Not enough

Who among us has not suffered the thought “I’m not ___ enough” at some point or another. Whether it’s physical (not strong enough), or intellectual (not smart enough), or psychological (not sensitive enough)…it all comes down to not good enough. And that’s a pretty awful way to feel. In most cases, it’s just a thought. It’s not true at all.

A few months back, I wrote about a difficult period. A friend had just relapsed and was hospitalized twice. It seemed hopeless. I was afraid he had not yet hit rock bottom. I thought that he might die. At the time, I didn’t even think about it. I got a call. I knew where he was. I got in the car and drove. He was in detox and heavily drugged. I didn’t pretend that I was going to have any influence, I just offered my love and presence. I hit a wall. I thought: I’m not ready for this, I don’t know how to handle this, I can’t take care of myself so that I can be the best friend I can be here. After five+ months of the same friend in active recovery, voluntarily committing to semi-weekly phone conversations with me, these are clearly thoughts proven untrue.

As I was writing that post, I started to go off on a tangent, recognizing my tendency to feel inadequate. To feel not good enough. I realized it wasn’t the time to write it, but I’ve been holding onto it. And while, again, this enters into dangerous territory where opinions and beliefs and egos may come to play, I’ve done enough alluding to this frustration on the sidelines, in personal correspondence, and I think it’s time to put it out there for a broader audience to reflect on and discuss. Basically, I need to get it off my chest.

In particular, I think about my theory of why there are far more men spiritual teachers than women, and I believe it’s our respective conditioning, and the fact that I will always consider myself first a student (i.e., not wise enough)*. And I think many women are similar in that respect. They don’t perceive themselves, much less promote themselves as teachers as much as students. I may be going out on a limb here, but I don’t think it’s so outrageous to assume that this is partially due to the basic biological fact that we receive sexually, that we do not assert. In moments of thinking that, I feel so limited by concept and conditioning, by my sexual organs–almost angry at my womanhood. And yet, I know, that is also what makes me capable of being a nurturer, a caregiver, a rainy-day friend. Probably more so the contemplative practice is the cause of that, but this is where the female conditioning is a plus on many levels–having led me to the path, and made me interested in my emotional life and that of others. Still, the frustration is palpable, as social networks and the free-flow of information reflect the same old biases and habits of human organization, authority and so on. And in general, there’s so much more masculine energy than feminine in these pursuits. I don’t mean male and female here. More like the difference between someone who writes from an academic perspective, or with a professional veneer (whether fees are involved in the offering or not), versus someone who makes themselves vulnerable and shows their weaknesses. It feels imbalanced. It feels exclusive.

A spiritual magazine I know of suggests that 2/3 of its readership are women. And my experience on retreat is that nearly 2/3 of the yogis are women. This is the case both here and in Burma. In my own little sangha at home, we are almost exclusively female. When the men do show up, the whole energy changes–even in silence. And although my teacher here was deeply influenced by two women teachers and incorporates this in his own teaching, it always feels strange to be doing kinhin, to be giving deference to, and to be shepherded by one man. How many classical teachers, how many contemporary teachers, how many people that have a guiding role in your practice are female? It’s frankly, disempowering to be so under-represented by teachers when so many practitioners are women. I wonder what the hell it feels like to be a person of color, where as one friend put it, you always have to go through a white man to get anything. To buy a car, to get a mortgage, to get your education, and so on. Not to mention religious imagery. Oy vey.

Meanwhile there’s so much sectarianism within Buddhism. Perhaps people who follow this blog because they consider me “Buddhist” are turned off by my discussions of nonduality, or people who consider this a contemplative blog are turned off by my more opinion-oriented pieces. We are all attracted to sameness, and I’m just as guilty–it’s just that I tend to feel drawn to wisdom seekers who are non-dogmatic and non-dualistic regardless of culture, religion, gender, and so on. These superficial differences are what make us unique, and yet they are also a part of all of our makeup. We can only begin to truly understand unity when we recognize and affirm difference, when we learn to communicate in ways that are inclusive and cross-cultural. This kind of dialogue is crucial to the evolution of our collective consciousness–our spiritual and emotional development as the human race.

