“Birth is a great mystery. Yet, we live in a rational, scientific world that doesn’t allow for mystery. ‘In this day and age, there must be a better way to have a baby,’ implies that if you are informed enough, strong enough, you can control it. Any woman who has given birth, who can be honest, will tell you otherwise. There are no guarantees. It is an uncontrollable experience. Taking care of yourself and being informed and empowered are crucial, but so is surrender. Forget about trying to birth perfectly. Forget about trying to please anyone, least of all your doctor or midwife…” –Jennifer Louden (The Pregnant Woman’s Comfort Book)
I’m halfway through a year-long class based on the book Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. We’re examining and practicing compassion to ourselves and in personal relationships, community relationships, and to non-humans. The subject of our current month is, “making a place for others.” What does this mean? The author explains…
I began to notice how seldom we “make place for the other” in social interaction. All too often people impose their own experience and beliefs on acquaintances and events, making hurtful, inaccurate, and dismissive snap judgments, not only about individuals but about whole cultures. It often becomes clear, when questioned more closely, that their actual knowledge of the topic under discussion could comfortably be contained on a small postcard. Western society is highly opinionated. Our airwaves are clogged with talk shows, phone-ins, and debates in which people are encouraged to express their views on a wide variety of subjects. This freedom of speech is precious, of course, but do we always know what we are talking about?
Armstrong, Karen (2010-12-28). Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (Kindle Locations 1476-1481). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
I wonder about this sometimes in my own compulsion to blog—am I just adding to the digital cacophony out there, etc. and then that reminded me of a previously shared quote:
“A person who believes too earnestly in [her] own convictions can be dangerous to others, for absence of humor signals a failure in basic humanity.” –Thomas Moore (Original Self)
Armstrong also makes this important observation:
Hindus acknowledge this when they greet each other by bowing with joined hands to honor the sacred mystery they are encountering. Yet most of us fail to express this reverence for others in our daily lives. All too often we claim omniscience about other people, other nations, other cultures, and even those we claim to love, and our views about them are frequently colored by our own needs, fears, ambitions, and desires.
Armstrong, Karen (2010-12-28). Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (Kindle Locations 1596-1599). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
We all do this so often. I find myself very annoyed when other people play “armchair psychologist” and yet still catch myself doing it as well. I also think about “gossip” and its role in human society. I think curiosity about the lives of others is normal and talking about other people’s behavior and experiences with them is also normal. I am most disturbed when those around me claim seemingly infallible understandings of the motives, characters, and psychology of others (in my classes, I remind students to “separate person from problem” and to “describe behavior rather than character”). It is very common for us not to even understand ourselves, so I find it interesting, frustrating, and surprising that we then seem to think we can have direct understanding of the inner workings and thought-processes of another person. “Instead of discoursing confidently on other people’s motives, intentions, and desires, we should recall the essential ‘mystery’ and realize that there is a certain sacrilege in attempting to ‘pluck out’ its heart to serve an agenda of our own.”
What does this have to do with birth?
“Birth is life’s central mystery. No one can predict how a birth may manifest…Our dominant culture is anything but ‘natural’ so it is no surprise that childbirth, even with the most natural lifestyle lived by an individual family, sometimes needs intervention and medical assistance. This is not to say that any one mother’s efforts to have a natural childbirth are futile. Just that birth is bigger than one’s personal desires.” –Jeannine Parvati Baker (in The Goddess Celebrates: An Anthology of Women’s Rituals, p. 215)
When women’s choices are restricted in the birthroom or in access to compatible care providers, we’re plucking out the heart of mystery. When doctors or nurses “let” or “don’t let” a birthing woman do something, they’re plucking out the heart of mystery. When birth activists analyze a woman’s birth story for evidence of why things went “wrong,” we’re plucking out the heart of her rite of passage, of her story. When we fail to acknowledge the sociocultural context of breastfeeding OR when we cannot accept that a mother “couldn’t breastfeed,” we’ve plucked the heart of her mystery. When we need to have or know the “right answer,” chances are, we’re plucking the heart. And, we need to remember that…”Women’s surveillance of other women’s childbirth experiences–in this case, natural childbirth–can shape and constrain the individual choices women make in childbirth in much the same way medicalized assumptions about childbirth can.” (Christa Craven, Pushing for Midwives)
Armstrong goes on to explain…
Third, spend some time trying to define exactly what distinguishes you from everybody else. Delve beneath your everyday consciousness: Do you find your true self—what the Upanishads called the atman? Or does this self constantly elude you? Then ask yourself how you think you can possibly talk so knowingly about the self of other people. As part of your practice of mindfulness, notice how often you contradict yourself and act or speak in a manner that surprises you so that you say, “Now why did I do that?” Try to describe the essence of your personality to somebody else. Write down a list of your qualities, good and bad. And then ask yourself whether it really sums you up. Make a serious attempt to pin down precisely what it is that you love about your partner or a close friend. List that person’s qualities: Is that why you love him? Or is there something about her that you cannot describe? During your mindfulness practice, look around your immediate circle: your family, colleagues, and friends. What do you really know about each and every one of them? What are their deepest fears and hopes? What are their most intimate dreams and fantasies? And how well do you think they really know you?…How many people could say to you that you “pluck out the heart of my mystery”? In your mindfulness practice, notice how often, without thinking, you try to manipulate, control, or exploit others—sometimes in tiny and apparently unimportant ways. How often do you belittle other people in your mind to make them fit your worldview? Notice how upsetting it is when you become aware that somebody is trying to manipulate or control you, or when somebody officiously explains your thoughts and actions to you, plucking out the heart of your mystery…
Armstrong, Karen (2010-12-28). Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life (Kindle Locations 1644-1658). Random House, Inc.. Kindle Edition.
The irony of the fact that I’ve just filled up a bunch of digital air space with my own opinions, instead of practicing this principle, isn’t lost on me. As I move through this month, in all contexts not just in birthwork, I would like to open more to this “heart of mystery” and to not knowing as well as to avoid the tendency to analyze and “understand” other people. I also wish to be mindful of plucking the heart out of anyone’s mystery—may I be a witness to their mystery and may they feel both seen and heard by me…
“Birth is always the same, yet it is always different. Like a sunset, the mystery is also the appeal to those who get up in the middle of the night to attend laboring women. While the sequence of birth is simple, the nature of the experience is complex and unique to each individual. No matter how much any of us may know about birth, we know nothing about a particular labor and birth until it occurs.” (emphasis mine) –Elizabeth Noble in Childbirth with Insight (previously shared here)