Thursday, May 26, 2011

In the Ordeal or Underworld

Dear Birth Peeps,
I am traveling today to lead a few workshops, but I want to send you another image and another step of the hero's journey.

When considering birth as a hero's journey, we begin to think in terms of "tasks" for the initiate or the "traveler." What are the Tasks of the Ordeal? What are we to do in the "underworld?" What is the "underworld?"

When a human being is living through an Ordeal, they are in the body, eating, drinking, washing clothes, making decisions and phone calls... they have one foot in this world, working, functioning, and often look ordinary... and another foot stepping over an invisible Threshold into the Underworld.

The Underworld can represent our vast unconscious. One of the Tasks of the Ordeal is learning, and learning occurs in the unconscious, it is a search for new knowing, it is a process of constructing new knowledge by reassembling bits of old learning stored in the unconscious in a new way. The Underworld is also where we have buried and forgotten parts of ourselves, our dreams, longings because we learned that doing, saying, and feeling certain things made us unloveable, or outcast, ashamed... So for a long time, while still in our Child, we have long denied ourselves certain ways of being buried in the Underworld, and at some point this unlived part Calls to us because it wants to see the light, to be lived... This Call, from Love to Love, is calling us to become more something, more whole, to live what we came here to live.

Every human being (and every family, religion, culture).... has a vast Underworld where things that are not acceptable are buried, forgotten, out of sight out of mind. When we learn (mostly as children, but at any time) that doing, saying, or being a certain way means we are not loveable, we do not belong, we will not get certain desired rewards... then we put that behavior or feeling in the Underworld.

One sure sign that something is in your Underworld is not only can you not do, say, or feel a certain thing, But! Nobody else can either! When THEY do, say, or express a feeling that is your Underworld, THEY remind you of what you have cut yourself off from, your own numbness, your own longing, curiosity, desire for personal freedom...So THEY are excluded from your circle, dissed, and used as examples, etc. Seeing someone manifesting what you have denied yourself is painful, and it is a Call to know this part of yourself.

The Ordeal takes place in the Underworld, which can be synonymous with the Heart or the secret recesses of our minds. And it is in this Underworld, this Ordeal... we may at last come face to face with something buried, it is here, perhaps in Laborland or postpartum.... we can finally be, do, or say, what we have never allowed ourselves. And this is one reason birth is empowering, and why it is indeed a rite of passage.

It is a passage from living an agreement or Rule we made or learned as a Child... and suddenly passing from the Child (archetypally speaking) to the adult, to a Mother-self, and one step closer to the Hero-Warrior.... still not a Warrior!!

In an oversimplified outline, overlaying the childbearing year as a hero's journey, labor would be the "Ordeal." And in many ways this makes sense because when a woman enters Laborland, from the first contraction... she begins a descent into her intuition, sensing, as she gradually becomes increasingly "mindless" and wordless. In this Underworld, we know what we know from the belly brain, we know in our guts what is happening. And yet, in our present culture what is in the Upper World is a different kind of knowing, evidence-based, rational, outcome focused, and so the woman learns even before labor not to trust or even tune into her gut. It can be said that it is not an individual woman who has put her intuition into the underworld, but a whole culture has done this.

Once again the Muses moved us forward in the Mandala, so I will take you back through some of the earlier stages the Ordeal.

So, the lower right corner, a cold black underworld corner.... wanted to be filled with an imaginal animal, and Underworld figure. Borrowed from the fantastic Toltec art at Teotihuacan in Mexico...

In the Underworld Ordeal I cannot paint images that make sense, that are concrete... I cannot paint images that might represent one person's birth Ordeal but not another, and besides, it is not an IV, or a cesarean, or any of the typical symbols we might associate with birth as an Ordeal that make this part of our journey an Ordeal. While these things are supporting actors in this Great Play of life, the true Ordeal is happening in the psychic realm, in our minds, in our Hearts.... and we are using labor, postpartum.... to take us "home," to break an old agreement, to grow up, to learn self-love. But this does not come easy. The closer we are to giving birth to the baby and to ourselves... the more psychic resistance we encounter.

But... if mothers knew this was part of the journey, they would have a much better chance of understanding their mental Ordeal during and after.... and this understanding would change everything.

