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Thesis Tidbits: Birth as a Shamanic Experience

Childbirth is a rite of passage so intense physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually, that most other events in a woman’s life pale next to it. In our modern lives, there are few remaining rituals of initiation, few events that challenge a person’s mettle down to the very core. Childbirth remains a primary initiatory rite for a woman.” –from the book MotherMysteries

When I was pregnant with my first baby, I read an article centered on the theme, “Birth as a Shamanic Experience.” I can no longer find August 2013 050the exact article (online or printed), but I distinctly remember my feeling upon reading it: I was entering into a mystery. Giving birth was big. Bigger than anything I’d ever done before and it went beyond the realm of a purely biological process and into something else. Like shamanic experiences, giving birth is often described as involving a sense of connection to the larger forces of the world as well as being in an altered state of consciousness or even a trance state. While shamanic experiences may involve “journeying” to other realms of reality, giving birth requires the most thoroughly embodied rootedness of being that I’ve ever experienced. It, too, is a journey, but it is a journey into one’s own deepest resources and strongest places. The sensation of being in a totally focused, state of trance and on a soul work mission is intense, defining, and pivotal.

Shamanic journeys may be embarked upon for the purpose of soul retrieval and I can’t help but think that this is the purpose of giving birth as well—the birthing woman travels into herself to bring forth the soul of her child.

“Birth is certainly messy and bloody. It is intense, fierce, fiery and loud, but not violent. It is bloody from shamanic transformation. Birth-blood is the primordial ocean of life that has sustained the child in utero; the giving of this blood in birth is the mother’s gift to her child. The flow of blood is the first sign, following the flow of waters, that signals that new life is on the way, just as it is the first sign of a young maiden’s initiation into a new life at her menarche. The blood of transformation is miraculous. In Spanish, the phrase ‘dar a la luz, to give birth, literally means ‘to give to the light’. Giving to the light — mothers giving birth are giving light to new life through blood. The messiness and bloodiness of birth are the gift of the Earth–elemental chaos coming into form.”

via Article: Birthing as Shamanic Experience.

In the aftermath of giving birth, particularly without medication, many women describe a sense of expansive oneness—with other women, with the earth, with the cycles and rhythms of life. People who become shamans, usually do so after events involving challenge and stress in which the shaman must navigate tough obstacles and confront fears. What is a laboring woman, but the original shaman—a “shemama” as Leslene della Madre would say —as she works through her fears and passes through them, emerging with strength.

In her classic book Shakti Woman, Vicki Noble describes giving birth as a central shamanic experience and perhaps the root of all shamanism:

“I believe I underwent an initiation of the most ancient variety, birth as a shamanic experience, the central act of female shamanism—the quintessential act that offers a woman a completed experience of facing and moving through her fears to the other side. It isn’t that birth is the only way for a woman to experience this initiation—many women climb mountains or face other kinds of physical endurance tests and also come through it reborn into their power. But biologically birth is a doorway, a given for most women on the planet. It is fundamental opportunity to become empowered. Most of us giving birth today do not have the full experience, which is co-opted and distorted beyond recognition, changed from an active process into something that is done to us, as if we don’t know how to do it ourselves. Reclaiming the right to birth in our own instinctual way is a shamanic act of courage that has unfortunately become as remote to us as our ability to fly through the night in the form of an owl or heal the sick with the power of the drum. It wouldn’t hurt if we began to think of our birthing and child rearing as central parts of our shamanic work…” (p. 223).

After explaining that the homebirth of her second son was her, “first initiation into the Goddess…even though at that time I didn’t consciously know of Her,” Monica Sjoo writing in an anthology of priestess essays called Voices of the Goddess, explains:

“The Birthing Woman is the original shaman. She brings the ancestral spirit being into this realm while risking her life doing so. No wonder that the most ancient temples were the sacred birth places and that the priestesses of the Mother were also midwives, healers, astrologers and guides to the souls of the dying. Women bridge the borderline realms between life and death and in the past have therefore always been the oracles, sibyls, mediums and wise women…

…the power of original creation thinking is connected to the power of mothering. Motherhood is ritually powerful and of great spiritual and occult competence because bearing, like bleeding, is a transformative magical act. It is the power of ritual magic, the power of thought or mind, that gives rise to biological organisms as well as to social organizations, cultures and transformations of all kinds…” (page unknown).

