Marion Woodman: An Embodied Life by Meg Wilbur
Marion Woodman, internationally recognized author and speaker, died in July 2018 at the age of 89, leaving a rich legacy.
A distinguished Jungian analyst, she was a pioneer in applying Jung’s principles to eating disorders, addictions, and the body.
The author reflects on key influences affecting Woodman’s journey with the Self, as well as her extension of Jung’s thoughts on the feminine and active imagination with the body.
Marion’s life can be seen to fulfill Jung’s concept of the “experiment of one’s life,” and thus is an example of a new consciousness seeking to be born—especially in the realm of the long-repressed feminine.
The BodySoul RhythmsTM program became the culmination of Marion’s research and application of Jung’s understanding of the basic unity of psyche and soma.
These embodied practices support the integration of both into consciousness and promote a deeper relationship with the Self.
The Self is the God-image within, like the golden ball in fairy tales.
That golden ball takes you where you need to be led in order to find all the parts of yourself. —Marion Woodman (1993, p. 95)
With the passing of Marion Woodman, internationally recognized author and speaker,
the Jungian world lost a unique and vital spirit.
She died in July 2018 at the age of 89, leaving a rich legacy.
distinguished Jungian analyst, she was one of the first to apply Jung’s principles to eating disorders, addictions, and the body.
She and her analyst brother Frazer Boa were among the founders of the Ontario Association of Jungian Analysts.
Her eleven highly popular books (five coauthored) were translated into many languages, selling over half a million copies.
A gifted teacher of Jung and the embodied feminine, she reached hundreds of men and women, especially through her experiential workshops, BodySoul RhythmsTM (BSR).
These led to the formation of the Marion Woodman Foundation, where women studied with her and her colleagues, and also trained to teach the unique BodySoul process.
Woodman’s work amplified themes of individuation, the feeling function, and above all made a major contribution to exploring the feminine realm within Jung’s map of the psyche.
Her development of what she termed “conscious femininity” sought a balance between well-differentiated masculine and feminine energies in the individual.
She dared to include embodied work at a time when Jung’s ideas and concepts were basically approached theoretically.
While Jung included this territory, the feminine and the body, it still remained relatively unexplored in his lifetime.
Marion was among those responsible for conscious femininity and embodied work’s emergence into the collective for vibrant discourse and attention (Figure 1).
Woodman’s accomplishments cannot convey her quality as a person.
It was her presence, her essence so alive to the unconscious, which affected and changed people.
Yet she was “simply Marion,” that was her gift.
While natural and related, her bright eyes could seem to pierce through to one’s core and embrace it: not sentimentally or soppily—just the opposite, with plenty of “Sophia’s salt.”
Humorous, self-deprecating, self-revealing, and spicy, she held an objective space of presence, where one felt the soul might tremulously emerge, perhaps for the first time.
I first met Marion at a BSR workshop in 1998.
At the time I was straddling an awkward divide between two careers: theater and analytic training.
As a theater professor at UCLA, I felt like a “closet Jungian,” and at the Los Angeles Jung Institute, I felt like a “closet theater person.”
Marion’s work united it all for me.
Not only was her background similar to mine, but the scope of BSR also integrated my career paths in a powerful Jungian container.
Jung (2009) wrote in The Red Book, “Who should live your own life, if not yourself?
So live yourselves” (p. 231).
The late poet Mary Oliver (1992) echoes this point, asking, “Oh, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” (p. 94).
Marion truly claimed her “one wild and precious life.”
In doing so she herself illustrates the emergence of a new consciousness, the “conscious feminine.”
We can be inspired not only by Marion’s teachings, but also by seeing in her life the changing consciousness of our time.
It is particularly relevant in this era, when the feminine is again under worldwide attack; the enantiodromia swing is so powerful that it threatens to subsume the passionate but barely rooted feminine resurgence of Marion’s lifetime.
In one of my favorite quotes, Jung describes our lives as being an “experiment of the self.”
Here, from his Zarathustra Seminars (1934/1988), he says:
It is the Self, really [that wants to live its own “experiment” through us]…,the Self, that living potentiality which accounts for the existence of our spirit as well as our body—both being essentially the same.
Sure enough, our ego will is not identical with the Self-will; our Self-will does not want what the ego wants…. So you must inquire what experiment the Self wants to make. Why
has the Self created the body?…You see, the body is meant to live; it has to be served, and your Self has a very particular purpose with it, presumably.…It is an entirely individual question.
Inasmuch as we are individuals, our experiment is individual, and the point of life is that this particular individual should fulfill itself. (p. 403)
Marion was true to her “experiment.”
Knowing her was to encounter an individuated woman whose life and work were one, inextricably interwoven.
In that sense she was an exemplar of the tenets of depth psychology.
This is not to elevate her, something she would disdain—she valued wholeness, not perfection.
Far from being “saintly,” she had a wayward spirit she called her “Gypsy,” which led her on circuitous paths.
Like Jung with his number two personality, her Gypsy became a guiding spirit carrying her life force, which ultimately led her, like a compass, toward center.
What I hope to convey in these evocations of Marion is something of the alchemy of her life, how she lived constantly aware of her interaction with the Self.
While Jungian psychology was the determining factor of her destiny, it was as well the vessel to fulfill that destiny.
It’s a fascinating tale that can be illuminating to all who seek greater understanding of the interplay between ego and Self.
I hope to engage her gypsy spirit and flesh out a portrait of the canny crone and loving woman whom I knew as a mentor and colleague for over twenty years.
A pattern emerges where the hand of fate, or Sophia, engages with her, step by step, on a path from Christianity, patriarchy, and perfectionism—to the goddess, the feminine, and the human.