What can you do to help support the development of communities that are culturally diverse and representative? To cultivate the feminine, the masculine, in your self? To encourage the development of serious students into valuable teachers, women and men alike? Who are your teachers? In daily life, what is your best teacher? What makes that possible?

Please do think about it.

In closing, I’d like to offer two different views on the “not enough” syndrome. One which leads to someone going ahead and teaching, and one which leads to someone opting not to. I relate more to the latter, but I also applaud the courage of the former and am hugely grateful that she is bringing the fruits of her practice to a group that may otherwise not have any access. I respect that it takes time to season and develop as a student, as a teacher, as a phenomenal human being. But I also think we need to stretch ourselves so that we can be all three all the time.

Do you ever think that you’re not good enough? I respectfully suggest you question that assumption.

Acceptance is a big thing. When any of us dig down through all the layers of trying to get it right and wondering what others think about us, it’s likely that we’ll stick at a level of the murky but familiar self-judgement: ‘Not good enough.’ Have you ever wondered what it would take to be ‘good enough?’ Would it arise through having more of this quality, or less of that? Or is it a matter of trying harder? However, the likelihood is that all that doubt and struggle is going to hamper one’s performance or cramp one’s heart – so that the end result is more ‘not good enough.’ So it’s just downright pragmatic to begin with self-acceptance: ‘At this time, this sense of being me feels like this.’ There’s clarity and calm in that. Right now we can’t be any other way, but we’ll certainly operate at an optimum and run a lot smoother if clarity and calm replace that nagging ‘not good enough.’

–Ajahn Sucitto

*If you dispute this assertion, just take a look at the 100 most spiritually influential people (I have no idea how they come up with this), or the guests interviewed on say Buddhist Geeks (they actually have a separate category for “female voices”). There are certainly women represented, but they are usually not of the same caliber, or aren’t even teachers per se, and one wonders if they weren’t just selected for their gender as opposed to their wisdom.

An important note: I would like to thank the totally inspiring Miriam Louisa for her contributions to and efforts to support a community of wide awake women.


Is It Cold in Here? | Cocktail Party Physics, Scientific American (another context–but similar subtle discrimination)

Reflections: Ajahn Sucitto | Spiritual Friendship, Part 1 (source of the “not good enough” quote)

Practice by Barry Briggs at Ox Herding, on the ultimate of ultimate “not enoughs”

Related post:

Some Challenges of Living a Contemplative Life Today

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  1. But my dear, you already *are* a teacher, whether you intended to be or not!

    I align with your thinking that we women are capable of great leadership, but must summon some confidence (which might amount to more of a leap of faith) in order to bring that leadership to fruition. Something we must be prepared for: It will not look like the male leadership paradigm we’re used to (and have gratefully learned from). This will be different, and it will probably be slow. But as long as we believe in our truth – and ourselves – it will change the world.

    The question is: Is this you stepping up? I hope so.

    • Thanks Kristen–as are you, as we all are in more informal ways. Empowerment definitely means more lateral organization, and that is an unusual model around here. Just starting a conversation actually…

  2. Greta33

     /  September 2, 2011

    There are plenty of women spiritual teachers out there if you listen, it’s just they’re not Spiritual Teachers, i.e. they don’t make a nice living out of it. If you look at womens history, it’s about trying to find a place of power when it’s denied you by societal constructs. Women have dealt with this in fascinating ways, the most interesting for me being the Salon culture of France and Italy, developing out of the Renaissance, but reaching a peak in the Eighteen Century. Women created environments, facillitating, encouraging and guiding intellectual discourse at court and later in stately homes, where theologians, philosophers and artists could come together leading to what we today call the Enlightenment. Why else are the Muses as well as the Virtues always depicted as women. Variations of this exist in all cultures and at all levels though. Women historically have not been nearly as passive as we’re led to believe.

