A Letter from Myself (to Myself)

I’ve been having trouble with my meditation schedule this week, and I’ve been feeling bad about that. But I’ve also, for reasons I couldn’t pinpoint, been thinking about Marion Woodman’s Addiction to Perfection. When I took a look back at my review of the book, I think I’ve got a better understanding of why it’s been in my head this week.

About balance and perfection (from the book review):

-Perfection is static, unlike life which is constantly changing and moving. Therefore, perfection is more closely related to death than it is to life, and the pursuit of perfection can be seen as the unconscious pursuit of death.

-When we begin the transition from an overly masculine psyche to a more integrated and balanced psyche, we can expect to pass through turmoil and fear before we attain the balance and peace on the other side.

That last, if true, could be why I’m having trouble now with my meditation practice when it was going so swimmingly just last week.

So, today I’m quoting myself and inviting you to look at what else I wrote more than a year ago about Woodman’s book, perfection, and the quest for balance. It’s like my past self wrote a letter to my present self. Which is kind of cool.

It seems that, while I thought my Bold Plan for 2012 was a new direction, I’ve actually been traveling the same path all along. It’s just a very long path.

Book Review: Addiction to Perfection by Marion Woodman, Imperfect Happiness November 2010

Book Review: Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride

Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride : A Psychological Study (Studies in Jungian Psychology, 12.)Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride : A Psychological Study by Marion Woodman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It probably isn’t quite fair to give a book four stars rather than five simply because I couldn’t understand all of it, but that’s what I’m doing. I think if I read it again, I would absorb more of it, partly because there’s so much there and it takes a while to percolate and make sense to me, and partly because I had very little exposure to Jungian psychology before reading this book, so the language was a little inaccessible to me at first.

Some of the take-home messages I got from Addiction to Perfection:

-We are each, man and woman, made up of masculine and feminine sides of our psyche. The masculine side is the intellectual side, and it’s also the side that strives for order and control. The feminine side is based in the body and the earth, and it’s more intuitive. Neither is better or worse than the other, but if they get out of balance in our selves and/or in society, weird, off-kilter things happen (neuroses, if I’m understanding the vocabulary correctly).

-The impulse toward perfection is the result of an imbalance toward the masculine side. The “cure” is to awaken the feminine side, build trust with it, and bring it out to help integrate the psyche.

-Perfection is static, unlike life which is constantly changing and moving. Therefore, perfection is more closely related to death than it is to life, and the pursuit of perfection can be seen as the unconscious pursuit of death.

-When we begin the transition from an overly masculine psyche to a more integrated and balanced psyche, we can expect to pass through turmoil and fear before we attain the balance and peace on the other side.

This book was very well-timed for me. The practice of shifting my focus from my mind and the intellectual, with which I am most comfortable, to my body and my intuition dovetails nicely with the mindfulness practices I’ve already begun.

One passage in particular resonated with me, as it echoes an impression I got about modern birth practices as I compared the hospital birth of my first child with the home birth of my second. It’s actually a quote from R.D Laing’s The Voices of Experience in which Laing describes the reaction of an obstetrician to a woman’s description of her home birth. The obstetrician didn’t understand why the woman would want to go through all of that when she could have experienced no pain at all in the hospital. The birthing woman explained that she wanted to have a home birth because she wanted to have the full birth experience.

“He [the obstetrician] could not see how such a sentiment could have any value. He evidently sniffed some hysterical-masochistic heresy. Birth: abolished as an active personal experience. Experience: dissolved into oblivion. She is translated from feeling subject to anaesthetic object.

The physiological process is taken over by a chemico-surgical programme. End result: the act, the event and the coherent experience of birth has disappeared.

Instead of the birth of a baby, we have surgical extraction.

This domination and obliteration of the feminine by the masculine in modern obstetrics could go some ways to explaining why women who receive pain medication during labor report lower satisfaction with their birth experiences than women who receive no pain medication. The problem isn’t one of location (home birth vs hospital birth) or whether a woman receives pain medication or not. Rather, it’s based in the marginalization of the experience and the removal of a woman’s participation in her own birth process. For many women, this marginalization is decreased or eliminated with unmedicated and/or home births. That certainly was my experience.

At any rate, I really liked the book.

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(By the way, my NaNoWriMo word count for Day 16 is 28,456)

Book Review: Coraline by Neil Gaiman

CoralineCoraline by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This may seem strange, but I found many similarities between Coraline and Marion Woodman‘s Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride.

In Woodman’s book, she deals with two archetypal mothers, the positive mother and the negative mother. The positive mother is that which nourishes us, is authentic, and brings us the balance we need between the feminine and masculine aspects of ourselves. The negative mother is inauthentic, greedy, misleading, and if it feeds us at all, feeds us poison and lies.

