Today I am inspired to share an essay I wrote after a conversation with Meggan Watterson, a pre-eminent scholar of feminine spirituality.
What Would Mary Magdalene Say About Trauma As A Path To God?
As long as we humans have walked on Earth, I believe we have been exploring what it means to be “spiritual beings having a human experience”, in the words of Teilhard De Chardin, and have longed for an active relationship with the sublime, the transcendent, the Good.
Historians have shared with us about the time before Christianity developed, before the patriarchal order became prevalent, when we lived peacefully as a matriarchal society for over 35,000 years, not as a hierarchical structure, but one of equality.
During that time, spirituality was a path of sensing our place within the circle of life, where our interdependence on one another, the earth, the stars and heavens above were regarded with gratitude.
She was revered and honored. She, the Mother, who gave us life and nourished us from her bosom. She, as Mother Nature, who gives us the earth to sleep upon, rich with pomegranates and figs to eat, fire to warm ourselves by, air to breathe and water to drink, bathe and baptize ourselves within.
Approximately 2500 years ago, this began to change.
Men began to acquire land, livestock and women as property.
God was put in a very small box called a church.
We began our descent into a new power structure, shifting into a world where he who acquires the most, wins.
We entered a period, where over the course of several hundred years, nine million of our aunts, grandmothers and sisters burned during the Female Holocaust. We see how this patriarchal disregard of the feminine plays out in present time, where our former President Trump brazenly embodies unfiltered sexism, racism, violence and elitism.
I wonder, what would Mary say about how we ALL wear the scars of the patriarchy in our bodies today…and how does this inform our spiritual awakening?
Whether the scars are from the beauty myth that has turned most, if not all, of us women against our bodies, believing our worth and value lies in the shape of our ass and our sexual appeal to men, or the scars that live in the oft unrecognized effects of trauma that has imbedded itself in our permeable brains and psyches, given how 1 out of 2 women have been physically abused and 1 in 3 have been sexually violated, and these scars show up through anxiety, depression and a perpetual feeling of being on edge.
I see the scars on our brothers, who believe their innate tenderness is a liability and must at all costs hide this and instead, enter into the game of domination and acquisition.
I weep for the scars that have been inflicted upon Mother Earth, where the toxicity in our soil, water and air as a result of the gross misuse of earth’s resources brings us to now witnessing the potential demise of this beautiful planet due to the greed and disconnection from nature, ourselves and one another. It’s hard to grasp that we’re collectively facing the 6th largest extinction event, with a form of life going extinct every 20 minutes due to the rapidly inhabitable conditions we humans have created.
We tragically see the scars that we wear through the grief of mass shootings, sky-rocketing suicide rates, rising self-harm in our adolescents and the ever-increasing statistics of child abuse and domestic violence.
However, God created all of this, so surely, it is by Divine Order. Therefore, we each must carry the spark of Light that can illuminate our ways and help us heal and remember. Remember who we truly are, as these divine beings having a human experience.
Surely we have a spiritual promise written in each of our hearts and the more we turn towards this inner sanctum, we shall resurrect the most holy parts of ourselves and make the shifts necessary to bring the masculine and feminine energies into balance, so the love of power transforms into the power of love.
I would love to have tea with Mary and share how after a near death experience from an overdose, as I emerged from the coma at age 18, I had a spiritual awakening. The holy spoke through me, calling me onto a pilgrimage, where I spent my earlier years living in monasteries in Asia and spiritual communities in Europe, actively involved in my spiritual life, later to become an ordained minister myself.
I felt the call towards the Good and followed it around the world, yet I could feel the tinge of the patriarchy even in these more progressive environments, promoting ideas that there is a right way and wrong way to God, rich in idealism that spoke of how a spiritual person ‘should’ be.
These ideas told us that forgiveness and peace is good, challenging emotions like anger is bad. Didn’t this approach reinforce an out-dated, bifurcated, rule laden path of control on how we meet God, cloaked in new age spirituality?
Being in the field of relational neuroscience and Polyvagal Theory, I now understand that many of these spiritual ideals are in fact, neurobiologically impossible. Much like how we cannot will ourselves to grow an extra toe, we cannot will ourselves to release resistance and feel love if our nervous system is dysregulated and our subcortical brain carries imbedded fear from past experiences in these storage units called neural nets.
