I learned about The Moon and You: A Woman’s Guide to an Easier Monthly Cycle when the author, Barbara Hanneloré, told me she’d selected words from The Woman’s Belly Book for her own book’s page one. I’m honored Barbara chose my invitation — that we women consider our bellies as sheltering “the creative energy kin to the majestic Power of Being informing the universe” — to set the direction for her book.
In a warm and personal voice, Barbara offers practical ways to address, reduce, and perhaps eliminate pre-menstrual and menstrual distress, both emotional and physical. She does so by reframing the monthly cycle as an ally, not an enemy, provoking us to balance our lives in every dimension. She offers us the possibility of understanding and experiencing the menstrual cycle that we embody as kin to the cycle of moon phases and the circling of seasons in nature at large.
Organized in five sections, and illustrated with delightful line drawings, the book guides us to:
- explore our connection with these cycles of nature;
- validate and nurture our inner lives with self-awareness and self-care in a variety of expressions;
- nourish our bodies with balancing foods, herbs, and physical practices of many kinds;
- understand the impact of cultural beliefs and values regarding menstruation on our personal experience;
- remember and then re-imagine our first menstruation — menarche — as welcoming us into womanhood in the way we’ve always wanted.
Each section provides references enabling the reader to investigate topics in greater depth. And each section concludes with an activity that helps the reader to integrate ideas and practices into the details of daily life.
One: For decades, my passion has been to inspire and guide women to honor and energize our bellies as sacred, not shameful. Releasing our shame, we can deepen our awareness into our bellies and tap into the Source Energy concentrated within our body’s center. We can then direct the Source Energy we embody according to our intention, generating healing within any dimension we choose.
As I’ve focused on women’s common experience of shame with respect to our bellies, I’ve neglected our common experience of pre-menstrual distress and painful periods. Who wants to deepen their awareness into their bellies when their primary experience of their body’s center is menstrual pain? The path Barbara is offering, relieving pre-menstrual and menstrual pain in the context of cultural awareness, may be the most accessible and direct route for women coming to honor the pro-creative power our bellies shelter.
Barbara relays Sobonfu Somé’s revelation when she understood the healing energies that women carry within our body’s center, this respect for women evident in the West African village of the Dagara tribe in which she grew up. “Something infinite” opened up in her, says Sobonfu. May that “something infinite” open up in each of us as well.
Two: In the section titled “Caring for Your Inner Life,” Barbara suggests observing the moon’s phases as a way to immerse yourself in the relationship between your menstrual cycle and the moon’s cycle. She continues: “The moon’s cycle is a natural calendar. It was the first calendar….”
The notion that the moon’s cycle was the first calendar has rich implications. As I wrote a few years ago in A New Cosmology: Women’s Bodies Encode What Humankind Needs To Know,
Astronomical evidence indicates that women’s bodies code the way the world works. Our volumes and curves, our rhythms and cycles, replicate the structure and function of the universe. Beginning with the correspondence between menstrual and lunar cycles, continuing to planetary orbits and beyond, we embody the mathematical relationships implicit in universal principles of time and space.
How’s that for an idea that might change the basis for women’s body image — or, better said, our body confidence?
Those words encapsulate what I’d learned from reading articles written by and interviewing meterologist Bart Jordan. (A “meterologist” is one who studies measure.)
Bart’s research informs much of The Curse: A Cultural History of Menstruation, written by Janice Delaney, Mary Jane Lupton, and Emily Toth (University of Illinois Press; revised edition, 1988). In particular, they reference “Early Calendrical Art Recreated: A Partial Catalogue,” New England Antiquities Research Association Journal (NEARA) 19, nos. 1, 2 (Summer/Fall 1984): 1-13 and “Deciphering the Distant Past,” Publick Occurrences, May 17, 1974, pp. 12-13.