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I’m working on my thesis project on the subject of birth as a spiritual experience and this topic is part of it. You can read more about Birth as a Shamanic Experience in the blog post at Feminism and Religion from which this post is excerpted: Birth as a Shamanic Experience by Molly | Feminism and Religion.

Brought to our knees

“Rigid plans work best if you’re building a skyscraper; with something as mysteriously human as giving birth, it’s best, both literally and figuratively, to keep your knees bent.” –Mark Sloan, MD (Birth Day)

Today I spent a few minutes listening to a lovely webinar by Amy Glenn, the author of Birth, Breath, & Death. The topic was Supporting a Birthing Woman’s Spiritual Practice and I was immediately caught by Amy’s comparison of giving birth to kneeling in prayer. She mentioned that giving birth may drop us to our knees, just as those who pray may pray on their knees. Since I’m currently writing about birth as a spiritual experience, I connected to this implied notion: birth as embodied prayer. And, looking at the webinar photo of a woman kneeling in August 2013 019child’s pose, my own birth-prayers came vividly to mind. In my first labor, I spent a lot of time on my knees, later wishing that I had also given birth on hands and knees rather than being encouraged to birth in a semi-sitting position that I felt contributed to tearing. Later, when I discovered birthing room yoga, I loved realizing that these kneeling postures that I adopted spontaneously and intuitively in my first labor were yoga poses—an inherent body wisdom I carried within me, waiting to arise when called upon. This is part of my first birth story, briefly touching on my time on my knees…

Mark & Mom were wonderfully supportive of me as I labored. I tried various positions and they stacked up pillows for me on the bed so that I could be on my hands and knees on a soft surface (they put the Boppy onto some other pillows to make a “well” for my belly) and then Mom read some of my birth affirmations to me. That worked for a while. I also tried the birth ball for a while and ended up spending a lot of time on my knees on the floor with my head and arms resting on a pillow on the bed…

via My First Birth | Talk Birth.

Kneeling to birth played a prominent role in my second birth experience as well and I have frequently described the rapid birth of my second son as an experience that literally drove me to my knees. When writing about this birth experience, I said:

I was extremely proud of my body and its super-awesomeness 🙂 I felt that my sense of birth trust was physically manifested in my actual birth experience. My body was a powerful and unstoppable force and I had to get out of my own way and let it happen! I felt driven to my hands and knees–like a power was holding me there. After the birth my body felt weak and “run over by a truck”—I felt powerful and like a warrior during the birth…

via Quick Births | Talk Birth.

And, in perhaps my most spiritually meaningful birth experience, the home miscarriage-birth of my third baby also brought me to my knees:

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Brand new sculpture inspired by the thoughts in this post.

When I was still having the “HOW?” questions, other women that I knew who had experienced miscarriage started to come to mind and I knew I could do it too. I told myself that I had to do what I had to do. I said out loud, “let go, let go, let go.” I said I was okay and “my body knows what to do.” The afternoon I found out the baby died, I’d received a package that included a little lavender sachet as a free gift with my order. When my labor began, for some reason I wanted the sachet and held and smelled it throughout the experience. As I chanted to myself, “let go, let go, let go,” I smelled my sachet (later, I read in one of my miscarriage books that in aromatherapy lavender is for letting go). I also told myself, “I can do it, I can do it” and “I’m okay, I’m okay.” I felt like I should get more upright and though it was very difficult to move out of the safety of child’s pose, I got up onto my knees and felt a small pop/gush. I checked and it was my water breaking. The water was clear and a small amount. I was touched that now these gray pants were my water-breaking pants too…

Contractions continued fairly intensely and I continue to talk myself through them while Mark rubbed my back. I coached myself to rise again and after I sat back on my heels, I felt a warm blob leave my body. I put my hand down and said, “something came out. I need to look, but I’m scared.” Then, “I can do it, I can do it,” I coached myself and went into the bathroom to check (it was extremely important to me not to have the baby on the toilet). I saw that it was a very large blood clot. I was a little confused and wondered if we were going to have to “dissect” the clot looking for the baby. Then I had another contraction and, standing with my knees slightly bent, our baby slipped out…

via Noah’s Birth Story (Warning: Miscarriage/Baby Loss) | Talk Birth.

