Therapist, trainer, writer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Servants of the Sacred Dream: Rebirthing the Deep Feminine

by Linda Hartley

Introduction

The re-emergence of the deep feminine into individual and collective consciousness is at the heart of a transformation we are being challenged to make today. To connect to the source of the feminine we must journey deep within ourselves, a journey which often entails suffering crises of body, soul, and spirit as we seek the ground of our inner being.

This path is most fully embodied in the lives of women. It is also travelled by mystics and shamans in their initiatory and healing journeys, and through the creative process of the artist. Crises on the path are challenges of the deepest order whereby we are called to realign our psychological and spiritual core to a new way of being. Attitudes prevailing in modern culture generally misunderstand, reject, or pathologise those experiences that herald the return of the conscious feminine.

For about five thousand years, the world has been dominated by patriarchal consciousness and its social orders, religions, and values. Today we are recognising that this age is reaching an end, must end. We are being forced to look at the values we are living by, the world we are creating according to those values, and to question the choices we are making, for they may be crucial to the well-being and survival of humanity far into the future.

Beleaguered by social conflicts, wars, famines, environmental pollution, and the threat of annihilation through weapons of mass destruction or ecological breakdown, our world is changing at a pace so rapid that the individual human being struggles to keep up. The human intellect seems to have an unlimited capacity to invent, create, and dominate, but our bodies and our feelings do not so quickly adapt to the pace of technological progress which our minds have initiated. The cost of progress to our physical and psychological health has been high. Something has been left behind in this race, and we desperately need to reclaim it.  

Crisis and Renewal

When something has outlived its usefulness it must give way and allow in new influences. If it does not, it grows excessive and its potential good qualities become distorted, repressive, and abusive, instead of life-affirming and supportive. Patriarchal dominance has reached such a point. Patriarchy is not, of itself, bad, and has clearly served a necessary purpose in the evolution of human society. But it has now become unbalanced and distorted, and to follow on this path any longer will lead us into very real disaster.

When the old does give way, the process of change itself invariably brings with it a period of chaos and suffering, but suffering of a different nature from that inflicted by an abusive system holding on to power. We are, collectively, at such an edge and faced with the choice of welcoming change and the emergence of new values and consciousness, or resisting the inevitable and continuing to suffer the distortions of a system grown rigid, insensitive, and often brutal.

Britain during the last decades of the twentieth century had a particular significance in this process. We witnessed the dying days of a once great empire, an empire that was the pinnacle of patriarchal achievement. History has shown us that all great empires turn barbaric in their f all. The sophisticated form of barbarism which we experienced towards the end of the last century was couched in euphemisms like ‘economic growth’, ‘free enterprise’ and ‘technological progress’, which so readily degenerate into the abuse of human and natural resources, ecological crisis, and exploitation of the vulnerable. Instead of conservation, ‘conservatism’ came to mean something closer to ever-increasing ‘consumerism’, and political choices were largely dictated by fear and greed, so closely linked in a society that feels itself to be living insecurely at the edge. This country was depressed, as it struggled between the need for radical change and a resistance to accepting this need.

However, living at the edge also brings a growing awareness of both the plight and the changes that are necessary and potentially immanent. New awareness is bringing new concern. At the edge, we see how precarious and painfully vulnerable life is – human life, the life of the earth, all sentient life. With this realisation, we also begin to feel how precious life is. And, as cracks in the old structures begin to appear, new life quickly begins to take root there.

Of course, Britain is not alone in these trends. Other ‘empires’ are dying, and all countries of the modern world are faced with the same issues and concerns today. In any country facing the demise of an historical greatness and power, a particularly difficult struggle may be experienced between the tendency to cling to the old order, and the need to embrace the new awareness and values that are attempting to emerge into our collective consciousness. The emergence of something new brings with it a reactionary swing towards the old and familiar, about to slip out of reach forever, as we try to cling to safety and certainty. Much of the pain, struggle, and fear of times of change come as a result of the conflict between the wish for everything to stay as it is, the need to move on, and futile attempts to avoid the pain of the chaos and confusion that change often brings with it.

At such an edge, we also experience a heightened awareness of all that is wrong with the old state of affairs, all that has failed or gone amiss, the injustices and abuses formerly unrecognised or denied, and the ‘unfinished business’ that calls to be resolved before we can move beyond it to something new. So we enter the new millennium with an enormous agenda for positive change in areas such as the care of children, education, health, human rights, protection of the natural environment and endangered communities, and much more.