ROOTS AND CHILDHOOD
The dynamic principle of fantasy is play, a characteristic also of the child, and as such it appears inconsistent with the principle of serious work.
But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth.
The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable. —C. G. Jung (1921, par. 93)
We’ll begin with Marion’s roots.
Born in 1928 on the verge of the Great Depression, Marion Boa was a minister’s daughter.
Her father grew up on Canadian bush-land cleared by his Scottish parents; an earthy man, he gardened, loved animals, and took Marion haying and fishing.
Her no-nonsense mother, of Irish descent, was a suffragette, a city businesswoman with a car, and a dislike for her woman’s body (Woodman, 2005, p. 4).
Becoming a parson’s wife in a village church meant sacrificing her independence.
When pregnant with Marion, her first child, she retreated to her parents’ home in the city till after the birth, when she returned to what she called “the cage” of small-town life.
According to Ross Woodman, Marion’s husband, her mother’s split from her feminine body translated into an unconscious rejection of her female child.
Marion responded by retreating from her mother, frozen and silent.
When Marion was four her mother became bed-ridden with tuberculosis, creating more distance between the two, and more silence (Woodman, 2005, pp. 2–58).
One wonders if this was not Marion’s first imprinting experience of the force she later termed the “death mother.”
Luckily, Marion’s father had a well-developed feminine and could step into the breach, taking her everywhere with him, even on pastoral visits.
Turning to him for care and adventure, she became, unsurprisingly, a classic “father’s daughter.”
They lived in small-town Ontario amidst the daily rituals of the Scottish Presbyterian Church.
Like her heroine Emily Dickinson (another parson’s daughter), Marion’s home overlooked the graveyard.
Little Marion with wild curls, clay bubble pipe, and dirty pinafore often held forth in the cemetery, giving tea parties on the tombstones and inviting the spirits (or passing mourners) to “join the party!”
Irrepressible, alive with puckish play, her body was “like a lightning rod, reacting to everything,” she said. “I would walk into a room and (intuitively) say, ‘Somebody has been fighting here and I’m not going to stay!’” (Macdonald, 1996, p. 59).
She took responsibility for her brothers, creating a wild tribe of three.
Marion and brother Fraser (also a Jungian analyst, known for his film with Marie-Louise von Franz, Way of the Dream) wrote poems to each other in blood, Shakespeare fashion, and nailed them to their bedroom doors with a knife (Woodman, 2001, p. 7).
They created plays too, with brother Bruce (later an actor in England). “The game,” she said, “was always births, weddings, and funerals” (Macdonald, 1996, p. 59).
Growing up in a church world charged with archetypal energies and images, it’s not surprising that Marion identified with an archetypal heroine like Joan of Arc, whose picture she carried in her pocket to keep her safe during her wanderings in the woods.
Thus, early on she had an innate sense of a protective feminine presence from another world.
If Joan existed with the angels (whom Marion also saw), her opposite was constellated in her Gypsy, whose untamed energies found glorious freedom in the woods.
School, however, repressed both. “I was out of my body by the age of six because of my anguish at school,” she said (Woodman, 2005, p. 6).
She survived through books, especially the poems of Emily Dickinson.
Reading them aloud to herself, she realized that “they made me know I wasn’t crazy. Dickinson spoke my language, before I knew it” (Woodman, Harvey, Woodman, & Reid, 2010).
Since Marion found school anathema, I often wonder what drew her to become a teacher and even act in amateur dramatics.
It’s an irony.
This woman would become an acclaimed public speaker, yet when first facing a classroom, she had no voice at all! “I couldn’t get anything out! I stood there, frozen. It was just a squeak!”
Luckily, a professor recognized her merit and mentored her through it, salvaging that career (Woodman, personal communication, n. d.).
Despite her “voiceless” beginning, Marion became a gifted literature and drama teacher at a London, Ontario high school.
There, she developed her own approach, her metier.
To help students connect to language (she couldn’t stand that poetry bored them!), Marion inspired them to move and embody the images of poetry, to sound them as well, urging them to feel it in their guts (something her Gypsy had done as a child).
When she joined forces with dance and movement teacher Mary Hamilton (with whom she would later develop BSR), their students became so loudly “liberated” that Marion asked the principal to tear down a wall between two classrooms.
And he agreed! “My students need space!” she said—space to move, to declaim, even to stand on desks, wielding their rulers as swords!
The productions were legendary, even including an enactment of Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell—quite a project, one would think, for high school students.
She was changing lives even then.
These teenagers, in finding an outlet for their raw emotions, also encountered the archetypal world.
It was spirit through language and images, and also body in movement and sound—the very essence of what would become BSR (Woodman, personal communication, n. d.).
At the same time, in 1958, Marion studied literature at the University of Western Ontario.
There she met and later married Ross Woodman, a brilliant professor of Romantic poetry, a man whose energy and creativity could fully match her own in a “soul union.”
Their marriage of over fifty years remained an ever-alive core in the development of both their lives (Figure 2).
It’s little known that Marion also performed as an actress, a hidden talent, which doubtless served her well later as a speaker.
Both her brothers were avid performers and perhaps drew her onstage with them.
Opportunities opened both at the university and the London Little Theater, which offered amateur productions and repertory plays
from England, casting local people in small roles. Later she and Ross caused a small
sensation in their inimitable performances of Nagg and Nell in Beckett’s black comedy
Endgame, holding forth from their garbage cans iii(Ann Skinner, personal communication, December 2018).
The strands of her fate were interweaving: the childhood archetypal world, teaching, poetry, romance, acting.
All these were to prove essential later in her life’s work as a Jungian analyst.
