And how they can contribute to our development journey
By Petra Ummenthun, the Netherlands
Every woman who has ever lived must at times have wondered about the significance of the menstruation cycle, either because of its associated symptoms, such as pain or emotional reactions, or because of the wonder of what it causes and why it exists. We all go through it about 500 times in a lifetime and it is sometimes viewed as a burden. This is illustrated very well by the following passage from the diary of Etty Hillesum.
Sunday morning 23-11-1941
“Remarkable, this connection between certain moods and menstruation. Yesterday evening I was certainly flying high. And tonight it is suddenly as if my blood stream has been transformed. Life feels altogether different. At first you don’t know what is happening and then suddenly it dawns on you: that premenstrual feeling. I used to think: I don’t want any children, so why must I go through this senseless monthly performance, put up with all the inconvenience that goes along with it? And in a rash and pleasure loving moment I thought of having my womb removed. But you have to accept yourself as you were created, and you simply can’t say that it’s nothing more than a nuisance. This interaction of body and soul is a most mysterious thing. The remarkable, dreamy and yet illuminating mood I was in last night and this morning was due to this very change in my body”.
In the 1960s, birth control pills were introduced and became widely popular as women could now take charge over their reproductive cycle and it revolutionised women’s lives. It is often difficult to register what is going on inside our bodies, due to the speeds and pressures of daily life. By using the ‘pill’ the menstruation cycle has been brought into a fixed monthly pattern, and it could be that that also makes it more difficult to connect to the natural rhythm of the cycle. Every month women go through four subtle but powerful inner processes, that all have their own requirements. As a result of these processes, our bodies are continually sending us messages about our well-being, needs and inner states, but the question is, do we feel these signals and do we know what to do with them? In this article I will try to give an idea about the nature of these phases in our cycle, and how we can support these processes in ourselves.
The mystery of the monthly cycle
The process and purpose of the monthly cycle is not only to do with the possibility of giving birth, but is accompanied by a natural and important energy cycle as well. In ancient times women were much more in tune with the planet, and considered the week of their menstruation time as sacred, where a return was made to Mother Earth, and women felt the special connection and nourishment provided by her. In stories of ancient cultures it is often told that women during this time would retreat to special places to be together and celebrate this process, especially as when women live together their cycles miraculously adjust to coincide. Young girls, having reached puberty, would be introduced to the full glory and significance of becoming a woman. The men also respected this time of retreat and service and it was a time when no sexual intercourse occurred. This way of life comes across in the book ‘Daughters of Copper Woman,’ written by Anne Cameron, as illustrated by the following passage:
“When you’d learned everythin’ you had to learn, and the Time was right, and you’d had your first bleedin’ time and been in the waitin’ house, there was a big party. You were a woman. Everyone knew you were a woman. And people would come from other places, uncles and aunts and cousins and friends, and they’d be singin’ and dancin’ and lots of food. They take you in a special dugout, decorated up with waterbird down, the finest feathers of the breast of the bird, and you’d have on all your best clothes and all your crests, and you’d stand up there so proud and happy.”
Generally in our society, we don’t live with our natural rhythms and cycles in this way, on the contrary, women are supposed to deliver the same level of performance during menstruation as they always do, which they mostly manage of course, but it can be quite demanding.
Women and Mother Earth
Ancient history and sources show that our planet has always been thought of as having a feminine nature. Gaia, a goddess from Greek mythology, was the personification of our Earth, and even today we speak about Mother Earth. The blue colour of our planet and the variety of life she gives birth to, nurtures and grows, is also associated with femininity, whilst the red planet Mars is associated with the masculine nature.
From the moment women are conceived, they have a strong connection with the earth because of this similarity in nature, although it is expressed in different ways. This connection can be seen for example in the amount of melatonin women produce, which varies with the changing seasons. It rises and falls during the changeover from winter to spring and from autumn to winter, which is not the case in men.
The four phases of the monthly cycle
Another indication of the connection of women with the earth is that, like the planet, which goes through a cycle of four phases, they go through a monthly cycle of four seasons. During this four weekly cycle there is a sequence of physical changes triggered by an intricate hormonal system that orchestrates the many processes. It regulates the growth of the egg in the ovaries and times its release during the follicular phase. It also creates a receptive ecology in the womb to be able to receive this egg in case conception has occurred. Then either further dramatic changes begin if conception occurs, or the body prepares for the shedding of the lining of the uterus, during the luteal phase. This really is an intriguing interplay of finely tuned processes.
Every phase of the menstruation cycle has its own nature and possibilities, which causes different thoughts, emotions and actions and they can be likened to the nature of one of the seasons. Week 1 is like autumn, week 2 resembles winter, week 3 corresponds to spring and week 4 to summer. As we move through these ‘seasons’ it is possible to make use of the unique energy impulse that goes with each phase. Sometimes the phase might prompt certain changes, for example in our diet, our thought patterns or speeds and by responding to this, we allow this natural rhythm to influence us. The balance of our hormones and our cycles are also affected by the way we live our lives, the way we think and the way we express our feelings, which in turn affects our health and well-being.
This article goes on a short journey through the four-week cycle, in which the first phase is elaborated upon and includes some practical exercises. Women who are going through, or have gone through the menopause can also benefit from this knowledge, as the process of these phases continues, even if menstruation has ceased. Just follow the phases of the moon as a starting point, where the full moon synchronizes with the menstruation time and the new moon with the time of ovulation.
