Sharon Moloney, PhD

Miraculous Moments

Holistic Fertility Therapy, Birth Preparation and Hypnotherapy

Menstruation

Mystery …    Magic …    Nature ….    Seasons …    Tides …    Moon …   Earth …    Ebb …   Flow …   Cycles …    Dancing …    Snake …    Heritage …    Healing …     Sacred …    Wisdom …    Tenderness …    Blood …    Power …    Honour …    Sensitivity …    Celebration …    Gratitude …    Pleasure …     Beauty …    Creation …    Life …   Spirit . . .  

Ever since my first period at age 14, menstruation has been sacred to me.  My menarche was a spiritual awakening that changed me irrevocably (see My Publications: “Mothers and Daughters at Menarche”).  In the absence of any social or cultural supports, I was unable to sustain its powerful spirituality.  But I never forgot that experience and vowed to always honour menstruation – a vow I have kept to this day. 

I know that most women don’t share my experience or views.  Through my work, I have shared intimate details of clients’ menstrual cycles, teaching them about their physiology and suggesting remedies to balance painful periods, flooding, cramping, premenstrual sensitivity and other menstrual variations.  In the process, I have spent many hours listening to ‘menstrophobia’ - the culturally-induced aversion to menstruation.  

For most Western women, menstruation is seen as a liability, an unwelcome intrusion in their busy lives. Talk revolves around discomfort, annoyance and mess.  Women drop their voice and roll their eyes when they mention ‘that time of the month’, conveying disdainful assumptions that are subliminally accepted by others.  There’s a sense of burden and affliction.  Advertising refers to ‘sanitary protection’ so that no-one will ever know.  By and large, menstruation is depicted as an unwanted fact of female existence, which women are obliged to contend with, but would much rather do without. 

In saying this, I am not minimising the genuinely debilitating incapacity that some women experience around the time of their bleeding. Severe cramping, nausea, headaches, pelvic and back pain, low energy, mood irritability and other acute symptoms are very challenging to contend with in a busy world that is indifferent to women's needs during menstruation.  I would like to point out that a small minority of women experience extreme incapacity and that it should not be seen as normal or natural.  Usually, this level of discomfort is indicative of some kind of imbalance; it is not to be expected.  Some acute symptoms can be relieved through significant changes in diet, nutritional and herbal remedies, acupuncture and alternative therapies.  Menstrual pain, hypersensitivity and low energy can also be transformed through attitudinal and behaviour changes that respect and collaborate with the needs of our natural female cycles.

Menstruation is not meant to be an affliction, any more than birth is meant to be an ordeal.  Yet for millions of women around the world that is how it is - in both domains. Contrary to what many people think, suffering through our body processes is not what nature intended. Quite the converse.  The natural design of menstruation is intricate, intelligent and adaptable; it is not fundamentally flawed.  However, the problem for women living and working in a task-oriented culture is that we are expected to function according to a linear lifestyle with timetables and demands that are at odds with our cycles .  Herein lies a conundrum and undiagnosed source of conflict for many women.

Sacred Blood
Culture plays a huge role in how menstruation is perceived.  For example, in pre-patriarchal and some Indigenous communities like the Navajo and Apache, as well as Australian Indigenous peoples, menstruation was recognised as a spiritual phenomenon, a time of heightened transparency to the sacred.  When I discovered these traditions later in my life, they brought a powerful validation and rekindling of my adolescent awakening.  My personal experience of menstruation as sacred was a germinal factor in shaping my research topic.  I wanted to find out if other women had experienced something similar and I was delighted to discover they had.

After each menstrual period, the uterine lining regrows itself, creating a new spongy bed in preparation for conception.  This life-giving blood is literally the cradle of life where a fertilised egg burrows in to begin its long journey into human form.  Without the correct balance of hormones, the lining may not regenerate sufficiently or may not have the required nutrients, chemical signals, ph or blood flow.  This means it won’t give off the necessary hormonal signals to invite the fertilised egg to burrow in.  Many of my clients, desperately hoping for a baby, have told me their bleeding is abnormal – scant, patchy, a browny discharge, or else too much bleeding, flooding or mid-cycle bleeding. The longed-for babies don’t come. There is no safe space for them to burrow in and begin their momentous journey into life.