    The problem is looking for your solutions within rigid ego driven frameworks, thinking there is one answer and that you’ll find it in a particular person. I think most women grow out of that myth pretty quickly, especially since some of the ‘holiest’ teachers have had a strange habit of not seeing much above the female novices chin. I believe you should read evaluate and decide for yourself: there’s nothing new under the sun. You know when you’ve found a kindred spirit/teacher and there won’t be any sign of gender in the writing. Personally I like to think of my library as my own personal Salon, where I’ve brought my own favourite thinkers together to advise and provoke me.

    In this regard, the most pertinent aspects of the Buddha and Christ stories are that these fellas went out in the wilderness to find their own answers and then came back to converse with the World not to form a church. They had no intention of creating a particular group of like-minded sychophants, although individuals like that obviously attached themselves and dogmas inevitably followed, and is the inevitable outcome of patriarchy. Women though are much more into getting groups together to solve problems in a practical way rather than egotistically leading cults etc, and that’s something we should celebrate and encourage. We need to have a team building philosophy in both the spiritual and secular realm, rather than looking for gurus. If you look at the Prophet Samuel he pleaded with Israel as to why they needed a King when they could individually and collectively commune with God, and that question remains as pertinent today as ever. It’s the basis of both Christ and Buddha’s philosophies which have been overturned and perverted by usurpers. Jeremiah said the New Covenant will be written on the heart of each individual, so it’s time to start listening. There’s only one person I bow to and that’s Gaia, the greatest Facillitator, and none of us got any choice in that matter whether we like it or not.

    I was particularly troubled by your comment regarding our biology predeposing us to passivity. It reinforces one of the oldest negative stereo-types of women out there. You may think of your sex organs as being a receptacle, there’s been 2000 years of Catholic dogma following on from Greek and Roman misogyny encouraging that, so it’s no surprise. The concept of rape is predicated on this notion, making women passive vessels, and essentially property to be stolen or contaminated. When you look a bit deeper into ancient mythologies however we were viewed as anything but containers for the seed. We hear a lot about penis envy, but prior to this there has been a long standing male phobia of the vagina, which is seen as a mouth (labia means lips btw) which swallows/devours the penis, stealing it’s vital lifeforce and causing the “little death” as it was known. Pretty heady stuff if you’ll excuse the pun, but it’s still very much in evidence today. Why do you think the missionary position is still so heavily enforced: to remind women of their proper place. In the most ancient myths however, the Earth was male (passive and below) and the Sky was female (active and on top). So I suggest you reinstate the original symbolism if it helps you along the way. Personally I’m just an old-fashioned 69er, the Libran balance in me I guess. :)

    • Thank you for contributing here and for providing this historical context. I agree it is troubling that I would through my own words reinforce negative stereotypes of women, but I certainly cannot claim to be free of my own cultural conditioning. That’s the point. It’s deep. And we all have a responsibility to wake up to it.

      I also agree that team-building, collaborative learning and spiritual practice communities are ideal. I have rarely come across them however. I don’t think a teacher necessarily equates to guru, nor do I think that a teacher has to operate in a hierarchical fashion–though they most often do, largely because of creating distance (just like doctors with patients) which enables a mask of infallibility. I’m also very much with you on the staying away from -isms and cults of personality.

  3. Laura Z.

     /  September 3, 2011

    Thank you for this post, Katherine! It’s something that brings up a disorienting dilemma (speaking from own experiences) when I look around and see who’s sitting in the teacher’s chair and who tends to be sitting in the student seats, over and over again…across continents. Of course there are those who may say it’s all conceptual, but we still live and connect on this level (conceptual and whatnot)…and how nice would it be to be inspired by more women spiritual teachers… :)

    • And thank you for your comment Laura. I actually wondered what you might think/have to say, in particular, coming from a more traditional culture (edit: at least partially). I don’t know if I ever told you the one time the issue of gender was raised in small interview. It was kind of crazy. I’ll save that for offline! Well, I certainly hope one day to see you and Katya and others of my dharma sisters teaching more widely. It means so much to me that you cared enough to give your support here. Love, K

      • Laura Z.

