The Buddha Spotlight introduces you to author of Sophia Rising, and yogini, Monette Chilson!!
Goddess Mena Love: Can you give a brief synopsis of your book, Sophia Rising?
Monette Chilson: Sophia Rising is a guide for those wanting to let their yoga inform their faith (and vice versa). I use a combination of research—from both yogic and theological sources—along with my own experience as a long-term practitioner to help readers explore the unique ways practice and spirit intersect in their own lives. Part of that process involves an exploration of the feminine aspects of God that have been suppressed in nearly every religious tradition.
Goddess Mena Love: As of lately, there’s been a new rise of strong feminine energy and feminine movement. In the future, do you think feminine energy will be recognized as more of a balance to masculine energy in our society?
Monette: I certainly hope so, Mena! A significant portion of Sophia Rising is dedicated to helping people begin to recognize the void that’s left when feminine energy is left untapped. Sometimes people want to skip over embracing the sacred feminine and go right to an ungendered view of divinity. My feeling is that to achieve true balance, we must spend some time exploring God’s feminine nature to bring the exclusively male view of God we’ve been presented with into perspective. We can’t change the fact that divinity has been masculinized for the past two thousand or so years, but we can begin to see the divine—and our power to reflect it—in a different light.
Goddess Mena Love: What’s your perspective of the duality of God?
Monette: Big question! This really gets to the heart of my book which is an encouragement to stop setting up false and unnecessary barriers between yoga and spirituality—or on a macro level between body and soul. Too many devoted yogis feel deep down that their practice conflicts with their faith. This belief is rooted in a perspective on God that is deeply dualistic—that is to say deeply divided (God is this but not that), deeply defined (God is this but definitely not that), and deeply knowable (God is not a mystery because I know exactly who “He” is). My hope is that people will begin to venture away from who they’ve been told God is and find out for themselves.
Goddess Mena Love: Yoga is a great peace enhancing activity to religiously practice, why do you think people of different religious practices can’t get over yoga’s beneficial spiritual growth to go along with the principles of their faith?
Monette: I think misinformation combined with the different terminology of yoga and religion keeps many people from seeing how compatible their faith and yoga practice really are. In my book, I break down yoga’s eight limbs in ways that bridge the two worlds, especially for those from a Christian background. A classic example of how word choice can create a road block is yoga’s eighth limb, samadhi, which has been translated in terms including bliss, ecstasy, enlightenment, liberation and union with the divine. Some or all of these phrases might seem foreign to someone from a traditional Western religious tradition. But when we look beyond word choice to true meaning, the idea of samadhi, as well as practices to help cultivate it, can be openly embraced by people of all religions to experience “a peace that surpasses all understanding.” (Philippians 4:7)
Goddess Mena Love: Your personal goddess/feminine deity you connect with is Sophia, while on your spiritual path, are there any other goddess/feminine deities you connect with? Why?
Monette: Discovering Sophia a decade or so ago was a revelation to me. I always knew that I connected with God in feminine form. I just didn’t know that there was a name for her within my faith tradition. I am also greatly inspired by Mary Magdalene, though less as a deity than as a women in whose footsteps I’d like to follow. Her relationship with Jesus is enigmatic, and the fact that her reputation survived so many attempts to ruin it, a testament to her strength and goodness. In many ways, the Church’s treatment of Mary Magdalene mirrors its general suppression of women. One female icon from Jewish mythology that I’d like to spend more time getting to know is Lilith, who was purported to be Adam’s first wife, created from the same earth as him rather than from his rib. I find this legend and the strong female archetype it creates fascinating.
Goddess Mena Love: Any advice for those who have trouble implementing yoga with their religious practice?
Monette: Yes! Don’t take anyone else criticism of your spiritual practices to heart. Instead, look into the compatibility of your faith and yoga practice yourself. Look at all eight limbs of yoga and draw your own conclusions. I walk through the limbs in my book and make connections between religious pillars and yogic ones. The ethical foundation of yoga—the yama and the niyama—are made up of specific precepts that are all found within the Ten Commandments, as well as in the Quran and within Buddhist philosophy. This coalescence reaffirms to me that spiritual paths really do share the same divine destination.
Goddess Mena Love: Share one of your life lessons that you’ve learned from your yoga practice (relating real life to the yoga mat).
Monette: One of the most important lessons yoga has taught me is patience. The real pay-off in yoga comes from waiting and not forcing. From breathing through instead of barreling through. People think that this patience is a natural attribute of us yoga devotees, but I actually think many of us (including me) are drawn to yoga because we lack patience. Indeed, we are in desperate need of it. On our mat, we slowly re-teach our bodies about the beauty of mindful movement and of being gentle with ourselves. As I’ve experienced success with this foreign way of being in my practice, I’ve become more willing to test drive my new-found patience off the mat.
Goddess Mena Love: In your book, Sophia Rising, you speak about humility and not being the most flexible in the class because of an injury. What advice can you give to yogis of all levels that may feel insecure within their personal yoga practice?