Taboo
Although menstruation is a healthy process experienced by half the human race for three or four decades of their lives, it remains a taboo subject, rarely spoken about among women and never in mixed company.  We might ask: what is so potent and unmentionable about this normal female bleeding?  The etymology of the word ‘taboo’ contains hints of the answer to this question.

The word ‘taboo’ derives from the Polynesian tapua, which means both ‘sacred’ and ‘menstruation’ (Grahn, 1993).  The notion of taboo is ambiguous, containing elements of both dread and awe.  As Judy Grahn notes: “Besides sacred, taboo also means forbidden, valuable, wonderful, magic, terrible, frightening, and immutable law” (p. 5).  Although contemporary menstrual taboos in the West revolve around shame, pollution and pathology, these are a reflection of our cultural context – a culture in which women are still regarded as secondary to men, despite the gains of feminism.  

Male anthropologists who studied menstruation looked for and deduced derogatory interpretations of menstrual taboos (Buckley & Gottlieb, 1988).  However, the exacting demands of these taboos “reveal the deep power with which believers endowed menstruation, with its close connections to life and death” (Grahn, p. 5).  Anthropologists Thomas Buckley and Alma Gottlieb challenged the notion of a universal, restrictive taboo.  They cited a diversity of cross-cultural studies which show that many cultural beliefs and practices designate menstruation as a symbolically significant spiritual phenomenon:

“Many menstrual taboos, rather than protecting society from a universally ascribed feminine evil, explicitly protect the perceived creative spirituality of menstruous women from the influence of others in a more neutral state, as well as protecting the latter in turn from the potent, positive spiritual force ascribed to such women.  In other cultures menstrual customs, rather than subordinating women to men fearful of them, provide women with means of ensuring their own autonomy, influence and social control” (1988, p. 7).  

This cross-cultural perception of the spiritual power of menstruation inverts commonly held assumptions that menstrual taboos are simply forms of female subordination.  It is much more likely that menstrual taboos originated from women’s appreciation that something powerful was happening to them that necessitated being set apart.  As Penelope Washbourn notes: “Menstruation symbolizes the advent of a new power that is “mana” or “sacred”.  A sacred power has life-giving and life-destroying possibilities and in no case is mana to be taken lightly.  A “taboo” expresses this feeling that something special, some holy power, is involved, and our response to it must be very careful” (1979, p. 34). 


Menstruation has been shown to enhance the healing efficacy of practitioners, based on the premise that menstruation is “a sacred time in which the healing powers of the spiritual realm are particularly accessible” (Wirth, 1997, p. 116).  Some of the healing practices of female shamanism rely on the shedding phase of the cycle because the biological connection to the organic cycles of nature primes women to be “a vessel for the healing powers” (Noble, 1991, p. 7).  Kirlian photography shows a powerful while light emanating from a woman’s body during menstruation.

Holy Hormones
The physiology of the menstrual cycle, particularly its hormonal basis, brings significant changes to our consciousness – cognitive, emotional, psychological and spiritual (Northrup, 1994).  Hormones are powerful consciousness-altering substances, as anyone who has experienced the peak levels of oxytocin and endorphins during labour and birth well knows.  Throughout the cycle, fluctuating levels of follicle stimulating hormone, oestrogen, luteinising hormone, testosterone and progesterone mean that our body/mind is bathed in varying combinations of a potent hormonal cocktail.  Although these changes are a natural female experience, the cultural context in which they occur plays a crucial role in how they are perceived and understood.  Attitudes and beliefs, for example, influence whether menstrual changes are reported as ‘symptoms’.

Shirley Lee’s (2002) study explored the meaning of menstruation and PMS (premenstrual syndrome) for a group of Canadian women.  Two main groups emerged.  The negative group were more self-critical, expressing feelings of low self-esteem and self-hate.  For these women, the ‘diagnosis’ of PMS was important because their symptoms were not taken seriously without a biomedical explanation.  In contrast, the positive group rejected the 'sickness' label, expressed feelings of self-appreciation and valued their menstruation. Their positive view was closely linked to their feminist perspective: “The importance of feminism in the lives and backgrounds of the extremely positive women provides a crucial component in the process of unravelling their attitudes toward menstruation and understanding its transformation from an “unwanted” to a “valued and wanted” condition” (p. 9). 

