Women and Wisdom in Italy: A Conversation with Vicki Noble

Mark McCaslin

Mark McCaslin

Vicki Noble is a radical feminist healer, author, independent scholar and wisdom teacher. Born in 1947 and raised in Iowa, she awakened to the Goddess and Women’s Spirituality on her arrival in Berkeley, California in 1976. Through a ‘shamanic healing crisis’, she opened psychically to the healing, art, yoga, and divination processes that led to the creation of the Motherpeace tarot. Since then she has written several books, including Shakti Woman (a handbook for healers) and The Double Goddess (a history of female shamanism). She has developed a powerful ritual healing process, teaches and lectures internationally, and has led tours of women on pilgrimage to sacred Goddess sites around the world.

Vicki has raised two daughters – Robyn and Brooke – and lives in Santa Cruz, California, with her special son Aaron Eagle, who was the subject of her book, Down Is Up for Aaron Eagle. She teaches in the Women’s Spirituality Masters program at  Sofia University, Palo Alto, California (formerly the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology). In her teaching she combines Buddhism, feminism, yoga, shamanism, and Goddess worship with a special focus on the female lineage of healers since ancient times.

Vicki Noble

Vicki Noble

Mark McCaslin

Mark McCaslin

Mark: As you know this issue is geared towards Italy and that was so fascinating to me that you work with a group of Italian women. In particular, I think some of the things that you are doing moves into this integral space, this space where we can begin to make things a new and really look at the intersections and how we put wisdoms to work in the world for the betterment of the world.

Help me get a deeper understanding of these five Dakinis.

Vicki: It actually means sky goer, or a woman who flies through space, or a woman who moves through space.

I link it very strongly to worldwide female shamanism and to these ancient primal practices or group ritual life that we know about from some indigenous cultures that are still practicing, and from a lot of written reports about earlier cultures where women were involved in what they called sometimes possession cults. If we look at neosiberian shamanism, there is a lot about women and it’s women primarily who have been the so called shaman until fairly recently in world history.

That has something to do with what people always describe as a natural facility of women to get in and out of the body basically, to move spirits through their bodies in a possession sense, or to go out of the body in the sense. Well, for instance in the Dakini tradition, the Tibetans say the Dakini is sort of like a fairy. They wouldn’t really use that word, but a spirit woman or a goddess of some kind. She is in motion. She is dynamic. She represents a kind of dynamic play in the universe.

She is connected with bold synchronicities and coincidences and magical events that disrupt normal, rational processes, that interrupt our normal rational train of thought and surprise us or transform us. She is not always beautiful, but she has the potential to be beautiful if they recognize her as the Dakini. If they don’t, they miss an opportunity for enlightenment or for the next step in their process or whatever. So wonderful stories like that abound, and the way that the Dakini fits into practice is that the Tibetans are the tantric Buddhists.  I don’t know if you know about that. The other forms of Buddhism in China and Japan and Thailand and so on, are not tantric. They are not shamanistic. They are quiet, “quietist” as one scholar put it.

They are a little more clerical, or a little more priestly. But Buddhism in Tibet somehow never lost shamanism. It integrated with shamanism. So the Dakinis represent that tantric stream of Tibetan Buddhism and they have a lot to do with vibration and transformation and sexual practices. The practices are often noisy with drums and bells and chanting and so on.

It’s very appealing to me. It’s shamanistic. The other forms of Buddhism are not. They have never been appealing to me. A lot of my early experiences, when I was having what I call my awakening in the 1970s, were Dakini experiences, except I didn’t know anything about Tibetan Buddhism at the time. I didn’t have any prior experience to put my experiences inside of.  It was only later that I went and involved myself in Tibetan Buddhism. Really it was a process. I think I wrote about that a little bit in a booklet. It took decades; it has taken decades for me to really understand the experiences that I had in the late 1970s that are classically connected to the tantric Tibetan tradition of the treasures.

Mark: It does sound like what I call that integral space, that intersectional space.  For me that was really what makes integral leadership, integral practice, integral education, work for me is that we are bridging, spanning, connecting. But it seems that the five Dakinis just naturally fit or naturally is in that integral space.

