Our Ideal Self: Was it Ever Real?

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The tasks of midlife are many and often underestimated. We’re confronted by the gaps and shortfall of our youthful dreams compared to the life we’ve actually got. Our deeper self calls us to a soulful journey of recalibration, what is often referred to as a “midlife crisis”. This can be immensely painful, but also richly rewarding if we choose to explore the path down through the layers of our carefully (and often unconsciously) constructed ideals and fantasies. There’s real grief to be felt, and a sorting through of our beliefs of what is really authentically me and what is actually someone else’s idea of who I should be eg. what the family or the culture believes we should be or have achieved by now.

The hard part is that these are invisible losses to those around us. There’s often no clear happening in our lives for others to see lending validity to our grief. But we do grieve, and our self-belief takes a battering. Deconstructing the ideal image of ourselves can be confusing and disorienting, causing anxiety, irritation, anger, melancholy, depression, loss of energy etc. It can undermine or disturb our relationships, and our capacity to do our work. How much is very individual, but for some people this is profoundly so.

Coming to terms with infertility was my first encounter with this. It’s a journey that’s had profound impact on my sense of self, and that has many layers and twists and turns of grief embedded within it.

I never expected my body would fail me in something so fundamentally natural as becoming pregnant. It’s been hard to discard the sense of failure that feels like it lies deeply, yet subtly, embedded in the very cells of my body. It can’t just be “decided away” through an act of will or overlay of positive thinking. Woman as fertile source of life is one of the most ancient and pervasive of all archetypes, and is not so easily dismissed or re-framed. The feelings of loss and despair, whilst very personal, can sometimes feel so vast and inexplicable I’ve come to understand that at times we also touch into the archetypal layers of these feelings. As if we enter a place where the grief and despair resides of all the women who’ve gone before us throughout all time. Finding ways to hold to and engage fully with our grief is vital eg. through the support of therapy, dream work, creative expression, online communities like Gateway Women etc, and ones who love us even if they may not fully understand this particular loss.

Ten years on, and after much inner work and acceptance that I’ll not have children of my own, menopause has brought more layers of this loss and grief to the surface. I instinctively followed a strong need to actually see my grief on my own face (something that was very difficult to do and very confronting, but ultimately liberating, for me as an introvert who tends to keep feelings below the surface). So, out came my iPhone, and what followed was an almost obsessive series of “selfies” showing my far-from-ideal-self to myself. I needed to really get just how deeply I’d been affected by this “invisible” loss, to feel compassion for myself and my “failing”, and to genuinely see and feel myself as beautiful, even in such grief and “imperfection”. Pushing these images through various photo filter apps, degrading and overlaying the images with various treatments, created portraits that seemed to come from the hidden layers of the unconscious, the selves that hide behind the ideal self. Some of these became my exhibition Layers and Shadows.

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In a blog on infertility and grief on the Gateway Women website, Jody Day wrote “But no-one can grieve alone, inside their head, because that’s not how grief works. Grief is a form of love, and it requires company – it needs to see its reality reflected back to itself from the heart and soul of another human being. Just as love does.”

As Jody says, grieving is not the problem, not grieving is the problem. There are few maps for this kind of grieving, and it can take a long time to work through. This particular “ideal self” is so embedded in our society we are surrounded by it at every turn, and through every form of media. Laying this ideal to rest asks us to find another sense of identity that is life affirming and positive, and not defined by what we have failed to do. To let ourselves off the hook and return to the land of the living, in our own time. “Childless by circumstance” women are beginning to make their voices heard these days, offering support to each other and seeking to transform the public conversation around this issue. If you are exploring this, some helpful websites are: Silent Sorority, Gateway Women, Lesley Pyne and The Cycle: Living a Taboo.

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Polarity Plays

The old saying goes “opposites attract”, but getting them to live happily together is another thing. This applies to the opposite dimensions within ourselves as much as it does to our love and family relationships. We call these pairs of opposite qualities “polarities” and we tend to value one of them over the other, depending on who we are and what’s important to us. These beliefs are generally shaped by what our parents, teachers, and society at large says are good and bad about us, and we adapt to them. So we make judgements about opposites like light/dark, extroverted/introverted, mind/body, logic/intuition, masculine/feminine, thinking/feeling etc. Indeed, a lot of our education system and workplaces tend to value and encourage one polarity over the other (light-extroverted-mind-logic-thinking over dark-introverted-body-intuition-feeling ie. the archetypal “masculine” traits over the archetypal “feminine’ traits).

Seeing them as opposite states or skill sets inclines us to think we must choose one over the other. Seldom do we look at them as expressing opposite ends of a continuum, along which we can move back and forth, and which all together embodies something much larger and dynamically harmonious. We tend to see and experience them as conflicting dualities rather than as a dynamic unity. Eastern spiritual thought and the mystical approaches to Western religions recognise that fundamental duality thinking (with its good/bad moral judgements) is limiting. The key is to expand how we see and experience ourselves, and our world, to embrace a more wholistic and balanced approach.

By allowing ourselves to explore what each “opposite” has to offer us when we look at a situation, judge another’s behaviour, prepare to make a decision, create policies that impact other’s lives etc we have access to a richer and wider range of “information” (factual, logical, emotional, intuitive, body sensing). Hopefully, this means we can make choices for ourselves, and others, that are more beneficial to the whole of who we are, not just a small part of who we are. Hopefully, this means we can have more tolerance and compassion for those who are “not like us”. We can value the dreamer, the quiet one, the emotional one etc as much as the logical and clever one, the social one, the go-getter one etc And, hopefully, this means we can value all these aspects within ourselves, for they are there even if seldom used or recognised.

