“My Mother’s Journals are a love story,” wrote Terry Tempest Williams in her book When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice.1 In the 54 essays that make up the book, Williams struggles with the fact that her mother’s journals, left for her upon her mother’s death, were blank. In her book, Williams explores what it means to search for, find and lose voice–both hers and the voice of her mother.
“My Mother’s Journals are a creation myth.”2
Like Williams, I am also a writer with at least 50 filled journals saved and treasured. The idea of receiving my mother’s journals seems like a great gift. It would finally be an opportunity to see what I’ve always suspected: that she and I walk the same soulful journey, perhaps separate but, no doubt, parallel paths. If I had been in Williams’ shoes, discovering that my mother’s journals were blank, I would have been devastated too.
Between writing and a 15-year practice of meditation, I’ve observed an interesting phenomenon of the mind: psyche creates. Life forever arises from within. Whether it is a thought, a memory, a dream image, an intuition—again and again, the mind produces and gives birth. It is forever pregnant and bearing gifts. So, how can one’s journals ever be blank? How can one ignore the compelling call to write down bits and pieces of soul, to jot down psyche’s wisdom? How can one buy journals and never use them?
I feel Williams’ disappointment, especially knowing there is always activity arising in the psyche. Watch it for yourself a moment: take a step back from the content of thoughts and notice that thoughts themselves continue to arise. The life force streams through the psyche as ideas, thoughts, feelings, moods, dreams, and at its most basic level, images into the light of awareness. Although on most days, the mind possesses thoughts about the to-do list and demands of the day; take a step back and observe, as you might in meditation, how a fountain of activity continues to spring forward.
In fact, Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA and author of The Mindful Brain, observed this too:
One surprise is that the mind is never “empty”. It is an oft stated and apparent misconception that the meditative mind becomes a vacuum of activity. Filled with continually generated images and thoughts, feeling and perceptions, the mind is abuzz with activity that never ceases.3
Psyche’s creativity is not a new concept in psychology. Carl Gustav Carus (1789-1869), a philosopher who preceded and deeply influenced Jung, wrote about the creative, autonomous and healing function present in the unconscious. Of course, one of Jung’s greatest achievements, compared to Freud’s reductionist view of the inner landscape, was the affirmation of the creative psyche. “Below the threshold of consciousness,” wrote Jung, “everything was seething with life.”4 And many post-Jungian scholars, such as Robert Johnson, author of several books including Femininity Lost and Regained, recognized the healing and meaningful function of the “stream” that emanates from within. “The unconscious mind,” wrote Johnson, “emits a continual stream of energetic pulses that find their way to the conscious mind in the form of feelings, moods, and most of all, the images that appear in the imagination.”5
Of course, there are times when psyche’s continual stream seems to dam up and there are dangers, such as disease. A person might feel this cancerous curse as the inability to speak, the pain of emptiness, and the loss of meaning. Sadly, this disease seems to be metastasizing throughout the collective psyche. It is the curse of being silenced, repressed, and cut off from the inner spring.
Author and psychotherapist Maureen Murdock might agree, however, that the creative act is the healing antidote that resurrects voice. Even if one possesses empty journals, the choice to be creative opens the door to psyche, and a conversation begins. Writing is no doubt a dialogue. If my mother had left empty journals upon her death, I would sadly wonder whether our parallel paths had begun to diverge. In the same way, Terry Tempest Williams underwent a soulful journey to uncover her own voice in relation to that of her mother. I believe that Williams and Murdock would agree that a woman’s life is her voice and a woman’s voice is her life.
A Woman’s Life is Her Voice
Maureen Murdock wrote about the Heroine’s journey in response to the Hero’s journey, developed by mythologist Joseph Campbell. She met with Joseph Campbell for three years off and on in the early 1980’s. She had been working with men and women privately and in groups, using the Hero’s journey as a map. However, she recognized that it did not address the deep wounding of the feminine for both men and women. In her therapy practice, she noticed that women were having a difficult time making it in a man’s world. She created a new map and showed it to Campbell. In response, he said, “Women don’t need to make the journey; they are the place that everyone is trying to get to.”6
His reply surprised her. From a mythological perspective, Murdock knew this to be true; the feminine is the place most people hope to open up to and integrate. However, most of the men and women she knew were disconnected from their feminine nature. “Our task,” she said, “was to reclaim the feminine for ourselves.”7 Creating a new map and charting the journey of the Heroine was the way to do this.