Female Consciousness
Penelope Shuttle and Peter Redgrove (1978) describe the two aspects of the menstrual cycle as the ‘red’ (bleeding, childless) phase and the ‘white’ (ovulating, child-producing) phase, each with its own mode of consciousness. Due to our cultural valuing of child-production, menstruation is often “despised, tabooed, neglected, and ... as if in response to this spiteful treatment, in many women hurts” (Shuttle & Redgrove, p. 21). This suggests that menstrual pain could be a learned response, with the implication that it can also be unlearned, a proposition supported by the feminist women in Lee’s (2002) study.  Despite its widespread denigration, the red phase of the cycle brings its own uniquely valuable contribution: “It is the time when the healthy woman may draw on abilities and capacities that are not related to the values of ovulation and child-bearing, but that are instead related to that other side of her nature, of independence of thought and action” (Shuttle & Redgrove, p. 30). 

This independence is not a female version of masculine-conditioning which breeds disconnection, isolation and one-upmanship.  Instead, women’s autonomy of thought and action involves prioritising self-care (fit your own oxygen mask before fitting another's), a piercing clarity of perception and an intolerance of injustice and what would normally go under the radar! This independence and autonomy is, in fact, female leadership.  The awareness of this ‘other side’ is discouraged in our society because women are usually expected to put others first and themselves last.  Many women unwittingly adopt a pseudo-male independence that does not serve their biological nature well.  As a result, the acceptance and integration of these two distinct (red and white) modes of consciousness is often thwarted.  Women are portrayed, and frequently experience themselves, as split personalities: warm and loving during ovulation, and hormonal demons during the premenstruum (Shuttle & Redgrove, 1978; Noble, 2003; Martire, 2006).  The biomedical narrative fosters this split and a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical industry has grown to ‘treat’ the problem (Oudshoorn, 1994). 

PMS – Prementrual Sensitivity
One of the most notable changes women experience during the premenstruum is a heightened sensitivity.  Christiane Northrup describes it like this: “The “veil between the worlds” of the seen and unseen, the conscious and unconscious, is much thinner … we have greater access to our magic – our ability to change things for the better” (1994, p. 101).  We become more porous, to both intuition and external stimuli.  The enhanced spiritual perception of menstruation affords us deep insight into ourselves, as well as the circumstances and people surrounding us.  But this insight needs to be respected and taken seriously.  Simply dismissing it as PMS or ‘that time of the month’ dilutes its accuracy and power.  

The sequential changes in consciousness that occur during the cycle are actually “part of the discriminatory experience of the mind” (Shuttle & Redgrove, p.27).  Simply tracking the cycle, for example by charting, is itself a form of consciousness (Noble, 2006). These modes of perception, which are unique to women, are the gifts of discernment we bring to the planet. They impart vital wisdom that can enable us to navigate our way through life with care and compassion but also incisiveness and authority.

The cultural Catch-22
In Western society with its masculine psychology and linear norms, our way of life is not organised around these valuable cyclic rhythms and their unique gifts.  Emily Martin’s research (1987) showed how the medical imaging of women’s reproductive processes was based on metaphors of production and economy.  Menstruation was regarded as ‘failed production’ and the normal changes of consciousness of the premenstruum were seen to interfere with output.  Because women are now expected to be both productive in the market place as well as reproductive, the changes seen as disrupting our productivity are pathologised and ‘treated’. The tension between a cyclic physiology and a linear workplace makes the diagnosis of PMS the pressure relieving valve between these two roles (Matire, 2006).
 

We need to understand that what is at stake in pathologising and medicating our menstrual sensitivities is our body-based female authority, the much needed antidote to many of the problems besetting our world.  If large numbers of women took their menstrual insights seriously and claimed ownership of their red phase female autonomy, our social organisation would transform radically. Domestic arrangements would be reshaped; work routines would be modified; injustices like sexism, violence or exploitation would not be tolerated, and it would become very obvious and articulated when the emperor wore no clothes!  When we see our menstrual changes as normal, it means we put ourselves and our own experience at the centre of reality and that changes everything (Noble, 2006).