         /  September 4, 2011

        It’s interesting to live on the periphery of different communities, or sometimes straddling two worlds. There’ve been several comments I’ve come across over the years of going back for retreats in that traditional society :)–like that interview! It’s as if there’s a conspiracy of belief of what women are capable of, etc. etc. (which also comes from women themselves too!) Shocking at first, to hear it spoken outright, and especially when it’s a direct comment towards me — but then again, it’s really no different from getting racial slurs thrown about around the city. Perhaps it just seems a bit more hurtful when such comments come when we feel we are a part of that meditation community. (Now, I can’t say this happens everywhere — there is also a highly realized teacher I go to from time to time to pay respects who’s been very encouraging of women becoming monastics and practicing wholeheartedly at the monastery where he is the head/abbot).

        Well, also when there’s a community, there will be just as many opinions that come out of that community regarding others, etc. I guess I’ve taken what’s useful and leave the rest when I fly back, and vice versa. :)

  4. This issue about leadership styles has been a very hot topic in my sangha over the past few years. Under our previous head teacher, we had a rigid hierarchy that looked so stereotypically male it wasn’t funny. With our current teacher, the approach is much more collaborative, to the point where some students, both men and women, have been prodding her to be more forceful – more hierarchical in leadership demonstration. Alongside her, I have spent the last two years leading the board of directors in a similar fashion, running into some of the same issues. People have a a certain image of what a leader is, which I’d argue has been pummeled into us for generations, to the point where deviations from that “norm” are considered lesser or weak.

    One of the challenges, though, is that even though more and more folks are saying they want collaborative styles, more democratic leaders, and a more even field of spiritual practice – many of the same people will be right there to undermine that process when it starts to get confusing or slow or, especially if it requires more of them personally. And while I have seen more women than men interested in actually working through the tangles that come with collaborative, democratic leadership, I’m not terribly convinced that women in general – conditioned in this culture alongside men into the “old models” of leadership – are really all that much “better” or even more invested in promoting and demonstrating new models.

    As such, Greta’s comments both feel accurate in terms of history and assessment, but also somewhat romantic when it comes to women as a group. In fact, one of things that has always ticked me off about patriarchy is that now that it’s starting to get broken down – we’re left with all these broken, slivers of truth about men, women, and gender that get tossed around. It’s really easy to go down the road of men = mostly bad and women = mostly good, and I find that this is the common road taken amongst feminists and other like minded folks, regardless of gender.

    You asked about not feeling good enough? Well, having spent much of my adult life examining history, gender, sexism, racism, and all sorts of other isms, I often find myself in a predicament of personalizing. Just as it’s difficult for women to decolonize from all those “lesser than” narratives, it’s been difficult for me, as a man committed to liberation from all this -ism rot, to find a place to stand that isn’t simply aligning with the old male paradigm. Calls to step up and “be a man” come from all over in subtle and not so subtle ways. And, at the same time, there’s all this deconstruction going on that points to how abusive and destructive men have been for hundreds and even thousands of years – deconstruction which is vital, but also sometimes leads to conclusions that men are mostly incapable of being anything different than the oppressive norm.

    I personally feel that the rigidity of the gender binary itself, the myriad of ways in which we locate nearly everything into male and female, is a major part of this issue. And that the non-dual teachings of Buddhism might be deeply applied to that binary, to open it up on a larger scale. This comment has gotten long, but anyway, those are a few reactions. I really enjoyed your post, as well as the comments that have followed.

    • Just as it’s difficult for women to decolonize from all those “lesser than” narratives, it’s been difficult for me, as a man committed to liberation from all this -ism rot, to find a place to stand that isn’t simply aligning with the old male paradigm.

      Nathan, such an important point–really all of your comment; thank you so much for adding it here. Particularly, of course, the fact that we all fall into the same old dualistic traps over and over. Yes, I say down with the gender binary. How do we get the understanding of nonduality in the absolute into the relative realm? Even in the Buddhist tradition (perhaps, even especially) that seems to be a weakness.

