Menopause – a grossly misunderstood period of a woman’s life in the modern world.
Lynne Andrews, the shamic healer, calls it the “Wise blood.”
Indeed, “what a beautiful expression, exquisite in its richness of life, dignity and promise,”.
“Wise blood, the time in every woman’s life when she has lived long enough and experienced more than enough to become “one who knows,” a woman who has gone through the gateway of Changing Woman and stepped into her own sacred self. It is the time when a woman is finally free to explore the vision that has been living on the edge of her awareness, for change of life is but the rebirth into new responsibilities, new mirrors and new power in life.”
Once upon a time, long long ago, during her periods a woman was believed to hold the power of creation, wisdom and deep spirituality. During this time, women were encouraged to listen to their inner voice and her tribe would look to her for advice and guidance. Many rituals from Taoists to the Ancient Egyptians involved the consumption of menstrual blood mixed with red wine. This was believed to increase spiritual power. In Ancient Greece, menstrual blood was used to help support crops grow and was buried into the earth during fertility festivals in the Spring.
Women’s bleeding cycles are connected to the cycles of the moon and the tides. In fact, the word menstruation comes from the Greek word, menus which translates to moon, power and month. Women would often bleed together on the new moon and ovulate together at full moon.
“The connection with the moon’s cycle was later distorted and the connection between the wisdom of women and the tides denigrated. The word “lunacy” is the result of this denigration.” (Menopause Mayhem, Marleen M Quint).
Suddenly, with advent of Christianity and Islam, matriarchical societies were replaced with patriarchy, and women were labelled as unclean. They were forced to separate themselves from men during this period. The menstruating woman was considered “impure” and was not fit to enter churches, prepare food or have sex. Menstruation was relegated to a disease, and “treatments” developed to “cure” “lunacy.”
Implanted in women’s mind during the Victorian era, till date, majority of women in the West consider mensuration as a curse. These ideas have been implanted in them by the denigrating patriarchy. Under the influence, they block their creativity, refusing to honor their womanhood. The East, having been aping the West for decades now, has adopted similar attitudes towards menstruation. Sadly enough, cartoons like the one presented above, have sprung up to belittle the gift of the divine.
As I struggle to simplify my writing, I realise that I cannot do justice to the topic in one sitting. Menopause sits at the junction of medical, evolutionary, religious, spiritual, and psychological cross roads, linked to the byroads of language and metaphors. To be able to undertake an exploration of this phenomenon at a deeper level, one has to address each of these areas.
The result of this exploration may not be a definitive answer that satisfied a direct question, but a journey thru time and relationships that provides pointers to assist the reader in their understanding of their own experience. I hope to merely facilitate individual and unique interpretations, for ultimately, the meaning that we ascribe to any external or internal phenomenon is best understood and assimilated by cognition when it arises of, and is shaped by our private experiences. Only such meaning is valid, because it is based on certitude.
No exploration of menopause is possible without the general exploration of womanhood. Therefore, here too, aspects of femininity, womanhood and menopause will be explored together.
The exploration is broken up into several subparts. To start with, we explore the medical and evolutionary model and the meaning these ascribe to menopause. Though these meanings cannot be denied, they underplay the essence of womanhood. Because of their elitist and patriarchal nature and background, the medical models are severely limiting and oppressive, and we will explore how and why this is so.
We then explore the meaning various religions and spiritual traditions of the world ascribe to menopause. The psychological aspects, and the symbolism of menopause will be addressed subsequently, and the summary, and amalgamation of all these different concepts. At the time I promised to undertake this work, I had no idea how complex the topic really was, and how vast the exploration, but I am glad to have the opportunity to attempt this exploration. At this point, I am not sure how many separate weblogs will be taken up, and I would like to stay with the here and now.
Before we go deeper into it, I’d like to narrate a little story from my childhood as it relates to the concept of purity and innocence.
Pure As A Child!
Ever since I remember, my mother – a highly educated and a progressive, moderately religious woman of her time – used to observe several fasts every month. During these fasts, she would meticulously avoid any impurity because she felt that she needed to be pure for at least a day, so she could offer prayers to the purest. Her thinking was strange, as we are essentially Shaivites from Kashmir, and we believe everything is Shiva, including the impure, unloved, and negative aspects of creation…..but I digress.
