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The Initiatory Power of Menstruation

This was a final paper for Human Growth & Development, a course in my masters in counseling program at Pacifica Graduate Institute. It was written in April 2024.

I can feel all I want to write about, as if each subject is a fly that has landed in my spider’s web. The subtle vibration of its struggle travels down the silk to my body and resonates here. At least a dozen of these flies landed at once and I am overwhelmed by the bounty, doubtful that somehow I will make my way to each of them and wrap them adeptly in the threads of articulation. It seems impossible that I will take from them something that will become coherent through me, that I will be able to digest and assimilate them, and turn them into fangs, silk, blood. 

I tried to wrangle myself into an outline, a punishing inner voice reminding me, repeatedly, of the deadline, but I simply could not. There is a familiar stubbornness to the premenstrual phase. Suddenly my body loses all interest in pushing through, and whatever allegiance I had to other’s rules. The body demands attentiveness, slowing down, moving at the rhythm of its own flow. This is quite the reality to manage in a world that is in no way organized by the cyclical, the come and go, the female experience. At the end of the quarter, the paper is due, regardless of what my body wants to do.

Weak is the word Western cultural prejudice gives for those who submit to the capricious feelings of the body. This high-tech world never sleeps, never slows, never bleeds. Constant progress and constant growth are the currencies of capitalism, and this is a problem not only for women. The perpetual push of modern industrial culture is literally sucking this planet dry, “vomiting,” as cultural ecologist David Abram (2023) wrote, “precious stores of vitality up into the thickening atmosphere” (par. 36), in total uncaring unawareness of the cost.

As depth, developmental, and ecopsychologist Bill Plotkin (2008) argued in his book Nature and the human soul, which articulates a stage-based human development model, the ecological crisis is a crisis of human development. Egocentric and androcentric models of human development have produced a society that is undermining its own source of nourishment (Plotkin, 2008). If there is any hope, it is in the restoration of the feminine and of Earth connection, of listening to the body instead of treating it like a machine. Western culture is in ovulation all the time. Or, using David Abram’s (2023) metaphor of the salmon, from his article “Creaturely migrations on a breathing planet”, industrial culture is in a perpetual spawn:

I can’t help but think of the spawning salmon, so oblivious to my presence among them as they bumped into my naked knees and plunged on past, nudging aside even their dead or dying peers drifting back down as they single-mindedly surged upstream. However, unlike the cyclical replenishment of the salmon—whose seasonal pulse nourishes countless other animals and plants—our species seems locked in a spawn that never ends. Our inability to notice the other creatures among us, our readiness to shove aside the many of our own kind who are ailing or dying as a result of our recklessness, seems never to abate. (par. 35)

Individually and culturally, what would it look like if we humans heeded the cycles the other creatures live by? If we returned to the sea, like the salmon, metaphorically? 

I see the menstrual cycle as a profound guide. Its developmental importance has been overlooked and belittled, to the destruction of the feminine spirit and the Earth. In their book about menstrual cycle awareness, Wild power, psychotherapists Alexandra Pope and Sjanie Hugo Wurlitzer (2017) share this vision:

Imagine a society in which the cycles of life are revered and respected as quiet orchestrators of our lives–instilling a deep reverence for the planet and everything on it. Imagine that the menstrual cycle is understood as the heartbeat of that Great Orchestration, and most crucially, honoured as the sacred source of life for us humans. (p. xxi)

What if the menstrual cycle could initiate women and culture into the power of the cyclical round that feeds every ecosystem? 

The initiatory wound: Egocentric and androcentric human development

In his book The adolescent psyche, psychotherapist Richard Frankel (1998) described the role of wounding in the process of initiation. There is a psychological need to sever from the world as one has known it, and a longing for this to unfold in the physical world as well (Frankel, 1998). This wounding is both a crisis and a call, urging the initiate, as Jungian analyst Joseph Henderson (2005) described in Thresholds of initiation, to journey into the unknown. 

Menstruation is just such an initiatory wound, and was so compelling to some youth that those who were not yet or could not menstruate cut themselves to produce blood (Frankel, 1998). However, menstruation is a call turned crisis in Western culture, as its initiatory urgings have been ignored. In an introduction to Frankel’s (1998) text, mythologist Michael Meade regretted how a lack of symbolic initiatory wounding leads to literal destruction, such as gang violence: “Denying that each individual must struggle at the thresholds of spiritual and emotional self-discovery eventually destroys any shared awareness of the sanctity of life” (Meade, as cited in Frankel, 1998, p. 53). In denying the symbolic significance of menstruation, destruction is wrought on women and Earth.