In the conclusion to The Curse, the authors write that Bart’s work demonstrates:
At least thirty thousand years ago, and perhaps 300 thousand years ago, human beings on this planet were measuring the movement of the stars and planets with a sophisticated system that emanated from, and mathematically depended upon, the human menstrual cycle.
[Bart Jordan has arrived] at diagrams and symbols based on the 364-day year of 13 moon cycles, the 280-day human gestation period, and the 584-day transit of the planet Venus around the sun…to find, time and again, that the diagrams already existed on the carved tusks, stone earth goddesses (such as the Venus of Lespuges), and other manifestations of what had been believed to be the artistic expressions of a primitive and preliterate people.
We have seen his drawings and examined the evidence of the archeological finds, only to agree with the staggering fact he is trying to introduce into current scientific thinking.
What is this staggering fact?
The Ice Age “art” that is commonly displayed, and the even earlier “art” known to paleontologists and other specialists, is really Ice Age “science.” The ancients, the Cro-Magnon ancestors of our human race, were not scratching pretty designs onto their reindeer tusks or fashioning grotesque models of the female form to give vent to their need to make art. They were, in fact, recording their scientific observations on the way the moon and planets and their own earth went through the phases of the year and using the menstrual clock of the women of the society as the observable data from which to draw.
Crucial to Jordan’s calculations is the difference between the lunar and menstrual calendars. The real lunar calendar, he says, counting the nights when the moon is “dark,” is 29.5 days. But the calculations evident in the carved tusks and obese goddesses reflect a calendrical notation of 28 days, and its multiple, 280, the human gestation period. Menstrual averaging was not unknown to our Cro-Magnon ancestors, Jordan believes, and it was this sophistication that enabled them to create symbols in their art (such as the early Greek meander) that were actually representations of the movement of time as measured by the female body clock and its numerical connection to the travels of Venus around the sun.
The writers also remark:
While Bart Jordan’s work is entirely original, additional evidence that menstrual calendars were the basis of time measurement in the early Chinese, Mayan, Gaelic, Roman, Aryan, Babylonian, Chaldean, Greek, Egyptian, and pre-Christian European societies is presented in Barbara Walker’s The Woman’s Encyclopedia of Myths and Spirits (New York, Harper & Row, 1983), pp. 645-49. Walker even notes that the Romans’ word for calculation of time is mensuration, or knowledge of the menses, and that the Gaelic words for menstruation and calendar are the same.
Barbara Hanneloré has given The Moon and You a tag line, indicating the benefit that she and her book are promising: Discover your own Inner Rhythms and Take Loving Care of Yourself.
The book delivers on its promise. What’s more, it just might lead us to knowing, in our bones and in our blood, that our woman-body and our woman-being are as sacred as the universe is infinite.
She was standing in line at the deli counter when it happened. Out of nowhere, for no reason at all, she felt something take over her breathing. Moments before — well, for days, weeks, decades on end — her mind had been chattering non-stop, yammering thoughts (judgments, really) through circles within never-ending cycles of not-good-enough. Such had been her life, so-called, whatever you would call absenting yourself from actual contact with the world’s flavors, textures, and other trinkets of sensation. Certainly her world — although some might call it sterile — was neat, tidy, clean.
She wasn’t discontent with her circumstances. Any time she had peeked out of her circumscribed la-la-land, however arid — and, to her credit, she had attempted several sorties — she’d encountered bits of barbed wire in her milk, darts flying through the air at her, and broken glass strewn along the sidewalk. In her, yes, limited experience, the world was not a friendly place. If her existence within her self-imposed isolation was a bit lonely, actually loveless, at least she was safe. Trips to the grocery store and library were adventures enough.
As far as she was concerned, the intricacies of the mundane world were either exhausting, boring, or painful. The world of her own making, however recursive the cursing, was, if aggravating, at least interesting.
But then, waiting on line — behind two matronly ladies, a tattooed punkster with orange hair, and a fraying teenager with a toddler in tow — to place her order for barbecued spare ribs and a pound of mac and cheese, it happened.