To initiate the piety on the day of her fast, she would wake up at 4:00 AM, and wash every inch of the kitchen, cooktop, countertop, and shelves from one end to another. Everything would be scrubbed x 5 until it sparkled. The figure 5 is not an exaggeration, she actually scrubbed everything 5 times over. All utensils etc – still impure – were lumped into a corner, not to be approached on the day.
Having finished with the kitchen she would then carry downstairs to the garden all metallic cooking utensils – mostly copper and steel dishes, spoons, pots and pans etc that she intended to use on that day (ceramics were prohibited!). There, near the garden tap, she would scrub them x 5 for over an hour using dirt (chemical detergents were prohibited), until they sparkled. She would then carry them back upstairs where our kitchen was, and place them on counters that had just been scrubbed. Since walls had not been scrubbed, the walls were off limits.
These above pictures are not of my mother, being random pictures from the internet – yet they provide an believable imagery of her chores. However, given that we lived in Kashmir, where year round temperatures range between -5 degrees Celsius during winters (below freezing point), to 20 degree Celsius during summers, and water temperature is generally below freezing point all the year round, her acts of washing dishes with cold water at 4:00 AM several times per month were nothing short of heroic. I tried to help her a few times, but within seconds my eyes would water with pain, and I would try to hurry thru the washings, which she did not approve of. So she accomplished these tasks alone, refusing to accept any help because she did not trust us enough to do a good enough “purification” job. She feared that our ignorance, oversight, laziness or all of the above may incur the wrath of the gods she was planning to worship on that day.
Having accomplished this, she would shower, and don freshly laundered “pure” clothes. Thereafter we could not touch her, and for the whole day, none of us was allowed to set foot inside the “purified” kitchen. She would cook her meals for the day, offer them to her deities. Each time she left the kitchen, even for a minute, even to peep out of the window, she would scrub x 5 her hands and feet before she re-entered the kitchen. If she accidentally touched the wall of the kitchen or any other wall, or the curtains in any room, she would scrub x 5 times her hands.
She offered prayers in the late afternoon, and following these prayers, she would eat one permissible meal of that day. When it was time for her to eat, in a secluded corner of the living room she would first lay down on the carpeted floor a stack of freshly laundered table cloths. The stack was to ensure the “impure floor” was as far away from the topmost layer of the tablecloth. Sometimes she would use freshly washed bedcovers so as to make that pile thicker. She did not trust us to help her in this either, as she worried we would not scrub our hands as meticulously as she did (and she was right, we didn’t!)
Then she would return to the kitchen (after scrubbing x 5 hands and feet), and serve herself a meal which she would carry to this spot on the floor. If there were curtains along the way, one of us would have to stand at the door, and sweep the curtains to the side, so she could pass without touching the curtains. There in the living room, she would put down her plate on the freshly laundered stack of table covers or bedcovers, she would sit cross legged, and eat her meal. She would not get up during the meal, as only ONE meal was allowed, and to get up midway, even to fetch seconds, would constitute of two separate meals. So she would serve enough, or more than enough. Technically, one of us could serve her seconds, but her distrust of our cleanliness prevented her from ever allowing us to serve her.
The whole process was undertaken several times a month, and as children, we were perennially terrified of her fasts – fearing that we may end up doing something that would somehow make her fast “impure.”
Amidst all these rigid rituals, and such high threshold of purity, she did a strange thing one day that brought forth the compassion and love of her so-oh-so demanding deity.
On that day, I had returned home to find her eating her one meal of the fast in the secluded corner of the living room as usual. Even though I was terribly hungry, I knew I could not touch anything in the kitchen until she finished her meal, for she may need seconds. So I sat there, waiting for her to finish, while she mumbled sanskrit shlokas under her breath,and slowly began eating her food.
The food looked and smelled really really good, and I waited anxiously for her to finish. I told her I was hungry and the nice aroma made my stomach churn.
Upon hearing that I was hungry, she simply scooped up from her plate some rice and curry between her forefingers, and held together by her thumb, she offered it to me. She offered to feed me out of her own squeaky clean plate, with her squeaky clean hands ! She offered to shove the morsels into my mouth with her bare hands ! What could be more impure, for every time she withdrew her fingers from my lips, a part of my saliva mixed with the next morsel of rice that she either ate herself, or offered to me.
Imagine my shock – after ALL the lengths she had gone to maintain the purity of her prayers and her fast ! After all that untoucheability….!