Menstruation as wound

In their book The wise wound poet Penelope Shuttle and psychotherapist Peter Hargrove (1978) describe menstruation itself as a wound in Western culture, which has stigmatized women’s cycles as unclean, gross, shameful, and evil since biblical times. In more recent history, in her clinical psychology doctoral thesis Psyche’s plea: Premenstrual syndrome and the cultural betrayal of the feminine, Daphne Stevens (1996) remarked how menstrual products are marketed by eliciting the horror that would ensue if anyone were to discover one is bleeding. Women are encouraged to hide this profound shaper of our experience, and disregard the particular challenges and gifts of the unfolding menstrual cycle (Pope & Wurlitzer, 2017).

The betrayal of menstruation is perhaps most devastating at menarche, the first menses. Whereas indigenous cultures have elaborate means of ritualizing this important developmental threshold (Frankel, 1998; Shuttle & Hargrove, 1978), many girls in contemporary society cross it alone, unnoticed, and towing shame, which Holly Adams-Matthews (2001) explores in her clinical psychology doctoral dissertation Pomegranate moon. This is sadly the story of my own menarche. 

I felt so incredibly alone when I saw that streak of blood right before dance class. My mother and sister were out of town together. I went into my mother’s bathroom and retrieved a thick pad, which I shoved into the crotch of my small leotard. I did not say anything to my father as he drove me to the studio, nor to my teacher. I had only the pad sticking to me uncomfortably as a companion, reminding me with each plié how alone I was. I felt ashamed and stranded. I do not remember ever telling my mother. My guess is it became known somehow, without formally acknowledging it, and life just went on. 

Menarche is an absolutely massive experience for a young woman. The fact that it passes with no fanfare in our society is a developmental disaster (Adams-Matthews, 2001). As Frankel (1998) described, initiation is still longed for and very much needed, even if the culture does not provide ritual around it. Initiation is an archetypal imperative that the body and psyche expects (Frankel, 1998; Plotkin, 2008). 

In his elucidation in The cycle of life, Jungian psychoanalyst Erel Shalit (2011) described that we all must cross out of the paradise of the archetypal divine child in order to continue psychological development. While this is a necessary place of abandonment in the human journey of maturing, it is a particularly vulnerable threshold that can easily cross into trauma (Shalit, 2011). Without initiatory rites, paradise is left behind but no new world is welcomed in, leaving girls in a state of perpetual bardo. This often looks like going through life as if they do not menstruate, essentially ignoring the very magic that could initiate them into their power as women (Pope & Wurlitzer, 2017).

Home-birth midwife Jane Hardwicke Collings (2021) described the spiritual and psychological consequences of such disavowal in her book Blood rites: The spiritual practice of menstruation:

So, if a woman ignores her menstrual cycle…then the beliefs she reinforces, over and over, are something like – “my menstrual cycle doesn’t matter/doesn’t count”. This leads to “my body doesn’t matter/doesn’t count”, leading to “I don’t matter/count”...And this set of beliefs lead to low self esteem, depression, self harm, eating disorders etc etc – the wounded, hurting feminine. (p. 24)

Menarche and menstruation not only pass without notice in Western culture, but are also completely overlooked by developmental psychology. 

The textbook covering developmental theories assigned in my counseling psychology masters program, Theories of development by William Crain (2010), never mentions menarche, nor is there any discussion of developmental differences between the sexes. Depth psychology’s founder Sigmund Freud (1933) saw menstruation primarily in light of the penis envy he assumed it stirred in girls, a distinctly androcentric interpretation that denies a female experience separate from male supremacy.  

The luteal wound & patho-adolescence 

As a woman moves toward and enjoys ovulation, her energy is vibrant and confident, suffused with charm, mastery and magnetism (Pope & Wurlitzer, 2017). Everything seems possible and the creative waters run high and strong. However, if she does not become pregnant, the hormonal landscape changes and the womb prepares to let go.

The premenstrual or luteal phase is marked by doubt and uncertainty (Pope & Wurlitzer). The inner critic arrives, demanding a more honest look at how one is living. Pope and Wurlitzer (2017) describe this as confronting the shadow:

The things you’ve neglected in yourself, the needs you’ve sidelined, the feelings you’ve consistently overridden, the historical wounding and intergenerational ancestral patterns that have been relegated to the subconscious, can all break the surface as they seek conscious recognition and integration. (p.85)

Every month the premenstrual phase pulls women into humility. This is an incredible gift that counterbalances the human proclivity for grandeur. Women are constantly under the influence of something they cannot control (Collings, 2021)

Yet this phase seems too great a narcissistic wound in what activist Joanna Macy termed the industrial growth society, which always charges full speed ahead (Macy & Brown, 2014). In The pregnant virgin, Jungian Marion Woodman (1985) remarked, “Our society’s emphasis on linear growth and achievement alienates us from the cyclic pattern of death and rebirth, so that when we experience ourselves dying, or dream that we are, we fear annihilation” (p. 17). It seems modern culture just does not have the ego strength to turn toward transformation, to release control.

