred, the fires of the temples of the priestesses have long been extinguished. We need the seeds of rebirth that belong to the womb of the feminine, that sacred place where new life comes into being.
This is one of the most important contributions of the feminine at this time. It is a most vital need. Yet this innate knowing, this mystery and magic, is tragically veiled, hidden from so many women. In the West today so many women are attracted to spiritual life, and sometimes I wonder if it is because they are in search of this secret, and that they also have a part to play in the spiritual regeneration of life itself.
How this sacred substance is given back to the Earth is a secret waiting to be revealed. On an individual level, from a woman to a man, this sacred substance is given through the act of sex (though it is deeper than a solely physical act), and it is also held as an ancient instinctual wisdom within some women. My sense is that through prayer and a deep inner listening, women can rediscover and reconnect with this sacred relationship with the Earth. There are many ways to pray with the Earth: from the simple act of gardening with love and care, to walking in a sacred manner, each step a lived prayer to the Earth,(6) or sitting in silence and going deep within to where our soul and the world soul meet. If I have learned anything from the feminine, it is the power and potency of receptivity, and how to wait with patience for a deeper wisdom to be given.
I have been honored in my life's journey to have been shown these qualities of the feminine and how they can be woven into life, into the stories we live. They bring a certain color into the tapestry of life—a color that awakens a dormant mystery and sense of belonging. Here life comes to know its own purpose, not as survival but wonder. And behind this mystery is the greatest secret: that life is a love affair, that it is born from love. This gift of the feminine can only be given through love, through an openness of the soul. And in relation to the Earth it can only become fully alive through our love for the Earth. The Earth speaks to the soul that She needs this spark, this light, and the woman who knows the mystery of love in her own being can respond, can give what is needed—from her soul to the soul of the world, her body to the body of the Earth.
This sacred substance in creation is life's most precious gift. We can feel it in the joy of a newborn baby, eyes still unfocused; hear it in the laughter of children; see it in the beauty of a rainbow; taste it in a simple meal cooked with love. It is all around us in life's unending multiplicity, always recreating—the miraculous ways the sacred takes on form. The lover can experience its power and magic, deeper than bliss, through merging with his beloved. It brings together the soul and the body, and holds them both in love. In the Earth it unites Her body with Her soul, the anima mundi, known to the ancients. Through ritual and reverence, this communion was kept alive by the priestesses, by those initiated into the secrets of creation. And now as a light is going out, as the world is becoming covered by the dark dreams of materialism, as our relationship to the sacred is fading away, we need this reconnection, this return to love. There is a cry, a calling for the feminine to help in its healing and rebirth, for the sacred to come alive in a new way, for a new story for the Earth and all of humanity to be told.