Thursday, August 24th 2017

The New Female Mystics and the Anti-Me Generation

A vanguard of self-schooled female mystics are doing an end-run around the mainstream self-help and New Age movements — and are advancing a radical, 21st century spirituality. Call it the ‘Anti-Me Generation’
Byron Katie

For two years, Byron Katie was so maniacally depressed she rarely got out of bed. A mother of two boys and a teen-aged girl in Bakersfield, CA and an alcoholic, she ended up in a local halfway house. When Katie awoke one morning to find a cockroach crawling up her foot, she had an out-of-nowhere epiphany. “All my rage, all the thoughts that had been troubling me, my whole world, was gone,” she recalls. “The only thing that existed was awareness. I was seeing without concepts, without thoughts or a story. There was no me. The foot and the cockroach weren’t outside me. There was no outside or inside.”

During the two decades since that halfway-house psychic makeover, Katie has drawn audiences in the thousands to lectures and workshops, for which she typically charges no fee, offering others the same experience. To both experts and lay people alike she appears to live in an elevated psychological state utterly free of internal conflict, akin to a yogi or a lama. Katie herself claims that she does not even see herself as a spiritual person. “I don’t know anything about that,” says Katie. “I’m just someone who knows the difference between what hurts and what doesn’t.”

Catherine Ingram


Across the centuries, spiritual seekers have invariably been women and the teachers men; From Jesus to Gurdjieff and Rumi to Ramana Maharshi, enlightenment has been a male-dominated business. But Katie, now 63, is in the vanguard of an astonishing advent in the mystical tradition she is a leading light in a scattered coterie of women who have propounded a radical, new esoteric spirituality and seem to have leap-frogged ahead of male counterparts in the pursuit of the sacred. Their work, if you want to call it that, isn’t wholey cribbed from Indian gurus or apprenticeships in Asian monasteries but forged in a homegrown fashion in the crucible of contemporary America – sometimes as a result of frustration with oriental traditions. Alongside Katie, these self-schooled spiritual masters include Oregon-based Catherine Ingram (pictured above), Santa Fe’s Pamela Wilson (below), and Calgary, Alberta-based Karen McPhee.

Pamela Wilson

They represent an implicit indictment of the legion of vendors from the human potential movement who appear on Oprah’s show, or who fill the pages of Common Ground. Those services are New Age brands that explicitly pitch self-improvement, and promise to fill in the ego’s deficits. But Katie, Ingram and the others undermine the very notion of self-enhancement through spiritual seeking. In fact, they take direct aim at the personality’s hegemony over reality, and advance a counter-intuitive proposition that the act of thinking itself is an inherently contaminating phenomenon. The mind is a terrible thing to waste, the age-old adage goes. To the new female mystics, the mind is simply a terrible thing.


They have also resisted branding their own counter-measures for the likes of anxiety, adultery and addiction. “I’m reluctant to specify a goal or repetitive motion using some technique,” says Ingram. “I see people identifying as the doer — ‘I sat for two hours without moving,’ ‘I’ve completed forty-five retreats,’ — proudly waving the banner of spiritual achievement as if that had anything to do with freedom. These thoughts and concepts all cluster around one central belief—the belief in ‘me.’ This is the ridgepole for their entire illusory house of pain.”


Ingram’s premise is a common touchstone for the teachings of the new wise-women. Katie, for one, uses thought to disarm itself through a sequence of deceptively simple questions. Other approaches tend to elude language. Wilson un-plugs people from the stories they tell about themselves by walking them through a series of shifts in somatic awareness. She asks them to identify recurring situations or feelings where they feel stuck, and then focus on the bodily sensations they trigger. When they are allowed to arise, and understood as tactile echoes of past events, they can be metabolized. The process works kind of like a primordial mind-body algorithm. “There’s no lack of brilliance in the design of either the body or the way it lets go,” says Wilson. “The system of release is strange, almost reptilian.”


One reason it is hard to codify some of the practices in words is because they’re more or less pointers to a mental state that lies precisely beyond words. And they are often subservient to a stronger path of transmission at the disposal of Wilson, Katie and the others — the simple power of their personal presence. Their international followings aren’t built on much else. A Mother Theresa, by comparison, had an honorific in a powerful multi-national organization; these women have no organizations per se. Neither do they bank on an MD’s shingle like self-help gurus Wayne Dyer and Deepak Chopra (Katie worked as a real estate broker in her previous life). Mystics by their nature don’t actively seek fame or fortune.


How, exactly, did these remarkable women emerge as “realized” beings in our data-infused, image-obsessed society? Like Katie, most of them have reported a fundamental dissolution of a social or personal identity. For Ingram, her meltdown came after the break-up of an engagement. “I had had romantic obsessions since I was ten years old,” she says, “which I now see as a yearning for divinity because that is the realm in which I had most tasted divinity — that intoxicating dissolution of separation. So this last painful ending was a grand culmination of that whole fantasy, and in that pain there was no place that I could be in peace except free and clear of a lot of thinking and ruminating about the story, the past, or the future. It forced awareness into a kind of luminosity that had not been there.”

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