We can have both and learn to use them well in partnership with each other, knowing that different circumstances at different times call for different balancings between these “polarities”. There is an art to this balancing act, and it is a dynamic one that requires curiosity, compassion, tolerance, love and commitment to ourselves and to others. It is challenging because we have to give up needing to be absolutely right about everything, and we need to give up ignoring the needs and desires of the under-valued parts of ourselves. There are often many rights, depending on the viewpoint you adopt. The question is what is right and best for you now, and for the whole of who you are? Is it what is really right for you, or is it what you have been trained to think is right for you?

Distinguishing between these different modes of knowing may not be easy at first. So if you are not sure how to begin you could try asking yourself to respond honestly from each of the following perspectives: I think (such and such about this issue), I believe (such and such about this issue), I feel (such and such about this issue), I know (etc), I sense (etc), I imagine (etc).

You could practise on the smaller things in your life, and bring a sense of play and exploration to it.  You could think of it as a creative and collaborative dance between the different parts of yourself rather than a competition for dominance. Then you can work your way up to the more significant issues in your life. After all, it takes time to develop new skills and internal pathways of knowing yourself more completely.

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Full Moon!

It’s full moon tonight. Taking my dog, Bella, out for her last patrol of the park, I find myself raising my arms to her beauty and lustrous glow. Even 10 minutes from the heart of the city it’s possible to feel a sense of magic and wonder on a mild summer evening amongst the silent trees, with fresh beads of dew on the grass underfoot. As Bella’s kelpie-shaped shadow approaches me across the grass, my senses catch a glimmer of ancient wildness, of those times long-gone when our ancestors lived more exposed to the natural elements and rhythms of life than we do now.

A quiet, almost illicit excitement resonates deep in my instinctual body-self. It’s a glimmer of another me, a more primal self with senses wide open and attuned, heightened to the nuances of smell, shifts of shadow and light, the feel of cool air on my skin. For a moment I am a natural, archaic woman in company with a wild dog beneath the soft brilliance of a full moon. The same moon that has shone her light on humanity for many thousands of years. The same moon that has eternally marked the turning of the seasons, and the menstrual cycles of women.

Such a small gesture as stepping outside into the night and turning my face to the moon links me with the long line of women ancestors, whose ways of life honoured and acknowledged the changing cycles of the moon, the seasons and their bodies menstrual bleeding. Cycling through the stages of life from maiden to mother to wise-woman/crone.  Who imagined the divine source of all things in the form of the goddess, and attributed the symbol of the constant, yet ever-changing, moon to her.

So keep an eye on the moon, no matter where you are. Step out into the night sometimes and turn your face to her light. Breathe deeply a few times, feel the ground beneath your feet, feel your weight balance in the centre of your body, and your thoughts quieten down. Open your senses and your imagining, and feel yourself connecting within to a larger and deeper sense of the feminine than just yourself. Feel that in your core and know that you can source yourself as a woman from here, an instinctual source that is grounded in your body and can help shape your sense of yourself in a very authentic way.

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Remember

Many years ago an archaic image of the ancient feminine formed itself out of the clay under my hands. It was a residential training course in The Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music, and I followed my instinct to allow the lumpy “ugly” figure to arise from some deep place within. We were asked to dialogue with what we had created. Once again I followed my instinct rather than my rational mind, listening to what arose from deep within, and wrote what completely surprised and even shocked me. It felt so strange. Once she was formed and my dialogue was complete, I became aware of the others in my group who’d created beautiful forms to the music chosen to guide our creative expressions. I felt very self-conscious and nervous about exposing this “ugly” thing and these strange words I had written, it had been such a powerful inner experience. When it came my time to share with the group, my instructor commented that it sounded like an initiation. In retrospect, I feel she was right. It was an initiation, a calling to explore this long forgotten ancient feminine image and discover what this means for me. That experience of her emerging spontaneously from within has stayed with me ever since as one of those guiding and significant moments.

Some years later I formed the essence of that dialogue into this poem. This image was also created later, inspired by the Palaeolithic goddess figurines of old Europe.

Ancient Goddess IIDo you hear me most beautiful of daughters?

I hear you Oldest of All Mothers.

Do you feel me most beautiful of daughters?

I feel you Oldest of all Mothers.

That is good most beautiful of daughters.

Now, remember …

The thing about this clay image of the ancient mother was her asymmetry. One normal ear for normal listening, one ear turned within for inner listening, and one normal eye for normal seeing, one eye like a spiral turning within for inner seeing. A large tuberous, almost trunk-like nose for sniffing and tracking mysterious spoor in the wild lands of my soul. In other words she was asking me for a re-attunement of my senses, to expand my seeing, hearing, listening, sensing to include the inner dimensions, the intuitive and the imaginal realms of dreams and ancient myths and symbols. She was not a romantic image but a primal and instinctive expression of the qualities of the deep feminine.

I’m sharing this because it was a beginning place for me and this blog is another beginning place. Where the call to write about these things finds its way into the world for the first time. I invite you to bear with me while I find my way with this, and to ponder, meanwhile, how you might re-attune your senses. Sniff the winds of your unconscious inner realms for the scent of your ancient and primal source of being a woman. Take some quiet moments to allow that felt sense, however it is, to flow into the deep places of your body and innermost sensing. Begin to notice how it feels to have that sense of being deeply resourced from there. Remember no two experiences are the same, yours is unique to you and just as it should be.

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