Monette: Insecurity on the mat comes from the same source as it does off the mat. Anytime we look outside of ourselves for validation, we set ourselves up for failure. There will always be someone smarter, richer or better looking than us. And that’s OK! We truly never know what’s going on behind others’ stellar veneers. Smart, rich, and good looking does not ensure happiness. The key to feeling secure is to focus on the practice rather than the result—in life and in yoga. Don’t shy away from creating your own home practice because you’re afraid it won’t be perfect. Just show up on your mat—even for 15 minutes—and listen to what your body’s saying to you.
Goddess Mena Love: When I practice yoga, I notice the slower I move into each asana, the more I feel aware of my body and the spiritual connection I have with God because I am focusing on the flow of my breath integrated with the thought that my asanas speak like prayers. Can you relate?
Monette: Absolutely! That is one reason I enjoy my home practice. I probably don’t push myself as hard physically when I practice at home, but I am more in touch with the spiritual side of my yoga because I am moving at my own pace, establishing that rhythm of breath and body that begins to feel sacred. When we can trust ourselves enough to create a living, breathing prayer with our bodies, we recapture the holistic expression that we often miss out on in the more cerebral Christian tradition.
Goddess Mena Love: Can you share a personal discovery you’ve found by keeping a gratitude journal?
Monette: Ironically, I have found that the very things that I cite most often in my gratitude journal can irritate me if I am not in a particularly spiritually sound place. For example, I see “my children’s singing” pop up often on my gratitude list, but if I am feeling ungrounded or inpatient, that same singing may grate on my nerves. That paradox shows very clearly that my attitude makes all the difference in my experience of the world around me. It really drives home the truth behind the Greek philosopher Epictetus’ proclamation that it’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters. We really do have a lot of power to change our perception of reality.
Goddess Mena Love: I really like that your book, Sophia Rising, bridges the gap between yoga and Christianity. How has the Christian community supported you and your book?
Monette: I have been pleasantly surprised by the positive reception my book has received in Christian circles. I was prepared for a bit of backlash since I tackled two different taboos—yoga as an expression of faith and the recognition of God’s feminine form —but, honestly, I haven’t received any criticism from within Christian circles. I have had Christian groups decide that the book was too progressive for their book clubs, and I’ve modified my language to use more familiar, non-Sanskrit terms for some audiences, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive. My own church, Chapelwood United Methodist Church, has been extremely supportive, carrying my book in its store and inviting me to sign books and lead talks on several occasions [Thank you, Christian Washington & Kris Jodon!]. The definitive stamp of approval for me came when I was notified that Sophia Rising had been awarded the Illumination Book Awards’ gold medal (spirituality category) for the year’s best new titles written and published with a Christian worldview. That designation made me feel truly supported and embraced by the Christian literary community, something I wasn’t sure I’d find with this book’s publication.
Sophia Rising has also opened doors that revealed the true breadth and depth of Christian community, allowing me to speak at venues like the Wild Goose Festival where cross-dressing reverends lead worship alongside some of the most recognizable names in progressive Christianity. In places like this, I find so many people longing to bridge the illusory rifts that separate God from all the ho-hum parts of daily life. We all know God is in the details as well as the grandeur. Helping Christians connect those dots in ways that transcend the intellect has been one of the most joyous parts of this journey.
Goddess Mena Love: When did you fall in LOVE with yoga?
Monette: When I was 25, I “won” a package of yoga classes in a silent auction at a charity event. I remember thinking that I might have committed a professional faux pax by outbidding a city council member I was supposed to be wooing in my role as PR manager. But I didn’t care. Something in me wanted to try yoga that badly! I remember walking into the studio the first time and feeling, paradoxically, like I was coming home in a setting that was unlike any I’d ever experienced. For you long-time Houstonians, this was the Yoga Institute on Alabama back in the mid-nineties when Lex Gillan owned it—old school yoga. I was enchanted by the words, the smells, the zafus (meditation cushions) and, of course, the intense physicality of it all.
Goddess Mena Love: Finish this statement. Yoga gives me access to…….
Monette: Yoga gives me access to the me that exists underneath all my self-created busyness.
Goddess Mena Love: What’s in your playlist right now?
Monette: I don’t have a playlist! Can I change this to, “What’s in your book stack right now?”
I am finishing Meg Wolitzer’s exquisitely insightful novel, The Interestings. Up next are two review copies I just received in the mail—When God Was a Little Girl by David Weiss and A Woman Called God by Peter Wilkes.
Goddess Mena Love: What’s your favorite quote?
Monette: “If you judge people, you have no time to LOVE them.” – Mother Theresa
Goddess Mena Love: Do you have any advice for people who are just starting out on their path of awakening?
Monette: Definitely! I think when it comes to spiritual awakening, we are all beginners in the sense that each of us is continually beginning again. There is no graduation ceremony; no advanced degree in spiritual mastery. It helps to picture spiritual awakening as a process, not a destination. It is a way of being present in each moment life hands us—whether it’s beautiful, heart-wrenching or somewhere in between, as is usually the case. We begin to awaken by not running away or escaping. By accepting that we will not arrive at a blissful place of peace everyday. By showing up and surrendering to what is—just like we do on our mats. Of course, the act of living mindfully will bring us more peace, but that can’t be the goal. It is simply a lovely by-product.
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