If we look at modern ‘Athenas’ sprung from their fathers’ foreheads, we do not necessarily see liberated women….Working so hard to create our own perfection, we forget that we are human beings.
On the one side, we try to be the efficient, disciplined goddess Athena, on the other we are forced into the voracious repressed energy of Medusa. —Marion Woodman (1982, pp. 9–10)
From the outside all appeared well in the Woodmans’ lives, with their careers and marriage a glowing picture of success.
Yet all was not well for “Mrs.” Woodman in her conventional role of “perfect housewife”—a role, which, in the 1960s she strove earnestly to fulfill.
She began to realize that she had simply exchanged the safety and constraints of her father’s house with those of her husband’s.
Her body bore the strain.
“I knew I was out of my body,” she said.
It sent her increasingly urgent messages, which she struggled to decipher.
She became anorexic (little known then).
When she developed edema, a bloating condition, she confronted herself.
Was she living her own life? Who was she without her support systems? Where was her Gypsy?
A voice responded, “I am going to live, Marion, whether you like it or not!”
So she took a leap into the unknown.
In 1968, at the age of 40, she left home and journeyed alone to India (Macdonald, 1996; Woodman et al., 2010).
“I needed to move into my own silence and find out who was in there.” She planned to stay safely in an ashram and encounter God.
“God was with me all right,” she wrote, “but His ideas were somewhat different from mine.
He turned out to be She in India, a She that I never imagined existed…a She that reached out to me…in the streets seething with poverty, disease, and love.”
It was sheer terror, everything turned upside down, people shouting “Good evening!” in the morning, or “brushing kisses with a cow” as she stepped in its cow pie.
The clutching hands grabbing her on the street embodied her own growing dislocation, as the chaos forced her to surrender her need for control.
Losing all sense of herself, she fell into a classic descent, developed a bad case of dysentery, and faced a brush with death (Woodman, 1985, pp. 176–178).
Alone in her hotel room, unable to eat or move, Marion read Shakespeare’s sonnets and her passport to hold onto her identity.
Then she found herself on the tile floor and came to consciousness on the ceiling, my spirit looking down at my body, caked in vomit and excrement….“Poor dummy,” I thought, “Don’t you know you’re dead?”
And mentally gave it a kick. Suddenly I remembered my little Cairn terrier [and] thought, “I wouldn’t treat a dog the way I’m treating my own body.” (Woodman, 1985, p. 178)
She realized that the poor creature crying out to her from the floor in its “foul condition was her soul, her Kore…at the center of matter, crying to be claimed…and expressed” (Woodman, 1985, p. 178, 185).
And life returned, love touched her, love for herself, allowing her to reconnect to her body in a new way.
She was still quite ill. Exhausted and ghostlike, she finally dragged herself down to the hotel lounge, where she had a fateful encounter.
As she sat wanly on a couch a large, dark Indian woman came and, in Marion’s (Woodman et al., 2010) words: squeezed between me and the side of the couch.
Her fat arm was soft and warm. I pulled away. She cuddled against me. I moved again.
She moved. I smiled. She smiled. She spoke no English.
We ended up at the other end of the couch, her body snuggling close to mine.
Well, I didn’t know what to make of it….The next day I returned, and behold, the same thing happened.
We never spoke…but gradually, I was taking in the warmth radiating from her large body, the beauty of her black flesh.
At the end of the week an Indian man came to me and said, “You will be alright now. My wife doesn’t need to come anymore. When you first came down, I saw you were dying, and so I sent my wife to sit with you.”
She saved my life. That wonderful warm skin, that relatedness to a total stranger. (Woodman & Reid).
Such powerful events proved a life-changing initiation. Not only did Marion discover Sophia, the feminine face of God, but she also encountered the Black Madonna.
“India lives in the Goddess,” she said, “as I had lived in her as a child, as every child lives in Her” (Woodman, 1985, p. 185). “She was the earth, the glory of the earth.
The creation of the earth. I found it extremely terrifying—and equally exciting” (Woodman et al., 2010).
For a father’s daughter, driven by patriarchal imperatives in pursuit of perfection, perhaps the powers of the feminine could only engage her through an experience of “hell” redeemed by one of transpersonal love.
Claiming her body was a step toward claiming her life, but without the tools to understand it.
This changed two years later when she joined Ross on his sabbatical in London, England.
Now theater, always a fascination, engaged her.
She applied to the Central School of Speech and Drama, a top acting school, and surprisingly, was accepted on the spot. “They thought they’d found another Margaret Rutherford—that wonderful character actress who played the first Miss Marple!” her colleague, Ann Skinner told me (personal communication, December 2018).
Studying acting for a year at Central vitalized Marion and opened a tempting door to the stage.
Had she crossed that threshold, she might well have become an actor, like her brother Bruce.
I can just imagine a bewigged and bejeweled Marion, with her spicy sense of humor and her reedy voice, conjuring laughter and applause from London audiences.
At this juncture, however (and luckily for the Jungian world), a new, vital presence entered her life: Jungian analyst E. A. Bennet, a canny Irishman and longtime friend of Jung.
Analysis with him brought her, at last, someone who spoke her language.
“I can’t say what it meant that someone could recognize this huge part of me,” she said, “and affirm that it was real, it made sense; I wasn’t crazy!” (Woodman et al., 2010).
Now she could understand that the energies that had so guided and bedeviled her were archetypal.
Her psyche responded with big dreams. In one she dreamt that Dr. Bennet pulled out a rotten tooth—and with it came her whole spine! “It was very clear,” she said, “the structure that had given me my backbone had to change” (Macdonald, 1996, p. 60).
Her animus put up quite a fight, eliciting Bennet’s dry omment, “If I were you, I would take my animus out for a good drink” (Woodman, 2001, p. 124).
