by Chris Scheller
My presentation was based primary on a book, and even more specifically on two articles which addressed my concerns and questions with the Feminist movement and spirituality. I found that they complemented each other, so that either one alone was problematic without the other. I shall discuss the first article primarily here, namely, "Ecofeminism Consciousness and the Transforming Power of Symbols" by L. Teal Willoughby, and briefly address the solutions to its problems the second addresses, which is "Toward an Ecofeminist Ethic of Shamanism and the Sacred" by Gloria Feman Orenstein. Both articles and other related material can be found in Ecofeminism and the Sacred.
Looking through this presentation, much of the conversation can be seen in terms of the power of symbols, images, and myth. Much of Sarah's presentation showed how the symbol and myth of the Goddess was transformed from good to evil, and that by doing this, the entire outlook of society was changed in ways that harmed women. How can we consciously create positive frameworks to view feminism, spirituality, nature, and life? It is not enough to just say we will change the way we look at things, we must dig deeper into what shapes our realities and ourselves. In doing this, we find symbols and myths deeply affect the way we look at things, and by consciously looking at how we use them, and changing that to represent our conscious ecofeminist values, we can affect change in ourselves and those who claim our symbols on a very deep level. Of course, as feminists we have to continually critique, reevaluate and remain aware of what are symbols are saying. For instance, there are many positive values to the prehistoric worship of the Mother Goddess as Sarah points out, but does it provide a positive masculine image? Perhaps not. Another example within feminist theory is the "Rite of Healing from Distress of Mind and Body" compiled by Ruether in Women-Church (1986, 150-51), where a woman who desires healing focuses on her pain and is led through a guided meditation "to imagine these death forces of pain and psychic distress draining out and flowing away into a great pool of water that flows into the earth (emphasis by Willoughby)". While the woman is healed, the water and the earth is polluted. Surely this lacks respect and mutuality in our relationship with the earth. This sort of healing, at such a cost to the earth, is not the type of healing ecofeminism seeks to embrace, it represents a patriarchal assumption of the earth as lower than humanity.
Our first step as ecofeminists is to realize consciously the values which are important to us. Some of these values include mutual support between humanity and nature. We are less concerned with equality, which is not helpful in our discussion, and more concerned with awareness and a commitment to support. We are not necessarily treating the earth like we treat human (as equal to a human), because along with this assumption would come many others which would not be accurate. For instance, the earth cannot be governed by the same laws and expected to perform the same responsibilities as humans. Carl Jung provides us with a good starting point in looking at symbols because he advocates the kind of relationship between person and symbols of mutual support we are talking about. He speaks of a relationship of mutual support between the inner world of the psyche and the outer world, between the unconscious and the conscious. There is not present the domination which can be found in Freud's superego, ego, id theories. Instead, Jung critiques patriarchal thinking and creates a theory which advocates mutuality. The Self is the center of the personality, not the ego. It holds all the parts of the psyche in an integrative wholeness, and it is not to be confused with our conscious self, it encompasses both the conscious and unconscious aspects of the psyche. As the ego learns it is not master of the psyche, so the person learns he or she is not ruler of the world. Jung identifies both masculine and feminine characteristics in the psyche similarly to Chinese Taoism: Both are necessary in a person for wholeness.
To look at symbols from a ecofeminist, Jungian perspective, we must recognize at least three functions of a symbol. The concrete, conscious, literal word or image; the cultural context which gives a symbol a unique cultural meaning; and the archetypal aspect. The concrete, conscious aspect of a symbol is its intrinsic value. For instance, a snake is, no matter what else, a snake. It slithers around in the grass, eats, sheds its skin, etc. Even as a literal snake we cannot know it completely, but it has a certain face value to it which is important to see and understand if we are to understand the symbolism of the snake. The second level, to put it one way, is the cultural context. This is where a lot of feminist work is being done already. We must ask ourselves what are the prejudices of society? How do our cultural perspectives limit our awareness and define our reality? For instance, if we associate the snake with Christianity, it is becomes a symbol of sexual promiscuity and evil. But prehistorically in the worship of the Mother Goddess it was a symbol of healing, wisdom, and the Mother Goddess. The third aspect of the symbol is its archetypal aspect. This is the numinous qualities, the relationship to the living individual. It leaves room for that which we cannot know, the unconscious. Therefore, it unites the infinite and the finite. It comes from a relationship deep and ancient, through vast time and space and into the future.
To use the symbol as a transformative element all three levels must be consciously understood to the degree possible. For instance, we must see water as simply water; through the cultural context as that which cleans us, gets rid of our waste, waters our lawns, etc.; and as an archetype, as a primary element of life on earth, a flowing liquid which absorbs other things, the depths of which are unknown. To work with the symbol then, we draw the water, go to the river, contemplate its significance to us personally, culturally and universally, and finally begin to interact with the water. This is where I believe Willoughby becomes problematic. She sees our interaction with the water on a symbolic level, deeply as an archetype. But from a shamanic point of view, this does not do justice to the water itself, as Gloria Feman Orenstein points out. Perhaps it helps to start thinking about the water as a symbol. We can imagine what the water would say to us and answer our questions, role-play and journal write. These are all very positive. But finally, if we are to enter the greater world of spirituality, we must not treat the water as only a symbol. The water is water. We can ask the water directly our questions, and allow the water itself to answer. We can pray, meditate, and allow it to speak through us in art and dance. To do this, we must first own our projections, and so the language of symbolism is helpful, but finally we can meditate and play with our *symbols* until they reveal their meaning directly to us. It becomes not only "I see the tree," but "the tree sees me." In this way we are honoring the spirit realm as well as the natural realm, and as the Goddess religion has it, as well as in Shamanism, spirit and matter become one and are not separated. This is, in my opinion, a necessary step in the movement of ecofeminism if we are to transform our relationship to life. We cannot just look at the roles between man and woman, or humanity and nature, but we must see throughout matter and spirit and life.
Chris' email address is: