sound of the belly : the mystery of menopause
what is menopause ?
menopause marks the end of the fertile years in which a woman can give birth to a child and the beginning of a new age in which a fertility of another kind may unfold, a period of giving birth to one self. The changes that occur in her body and mind are signs that a complete transformation is being called for. Menopause is a rite of passage
men and women go through a period of crisis in middle age, which manifests and resolves in ways specific to each gender.
symbolically, the nature of a woman reveals itself as a vessel that carries, sustains and protects life. Her potential for growth can manifest, when she remembers the seed of the Self hidden deep in her flesh. She can realise herself through a pregnancy, bringing up children, or analogically at any other time in her life when she becomes aware of her role as a vessel, or “keeper of dharma” as the Indian tradition calls women. The inner transformation she will go through during menopause to bring the Self to the fore happens in and through her flesh. These changes are a gift of nature to encourage and support a necessary evolution, that takes place in body and mind.
symbolically, the nature of a man is instead to act as a tool, which bears the memory of a direction towards a goal. He best realises his potential when he can engage in action, meet goals and accomplish himself in the world. His path of inner transformation is linked to the realisation of external tasks. His long term commitments are clearly not impeded by a rapid decrease of sexual hormone production around middle age. The slowing down takes place gradually over several decades and into old age. However, men too need to readjust goals and priorities.
the resounding belly
from a yoga point of view, we can highlight three important aspects of the belly :
- our roots are in mūladhāra, a word which also means base, foundation. The belly is the place in which ātman takes root at the time of conception and from where it will draw the substance that will become its body and mind during gestation, before being born as a human being.
- from grounding ourselves in the belly, we get stability and a basic balance essential to our wellbeing. In infants and small children prāna naturally goes to the belly. Their abdominal breathing is deep and free, a sign of settling in the belly. But as rational thinking develops – and our Western culture tends to value reason over anything else; we tend to loose our awareness of the belly. In traditional Japan though, awareness of the belly, called hara, is taught and cultivated for the unshakable stability it brings to body and mind.
- the bottom of the belly is the abode of the kundalini, the coiled serpent that sleeps and blocks the entrance to suśumna nādī. A symbol of avidyā, it will stay there until our consciousness awakens and frees itself from the bondage of matter.
these functions of the belly can be likened to the power of brahma, the creator, vishnu, the protector, and śīva, the destructor of manifestation. This suggests that a potential for maturation is held in the belly.
as women’s vocation is to be life-bearing and secrets-keeping-vessels, they have complex and ambivalent memories related to their bellies : female issues about fertility, pregnancy and giving birth, but also of abuse and loss. Theses memories will often surface as psychosomatic symptoms or emotional disturbances around menopause. At this point, the bellies of women start resounding, screaming and claiming attention. They remind us women of a greater meaning and purpose in life. Time has come to listen to the language of the body and mind and start the journey of reconciliation with our true nature.
the path of transformation
this path can be described as a succession of three steps :
- returning to oneself
external growth and expansion cannot go on for ever. Middle age is a turning point, often associated with a sense of pointlessness of life and a deeply felt need to recentre and re-orient. Relief is felt as the journey begins, bringing an end to an inner tension that had become unbearable.
- a journey into the depth of oneself
this brings with it a plunge into the dark abysses of the unconscious, akin to a descent to Hell as mythology and poetry calls it. This requires of us to leave behind the reassuring control of reason, and, by analogy, the strength and solidity of the chest to enter the realm of instincts and pulsions located in the meanders of the abdomen. Down there we will face and confront obscure and destructive forces – our inner demons; embrace them and transform their power from negative to positive. Bringing those forces to consciousness makes them useful powers in the service of self-realisation.
- back to light and orientation towards self-realisation
once the power of the lower cakras is conquered, the journey goes on in an ascending movement that will take us back to light along the axis of the spine – meru danda is the equivalent of mount Meru in the body; towards the source of our being. A consciously assumed verticality and, increasingly, a more spontaneous expression of our real nature is the outcome of the journey
the power of the belly
midlife crisis affects men and women and cannot be put down to hormonal changes alone. It is the result of the fascination the world exerts on us and the illusion of our power over it. With time, the gap between the way we live and our values becomes noticeably bigger, generating a sense of unease and even a crisis, together with a trail of mental and physical symptoms.
the belly however conceals a promise of healing :
- the belly is the crucible in which the alchemy of fire (rajas) can transform lead (tamas) into gold (sattva) through kriya yoga. Tapas will consist in addressing unresolved issues, such as unfulfilled dreams, desires and talents, but also coming to terms with trauma, loss, etc. Svādhyāya will be the introspection and reflection on the process and making adjustments where necessary. And īśvara pranidhāna is the acceptance, that allows us to let go, forgive or surrender.
- by uniting prāna and apāna, the energies of the chest and of the abdomen meet and merge, but also support and moderate one another. The intellect and rational thinking are balanced and enriched by the instincts and emotions.
- the belly is the place of water in the symbolic map yoga texts give of the elements. Water obviously keeps a trace of all that it touches, as homeopathy attests. A trace of all that we experience is kept in our belly, whether we are conscious of it or not. Modern research has identified a “second brain”, based in the abdomen, that is mostly independent from the main brain and appears to play an important role in emotions.
for many women menopause is a time of great challenges and suffering. Understanding the symptoms is a key to healing. It’s a good time to start listening “to the sound of the belly”.
clearing the mind
desire is at the root of all diseases. Inadequate desire inevitably brings suffering. Some desires derive from confusion, whilst the desire for clarity and unity will generate happiness. Symptoms of imbalance are always meaningful. They remind us in that we are disconnected and need to get back to oneness. Suffering indicates that change is necessary.
the list of symptoms related to menopause is getting longer and longer in Western medicine. The increasing sense of unease women experience – more so in modern Western societies than in traditional ones; shows that going through menopause is not something obvious. It takes awareness, acceptance and readiness to change focus. When the childbearing years are over, it is not the end of our life and our śakti : our fertility is to express in creativity and spirituality.
for this, it is necessary first to address the disturbing and sometimes overwhelming symptoms related to menopause. For pain and suffering to decrease, the mind needs to be pacified (nirodha). Memories which block our path are to be faced and cleansed from their destructive potential (smrti pariśuddhi). Finally we will need to listen to our deepest longing for freedom, and learn to follow its guidance.
in this process, the belly, being the place of generation and regeneration, always plays an important part. It suggests – at times very loudly; that we must recentre, shift focus and look after ourselves. The gestation in the flesh gives way to the gestation of the spirit.