When the time came to gave birth to my rainbow daughter, she brought me to my knees as well and she was the only baby I caught in my own hands while in a kneeling position. Here is a segment from her birth-prayer:

At some point in the bathroom, I said, “I think this is pushing.” I was feeling desperate for my water to break. It felt like it was in the way and holding things up. I reached my hand down and thought I felt squooshy sac-ish feeling, but Mom and Mark looked and could not see anything. And, it still didn’t break. Mom mentioned that I should probably go to my birth nest in order to avoid having the baby on the toilet. My birth nest was a futon stack near the bathroom door. I got down on hands and knees after feeling like I might not make it all the way to the futons. Felt like I wanted to kneel on hard floor before reaching the nest.

…I couldn’t find her heartbeat and started to feel a little panicky about that as well as really uncomfortable and then threw IMG_0422the Doppler to the side saying, “forget it!” because big pushing was coming. I was down on hands and knees and then moved partially up on one hand in order to put my other hand down to feel what was happening. Could feel squishiness and water finally broke (not much, just a small trickle before her head). I could feel her head with my fingers and began to feel familiar sensation of front-burning. I said, “stretchy, stretchy, stretchy, stretchy,” the phone rang, her head pushed and pushed itself down as I continued to support myself with my hand and I moved up onto my knees, with them spread apart so I was almost sitting on my heels and her whole body and a whole bunch of fluid blooshed out into my hands. She was pink and warm and slippery and crying instantly—quite a lot of crying, actually. I said, “you’re alive, you’re alive! I did it! There’s nothing wrong with me!” and I kissed her and cried and laughed and was amazed.

via Alaina’s Complete Birth Story | Talk Birth.

Motherhood, especially my postpartum experience with my first baby also dropped the legs out from under me and I used the same expression echoed above in writing about this postpartum crucible:

I had regularly attended La Leche League (LLL) meetings since halfway through my pregnancy and thought I was prepared for “nursing all the time” and having my life focus around my baby’s needs. However, the actual experience of postpartum slapped me in the face and brought me to my knees…

via Planning for Postpartum | Talk Birth.

I’m not the only mother who finds this an apt description of the process of giving birth, today I found this touching story about memorializing the still birth of a mother’s baby girl:

This blanket isn’t much to look at. It isn’t a work of art. But it holds an entire story within its stitches. It holds the legacy of our precious baby girl who was stillborn, yes, but she was still born. Her name is etched on our hearts, and her short little life was not in vain. In those 37 weeks, she brought us joy and excitement. She brought us laughter. She brought me to my knees (to dry heave, because of being in pain, and to pray…). She brought us together, tighter, as a family. She brought us love. She brought us hope.

via Mind Mumbles: Our Stillbirth Storm.

And, I also read this gorgeous birth story that brings the concepts of prayer and birth kneeling into direct, evocative connection:

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Brand new sculpture inspired by the thoughts in this post.

From this point on, labor was like a long, hard prayer taking place through a dark and cold night. It literally brought me to my knees. At times I knelt, hands clasped in front of me. I had to work hard to surrender, to open myself up to the reality of labor and pain and let it be. It was a challenge. Knowing I needed to surrender to the labor, and to your advent, I made a silent decision to open my hands. I held them open and palm up in between each contraction. I tried to keep them open as long as I could once a contraction started. This was one of the most poignant parts of your birth – this surrender. I had to keep pushing my soul in the direction of you. I needed an openness of spirit as much as of body, for my spirit was caught up in a complicated grief from the months prior. At one point, when a contraction was coming, Kristen said to me, “Camille, you need to let this be big.” How did she know that I was holding back, hesitating? I needed to surrender to the hugeness of the mystery of life and birth and yes, even death. The challenge in your birth, dear Silas, was in the soul places…