Individuals who are sensitive to the undercurrents of the collective process may feel this conflict acutely, and in a personal way. With the breakdown of communities and the family, loss of religious values, and the threatened collapse of once stable institutions, economies, and ecological balance, many people inevitably suffer great personal misfortune. But not only as a result of the external changes taking place in the world; the crisis we are going through is, at its heart, a crisis of consciousness, and it is the consciousness of the individual which is being challenged to grow through these times. Faced with personal and global crisis, we are being challenged to open our awareness to both the risks that confront us today, and the potential for cultivating a new, creative, and more compassionate approach towards life and living.

The challenge of opening to new awareness, though a collective issue, can only be done by the individual. The struggle to become free of an outmoded system of beliefs and values, and open to embrace a new way of being, perceiving, and acting in the world, can only be felt in the hearts and minds of individual people. Through personal experience, many today are suffering the birth pains of collective transformation, the awakening of new consciousness. As individuals, we each embody, in the personal details of our unfolding lives, the collective process.

A person going through a process of profound inner change is often viewed by society as mentally ill, suffering a pathological condition that needs to be treated or cured. But such a condition may be not only pathological in nature. Breakdown or mental illness may be caused by the awakening of new awareness and the struggle to be free of the power of old mechanisms of control, both internal and external; it may hold the potential for real and deep healing and change to take place. In such a healing crisis the individual, like the collective, is faced with the pain of past hurts and fears, deepened awareness of present predicaments, and the need to resolve conflicts which keep her bound within the old power dynamics. She is also confronted with the challenge to embrace new consciousness, open to a deepened sense of who she is, and through this, to accept more fully her purpose and responsibility in life.

Within the healing crisis lies the potential for growth and change, a psychological and spiritual rebirth, but it is a delicate process and one that can easily be aborted. The attitudes of family, friends, professional helpers, and society towards the individual’s experience are crucial in providing a positive context of meaning. Although the distress experienced must be acknowledged and appropriate care given, if the process is viewed and treated as purely a regressive and pathological breakdown, then it may become so; the healing potential may not be able to unfold in such an environment. The meaning and value that is given to the crisis is crucial; as more and more individuals are being confronted, or are confronting themselves through journeys of deepening consciousness, there is an urgent need to develop a better understanding of the processes involved, and the kind of support that is required.  

Returning to the Source

This book will explore some of the issues often hidden behind labels of psychopathology, and attempt to offer some alternative perspectives from which to evaluate our suffering and ordeals. It will address both the pathology of body, soul, and spirit, and the potential for deeper meaning – the ways we may get lost, and the possibilities for growth and healing that may be found within the crisis – placing the individual’s experience in both a cultural and a spiritual context.

The crisis I am speaking of is psycho-spiritual in essence; it occurs when the psyche is burnt by the light of spirit, when the ego is overwhelmed by a too-sudden opening of consciousness which it is not yet ready to embrace. Many things may act as catalysts for such crises. Traumatic life experiences such as bereavement, the loss of an important relationship or job, a serious illness or accident, for example, can plunge us into the ‘dark night of the soul’ and a profound search within our own depths for meaning and new life. The opening of consciousness may also be stimulated by hallucinogenic drugs, deep psychological work, or intensive meditation practice. Christina and Stanislav Grof, who have researched and worked extensively in this field, have named such crises ‘spiritual emergencies’. In their book of that name, they describe some of the many causes and varieties of experience encountered ‘when personal transformation becomes a crisis’. [1] (For this reason, and also because I am speaking of personal experiences as a woman, I have chosen to use the feminine pronoun throughout; in places, I talk about experiences that pertain more specifically to women, though they may be relevant to processes of the feminine in men too. In other parts of the book the feminine pronoun is intended to refer equally to both men and women, and is used alone for the sake of simplicity.)

As we midwife ourselves through these times of collective change, we need to develop an understanding of the process of regeneration, and the needs of the person going through its critical stages. With the necessity of a change in consciousness facing us today, more and more people are being called to make the journey into the depths and heights of their being. It is not surprising that, along with a growing need, a rich variety of teachings and methods for awakening consciousness have now become available to us. We have access to ancient teachings from both eastern and western spiritual and healing traditions, which are finding a new home in the lost and searching souls of modern men and women. Great teachers from distant lands now visit our own home towns, so that we no longer need to make arduous journeys in order to hear profound teachings that were once secret and hard to find. And with the understanding of human nature that western psychology has developed, a great array of new methods for healing, personal development, and transformation has also emerged in recent years. As with any birth, this brings with it unimagined possibilities as well as risk and danger, for we are treading a precarious path between worlds.