Suddenly, she felt as if her belly contained a triangular pillow, ruby red, one rounded point reaching down to her perineum, the other two points above her hip bones at the level of her navel. No embroidered initials on the pillow, but its fabric was plush, velvety, deep, richly hued.
When she inhaled, her inhalation made the pillow plumper. When she exhaled, it returned to size. Breath in, breath out: this luxe pillow — call it crimson, call it scarlet — filled, emptied, reached out, receded.
The sensation, pleasant enough. In fact, a sly grin twitched her lips as she enjoyed this private pleasure.
The adventure continued: As the pillow expanded and contracted — a gentle bellows, a petalled pulsing — it sent a rosy smoke, a pink mist, up through the column of her body and into her brain. The mist magnetized her thoughts — the jagged ones, the bitter ones, the tattered ones, the ragged ones. It gathered them together, ushered them down the column of her body into the plush pillow in her belly.
Breath out, breath in. Pink mist herds her nasty thoughts down into the plump pillow; they deconstruct, dissolve. Pink mist rises into her brain and soothes it, shushes it, smooths it, lets it rest.
A smile breaks across her face. Her shoulders drop away from her ears. She discovers flooring beneath her feet and, for the first time in a long, long, time, suspects the ground will remain in place.
Peeling some but not all of her attention away from the pink-mist-emitting ruby red pillow in her middle, she notices the scalloped edges of the platters in the deli’s display case, the confetti shapes and colors of the variegated salads they hold, the scent of lavender wafting from the woman passing behind her. She notices the curl of hair at the nape of the neck of the young woman ahead of her in line, hears her best attempt at patience as she warns her child away from climbing on the counter. She notices the blue rubber band circling the left wrist of the man behind the counter as he hands the punkster a container of egg salad.
[with a nod to Denis Chagnon]
Years ago, in desperation, I made a sacred doll to represent what I felt to be the “wounded masculine” part of myself — a creature jaggedly cut off from his core; his heart barren, cold, barricaded; his perception limited to logic and analysis, rejecting what’s fluid and intuitive.
Creating this three-dimensional image helped me externalize — literally objectify — his way of being, placing me in a position to observe him and his schemes.
I’ve known this character as he’s inhabited my inner world, and my outer world as well. I’ve judged him harshly, treated him with resentment and disrespect. I’ve operated with a large, weighty and ultimately dysfunctional chip on my shoulder regarding all I’ve tagged as “patriarchal.”
Mercifully, life is giving me opportunities to release these judgments, invoke compassion and forgiveness in both inner and outer realms. What a relief!
I recently created a ritual to signal this release and invoke healing all around. The ritual involved placing the icon in the neighborhood of joy, inviting him to sit in the lap of the Sacred Feminine and finally burying him near a Native American ceremonial mound in a nest of moss, holly berries, seashells and feathers.
Here’s a selection of photos sharing the ritual of release and healing with you. Click on each thumbnail to see the full-size image.
- What if your belly — whatever its shape and size — wasn’t shameful?
- What if your belly were home to profound wisdom, power, and guidance?
- What if your body’s center were in fact sacred space?
This possibility is difficult for many women to imagine, and embody. My continuing question: How can I inspire women to discover and claim the treasure waiting for us within our body’s core?
What are your ideas and feelings? I’d love to know.
Perhaps myth, story, and image hold the key. For example…
• • •
She was standing in line at the deli counter when it happened. Out of nowhere, for no reason at all, she felt something take over her breathing.
Later, she might wonder whether she’d been looking at one too many Venus figurines for her online archeology course.
But now her mind, as it had for days, weeks, decades on end, was chattering non-stop, yammering thoughts (judgments, really) through circles within never-ending cycles of not-good-enough. Such had been her life, so-called, whatever you would call absenting yourself from actual contact with the world’s flavors, textures, and other trinkets of sensation. Certainly her world — although some might call it sterile — was neat, tidy, clean.