  5. What is coming up for me through this post and discussion is that our conditioning is at first difficult to recognize and then even more challenging to eradicate. Egalitarian balance is ideal, but as an African-American “practitioner” I can’t help but think about how privilege can sometimes act as a “head start” for certain people as even access to alternative forms of information can, often times, be a condition of privilege. Thus, I understand the idea of “not enough” from the standpoint of otherness … and what my particular otherness means to “others”. :)

    Our society is a fast track for white males. I have noticed my own aversions to learning from “white” people and have taken a distance from workshops, classes and such so as not to confront that on a personal level … my own internalized racism. I want to learn Tai Chi from a chinese person. I want to learn Yoga from an Indian person. Thus … I taught myself simplified Hatha Yoga … from a book written by an Indian man. (I’m laughing at myself by the way) I am currently learning Tai Chi through a video … taught by a Chinese man (although I could easily go to China town if I had the money).

    I have a my own “issues” when it comes to lifestyles that have been born and matured in the east, then co-opted (appropriated?) by the west, and then the main teachers of those lifestyles and ways of being becoming “white” people. Yet, in the end, it is a consistent push for us to transcend duality and look at the heart of the matter … quite literally. Listening is key. Being open and acceptant is virtuous. Non-judgmental awareness is freeing … for yourself and others.

    White Responsibility. White Male Responsibility. Male Responsibility. Heterosexual Responsibility. We have to be able to witness and understand whatever our privilege is while being able to be aware of “others” who are not as fortunate and use our platform, whatever that platform may be, to speak to those concerns with authenticity & compassion, while holding the vision of egalitarian balance. Good job, Katherine. :)

    I think we’re getting there, though.


    • B, thank you so much for your really rich contribution to this discussion. It’s very helpful to put the sense of otherness and not-enoughness in a broader context. It’s interesting you bring up reluctance to seek therapy … I think about how I have never been willing to go to a male ob/gyn and how once I asked a male gynecologist at a party what made him choose that path and he said something to the effect of, “well, an oncologist doesn’t have to have cancer to be interested in it does he?” … It occurs to me too how we can often determine if someone is “like” us just by name, if the trait is gender, and that certainly is often the case for culture too (but not always), but how is this reflected for someone who identifies queer or transgendered, for example? Or for any trait for which there may be no obvious visual or nominal cue? How often do we do this in various relationships both consciously and unconsciously? Multi-layered, complicated, collective responsibility on this one for sure.

      Thank you too for your encouragement and kindness, your love and support.

  6. Quick additional note …

    This is also why many African-American people, especially men, do not seek therapy. The person sitting in the chair across from you giving counseling doesn’t look like you, so how could they, by any stretch of the imagination understand you? (this is the delusion, not the reality)

    And … I have often thought that maybe the “leaders” of the revolution away from our patriarchal and racialized world-view should be those white males who understand these issues deeply. But, that’s just a thought … as we all have to be deeply invested, engaged and active.

    • excellent thoughts Brannu — thank you for sharing.

      As a white male…and unchangeably so…it is my intention to be one of those leaders who transcends gender roles and social dominance to bring what is good from all cultures, genders, races, etc. into the interactions I have.