Those worlds are the realms of psyche and spirit, of the known and the barely knowable, of life and death, of matter and mystery. We are attempting to create, or perhaps remember, and cross the bridge between these worlds in order to return to what has been lost, forgotten, left behind. It is our soul and our spiritual values that we have all but lost in the mad race for material progress. Through our personal and collective crises, we are being called upon to return to our source, and redeem what has been cast out, wounded, or forgotten. Many of us are being called to descend, on the journey of soul-making, into the underworld, the dark side of life, and there undergo the initiatory ordeals of death and rebirth.

This journey has been described in many different and poetic ways through the religious and mythological writings of every culture in history. There are common themes underlying these varied descriptions of the process which point to its universality, despite the fact that each culture has dressed the story in the garb of its own cosmology and symbolism. In Rebel in the Soul, a commentary on an ancient Egyptian mystical text that prepares the initiate for spiritual transformation and rebirth, Bika Reed describes the Egyptian view:  

‘The “Book of the Gates” depicts the progression of the sun through the night. The twelve hours of the Dark Night are depicted as regions of the Underworld. Each region is an ‘hour’ of the Night and has its gate. To pass the gate, one has to know the name of its Guardian.  
‘The consciousness moves through the Underworld from gate to gate in a process of slow animation. For Egypt, life and consciousness are synonymous. To be dead meant to be unawakened and inert, moved like a leaf by the wind. ‘To be dead’, for Egypt, is a state of in animation, preceding consciousness or life. The process of animation, depicted in the “Book of the Gates” was called “Coming Forth Into Day”.’ [2]  

In the process of travelling this dark path into life, or consciousness, we need guidance; without proper guidance, we may become lost in the dark regions, prey to madness and despair. Yet modern western culture has, by and large, lost touch with a spiritual tradition and philosophical context that might embrace such experiences, and guide the traveller through them.

There is no appropriate guidance because an understanding of the universal journey through the underworld, and acceptance of the natural cycles of life, death, and rebirth, have been lost and denied by our modern western culture. Patriarchal consciousness is turned towards defying and overcoming the powers of nature, darkness, death and decay, and is focussed on a linear concept of progress that denies the cyclical processes of nature. Even many ‘new age’ approaches to healing and growth tend to deny or dissociate from the dark side of life. And so the traveller through the dark night of the soul all too often becomes the mad-woman and may find herself incarcerated in a mental hospital – or exiled in other ways from home, family, and community – because there is no rightful place for her misunderstood experience within our society.

Without an understanding of the potential meaning of the crisis, proper guidance and support cannot be given. Understanding in this context also means personal experience, for if we have not gone through and survived the experience of the underworld ourselves, fear may prevent us from being able to support another who is undergoing the ordeal. What we don’t know always makes us fearful, and the powerful emotions encountered in this process can be particularly threatening to a culture that has denied and repressed their expression for many centuries. Psychiatry has drugged them into silence, but today we must learn to listen again to the inner voices that are crying out to be heard, for they may hold the seeds of healing that the world so desperately needs.  

Embracing the Feminine

The perspective that is offered here has evolved out of my personal experience of a crisis which occurred whilst I was undergoing psychotherapy training. During a process that was potentially transformative and healing, I was plunged into a deep, psycho-spiritual crisis that was drawn out into a long period of psychosomatic illness and depression. This crisis was precipitated by therapeutic work that was seriously misguided, and which left me abandoned in a deep process that I could find no completion for. My wish in writing about this experience, and the long path to recovery and healing, is an attempt to share with others who may find themselves in crisis, or those helping them, some of the things I have learnt through it. My hope is to share the knowledge that there is a way through, as we face our fear and our aloneness. Knowing that, individually, we may come through such ordeals, deepened, enriched, and empowered, gives me hope that humanity, poised on the brink of its own breakdown, also holds the potential to grow and become enriched through such a process.

This perspective has come first out of my own experience and reflection, and has been supported by many stories I have heard from friends, clients, students, teachers all around me, and in the works of other writers. Their stories have shown me that there are issues within my own story that are widespread, cultural, and of this time. I am grateful to all of those who have shared their own experiences with me, either directly or through their writing, as their insights and courage have supported, encouraged, and affirmed my own growing understanding.

