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Masculine and Feminine

An examination of dissent as it relates to concepts of masculine and feminine in Shambhala culture

Column: Critical Intent

by Larry Barnett

Mural depicting one of the Rigden Kings

Mural depicting one of the Rigden Kings

Both American and Shambhala culture are value-laden, and their differences sometimes come into uncomfortable contact; at this edge dissent arises. How does Shambhala culture, steeped in feminine principle, work with forms of dissent encouraged in an American culture steeped in masculine principle?

To answer this question it’s helpful to examine and understand the roots of each culture, but the method of observation itself — the point of view — in part influences the nature of conclusions. A utilitarian, “needs-oriented” approach often dominates cultural analysis. In America, the idea of satisfying identified “needs” finds its complement in the idea of exercising identified “rights,” and from there the idea of dissent naturally emerges. Thus the American focus on values associated with freedom and individualism gives rise to the right and validity of dissent.

Alternatively, I suggest that using a “values-oriented” approach in examination — which shifts the analytical perspective — will prove more useful. Cultural values actually are the ground of all but the most basic biological needs, forming and underlying, in the words of cultural anthropologist Dorothy Lee, a culture’s particular “codifications of reality.”

Queen Lhamo Natsok Yum

Queen Lhamo Natsok Yum

In considering dissent within Shambhala — expression, suppression, tolerance, acceptance, and/or encouragement — I’ve also found it worthwhile to explore the character of both Shambhala and American culture from a psychological-transformational perspective. In his book Masculine and Feminine (Shambhala Publications), Jungian analyst Gareth Hill introduced the terms “patrivalent” and “matrivalent” to capture the psychological workings of what we in Shambhala refer to as “masculine” and “feminine” principles. These are not gender-specific classifications, but rather signifiers that are metaphysical in nature. Hill’s terms indicate attraction and attachment to a particular style of feeling, thought and organization within individuals and society.

American culture may be described as primarily “patrivalent,” strongly oriented toward manifesting masculine principle. The societal manifestations of the patrivalent masculine principle generally include deep power-based hierarchies, rigid social structures and dependence on written rules of law. Individually, patrivalence encourages a sense of autonomy, relies on competition, rewards self-direction, attends to personal needs and initiative, stimulates individualism, and supports the exercise of “rights,” including dissent. In its unhealthy, exaggerated aspects, this orientation can result in suppressing sympathetic feeling and empathy, increasing scapegoating, promoting violence, and encouraging actions of unrestrained greed.

flowers-1378101__340Shambhala culture generally manifests a strongly “matrivalent” feminine principle: a political and social orientation favoring unity, inclusiveness and societal cohesion, with less reliance on deep hierarchy, more emphasis on group welfare rather than that of the individual, and dependence upon intuition, convention and ritual rather than written rules of law. Individually, matrivalence encourages empathy, reinforces tribal relationships, promotes cooperation, employs joint problem solving, and values consensus, generosity, and awareness of the common good. Its unhealthy, exaggerated aspects can include smothering of personal initiative and discouragement of individual actions perceived as harmful to group cohesion, such as dissent.

These are, of course, highly simplified summaries of complex psychological/social structures. Hill suggests that each of us traverses a path continuously drawing us through the expression of both masculine and feminine principles, including their healthy and unhealthy aspects, in an attempt to establish a place of psychological equilibrium. Collectively, society traverses a similar path towards equilibrium, and thus we see swings in American social policy between “welfare states” and “free markets” for example. In Shambhala terms, we might see these societal swings as manifestations of the ebb and flow of confidence in basic goodness.

balance-1302200__340Coming back to the topic of dissent, I would propose that in general terms, Shambhala’s matrivalent cultural values are bound to generate dissent because they are embedded within the larger, primarily patrivalent American culture and its values. Those of us who have been raised in America have absorbed many of its cultural values, including its corresponding behavioral emphasis on personal freedom and dissent. Tellingly, America’s patrivalent values are conveyed in the triad of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” while Shambhala Buddhism’s matrivalent values are conveyed in the triad of “Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha.” There is a reason the Dorje Dradul moved Shambhala’s capital out of America to Halifax, Nova Scotia.

There’s no escape from the reality of cultural difference, or the tensions it creates. As people are exposed to Shambhala’s matrivalent culture they will naturally encounter the ways in which Shambhala’s cultural framework comes into contact with the larger and more dominant patrivalent American cultural framework. If intellectual or emotional discomfort arises, which it often does, an evaluation of this experience leads to inner and outer questions about one’s feelings, preferences and opinions. If voiced, these questions may be heard by others as forms of dissent.