Later, as she bewailed her plight, he commented wryly (in this vintage “Marion tale”), “Mrs. Woodman, you are either going to go down this path squealing like a pig to the slaughter, or you will follow it with dignity—but follow it you will” (Woodman, personal communication, n. d.).
The fact remains that if we are to find our own inner truth, we have to go into our darkness alone and stay with our inner process until we find our own healing archetypal pattern.
Once that relationship is established, we are on our individual path…. It takes great courage to break with one’s past history and stand alone. —Marion Woodman (1982, p. 28)
The journey that began in India culminated two years later in l974, when Marion, age 45, and now suffering from a kidney ailment related to her anorexia, went to Zurich as an auditor at the Jung Institute. Interestingly, she never planned to become an analyst; instead she hoped to heal her serious kidney condition through analysis and then return to teaching. However, Sophia had other ideas—her vocation as a Jungian analyst.
It’s classic: Her fate (this illness) thrust her into the prima materia of her body.
By wrestling with this fate, she wrested from it her destiny.
Her Zurich experiences would become the foundation of her life’s work.
How did she approach her training?
The institute then required work with both a male and female analyst.
Since both had minister fathers, she was assigned Barbara Hannah, a beloved colleague and friend of Jung from his original close circle.
Marion described Hannah as having “the most developed feeling function of anyone I ever knew” (Woodman, personal communication, n. d.).
At 82, the wise crone Hannah was not only an attuned witness, but also offered a safe holding in the feminine—both essential to ground Marion in her body and offer a vital new experience of the positive mother.
The male analyst, whose name she never mentioned, was less congenial.
Being Marion, she had to work in her own idiosyncratic way, evolved from her methods of teaching students to embody their images.
She describes her process in an interview with her colleague, analyst Tina Stromsted (Stromsted, 2005, p. 13):
Nobody [did] body work at the time.
But my dream told me to take images from my dreams and put them in my body, saying, “Don’t ask any questions, because it won’t make any sense!”…I spent…hours Saturday and Sunday, lying [between two blankets on the floor].
I was in a womb and allowed the energy of the dream to go into my body.
Marion’s somatic approach confounded her analyst, who felt “outraged at the thought of body movement” and directed her to her dreams. “
I could have a wonderful time with my dreams,” she said, having worked two years with them, “but it didn’t change my body.
In fact, I got higher and higher into spirit, so my body became more and more exhausted” (p. 13).
By including her body, Marion held true to her belief that the body would constellate the unconscious just as dreams did. (Remarkably, within four years her condition was healed.)
Zurich was hugely challenging.
Jung (1967) said, “We do not become conscious by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious” (para. 335).
Marion, however, was always drawn toward a euphoric light.
She had to learn that her suffering of anorexia, so inexplicable, actually had a message.
Like the white swan (which had captivated her in Margot Fonteyn’s ballet performances in London), she was pulled up toward disembodied spirit.
Her shadow image was the black swan, earthbound, body-bound, unable to lift ever higher on painful pointed toes. (I am reminded of the 2010 film The Black Swan, which evokes this split so powerfully.)
Her anorexia had helped her escape this “too, too solid flesh”—ultimately, a dance with death.
She and Ross, the professor of Romantic poetry, could soar together on the wings of their muses.
Now she realized that in escaping “matter” (“the body”) she was also escaping mater—Latin for “mother.”
As mentioned earlier, Marion felt alienated from her mother as a child.
Her mother’s rejection of her own body (with an unattainable standard of perfection) had permeated Marion.
Alone in Zurich, she faced her demons—which threw her marriage into the crucible, and dragged her down into what Jung called “the realm of the mothers,” the “maternal matrix.”
Being forced to “make the darkness conscious,” she reluctantly accepted this matrix as her realm, her destiny— fiery, but transformative.
Though she had encountered this primordial force in India, now she must deal with it more psychologically, as a negative mother energy in her own body—alien, a foreign substance.
She imagined it as a crocodile lying buried in the mud with a dreary,
mesmerizing voice. “Why bother? Just give up.”
She named this the “Death Mother,” a fearful confrontation.
Yet if she avoided it, she faced a life on dialysis, or even death.
She wrote (1982, pp. 10–11):
The feminine is a vast ocean of eternal Being. It was, is, and shall be.
It contains the primordial animals “red in tooth and claw”; it contains the potential seeds for life…. It loves, and if that love is penetrated by the positive masculine, its energies are released to flow into life with a constant flow of new hope, new faith, new dimensions of love.
How to draw love from such primordial forces, especially if love were in a female form and demanded that she love her own body?
How to shift from Kali to the Black Madonna?
Doubtless her relationship with Barbara Hannah was central.
Hannah, with the wisdom of age, offered an experience of the positive mother that was new to Marion.
She described going to an analytic session, frozen with despair, unable to say a word.
Hannah simply gestured Marion to sit beside her, where they spent the whole hour in silence while Marion absorbed the love and acceptance Hannah radiated (Woodman, personal communication, n. d.).
Remarkably, this mirrored her experience with the Indian woman, a silent, healing, body-soul connection. Marion realized, “Until
your heart breaks open, you don’t know what love is about” (Woodman, 2005, p. 16).
If, as Jung said, it was archetypal energy that healed, the core archetype for Marion was love.
It had nothing to do with sentimentality or what commonly passes as love.
It was true feeling, objective and able to embrace soul. (Marion unabashedly claimed both words, love and soul, which the world so often scoffed at.)
Given the ongoing wound to the feminine afflicting our society, she knew that a healing experience of the mother was crucial.
It was, after all, from the mother that feminine consciousness arose.