When I asked her how she could allow this, she said “children are the face of god because they are pure. Eating your “jhootha” food is like eating god’s “jhootha”. It is a “prasad,” it doesn’t make me impure in the least!” She then alternated between feeding me thus, and feeding herself out of her plate.
Ironically, when I offered to serve her seconds (since I had eaten half her food), she refused, stating she would rather remain hungry, as she herself couldnt fetch the seconds, and she could not trust me – or anyone else – to wash our hands and feet well enough to maintain the standard of piety and purity. She hurried to emphasize that my dirty hands and feet could be impure, but my “essence” was pure, and feeding me did not undermine her austerity in the least.
The symbolism of her actions was potent. Their bodies may become dirty, and messy, but the essence of childhood is “purity”. In that sense, childhood represents godhood.
Definitions of Piety
This definition and characterisation of childhood arises due to lack of sexual impulses, sexual actions, sexual drives in children, and consequential lack of pregnancy and lack of mensuration. Freud’s interpretations of course set these assumptions about childhood topsy turvey, but we must remember that Freud has been largely disenfranchised and corrected by his successors by Jung, and others, and the Freudian sexual fantasies associated with childhood, Oedipal Complex etc are regarding as merely symbolic even by modern psychoanalysts. I certainly do not seek to undermine the phenomenal role Oedipal Complex plays in the formation of culture, civilization, being the basis for language and metaphor, as Lacan and Jung both agree, but the very meaning ascribed to these fantasies, and what Oedipal Complex refers to, and how Oedipal Complex is understood today, has drastically changed. This issue is far more complex, and not really relevant to the current topic, hence I will leave it here. Let it suffice to say that the innocence of childhood, and consequential purity associated with childhood has been restored in the post fraud era by likes of Jung etc.
Another confusion about the term “pure” and “impure” arise from cultural issues. In the India of her times, and to some extent even now, children in India generally are celibate. Almost 99.99% of men and women in her times, and mine, were celibate till they married thru arranged marriages. Thereafter, the advent of internet exposed India to Western norms, and dating before marriage became a little more common. However, even today, this change in social values is observed in the urban elite, and the educated affluent section of society. Sex before marriage, and feminine masturbation are still more or less rare phenomenon with social taboos. In rural India, which forms 80% of the population, and even in the urban middle class and poor, arranged marriage is still the norm, bringing with itself the requirement that both the groom and the bride be virgins. Losing virginity, or to be found masturbating before marriage may still be a cause of significant social trauma.
That the society has actively controlled women thru sexual manipulation in such societies is a given fact in these traditional societies, woman’s sexuality representing a potent threat to the patriarchy. Purity, under such definition, is associated with the absence of sex, sexual drives, and sexual acts. But why is sex considered “bad” and how and when did it become bad ? We will explore the history and position of sex in different societies under the section on religion and spirituality.
In the context of above discussions, we must explore what the onset of mensuration means, and what menopause symbolizes. The meaning and symbolism often varies across cultures and civilizations. The answers to these questions are partially answered by the very reasons why women menstruate.
The Medical Model of Mensuration – Why We Mensurate
Our menstrual cycle helps the body prepare for pregnancy every month.
Women have 2 ovaries, and each holds a bunch of eggs. During the menstrual cycle, our hormones mature the eggs, so it can be fertilized by a sperm cell. These hormones also thicken the lining of the uterus so that the fertilized egg can attach to this nutrient rich lining made from tissue and blood. This attachment of the fertilized egg heralds the start of the pregnancy.
During the menstrual cycle, the hormones request ovaries to release the matured egg – a process called ovulation. This egg travels thru the fallopian tube towards the uterus. If pregnancy fails to take place, this thick lining of tissue and blood becomes redundant. Therefore this paraphernalia is dismantled every month, and presents itself in the form of periods. This intriguing cycle takes place month after month after month, as the body keeps anticipating and preparing itself for pregnancy – over and over again.
The periods gradually stop sometime between 45 – 55, the process being called menopause. It is not possible to get pregnant once the periods have stopped.
Often, these changes are accompanied with physical symptoms, which includes itchiness, hot flashes, a sense of feeling bloated (some women actually put on weight), intense sleepiness, forgetfulness, and mood swings – as represented by the 7 dwarfs of menopause. A feeling of depression is often reported. These changes are attributed to harmonal imbalances much like the harmonal changes during teenage years, which cause similar symptoms in teenagers at the onset of puberty. However, the chemical changes in the body cannot be disassociated with psychological changes and symbolism that marks this right of passage.
