Countless women have walked the inner paths of spiritual realisation despite the thorns
placed in their way by patriarchy, discrimination and unequal opportunities. Their journeys have been characterised by courage, determination, ingenuity and creativity. What is amazing is the inventiveness women have displayed when they couldn’t get past their gender roles. They formed their own jugaad, in the Indian spirit of cobbling together a
workable solution with whatever you have, and found ways to lead spiritually rich lives
under the skin of their worldly selves.
This is a phenomenon I call ‘iceberg seeking’, and which is in direct contrast to the mainstream ‘male’ model of checking out and taking off. The tradition of ascetic wandering is ancient, and was already well-established when Siddhartha Gautama walked out of his home some 2,500 years ago. The women who the men left behind might have heard an inner call, too. But there were babies to raise, fields to tend, animals to rear. And so, they practised through it all, deepening under the surface of their daily selves like icebergs, their true attainment invisible, and therefore uncelebrated, unlike their male counterparts whose nirvanas were well-documented and whose teachings found numerous followers.
Sri Sarada Devi, wife of the nineteenth century mystic Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, was such an ‘iceberg seeker’. She practised, taught and shepherded her husband’s students, all from behind her veil. Modern urban women, with a million pressures on their time, could learn from her ‘spiritual time management’. The fabric of her day was woven with the thread of continuous awareness and sacred remembrance, which looped around all other activities that required her attention.
Another example is Dipa Ma, who, too, brought her practice within the embrace of her
life. A remarkable twentieth century teacher of vipassana meditation, she hauled herself
out of the torpor she had sunk into after her husband’s death through a dedicated practice
of vipassana. Realising she couldn’t leave her young daughter and go for long retreats,
she carefully rationed free moments in her day to strengthen her practice of unbroken
mindfulness. Later, when she began to teach, she tailored the rigorous vipassana regimen to busy women’s needs, asking them to pause and meditate at least for five minutes to begin with.
Teachers like these are exceptional role models because they lived in their worlds and
practised amidst the chaos that surrounded them. They didn’t need the solitude of a cave
to make it work, and perhaps, neither do we. Like them, we might also try and measure
our mind-moments through our ‘busy-ness’ and focus on cultivating our inner potential
for mindfulness, compassion, selflessness, and self-inquiry. And do what we can to create
enriched, fulfilled, and truly empowered lives.