It is important to ask ourselves: whose interests are served by perpetuating the notion of menstruation as a liability?  The unique spiritual permeability of the red phase contains a pearl of great price: the uncompromising sword of discernment.  When women are shamed for their bleeding, pathologised for the normal variations of the cycle and required to conform to a linear, production-based timetable, we are precluded from connecting with our own inner-directed, biological authority.  

Yet when menstruation is embraced as a spiritual practice, it can become a transformational process and a life-changing relationship with Self, Spirit and the Earth.  As ancient cultures, contemporary Indigenous peoples, Eastern Goddess cultures and the women in my research have shown, it is entirely possible to make the transition into a woman-honouring relationship with our bleeding.

Menstruation is a sacred process that transforms us at pivotal stages in our lives: menarche, childbirth, menopause.  It changes children into young women, maidens into mothers, mothers into wise elders.  It bestows upon us uniquely female modes of perception that provide vital insights into the key issues facing us in our precarious world.  

Menstrual blood is holy.   Its power, its beauty, its red richness is the cradle of life.  Menstruation is SACRED!  It is our blessing, our bloodsong, our wombsong.  It incubates the world.  Our menstrual consciousness holds the secret to our way out of the imbalance of modern life and back to our origins in the Divine Matrix.

"The movements of the cycle are like the breath catching, 
like the snagging of threads in a garment. 
A sudden shift in gear, a cloud scudding across the sun, 
a small irritation, a distraction.
Quiet, subtle, demanding our attention.  
Tripping us into different realities, perspectives and understandings.  
Breaking the mould of the cultural mindset.  
Stopping us from becoming rigid automatons and endless doing machines.  
Reminding us of ourselves and making us sensitive to the world.  
It’s the crucible in which we can forge internal authority.  
Attention to and acceptance of the conditions of the cycle cultivate that authority. 
Constant resistance or denial of the life of the body will lock us into an in-between-world: 
a perpetual adolescence of the spirit, an unripened emotional life.”
              Alexander Pope, 2001, p. 220. 

 

“It’s the special blood in which all our lives started”Margaret Sheffield 

 

References
Buckley, Thomas & Gottlieb, Alma, (Eds.), (1988). Blood Magic: The Anthropology of menstruation. Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Grahn, Judy. (1993). Blood, Bread and Roses: How menstruation created the world. Boston:Beacon Press.
Lee, Shirley. (2002). Health and sickness: The meaning of menstruation and premenstrual syndrome in women’s lives.Sex Roles, 46 (1): 25-36.
Martin, Emily.  (1987). The Woman in the Body: A cultural analysis of reproduction. Buckingham, U.S., Open University Press.
Martire, Ginger Collins. (2006). Menstrual Consciousness Development: An Organic Inquiry Into The Development of a Psycho-spiritually Rewarding Menstrual Relationship. Doctoral Dissertation, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, Palo Alto. 
Noble, Vicki. (1991). Shakti Woman: Feeling our fire, healing our world. San Francisco: Harper.
Noble, Vicki. (2003). The Double Goddess: Women sharing power.  Rochester, Vermont: Bear and Company.
Noble, Vicki. (2006). ‘Blood mysteries and women’s spirituality’.  Radio broadcast Wisdom Talks, 14 December, 2006. www.mosaradio.net/episodes/APWT061214no.
Northrup, Christiane. (1994). Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing. New York: Bantam Books.
Owen, Lara. (1993). Her Blood is Gold: Awakening to the wisdom of Menstruation. U.S: HarperCollins. 2008 edition: Archive Publishing.
Oudshoorn, Nelly. (1994). Beyond The Natural Body: An archeology of sex hormones.  London: Routledge.
Pope, Alexander. (2001). The Wild Genie.  Binda, New South Wales: Sally Milner Publishing.
Sheffield, Margaret. (1988). Life Blood: A new image for menstruation. London: Alfred A. Knopf. 
Shuttle, Penelope & Redgrove, Peter. (1978). The Wise Wound. London: Harper Collins.
Washbourn, Penelope. (1979). Becoming woman: Menstruation as spiritual experience.  In Carol Christ & Judith Plaskow (Eds). Woman spirit rising: A feminist reader in religion (1 Ed, pp. 246-258).  San Francisco: Harper and Row.
Wirth, Daniel. (1997). Menstruation and spiritual healing. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 3 (2), pp 115 – 121.