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Image: Marion Woodman

Conscious Femininity by Marion Woodman

A Meeting with Marion Woodman

Pythia Peay: At the age of forty-five you made a sudden career shift, leaving your position as a high school English teacher to become a Jungian analyst.

Can you tell me something about that period in your life?

Marion Woodman: I had gone to India in 1968, thinking I would find a teacher there.

I did not find the teacher I expected, but the experience in India changed my life.

Then I went to England two years later with my husband, who was on sabbatical.

By sheer synchronicity a friend gave me the telephone number of a Jungian analyst by the name of E.A. Bennet.

I stepped into his office and knew I had found the teacher I had been looking for.

I stayed with him for a year, ran out of money, then went home and taught school for three more years.

It was the best teaching of my life; but I had made an inner commitment to go to Zürich for further analysis as Dr. Bennet was no longer practicing.

So at the end of that three year period I resigned my job in January, because I knew it would be impossible to resign at the end of the year.

The experience of leaving was very traumatic.

Peay: Why was that so traumatic?

Woodman: I’d taught school there for twenty-one years, loved teaching school, and had an ongoing creative theater project.

The students loved it, and they were very upset about losing it.

I had a close bonding with the students.

I was also married; I didn’t want to give up my home in London, Canada, and my mother was still alive at the time.

I didn’t want to give up all that was important to me.

But on the last day of May, which was the last day for turning in my resignation, the principal came and asked me if he should tear up my resignation.

As it turned out, he hadn’t handed in my resignation to the board because he said he knew I wasn’t going to leave after twenty-one years.

So I thanked God in my heart, and said thank heaven, I don’t have to go, thank you, thank you for letting me out of that little bargain.

That night I was in the emergency room of the hospital. My body had started to do very strange things.

The doctors couldn’t find the cause, and I had no idea except I knew I was going to Zürich.

My husband told the principal that my resignation stood. I had come to the end of teaching. I didn’t want to believe it.

I think that so long as I had a big adolescent in me, I understood the kids’ language, I understood their music, I understood the way they thought.

But it was increasingly obvious to me that I was losing that close understanding.

God had another idea for what I was to do and it was essentially that breakdown in my body that forced the issue.

Peay: It seemed your husband was also insightful enough to recognize what was really going on for you.

Woodman: He recognized that it had to be, that it was not a personal choice.

But I did not go to Zürich to become an analyst, I went for further analysis.

At that point I was simply trusting in the guidance of my dreams.

I tried my best to think there might be another way but there was no other way.

So I lived out my destiny.

Peay: How did your dreams point you in the direction of your destiny?

Woodman: My dreams told me three years before that that was the direction I was to go in.

Then I had other dreams that January that repeated the same theme: you know the direction you’re meant to take.

So I followed those dreams but then I thought maybe I was going to be released from my bargain!

Peay: So you gave up teaching, and without even knowing what you were going to ”be” professionally, you went to Zürich for analysis.

Woodman: Yes, but I still hoped I’d go back to teaching.

Teaching was my calling and so I always thought, up until my second year in Zürich, that I would go back to teaching.

But as I watched all my friends at the Institute prepare for their examinations, it seemed to me that they were getting a tougher tempering than I was.

So I decided to take the exams.

That went well, so I took the final exams two years later and that led to being an analyst.

Peay: Are there similarities between being a teacher and an analyst?

Woodman: I try to give my analysands the tools they need to interpret their dreams, and to walk with them on their road.

Where the teaching really comes in is in the workshops.

My experience as a school teacher is very valuable when I’m standing up in front of a group of people trying to explain ideas and opening up new avenues of thought.

Peay: Do you believe now, after what you went through yourself, that radical, personal transformation is possible for others?

Woodman: I do. I think if it’s your destiny, you will find the resources inside you to do it.

It is extremely painful, and you have to trust with everything in you, because you don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know what the cost is going to be.

And the cost is high. But I would say that my whole concept of life changed in India. That was the beginning of my radical transformation.

Peay: How did your encounter with India, as an entirely foreign culture, change you?

Woodman: In India I had no  control over anything. I was alone. People would say good evening in the morning and call me sir.

Details like that, combined with the maelstrom of life in the streets, left me with this sense that everything was chaos.

I either had to give up or die, because I was getting into one situation after another where I was constellating death.

By trying to control I was making the situation worse I was actually becoming more and more powerless.

I couldn’t make any decisions, and if I did it was the wrong decision.

Finally, I had to go with the flow of things and, for me, that felt like total giving up.

Because I had been a very efficient and well-organized teacher. Everything had to go click-click-click.

But in India that was broken in me, crushed in every possible way.

Then I began to realize that there was another force, like riding on top of a wave.

I really didn’t have to do anything except stay on top of the wave, and the wave would take me where I needed to go.