Evolutionary Theories of Menopause
Various theories have sprung up to explain menopause from the perspective of evolution and the selective advantage, and menopause as a consequence of the increase in longevity. These theories provide some very very interesting arguments that help us in understanding the almost sadomasochistic nature of motherhood, helping to explain women’s self sacrificing nature, and our unparalleled sense of devotion to children. Menopause seems to bring an end to these evolutionary, self destructive strivings, for good reason. The evolutionary theories argue menopause in terms of increased survival rates for the species, but fail to highlight the individual benefits.
The Social Construction of Womanhood & Menopause
The social construction of menopausal phenomenon is closely associated with the medical model, and is represents construction of womanhood as a sexual object, or a breeding entity. These two “uses” of women lead to the modern definition of menopause, which simply is a effort to promote patriarchy with its regressive concepts of male superiority. The spread of Christianity, and Islam helped establish and entrench these concepts in our society.
It is therefore useful to use a constructivist lens to deconstruct this regressive model of womanhood and mensuration, and proceed with new, personal and progressive constructs. The emergence of radical Feminism and Womanism in the West, has accomplished significant changes, and attempted to reconstruct the phenomenon in the past two decades. We will explore the deconstruction of the patriarchal models, and visit new constructions that attempt to redefine the core of womanhood, thereby hopefully arriving at new and more appropriate social constructions of menopause.
Lifcycle, Stages of Life
We will explore several different models of human development. To me, models – like the Indian model of Human Development,– are selectively progressive, and promising, offering significant psychological benefits of aging. By bringing other developmental models or historical antecedents together, one can choose to create one’s own definition, and structure, and explore the transition thru the lenses of their own experiences. Eventually, our perceptions are always clouded by our understanding, and our beliefs. These perceptions further guide our mental and psychological stability. The choice of which model of human development to believe in, is left entirely to the individual. However, it is obvious that if choose to believe in something that is positive, and empowering, we will feel positive, and empowered in our life.
Womanhood & Menopause Through the Religious/Spiritual Lens
The ancient religions and spiritual practices – like the aztecs and shamanic writings – have always understood mensuration cycles in terms with lunar cycles. In ancient cultures – like the Aborginal Australians, Native Indians of Americas, Hindu Indians, Maori New Zealanders, and even Zoroastrians and Ysediz of Middle East, menopause is deeply linked with spirituality.
Western patriarchy impinged upon these traditional ancient rites, and imposed a sense of “badness” on menopause in the process of intimidating, oppressing and generally denying women their elevated place in social hierarchy.
In a quest to understand the totality of menopause, we may explore the history these societies, and the religious and spiritual symbolism associated with menopause at different times in different cultures, to arrive at our individual meaning.
The Philosophy & Psychology of Womanhood & Menopause
Menopause greets us at the crossroads where most women are asserting their independence, individuality, and taking control of their own power. This psychological phenomenon of “coming of age” and taking control may be a consequence of menopause, or menopause may itself be a consequence of such psychological changes. The problem resembles Catch 22, or the chicken and an egg. In this section, we will simply explore the philosophy of menopause, and the psychological components of the meaning ascribed to menopause by various leading writers of the time. We will explore how women prepare for menopause, and what psychological changes lead to and arise of the stage of life.
The path to discover and define something as nebulous is always fraught with diversions, distractions and new discoveries and explorations. On a subject as vast as this, I am quite sure that a host of related questions, beliefs, ideas will spring up and would need to be explored – dream symbolism being just one aspect.
In my next blog, we will explore why medical and evolutionary theories are limited and restrictive, and will also cover the developmental theories of human lifecycle – both modern and traditional – with an eye for developing an understanding on how this phenomenon was viewed over the centuries by different societies.
Till then, to all you menopausal women out there, kick back the patriarchy, and feel great about leaving behind the sexual symbolism of womanhood. The model has been created by the selfish, oppressive patriarchy. Menopause symbolises freedom and wisdom. Enjoy your freedom and the wisdom arising of such freedom. You are no longer a breeding machine in the evolutionary heirarchy.
In menopause, you have finally arrived at the beginning of your transcendental journey. Celebrate your freedom, and the wisdom derived from such freedom. The process is no lesser than nirvana.
With Metta to All.