I find myself wondering, perhaps these well-intended spiritual teachings are more accessible to a non-trauma history person who has a healthy, regulated nervous system? After all, the intentions are beautiful albeit a bit simplistic at times.
But for those of us with a trauma history, I believe there is a new approach to embodying spiritual truths that’s needed and I suspect Mary knows something about this.
If indeed the body is divinely crafted, and it is, the invitation would be to look towards the body – creating safety, comfort and ease in the body – as a path toward the Good.
No longer pushing away from the body’s needs or desires, trying to distance ourselves from our sensations, labeling certain emotions as negative and instead, what if we meet the Good by meeting our anxious thoughts and frightened bellies with warmth and acceptance?
So, Mary, how do we bring our body along in our journey of spiritual awakening?
We know that many spiritual people are disassociated from the body, for many years, myself included. I wonder if this is a trauma response that leads us towards the spirituality that promises relief from the human condition as a way to bypass processing the pain of being here?
As a 47 year old woman who has been raped repeatedly, living in my body has been one of the most challenging parts of my life and I feel I am only now on the brink of learning how to feel safe, how to feel good IN my body. How to welcome the feelings that flow through on a daily level, whether the feelings are a gripping tightness in my chest or feelings of fear and overwhelm. To welcome these as warmly as I welcome lightness and ease.
I see how the bulk of spiritual traditions have been created by men. Western psychology was mostly created by men. Both of these trend towards problem/solution, the idea that we need to overcome our challenges, push through resistance and drop our defenses.
The left hemisphere of the brain relies on mental control to scrutinize our issues with the hope of resolving our issues through a calculated analysis. I see how many spiritual paths also value this left hemisphere approach which is filled with spoken and unspoken rules; getting stuck in your mind and emotions are bad while attaining a state of neutrality and positivity are sought.
Yet this cuts us off from that which makes us most human. Our ability to be in relationship with that which is emerging in our body, heart and mind while attending to this with curiosity and compassion, to me, offers a kinder touch to our fragile selves.
Therefore, Mary, what is the process of spiritualizing our vessel, our mind, our emotions, our body, so the Spirit can work through us, instead of viewing these levels as a hindrance?
Given that we are in an active relationship with the Good, it seems to go both ways. The Spirit comes into us, offering miracles of healing and grace, working through us in the most extraordinary ways and then we show up through prayer, communion and devotion to serve the Spirit within.
I recall how, at age 15, I was hitchhiking and driven out into the middle of the Maine woods, held captive in the car of a very mentally disturbed man, fighting him off of me for hours as he continued to fumble and climb on top of my young body.
As I was feigning off terror and strategizing an escape, I also felt the presence of the Good directing me in what to say to him, which eventually led to him leaving me on the side of the road, shaken but unharmed.
In this Holy relationship, where there are moments that God reaches out to us and lifts us, how do we reach back? How do we keep ourselves open to receive the grace that is available?
For those that have never experienced a traumatic event, these spiritual ideals are easier. Just let go, forgive, surrender, give it all up to God. Why? Largely because the brain has more prefrontal access to calm the alarm bells and the nervous system has more ventral vagal energy, the part of our body that is responsible for feeling safe, connected, loving and peaceful. All of these are spiritual qualities that start in the body.
However, for those of us that do have a history of abuse, a painful attachment history, a dysregulated nervous system or an overactive amygdala, and experience panic or anxiety or depression, this all lives in the body. If our nervous system is in a chronic state of alarm or collapse, we naturally feel scared or angry or alone and subsequently think thoughts and engage in behaviors that match these feelings, as a survival response.
Since our physiology dictates our psychology, in other words, our body state creates the stories we tell ourselves, how does this connect to our spirituality?
Since our body MUST feel safe in order to access this God-given gift of our ventral vagal system, and God created us this way, couldn’t we say that the spiritual qualities we have been praying or meditating to receive perhaps are actually created from within, from within a healthy, regulated body and brain?
Wouldn’t this mean that our spiritual practice needs to include attending to the body and learning how to bring a sense of harmony into our very real corporeal form, since this gives us access to the highest and best parts to ourselves? Our loving heart, our kind mind and our considerate behaviors emanate from a sense of well-being, which starts in the body.
Personally, I do not believe we actively block or stop ourselves from the Spirit coming into us to work through us, as that is in the hands of the Divine, nor can we will ourselves to surrender, open and trust until the body is settled.
Therefore, attending to the body must surely be a path to the Good.