“It means going into that grounding and recognizing there who you are as a soul. It has to do with love, with receiving…. It has to do with surrendering to your own destiny, consciously” (Woodman, 1993, p. 30).
Here was her old bugaboo: surrender.
Yet without it, how could she truly connect with the transpersonal power (Sophia) whom she claimed to love?
Caught between the negative mother force of a crocodile in the mud and a spiritualized mother all-light, she was rescued yet again by the Black Madonna, who could hold the opposites and help her integrate them.
Marion had dreams of kneeling before a noble black goddess who spoke in a loving, firm voice, demanding that she go “lower, lower,” until she lay prone on the earth.
“You must learn humility, girl. You must lie flat on the ground, and feel the living pulse of the earth, and know you are part of that pulse” (Woodman et al., 2010).
This was embodiment indeed.
Paradoxically, her slow surrender actually brought strength, opening her to a true connection between the ego and the Self.
Now she realized how much matriarchal dynamics were behind food complexes.
“Food embodies the false values that [our] own bodies refuse to assimilate…. [Our]
bodies become edemic, bloated, allergic, or resort to vomiting the poison out.
The unconscious body, and certainly the conscious body, will not tolerate the negative mother…” (Woodman, 1982, p. 23).
Wrestling with her somatized symptoms taught Marion a core element of her life work: that addiction is a blocked spiritual quest, and thus the addictive substance is a metaphor fueled by an unconscious archetypal need, which becomes concretized and projected.
Food would relate to mother, alcohol to spirit, sex to union, etc.
It was one thing to realize that her addictive denial of food had helped her escape this “too, too solid flesh” up into the “light” and effervescence of spirit.
It was another to endure these confrontations.
Marion captures the intensity of her experience, writing, “Body, soul, and spirit were thrown together into the fire and there they reconnected with the inner journey, with the Transformative images shaping my life and making me who I am.
Without them, my tongue spoke, but my voice was not authentic” (Woodman, 1985, p. 185).
This is alchemy.
Jung had said that transformation means burning in your own fire.
Marion had endured the fiery opposites. Her addiction with its killing attempt to live “up above herself” had forced her down into herself, out of the ethers and into the darkness of what had felt so dangerous—into dumb earth, matter, her symptom-laden flesh, an arc that later became the initiatory path in her workshops.
THE JOURNEY EXPANDS
I do believe in the evolution of consciousness, and the evolution of God, and I think that the feminine side of God is now going to come into consciousness, and we don’t want her.
She sure is going to make one chaos of patriarchy.
Yet if she isn’t brought into consciousness the planet will die…. I have faith that the feminine will come into consciousness. —Marion Woodman (2001, p. 4)
Marion left Zurich in the late 1970s a different woman, the old self burned away.
Her marriage survived, but in a new form. Gone was the old “help-meet” wife, supplanted now by two equal “help-mates.”
Relinquished was the drama teacher, supplanted by the untried analyst.
Gone was the meek, voiceless woman who could barely
manage a squeak! Her hard-won learning came tumbling out in lectures and books:
The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter, one of the first books to deal with eating disorders from a Jungian perspective; Addiction to Perfection, bringing treasures from “the realm of the Mothers”; The Pregnant Virgin, about “psychological pregnancy” (p. 7) and birthing a true self; The Ravished Bridegroom, re-visioning masculinity in men and women.
All came within a decade.
These groundbreaking works established her place on the Jungian and feminist stages.
She had returned to a world that was pregnant with change.
The collective unconscious was activated, the opposites constellated, causing huge swings, from leftwing “women’s lib” in the 1970s, to the conservatism of Reagan and Thatcher in the 1980s, to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.
People spoke glowingly of the “rise of the goddess.”
Marion was a channel for those energies, speaking passionately for the human body, and advocating as an early environmentalist
for Mother Earth’s body. Many, like Marion, felt that humanity was on the verge of a major shift in consciousness, offering a real possibility of world peace.
This societal zeitgeist both inspired Marion’s books and eagerly welcomed them.
Like Jung, she realized that the psyche needed a new myth, that we had entered a new
era where new images must be found to sustain a depleted world-soul (Woodman,
2002). For her, conscious femininity was central to that new consciousness. With the
second wave of feminism in full swing Marion’s pioneering work with the feminine, the body, and addiction from a Jungian perspective gave form to the emergent energies, offering a soulful wisdom to a public hungry for meaning and purpose.
She wrote (1993):
I would say the goddess energy is trying to save us.
If we go on with our power tactics, we’re going to destroy the earth.…We’re either going to make a leap in consciousness or we aren’t going to be here.
Sophia, Shakti, by whatever name, is that wisdom deep down in all matter, pushing her way into consciousness, one way or another. (p. 97)
Sadly, such warnings are all the more dire today in the light, or shadow, of the world’s current apocalyptic state.
Marion was unprepared for the acclaim her books brought.
“I never thought people would actually read them!” she joked.
A natural raconteur who never stood on ceremony, she often shared “teaching tales” about herself, such as this one:
In the car en route to deliver a lecture at UC Santa Cruz, and passing a long line of people waiting on the street, Marion asked idly, “Who’s in town?”
“Woodman!” was the jolting reply. She was shocked!
Later, alone and terrified in the parking lot, she tried to pull herself together, praying, “Sophia, just let me be myself.
Speak from my true self. That’s all I can ask.”
It was a significant occasion.
As she rose to the occasion, perhaps drawing on her acting experience, she crossed a threshold to claim another side of herself, the speaker.
Given what an inspiring public speaker she became, it’s an encouraging tale for the many of us who suffer stage fright. (Woodman, personal communication, n. d.)