It was a most remarkable feeling! Instead of constellating death I began constellating love on all sides. I  came to love the Indian people.

I thought that I could have been one of those little children sleeping on the street.

I began to realize what an incredible gift it had been to have been born in Canada, and the responsibility involved in that, and I began to take that responsibility to heart.

Peay: What was that responsibility?

Woodman: To live up to my true potential. I had been giving to my students, but it was still a very narrow world.

I was very moved when I saw the suffering in India, and the love that that suffering could unleash.

I was recognized in India, in an extraordinary way, because I am an intuitive by nature.

Indians recognized that and responded to that side of me. I felt seen, in a way that my own culture rejected.

I was able to trust my own intuition and it opened my heart to something totally new flowing through hand I wanted to go with that flow.

It was a gift. But as you know, I had to be brought to the bottom. It was chaos inside and chaos outside.

Peay: In The Pregnant Virgin, you say that you were actually rescued on the street by a woman, a stranger, who recognized you were in a severe state of culture shock.

Woodman: She picked up a bag of bones. I’ve often thought of that American woman.

She asked me if I was alone, I said yes, and fainted dead away.

She picked up that bag of bones from the street and put it in a taxi and took it with her she had no idea what she had.

She took me to her hotel, determined I was going to go home. But I knew I had to stay.

Peay: How long did you stay?

Woodman: Three months. The real change came in my own hotel room during a severe sickness with high fever. I had lost consciousness.

When I came to, my body was on the floor and my soul was on the ceiling.

I had to make the choice there, whether to come back into my body or whether to go. And there really was a choice.

When I had been anorexic, I always thought that when the choice finally came I would leave.

But when it happened, and I was already on my way out, I wanted back in. The thing that saved me was my dog.

Peay: How did your dog save you?

Woodman: I perceived my body as a dog. I am very fond of dogs and I loved my dog.

And I saw this patient, loyal thing lying on the ground. Breathing.

Peay: Your body?

Woodman: Yes, but to me it was a thing. I could see it going up and down.

And I thought, “Stupid thing, it doesn’t even know it’s dead, and there it is waiting for me to come back, just like my little Duff would wait.”

And I thought, “I wouldn’t betray him, but I would betray my own body.”

Suddenly I realized what that betrayal meant to have been given a life and then decide it’s not worth living.

That seemed to be an ultimate betrayal. I thought, “I wouldn’t do this to my own dog, and I can’t do it to my own body.”

I was overcome by the sweetness of this patient thing trusting that I would come back.

I decided then to take responsibility for the life I was given it wasn’t mine to throw away.

Peay: How long did you struggle with anorexia?

Woodman: Well, I would say, in its worst form, about six years.

It was all part of being efficient and organized and wanting to was the longing for God.

And when you’re starving or dancing all night, as I did in those days, it’s amazing how much light you can bring into the cells of your body.

Petty: You used to dance all night?

Woodman: I taught in northern Ontario for awhile. Where I lived the real dancers didn’t get going until about one in the morning.

Petty: You went to discos?

Woodman: No, no. Ballroom and square dancing grand square dancing.

During the winter there was nothing else to do but dance at night.

Three nights of the week I danced from nine at night till 5 a.m. and loved it. Weight fell off me. But I was addicted to that sense of euphoria.

I still love dancing.

Petty: But since you’re not anorexic anymore, and you don’t dance the nights away, you must find that euphoria in a different way.

Woodman: Yes. But I don’t think it’s euphoria I’m looking for now. Euphoria is false.

The high that comes from being anorexic, the weightless feeling that came from dancing and not eating, was a false euphoria.

It was a death trip.

Happy as I was on my way to suicide, it wasn’t real at all.

It was a straight betrayal of life.

Now my journey is to the reality of the light God as embodied consciousness.

My whole desire then was to escape, now it’s to go deeper and deeper into life.

Peay: We hear so many psychospiritual phrases these days. What does “embodied consciousness” mean?

Are you talking about a state of consciousness that is different from the transcendent state experienced in meditation?

Woodman: I think God is that too. “Embodied consciousness” is my own phrase, reached through fifteen years of hard work.

I had to come to God the other way around.

I had to go through the body to find the Goddess.

To me the feminine side of God is consciousness in matter.

The wisdom in the body; the light in the cells; the subtle body.

For me, that subtle body within my physical body is the receiver that can receive that transcendent experience of the divine.

Before my experience in India I had no subtle body to receive the spirit; I was not conscious below the neck.

Peay: All your books deal in one way or another with eating disorders.

Was it your own personal experience with anorexia that led you to write on that subject?

Woodman: Of course.

Peay: You were one of the first Jungians to write about eating disorders. Is that correct?

Woodman: Yes, I was one of the first. I did it because I had to.

In Zürich I wrote my thesis on Emily Dickinson, who was also obsessed with light.