So much more to say about all this, but travel preparation takes me away. I will write from Canada.


Sunday, May 22, 2011

BHJ: The Ordeal Begins

Dear Birth Peeps,
We almost never know the day our Preparation Phase is complete, and we are never as prepared as we would like to be. There is a notion rooted in wishful thinking that if we are "prepared," we will know the Way, we will not get lost or suffer too much.... If we waited until we were "ready" and fully prepared, we would never make the plunge or take risks (and there are those who live their lives like this, waiting for some imaginary moment of readiness or perfection).

The image that came to me was a dolphin and a pregnant woman diving into the Ocean. I did not "plan" to have the underworld represented by the Ocean, but of course it works because the Sea or Ocean is a symbol of the Great Mother, the Great or Dark Feminine in its depth, fluidity, formless potential, unceasing movement. And "diving" into the Unknown, the a rich, ambiguous symbol of Innocence and Trust, Courage, and Determination in the face of risk and danger.

I painted the image as it came to me, wondering why the dolphin? Friend of humans, an Ally? I looked "dolphin" up in a book of symbols: "a widespread symbol of salvation, transformation and Cretan and Etruscan mythology, the dolphin carries gods, saves heroes from drowning or carries souls to the island of the Blessed...Entwining an anchor, the dolphin may be a symbol of prudence (speed restrained).(1)

Ahhh yes! "Prudence (speed restrained)" ... The dolphin becomes the perfect messanger and symbol of the Ordeal where we are compelled to keep going, slowly feeling our way, even in the midst of periodic exhaustion and collapse...the dolphin buoying us up when needed. The dolphins Heart and Spirit is represented in red

The etymology of the word dolphin is derived from Greek word delphis, and delphys which means "womb." Perhaps the symbol of leaping dolphins once represented sexuality or the promise of regeneration.(2)

In the Underworld, things are not as they seem; nothing is certain; ideas and things come apart. And so I instinctively began to paint in dots... then was reminded of the powerful Aboriginal paintings I saw in I brought in a pathway of dots I remembered from one of the Aboriginal paintings.

When the Childbearing Year is a Hero's Journey, the Ordeal can occur at any time. We tend to think of labor as the Ordeal, however, keeping with the ambiguous rule of this "map," it can occur in pregnancy, or postpartum, or even during more than one period.

When the Ordeal begins, one way to go is to embrace it, to dive in. Another way is to wait, to dip your toe in the water to test the water... or wade in slowly.

Initiates can cautiously wait, wade, or dive in. Who decides? At what moment do we know...? What influences determine how we cross this Threshold from planning, comfort, and "knowing" into the Unknown, the Ordeal that will forever change us, inform us, and initiate us.

Contemplating this journey and these questions, and for sure living through it, grows wisdom and compassion. This journey takes us far from certainty and knowing and drops us on the doorstep of Humility and Love.



1. Tresidder, Jack (2000). Symbols and Their Meanings. London: Duncan Baird Publishers. p 67

2. Barnes, Craig S. (2006). In Search of the Lost Feminine: Decoding the myths that radically reshaped civilization. Golden, Colorado: Fulcrum Publishing.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Tasks of Preparation: Leaving "home"

Dear Birth Peeps,
Nowadays, when we think of preparing to have a baby during those precious few months--our culture turns our attention to keeping medical prenatal appointments, consumerism (buying baby things), prenatal yoga, and a baby shower or gathering. Childbirth classes may be on that list, and most classes have a "list," an agenda of their own.

But when we look at the childbearing year as a hero's journey, then pregnancy becomes a time for soul-preparation. As I said last week, the tasks vary because some are personal and some are collective. Today I'll mention a few of the collective tasks to give you an idea of what is possible here when we change the paradigm.

The First inevitable task is to "leave home." You can't go on a journey and stay "home." An image of leaving a physical dwelling, a house may come to mind (which is sometimes the case) but on our soul-journey "home" represents an inner place, a relational place; it's about where and with whom you hang out in your thoughts and beliefs, and where you "feel comfortable."

This First Task is therefore uncomfortable, so much so, that many people don't realize the significance of it, or can't actually take up this Task... or at least not before the Ordeal.