The central issue that emerged from my own crisis concerned the repression and abuse of the feminine by a domineering and distorted masculine. This was played out in my experience of therapy with a male therapist, a dynamic that also reflected wider issues of gender within our society. Abuse of power was occurring, but instead of it being addressed therapeutically, I was subtly revictimised, in much the same way that women have been victimised for centuries by men in positions of power over them. Recognition and understanding of abuse of the oppressed feminine, and the emergence of the re-empowered creative feminine spirit is one of the central issues of the crisis of our present age. It is crucial to both personal and collective healing.

It may be naïve to say that women’s greater involvement will save the world, but I do believe that we will not be able to grow in creative and life-affirming ways unless the values and principles of the feminine, and the women who give voice and action to them, are honoured and heeded as truly equal to the masculine way. One of the most important developments of the last century was the social and political emancipation of women. In the coming century, the values of the feminine must return to consciousness so that all of our lives may be spiritually enriched and empowered by this creative source.

Throughout history, many great races and empires have flourished and died; so too have cultural ages evolved and passed to make way for something new and different to emerge. The ‘death of an age’ that we are now experiencing is not a new phenomenon, but another turn in the greater cycle of the evolution of humanity. At each stage in human history, a new aspect of culture and consciousness has emerged with the dying of the old. An essential element of what we are witnessing and experiencing now is the return of the feminine principle into consciousness, and the emergence of a spirituality which places the Goddess, feminine aspect of divinity, once again in her rightful place at its heart.

The terms masculine and feminine are used here in the way that they are usually understood in psychological language – not to mean male and female gender, but as symbols for certain principles, values, qualities, aspects of being and consciousness. Men and women alike embody both principles, but women are by nature generally more attuned to the qualities of the feminine. Connection with the earth, the cycles of nature and the body, feelings and instincts, inclusiveness, relatedness, intelligence born out of intuition, insight and natural wisdom, and the creative processes of birth, death and rebirth are a woman’s natural realm. With the repression of feminine consciousness by the patriarchy, it is the feminine, feeling, wise, instinctual, and cyclical nature of both men and women that has been denied, though historically it is women who have suffered most obviously from the oppression and abuses caused by this repression.

 Today it is women who are resonating most strongly with the stirrings of this reawakening consciousness, and women who are called to descend first on the journey to the underworld in search of the banished Dark Goddess. The story of Woman and the re-emerging feminine principle is, therefore, at the heart of this book.

Likewise, God and Goddess refer here to masculine and feminine aspects of spirit, symbolic expressions of complementary spiritual qualities, accessible to all of us. Although we may talk about masculine and feminine aspects as if they were distinct and separate, they are only separated through our own conception. But, in order to move beyond this fundamental duality in our thinking, we first need to address the distortion and imbalance we have created between the discernibly different qualities and values that the terms masculine and feminine represent. This means re-evaluating both masculine and feminine, and their relationship to each other, within the personal, social, political, and spiritual areas of life. Within the spiritual sphere, it demands the re-inclusion of the Goddess into our concept and our experience of the divine.

For many modern women, the Goddess has become, once again, a potent symbol of feminine wholeness, power, wisdom, and creativity, which can give women the strength and confidence to be and to act in the world from an empowered, authentic source. For some, the Goddess may be a felt sense of a nurturing, containing, grounding, and empowering wise presence in the universe; an experience of space, or the universe, as innately intelligent, conscious awareness; a sense of the creative and beneficent presence of God-the-Mother. Respecting the differing experiences and conceptions of the Goddess that we may have, I invite them all to be embraced here. [3]

The feminine, and the Goddess, have been feared by western patriarchy as dark, abysmal, chaotic, destructive, unconscious; because of this fear the feminine principle has been denied, repressed, and pushed further into unconsciousness. The challenge today is to awaken conscious feminine awareness, and to choose to live by the values of that creative consciousness; it is a challenge of surrender to the Goddess within, and a challenge of the heart. We take up that challenge when we begin to look into our own hearts and feel the pain of the wounds we carry within us; and as we do so, we begin to listen again to our own truth, and learn to express that truth in the world. Many women today, and men too, are beginning to express through their creative work, their relationships, and the quality of their lives, the truth that is the voice of the feminine spirit, the Goddess. When we find her spirit within us, we find an inner strength and support for our lives, but we must remember that we also have a responsibility to give voice to that spirit, to let her speak through us; without us, the Goddess in exile will not be heard and cannot return. As Chani Smith writes in The Absent Mother:  

