Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Reclaiming “The Change”

May 31st, 2013 by Ashley Ross

The Change.

Stormy skies above Bagnor (UK)
Photo by Andrew Smith // Creative Commons 2.0

This name for peri/menopause has appeared in many cultures and has been passed down through the eons, generation to generation. I, myself, really like calling it The Change, as it describes the awe and magnitude of peri/menopause. The Change honors the call to attention, the rupture from the known, the reflective incubation, the life choices and the leap of faith that a conscious, mindful passage through peri/menopause requires. The Change encapsulates the seismic shifts, the unexpected turns, the disturbing reorientations, the annoying distractions, the unsummoned losses, and the depth of self-discovery that is available to every woman willing to answer the call and step into the initiatory potential of this passage to Eldership.

As I prepare my workshop (The Chrysalis and the Crone: A Conscious Menopause) to bring to the SMCR Conference next week, I find myself deeper and deeper in the reality of our contemporary, global culture and the crisis of the absence of rites and initiations. Specifically, how does it affect each and every one of us, that our experience is being defined only by our ‘symptoms’? What does it mean for us and our planet if we pay attention to the attempts of the psyche to guide us out of our work-a-day-lives and into discovering what else might be possible? What if we choose not to be thwarted by the unimaginative beliefs that the soul’s needs are unquantifiable and thus unimportant?

Marion Woodman describes this vacuum:

“The doors that were once opened through initiation rites are still crucial thresholds in the human psyche, and when those doors do not open, or when they are not recognized for what they are, life shrinks into a series of rejections. Torschlusspanik [a German word connoting the terror of disconnection] is now part of our culture because there are so few rites to which individuals will submit in order to transcend their own selfish drives. Without the broader perspective, they see no meaning in rejection. The door thuds, leaving them bitter or resigned. If, instead, they could temper themselves to a point of total concentration, a bursting point where they could either pass over or fall back as in a rite of passage, then they could test who they are.  Their passion would be spent in an all-out positive effort, instead of deteriorating into disillusionment and despair“. (from Richard A. Heckler’s Crossing: Everyday People, Unexpected Events and Life Affirming Change, p. 134)

If this is true, then instead of suffering ‘symptoms’ and struggling, each of us, to suppress or get rid of these symptoms, we might consider peri/menopause as a collective imperative to initiate and embody change – in ourselves and our society. Peri/menopause might be the catalyst to shake us awake from our collective trance, to step away from our habituated notions of who we are and how our world is supposed to work.

Here’s the rub: change is pain. We are, for the most part, creatures of comfort. We like, for the most part, to be lulled. But our souls long for more, and at peri/menopause we can no longer ignore the small whisper, deep in our psyches, asking: “Is this it?  Is this all there is?”

Change is afoot …

Menstruation, Consciously?

April 17th, 2013 by Ashley Ross

In Heather Dillaway’s re:Cycling post of March 28, “The Physical Body and the Lived Body”, she invited a conversation about the importance of understanding the “lived bodily experience” when we examine menstruation. She suggests that “we cannot comprehend menstruation until we separate the physical body from the lived body”. Her inquiry reflects the dilemma many of us face when we attempt to enter the female experience through our cognition. Inevitably we rely on what we’ve heard repetitively and from many sources; what we’ve been taught, cajoled, shamed, brainwashed, and had whispered to us. In this way our experience has been formed from the outside in. This is what Dillaway delightfully (albeit cognitively) calls the “governmentality” of (our) bodies – that is, all the rules that surround bodies, all the norms that suggest exactly how our bodies should be and behave”.

If we agree reframing and embodying our own experience is called for, the logical question is no longer WHAT is our lived experience (that would still keep us in our heads) but HOW do we experience our bodies to discover our experience from the inside out? What are we called to do, or perhaps more relevantly, to BE, to develop the ability to fine-tune our inner attention, to deepen our listening and to familiarize ourselves with the terrain of our interiority?

How we chose to do this — how we each bypass the machinations, the loops, the highly developed editing abilities of our minds, the habituation of needing more, more, more information — is as personal and varied as the individuality of each inner landscape. However, I would like to suggest the following three components as a place to start:

Photo by Ashley Ross

“Going inward” only can happen when we slow down. This is a timeless realm, where attention will only settle on our experience, like a butterfly on a flower, when the air is still.

We also need to bring our curiosity to the unknown. We won’t free ourselves from the tyranny of imposed meaning until we are willing to enter into our experience and be willing to not know what we will find. Not even think we might know. Simply not expect to know.