Vicki: Yes, I think so, too. That’s certainly what the Tibetans would say. They have a lot of different kinds of schools of study inside Tibetan Buddhism. The one that they consider the highest, the most rarefied, is called Dzogchen. The Dakinis fit into both the tantric school and also the Dzogchen School, which is often called the Path of No Path, which I love.

Dzogchen actually allows for spontaneous awakening and remembering past incarnational knowledge and just being able to pull through some ancient material in the present. Especially within the treasure tradition, the ways that they describe how people awaken are so interesting. There is a sort of a classic formula that the person who is born to pull out a treasure and is to remember some part of the teaching from the past has to have a consort, for example.

That’s the tantric aspect. The consort is also born to provide support via ground, or support in the drawing out or the remembering of the treasure. Then the way that this happens is very fresh. The material comes together in the vernacular of the time and place. It’s the same old material in some sense. It’s the content from way back when, but it’s reincarnated in modern or contemporary people who then bring the material through or channel the material through in a very fresh, creative way, very spontaneous.

That’s completely what happened to me and Karen Vogel, the co-creator of Motherpeace, She is a feminist anthropologist (and my field was history and women’s studies). Together we researched and drew the Motherpeace images and produced them as a deck of cards.. We couldn’t believe what was happening when the Motherpeace began to unfold. It wasn’t what we had in our rational minds at all. It was just a series of coincidences and synchronicities. All these streams came together and it ended up being the Motherpeace deck.

Mark: A path with no path – you are already on it. You just don’t know it.

Vicki: Exactly. It’s unfolding and it was very much unfolding from within. That was really the amazing part of it and in a way it’s always has been for me. It’s always unfolding from within. I mean I have dreams where I hear voices and stuff, but I don’t feel like somebody is giving me something. I feel like a seed that I was born with that had a timing when it was going to get fertilized, or whatever, and awakened.

Mark: Well, let me just intentionally connect this to this group of women in Italy. Tell me about how they discovered your program – how they discovered this path with no path or how that connection happened.

Vicki: That’s a great question. I started actually receiving the explicit Dakini practices in the mid 90s. 1995 was the first retreat that I went to where I actually was given a Mandala practice. Before that I had done Tibetan Buddhist practice, but in a more general way. This is when I really became initiated into the practices as they are given by the Lamas and so on, coming to the States.

During that time, I practiced a little. I am not a great meditator. I  have been a mystic. I feel like I have been monastic in other lifetimes and I am not really into doing practice all day like so many of the western Buddhists who are more serious in terms of the external practices. But I have a very deep alignment with the philosophy and the understandings of Tibetan Buddhism.

So I live my life from that perspective. I live a lot from my dreams and feel that I am in touch with a deeper aspect of myself that’s smarter than I am and can guide my life. The Dakini practices fit into that for me, like a hand in a glove. I did the practices and went to retreats and sort of collected practices for a period of time.

Then I moved to the mountains in 2000. I started to actually practice, really practice as if my life depended on it. Because I was in despair about the world and I needed something. I definitely needed some healing in a new direction. So I went to the mountains and I just made fires in my wood stove and I just did Dakini practices. What that turned into very quickly was the development of my own adapted practices for my students. Because my students started to seek me out in the mountains. It was hilarious.

They called me the witch in the woods. I thought I was on retreat and sort of taking a break. I had had a really big teaching career for a couple of decades before that going all over the United States and all over the world in the 90s. Then I really needed to draw back in and regroup. But they started finding me out in the woods and they would drive down from the Bay Area.

I would put together little classes very spontaneously and start sharing some of the Dakini work with them. But I am not a Lama and I don’t really practice at that level to be giving them formal practices from out of the Tibetan technical practices. These practices often take maybe an hour and a half. They are quite intense and very serious. very ritualistic and formulaic, and very powerful.

I love to go to the Buddhist centers and do practices with groups of Buddhists. It’s thrilling. The drums and the bells and the chanting, it’s just thrilling. But on my own, I knew that I had to offer my students something that was more congruent with their non-Buddhist lives and yet would give them a method. Because I think in women’s spirituality, one of the things that’s missing often is method.