Bill Plotkin (2008) has described such incapacity for humility as an adolescent psychopathology, which he sees as a cultural condition: a patho-adolescent society in which egocentric self-interest dominates. All healthy mature humans exhibit qualities that the premenstruum invites, which Plotkin (2013) described in his book Wild Mind: whole-hearted consideration of the impact of one’s choices, compassion for the hurting and vulnerable (including within oneself), the power of intuition, openness to change and transformation, and connection with the instinctive animal body. However, in Western culture most of these capacities are underdeveloped or completely curtailed (Plotkin, 2013), perhaps in part because we were never initiated into the luteal phase of menstruation.

Wound of severance from Earth and body

If humans were wedded to the moon growing and shedding, the seasons ripening and rotting, the small salmon slithering back out to sea, not also following the tides of the menstrual cycle would be preposterous, as would a culture that knows only spawn. Disconnection from Earth’s rhythms and beauties, its fierceness and power is a great wound of our time, leading to widespread arrested psychospiritual development (Plotkin, 2008). Even though early developmental theorists like Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Arnold Gessel saw immense value in the natural unfolding of a child’s psyche (Crain, 2010), the role of the wild world in the development of healthy humans has been profoundly over-looked (Plotkin, 2008). 

For example, attachment theory drew from the discoveries of ethologists, who studied topics like imprinting instincts in other animals (Crain, 2010). However, attachment theory focuses entirely on human relationships, neglecting the role of attachment to ecosystem, wild others, and place. The abandonment of the role of nature is not just in early life. Bill Plotkin (2008) described, “Contemporary Western society minimizes, suppresses, or ignores the nature task in every life stage…We no longer grow into our natural wildness, our true human nature...Furthermore, this alienation is the cause as well as the effect of dysfunctional culture” (p. 15). The suppression of the nature-oriented tasks of human development have broken what used to be a cycle of life, wherein humans also feed life, into a straight line of destruction, with humans taking and giving nothing back.

This disconnection requires a developmental task unique to the modern condition, and absolutely essential if Western culture is to turn its one-way egocentric perpetual spawn into a life cycle again. In his book The journey of soul initiation, Bill Plotkin (2021) called this task eco-awakening:

Eco-awakening occurs when we have our first conscious and embodied experience of our innate membership in the Earth community. All other affiliations then become secondary and, in fact, derivative of our inherent participation in the larger, more-than-human world….Eco-awakening is a somatic, emotional, and spiritual experience, not a (mere) cognitive one. It is the embodied, heart-stretching, and world-shifting experience of oneself as being as natural, as wild, as interconnected and related, and as magical as anything else on our planet. (p. 35-36)

The menstrual cycle’s allegiance to moon and tide is an outstretched hand, beckoning women back into the arms of this wild planet.

One’s own body is a mushroom arising from the mycelium of the larger Earth body. A consequence and comorbidity of estrangement from Earth is estrangement from body, and with that emotion, sensuous aliveness, the instincts, eroticism, and the human sense of wildness (Plotkin, 2013). Woodman (1985) wrote: 

The burning question when one enters analysis is “Who am I?” The immediate problem, however, as soon as powerful emotions begin to surface, is often a psyche/soma split…both sexes in our culture are grievously unrelated to their own bodily experience…The body has become the whipping post. (p. 24-25)

Sadly, this orientation to the body is often encouraged in initiatory frameworks organized around masculine notions of conquering (Henderson, 2005).

In her book The heroine’s journey, Maureen Murdock (1990) described how initiatory journeys that call for tests of endurance, such as conquering sleep or pushing past bodily limits, such as Henderson (2005) outlined, are masculine models of initiation. Feminine initiation is into and through the body, not a transcendence of the body (Hugo & Wurlitzer, 2017; Murdock, 1990; Woodman, 1985). Murdock (1990) wrote, “I find that many women who have embraced the masculine hero’s journey have forgotten how to foster—themselves” (p.7). To be initiated into the feminine one must listen to and heed, befriend and worship, and submit to the power of the body.