When I finished I had a dream saying, “Now you can start your thesis.”

Because I still had not dealt with my own shadow.

I took that dream very seriously, and wrote another thesis on binging and anorexia.

That turned out to be The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter.

Peay: There was quite a response to that book.

Woodman: Yes there was. And that was just the tip of the iceberg compared to what I know about it now.

Peay: Your books are written within an obvious Jungian context.

How has the Jungian psychological point of view added to our understanding of eating disorders?

Woodman: My Jungian analysis allowed me to understand the complexes that give rise to eating disorders metaphorically.

The body sends messages from the unconscious just as dreams send messages.

I think eating disorders are related to a problem with the mother.

Mother is related to nourishment, cherishing, sweetness food is a metaphor for mother.

So that in any family where there’s a person with an eating disorder, if the family cares, they are all going to have to come face to face with their relationship to the feminine.

I am convinced that the feminine is making her way into our culture through the back door; one of those back door routes is through eating disorders.

When you’re really following the analysand’s dreams in an eating disorder, you begin to see that an eating disorder is a religious problem.

Peay: What do you mean by a “religious problem?”

Woodman: It’s a longing for the archetypal mother.

The sweetness, the cherishing, the acceptance, the mirroring by the missing mother I mean mother with a big M.

It isn’t just a longing for the personal mother, but a longing for the Mother Goddess, a being in whom you can have total trust.

Peay: So when you say that eating disorders are linked to a repression of the feminine in our culture, you mean the feminine side of God, or what you call the Goddess?

Woodman: Yes. I call her Sophia. What is paramount in our culture is patriarchal power.

When I described to you how efficient I was, how organized with calendars and clocks, I was describing a power-driving masculinity that left no room for feminine meandering.

I had to be in control.  That ends up being power, will power without a strong ego underneath. But I would not have seen it at the time.

I wanted A’s at university, I wanted to be top in everything that had to do with the mind.

The feminine isn’t interested in being at the top: she’s dedicated to life in the moment, she takes time to look at trees and flowers; she takes time to build depth relationships, takes time to be carried by that other force that trusts that there’s inherent meaning to this life.

I had lost touch with that trusting side of myself.

As a child I had known it, but the longer I was in school the further I was away from it.

Peay: If it is a religious problem that lies at the basis of an eating disorder, then what are the religious distinctions between the struggles of an anorexic, a bulimic, and someone who is obese?

Woodman: It seems to me that obesity and anorexia are two sides of one coin. The binger and the anorexic are the extremes.

The anorexic is going for Light she dreams everything white. The thing that’s after her in her dreams is white, sterile, Luciferian light.

Whereas the binger is trapped in darkness. Concretized matter is pulling her down.  Her body is dark, opaque, unconscious matter.

The dream  demon that is chasing her is black.

They are two different kinds of dream images, both trying to escape from life, but at different poles.

The binger needs to be grounded and food will ground her.

When you have emotions that are out of control fear and rage for example you eat chocolate, you swallow those emotions that are threatening to sweep you right out of yourself.

You can push them down, and as you get fatter and heavier you are grounded, but grounded in unconsciousness, if you’re using food to escape.

Peay: That image of someone swallowing their emotions seems to fit with the cultural notion of the fat person as complacent and sweet.

Woodman: Yes. Often they have decided to perform for the culture.

Whatever the culture wants, they will be sweet and complacent and all the time hate themselves for not being who they are.

They are often raging inside. The anger has concretized on the body.  The fat body is the rebel against the thin, collective ideal.

The anorexic, however, is into spirit.

The hardest thing in dealing with anorexics is that once they start to eat they don’t experience that spiritual intensity so vibrantly.

Peay: And they have to give that up?

Woodman: They have to give that up. “If this is what life is,” they say, “it’s boring.”

Whereas the binger has come to the point of intensity and has chosen to eat to dampen it, bulimics swallow it and then can’t stomach what they’ve swallowed.

Metaphorically they have swallowed the mother they yearn for they get her into the stomach and out she comes in vomit.

Peay: These distorted relationships with food seem to be pointing to deep cultural problems with the feminine.

Woodman: I think the spiritual feminine is practically nonexistent in our culture.

People simply do not like the feminine. They are terrified to let go. Into what? Nothingness?

So she has to come in the back door, through eating disorders or other addictions. Eating disorders reveal an enormous paradox.

On the one hand, the spiritual feminine is so desired, and on the other, we are burying ourselves in our own concretized matter.

You can’t just pretend that two hundred pounds isn’t sitting in front of you.

Generally speaking, the feminine is thought of as irrational and stupid.

Women will come out with a feminine statement and then say, “Oh, that was stupid to say that.”  It’s the circuitous way the feminine moves.

She moves like a snake, back and forth and around and deep and around.

