Motherhood and spirituality, including enlightenment-seeking, are for most people unrelated. And the search for spiritual enlightenment is seen as an individual activity or something you do together with other seekers, and almost always separately to family life. So when a woman becomes a mother, she usually gives up or puts on hold any spiritual and enlightenment ambitions.
In my book Enlightenment Through Motherhood, a story about my misguided attempt at a last-minute holiday with my two young children and husband while heavily pregnant, I share how that ‘holiday’ revealed that motherhood itself is a path to enlightenment. A messy and noisy path but also the most relentless and direct path to help us embrace all aspects of our humanity – heavenly and earthly, rational and emotional, masculine and feminine, adult-like and child-like. This post is on why I wrote that book.
S ince early adulthood I’ve been fascinated by the concept of enlightenment, specifically as promoted in Eastern mystical traditions. What attracted me to the Eastern spiritual systems was that enlightenment was described as an experience or state resulting from a person’s own efforts. It was something anyone could strive for, no matter their background or gender, and you could obtain it during your lifetime. It was a process that involved developing greater self-awareness and understanding, and welcomed the questioning of spiritual teachers in order to find ‘truth’.
It was so unlike the Christian tradition I had grown up with, which offered only incontestable rules to live by, an authority to answer to and any rewards for ‘good’ behaviour attainable only after you had passed away. The way spirituality was presented to me had made me feel very much like a daughter, sometimes good and at other times naughty or even rebellious, in relation to an authoritarian father figure.
And the last thing I wanted to feel, as a young woman embarking on my adult life independently of my parents, was just as I had as a young child. I wanted to explore what life had to offer: to develop my skills, to see the world, to become more aware, to engage in meaningful and equal relationships, to feel confident in my body and about my sexuality.
The Eastern spiritual systems I was exploring seemed to validate all those aspects of a person.
But as I discovered through my experiences, they too contained prejudices. They weren’t as obviously patriarchal as Western religions with their image of god as father. And they seemed to value both the masculine and feminine dimensions of human nature, as illustrated in their art which often depicts the absolute, such as Shiva in Hinduism, as having a feminine side and a masculine side and then both those sides united together in sublime union.
Yet even with such acknowledgment of the feminine, and also the (almost) equal valuing of seekers and their teachers or gurus (the absolute is accepted as existing in everyone, with the only difference between a seeker and teacher is that the seeker just doesn’t realise it yet), I still found that the way the spiritual practices were promoted had a distinct masculine bias. And, the daily lives of people in cultures those traditions were a part of, were also governed by rules as patriarchal – if not more so – as in the West, a contradiction that didn’t rest comfortably with me.
But I continued to read materials by various teachers on their theories and experiences of enlightenment, I studied philosophy and religious studies at University, I attended workshops and I met some gurus.
I practiced the recommended techniques to promote enlightenment, such as meditation, chanting mantras and yoga, and I had some amazing experiences as a result of those practices.
All seemed well and good, except for my growing irritation at always reading and hearing ‘god’ or ‘the absolute’ described using the word ‘he’. Logic told me that if god was absolute (that which is independent of all relations, perfect and complete, free from any restriction), then god ought to be something beyond gender.
I also had some prickly experiences such as when I met a well-known guru from India who refused to touch me when giving his blessing because I was a woman. He said that my femaleness would taint his pure state and/or ignite feelings of desire, which he had ‘decided’ not to experience any more.
I found it difficult to believe that someone who had such prejudices about gender, to the point where he feared contact with women, and was so terrified of his own sexuality, could be enlightened, as he and his many followers claimed.
I had always imagined that an enlightened person would be free of prejudices, especially as such people are meant to experience everything as part of the same unity, as ‘one’.
My discontent grew as I found myself in other similar situations that made me feel uncomfortable, and even humiliated, simply because I was female.
And Then I Became a Mother
As I was consumed by this new role and went about doing the various tasks mothers do in our day-to-day lives, I couldn’t help notice there were many similarities between the things I was doing simply by playing my mothering role and the spiritual techniques I had been practicing and learning about previously.
Yet I had never come across any mention of motherhood as a spiritual path. This seemed an astounding oversight, considering the number of women who have experienced motherhood.
It all begins with pregnancy, which can initiate some profound energetic shifts in women as the life force (or prana or chi) in our bodies is intensified as the process of creation takes place. This leads to an enhanced sensitivity to sounds, tastes, smells and sensations, as well as to emotions and thoughts, and sometimes even to a super-charged sex drive, which is intimately linked with the energy some spiritual traditions hold responsible for leading to spiritual enlightenment, and which I’ve explained in my book.
And then there’s the process of childbirth.
Not only is childbirth fundamentally crucial for the continuation of our species, but it’s such an amazing and awe-inspiring experience – even for those just attending a birth – that it’s a wonder there’s so little talk about it in our day-to-day lives.
It’s as though we have all been put under a spell that makes childbirth invisible to us, except during the short time we participate in it. Before and after that, I can see how easy it is for children to believe in storks delivering babies because adults behave as if such a myth were true.
And then the life-long task of mothering.
Mothering is such a huge, all-encompassing and time-consuming mission, with far more serious consequences for our actions than for any other type of work, and also, many mothers would argue, far greater rewards than any other work could possibly give. And it provides continuous and constant prompting towards growth in consciousness, awareness and the capacity to love – essentially the requirements for enlightenment.
Yet motherhood is given such little recognition in most cultures, and certainly doesn’t have any status as a spiritual path.