She wasn’t discontent with her circumstances. Any time she had peeked out of her circumscribed la-la-land, however arid — and, to her credit, she had attempted several sorties — she’d encountered bits of barbed wire in her milk, darts flying through the air, cutlery strewn across the sidewalk. In her, yes, limited experience, the world was not a friendly place. If her existence within her self-imposed isolation was a bit lonely, actually loveless, at least she was safe. Trips to the grocery store and library were adventures enough.
As far as she was concerned, the intricacies of the mundane world were either exhausting, boring, or painful. The world of her own making was, however recursive the cursing, if aggravating, at least interesting.
But then, on line behind two matronly ladies, a tattooed punkster with orange hair, and a fraying teenager with a toddler in tow, waiting to place her order for barbecued spare ribs and a pound of mac and cheese, it happened. Suddenly, she felt as if her belly contained a triangular pillow, ruby red, one rounded point reaching down to her perineum, the other two points above her hip bones at the level of her navel. Embroidered initials on the pillow? No, but its fabric was plush, velvety, deep, richly hued.
When she inhaled, her inhalation made the pillow plumper. When she exhaled, it returned to size. Breath in, breath out: this luxe pillow — call it crimson, call it scarlet — filled, emptied, reached out, receded.
The sensation was pleasant enough. In fact, a sly grin twitched her lips as she enjoyed the private pleasure.
As the pillow expanded and contracted — a gentle bellows, a petalled pulsing — it sent a rosy smoke, a pink mist, up through the column of her body and into her brain. The mist magnetized her thoughts — the jagged ones, the bitter ones, the tattered ones, the ragged ones. It gathered them together, ushered them down the column of her body into the plush pillow of her belly.
Breath in, breath out. Pink mist herds her nasty thoughts downward; within the luscious pillow they deconstruct, dissolve. Pink mist rises into her brain and soothes it, shushes it, smooths it, lets it rest.
Belly out, belly in. Now, as the pink mist rises up to her brain, a blue mist descends lazily through her legs.
A smile breaks across her face. Her shoulders drop away from her ears. She discovers flooring beneath her feet and, for the first time in a long time, suspects the ground will remain in place.
Peeling some but not all of her attention away from the pink-and-blue-mist-emitting ruby red pillow in her middle, she notices the scalloped edges of the platters in the deli’s display case, the confetti-colored salads they hold, the scent of lavender wafting from the woman passing behind her. She notices the curl of hair at the nape of the neck of the young woman ahead of her in line, hears her strained patience as she warns her child away from climbing on the counter. She notices the blue rubber band circling the left wrist of the man behind the counter as he hands the punkster a container of egg salad.
- – - – - – -
Erich Neumann, The Great Mother, Pantheon/Bollingen (1955); Princeton University Press, reprint edition (1972); plate 14.
My next project could be…a manhunt.
I’d be on the lookout for men who live beyond the confines of conventionally defined masculinity.
Men who, as I’ve written elsewhere, embrace their capacities for emotion, tenderness, and intuitive knowing — even as the culture dismisses these human capacities as appropriate only for women and girls.
Men who, borrowing a term from author Philip Shepherd, are content to be ordinary heroes.
Through the example of their lives, they’d show us a glimpse of post-patriarchal culture. A culture that moves beyond violence, hierarchy, and fear toward reverence, community, respect. A life-affirming culture that places doing in service to being.
Here’s the start of a list of candidates, with links to their stellar qualities of creativity, courage, and compassion:
|Coleman Barks||Paulus Berensohn|
|Barry Lopez||Doug Orr|
|Patrick Stewart||Paul Winter|
Doing And Being
In Kurt Vonnegut‘s Deadeye Dick, Rudy Waltz encounters the tussle between doing and being in an airport men’s room (p. 253):
For a few moments there, I was happier than happy, healthier than healthy,
and I saw these words scrawled on the tiles over a wash basin:
“To be is to do” — Socrates.
