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How Binary Thinking around Gender Limits Who We Are

To address how binary thinking around gender limits the fullness and depth of who we are and can be, I want to begin this exploration by looking at inherited Daoist ideas of yin and yang, then move to common cultural notions of the so-called Inner Masculine and Inner Feminine, and then progress to what is referred to in spiritual circles as the Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine. YIN YANG In classical Daoism, the yin is the part of life or nature that is earthy, dark, low, cool, heavy, wet, receptive, yielding. Contrary to that, the yang is associated with being airy, light, high, warm, dry, sharp and straight, active, and expressive, to name a few. These basic delineations can be useful for a beginning layer of understanding of yin and yang; however, those associations have been moved into culture and we are taught that the yin essence and the feminine are synonymous, and the yang essence and the masculine are also synonymous. Furthermore, that on the whole, the yin and the female are, for example, quiet, passive, compliant, docile and modest… and that the yang and the male are strong, articulate, decisive, confident, and assertive. It is obvious how dangerous these cultural classifications have been for women, men, non-binary, intersex and transgender individuals, because the actual lived experience of the human being is far more nuanced and complex. What if we were to separate notions of binary gender (masculine or feminine) from essence (yin or yang)? That is precisely what the philosophy of Post-Daoism, developed by Zhenevere Sophia Dao, does. In other words, the yin energy can be quiet and receptive, and it is also chthonic… meaning it is the subterranean, unpredictable, eruptive forces of the world connected to the irrationality of our dreams and our emotions.  The yang energy in terms of qualities is daring, proactive and risky… it is the pointed, specific and penetrating aspect of existence that creates change… to say things truthfully or to decide to take music lessons at the age of 70 when everyone has told you that you are too old to start something new are yang qualities. Penetration is a fecundating force, not an aggressive one. What that also means is that the yang has a quality of tremendous vulnerability. Clearly when we are risking something where the outcome is unknown (which is the very definition of risk), that is a very vulnerable experience. INNER MASCULINE and INNER FEMININE: ANIMA and ANIMUS Another common idea that actually diminishes the possibility for authentic gender expression is that of the Inner Masculine and Inner Feminine. The first question to ask is: what actually are masculine attributes and what are feminine attributes? Looking cross-culturally around the globe, there is no universal agreement on what those qualities are.  It was interesting for me to learn the history of that Jungian notion which has become so culturally pervasive. It seems that when Carl Jung came up with the idea of the anima (the inner feminine) he was in a conversation with himself about whether or not to publish the Red Book, a book of the imagination in which many of the spirits of mythology come to him in his dreams. He called “the other side of the conversation,” his anima. His masculine ambition was telling him to publish the Red Book and be successful. This other resistant voice he called female, b/c for him, it was antithetical to his masculine personality and drive.  When he described this experience to the women closest to him, they asked, “What about us? If your anima is female, and you are a man, and that is the voice of the resistant feminine to your masculine, then we need something, too.” Jung replied, “Okay, since you all are female and are going to be resisted and abetted by a male voice, we’ll call that voice the ‘animus'.”  What is dubious about this idea is the original division of his personality in the first place. Why does he need to pit a female voice against his masculine ambition? Why isn’t that resistant voice a non-gendered “daimon”, from the ancient Greek idea of a daimon being the guardian of your soul, an energy that is responsible for the communication between the supernatural and the terrestrial? The idea that a biological male acts mostly manly and then receives peanut gallery contributions from his inner, softer woman which is like a seed inside of him, is simplistic and detrimental to his masculinity in this case. If instead of bifurcating himself like that, and saying that this other voice is a separate, differently gendered entity, what if he understood that voice as simply himself? Then the very idea of what is the masculine, and what it means to identify as a male, would have to expand. For example, in contemporary Western culture, a man that is crying and showing his emotions is said to be in touch with his inner female. To me, that is nonsense. Feeling and expressing emotion is what it means to be a sensitive human being. In fact, from a Post-Daoist lens, the actual expression of emotion is a yang quality, as distinct from simply feeling emotion which is yin.   And what does that mean for women… that they are demure, quiet, yielding, soft, etc.—basically the descriptions that I gave for the inherited Daoist yin—and then every now and again their masculine side, or animus comes in, and is powerful and assertive? No, I do not believe that that is the way it works. A woman can develop her own authentic ambition through her female self. It’s not an importation of a masculine voice that makes her want to achieve a specific goal but rather her desire to accomplish something as a wise and powerful woman in the world.  DIVINE MASCULINEand DIVINE FEMININE Finally, we move to the very popular notion in spiritual or neo-Tantric circles of the Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine. These so-called archetypes are a kind of cultural trope or cliché that basically purports the idea that if, in a heterosexual couple, a man could embody the Divine Masculine and the woman could embody the Divine Feminine, they would find harmony together. This is an incredibly non-inclusive, hetero-dominant view of harmony… after all, what about the Divine Queer Non-Binary?   Although it is often purported that using the word Masculine does not necessary mean the male gender and Feminine does not necessarily mean the female gender, what I have noticed is that most examples that people give are done so in a gendered context. The other question is how one defines what Divine is. Is being Divine someone who is healthy, beautiful and peaceful… or someone who is experiencing the tumult and confusion of life? I believe that this idea of Divine Masculine and Divine Feminine became popularized through individuals such as David Deida and one of his students, John Wineland, around an oversimplification from the ancient tantric yoga teachings of Shiva/Shakti. The following information is from Christopher Wallis, also known as Hareesh, who is a well-respected scholar-practitioner of Classical Tantra and the tradition of Kashmiri Shaivism. On his website, he quotes the text of the Vijnana Bhairava. Although it is difficult to establish an exact date for that text, it is thought to have been been written at some time from the 7th to 9th century CE. Overall, it presents Tantric meditation methods in compressed form that are supposed to lead to the recognition of the true nature of Reality.  