My initiatory unfolding: the ordeal of embodiment

Although my menarche was a failed initiation, my menstrual cycle and my body were insistent on bringing me across the threshold into adulthood, into oneness with the cycles of life, death and Earth.  Over six years ago I participated in a dance ceremony during which I had an embodied vision. I found myself in the masculine dance of the salmon, hell-bent on my destination, not caring for anything else. Swimming, dancing upstream, pushing past, deliberate. I began to feel sick. I was exhausting myself. I could feel what happens to the salmon happening to me, my skin sloughing off. I was dying. Eventually, I vomited up the last of my life force and collapsed at the redd, dead. After my body disintegrated, I rose again and found myself in the feminine dance of the sea. After this astonishing encounter, a song slipped from my lips, one I had never heard before. Salmon, come home to me, home to me, my blood. Home to me, my blood, my blood, home to me. River, my blood, river.

This encounter and this song turned into the map and the guide of my initiatory journey. It was a wildly profound experience, both terrifying and alluring. It seemed somehow both totally foreign to me and also the deepest truth I had always known. I followed it earnestly and with devotion in small ways and big, responding to what I felt the Mystery of it was asking of me. One of the first things I did, while still on the land where the vision unfolded, was get into the river.

This was a cold, cold spring. In my life until that moment, I never would have submerged. It was too cold and never seemed worth it. Yet I wanted to be faithful to this experience and I was curious what the salmon have to contend with as they swim upstream. I held myself between two boulders so I would not get whisked away, and went under. It took my breath away. I shook with laughter when I emerged, dunking again and again in delight as the current rushed from head to toe. My arms ached from keeping me in place, and my whole body ached as I came into a sense of wildness, my fishness. This was the first of many awakenings into my animal body, into my Earth body, as I became eco-awakened.

As the song encouraged me to do, I began bringing my menstrual blood to rivers. This practice took me on pilgrimage to witness the salmon spawn, which often looked like weeping over their absence, and very rarely, and so preciously, anointing their spawned bodies with my blood. I knew that returning the salmon home to my blood meant bringing the human family home to the cyclical round, but I did not know how to do that except physically. I have a better sense of what that task means now on the symbolic level, beyond my monthly blood offerings, but it is the offerings themselves that have taught me, that still teach me now.

One thing I have learned is how to meet myself where I am, not where I think I should be, or where I would really rather be, a skill I flaunted to begin this essay. Every month I somehow find my way into a sacred offering, even if I am stressed, no matter what I am caught up in, and regardless of the state of consciousness I bring to the bank of the river. After over five years of this practice I still often feel that I do not know what I am doing. That is the beauty of the feminine way–unique in each moment, requiring attentive listening and attuning, and the subversion of any plan or agenda. I have learned that I do not need outside validation, that what really matters is how I truly feel and how I respond.

Every month I perform and embody the weaving of my blood with the river. I see and I feel how I am co-enfleshed with the Earth. Collings (2021) described the potency of offering menstrual blood, “Your cells are literally on the land, the land is fed and recognized by you, and you have created a psychic and cellular link to the Earth” (p. 87). This practice is a way of enacting a world in which my body, the human body, is entangled with the Earth body. Of course we always have been and will always be, but as a culture we have forgotten, thinking that we can thrive while Earth dies. My menstrual cycle invites me into rituals of remembrance.

The luteal phase is the phase of death. The womb lets go of the potential to create new life, which is released during menstruation. Attuning to this phase of the menstrual cycle has also brought me into communion with death in our world. My pilgrimages to salmon rivers were devastating. I had read how they once ran thick with fish, so thick you could walk across their silver backs. Time and again I encountered extinction, or runs hanging on by a last thread. One river I visited in British Columbia flowed alongside a road. A truck full of oil capsized as it drove through the curved valley, spilling its contents into the water. Many of the rivers were simply gone–once year round sources of flow, now dry as bone. My menstrual cycle invites me to bear witness and grieve for ecological destruction, to behold and be heartbroken by the consequence of denying the fallow, replenishing phases of the cycle of life.

For many of the cycles of the three years I lived in Oakland, California, I offered my blood to the small urban creek that ran in front of my apartment. This wove me into my home place in a way I had never experienced and I fell in absolute rapturous love with it (Porteshawver, 2022). It also broke my heart because it was horribly polluted and littered with trash, and because eventually I decided to move. I felt so deeply of that place that leaving it felt like a betrayal. 

Just a couple of months after I left I heard word that the area had experienced record levels of rainfall, which surged through the creek, into the brackish Lake Merritt, and into the sea. Several salmon caught whiff of this, and traveled to my beloved urban stream to spawn, which they had not attempted in at least a hundred years. In my planetary imagination, I believe my devotion had some role in that, and if we all turned to our blood and the land, the runs might come back. Through honoring my cycle, I feel and I know that I matter to this world (Collings, 2021).


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