“To do is to be” — Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do” — Frank Sinatra.
In Asheville, North Carolina, Steven Jones invites men to a weekly Men’s Dance. He writes:
Being and Doing, are they the same thing? Do we know the difference? Usually, when asked who we are, we answer with a description of what we do — engineer, data analyst, social worker.
We pursue our relationships with others in our same task-oriented fashion: We gain, we take, we control, we feel powerful, but this process offers diminishing returns. We may feel needed, but for what we have and give, not who we are.
What would be truly fulfilling? What can we truly offer to others from the pure core of our being?
The answers are found in our bodies. We dance and move to wake up, to shake up. We look for who we are in relation to the wonders of incarnation and accept the freedom to be insignificant and yet vitally alive — how that seeming contradiction is capable of connecting us with everyone and everything.
July 1, 2013
As we dance and as we live through the “core of our being” — our center of being as it dwells within our body’s center — we are in the process of integrating polarities, however we express them: energy and matter, yang and yin, heaven and earth, spirit and flesh, male and female, doing and being.
What About Men?
Hara is the Japanese term for the belly as the body’s sacred center, our core connection with All-That-Is, the place where polarities meet and merge. Since 1988, I’ve developed and shared the hara-charging Honoring Your Belly program in workshops open only to women — our bellies are such tender subjects for us.
But what about men? Do men have hara?
Twenty years ago, Yoga Journal featured my article on Honoring the Belly. Within days of the issue’s publication, I received a letter with return address marked Tom Thompson, Hara Foundation. Thrilled to meet Tom, I asked him what he observed among the men in his yoga and meditation classes as they learned to live more and more through the body’s center.
His answer was concise. They became less narcissistic, less self-absorbed. He recently elaborated:
Living from the hara as the center of the infinite ocean of life energy makes one aware of the energetic flow within and around oneself and others. Being in this flow makes it increasingly difficult to fixate on propping up a self-image. (Look at me! I’m great! — trip, splat!)
August 4, 2013
Men as artists, dancers, poets, gardeners, educators, horse whisperers: Sure, some may have found a way to integrate masculinity into the generosity of being human. But what about race car drivers? What about do-be-do-be-do in a sport as macho as racing?
Tracking The Oval
[Update May 12, 2014: I'm deleting what was a piece on an electrical engineer turned race car driver and photographer. He no longer qualifies for this list.]
Hero Or Tyrant?
In New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Century, Philip Shepherd writes that the male (yang) doing aspect of human consciousness operates — in both men and women — either as hero or tyrant. The tyrant, striving for independence, guarding his isolation, attempts to rule the world from his high-in-the-sky, heady perspective. As mythologist Joseph Campbell characterizes him, the tyrant is a “monster avid for the greedy rights of ‘my and mine.’” He struggles to dominate and exploit the female power of being, the Sacred Feminine.
In contrast, the hero devotes himself to serving the female (yin) power of being. Rather than standing apart or above, the hero immerses himself in the nothing-special particulars of the world, the experience of what simply is. Down-to-earth, as ordinary as this very moment, the hero surrenders himself to the Sacred Feminine.
As Shepherd describes the process, the integration of male and female dimensions of human consciousness takes place within the body’s center, the hara, the pelvic bowl. Such integration leads us into authenticity, wholeness, presence:
Who you really are is the part of you that can center itself in the energy of the present. To open to [the unknowable present] and allow your spiritual center of gravity to live there is to join the mythic hero. It is also to side with life.