Mark: Interesting.

Vicki: It’s a problem because it can lead to a kind of new agey, fluffy undisciplined way of doing so called research and stuff like that. I am a real researcher. I have a really deep love of dates and real things that came out of the ground and all that. I just really love archeology and anthropology and history. So I don’t appreciate just everything being everything and goddesses and light waves. I like it to be grounded in some sort of deep anchored way in what is real and what has actually taken place.

Also my feminism is very strong. I need it to be grounded in that way as well. All of that came together for me in 2001, 2002, 2003 as my students came up to the woods and created shrines on the land. I ended up at a big house with nine acres of red woods. We made that happen. It was very wonderful in terms of adapting Tibetan Buddhist traditional Mandala practices that invoke the five Dakinis.

But I did that in a way that was accessible for my students who are more in goddess religion. So that got very creative and I wrote my own practices.

Mark: How did this find its way to Italy?

Vicki: It happened through normal channels. They bought my book (Shakti Woman) from Harper and they did it in their own way. When they do that in Italy it’s very weird. I don’t know how they are allowed to do this, but they actually change the titles if they feel like it, and they did. So they didn’t call it Shakti Woman. When my book has been translated to other languages, it’s always called Shakti Woman. It’s Shakti Mujer in Spanish and it’s Femme Shakti, I think, in French.

So it’s very weird. In Italian I never can even remember the name of it. It was something like the Awakening of the Goddess. So they take their own license in that way and that’s what they did. I didn’t have much of a relationship, it just happened. 10 years later, I was on a research trip to Bulgaria with a group of scholars and I met an Italian woman who is involved in publishing and feminism from the old days, from the 70s.

She was very interested, so I gave her a copy of my book The Double Goddess. She took it back to Italy and they published it. Then they brought me to Italy in 2004, along with Mary Daly [Mary Daly (October 16, 1928 – January 3, 2010) was an American radical feminist philosopher, academic, and theologian. Daly, who described herself as a “radical lesbian feminist”,[1] taught at Boston College, a Jesuit-run institution, for 33 years.-Ed.]. They also published one of her books at the same time. They brought the two of us and we did a little conference about our work. That was very exciting. There were two women at that conference, one of them the one that I had originally given the book to. They decided to just give it a try and start trying to have workshops. They weren’t organizers in any professional way and weren’t really interested in being that. So it wasn’t ever institutional. It was just some women who put the word out and it was amazing. They rented a place, put the word out and the workshop filled immediately.

Mark: Wow.

Vicki: Months in advance! Unheard of, none of us could believe it. Then they put together another one. So I went every year for a few years, then I started going twice a year. I have been going twice a year now for years and it’s still very grass roots. Sometimes there will be a student who comes up to me. There was this darling woman in my last workshop with a little baby at her breast. She came up and said in Italian, through a translator, that she would like to organize something for me in the area where she lived.

That’s how it happens. It’s word of mouth. They all stay in contact and do practices They love the Dakini. We call them all now the Dakini group. They do these Dakini practices very seriously, many of them for years. They come to my workshops, my speaking engagements and things, over and over, growing in their understanding. Then there was the way these things happen: there was a little split. I don’t know what you would call it exactly – a little break down in the group a few years ago.

Some of them wanted it to be more formal and hierarchical. They have been doing the practices longer and they didn’t want new women coming in. They wanted to have special treatment and special arrangements made for them to have new practices and be developing. Again, I am not a Lama; that’s not how I work. That’s not my gig. I don’t have a center. I don’t speak Italian. I can’t be there with them. I can’t guide them in that kind of a process.

I just didn’t want to do that and a lot of the women aren’t interested in that at all. They want to have circles and communal rituals and they want to have these female archetypal icons that they can organize their visualization around. In other words, they want a form of goddess religion, really. They want a women’s religion. They want to access female culture and female divinity without all the trappings.

Mark: It seems like you were definitely inspiring learning, inspiring curiosity, wonder…

Vicki: Yes.