Murdock made clear that the Heroine makes a different journey than the Hero. At first, she finds herself under the spell of society. She is smitten with success. She gets good grades, graduates, and achieves. She is focused on seeking control—over herself and others—and she is set on arriving at good fortune. Yet, there is no deep connection to herself. Her life is a product of what society expects of her. She doesn’t know who she is or what she wants. “So, there’s a split,” insists Murdock, “when we focus more on making it in the world, rather than on listening to our deep self.”8
Moreover, when there is an event that jeopardizes her successes, such as a death in the family, divorce, or loss of employment, she may question her sense of self, her identity, and her attachment to achievement. Feeling the pain of loss, separation, and suffering, she may cry out, “Who am I really?” With this declaration, a search for her deep self begins. The search for voice is underway.
Yet, the only way she is going to find that deep self, the only way she is going to really take a deep breath in, is by first dis-identifying with the masculine and the illusion of making it in the world. To do that, she must die. She must let go of all her old identities, all the voices that tell her this is the way to success.
Instead, she must find her own voice, buried deep within, but lovingly held in the arms of the Great Mother. “When a woman stops doing,” writes Murdock, “she must learn how to simply be. Being is not a luxury, it is a discipline. The Heroine must listen carefully to her true inner voice.”9
In the stillness of non-doing, voice can be heard. In the tranquility of non-action, listening can take place. Slowly a bridge to the inner life can begin to form. Interestingly, on the descent inward, the natural and innate desire to write, paint, and dance might surface. Perhaps this is true because one way to listen carefully is to create. One way to find voice is to find that inner spring. Creativity requires turning inward and placing a cupped hand upon the inner ear to listen for the next piece of creative direction. To be creative, the artist must listen for an intelligence that emerges from the heart. The famous cinematographer Ingmar Bergman describes this creative process well:
It is a mental state, abounding in fertile associations and images. Most of all, it is a brightly colored thread sticking out of the dark sack of the unconscious. If I begin to wind up this thread, and do it carefully, a complete film will emerge.10
Creativity immediately puts the artist in a place of union, versus being split from oneself. The sacred act of being creative removes the veil of silence and opens the door to expression, the expression of what is yearning to be born–voice–the expression of what is meant to be heard. Creativity immediately reunites one with a greater intelligence. With this reunion, a woman becomes more receptive, more accepting, and even appreciative of what has always been. She may see life anew, wanting to protect the spiritual seeds planted within her. She may even find that the outer measure of her worth is much less important than that which lies within.
The psyche’s creative fountain, as Murdock also recognizes, is intimately related to the cycles of life, death, and rebirth—processes women know but the collective body has stifled, silenced. “Women and men,” she writes, “need to support each other to honor the feminine cycle, which, like the cycles of life in nature, is one of death, decay, gestation, and rebirth.”11 These cycles are Nature’s cycles, Creation’s cycles. “Nature is not matter only,” wrote Jung, “she is also spirit.”12 Jung’s deep wisdom that “psyche is nature”13 crystallizes when recognizing how the inner creative fountain and Nature behave similarly.
For example, Nature and psyche are similar in three distinct ways: First, as described above, the creative psyche is always in motion. The inner spring never ceases. Thoughts are always arising and passing away. Memories too arise and pass. Feelings and images enter the field of consciousness and then fade. The mind is always in motion, and the same is true for Nature. The Earth forever spins and pivots; clouds are always shaping into existence; the planets ceaselessly circle the sun; the waves continue to curl and crash; and the grass grows endlessly towards the sky.
Secondly, the life of the psyche is not only perpetually in motion; it’s eternally dawning. The inner landscape is ceaselessly pregnant. With each moment a new shape of the mind is born: a thought, an idea, an image, a memory. In the same way, Nature continues to give birth. Clouds come into existence from the emptiness of sky. Waves find form out of the expanse of the sea. From beneath the Earth’s surface, flowers and trees, grass and plants break open to sky. Whether it is a cloud, a wave, a breath, a thought, a feeling, or a sensation in the body, Nature’s expressions are forever in labor. “From the beginning till now the entire creation, as we know, has been groaning in one great act of giving birth.” (Romans, 8:22)
Lastly, the darkness of the soil is intriguingly similar to the darkness of the unconscious. The dark landscape, whether of the Earth or of the woman is fertile, fecund, and fruitful. Just like the round, pregnant belly of a woman, which creates life from the darkness of her womb, so too the round Earth is pregnant with plants, flowers, grass, bushes, and trees. The bountiful Earth gives birth to her children from the darkness beneath her surface.
As the planet spins and lovingly embraces the sun with its orbit, we can see the Earth’s cycles of birth, life, and death happen again and again with the seasons. In the same way, the Heroine dies to an old way of being, finds life within, and is reborn. These are the cycles that keep planets on course, fill the human being with breath, and write the poetry of sunset at the close of each day. It is life.
