Joan Borysenko, PhD, is a medical scientist, clinical psychologist, former instructor at the Harvard Medical School—and she has been on a lifelong spiritual path. She has led thousands of women of all ages in spiritual retreats over the past fifteen years, encouraging them to make the most of each stage of their lives. Here, she speaks to us about her new audio learning course, A Woman's Spiritual Retreat.
Sounds True: Do men and women experience spirituality differently?
Joan Borysenko: They do, in a number of ways. The main difference is that women's spirituality is less about the hereafter, more about the present. We're not so much worried about what's going to happen to us when we die. We're more concerned with “How then shall we live? How can we relate to our best selves? To one another? To the earth?”
Women's spirituality is an earthy spirituality that relies more on personal experience than on any abstract theology. Our intuition is embodied—ideally we're using it all the time to tune in, on even small, moment-to-moment decisions.
Sounds True: You talk about the growing power of women as they age. Is this just wishful thinking?
Joan Borysenko: Not at all! Two things change across the life span for women: one is our biology, and the other is that we gain more life experience and trust in ourselves. In terms of biological development, the right brain functions that are the seat of intuition keep developing as you grow older. Hormonal changes actually affect us so that when we are premenstrual and when we menstruate, we're much more intuitive. After menopause, we're in that state all the time, not just for about a week out of the month. Another way to say this is that we go from an alternating current of intuition before menopause, to a direct and continuous current after.
The other thing that happens as women get older is they will laugh and say, “I found my own voice! I'm less concerned about what other people think of me, and I realize I have powerful wisdom within me.” And so that, coupled with the biological changes, makes older women a force to be reckoned with.
Sounds True: In your retreats, what are women looking for?
Joan Borysenko: They want to know what truly matters. And it often comes down to relationships: loving and being loved.
Sounds True: How do you help women find that love on retreat?
Joan Borysenko: The most sobering discovery is that we will never truly heal the wounds of our past. You heal what you can, and then the rest of it becomes grist for the mill. You develop a sense of humor about yourself, and whatever foibles you have just become part of the delightfulness of your character.
Another discovery is that we gain wisdom as we grow older. There is a point in our lives where society says, “Your sex life is done, you're about to dry up, so forget it. The best part of life is over.” What I love is when women come to that point, and they say, “That's all a crock! It's not that way at all. I am at the most meaningful—and sensual—level of my life!” Women constantly want to know how to develop deep, juicy spiritual, emotional, and physical lives throughout their whole lifespan.
Sounds True: Is there an exercise our readers can try right now that gives them a taste of what they will experience on A Woman's Spiritual Retreat?
Joan Borysenko: Sure. A simple one is to do a periodic check-in with your body throughout the day. It doesn't take more than 30 or 60 seconds. To begin, close your eyes. Notice where the energy is in your body in terms of your emotions—they are your guidance system. Don't judge what you're feeling as good or bad, just take it in as information. Ask yourself: “Do I need to do something different? Do I need to take a break? Do I need to attend to something that is creating anxiety?” Now, act on that guidance. Even if you simply write yourself a note to handle it later, you can go back to whatever it is you're doing, but your guidance system has had a chance to speak to you.