It’s important to remember that forty years ago, in what seemed radical times, Marion herself was radical.
Though feminism was alive, few had explored the “embodied feminine,” especially in the Jungian world where it remained somehow suspect.
Marion and her colleague, analyst Joan Chodorow, were among the pioneers.1
“I’ve always believed my mission in life was to find the feminine, and to help people find out what their genuine femininity is.
That leads to a new masculine” (Woodman et al., 2010).
Though the world of patriarchy (power principle) did not want genuine femininity or a new masculine and would blatantly mischaracterize both, Marion always remained true to her calling.
Modern woman cannot go back to the Dionysian Mysteries, but she must make the journey into the dark regions below, and back again.
She too must experience that light in her own darkness.
Somehow she must again find the sacred mystery within her own body and revere it both as sacred and as mystery. —Marion Woodman (1980, p. 111)
Jungians are often accused of being “airy-fairy,” too spiritualized.
It’s not surprising then that some Jungians found Marion’s material controversial, even claiming she was “not Jungian.”
That is a misconception.
Marion was proud to be a “classical Jungian.”
She revered Jung’s work and taught it in depth, while bringing a modern woman’s view to the realm of the feminine and true masculine on Jung’s map.
She believed his work was grounded in his own connection to his body—describing him as a man who “inhabited his body,” who climbed mountains, sailed lakes, carved stone, went on safaris in Africa, and who designed and built Bollingen, his soul’s home.
She delighted in referring people to his writings on the body (often strangely ignored!), and challenged students by teaching his complex Zarathustra seminars (1934/1988).
The body is the alembic, the retort, in which materials are cooked, and out of that process develops the spirit, the effervescent thing that rises. (p. 368)
For what is the body? The body is merely the visibility of the soul, the psyche; and the soul is the psychological experience of the body. So it is really one and the same thing…. Soul and body are not two things, they are one. (pp. 354–355)
Marion needed to test Jung’s and her own theories about the body through the body.
As clients with addictions clamored to see her, she realized that to be true to the “experiment of her life,” she must reach deeper into the realm of psyche–soma.
The experiential process of BodySoul Rhythms TM was the result.
Like so many aspects of Marion’s life, synchronicity was at play, fostering this process through an unlikely combination of circumstances: first, a time when the feminine, the goddess, and the body were resurgent; and second, a personal encounter of three remarkable women: Marion and master teachers Ann Skinner and Mary Hamilton.
While surprisingly they all shared a common background in theater, they were quite different, with strong personalities and established reputations in their own fields: Mary, a movement specialist with training in ballet, and Ann, head of voice training at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.
Another dynamic teacher, psychologist Paula Reeves, often made a fourth, adding her rich expertise in mythology and psychoneuroimmunology (Figure 3).
It’s hard to convey what made the process so enriching and fulfilling that women returned countless times to participate.
The heart and soul of it flowered through the unique attributes of Marion, Mary, and Ann.
Their dynamic collaboration is best described in Jung’s words (1946): “The meeting of [such] personalities is like the contact of…chemical substances: if there is any reaction, [all] are transformed” (para. 358).
It was indeed a combustible combination with its own distinctive alchemical brew.
The vessel took the form of a weeklong intensive, held in nature, drawing its process in part from the Greek initiation rites of the feminine-based Eleusinian mysteries.
Its theoretical material was Jung’s, spiced with Woodman’s distinctive flavor and additions,
while its experiential side came to life in embodied practices.
As an initiation rite into conscious femininity (and true masculinity), its arc carried participants on a journey of descent and renewal.
To support the basic Jungian training and dream work, Marion invited two colleagues
to assist as associate analysts—Judith Harris and me, both of us steeped in BSR through our experience as participants. Judith (later president of the Philemon Foundation) had trained in Zurich.
I came on board in what felt like a fated encounter because it was such a “fit” for me, a glorious integration of my two career paths.
Like Marion, I had come to Jung on a circular route originating in theater, which included acting, teaching, and directing. (Surprisingly, I even taught the same voice technique as Ann!)
The fact that there was a Jungian container created by Marion’s brilliant teaching was for me the ultimate gift and integrating factor.
As the popularity of BSR increased, talented women from diverse fields came together to create the Marion Woodman Foundation.
The aim was to protect BSR’s legacy and to train other teams to give their own BodySoul workshops.
All this evolved over a period of about thirty years, during which time new teams emerged to offer programs that took hold in Europe, Mexico, Brazil, Hawaii, and Australia.
Ireland was a central site, spearheaded by analyst Marian Dunlea, who inspired a thriving cohort of women.
In North America, analysts Tina Stromsted and I, with artist and UCLA communications professor Dorothy Anderson, facilitated Wellsprings of Feminine Renewal workshops for the Woodman Foundation and for Pacifica Graduate Institute.
What sets BSR apart from other approaches?
Today, somatic-based programs may seem almost commonplace, offered in graduate schools such as Pacifica (where Marion influenced its inception).
Countless other body-oriented workshops flourish now as well.
In my view, what is unique about BSR is its crucial grounding in depth psychology.
Jung’s vast map of the psyche provides the essential transpersonal or archetypal container.
If women were to risk the descent into the darkness of their bodies, into the pain of repressed wounds, into shadow work, Marion knew that BSR must help prepare “a somatic container…to receive the psychic labor. There must be a
greeting of the spirit, a chalice to receive the wine” (Woodman, 1982, p. 69).
What were these “chalices”?
Imagine a series of concentric circles.
First was the individual container of each woman attuned to herself.
Next was the holding presence of Marion and her colleagues—there to witness, mirror, and support the participants.
Wider still was the intellectual container—the foundation in Jung, Woodman, and dream work, which provided the psychological and spiritual vessel.