The intelligent, creative fountain is life. Whether in a man or woman, this life is one’s essential nature. It is one’s individuated expression, one’s essence. In fact, when there is receptivity for all that springs forward inside–the light and dark and everything in between–a woman mends a tear. She transforms the Kali within. Where she was once pushing parts of herself away, now receptivity and allowing facilitate an inner tenderness. In Eastern mythology, Kali is known as the black one, goddess of dark formlessness, and lord of death. Tantric practitioners worship Kali hoping the brutal goddess will one day reveal her tender side. For the Heroine, the same is true.
“Each of us,” suggests Murdock, “has to take back the discarded feminine in order to reclaim our full feminine power.”14 By allowing that inner spring to flow, no matter its content, a woman stitches the angry split between what is shameful and what is beautiful. She mends the violent tear between what to hide and what to reveal. As this happens, she becomes the benevolent mother of herself. No longer the violent slayer of what to accept and what to reject, she welcomes her orphaned parts with sweet and tender arms.
This great love inside—for being a woman, for being beautiful, for embodying creation and the source of creation—continues to grow. It becomes a flowing river, and heals the chasm that once kept her in bondage. The Heroine is no longer a product of her society; she is a polished jewel of her own making.
A Woman’s Voice is Her Life
Despite this incredible feat, the journey of the Heroine is not over. With self-love, she can make a return, a return to those masculine values of action, achievement, and accomplishment, only this time there is great acceptance and a deeper purpose.
“Once you know that you have a voice,” said Louis, an adopted son of Terry Tempest Williams, “it’s no longer the voice that matters but what is behind that voice.”15
Having developed a practice of going inward again and again, where the Heroine feels ease, connection and timelessness, wholeness begins to feel like home. Totality feels like the force behind voice, and having that feeling again and again, she begins to trust the inner world more than the outer world. She recognizes that it is the deep self who can navigate her life, not the strong, but misguided will of a separated self. Sure, that old self may still want to take control, but it is only when her authentic voice is embraced that wholeness can be experienced. So, though it is challenging at times, she listens to and follows the intelligence within; she takes action on behalf of her deep self. With ongoing experiences of wholeness and inner trust, the Heroine eventually becomes a servant for the fountain within. With this, a bridge from a conscious self to an authentic self has not only formed but is firmly in place and the link between the two forms union.
This union positions the Heroine differently. Now, she can receive the images that flow from her core. These deep images are those the mystic Meister Eckhart speaks of when he describes the creative power playing a vital role in time and space. “Everything of the past and everything of the present and everything of the future God creates in the innermost realms of the soul.”16 These images flow from within and contribute to the gradual unfolding of the human race. They are the visions and passions of the soul. They require attention and care because they speak the intelligence of the cosmos. They come spontaneously, at odd moments, when they’re least expected, and often with a quality of softness making them easy to dismiss. They create union between an individual’s life and the evolutionary process of Nature. They arise at the intersection between human and divine.
With a strengthening ability to accept and express what arises from within, there is ecstasy and the gradual illumination of one’s truest nature. “Birth is bringing what is inside out,” wrote the theologian Beatrice Bruteau. “Ecstasy is bringing what is inside out.”17 With freedom to be an open vessel for the images of Creation, the Heroine recognizes her deeper identity as a conduit for the cosmos, as midwife for the making of a new world.
However, this doesn’t mean the Heroine is perfect, but she is complete. She is whole and accepts herself, both her masculine and feminine sides just as they are. “The Heroine comes to understand and accept,” insists Murdock, “the dynamics of her feminine and masculine nature and accepts them both together.”18 Her feminine ability to turn inward and touch the images that speak the language of her life is joined by her masculine ability to succeed in the world and bring those images into fruition. Achievement is now driven by the power of the Self. Accomplishment is now powered Nature.
Furthermore, her inner masculine is loving, accepting, and kind. With a healing of the masculine, she is able to bring to the world the great love she discovered by sharing her innate gifts and talents. Just like Nature which is ceaselessly generative, she continues to deliver, in one form or another, the creativity that flows from within. Yet, “the current problems are not solved, the conflicts remain, but such a person’s suffering, as long as [s]he does not evade it, will no longer lead to neuroses but to new life.”19 Staying open to her life–the good, the bad, and what lies in between–keeps her in touch with her vitality and authenticity.
And life, just as it is, becomes the great gift.