There are those who come to Shambhala carrying the wounds of serious trauma with them, people who have suffered physical or psychological abuse, or who struggle with various forms of emotional instability such as depression, addiction or severe anxiety. This sort of situation often prompts forms of dissent which are far more personal rather than cultural, and these forms often pose challenging circumstances requiring special identification and expertise.

balance-1302199__340Ultimately, no precise formula exists to resolve the challenges of dissent, particularly when one adds ethnicity, sexuality and economic diversity to the mix. To impose a set of fixed rules governing dissent within Shambhala would be resorting to a formulaic, patrivalent solution. Merely dismissing or “tolerating” the issue as a matter of individual personality quirks runs the risk of absorption within a matrivalent solution. Ultimately, given our mix of cultures, the best and most workable approach to engaging dissent is one of openness and curiosity.

It might be said that curiosity and active listening are matrivalent functions, and I think that’s true. Our patrivalent American culture will, I believe, benefit from an infusion of more matrivalent activity. Within Shambhala, our training is oriented in this direction, both towards ourselves and others.

Thus, when it comes to dissent, the opportunity exists to be neither merely tolerant nor actively hostile, but to be curious instead — to use our training in examining our own reactions first, identifying and acknowledging them. In doing so, we develop the capacity to identify and acknowledge the feelings and experiences of others. Engaging with dissent in this way will not resolve all its complexity or issues, but does carry the potential to incorporate dissent into our ongoing — and lifelong — practice of learning to work with difference.

AIbEiAIAAABECI-q962D0a27tAEiC3ZjYXJkX3Bob3RvKigzZGFkMTMzYTgwM2I2Y2JiYjY0YzJlZDI5YmMwZDc2Y2FhZWFmYjhlMAEE9svwaODsde5Im2tfMV1wyMZWPwLarry Barnett is Shambhala’s former Director of Communication, a past Center Director and a past SMC Board Member. He lives with Norma, his wife of 40 years, in Sonoma, California. Larry has two children and three grandchildren.

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5 responses to “ Masculine and Feminine ”
  1. Clear, honest, insisive, and inclusive. His perspective both honors our recent sociological discussion / turmoil and provides a way to understand, synthesize and go forward. I am interested in seeing comments from sangha that have been posting in a (please excuse the simplification) SJW fashion. More please.

  2. Ellen Berger
    Jun 3, 2016
    Reply

    I just don’t see why we have to label everything masculine and feminine. I thought that was talking about basic energy. Here we are dealing with concepts.

    I must say I think the last paragraph is an excellent view/suggestion.

  3. I wonder about the relevance of masculine/feminine here. It seems like an unnecessary overlay. Patrivalent and matrivalent only serve to further complicate the topic with academically neutered terminology, as you get dangerously close to presenting a number of dubious conflations:
    US culture/masculine/worldly vs Canada/feminine/dharmic.

    Quite a can of worms. To then try to balance those values is the tempting and age-old, yet futile, attempt to remake society as one’s own notion of spiritual culture. Wouldn’t it be more relevant and more clear to just stick with Buddhist/Shambhala View when reflecting on controversial issues and leave out Western psychology theory? The former is about surrendering the misunderstanding of ego. The latter is about building a satisfying life for ego. They’re ultimately unreconcilable.

  4. I don’t particularly think of Shambhala as particularly inclusive or “matrivalent.” There is a strong amount of conformity involved in the community, which most people higher up aren’t aware of, as there may have been not much conformity for them. Shambhala presents a linear structure of courses with a hierarchical organization, which is not terribly in line with the feminine principle of egalitarianism. Those involved with my local Shambhala tend to be highly intelligent, abstract thinkers that don’t have tendency to strong emotions they need to express. They tend to be passive types who have a hard time making decisions. Not hard to imagine with meditators! I don’t look at passivity as necessarily feminine either.

    I find myself continually nudging the local Shambhala because I don’t fit the mold; while intelligent, I’m fairly emotional and expressive. I also have Aphantasia, which makes some of the Vajrayana visual aspects useless to my brain. However, it makes me very perceptive of cognitive dissonance in what’s communicated through the full areas of communication involving words, tone, pace, and body language. I’ve found some teachers wonderful in that they’re relaxed in a “I don’t know” approach which I find to be the essence of meditation. However, most have a “take it or leave it approach” to the community, essentially implying that nothing will change and I’m welcome to leave if I want. Which would be ok if that were actually part of the principles and communicated at the beginning, but it only shows years along the path, and it seems to be in contradiction with the grand vision of community.

    Part of welcoming dissent is active – validating the need for dissent, and actively working to expand the community to give room to different people who value the principles but whose psyches don’t work the same as others.

  5. Janet Bronstein
    Jun 28, 2016
    Reply

    Are there good social forms of dissent that balance patrivalent and matrivalent forces? Quaker consensus? Native American talking circles? How do we teach ourselves to welcome dissent, and not get scared or defensive?


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