We also need to build up the courage, the resources, the terra firma, the self-esteem, nay, the self-respect to go in and gently, lovingly touch those uncomfortable, painful, and often vulnerable parts of ourselves. These wary parts might even back away from us at first, but in truth, have been waiting for us to arrive for a long time. As the poet Mary Oliver says, “you only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”.

These three mindfulness-based practices are at the foundation of a conscious embodiment of our menstruation, hormones and peri/menopause. They offer a way into our experience that allows understanding to bubble up from the experience itself. If we can BE in our bodies, if we can sit quietly and notice who we are when we menstruate, when we ovulate, and the tempo of our own monthly cycle, in this way we permit ourselves the experience of knowing ourselves from the inside out.

Who knows, something unexpected and remarkable might happen. By bringing consciousness into our experience, it might shift the experience itself…

We’re Ripe for the Third Talk, Actually!!

December 20th, 2012 by Ashley Ross

No question – Poise’s Second Talk Campaign is undeniably courageous, taking on Menopause, the Previously Unmentionable. Call me impatient and unappreciative, but I just can’t help mourning the missed opportunity to REALLY empower women, instead of aligning with those unrelenting forces bent on squeezing the Mojo from the second half of our lives.

Seeped as I am in the journey of menopause, (my own, and as co-creator of the Menopausal Mojo Teleseminar program), my curiosity was cautiously piqued when I opened the Poise link in this blog post  last month. (Cautious because, after all, Poise is an incontinence product and the association is not only anxiety provoking but inadvertently quantizes my experience into a demeaning and unimaginative metaphor — something like shame meets discouragement meets insult. Sorry, that’s just how it feels to me. Let it be known, I am not in denial here – it has been a while since I could safely jump on a trampoline with anything in my bladder.)

Nevertheless — someone is talking publicly about menopause. And I am certainly curious to see what aspect of this rich, challenging and potentially transformative experience they are choosing to highlight.

The first thing we see: “8 in 10 women agree, it’s time to change the way we think about menopause”.

YES!!! What we’ve been saying all along, my wonderful co-conspirator, Karen Clothier (creator of the body-mind-spirit focused and unexpectedly successful Menopause the Magical Telesummit) and me. We find ourselves coming back again and again to feeling the urgent need to rebrand menopause. We clearly do want another way to understand peri/menopause. After hundreds of years of agents of the male paradigm systematically dismantling our authority of our experience, using shame to silence our inherent collaborative tendencies, we have lost the language to talk about the transformative experience of our 40’s and 50’s – as we move from fertile women to mature women, from “child bearer’s to bearers of wisdom” (Kristi Meisenbach Boylan The Seven Sacred Rites of Menopause).

Clearly the difficulty begins with the term “menopause” itself. The term was coined in 1812 by the French physician de Gardanne and is defined as (a moment in time) 12 months after the last menstrual period. A little hard to acknowledge a rite of passage when its beginning, middle and end are as elusive, instantaneous and vague as that. But that’s not all, that’s simply the scientific use of the word. Our everyday use of it also describes perimenopause (the 5-10 year period before the Moment-In-Time) as well as post-menopause (an unspecified period after the Moment-In-Time). Confused yet?

Small wonder that we need new, updated language, imagery, descriptions, mythology and role-models — a full-spectrum, holographic map to describe the physical, emotional and spiritual terrain of our midlife experience.

Wait, I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Back to the Poise menopause page, and how it misleads women by reducing this remarkable transition into … yes, you got it … SYMPTOMS. As if symptoms are the menopausal experience. And the successful management of said symptoms is all there is to this phase of our life cycle. Tragically reductionist, when seen from the perspective of how insidiously the media molds our reality. This is brilliantly elucidated in Jennifer Siebel Newsom’s movie Miss Representation, which shows “the media’s limited and often disparaging portrayals of women and girls, which make it difficult for women … to feel powerful.”

“Disparaging”. Hold that thought while we listen to Dr. Jennifer Berman, Poise’s menopause and intimacy expert, describing mood swings. In the clip  “What’s the DEAL with my moodswings”*, does she validate our experience and perhaps suggest that our emotions might be valuable indicators of our experience? Does she acknowledge the virtually universal need of women at this stage to retreat (I would venture to say the developmental milestone in the female psyche to withdraw and self-reflect), and then acknowledge how at odds with our externally driven, production oriented culture this urge is? Perhaps she suggests that THAT might be the reason WHY our moods are swinging – that our emotions are accurately reflecting the environmental imbalance of the whole paradigm? Wouldn’t it be the moment for Poise, and all those interested in empowering women, to ask this crucial question: why are we making menopause all about what’s wrong with us?