The Hero’s Descent
Shepherd asserts that the hero’s journey is “a descent into the perplexing depths of the body to reunite with the center of intelligence that enables us to ‘be.’” He offers an experience of the ordinary hero’s path: picking up a pencil from the floor:
What could be simpler? But try it, and pay attention, questioningly. Are you deciding to pick it up and then executing the order? If you don’t will yourself to pick it up, then how can you? Is it possible to pick it up as an act of self-achieved submission? And if so, how does that happen? If you submit, where does the impulse to pick it up come from? As you bend down or rise, is there a sense of effort? Does that effort open you to the world or focus you on the self? Are the processes of your thinking and Being happening in separate realms? Can you allow the energies of your thinking to course down and merge with your being? Can you release the awareness of the self as a whole into the heart and let it greet the mindful present?
Here’s one way to borrow a pencil from gravity:
I sink down to the floor, stretch out alongside the pencil, run an index finger along its surface in appreciation of its lineage: Wind, water, sun, and soil nourishing its original tree; insects, birds, and squirrels living among its legacy leaves. Women and men harvesting, transporting, shredding, blending the bit of tree with eraser and graphite into pencil form. Women and men distributing, wholesaling, storing, retailing, stocking, and ringing this pencil up for me, placing it in a bag and giving me the receipt. This one pencil, emissary of much activity and many agencies. Does she miss her arboreal origins? As I consider pencil’s genesis, relationship blossoms. It becomes thou.
How to pick this pencil up when we’re both on the ground? With her permission, I roll pencil toward me, tuck her into the pocket of my pants, roll myself over, press up onto hands and knees, shift my weight further into my feet, press feet into ground, am lifted upright.
Here’s another way:
Standing just behind the pencil, I bend my knees and squat, yield my perineum — that lowest, deepest earth-point of my pelvic floor — to the ground, exhale an invitation. My hands, in prayer position, pivot at the wrist, descend to meet and greet the pencil. Responding to contact, pencil opens a space between my palms and enters.
I tuck pencil into the back of my waistband, rise into standing, lifted by the perineum’s pull.
Shepherd reveals the do-be-do-be-do lurking in this experiment:
When the present comes to rest in our core — then we can feel the pencil as a whole within the whole to which we ourselves belong. That kinship reveals it to be no longer a dead thing on the nondescript floor, but a living revelation of the self. From that starting point of mutual awareness, we undertake a journey in which we surrender to what we might discover in picking up the pencil; and so we are carried out of our agenda of doing and into the experience of being.
(As it happened, I rediscovered pencil later that day, during a business meeting, as she migrated from the back of my waistband through the spacious realm of my trousers. Such are the perils of practicing ordinary heroism.)
Ordinary Hero, Mythic Mother
I’m adding Philip Shepherd to my list of men defining and demonstrating masculinity in a life-affirming light.
Philip compares the ordinary hero, committed to serving the power of being, with the all-embracing mythic mother and finds them in alignment:
The hero’s quest elevates him into motherhood. In fact, the whole journey of the soul is an evolution into cosmic motherhood — a state of grounded sensitivity that looks to the world with love, listens to its need and its calling with compassion, and acts, often heroically, always selflessly, on its behalf. Whether our own evolution shapes of us a heroic mother or a mothering hero is a matter of indifference. As a mother gives of herself to her child, wanting it to grow into its own strength and clarity, so too the reborn hero upholds with compassion the world around him and those with whom he shares it. Through his actions and inactions he births a deeper harmony.
We know the tyrant, within ourselves and within our culture, all too well. We know the abuse that follows from attempts to control, to dominate, to have one’s way above all else.
We crave the homecoming — the nourishment, the peace — that is the hero’s quest for wholeness.
We demonstrate heroic courage as we’re gutsy enough to be ordinary and, at the same time, entirely alive.
New Self, New World: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Century: I’ve been reading Philip Shepherd’s book for weeks. Completing the first of what’s likely to be several times through, I feel baptized into a deeper understanding of human being. (I’d say “initiated,” but the image is so sensory I can feel it on my skin: Immersion in the ocean; surfacing; stepping toward the beach.)