In Coraline, there are also two mothers, Coraline’s real mother and the “other mother.” Her real mother isn’t perfect, but she loves Coraline and does her best for her. The other mother loves her, but in a greedy way. Gaiman writes, “It was true: the other mother loved her. But she loved Coraline as a miser loves money, or a dragon loves its gold.” The other mother wants essentially to devour Coraline, and will use whatever tricks necessary to accomplish this.

Woodman describes a process of birthing ourselves as whole individuals, nurturing ourselves with our own inner, authentic mother. In the end of the book, Coraline escapes the other mother by running through a dark, warm, damp tunnel. Seems somewhat similar to a birth experience to me. Once on the other side again having vanquished the other mother, Coraline has become more herself. She’s not perfect and neither is her life, but she recognizes the joy that exists in her life and accepts and believes in her own power and wisdom.

There’s even something of a theme of hunger and eating/not eating in Coraline, which relates to Woodman’s focus on eating disorders as a way of trying to feed a starving part of ourselves.

I’m not going to revert back to my college English-major persona and write a 10-page critical essay with citations about images of the “mother” in Gaiman’s Coraline, but I thought it was interesting enough to give it a little time in my review here.

I initially picked this book up thinking it might be something I could read aloud to my five-year-old daughter. It’s rather too scary for her, I think (she still talks about how scary the scene in E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan was when Louis’ father crashes through the window of the music store, and it’s been probably six months since we read that book), but I can see enjoying reading it with her in a couple of years. It’s a modern story written in a classic fairytale style. I quite enjoyed it, willy-inducing images and all. And it was an enjoyable break from all of the “heavy” reading I’ve been doing lately.

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Joyfully Moving

I got to attend the Monday night step class at my gym tonight, which I’ve only done once before, even though I loved it that one time I went. I’ve got the babysitter from 2-5 on Mondays and the class is at 5:30. Every time I think of how much I want to go to that step class and start to reason through how I can make it work to attend the class, I stop myself. It’s bad enough to take time away from my kids to go to the gym. I should just work out while the babysitter’s there and not try to take any more evening time. It’s too much trouble for my husband, it’s too much time away from the kids, it’ll mess up dinner time.

I recognized this attempt to avoid doing something for myself in the section of Marion Woodman’s Addiction to Perfection that I read last night:

For the perfectionist who has trained herself to do, simply being sounds like a euphemism for nothingness, or ceasing to exist. When the energy that has gone into trying to justify her existence is redirected into discovering herself and loving herself, intense insecurities surface. Abysmal emptiness questions whether she is here at all . . . To cease to give is to cease to mother, and where the ego is identified with mothering it doesn’t know at first what to do. It is so used to giving that it doesn’t believe it is worthy to receive, or else thinks that receiving is demeaning or selfish.

I smiled as I recognized myself in this passage. Then I took a pad of paper and wrote a note to my husband (who was already in bed) explaining that I was going to stick around home and clean out closets and get dinner ready while the babysitter was here, and then I was going to go to the 5:30 step class.

During the morning, I did manage to do some prep work for dinner (including making two batches of GF/CF pita bread, one that turned out more like GF/CF hockey pucks and the other that was softer but for some reason didn’t form the little pocket in the middle). But I ended up spending the entire three hours that the sitter was here on two closets, and I didn’t get any more done on dinner. I considered scrapping the step class idea, but in the end, I stuck with the plan and left my husband with a recipe book open to the falafel recipe and a bowl full of soaked garbanzo beans.

Waiting for the step class to begin, I scrutinized my image in the mirror (especially the tummy pooch I still have because I cannot seem to get my abdominal muscles to close up since they separated while I was pregnant with my son), compared myself to the other attendees, wondered if I should have worn long pants instead of shorts or a short-sleeved top instead of a tank top or if I was lame for having only one riser under each end of my step rather than two like most of the rest of the class had. But as the class began, I let these thoughts pass and focused on the beat of the music and my breath and the rhythm of my feet. I found that I was able to keep up with the cues better when I didn’t think about them. There were a number of times when I got to the end of a sequence and realized with surprise that I was actually on the same foot as the instructor and facing the same direction as the rest of the class without consciously trying. I also enjoyed watching how the instructor clearly enjoyed leading the class. I decided I really liked him, and I really liked my gym and Salt Lake City and my kids and my husband. I spent the class filled with love and joy, and I had just a great deal of fun.

I worry sometimes that the step class isn’t as intense or well-rounded a workout as my regular workout. As a result, I tend to consider it a treat to only take part in once in a while rather than as a core element of my exercise regimen. If I start going to the class regularly, I wonder if I’ll experience what Woodman describes: “once that forgotten energy begins to flow through dancing, painting, singing, joy is not experienced as selfish or luxurious, but as an absolute need.”