Mark: But I also wonder about that notion of self-awareness, because some, if I heard you correctly, their self-awareness moved into an expansion mode. Others seemed to move into more of a structural mode. Did I hear that wrong?

Vicki: Exactly right! From my perspective, of course I can’t speak for them in every way, but I felt there was a demand on me to produce a hierarchy. That’s just so unlike where I am coming from. So I finally said to them that in Sanga, in the Buddhist paradigm, even though Buddhism can be very hierarchical, the paradigm itself, the principle of it, the Sanga is the community of practitioners.

No one is kept out. There are sometimes certain prerequisites that people have to do if they want to progress through a certain lineage of teachings. That’s where the hierarchy starts to happen. But in a certain sense, there are always old practitioners in a group and there are always new ones.

Mark: Right.

Vicki: If you are going to advance in your process of deepening spirituality or enlightenment, or whatever you call it, it’s my opinion that you do that internally in relation to yourself. Practice means practice. You practice and you go deeper. The same practice can be done by a person who is just beginning and that will be done at a very different level, but that’s okay. That’s the meaning for me – practice.

Mark: So you are saying it’s not a stage we reach, it’s practices we keep.

Vicki: Exactly! If there is some stage that anyone reaches, it’s entirely because they have their own dharma, their own path. It’s all about an awakening expansion process, just exactly the word you are using. I like that.

Mark: I am curious to know how this movement in Italy inspired possibilities within the practitioners, the people who came to the program. Also how did it begin to have impact not just in this immediate community of women? Do you think or did you see how it began to have other impacts, other influences?

Vicki: Well, I think it’s beginning to. Originally, it’s like all the work I have done with women all my life. It’s feminist based. It has to do with facilitating a process for women to shift their perspective from outside of themselves to a place of being as a center. So when I found the Mandala practices they seemed perfect for that. The Tibetans would never talk about it this way. But the Mandala is in fact a formula for putting yourself at the center of your own space-time reality.

You imagine yourself at the center and you invoke the Dakinis from the four cardinal directions. The one that you invoke in the center you invoke over your head. You are creating these little tents of Dakinis around you in a visual way with color.

Mark: Yes, the color sequences you mentioned in your pamphlet. That was interesting to me.

Vicki: What I have discovered since I started to really take up the Dakini practices is that the Mandala was the original structural iconography, you might say, or the cosmology everywhere. I hadn’t understood that. As I have done the Dakini practices, as a researcher, I am always looking for it now. I find it everywhere. It’s just shocking!

I am realizing that in the old European archeology that I study and that so much of my teaching comes from, the Mandala was the first thing. That there is a very early site – I might have written about this in the book but I can’t remember. It’s the earliest agricultural site in Europe. It was actually laid out in the shape of the eight point template that I use when I am teaching, which is basically the Tibetan Mandala.

So the feminist aspect for me is that in the West it’s a feminist truism that women have been pushed off of our centers, that we have left our center of alignment and we are engaged in what is really a male view. That view of us has distorted our own experience of our lives. I have been teaching forever that we have to somehow get grounded in our own bodies. We have to anchor into our wisdom and into a female perspective instead of being as we’ve been conditioned into a male perspective. So the Mandala practices offer a method for doing that.

Mark: In some ways you intentionally inspire these possibilities by setting that foundation?

Vicki: Yes, exactly. I am really, as always, but in a much more methodical way than ever before, attempting to facilitate for women these movements from out of our bodies back in. From outside of our base, basically, back into the center. At the same time I am offering goddess work because the Dakinis are divinities.

The other wonderful thing about the Dakini tradition in Tibet is that the Dakini is understood to take form as a human woman. That’s her main form and she is never male. It’s a gendered concept. So that’s very exciting as an icon of female leadership. Because Dakinis come into the world, the tradition says that a woman who is functioning as a Dakini is born into the world in order to alleviate suffering, in order to help other beings to awaken.

In the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dakinis see that in a traditional way – awakening, enlightenment, awakening the aspiration to enlightenment and so on. The way that I am using the practices, there is that. It’s about opening the heart you might say, or contacting the soul, or whatever, facilitating some awakening of divinity. All the religions, all the practices from different religions around the world say that there is – I mean they don’t all say this, some of them are males based – but they all say that there is no gender.