The largest circle holding all was the transpersonal container, or Sophia, centered on an altar to evoke the archetypal energy through ritual.
This container was crucial to create the safety to “drop down” into the body, and also to source the archetypal images and energies seeking release through movement, voice, music, art, poetry, dreams, improvization, and mask work.
These art forms opened channels to express pent-up shadow energies.
Wild sounds would escape—belly laughs, rage, long-held tears.
The body leaps or freezes in stillness.
This can be the “chaos” of the unleashed unconscious, the imprisoned soul finding freedom.
While it could be a challenge to endure the raw psyche, it was a privilege to experience the transformations.
A different woman could emerge, what Marion (drawing on Esther Harding) termed “the Virgin”— she who is “the Being-ness” in us. The “I am.”
The “one-in-herself” (Woodman, 2002).
No longer the innocent maid Kore, this is the initiated maiden. Marion described her as “stretching to her full stature, with her feet rooted and head receptive to the sun, [as] her whole being becomes the tree of life” (Woodman, 1991b).
For countless women the alchemical brew of BodySoul RhythmsTM proved life-changing.
The final element, impossible to define or measure, was love. Love was the elixir that softened hearts, shone through eyes, and built a temenos of trust, creating the “dance” of the BodySoul.
My body has always been the instrument through which I have been forced to come to consciousness….Body [is] the instrument of initiation that made clear what my sacrifice must be, where the new threshold stood open, how the new vision might manifest.
Its agony forced me onto a new path, where I did not want to go. —Marion Woodman (2001, pp. 104–105)
Marion was now fully launched on the “experiment” of her one “wild and precious life.” BodySoul RhythmsTM, itself an experiment, could channel her Gypsy’s creative energies.
Engaged with a full private practice, she also continued to teach in conferences, workshops (some with Robert Bly and Robert Johnson), and as core faculty at Pacifica, and to publish books, videos and CDs.
Despite her prolific work, she suffered from misunderstanding and rejection by many Jungians (Woodman, 2001):
I knew my vision of BodySoul work was not yet acceptable.
I decided to hold the tension of the opposites until a reconciliation unknown to me found its way into consciousness in a welcoming world.
However much I tried to accept this in my mind, my body…received it as heartbreak…my mind as defeat….The physical toll was horrendous. I was simply alone.
No one to talk to about the inner reality of what had happened. (p. 8)
Even her brother, confidante, and ally in the Jungian world, Fraser, was now
gone, having died of cancer. “He could see the inner dynamics, and he could keep silence.…Meanwhile my body fell into despair” (p. 9).
One wonders how much this estrangement from the Jungian community may have contributed to the crisis she faced in 1993, when, at age 65, she became ill with endometrial cancer.
Terminal, she was told, two years at most.
What an irony for someone whose destiny constantly demanded that she live her principles, “eat her words,” so to speak, for someone who wrote (Woodman & Mellick, 2000, p. 49), this is your body your greatest gift pregnant with wisdom you do not hear grief you thought was forgotten and joy you have never known.
But could she love this “greatest gift” when with each step forward, archetypal negative mother energies dragged her back, taunting, “You’re pathetic! Die!” (Woodman, personal communication, n. d.). Here was the death mother.
“Now again, sh wrote, “I have to turn her face around and feel myself looking into the eyes of the loving Mother…. Yet the dark face is so locked, so fierce, and so fiercely unconscious].…If I cannot get hold of the positive side of the archetypal dimension…. I think I will die” (p. 24).
This was no exaggeration.
Marion chronicles her two-year ordeal with cancer in her searingly honest book, Bone: Dying into Life (2001), drawn from her journals.
She reveals how she is stripped to the very “bone” in her confrontation with death and its urgent challenge to truly live her core values.
The physical battle proved consuming enough, but the psychological struggle was, perhaps, even worse.
Her old issues arose, as if thrown to the winds, spiraling both deeper and higher.
“I am seeing the progression of spirals through which I have moved upward and downward, higher into spirit, deeper into grounding…. This cancer is another threshold leading to a new round of the spiral.
What an incredible map I seem to have followed!” (p. 113).
Realizations hit her like blows.
“This new death threat releases the arrow that hits the bulls-eye of this conflict” (p. 198).
Here was alchemy, a deadly alchemy, deadly real.
Could she differentiate the life force from the cunning pull of death?
Yet, in fact, her life’s work had uniquely prepared her.
Calling upon all her experience, she worked with visualization, music, poetry, her journal; absorbed the “light” from flowers and letters from friends; tried to open to love (p. 118).
Her friends urged alternative medicine, while her husband and his friends pushed the medical establishment.
Deeply conflicted, dismayed she could not fully trust her body, she decided to do both (alternative and traditional) and accept the “mutation” (p. 104) of a hysterectomy along with the killing rays of radiation.
It felt like betrayal. “I collude because I cannot trust my own connection to the positive Great Mother” (p. 82).
“I know this death I am going through,” she wrote (2001), “has to do with matter that cannot move as quickly as the consciousness that inhabits it.
Too much light in too dense matter” (p. 36).
Having tried to escape matter (mater, mother) as the young “white swan,” now as an elder she was drawn again into the very “bone” of the “black swan” to seek a salvation that only the sacred feminine could provide.
Marion called on her as “Nature herself…the life force…perseverance and strength and passion.
She is in my body” (p. 201).
Only she could help her balance earth and air, two different “energetic frequencies.”
It was Jung’s psychoid archetype, consciousness through both spirit and matter (p. 8).
Without her visualizations, Marion knew, “I could become a lethargic crocodile, and that old Mother would quickly pull me into everlasting mud” (p. 113).