What’s this book about? The nature of human consciousness, embodied as it is. How you live in your body creates the world in which you live.
As author of The Woman’s Belly Book: Finding Your True Center for More Energy, Confidence, and Pleasure, I’m delighted with the way Philip Shepherd champions our “pelvic intelligence.” In Part IV: The Body as History, he traces how, through the millennia, our bodily sense of self has migrated from belly to diaphragm to skull. In this and other ways, Shepherd’s book complements and expands on Morris Berman’s classic, Coming to Our Senses: Body and Spirit in the Hidden History of the West.
Elaborating its central premise, the book presents Shepherd’s take on, literally, everything. I’d say that he offers a remarkably clear lens through which to view the world — except that his purpose is to remove everything that partitions us from reality itself. With passion and compassion, he invites us to engage with the world directly, immediately. The invitation, the way he phrases it, is just about irresistible.
The book illuminates a process of reconciliation between self and world, thinking and being. That reconciliation generates the evolution of consciousness that we, as individuals and as a species, need for our well-being in every dimension. Rich with insight and revelation, the text provides ample opportunity for experiential learning and practical application.
Warning: Reading this book is potentially revolutionary. I’ve come away with the impulse to allow everything — from artwork to housework to academic scholarship — to be ever more soulful and satisfying.
If you’re interested in women’s spirituality as I am (Rite for Reconsecrating Our Womanhood and Rite for Invoking the Sacred Feminine), then you might appreciate the ways in which Shepherd elevates what he calls the “female element” of consciousness. Consider this passage:
The whole journey of the soul is an evolution into cosmic motherhood — a state of grounded sensitivity that looks to the world with love, listens to its need and its calling with compassion, and acts, often heroically, always selflessly, on its behalf. (p. 405)
The Sacred Feminine is never very far from the pages of this book.
If you practice Asian healing arts such as qigong, tai chi, and acupuncture, then you’re already familiar with “pelvic intelligence” in relation to the lower tan tien (Chinese) or hara (Japanese). You may appreciate, as I have, how this book brings the knowledge of body-mind-spirit wholeness — elegantly explicit in Asian traditions — into the Western concept of human being as, at the same time, it explodes that paradigm. In this respect, the book draws on Karlfried Graf von Dürckheim’s Hara: The Vital Center of Man and complements Peter Wilberg’s Head, Heart & Hara: The Soul Centers Of West And East.
Did I mention “revolutionary”? Here’s one provocative passage:
Of course, there is no true authority in the world; there is only companionship. Authority is an abstraction we create in order to govern what has lost touch with the guidance of Being. That is as true of our social patriarchies as it is of the unipolar patriarch within. (p. 252)
New Self, New World provides excellent companionship on the journey of a lifetime.
Arriving late on a Sunday afternoon, I dashed to New York University’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW).
I spent every minute until the museum closed in a world of Neolithic art: Temple and Tomb: Prehistoric Malta, 3600-2500 BCE.
I went face-to-face with figurines and altar pieces I’d studied in books for years.
Of course, I was particularly interested in the Venus of Malta — and her likeness to the Venus of Laussel, a figure sculpted into limestone an estimated 25,000 years ago.
Although created by artisans some twenty thousand years apart, both figures place their left hands on their bellies, drawing attention to their navels.
The description accompanying the Venus of Malta read:
Almost all of the standing figures, whether nude or clothed, stand in this posture,
with the right hand by the side and the left resting on the chest.
Is the Venus of Malta’s left hand resting on her chest — or on her belly, pointing to her navel?
Actually, most of the sculptures from this period, like the Large Standing Figure pictured here, rest the left hand on the mid-section, at the level of the diaphragm. The diaphragm is the broad muscle at the base of the lungs that initiates breathing. It marks the belly’s upper boundary.
The Venus of Malta’s head evidently broke off at the neck. Most of the other figures, though, reveal a socket in the neck, ready for the insertion of a separately carved head. In effect, the statues’ heads were detachable, perhaps even interchangeable.