‘The Shekhinah calls us to return…she knows the route to her salvation, and can direct us and give us inspiration, but we must not forget that she too is in the wilderness and needs our help.’ [4]  

Travellers between the Worlds

In making the journey of return to the source of the feminine spirit, we engage with our healing and creative powers, evoking the healer and artist within us. The journeys of descent or ascent into ‘other worlds’ have been understood by cultures world-wide, and since the recording of history began, as the journey of initiation of the shaman or wounded healer. People today are still experiencing these initiatory journeys but without the support of a cultural context which gives meaning to them. A crisis of physical illness or mental breakdown may be a potential opening to ‘other worlds’ which can awaken us to gifts of healing, creativity, knowledge, and wisdom.

The initiatory journeys of the shaman and the artist offer a context for the crises we are encountering in the modern world, and in our individual lives. Both the shaman and the artist are travellers between the worlds. Their art is that of travelling the bridge between the known and unknown, in order to bring back the knowledge, power, inspiration, and healing that their communities are in need of. The need for the experience of the artist, healer, and mystic, always closely linked in former times, is urgent today.

In her book Psychic Energy, Esther Harding states:  

‘The unmediated experience of spirit, in all its numinous power, came to only a few isolated individuals… . Many experiences are recorded, so that we can read how it was with the saints and mystics whose visions and dreams produced ecstasy or terror. It was only later that these experiences were organised under fixed symbolic and ritual forms to make a church in which the many could find a solution of life’s problems and rest for their souls. The fact that this could happen is evidence that the original experiences, while occurring to a few only, had yet a general validity; the few had the necessary vision to perceive the psychic reality that was present, unseen and unrecognized, in the unconscious of the large majority of their contemporaries. This is the function that the artist and the seer have performed in all ages.’ [5]  

Today it is not only to the few that such experiences may occur. The awakening of consciousness to the fire of spirit is becoming a possibility, and maybe, in the emerging age, a necessity for not only the especially gifted or fortunate few, but for the many. We are all being called upon to be artist and seer unto ourselves, to learn to make the journeys within the depths and heights of our own being where we may contact the source of the healing and creative powers which can renew our lives. In the era that we are now entering, we are being called upon more and more to seek guidance and conscience within ourselves, from our own conscious feeling and awareness, rather than from some external authority.

When the individual psyche becomes sensitised and attuned to the stirrings of collective psychic process, our personal journeys seem to reflect very precisely the outer events we witness in the world. Listening to our own personal experience, to the issues which confront us in our relationships, our dreams, our body symptoms, our visions, and the feelings of our hearts, we learn about the underlying forces that are shaping our collective experience, and what the world is in need of today. Those individuals, institutions, and nations most sensitive, vulnerable, and perhaps aware of the issues f acing humanity may be those who experience most intensely the chaos and destruction that heralds in change; those who are most sensitive and vulnerable may be the first to let go of their fragile hold on security, and make the descent into the womb of the Dark Goddess, the place of destruction and death which is also the place of transformation and rebirth.

This book is a weaving together of many different, often paradoxical, strands of experience. Weaving has traditionally been considered a woman’s craft and the work of the Goddess. Women weave the disparate things of the world into relationship – connecting, bringing together, embracing the whole. The masculine invents and creates the new, forging a direct path into the future; the feminine works with what is, creating a meaningful present.

The voice of the feminine is heard through the specific, the immanent, the real and personal, rather than the abstract and theoretical. As we tell our stories we begin to weave meaning into the confusion of events that seem to be our lives, and make sacred through this meaning the suffering and loss that has been our experience. In the act of creating out of our suffering comes healing. Like the shaman and the artist, we must return from our journeyings with a gift for the world; this, my own gift, is an attempt to bring meaning to the suffering and the darkness we go through as we seek consciousness and the true life of spirit, and again make sacred our sacrifices. I offer it to all fellow travellers, and to those great souls who have gone before us, who, in their wisdom and kindness, hold the thread along which we may tread – over the chasm between the worlds.

I will begin by telling a part of my own story.

References

1. Stanislav Grof and Christina Grof, editors, Spiritual Emergency.

2. Bika Reed, Rebel in the Soul, p89.

3. See Judith Plaskow and Carol P Christ, editors, Weaving the Visions: New Patterns in Feminist Spirituality.

4. Chani Smith, ‘The Symbol of the Shekhinah – the Feminine Side of God’, in The Absent Mother, edited by Alix Pirani, p11.

5. Esther Harding, Psychic Energy, p320.