Here was the old familiar presence, the dark mother’s drone of death, freezing her in fear.
It constellated Marion’s “tiny possum…that senses abandonment or rejection…becomes petrified and stays absolutely still to survive…. I need to fill [her] with transformative light…. That despair began in utero, the daughter who was not a son” (pp. 52–53).
She was back to the womb, caught in her pregnant mother’s fears—no connection to Sophia, only the “blank nothingness” (p. 88) of the crocodile.
Rage could erupt.
“‘Where is the perfect love?’ a voice shouts…. However much I love the Great Mother, I do not trust that I can reach her in the deepest cells in my body.
Faith constellated its opposite, fear” (pp. 86–87).
At such times, she returned to a dream from the morning of her surgery, an “initiatory dream”:
A ship is coming into shore bearing two pearls.
I see them, I don’t see them.
I know they are on the ship.
A 5-year-old girl, barefoot with simple dress and mop of curls, stands on deck watching.
Her gaudy bracelet and corncob pipe shine in the sunlight.
Behind her, a woman, young, gypsy-like, barefoot, hair flowing, also watches. (2001, p. 17)
The child presents a perfect picture of healthy little Marion, with wild hair and pipe, bringing possibilities for new life.
Most important, her Gypsy comes to shore, now a strong woman, able to witness the girl.
Here, lay images for transformation.
“These two are with me as I move into Cronedom,” she wrote, “that queendom where I shall be free to live my own truth” (p. 17).
To win her “queendom” she must endure further immersion into the underworld of cancer.
Her London doctors, ignoring best practices, had failed to check her lymph nodes during the hysterectomy.
Without that data, no one knew if the cancer had penetrated her uterine wall.
To stop it from spreading, she faced massive radiation treatments, culminating in an almost medieval, unbelievable 48 hours isolated in a lead vault, where she suffered agonizing pain (Woodman, 2001, p. 131).
In hindsight, it appears the procedure was mishandled and would never be prescribed today (Dickson, 2019, p. 87).
The violent roller coaster continued when, believing herself at last on the road to
recovery, a sudden new cancer emerged.
Her London doctors gave the grim diagnosis of “metastasized bone cancer” on her sacrum—certain death.
Almost hopelessly, she sought second medical opinions outside London, and was stunned when they discovered a misdiagnosis—not cancer, but severe osteoarthritis!
Now at long last, after two years, Marion could reclaim her life.
Shakily she resumed a few lectures and workshops.
But her old form had deserted her and she needed a new one.
Physically the arthritis threw her literally off-balance. Emotionally
she was scarred too. She wrote (2001), “Lost the balance and all faith in any new
wholeness. I lost my passion for life…. Nothing could excite me, nothing could hurt me.
No ‘I want.’…The Black Madonna was gone. In her place was the Death Goddess, not monstrous, just seductive, luring me into inertia, masked death” (pp. 168–169).
But she knew that if she could connect with her dream Gypsy, it would re-connect her to her life-force, and thus break her paralysis.
For six months she struggled daily to draw that energy into her body, along with her strong masculine.
Yet despite all her attempts, both remained elusive, leaving her drained and defeated.
Finally, fate intervened.
One evening Ross and Marion, pale and frail, attended a party given by a Dutch friend.
All night she sat silent and weak on a couch, “looking old.”
On the verge of leaving, she stood at the door (threshold) just as a band of Dutch musicians arrived, wearing bright red coats with yellow lapels and carrying trumpet, tuba, and trombone.
They stormed in with infectious music, shaking the house with polkas and foxtrots.
By chance it was the very music she had first danced to as a young teacher in rural Ontario.
She was thrilled!
She describes her experience in the film Dancing in the Flames (Woodman et al., 2010):
This energy started to come out of me.
It said, Marion you can sit on this chair until you rot, but I am going to dance!
A red coated Dutchman came and grabbed me.
We went through the house, dancing to this marvelous music.
I thought, I can do it, I can do it! Something was just discharged into me.
Somehow I was able to overcome the fear, and it’s never returned.
Ego surrendered to the soul. To this incredible life.
As it is this was Marion—claiming her wild and precious life!
As Jung said, “Living herself.” ~ Meg Wilbur (2020) Marion Woodman: An Embodied Life, Psychological Perspectives, 63:1, 40-58, DOI: 10.1080/00332925.2020.1739461
Meg Wilbur, M. A., M. F. A., is a Jungian Analyst
She is Professor Emerita of UCLA’s School of Theater, Film, and Television, where she directed plays and taught acting and voice for the stage.
For over many years she worked with Marion Woodman and the original BodySoul RhythmsTM faculty.
She, Dorothy Anderson, Ph.D., and Tina Stromsted, Ph.D., offered Wellsprings of Feminine Renewal workshops for the Marion Woodman Foundation.
As adjunct faculty, they also introduced BodySoul RhythmsTM as an academic course for Pacifica Graduate Institute.
Meg adapts fairytales and myths as plays for use in the curriculum of these programs.
- Joan Chodorow is a Jungian analyst and registered dance therapist who studied with Mary Starks Whitehouse, who in turn was influenced by Jung. Whitehouse had developed what she called “Movement in Depth,” bringing active imagination and dance together into what is now called Authentic Movement.
- Mary Hamilton graduated from the National Ballet School of Canada. A professional dancer, she was also a professor at the University of Western Ontario, where she taught modern dance, improvisation, and choreography. She is a pioneer of dance and theater education.
- Ann Skinner is Head of Voice Emerita at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, and former Head of Voice at the National Theatre School of Canada. She is an expert in the study of masks, another central element in BodySoul RhythmsTM. Their work has taken both Ann and Mary across Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
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