Week 1: the Week of Menstruation – Autumn
Autumn is the time when the cycle that began in the spring, reaches completion. The fruit is harvested, things are cleared away, so that space can be made for a new beginning. It is important in this week to watch your balances and to give yourself time for settlement and reflection. Your complex goes through a process of clearing out, both physically with the loss of blood and also in your emotions and thought patterns. The best possible way of assisting this is to avoid pressure and stresses from within and without and it is wise not to make any important decisions, especially in the first few days if possible. Stress can upset the menstruation process, sometimes causing changes in the timing, increasing the physical symptoms and emotional mood swings. It is important to concentrate on increasing your well-being during this week.
However, the circumstance of our lives doesn’t always cater for this, so it is a good idea to try and find ways to introduce some quietness, even if only for 5 or 10 minutes each day.
To utilise this time of settlement and reflection, it is wise to ponder some questions and to mentally assess parts of your life and circumstances. This helps keep thoughts and feelings fresh and allows for an evaluation and fine-tuning of the direction of lives.
You may want to start with a comparison of how you are today as against the previous week or month and note any changes. Try to do this in a relaxed way and don’t put pressure upon yourself. It is like reading the runes and scanning the territories of your life and focusing on those things that need to be looked at more closely. Make notations about what comes up and then ask yourself further questions. Try to be as neutral as possible (be gentle with yourself) and don’t judge what comes up in you. Know that often awareness alone can solve 90% of a problem. By this process you can build a new consciousness, increase easement, leave things behind, or you can suddenly see where small improvements or adjustments can be made.
This is a mentally reflective process, which does not require action. You are merely trying to weigh the balances in yourself of what you say ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to in your life.
As an example, you may notice a strong dislike in you about a person and you may reflect on whether this is how you want to be, where it comes from and whether you’d prefer to be more understanding or warmer. Small adjustments can occur quite naturally from these reflections.
What follows are some possible areas for consideration, covering a whole range of experiences. They are in no particular order, but each day for a week, you can try and choose one or more area for assessment and reflection:
Your likes and dislikes, values, habitual patterns, will have and won’t have areas, intentions, God/religion, sleep, why you do what you do, hygiene: physical, mental, emotional. Keeping fit, motherhood, home situation, being satisfied with your physical appearance, job, getting older, presentation of self, money, time, friends, love, hobbies, your partner, health, study and research, your feelings, your pets, family, and so on, the list is endless….
Week 2: The Week after Menstruation – Winter
In nature winter is a time of quietness, where life retreats to the inside, in preparation for spring. So in phase two preparation takes place in the womb, which is made ready to be able to receive and accommodate the growth of a new life, whilst at the same time the ovum is growing in the ovary. In this week it is important to spend time re-asserting your values and intentions, thus anchoring them more strongly in yourself to strengthen your own ‘ecology.’ Build a warm home in yourself for the things you hold dear by re-looking at what you value and are grateful for, e.g. your family, home, friends, food and health. Values increase and become firmly established over time by repeatedly calling them over and by re-visiting them often. As you re-assert your values, you may be caused to go over the reasons for them, which will deepen their foundations, so they better support the person you are now becoming.
In this week it could be useful to take 10 minutes each day for a process in which you look at your values and intentions.
Week 3: The Week of Ovulation – Spring
In spring new and fresh life appears, and thus the week of ovulation also carries the possibility of new life, through conception or in the way of new thoughts and ideas and is therefore a week for the possibility of new ventures in your life.
This is why it is good to spend one hour at the beginning of the week, preferably on the Monday, dwelling on any new ideas, ventures, plans or projects. Consider the consequences of these in relation to your life and current responsibilities, needs and the people around you. New ventures do not need to be big, so give yourself time for your thoughts to appear freely and without censure or judgement and then assess where they fit into the unfolding story of your life.
Week 4: The Week before Menstruation – Summer
This is the time in nature when fruits ripen and soon the harvest can begin, the trees still retain their foliage and the seeds are growing.
This is a good week to have a look at the way your life is taking shape, and how you can give expression to your new ideas and wishes. This is also a successful time for re-organisation and decision-making, and the best moment to dwell or think about anything you want to change is 15 minutes before you go to sleep.
Think about the changes you see are needed in your life and mentally project to successfully achieving these and what benefits this will bring. You may start to notice that when you wake up in the morning you feel more refreshed and have extra energy and that it is easier to connect to those things that are important to you.
The cycle starts again at the end of week 4
Many women find themselves tidying up their homes a few days before menstruation and because of an increase in sensitivity, untidiness can cause unsettlement and a feeling of needing to clear the place in order to have space to breathe and relax. Maybe it is more difficult for the Woman and Lady lives* in us to be settled or reflective if there is too much mess around. It is harder to think clearly, and the lack of order does not allow well-being.
As the monthly cycle repeats itself, you will be able to refine and deepen the process. Over time you may start to notice that it is making a difference to your life and possibly making your monthly cycle more regular and less troublesome. The conscious use of the ‘four seasons’ in our cycles, contributes to our development, and allows us to deepen our appreciation for being of the feminine gender.
Two books you might find interesting to read in the context of this article:
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant:
This book describes parts of history written about in the Bible, seen through the eyes of a woman called Dina. You are introduced to the ‘Red Tent’ a special and sacred place for the women, where they can be together during the time of menstruation, and where a young girl gets introduced to becoming a woman. After giving birth a woman stays inside the red tent for at least a month if it is a boy and 2 months when it is a girl.
Women’s Bodies Women’s Wisdom by Dr. Christine Northrup
This is a comprehensive guide to women’s health and well-being with lots of information and practical advice, along with contemplations and meditations.
Sources for the quotes which appear in this article:
‘Daughters of Copper Woman’ by Anne Cameron, ©HarbourPublishing (Canada)
‘The Diaries of Etty Hillesum’, © Publisher De Haan, the Netherlands