The New Age conception of the feminine is an intangible ideal. It is as regressive as you can get: a Virgin Mary notion of Kinder, Küche, Kirche, with crystals and wind chimes in place of crucifixes, which are no longer fashionable.
I learned about this for the first time by accident in a tipi in Essex. I had rocked up at my first ayahuasca ceremony dressed in merino, running tights and multiple layers of black wool, to camp in the cold. It was very cold and the tipi had holes in it.
Ayahuasca connects you to Grandmother Vine, whose dark tendrils transmit the energies of otherworlds. If you allow Grandmother in – if you are ready to receive her sacred feminine wisdoms – she will deliver the correctives that your life requires, stern and strong and loving.
That was how they pitched it. The tipi was segregated along gender lines, women on one side and men on the other. If you were ‘on your moon’, the medicine wasn’t for you. Their way of navigating this was to present it as for your own good, but it was all about preserving purity. I sometimes wondered if my body was participating in this massive cosmic teleology by choosing not to bleed on the weekends I happened to be free to sit in a pure tipi, because that is what the spirits said I needed.
A woman who, in the murk, looked passably like Frozen’s Princess Elsa in her white ceremonial robes, which were the correct colour and style for attracting the right sorts of spirits, rather than the bad ones which haunted people who wore black, policed our behaviour. You were supposed to sit up straight and move silently, and purge – or puke – into the fire, where your darknesses would be purified by the light of the Great Spirit.
Having spent months incapacitated by dread, I felt light and joyful afterwards. I couldn’t work out if the improvement was pharmaceutical or shamanic but wasn’t going to take a chance on losing it, so pursued both options for a while.
I had absolutely no doubt that the shaman presiding over the ceremony was a mage. I had been reading Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy with my elder child: all the vibes were there. He moved about the tipi, observing each participant, removing or replacing something at their physical boundary. I emerged from it feeling not-mad for the first time in months. I followed him to a weekend workshop at a community populated by aspiring healers, all of whom were broken in one way or another.
The shaman transmitted something that was not ordinary. He had a perfect levity of demeanour that fixed things by osmosis. ‘It’s grace,’ said my roommate A., who had grown up in a Free Presbyterian family beset by pathological spirituality, and had the vocabulary to describe it. A. had arrived mad, in a self-declared way, but was not a healer, and either she or the shaman had fixed her head already. It was a genuine act of magic.
We connected with rivers and trees in a state of growing beatification until the last session, where we were going to balance our masculine and feminine energies.
The men got up first and performed masculinity. People who go on healing retreats seem to have binary genders. One by one, the women began to mime woman-movements, modelling cuddles and compassion. Some rocked imaginary babies. I resisted the temptation to mime a traumatic birth, complete with grimaced screams and shitting. I felt seasick. I needed not to be there, because I did not belong there. I did not understand what it was to be a woman, not in this way; I had a female body, which worked well and produced healthy children and for which I was grateful, but beyond that had no intuition of what a feminine energy was or how I was supposed to fake it, here or ever.
One of the women was humming. It was a strange and otherworldly sound, as though she was trying to connect with the music of the spheres or something. She began to flap her arms like a child gone rogue at ballet. A. was curled up foetal on the floor. The other women shuffled towards her, hugging her in an imposing gesture of sisterhood. I could sense her revulsion to this state of affairs, as the humming woman closed in.
I looked at the women performing their womanhood for the shaman, and my own revulsion lessened into a certainty, long inchoate, that I was not one in the sense that they understood it. As soon as it was over, A. walked briskly back to our cabin. I followed at a slight distance, trying to appraise whether she needed to be alone. She looked back and shook her head in a what-the-fuck gesture, laughing in solidarity.
By the summer, the dread came knocking and I went back for another ceremony. This time it was Grandfather Peyote, a riff on the same theme of purging, purity and spiritual hierarchies. The Native American Church was a church, and churches have structure. The Roadman was in charge, and his second-in-command was the Fire Man, who tended the sacred fire, and the Doorman was the Fire Man’s understudy, followed by a series of lesser men.
The men were in charge, and it was clear who the good girls were, the correct ones. They had makeup-free faces that shone with vegan virtue. They wore long skirts and embroidered tops. You could tell that they were fertile. The Roadman was into fertility.
‘Are there any couples here?’ he asked. A handful of people raised their arms. ‘We get a lot of babies conceived here,’ he said. I couldn’t get my head around how; we were supposed to remain celibate for a week before and after ceremony, and even if you broke with that you’d need some serious kink to get past all the puking – but they weren’t big on Western Science.
The good girls got special privileges. They were allowed to cook for everyone else, because their energy was pure. There was a lot of stuff about purity; by implication, the rest of us weren’t. The most pure girls sang and played guitar: ditties about Mother Earth in immaculate voices.
Sick as a dog on peyote and patriarchy, perhaps because I had failed at becoming pure, I emerged tired and irritable rather than fixed. I felt deficient and shameful at the wrongness of my mood and mind.
Perhaps I needed the ayahuasca shaman-magic instead; the mercantile nature of New Age mysticism means you can shop around if it doesn’t work. Perhaps I should make more of an effort and wear a long white dress to prove it. Halfway through the ceremony, having puked my guts up and fended off the advancing tendrils of Grandmother Vine, who sought to suck me into her gaudy underworld of rotating toys and flowers and reform me in her image, I had a vision. I saw myself at home, crouched on the floor in a ferocious lion-pose in running tights and a jumper, and found wholeness in it. Another iteration of me, who was not Grandmother, explained that I didn’t have to do this any longer, that I didn’t have to beat myself up about being inadequately cuddly and pure, and I didn’t have to believe in Grandmother any longer and I could call bullshit on it and still be fine.
Years after the finishing the Earthsea trilogy, Le Guin wrote a fourth book to complete it, Tehanu. A. told me not to read it to the children yet, because they weren’t ready for it, and she was right. Tehanu is a novel about what it is to be a woman in a world where the shamanic truth of the dark feminine is taken at face value. It is a world where girls are raped and burned, where women are subjugated to men and all are subjugated to a grim and lifeless feudalism facilitated by man-magic. The option of choosing ferocity and becoming a dragon instead means that things get better at the end.
I sat up and watched the women strip off their layers of ceremonial dress and bang their tambourines around the fire, and watched the men watching the women, and stopped caring about any of it. I have not attended a shamanic ceremony since.
By Nina Lyon.