"Leaving Home" is an invitation to break away from assumptions or beliefs that were instilled in us as children by adults (through casual remarks and storytelling, intentionally through instruction, or even through our own child-imagination!). Until this critical moment in our lives, we may have assumed certain assumptions and rules (around birth and parenting) made sense and were absolutely the way it is and should be.

Stepping into or toward another level of adulthood, parenthood, consciousness... requires us to take a step away from at least one or two beliefs, assumptions, or relationship with someone who still holds dearly to those assumptions.

"Leaving Home" can be an emotional or social crisis for some mothers (or others) on the birth hero's journey... because leaving home may mean not going along with family traditions, expectations and beliefs of your own parents, friend, even your partner, or the dominant culture. So it may sound freeing and adventurous, but initially this step alone can be daunting.

As we create a new paradigm for childbirth preparation, this Task must be talked about, planned for, and supported. If a young woman is not supported in this Task, it is easy for her to succumb to family, peer, social, caregiver, or partner pressure, and to make this journey "staying home." Of course, if succumbing to what others think is right doesn't quite work out in the Ordeal, THAT realization may become the CALL that wakes her up, opens the door, and THEN her journey actually begins!!

When this first Task alone is lived, birth in our whole culture changes. Every generation has a new assumption, a wave... but wouldn't it be wise to have the elders be a part of the new wave, rather than the uninitiated reacting alone? Every generation is compelled to "leave home," it is part of human development. However, in the guided hero's journey there is one important difference!

With preparation from elders and the initiated, there is a change that the journeyer will be more prepared within... so that in leaving home she does not "leave herself," she does not abandon herself. With guided preparation, the journeyer undergoes certain "training" so her mind is disciplined, so she has learned certain skills she will need in her Ordeal... and these are not skills she can know to develop on her own as she is yet uninitiated. She needs an elder, an initiated by life person to help her in this preparation.

Presently, peers who have incomplete understanding are doing the initiating (through unprocessed stories, opinions, jokes) and advising whether the initiate should leave home or not. Presently, pregnant women, initiates, are being overloaded and bombarded with information electronically--but there is no "relationship" or contemplation with an app coming thru your smart phone. It is a tragic mistake to think that evidence-based information can replace an elder who speaks to the heart of the initiate and helps her grow determination and self-knowledge.

There is so much more to say about this, but it cannot be done through this blog. Again, it takes time to contemplate the depth of this paradigm, and in my workshops about the hero's journey, we can do exercises to begin to embody this piece.

Other Tasks of Preparation (for Birth as a Hero's Journey) include practical things, such as learning to cope with pain, mindfulness, learning a new language, and preparing for your Return.

We give very little thought to postpartum in this country... and yet, in the ancient and classic model of the hero's journey... the Return was given a great deal of consideration. In the ancient model, the would-be hero often anticipated being wounded or lost in the Ordeal and arranged for help to ensure her/his Return. So, prenatal preparation for postpartum is a critical piece, a missing piece in our culture.

The painting is continuing, New images are coming to me and appearing on the canvas.
Tomorrow I will post an image....

You cannot learn this paradigm from "a book" or from this blog alone.... this is an ambiguous, multi-layered model that requires you to contemplate its meaning in your own life, in observing others, in reading old myths, or while watching modern movies... you will see this template everywhere.


Sunday, May 15, 2011

Preparation for Birth as a Hero's Journey

Hi Birth Peeps,
It's time to continue our journey in Birth as a Hero's Journey. Travel interrupted the painting process, and I had to wait for a new image to come to me. I wanted an image that represented long term, big picture, conscious and unconscious life preparation for the big things we take on in life, or the big things that come our way--which include birth and the transition to parenthood!

In the photo you see the addition of a "row of shoes," from baby booties, children's shoes, soccer shoes and soccer ball, heels ... to hiking boots... Shoes are ambiguous and collective symbols that speak to each of us... walking through our life.

Below the shoes you see a shelf of books, from baby/children's books to text books... We learn from formal schooling, novels, and all sorts of written word.

So what does a woman need to do as part of her conscious preparation before birth and her transition to parenthood?

