Anne Carolyn Klein on Essentialism

“Essentialism is a trap,” I said in my review of Aphrodite’s Daughters.  According to Anne Carolyn Klein, actually the trap is our habit of polarized thinking.  We get fixated on one mental concept, and on its difference from what we think of as its opposite — to the point where we don’t see them as interconnected parts of a larger reality.

If a woman is not defined by her essential femininity, how does she arrive at a sense of self?  Postmodern theorists understand “self” as a construction, created from a variety of influences, experiences and understandings.

Klein examines the conflict between feminists polarized on this subject, in Meeting the Great Bliss Queen; Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self.  In her introduction, she says

It is clear that both essentialist and postmodern feminists threaten the “individual.” In the essentialist view, no matter whether the essence is concrete or abstract, the individual woman is in danger of disappearing into it. Conversely, to focus only on the multiple particularities of any given life is to raise questions about personal coherence and agency. If essentialists seem to limit women’s horizons by favoring the general over the particular, constructionist and postmodern feminisms threaten both women and men by doing the opposite: the very possibility of “having” a self is undermined, let alone a coherent one. Although much feminist theory has been cast as a debate between the essentialist and postmodern views, the opposition between them is to some extent a false one.… Each contains and requires something of the other. … After all, why bother to speak about female essence if not to reconstruct her own experience and society’s characterization of It? Why protest current conditions unless the category “women” is in some way a meaningful one? (p.9)

In this book Klein reframes the debate, opening it up to the interconnected larger reality.

I realized, reading Klein, that we can’t get rid of the notion of essence;  it informs our perception of reality; it’s just ridiculous to imagine either factor — essence or construction — can stand alone. Still it seems to me that essentialism poses an additional danger beyond polarization:  the tendency to regard essentialist concepts as prescriptive, not simply descriptive.  One common example: the idea that women are essentially passive. This means they should be passive;  assertive women violate a natural law. Or nurturing. Intuitive. Priestesses….  Even if the quality or role is universally valued, requiring it of one group oppresses everyone.

Both the habit of polarizing these two views, and the attachment to essentialist ideas …  seem to me forms of mental laziness:  it’s easier to think in black and white, easier to think in stereotypes.  But essentialism takes on religious force (and indeed is often endorsed by religious authorities).  I don’t see a corresponding danger from postmodern ideas of the self.

In Bliss Queen Klein focuses on the polarization — and she has a remedy.  From her Buddhist training she presents ideas and techniques new to the feminist discourse on the subject of selfhood:  centrally, the use of mindfulness, which she describes as “the ability to sustain a calm, intense and steady focus when one chooses to do so.”  As she says,

Mindfulness has the power and centeredness associated with essentialist orientations and also makes one keenly observant of causal processes in a manner analogous to contructivist or postmodern perspectives. … This is a category of mind that, once understood, can dissolve the antagonisms between the outlooks defined as essentialist and postmodern feminism. (p.11)

Though Klein doesn’t deal with the danger of attachment to essentialist ideas, her remedy will serve for that problem too.  When mindfulness brings mental habits to awareness, we learn to be free of them. Mindfulness fosters a gut sense of groundedness which is completely independent of concepts of who we are or should be — so we have no need of the security promised by attachment to them.

Since this book was first published (in 1995) the practice of mindfulness has made considerable impact on Western culture, especially in complementary medicine.  But Klein’s approach remains revolutionary.  Meeting the Great Bliss Queen is so substantial, so rich and useful, that I expect to report on it in several posts, as relevant subjects come up.

(Page numbers are from my hardcover 1995 copy, ISBN# 0807073067.)

Male Essentialism

Ever since I objected to the essentialism in Aphrodite’s Daughters, the subject keeps popping up. For example… in comments Joseph Gelfer made in “Both Remedy and Poison: Religious Men and the Future of Peace,” a speech to the Parliament of the World’s Religions on 6 December 2009 in Melbourne, Australia.

Gelfer sees the groups which have claimed the label of “men’s movement” as promoting “a type of masculinity that is at best oppressive, and at worst pathological and violent.” From conservative Christian to alternative forms of men’s spirituality, he says, it’s “the same old story: power, control, strength, the [attitude that] got us in the hole we are in today.”

In contrast, Gelfer, a straight man, finds hope in the spiritual principles of the gay men’s movement, which call for attitudes “Not aggressive, not competitive, [and] harmonious with nature.”

Underlying these positive attitudes, Gelfer feels…

“The key issue is multiple masculinities. All the other forms of masculine spirituality assume masculinity to be a certain, fixed type of thing: specifically, a married, rather conservative man who should provide for, protect, and lead his family. Gay spirituality assumes there can be any number of ways of being a man: maybe married, maybe not, maybe tough, soft, competitive, whatever. These different types of masculinity offer complements to traditional masculinity.”

Gelfer sees this flexibility as vital to the spiritual work of creating peace. But, he warns, “we cannot achieve this while masculine spirituality is defined by a patriarchal nature and restrictive treatment of gender.”

Then he adds, “I would go so far as to say we should reject masculine spirituality as a term because it does not seem capable of shaking these critical issues.”

He’s rejecting essentialism.

His speech was taken, he says, “largely from the book Numen, Old Men: Contemporary Masculine Spiritualities and the Problem of Patriarchy (Equinox Publishing, 2009) and the article ‘Pray Like a Man‘ (The Guardian, 24 March 2009).” I’m looking forward to reading the book.

Aphrodite’s Daughters

Aphrodite’s Daughters: Women’s Sexual Stories and the Journey of the Soul
by Jalaja Bonheim

Sexuality as a sacred dance, as magic, as “our body’s way of opening to the life force.” With the testimony of the women she quotes, Bonheim encourages all women to regain our heritage of the spiritual energy of sex. Drawing on thorough research, Bonheim’s detailed descriptions of pre-patriarchal myth and practices glow with this joyful energy. In considering the dark side of sexuality, her compassion and insight offer the best descriptions I have read of how to grow from pain.

Several times Bonheim startled me with insights reframing my experience in useful ways. For example the difference between fantasy rape and real rape; why in our fantasies rape can be pleasureable: ”The imaginary aggressor is actually a part of the woman’s own psyche — the part that wants to break her resistance to receiving pleasure” (p. 343). In areas where I’ve felt lonely from bucking the culture, Bonheim gave me support — for example her discussion of relationship as path. On the other hand, she challenged my bah-humbug attitude towards romance, with stories of women in long-term romantic relationships. Most encouraging was to hear her testify, as therapist, to the effectiveness of deconditioning sexual distress patterns.

The only real problem: I’m just not comfortable with Bonheim’s talk about “essential qualities of the feminine spirit” and “what it means to be a woman.” Essentialism is a conceptual trap; Bonheim herself identifies the problem. Reflecting on Jungian psychology, she objects to its traditional classification of masculine and feminine qualities: “to reconnect with the sacred masculine, we must break ancient cultural habits of automatically identifying the feminine with matter, the earth, nurturance, and passivity, while linking the masculine with spirit, the sky, assertiveness, and activity. If … the masculine and the feminine are first and foremost fields of vibrating energy, this means that we can never define them verbally or conceptually, any more than words can convey the taste of a banana to someone who has never eaten one. To know the sacred masculine and feminine, we must directly experience their vibrational essence” (p. 120).

So how does one talk about this “vibrational essence” without concepts? I would prefer we refrain from talking about “masculine” and “feminine” at all, and focus instead on the human qualities available to every individual unique man and woman.