…Kristen said simply, “Ok. Just listen to your body.” She trusted my body, which was so freeing. As I pushed, it felt natural. I was part of the pushing, as were you. I knew that the pushing was working, that you were coming down into the world. No one moved closer or moved away. No one tried to move me. I remained in the cleared meadow of a space with the freedom to move as my body wanted to move. There was complete freedom to do just as my midwife asked – to listen, and listen closely. To be. I was on my hands and knees, as close to earth as I could muster in the middle of Queens. And the transition to pushing felt seamless. I was permitted to remain in the deep cavities of my body, which were doing such brave work…

via The Birth Pause: Unhurrying the Moment of Meeting: The Story of Your Birth.

It isn’t only mothers who are brought to their knees by the act of birth, so are birth witnesses:

This is the story of falling in love with a baby before we even met her, the story of witnessing two friends fall deeper in love and the joy of meeting someone you just know you’ll know a lifetime in their very first second of life. This experience brought me to my knees in the end, a wreck of being awake 39.5 hours after witnessing such beauty I thought my heart would explode. I wailed in happiness, and entered a place where the only logical thing to do was roll around in the grass in the sun in full, tearful joy. I forever remain grateful to be a part of this.

It’s beautiful to document beauty, to witness beauty and just downright jump inside beauty…

via a birth story » Sara Parsons Photography.

In fact, we even see birth and knees referenced in the Bible as well:

Now when Rachel saw that she bore Jacob no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said to Jacob, “Give me children, or else I die!” And Jacob’s anger was aroused against Rachel, and he said, “Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?” So she said, “Here is my maid Bilhah; go in to her, and she will bear a child on my knees, that I also may have children by her.” Then she gave him Bilhah her maid as wife, and Jacob went in to her.

[No need to note how strongly I object to the notion of women being “given” to men. The author of the post referencing this quote then goes on to explain what ‘on my knees’ actually means, which is a little different than what I was thinking…]

…On my knees refers to the custom where the husband impregnated the surrogate while the surrogate reclined on the lap of the wife, and how she might even recline on the wife as she gave birth. The symbolism clearly showed the child was legally the child of the mother, not the surrogate, who was merely in the place of the wife in both conception and birth.

via Genesis 30 – The Children Born to Jacob.

Other birthing women experience the energy of birth as an embodied experience of Shakti. While Shakti can be personified as a Goddess, she is also understood as the great cosmic “fuel” of the universe, the feminine force that drives creation. Women may experience the energy of birth as Shakti moving through, with, and within them. While not specifically about birth, I recently wrote about Shakti in a related sense:

Shakti woman speaks August 2013 043
She says Dance
Write
Create
Share
Speak.

Don’t let me down
I wait within
coiled at the base of your spine
draped around your hips
like a bellydancer’s sash
snaking my way up
through your belly
and your throat
until I burst forth
in radiant power
that shall not be denied.

Do not silence me
do not coil my energy back inside
stuffing it down
where it might wither in darkness
biding its time
becoming something that waits
to strike. August 2013 050

Let me sing
let me flood through your body
in ripples of ecstasy
stretch your hands wide
wear jewels on your fingers
and your heart on your sleeve.

Spin
spin with me now
until we dance shadows into art
hope into being
and pain into power.

7/1/2013
via Woodspriestess: Shakti Woman Speaks

After thinking about this post all day and working on it in snippets at a time, a friend shared this quote with me saying that it reminded her of me. It felt like the perfect closing:

“As women connected to the earth, we are nurturing and we are fierce, we are wicked and we are sublime. The full range is ours. We hold the moon in our bellies and fire in our hearts. We bleed. We give milk. We are the mothers of first words. These words grow. They are our children. They are our stories and our poems.”