I like to think of the Preparation phase in terms of specific Tasks--specific to the mother (or the journeyer). There are certain tasks that are shared by many, and there are tasks that are personal. These tasks do not include buying baby things or showing up for prenatal appointments. No, these tasks are of a different nature; these tasks prepare the pregnant woman (and the father/other mother) for her new role as a mother.... Again this is beyond preparation to be a good health or baby product consumer.

I'd like to invite you to think about what the collective Tasks of Preparation might be. These Tasks will prepare the "initiate" by helping HER develop her ego strength, spiritual strength... and other changes that will build her Endurance during the Ordeal--in this case, labor or the hard work of those first months of motherhood.

If we want to begin to "initiate" parents, not just inform them, WE have to begin to see differently, and think differently. Please, feel into this, or reflect on your own experiences (what you did, or wished you had done, to prepare in this soulful way) and jot down your ideas. It seems it is difficult for followers to comment on this blog, but if you can figure out how to do it... please respond to this blog as this is a conversation that will be very juicy.



Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Childbirth Mentor's observations of two childbirth classes

Dear Birth Peeps,
I was in North Carolina for a week, then home, recovering and catching up, so I have been out of touch with you. My last blog posting was on clarifying the true objectives of childbirth classes--and really asking ourselves what it is parents are learning. One of our BFW Mentors wrote me a thoughtful response about her recent observations of two childbirth classes in her area.

"One class was from a home birth perspective, the other was in the hospital. Both teachers thought, and said, that they were open to different perspectives on birth, but they clearly were not. Both teachers, in their own way, seemed to be driven by trauma around birth, and would validate only one perspective: theirs.

"One thing that was lacking in the home birth classes was preparation for when things don't go smoothly. It is important for classes to inspire parents around the beauty of birth, the great mystery of it, and the truth that birth often unfolds smoothly. . . when left alone. Not all labors are meant to be left alone; it's important for parents to feel empowered in knowing when to ask for intervention, and feel good about accepting it.

"To only briefly acknowledge the possibility of things not going so smoothly, and to immediately downplay it, may leave parents without tools to get through their labor. [I noticed] the teacher would catch herself while describing a complication, and upon sensing rising tension in the air, she would immediately say things like, 'But that is not what is going to happen with you. That is not the type of birth you’ll have. You’ll be at home and things will be fine.' And the parents would immediately agree. I understand why she did this; she wanted the parents to feel confident in their ability to give birth. And, although the parents were happy to hear her prediction that their birth would be "fine,"... I suspect their fears are still simmering just below the surface. To say that difficult things can happen, but then try to quell fear through talking about how unlikely it is, does not empower or prepare parents.

"At the hospital, the childbirth classes could hardly be called classes. You put it perfectly when you said they were “An Orientation to the Policies, Beliefs, and Attitudes of Birth in Our Hospital.“ There was a lack of important information, time spent on unnecessary information, and some downright mis-information. It was so hard to witness.

"And its funny, I’m just realizing how much time she spent “selling” herself and her classes to the parents. She told them, 'You will all do great because you will be prepared since you took these classes.'or, "When a nurse says there is a 'screamer' in room 103, I know its not one of my mommies.'(The teacher constantly referred to the babies as 'my babies' and mothers as 'my mommies,' which absolutely drove me crazy!) [Examples include:] 'My mommies know that hee-hee got you in and hee-hee will get you out,' or, advice such as, 'Don’t waste your energy screaming.' It was maddening.

"What struck me about these classes was the pure innocence of the parents. . . to watch their facial expressions, and hear what questions they asked, and what questions they didn’t ask, was really eye-opening.

". . . I wanted to take them all home with me and mentor them . . . [offer them] the opportunity to grow, look within, build confidence, widen their expectations around birth, challenge themselves, develop tools for coping, and build connections with other parents!"

It takes great discipline and self-awareness to not "sell" a desired outcome, and to be able to have dialogs about the wide spectrum of possibilities in a way that the parents are informed and self-aware.

For a teacher to call a a pregnant woman-client, "mommy," or refer to another laboring mother as "a screamer" underscores our concern that the purpose and potential of childbirth classes are undervalued in our culture. I propose that the whole model of childbirth teacher training become a discipline that includes more in-depth preparation and personal growth--in addition to acquiring a certain body of contemporary birth knowledge.