I am often criticized for the way I speak, because it’s not orderly, it’s not going toward a goal, it’s not linear.

I purposely do not lecture that way anymore because for me it’s very boring to know exactly where I’m going.

I love the pleasure of the journey.

I have a plan in my head; there are three or four points I want to make but exactly how those are going to be expressed, I don’t know.

I trust that something will happen. Most people are terrified of spontaneity.

They don’t know how to be in the now so they’ll do anything to follow a preconceived plan.

This is the exact opposite of the feminine, which lives in the present.

Peay: How do you treat those who come to you for help with their eating disorders?

Woodman: I don’t look specifically at the problem because I see it as a symptom of something much deeper.  So I work with the dreams.

Metaphorically speaking the person is usually living in a concentration camp, brutalized by Nazi officers the power drive within and without.

The feminine can barely exist with that kind of brutality.

I have workshops where I try to help people relate to their body in a loving way, not in a keep-fit way.

I’m not saying that keeping fit isn’t loving, but it is important to know the body and respect it, to honor it as a sacred temple.

I try to bring body and psyche together.

Peay: How does the body work you do with your clients differ from the fitness approach to body work?

Woodman: I work with the psyche through dreams, and with the body through dreams and workshops, and with the voice through breath.

Peay: How does this differ from keeping fit?

Woodman: It’s working with imagery, it’s working with soul.

The images are pictures of the soul and we use those as the bridge between psyche and body.

Some people don’t like to be in workshops, they prefer individual body work. So they do Feldenkrais or yoga, whatever they choose.

But almost everybody in my practice is doing both body work and dream work.

Peay: In one of your books you describe body work and dream work as very similar.

The body gives us metaphorical images and messages from the unconscious in the same way dreams do, we just haven’t been taught to interpret those messages.

Woodman: We can interpret them if we take time to listen to our body, to the images that come up.

If we concentrate on our heart, often a gorgeous flower will manifest.

But images also come that aren’t quite so beautiful as flowers they can be quite diabolical.

They make us face the other side of ourselves.

The point is we are flesh and blood and often we don’t experience the reality of a psychic image until we feel it in our body.

Peay: You ask the question in The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, ”Is the repressed god that was somatized as hysteria in the early part of this century now appearing in anorexia and obesity?”

I understood that hysteria used to be linked to sexual repression.

Is there a connection between eating disorders and sexual repression?

Woodman: Well, once an eating disorder begins to heal, a sexual problem may emerge.

A woman who is relating to her body becomes attractive to men, and as soon as men begin to pay attention to her or to touch her suddenly she starts to eat again and puts on weight.

Often a woman with a profound eating  disorder is about one year old.

The soul went underground at about the age of one; the little girl started to perform and be what people wanted her to be.

So when the weight comes off you have a one year old trying to relate to a man, and she simply can’t do it.

So you’ve got to allow that one year old to catch up, in a spiritual sense, to what she is in her physical body.

Then she will be able to relate to men. Often the body functions as a suit of armor against sexuality.

Peay: How does that work with an anorexic?

Woodman: There you’ve got bone instead of fat acting as armor in a real anorexic.

Some people are anorexic because it’s stylish. But real anorexics genuinely forget to eat, or simply can’t.

Peay: Most men and women are very confused about their sexuality.

Woodman: It seems to me that to receive a penis there has to be a really profound sense of who you are, in order to allow yourself to be penetrated by another human being.

A woman has to have a real sense of her own presence to surrender into full orgasm because she is entering into an altered state of consciousness.

I think the fear of surrender in the anorexic epitomizes the fear of the feminine and that’s the feminine in men as well.

The feminine in men is more terrified than the feminine in women.

Peay: How does that fear affect a man when it comes to sexual relationships?

Woodman: In human sexuality I think of the yin-yang symbol. The yin has some yang in it and the yang’s got some yin.

In the sexual act you have a continual moving of that circle so that the woman experiences her full masculine and feminine and the man experiences his full masculine and feminine.

That’s real love-making, where you experience the wholeness within yourself through the person you love.

But if the woman moves into her yang and the man becomes frightened of her assertiveness, which he may experience as aggression, he won’t be able to accept it.

He will withdraw and become impotent.

Peay: I sometimes feel more sadness from men these days than women.

Woodman: I do too. As men begin to realize what they’ve done to their feeling side they are heartbroken.

Literally heart disease is the number one killer in this society.

Because for so long the heart has carried the burden unconsciously it finally breaks.

Now that’s starting to come to consciousness.

Men and their partners are going to suffer because consciousness brings suffering.

Peay: No one seems to have the slightest idea what the rules are in relationships anymore.

Woodman: There are no rules.

And that’s good, because we’ve been thrown into a completely new ethos. The old one is useless, hopeless. ~Marion Woodman, Conscious Femininity, Page 110-119