When a colleague of mine from work, Beth, told me with great enthusiasm that she wanted to attend the Empowering the Awakening Divine day course at Spirit Rock, I was a bit taken aback. “Really?” I asked. “Really.” she confirmed. “Huh . . . OK . . . sure.” So, we signed up, plunking down a fair chunk of change (though the cost was comparable to other similar events I have attended.)
The reason for my surprise was that Beth is perhaps one of the most anti-religious people I know, and this particular event, an empowerment, is one of the most seemingly religious of ceremonies in Buddhism. Beth has a passing interest in Buddhism, though I’ve always assumed that was just so we would have something to talk about other than work. But, when it comes to any form of religion, Beth is still carrying lots of bitterness, bordering on trauma, from being raised Mormon. She describes her upbringing and the first part of adulthood as if she had been a prisoner. Beth is a bright, well-educated woman with both an RN degree and an MBA, and rather than being congratulated and encouraged for her accomplishments and drive, she felt as if she was always being herded back into the kitchen. I think the only good she feels she got out of those years is her two adult kids, who have turned out really well. So, I was very surprised at her interest in a class described as:
This day is for honoring, empowering and supporting women who are on the path of awakening through Buddhist practice. Lama Palden will offer a White Tara practice. White Tara is an enlightened female. Meditating on her transforms our distorted view of self and other into the actuality of embodying the profound love, wisdom and radiant luminosity of who we really are. Meditating on White Tara involves calling on her, receiving the nectar of the Divine Mother transmission, chanting mantra and dissolution into unbounded pure being.
The course was lead by Debra Chamberlin-Taylor and Lama Palden, and it was a women only event. Lama Palden gave us background on who White Tara is, her function, etc. I’m quite familiar with this type of commentary so I was able to relax into the chanting and meditation. But, it was when Chamberlin-Taylor was speaking that I started to tense up.
When I was studying in the NKT (though I do not think this view is unique to the NKT), the dharma (Buddha’s teachings) and the language of Western psychology were thought to be quite distinct, and were not to be mixed, particularly when teaching. And depending on the teacher, there could be outright antipathy towards psychiatry and psychiatric drugs. And while I disagreed with this view, I became quite used to the separation. So, with Chamberlin-Taylor’s approach as more of a women’s support group leader, I started to chafe a bit, particularly during the sharing exercise.
I do believe that psychology and spirituality belong on the same plate together. They both deal with the search for meaning, and the question of self. Psychology, deals with these through personal history, while spirituality transcends personal history. But, like a kid who doesn’t want her vegetables touching her mashed potatoes, I like to keep spirituality and psychology separate – on the same plate but separate. Chamberlin-Taylor’s approach seemed like she was mushing up the yummy grilled salmon of spirituality with the delicious garlic mashed potatoes of psychology and adding the Brussels sprouts icky 70’s women’s group-speak. The combination was not delicious.
During the break I could tell that Beth was feeling disturbed, and really not getting the whole Tara deity thing. She was having flashbacks from her Mormon days with the ladies’ groups and the talk of “blessings”. While she was willing to stick around for the empowerment for my sake, my sense was that if she was feeling uncomfortable with the commentary, the ritual itself would probably really disturb her. So, we left.
The boyfriend was happy to see me home in time to watch all of the Super Bowl with him. And was that a great game, or what?