Woodman also writes about a lecture by Northrup Frye in which he points out that the word “rejoicing” in a passage from Proverbs is translated from the root word for “play.” One of the churches I’m planning to visit has this note on their website:

We Worship God Through Movement As Well As Words
Our bodies are God’s own creation through Jesus.  God knows what it is to be human.  Movement can be a way of giving ourselves back to God.  You will see many people crossing themselves, bowing, and kneeling at certain times.  When you come to worship try movement and see if your experience of God is made greater.  Movement, though, is not required. You may find it perfectly fulfilling without it.

I noticed that when I first read this, I felt a little uncomfortable. It seemed kind of hokey to me, and I felt a little nervous about what the service would be like with everyone moving around and giving themselves to God. But now I’m wondering if this could just be the reaction of that part of myself that is more comfortable with the “masculine” and resists any shift towards the more “feminine,” which would include the physical body rather than just the intellect. Maybe I feel more loving when I’m moving with the music in step class because I’m more complete and therefore more open to the spiritual. Maybe I’m rejoicing through play.

This morning while mixing up the first batch of pita dough, I put Chopin’s Polonaise in A-flat Major, Op. 53, on the CD player. The baby smiled up at me and started dancing. He ran his little feet, flapped his arms, spun in circles until he fell down, and laughed when I joined him and danced across the kitchen. I remember dancing with my daughter when she was around this age. Her favorite was Bing Crosby singing Jingle Bells. I wonder if kids are born knowing how to rejoice through unselfconscious movement and we—well, some of us—just lose it as we grow older. Maybe we’re all born with the masculine and feminine fully integrated within us, and as adults, it’s simply a matter of rediscovering that balance.

Conscious Sacrifice

Here’s part of what I read today in Marion Woodman’s Addiction to Perfection:

The overconscientious perfectionist knows she cannot control her obsession; she recognizes at the center of her whirlpool another power to which she is hostile. The whirling through her daytime efficiency and nighttime compulsion avoids as long as it can the confrontation with the Eye. That confrontation demands surrender of the rigid, self-deceptive “I.”

…The attitude of the ego towards the Eye is everything. If the ego is hostile, then it experiences itself as victim and sets itself up for self-murder. If the attitude is one of acceptance–not resignation, but open receptivity–then murder is transformed into conscious sacrifice. That change in attitude opens the heart to the power of love radiating from the Eye–the all-embracing, nourishing love that can support rather than destroy the “I.” Psychologically speaking, so long as conscious and unconscious are enemies, the ego experiences itself in constant danger of death. Once they are in harmony the ego experiences itself open and supported by the maternal matrix of love.

This idea of murder being “transformed into conscious sacrifice” is intriguing to me. In the book, Woodman writes about a woman who eats compulsively choosing to fast for a week. The choice to sacrifice through fasting yields remarkable insights for this particular woman. This leaves me considering what the difference is between the “Biggest Loser” boot camp model of weight-loss and the inside-out sacrifice of fasting.

Listening to RadioWest on KUER this afternoon, I caught a portion of an interview with Judge Thomas Buergenthal about his memoir, A Lucky Child, which deals with his past as one of the youngest survivors of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Buergenthal spoke about one instance in which prisoners were selected for hanging and then their close friends were ordered to perform the executions. One young man went to put the noose over his friend’s head. The friend took the noose and put it around his neck himself, kissed his friend’s face, then jumped from the platform. He turned a murder, literally, into a conscious act of sacrifice.

I don’t mean to imply that my situation is anything near that of a concentration camp prisoner or a compulsive eater, but I do think there are common human experiences from which I can learn. I don’t need to be a prisoner sentenced to death to engage in a conscious act of sacrifice. But the haunting story of this prisoner’s final act of rebellion, which was also an act of love for his friend, could give me insight into how I might move towards a similar state of psychological harmony.

Houseguests and Routines

One of my resolutions this month is to develop daily and weekly routines. I’m doing OK with the weekly routines, but I still struggle with daily routines. I sort of let myself off the hook this past week with my mom here, since having visitors always changes routines anyway. Now that she’s on her way back to Ohio, my thoughts have returned to this topic, and I’m pondering how to proceed.

I snuck in a few minutes of reading this afternoon. In the section I read today of Addiction to Perfection, Marion Woodman writes about routines as rituals. Whether they are positive or negative, these rituals serve to fulfill archetypes (she’s a Jungian psychoanalyst; they seem to use the terms “archetype” and “shadow” with some frequency. I’m not entirely certain I’m understanding them completely or using them properly). These rituals aren’t always consciously applied. In fact, we often don’t even realize we have them until they’re disrupted.