–An excerpt from “Undressing the Bear” by Terry Tempest Williams

Thesis Tidbits: Naming and Claiming

As I mentioned recently, I’m working on my thesis project on the subject of birth as a spiritual experience. Today, instead of my usual August 2013 032Tuesday collection of links, I’m sharing some thought-provoking quotes that I collected while writing the prospectus for my thesis. Pictures in this post are from last night’s Day of Hope and Healing ceremony in Rolla.

The first quote really relates to the whole reason I chose this topic in the first place:

“In this culture…a woman can be made to feel foolish for emphasizing the centrality of giving birth to her identity or her personal religiousness, her ‘womanspirit’” (Listening to Our Bodies, Stephanie Demetrakopoulos, p. 18)

While it is the opposite in my own circle of friends, in the dominant culture, whether given “religious” significance or not, I find this is true: women are made to feel foolish for emphasizing the centrality of birth to her womanspirit, to her life, to her feelings about her capacities as a woman and mother. Women are made to feel foolish for struggling with birth trauma OR for feeling “empowered” by birth. After all, it is just one day. But maybe, just maybe, part of this sensation actually originates in sensitivity to the feelings of other women:

Elizabeth Gray in Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience explains:

…this is not the entire story of the ambivalence a woman experiences along the way to claiming the sacredness of her own birthing process. There is the reticence she feels about possibly offending other women by seeming to elevate her own birthing experience. How is one woman to claim her own experience of an ‘easy’ birth when she knows other women labor for days in pain and some women die giving birth? How is she to name as sacred her experience of having babies, when, for whatever reason, other women are childless? How is she to claim her own experience of ‘conscious’ home-birth…,when other women may now regret having been unconscious with medications? Or if you had a ‘bad’ experience giving birth, how are you to name that when women around you are happily anticipating a successful culmination to their Lamaze classes? Women’s naming of much in their own birthing experiences is silenced by the sensitivity to other women’s feelings.

But despite these many reasons for reticence, there is a bonding of women who have given birth. It is deep and silent…a silvery shadowed oath between life and death down which all ‘the birthing mothers on the planet’ have moved, those ‘mothers of all times without whom no one walks this planet.’ Women who have given birth reach out to one another…saying to all those mothers whose birthing experiences were different than hers, ‘Don’t feel badly. ‘Rejoice in the incredible, joyous, astounding fact of creation…Every moment a child is born is a holy moment…’

(Elizabeth Dodson Gray, ed. Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience, p. 49-50)

Before this quote, Gray shares that the patriarchal association of birth (and women) with “uncleanliness” continues to impact women August 2013 040today:

“Because of this ancient overlay, it is not easy for women to lay claim to our life-giving power. How are we do reclaim that which has been declared fearful, polluting and yet unimportant? How are women to name as sacred the actual physical birth, which comes with no sacred ritual, while lurking around the corner of time are the long-established meta-physical rituals of circumcision and baptism?” (Elizabeth Dodson Gray p. 49)

Women today are also laboring to birth a healthier, more whole planet and means of being. For many women this begins with how they approach pregnancy and childbirth, how they consciously prepare to the welcome their babies into the world.

It is well past time in human history to push aside male dread and boldly claim the sacred woman-centeredness of every human birth…The wonder at new human life cannot be separated from the sacredness of women’s bodies or women’s lives. We will be involved in a profound betrayal of the gift of life itself as long as individual men and male culture ‘freak out’ before women’s power to give birth…If we cannot affirm women and women’s bodies and women’s birthing and women’s choice, we will go on bringing death to the planet and to ourselves. We cannot affirm life without affirming women. [emphasis mine]

(Elizabeth Dodson Gray, ed. Sacred Dimensions of Women’s Experience, p. 50-51)

And, as I’ve touched on before, birth and breastfeeding are the original sacramental experiences:

“Woman’s body is a transmutation system; it has the power to change blood to milk, to change itself into food which in turn becomes the physical and psychic energy of a child. She is creating an incarnate soul, assisting it in growth.” —Stephanie Demetrakopoulos (Listening to Our Bodies, p. 36)

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(this is my prayer flag this morning when I hung it up at home after the event last night)

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Flowers released on the lake at sunset.