Here’s what the good doctor says:   “Moodswings are very common during the perimenopause and menopause.  Women will describe symptoms of feeling more irritable and short fused, more weepy and depressed, more (uh) anxious and sort of, (uh) difficulty concentrating …and that’s very common during perimenopause, and it tends to level out, to some degree, as women approach menopause.”

Firstly, is it just me or is her tone patronizing? Is she explaining anything new here and offering solutions as promised? Is she even answering the question: “What’s the DEAL with my moodswings”?!

Now of course I see what a masterful campaign Poise have created here. They’ve captured an untapped market, have obviously paid close attention to the terms used by women in their focus group and have echoed the aspirations of menopausal women to save us from our Symptoms.

How much more interesting would it be if they used the global reach and collective power of the internet to invite us to create new language and ways to define our midlife experience that go beyond complaining about hot flashes (see “personal stories” on the site)? Ladies, instead of letting them reduce our experience to managing our symptoms, let’s demand inspiring stories about how we are stepping into the second half of our lives with the Mojo that comes from accessing our collective wisdom, our wizened humor and our well-earned self-respect. Now that’s a branding campaign worth following.

Is Hormonal Literacy Important in a Counseling Session?

October 19th, 2012 by Ashley Ross

When we sit with our clients – whether it’s a medical consultation, a therapy session, a group program or even spiritual guidance – what happens when we include a woman’s cyclic nature in the conversation?

As a holistic reproductive health coach using the Hakomi somatic counseling method, this question is not only unavoidable but inevitable.

Hakomi is a therapeutic method that uses mindfulness in our present time experience to discover unconscious beliefs that either resource or limit us. Put another way, we bring a woman’s awareness to what is happening in her body as we’re consulting with her. This is done with the understanding that our bodies are as much a part of our experience as our cognitive experience (how we make meaning) but they have a less perfected filtering and editing capacity, making them a wonderfully effective access route to our unconscious – our experience outside our awareness.

Many of my clients come to me for help with their emotional hormonal symptoms (perimenopause, PMS). Below are a few different ways I work in this hormone/psyche/somatic interface. I thought this might be a place for us to share what we’ve discovered.

Knowing Where She’s At

I begin each session by establishing which phase of her monthly cycle and/or life-cycle she’s in. We explore how she experiences these phases (which initially requires teaching tracking and observation skills). I also find it extremely helpful to find out what birth control she uses to ascertain whether she is using endocrine disruptors.

Her Relationship to Her Cycle

We get to know what beliefs she has about her cycle and her body. Many core beliefs about the Self reside in her relationship with her body and can show up in how she experiences her period, her birth control choices, how she inhabits different parts of her body – specifically her reproductive organs and pelvis, etc. (I like the work of Tami Kent on this last point). Many issues of self-regard, self-compassion and agency might also be expressed through this relationship.

Menarche

We explore her first period experience; for example, how old she was, what was happening in her life at that time and the messages she got leading up to and including her first period. These might include difficulty in accepting her sexuality; anger and resentment towards the masculine, or the feminine; shame, confusion, disappointment or rage about her menstruating body; relief and excitement about being a woman; etc. We also explore her significant relationships at that time – with mother, father, sisters, brothers, grandmother etc. We note whether she experienced any loss of relationships because of her menarche. We offer her the “missed experience” of acceptance of her womanhood, fertility and sexuality (with gender-identity appropriateness).

Normalizing the Fluctuations

We discuss variations in energy, temperament, sexuality, mood, “liminal” state (see Alexandra Pope’s Wild Genie), etc. through her cycle. She learns to recognize her unique patterns. We explore any fears/judgments/beliefs about being “unpredictable” or “inconsistent”, specifically in relation to expectations she might have for herself.

The Resource of Hormonal Literacy

We point out new signs and beliefs as she begins to integrate her hormonal experience. for example, moments of self-compassion, nonjudgmental, embodiment, empowerment, etc. We work somatically to create new neural pathways that integrate her developing hormonal literacy.

These are a few areas that I feel warrant further discussion and examination in how we include a woman’s hormonal experience in our interactions with her in a session. There are more, of course, like the counselor’s relationship to hormones and menstruation (counter-transference) as well as bringing hormone awareness to treatment with addiction or trauma. Rich stuff.

What I’ve noticed by including this interplay between hormones, psyche, and the body is the phenomenon of how awareness changes a woman’s experience. When she connects the dots between her hormonal cycle and her experience, it not only empowers her but shifts her hormonal experience itself.

I know we all look forward to the day when our hormonal and somatic awareness are so integrated, they become the water we swim in – that great day when we are not appreciated and valued regardless of our hormones but because of them. Until then, I believe we can best serve women by including hormonal literacy in our work together.

Readers should note that statements published in re: Cycling are those of individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Society as a whole.