She uses the example of a morning routine. You wake up, go to the bathroom, go to the kitchen for a bagel and coffee (or, if you’re me, a green smoothie), brush your teeth and wash your face, etc. Then one day you have a guest staying at your house. You wake up and the bathroom is in use. You find yourself annoyed at chatting with another person during breakfast. The whole day gets thrown off and you’re in a bad mood because a ritual you didn’t even know you had was disrupted. These rituals are there to meet needs that we have, and if we don’t follow our regular ritual, we must have a substitute ritual or we feel out of sorts.

I wonder if this is part of why I’ve been having trouble applying daily routines to my life. I’ve been just trying to adopt other people’s routines, which haven’t really been sticking very well. Maybe the answer (or one answer) is to start by identifying the needs I’d like to meet and then building a routine from there. Another starting point could be to identify what routines I already have in place, what needs they’re meeting/what archetypes I’m acting out with them, and then shift the routines so that they are more positive rituals that still meet my needs.

Woodman talks about the overarching “masculine” energies in our lives and our society and how many of our negative rituals are attempts to grasp some “feminine” energy (through our relationships to food, among other things). I guess the goal would be to find more positive ways to balance the feminine and masculine in our lives. My inclination is to sit down with my brain and reason through this whole thing, develop myself a plan, and then record, apply it, and reflect upon the outcome, a process I’m fairly certain is tipped way over to the “masculine” side of things. I’m not sure I’m ready to use only my intuition, but I think I may be able to release my dependence on just my intellect. I have the sense that just having this awareness is starting me along the path to greater balance.

Week 10 Review: Dietary Disarray

I started this post Sunday evening, then abandoned it when I began feeling ill. I won’t go into details, but suffice it to say I’ve lost 6 pounds in less than 12 hours.

This past week I’ve been focusing on feeling what’s going on in my body (south of my brain) and trusting to my intuition rather than just my intellect. Being ill all night has been a very interesting experience in that light. My default when I’m ill is to torture myself by tracing back every little thing I’ve eaten for the past week, reviewing past illnesses, and then chastising myself for the supposed wrongs I’ve perpetrated against my body and devising a draconian plan to atone for these wrongs. The belief behind all of this is that I can control everything that goes on in my body. As a result, illness is a personal failing; if I’d just done the exact right thing, I would not be ill.

Last night I started doing this. I noted that, in celebration of my mother’s visit (she arrived on Saturday morning), I consumed gluten, dairy, alcohol, and sugar yesterday. I began analyzing each of these substances and trying to attribute an individual symptom to each. Then I reminded myself that I don’t need to use my intellect to get to the bottom of an illness. When I found my brain spinning its wheels, I counted my breaths. Once calm, I scanned my body and simply noted the sensations I felt. I still felt crappy physically, but the anxiety that generally accompanies my illnesses was largely diminished. A tiny miracle, in my opinion.

This morning I tried to go back to sleep while my mom played with the kids outside. Unable to fall asleep, I picked up the book I’m currently reading, Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride by Marion Woodman. Woodman is a Jungian analyst who writes about how the incongruities between our insides and the external world necessarily manifest themselves in our relationship to food. She writes of the “false values” we’ve adopted at the urging of our society and of our closest relationships, particularly the idolizing of the masculine qualities over the feminine. It’s not that one is better than the other, but rather that we experience discord if they are out of balance. “Food embodies the false values that their own bodies refuse to assimilate, by which I mean that their bodies become edemic, bloated, allergic, or resort to vomiting the poison out,” Woodman writes.

I’ve read about the relationship between the psyche and food issues such as anorexia and obesity. I’ve recognized patterns of controlling behavior in myself around food that seem similar to the obsessions and compulsions experienced by those with anorexia and obesity, but I never thought they applied to me because I’m neither anorexic nor obese. The inclusion of “allergic” in Woodman’s list set off a little spark in my brain. I’ve long wondered what relationship might exist between my psychological health (particularly unresolved or unassimilated inconsistencies in my life) and the seemingly overly sensitive way my body responds to food, and this passage gives me a little glimpse of what that connection might be. I’m very excited to read more of Woodman’s book.

In the meantime, I’m going to try to reframe the way I look at eating. While I do think that last night’s illness is directly related to consuming “off-limits” foods yesterday, I don’t want to respond to this with the typical blaming-and-controlling pattern I usually follow. With my “sick soup” simmering on the stove, I’m trying to focus on nurturing my body and being gentle to it with wholesome foods. The end result will likely be the same (no alcohol, gluten, dairy, or sugar), but I hope to get there by focusing on what will help my body feel good and run well rather than on what I should avoid to keep from feeling bad.

This week I’ve done a fair amount of decluttering. I’ve gone through the kids’ toys and clothes and most of the kitchen and dropped off two car-loads of stuff to the thrift store. My emotions dropping off the items included embarrassment that I had so much to give away, relief that I was getting rid of so much stuff, and fear that I was giving away something vitally important. I’m now wondering what physical effect this emotional purging process may have had vis-à-vis my recent illness.