Buddhism certainly says that – that gender doesn’t matter. It’s not important. It’s silly to get fixated on it. But the thing is, the tradition itself is so gendered, you know, because it’s men in monasteries who have protected the tradition all these centuries. It’s male lamas 99.9% of the time who are transmitting the practices. So it’s actually already gendered.

Mark: That’s one of the things that was really interesting to me in one of our earlier exchanges, this whole notion of a feminist spiritual leadership. I find that to be a very intriguing construct.

Vicki: Tell me how?

Mark: First of all, I love how it holds that whole notion of cultivating and the empowering of flow. My work is largely the study of potential, so I am constantly looking for, searching for, potential in the seed. Can you see the possibilities that are there potentially, but not yet fully there? It seems that – at least reading your pamphlet, reading the booklet that you sent me and then listening to you talk, and to use your language in the pamphlet – I can begin co-creating my own understanding of what this might mean in terms of the way I see in the world, in terms of this potentiating leadership. It starts to feel possible.

Vicki: Wonderful. I have always felt that there is a subtle way that many of us in I suppose what you would call transpersonal disciplines, or progressive, spiritual groups and so on, that we try to be egalitarian. We speak in egalitarian language. There is a lot of value put, at least verbally, on the union of the male and the female and the sharing and the co-creativity and so on.

But to me it always looks, in practice – sometimes I draw it on a chalk board – I put a circle on the left for women, for female, and a circle on the right for male. Then there is a big circle that says universal, no gender. But the problem, as I have experienced and as I see it, is that the male, the masculine is conflated with the universal in our society, in the language, in the traditions, in the educational system and so on. It’s a little bit subtle, but in fact women are always kind of outside of that conflation.

You can really see it in psychology. Feminists have deconstructed the psychological descriptions of the healthy female and the healthy male, the healthy human. The healthy male and the healthy human match, the healthy female looks to be insane when you put it up next to the criteria for a healthy human. So it is really problematic, but it’s kind of subtle. I always feel like there has to be a certain amount of education around it, before people can begin to see how they are seeing things because we are so locked inside of it in some way.

A lot of what I am trying to do is actually bring women back to that circle in a way that’s meaningful, where they have self awareness and they can sort themselves out a little bit from some of the more masculine definitions or expectations. My work has not at all been not about taking on any kind of antagonistic relationship to men especially, or to the male, the masculine. My enemy is patriarchy. Patriarchy is bad for everybody in my opinion. Men don’t fare that much better in it than women, because its values are so corrupting. The value of war and violence and so on is so corrupting to everybody. I always feel like men can step out of that into the masculine, can step out of patriarchy and work with the masculine. Most of the men that I converse with do that.

It’s the way of the men’s movement. I can’t speak for men and I don’t. I speak for women and I teach groups of women. The reason I teach women in exclusively female space is basically because I think that conflation is so problematic for all of us that if you bring a man into the space it often changes all the women.

Mark: You were just returning to this group of Italian women and your own experiences within that. I am curious if you could talk a minute about how you saw this changing you or cultivating the best of you. Even to extend that, how did it cultivate the higher selves or the possibilities within them and you.

Vicki: Wonderful question, Mark. I feel, for one thing, that they have stimulated my creativity in regard to teaching because they have showed up in such numbers and in such presence. They really show up. In the States, at least for me and my work in the last 15, maybe even 20 years, ever since publishing was corporatized and everything kind of went to that level, I would say in the mid 90s, my work with women flattened.

When I started teaching in Italy, it was so rewarding with so many women, for one thing to do these shamanistic Dakini practices. The more women, the better. The more voices chanting, the more people meditating together, the stronger the vibration and the more powerful the work, which I have always felt in my healing work. I do these healing rituals that bring that out in any community.

But for the most part my work is much more with small groups in the university where we don’t cut loose that way. The women in Italy, because of their presence, their devotion to the practices and their interest in really practicing in order to transform their lives, have been very stimulating for me as a teacher. It’s brought out the very best in me.