“My Mother’s Journals are an awakening,” wrote Terry Tempest Williams, arriving at a different relationship to her mother’s empty journals.20
Life, in all its particularities and idiosyncrasies, in all its pain and pleasures, is the great unfolding. Once an individual is in relationship with the Self, her life becomes the masterpiece. “The most beautiful thing a potter produces is the potter,”21 writes theologian Matthew Fox. “The Heroine who is in relationship to the Self becomes like the Virgin, the one united to an uncontaminated world full of possibility. She continues to die to an old self and listen, so that the greatest expression is her.
However, I admit, this takes courage. The Virgin, Marion Woodman continues, is “the feminine that has gone down into herself and worked very hard to find out who she is and then has the courage to live it.”22 Perhaps finding courage to live out one’s authentic self is the most difficult stage of the Heroine’s journey. Speaking the language of Self in a crowd expressing the old tongue of separation, split, and loss of self can be frightening.
Carol S. Pearson, author of The Hero Within, wrote about the fears that keep men and women from following their unique path:
The pressure to conform, to do one’s duty, to do what others want, is strong for both men and women, but it is stronger for women because their role has been defined in terms of nurturance and duty. Often women forbear taking their journeys because they fear it will hurt their husbands, fathers, mothers, children, or friends; yet women daily hurt others when they do not do so.23
I’m aware of this pressure to conform in myself and thus my tendency to push the authentic voice aside. Perhaps this growing tendency is the very impulse that later leaves one with empty journals! Yet, yesterday, as I was walking through the hills in my neighborhood, I passed someone on the trail who inadvertently gave me a gift. I was deep in the peaks and valleys, far away from streetlights and stop signs, in the embrace of Nature. As the young boy passed me, he said, “Hi”, and when I responded with “Hello”, I unexpectedly heard my own voice.
I noticed its uniqueness, its vibratory quality, and its deep tone. I noticed that it was mine, a distinct essential sound. Of course, I’ve heard myself speak many times, but at that moment, I not only noticed my voice, I felt love for it. It felt like a flowering, like the expression of what has been buried, like the miraculous growth of green life rising through cracks of sidewalk. As a writer, I’ve struggled to find my voice–an authentic self-expression. I’ve had to go through the mire of my mind, dig deep through the debris of superficiality to find myself. To hear my own voice and feel love for it signaled a milestone on the Heroine’s journey.
“The world is already split open,” wrote Terry Tempest Williams, “and it is our destiny to heal it, each in our own way, each in our own time, with the gifts that are ours.”24 This is the great privilege of being alive: healing the world by healing the inner divide and allowing the universe to constantly have its expression through us, using the unique voice each of us possess.
1. Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-Four Variations on Voice (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2012), p. 154.
2. Ibid., p. 90.
3. Daniel Siegel, The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2007), p.73.
4. Joan Chodorow, ed., Jung on Active Imagination (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 26.
5. Robert A. Johnson, Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth (New York: HarperCollins, 1986), p. 22
6. “Maureen Murdock Interviewed by Mary Davis,” C.G. Jung Society of Atlanta, Summer 2005, p. 5. Accessed May 8, 2014 from http://www.jungatlanta.com/articles/summer05-maureen-murdock.pdf
7. Ibid., p. 6.
8. Ibid., p. 6.
9. Maureen Murdock, The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1990), p. 83.
10. Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, 1999), p. 102.
11. Murdock, Heroine’s Journey, p. 108.
12. C. G. Jung, Alchemical Studies, vol. 13, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, ed. and trans. Gerhard Adler and R. F. C. Hull (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1963), § 229.
13. Meredith Sabini, ed., The Earth Has a Soul: C.G. Jung on Nature, Technology, and Modern Life (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2002), p. 1.
14. Murdock, Heroine’s Journey, p. 152.
15. Williams, When Women Were Birds, p. 170.
16. Matthew Fox, Original Blessing: A Primer in Creation Spirituality Presented in Four Paths, Twenty-Six Themes, and Two Questions (New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc., 1983), p. 185.
17. Beatrice Bruteau, God’s Ecstasy: The Creation of a Self-Creating World (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997), p. 174.
18. Murdock, Heroine’s Journey, p. 160.
19. Ibid., p. 160.
20. Williams, When Women Were Birds, p. 208.
21. Fox, Original Blessing, p. 192.
22. Marion Woodman, Sitting by the Well: Bringing the Feminine to Consciousness Through Language, Dreams, and Metaphor (Louisville, CO: Sounds True, 1998), CD.
23. Carol Pearson, The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1986), p. 68.
24. Williams, When Women Were Birds, p. 208.
Adriana Attento is the Board President of The Foundation for the Spiritual Practice of Creativity and the author of A Holy Nothingness Writing Towards God. With a Master’s degree in Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute and a long-time student of consciousness, Adriana enjoys writing about and reflecting upon the depth psychological processes of women. Find her at www.CreationMeditation.org.