What accounts for the different positions of the left hand: on-the-belly or over-the-diaphragm? And what’s the significance of the right arm extending downward by the side?
Philip Shepherd’s book, New World, New Self: Recovering Our Senses in the Twenty-First Century, provides a clue. By looking to the derivation and multiple meanings of certain words, Shepherd traces the migration of human beings’ bodily sense of self from belly to diaphragm to head. That migration coincides with Western civilization’s shift from Being to Doing: from sensing ourselves as participating in networks of vital relationships to thinking of ourselves as masters of material resources.
Shepherd traces the ancestry of navel and finds the word rooted in meanings that include “relationship” and “the hub of a wheel.” He continues:
Consider, then, what it means to watch a wheel turning about its hub, and to relate that hub to the experience of the body, and to find that it accords with the navel: as the center of the wheel is found at the hub, the center of the self was found at the navel. As the wheel revolves around the hub, the sensations of our thinking being revolved about the navel. As the center of a hub rests in stillness, so too the center of the self. The hub of the self stood as the place from which one related to the world, and as the place at which one’s relationships—like the spokes of a wheel—converge.
The hub of a wheel is its center of mass, the stillpoint within the wheel’s turning world. Likewise, your navel region is your body’s center of mass, the pivotal point that serves as the address for the whole.
When your body’s center of mass leads you into action, your whole body moves easily, gracefully: the whole of you moves as one. Deepening your sense of self into your body’s center coordinates your doing, thinking, and being. Drawing awareness here, you know yourself nested within the world around you, your body’s center the hub of congruent, ever-expansive wheels of being.
A sampling of other words reveals the shift of humans’ sense of self from navel to mid-section. As Shepherd says:
…the Hebrew word sarefet means both “diaphragm” and “thought”; similarly, the ancient Greek word phren means both “diaphragm” and “mind.”
For the Greeks…the mind was the diaphragm. The issue here is not that some early Greek anatomist simply misunderstood the functioning of body parts; the usage traces back to a time when the ancient Greeks experienced their thinking in the upper torso, just as we experience our thinking in the head.
…What the term phren suggests, then, is that in the time of the Greek oral tradition, which culminated in [Homer's writing in the eighth century B.C.], the center of thought and self was experienced roughly midway between the cranial brain and the pelvic brain.
These words for “navel” and “diaphragm” show that we humans have pointed first to the belly and then to the mid-section when locating where we essentially live in our bodies. The sequence of prehistoric figures seems to do the same. Placing left arm over diaphragm, the Neolithic figures from Malta apparently mark the migration of our sense of self from belly to mid-section. Perhaps they extend right arm downward as a balancing act — a gesture of grounding, a salute to the deeper dimension that’s been abandoned.
But what about those detachable, perhaps interchangeable, heads on many of those figures from Malta? Given the migration of our sense of self from belly to mid-section to cranial brain, they present a somewhat scary proposition. These days, we tend to identify ourselves with what goes on inside our skulls.
What do those separately-carved heads signify? The current fashion would have us put on our thinking caps….
UPDATE (May 30, 2013): More on these detachable heads from author Jennifer Jones:
Touring the exhibit with NYU doctoral student Kristen Lee revealed that scholars now consider the full-figured funerary figurines to be gender neutral: they can represent either women or men.
The figures’ heads are not missing because they’ve disintegrated or been destroyed. Rather, the statues are intentionally headless; the sockets carved into their necks fulfilled a specific purpose.
Apparently, the Maltese arrived at the temple or tomb bearing heads sculpted to represent those who had died. By inserting the individualized head into a figurine’s neck, the Maltese “ignited” (Kristen Lee’s term) the statue as their loved one.
All the more inspiration for imagining how our sense of self, the locus of our identity, has shifted from belly to mid-section to brain.