Hareesh translates and then comments on the Sanskrit verses addressing the relation of Shiva and Shakti as follows, “Since Shiva means consciousness in this nondual literature, we are taught here that consciousness should be understood as that which hosts or holds space for the dance or play of energy. And despite the dualism implied by that metaphor, in truth there is constant unity of energy and consciousness. Shiva and Shakti are never apart: we never find energy without consciousness, nor consciousness without energy. There is a non duality of Shiva and Shakti. Here Shiva is being seen as the foundational awareness, the ground of being: absolutely still, silent, spacious, open presence. Shakti is the pulsing energy of phenomena, that is, the contents of consciousness. They seem opposite, but they’re not.” He goes on to say that the purpose of the author of the Vijnana Bhairava is to present us with techniques that allow us to access forms of energy that lead us into an experience of stillness not divorced from energy; blissfully quiet presence that remains so in the presence of the energy of experience without needing to transcend it. He says that the scripture is teaching us that through the marriage of Shiva and Shakti, in our direct experience, we attain the highest; not through abandoning one in favor of the other. In this way, we end up with a perfectly unified experience of energy and consciousness beyond concept. David Deida, whose 10 books are published in more than 25 languages, and is regularly included in the (Watkins Review) Spiritual 100 list designating the most spiritually influential people worldwide, has taken this idea and made a teaching career out of basing his sexuality teachings on separating the non-duality of Shiva/Shakti into masculine and feminine polarities for male bodies and female bodies. In a 2021 Sounds True interview with Deida, he says, “there’s a deep silence, a deep stillness, timeless, unchanging—doesn’t even capture the depth of its immense timelessness. That’s what I call the masculine. Not any particular behaviors necessarily, or the way someone looks, but when a beam tilts toward the recognition of who they are as deep consciousness, that’s what I call the masculine tendency. But as soon as something happens, that means there’s motion. What would be silent motionless peace of conscious being vibrates. That change, that energy, that modulation, that dance, that fluctuation is what I call the feminine. It’s totally gender-free.” I find that extremely problematical. He states that it is gender-free, yet uses the words masculine and feminine to describe those qualities, words that are inherently gendered.  He goes on to say, “because what we discover is that if somebody tilts toward, let’s say, the masculine, if somebody deeply feels, I am consciousness, I am silent, peaceful being at my deepest core, they will inevitably sexually attract someone who feels that they’re living blooming light passion at their core. If you allow yourself to incarnate without fear, grounded in your deepest consciousness, (in) that depth of silent presence… you will attract the partner who is the dance of the universe, whose body, mind, and emotions are as open to the cosmic flow of life force…” And yet, the teaching from the Vijnana Bhairava says that Shiva and Shakti are never apart: that we never find energy without consciousness, nor consciousness without energy… that the absolutely full state of being that is blissful with the experience of that, is intrinsic in all of us? That said, I will say that in lovemaking between two individuals, whether heterosexual or homosexual, with nonbinary or transgender persons, there is a powerful erotic aspect to experiencing sexual polarity… but in my experience, what makes that arousing is that it is ever-changing, ever-flowing, and is not fixed to a person with “a certain tilt.” It can be very erotic for an individual who identifies as a cis woman, for example, to imagine she has a phallus (or to use a strap-on) and move her body in a penetrative way and thus not be limited by her anatomic or energetic gender role.  Later on in the interview, Deida says, “Masculine emotions are just basically functional. Like, “How are you?” “I’m OK. I’m not great. I’m getting by. Feminine emotions are kaleidoscopic, really connected to diversity and multiplicity.” That feels wrong to me and is a way of capitulating to, rather than expanding Western cultural, gender norms.  Someone else on the scene today who studied with Deida, by the name of John Wineland, also puts forth a similar ideology, again proclaiming his teachings are gender non-specific. It is curious that the subtitle of his recent book is “A New Masculine Paradigm.” He says that males, who amplify their feminine, are basically amplifying their capacity to emote, to express or to feel, and to be more sensitive; however, it is clear to me that feeling, emoting or being sensitive is an essential human capacity or capability that has been numbed by our culture. Although it is true that biological males have been the recipient of cultural teachings such as “man up,”  and “big boys don’t cry,”… it doesn’t mean that a male who is getting in touch with their feelings is getting in touch with their feminine.  Although Wineland eventually comes to the point that the deepest, most felt presence is a blend of both, the endless prescriptive use of the gender-based binary in speaking about masculine and feminine energy within relationships (such as the masculine is the one who holds space for their partner versus the feminine is the one who expresses energy), or using the same paradigm within the context of leadership, I believe, is ultimately misleading. SUMMARY In summary, I am not saying there is no such thing as gender. Of course there is. Yet I feel we need to examine our indoctrination around gender, the superimposition of behaviors upon gender and how we’ve been made puppets by culture in terms of gender. We live within a patriarchal social system in which positions of dominance and privilege are primarily held by men, and where women have been exploited and abused historically into the present time. The reality is that the patriarchy is more powerful and subtle than we realize. What our relationship is to our gender directly affects how free or repressed we are both in our sexual relationships and in our lives. What I believe is most important is to become liberated in terms of our own unique mythopoetry, and that may or may not align with current cultural gender nominations. 

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