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03 April 2005

Squeeze in next to someone, arm to arm

“In everyone's life, at some time, our inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.”–Albert Schweitzer

Well, I was going to write about convertibles and fuzzy boots until I watched this week’s installment of videos from keynote speeches presented at the 2004 Omega Institute “Women in Power” conference. (Never fear, "Always rent the convertible and wear fuzzy boots" will get to your inbox sometime soon).

MarionIt was 77-year-old Jungian analyst and author Marion Woodman who captured my imagination with her address on “Women, Power and Soul.” Even the introduction she got from the conference organizers was compelling. Described as having “unrelenting intelligence” and being both “sweet” and “formidable,” I settled into my folding chair to hear her talk to me about the loss of relatedness and recognition in our patriarchal world, and about surrender.


She spoke slowly and quietly and clearly about the “loss of the feminine principle” in the world; she wasn’t talking about gender, but of “an energy in the world.” “If patriarchy is a power principle that has become a parody of itself,” she said, “what we need more of is the feminine principle: the receptive side, the soul, the heart side.”

“The feminine is the energy that holds presence, the deeper and slower aspect of ourselves” she said. The feminine looks for relatedness, asking “where are we alike?,” “how can we connect?,” “can you see me?,” and (perhaps most importantly), “do you care whether you see me or not?”

She told of people who come to her for therapy; people who were never heard by others and who felt invisible. She talked of children, anxious for their parents’ undivided attention, which never came. When she was a teacher, she perceived clearly the power of being a “witness.” Through careful observation, she noticed that when her attention wavered during rehearsals, “…something went wrong on the floor. The energy became lax, muffled, attenuated, an edge of fear crept in, the courageous spontaneity was lost. I suddenly understood that perceiver and perceived were one.” (from Woodman’s Leaving my father’s house: A journey to conscious femininity, 1992).

Quantum physics tells us, she warned, that “the presence watching an experiment changes the experiment.” Or, as physicist Erwin Schroedinger put it, the act of observing affects what is observed.

“What an awesome responsibility,” she gently noted.

Her questions were clear: “How do you hold presence for others? How do you hold love for others, with no agenda? Who was able to hold presence for you as a child, without asking you to perform to their standards? Who really saw you and heard you and didn’t ask for something in return?”

How are we changing the people around us by how we respond to them, or don’t?

Her message was compelling, and yet it paled in comparison to what I heard next.

During a stay in India, Marion became very sick with dysentery, captive in her hotel room for weeks. Finally, desperate to escape the room, she gingerly made her way to the hotel foyer one afternoon to sit and write a letter to her husband. Sitting quite near the end of a long, empty couch, she began to write.

Soon, though there were many other seats available, a very large brown woman came and squeezed between Marion and the end of the couch, so close to her that their arms were touching, so close that it made it difficult, even impossible, for Marion to write.

Marion scooted away, angry at the invasion of her space. The woman scooted closer, pushing up against her. “Every time I moved, she moved, until,” as Marion described it, “we ended up at the other end of the couch.”

Once she stopped moving away, Marion realized what a nice, big, warm arm the woman had, and so they sat, a thin bird of a pale white woman and a big brown woman, arm to arm. Not sharing a common language, they couldn’t speak, but sat in silence. Marion gave in to the broad warm arm, the presence of the other, and relaxed into her.

The next day, she went again to the hotel foyer to write. And, again, the woman came and sat touching her, next to her, silently. And the third day. And the fourth day, as Marion’s health improved.

This couch dance continued for a week. And one day, a man appeared as the two women finished their silent, warm-armed vigil.

“You’re all right now. My wife won’t come back tomorrow,” he said to Marion, nodding toward her couch compatriot. “Your wife?,” she thought to herself, startled at his intimacy. “Why is she here in the first place?”

She was unprepared for his quiet and simple answer.

“I saw you were dying and I sent her to sit with you. I knew the warmth of her body would bring you back to life,” he said.

It took a moment for the magnitude of his message and the enormity of what these two strangers had done for her to sink in.

“She did save my life,” Marion said quietly in recounting the story. “That this woman would take the time to sit with me…and, most importantly, that I could receive it…” That,” said Marion Woodman, “is relatedness.”

That is what it means to hold presence for others.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if we all gave unconditionally and held presence for others, even for strangers, just as the warm-armed woman did for Marion Woodman in India. Squeeze in beside someone so you are arm to arm. Stop moving away. Be fully present, listen to their story without being tempted to respond by recounting your own. Be there, with words or not. Don’t check email, calculate stock gains, or cook dinner as you listen. Recognize and own how your presence “changes the experiment,” changes them. Find out how you are alike, how you can connect, how you can really see them. Show them that you truly care whether you see them or not. Lend them your strong, warm arm. Let them relax into you. Or ask yourself: how freely can I accept their gift of an arm?

The great paradox is that the more you find yourself, the more you find the soul of everyone else.” –Marion Woodman


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Visiting from The Women's Colony.
Thank you for a beautiful post.

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