I was barely a woman, ascending—so I chose to believe-- on a shining path of service, of prestige, of beauty, of love. And as I grew more successful in the world, my body resisted with a might and mystery that has left me speechless. In December of 2008, I discovered that I was at risk for cervical cancer. The undercurrent of depression and anxiety had pervaded my life for years before. Now, it came to a head. I spent the last of my college years consistently at the mercy and attention of healers. Doctors shifted specter-like under the glare of fluorescent lights—exposing my cervix and my blood to the measures of modern medicine. Therapists witnessed and framed the narrative of my pain and my potential—revealing a self I had yet to claim. The people I loved cared for me with a combination of fear and feigned strength—offering advice, consolation, and a mirror to my emerging fragility. My flesh and appetites withered. I descended from the world. I descended into my own disintegration.
Though my body persevered in spite of chronic illness, the threat of death consumed me. My mind dissolved in the quest to lend words to my experience. To define its cause. To define its purpose. To define its solution. Thin and weary, still neither my flesh nor my life would betray signs of the destruction confronting me. I could no longer suppress my body’s longing to be healed. So, on a grey January morning in 2009, I took a six-month leave from what was the center of my life: my university. Just a year away from being released into a sea of young and hungry professionals. Yet, as the working world beckoned me, I knew I had to enter it when I could serve on my own terms, and when I was truly alive. First, in the form of irresistible darkness, rest and silence demanded more time than I was willing to give.
Rest and silence often seem antithetical to everyday life, especially in these times. A woman committed to service in a world enslaved to speed and consumption, or greed, can find herself drowning among her fellow human beings. Others surrounding her chase limitless money, power, and vitality (arguably, immortality). They can devour her spirit in order to feed their pursuit. She’s prone to following their ways, not because she seeks their path, but rather, the innocent human heart that throbs naked beneath it. The heart that can never extinguish its need for belonging and love. Her commitment to humanity propels her relentlessly through the outside world, and she grapples with her urge to take refuge in her own inner being. Her drive to serve can overtake her until suffering and even death (by her own hand or otherwise), arrest her from the world. However, tragedy can be avoided as she rebalances her relationship between her inner and outer realms.
In her book, Journey to the Dark Goddess, Jane Meredith frames the modern woman’s spiritual journey according to the labyrinths of spiritual descent, ascent, and collective healing that women have traveled for millennia. Meredith advocates exploring those rituals that allow us to not only consent to, but to take complete responsibility for, the dark aspect of our experience. Without causing or deliberately amplifying pain or trauma, Meredith emphasizes our ability to work with and transform our own darkness. The most striking metaphor in her work is that of a female—willingly-- lying naked at the feet of death. Therefore, the descent into the Underworld of the Sumerian goddess, Inanna, is a prominent motif. Through each of the Underworld’s seven gates, Inanna renounces a symbol of power and identity, until she is ready to surrender her life. Then, she is reborn.
Similarly, mortal women must consciously sacrifice our sources of power and identity in cycles throughout our lives-- i.e. our careers, our educations, our relationships, etc. Through this process, we can either release those aspects which no longer serve us; or, we can reintegrate them in our lives after periods of profound grief, self-reflection, and self-care. We can emerge from our personal descents, in time and with the right resources, with greater authenticity, power, wisdom, and love.
1. Have you experienced an unexpected threat to your well-being? In learning how to heal, how is your relationship to pain (physical, psychological, spiritual) evolving?
2. What methods of grieving, self-reflection, and self-care have you found useful and/or harmful in your healing?
3. Can you resonate with the process of descent, ascent, and rebirth/transformation that I describe in this entry? How so?
4. Have you been able to successfully communicate your process through pain/trauma to well-being to the people you love and serve? How has sharing your process affected you and others in different contexts?
For additional support in navigating times of pain and trauma in order to heal yourself and others, I recommend the following resources:
1. Aphrodites’s Daughters, by Jalaja Bonheim, Ph.D. Of all the books I have read of its kind, this one honors, investigates, and illuminates the collective significance in real women’s stories with unforgettable power. Bonheim reveals that sharing our personal journeys through pain and healing is vital to women’s thriving-- and the world’s. It focuses on the sexual aspects of women’s struggles between intimacy and selfhood.
2. Journey to the Dark Goddess, by Jane Meredith. Combining her own healing process with pagan mythologies and rituals, Meredith demonstrates how to become a more fulfilled and integrated woman. Admittedly, I found the book to be repetitious, and in some parts, esoteric. Still, her perspective on navigating the essential darkness of a woman’s psyche and experience is worth exploring.
3. The Dance series, by Harriet Lerner, Ph. D. Lerner provides cogent guidance on human relationships with and through difficult emotions and conflict. Rife with concrete examples, this series has had a singular effect on how I communicate with virtually everyone. I have read almost all of the books in this series. I believe The Dance of Deception to be the most valuable when it comes to defining, expressing, and relating with our own truths, especially for women.