Even mothers feel as if we’re not doing all that much, rationalising away the significance of the countless challenges we deal with daily and the fact that we have reasonably healthy, developing, achieving, well-rounded children happily asleep in their beds at the end of each day.
Spirituality V Enlightenment
For centuries, most of the world’s cultures have elevated people who participate in spiritual practices, particularly those who have achieved a state of apparent ‘spiritual mastery’. And because the practices defined as spiritual have been performed separate from family life and so have been tricky for women shouldering the responsibilities of child-raising to participate in, mothers have been unable to take part fully in spiritual endeavours – or so it has always been assumed.
In my book I argue that not only have mothers been performing spiritual practices all along, but spirituality itself has been defined far too narrowly, so that only certain kinds of experiences, when experienced in a certain kind of way, are considered to be spiritual.
You don’t have to sit alone in a cave and meditate to experience spirit – you can certainly do so, but you can also experience spirit by sitting in a park with your children and watching the delight on their faces when they slide down the slippery dip or find an earthworm on the ground.
You can give service to your god – whoever or whatever that is for you – by helping to feed the homeless, but you can also give service to your god by feeding your own children. That is no less a spiritual service than the other.
I also suggest that enlightenment has come to be identified with a particular idea of spirituality, but that there is a different kind of enlightenment available to us.
For if you look closely at the major texts from all the world’s spiritual traditions, they say something along the line of: god is everywhere, in everything; we are all god; god is within all of us. It is even spelt out in those texts that the meaning of such statements is that all of life is infused with god, and so all kinds of experience are spiritual in essence.
“…there is no difference between the worldly and the spiritual, and this becomes clear when you gain right understanding. Before that the worldly and the spiritual appear to be antagonistic. The world, which appears to be so diverse… is really nothing but the expansion of the one Lord. … the same supreme Being stretches in all directions. All activities and pursuits, all names and forms, are only different manifestations of the Truth. Because this is the case, there is no work which is an obstacle on the spiritual path.” Swami Muktananda
Motherhood enables us, in such a real, concrete and messy way, to experience this kind of enlightenment. It requires us to honour and embrace all aspects of our humanity.
I believe motherhood (and also fatherhood when fathers are deeply involved with raising their children) is a perfect vehicle for this more real enlightenment. Because one of the main gifts of motherhood is that once you attain it, it is with you always.
You can still explore other facets of life and you can still follow other paths, but your state of being a mother can never be taken away. And so it pushes you continually and relentlessly to greater consciousness, to the discovery and understanding and embracing of all that you are – something necessary when raising children if you want to know them and accept them and love them unconditionally and help them grow into all that they can be.
This lifelong process drives you towards a state of being where you can honour both the spiritual aspects of life and also the ‘non-spiritual’.
The Devaluing of Mothering
After I had my third child, I felt compelled to write my story.
I thought it a huge injustice that my job of raising my three daughters received such little recognition in our society. I felt it was crazy that the world’s spiritual leaders, of all faiths, received such status and rewards, and who could sometimes behave atrociously and be forgiven so easily, yet mothers were on the bottom of the ladder of worthiness, and were largely excluded from spiritual life, and certainly weren’t considered as contenders for becoming ‘enlightened’.
I found it ludicrous that an employee of a company could be paid a huge bonus, sometimes to the value of millions, for adding value to a company in some way, but that all I received for bringing a person into the world who would some day become a company asset, and who had been prepared for that role by me, at my expense and through my efforts (and with enormous child-care expenses if I wanted to do other work too), was a bunch of flowers.
Getting through that third birth instilled in me such certainty that women were powerful and amazing because so many of us have survived childbirth.
So each time I finished breastfeeding my new baby and she was fast asleep in that heavenly post-feed bliss, I either put her down in her cot or wore her against me in a sling and wrote. What came out was Enlightenment Through Motherhood.
It felt as if I was doing something to help re-dress the balance in the world in regard to the valuing of mothering – before even more women in Western countries decided to not become mothers or to do so only half-heartedly, which I believe would be a tragedy, on both personal and wider levels.
For women aren’t stupid – we can see that motherhood is not a high status role to take on and, with our current cultural attitudes, once you become a mother you miss out on the levels of success you could have had in other areas, you suffer financially, and if you give up other types of work to focus exclusively on mothering, you become invisible, or at least insignificant, in other people’s eyes. (It is no coincidence that in strictly patriarchal societies where women are not welcome in public life the age for marrying and bearing children is so young.)
I believe there is an urgent need to begin valuing mothering once again – not only for individual benefit but also for our world as a whole, and for the health of our planet.
“Not only has the devaluing of mothering led to damage to our individual and collective psychic health, it has resulted in the disproportionate use of resources on ‘masculine’ interests, such as military acquisition and competitive sport, and the parallel underfunding of the feminine aspects of community life, such as work that nurtures families, teaches our children and cares for and connects people within communities. And then there’s global pollution, unchecked competition and the ‘need’ for endless growth in industry. All that involves the dismissing and downright neglect of the earth’s cycles and rhythms, which is closely connected to the dismissing of mothering.”
My hope is that my story raises the status of motherhood, and of mothering, in the eyes of those who read it.
My hope is that if you are on a spiritual or enlightenment path that you can value that path but also turn around and take a look at the other paths out there and value those too. And if you are a mother or know someone who is a mother, realise that the work you or they do is leading to greater awareness and growth in consciousness and is just as valid a path as any other.
You can read Enlightenment Through Motherhood here, described by Sidra Stone as “Just what the world needs now”.