  7. Very well put Katherine. I agree with a lot of the commenters and what they’ve already said, but let me just add…

    I’m hearing some echoes here of what I’ve had to deal with to begin to move beyond the negative self-images I developed as the result of growing up in a very male-dominated, narcissistic, strictly christian- conservative household… That feeling of not being good enough, not doing the right thing, internalizing doubt/fear/shame…all that stuff is a natural outgrowth of poorly executed parenting and cultural conditioning from an early age…when we were creating our “selves” that we now work on leaving behind as part of the non-dual journey. A lot of us have “cracked mirrors”. We don’t see our “selves” as others see us or as we truly are. We live in fear of being judged or of not measuring up to the “experts” who we think have all the answers. It’s a bit of the “Drama of the Gifted Child”, as Alice Miller put it…or denying the glory of vulnerability as Brene Browne discusses. And it’s rampant in our culture…bedroom to boardroom, politics to schoolyards. Our parents did it to us because their parents did it to them. They didn’t mean to, they just never learned another way. Mindfulness practice and healing and coming to understand the true nature of the self is the only thing that can break that chain…and far too few people do the work to keep these cycles from repeating…but you are…and I am…and lots of other people are trying to too. That’s how the world heals. And that’s how the male-dominated culture begins to shift towards one that puts all needs and feelings and truth on a more equal platform.

    I see and hear and read so much strength in what you are putting out into the world…you are an amazing and caring person who has an incredible amount of kindness to offer as a student and teacher and friend and counselor and partner and…whatever other role you play for the day.

    Keep on keeping on. The world needs more of you and more from you…in whatever context that takes.

    • Wow, your words of encouragement are deeply appreciated. Thank you. I never imagined this kind of response. Really, just wow.

      When you say so few are doing the work, I think you’re getting at something even bigger, than that our consumer culture is not interested in contemplation and the like…The thing about spiritual practice, is, in and of itself, it doesn’t necessarily get us to a place where we really understand and can free ourselves from the cultural conditioning of our collective consciousness. Far too often it’s on an intellectual level only, and often because people get hooked on experience of peace, bliss, ecstasy — and push away feelings of anger, resentment, unworthiness and all the stuff that this conditioning is packed up in. It may seem strange, but though I am struggling with the pain of this at the moment (and suspect it to be a long ride), I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else truthfully.

      • Heather Martin talks about the defilements as if they each are a pair of tinted glasses. Our goal is to know in each moment which pair we are looking through…so we can continually become aware and take them off. I try to bring this to my awareness practice…what am I adding to this moment? Why? What am I trying to cover up? What emotion am I not okay with?

        I often see the residue of growing up in a narcissistic family the same way…I constantly have to be aware of what lens I’m looking or acting through. Is it my authentic self? Or is it my closed, limited, fearful self? Over time, the awareness has me knowing much more quickly who has the reigns. And over time, the closed self becomes weaker and weaker…

        I don’t see too many doing this work or our culture coming anywhere close to inviting it…it’s our job (you, me, all of us who are) to find ways to help others wake up to it…as witnesses, as examples, as inspirers.

        The best way is to live our truth and not hold back. Live in the light.


  8. miriam louisa

     /  September 5, 2011

    A beautiful and insightful opening to a dialogue so many are ready for, dear Katherine. Thank you for it, and for your kind reference to my own small efforts …

    Bowing, blessing, and honoring the vastness of your stature

    ~ miriam louisa

  9. Active receiving has passive giving and active giving has passive receiving, except not recognized. Both have assertiveness (yang aspect) of different degrees, depending where your attention is. A more closer to heart word would be openness (ying aspect). When not recognized, imbalance experience of either helplessness or over-exertion comes into play. Role of teacher or student have that extreme dynamic. When balanced with wisdom, both are merely in tandem with each other, a teacher can also be recognized a student, depending again where attention is given. It is all in the mind, as the saying goes.

  10. Thanks for initiating this discussion, and for your wise words. All blessings!

  11. Wow this is so deep and honest and beautifully written. First, I would like to thank you for mentioning my blog in yours. Second, there are so may layers to what you have stated that I couldn’t even begin to adequately comment. But what you have written is very touching and leaves much to reflect on. Thank you for this post.

    • Toya, thank you. I was really glad to have a reason to link to your blog where I find much thought-provoking content as well. Hope we can continue to learn from one another from afar…Even when I wrote this I don’t think I realized quite how much this sense of inadequacy shapes my relationship to the world, how it separates me, believing wholly that I am the “other”. I think anyone who has experienced not being in a position of privilege in some way can relate to just how insidious this can be. Much metta to you.


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