As a teacher I have had to really interrogate myself. Am I going to be teaching practices that I get out of some book or some teaching I have received, or am I going to teach them what I know and what I experience? Is there some way I can teach them how I actually access the spiritual dimensions and how I myself, as a person, live my life from these practices because that’s much deeper and more personal and more vulnerable?

It’s made it not only personal but also essential that I do that, especially as it started to go into this conflictual area a few years ago with some of them wanting more hierarchical, formal, new practices that were supposed to be more advanced than others. That’s not actually how I practice and it’s not really what I believe in. so I have had to trust that if I bring myself more fully to them as who I am, that whatever projection they have on me that maybe I am a Lama, they will be able to drop that projection and still appreciate what I have to bring them.

I don’t know if that makes sense.

Mark: Yes, I like it.

Vicki: If you break the projection you are in danger of kind of losing the work. But that’s not been true and I have been able to bring forth my own creativity more strongly and my own Dakininess in a way. In my own way of being I am so out of the box that I am actually able to bring that to them in these organized ways that allow them to pull forth their creativity.

For instance, I give them the Dakini practice I have written and that is very simple and I ask them to do it every day. One, the five Dakini practice, I ask them to do every day for a year, for a year and a day. After that, I tell them that they can do what they want with it. They are not restricted. They can share it in their women’s circles or they can share it with their families and friends. They can do what they choose and they can embellish it or elaborate it any way they want as well.

They can take it into dance, for instance, which some of them have done, They can take it into artistic forms or they can combine it with other practices and traditions. They celebrate. That’s unusual, the Tibetan system is a little tighter than that. But I feel these are practices that I made that are really a kind of synchronism between Buddhist work and goddess work. So it liberates them and it liberates me.

Mark: When you were talking I heard a better way to say “how you cultivate the best self”.  I found myself pushing back against “best” on my own, because of its epistemological aspects. As you were talking I really heard that wanting to transform into that notion of creating a wellbeing, or the wellbeing within the individual.

To me that fits really nicely, revealing that wellbeing. Potentiating that wellbeing becomes me ─ becomes you.

Vicki: Well, yes. It’s almost a cliché at this point in feminist terms that if women are only presented with male images of divinity, no matter how many times you tell them that they participate in divinity, we won’t know that in our bodies because we don’t see ourselves reflected in the iconography, or in those images, those icons.

It’s almost right that the goddess is needed for women in order that we can see the sacred in our self – actually see it and believe it. That’s basic to all goddess work. Then the Tibetan practices play into that beautifully, because they are goddess based.

They have such glorious female iconography. The Dakini in particular is an icon of female freedom. The Dakini is often unconsorted, autonomous and very independent. Dakinis and yoginis live up the mountain away from the monastery and have their own followers and do their own thing.

So that’s an icon that we actually don’t have in the West. It’s so useful.  We have the Virgin Mary, I don’t know what we have, we have Madonna.

We don’t have an icon of female freedom that is actually a divinity, is actually perceived as sacred, but also as something that we can aspire to. The Dakini is a goddess, but she also takes form as a human woman. I say, in my work, it doesn’t mean all women are Dakinis, but it does mean that any woman could be. That’s a kind of potentiality that is very liberating.

Mark: How do you now see this group in Italy, and maybe other groups as well with this practice, becoming communities of potential.

Vicki: Well, what’s happening? It’s like sparks that just keep going. The spark keeps being passed by the women who have functioned as organizers over the years. I have two especially young women who have taken over from the women that started the organizing. They are very creative and smart. A lot of the women actually are starting to take what I have taught them and what they do as practices together around the Dakinis.

They started to take it into other avenues of teaching, running circles and facilitating groups in their regions, or in their towns. So it has its own life now. I could never go back and it would still be happening.

That feels really satisfying. It taking its own shape, like one of the young women who has organized for me for a few years has now made contact with a university professor in the south of Italy. They had a conference and they are actually talking about partnership societies. They are doing a lot of work with men and women.

So it’s a real adaptation from my work that is with women exclusively. Things like that are starting to percolate. I feel like this garden is growing now. It doesn’t need me.

Mark: Thank you so much. I look forward to future discussions.