Joan Borysenko discusses her book A Woman's Book of Life
Dr. Joan Borysenko came to the Bodhi Tree Bookstore in Jan 1997 to talk about her book A Woman's Book of Life. Among Joan Borysenko's countless credits, she is co-founder and former director of the Mind-Body Clinic at Harvard Medical School, and the pioneering author of Minding the Body; Mending the Mind.
“Once a month, our worldview expands to include the things blocking the flow of energy in the web of life. It's an incredible time, but mostly our culture says, ‘Oh phooey, PMS, let's give everybody medicine. Put them all on birth control pills to get rid of this.’”—Joan Borysenko
A Woman's Book of Life: The Biology, Psychology and Spirituality of the Feminine Life Cycle by Joan Borysenko, Ph.D.
Most of us have a doctor for the body, a therapist or counselor for the emotions and, if we're so inclined, an advisor or friend for the spirit or soul. In her ground-breaking study of the feminine life cycle which, she asserts, is distinctly different from a male's, Joan Borysenko demonstrates that our physical, emotional and spiritual lives are, in fact, perfectly interconnected. Further, once we understand our biopsychological maps, we can empower ourselves into health and well-being through the various cycles of our feminine lives. Basing her findings on new hormonal and neurological research, Borysenko points to the special opportunities provided by each new stage, and advocates we no longer vilify the hormonal idiosyncrasies which occur naturally, and for good purpose. This is a book for any woman, of any generation. From the gift of childhood, through the lesson of adolescence, to the strength of mid-life, and the wisdom of age, Borysenko urges us to celebrate the power of the feminine life cycle. -- CD
The following is an edited version of Joan Borysenko’s Bodhi Tree Presentation.
Joan Borysenko: I graduated with a doctorate in medical science from Harvard Medical School, but I learned almost nothing about the specific biology of women. Later, as a clinical psychologist specializing in psychoneuro-immunology, and researching the effects of emotions and personality on health and illness, I found almost no studies that dealt with women. The medical community excludes women from studies because they are too complicated. Women change every seven days during the time that they menstruate: physically, emotionally, and intuitively. On top of that, they change in seven year cycles throughout life. So science has always focused on men, and simply applied the data to women. But it doesn't work very well.
In my search for what specifically motivates women, I first read the Yellow Empress, a one thousand year old classic on internal medicine. It discussed women's development in terms of seven-year cycles: At age 7, our second teeth come in; at age 14, menstruation begins; at age 21, our bodies reach maturity; at 28, our muscles begin to reach full development; at 35, the whole structure slows down; and at 42, with menopause, we begin to deteriorate.
The ancient Chinese said that men develop in an eight-year cycles, and continue to grow in wisdom into old age. They said nothing about wisdom in women at all. Life ends for us when we reached menopause. That's an old and common view - in both Western and Eastern society.
Even Aristotle suggested that women were unfinished men. Back then, doctors believed gender was determined by menstrual blood congealed by sperm; that menstrual blood was simply raw material to be whipped into shape by the male vital force. What is more, if the sperm was cold and not vital enough, then a girl would be born.
The psychological development gurus, such as Erickson and Piaget, focused on boys as the benchmarks of development, so they viewed healthy psychological development in terms of the development of independence and autonomy. They thought girls were defective, because we do not develop in the same way. Freud said we "fail" to detach from our mothers, because we lack the Oedipus complex that sets little boys in conflict with their fathers for the attentions of their mothers. Boys pull away because they're afraid of castration.
Little girls bond with their mothers. At the Stone Center for Women's Research at Wellesley, they found that women do not develop a sense of independence, but a sense of interdependence. Healthy development for women has to do with relationality and keeping whole the web of life. What's more, these female traits are part and parcel of our biology.
Historically, women's literature talks about the feminine life cycle in terms of three stages: maiden, mother and crone. It's time to update that. As late as the turn of this century, women barely survived beyond age 47. If they made it through the gauntlet of childhood infectious diseases, they often died from complications in child birth.
Things are different now. The fastest growing segment of the population is over 65. This requires a fourth part of the life cycle, for mid-life women. Incredible shifts occur physiologically, hormonally and in our brains at mid-life, and this gives rise to a kind of ferocity and wisdom. It leads me to call this time the guardian stage.
I adhere to seven-year cycles, not only because the Yellow Emperor looked at women's development in seven-year cycles, but because seven is the sacred number of almost every culture on the earth. The moon changes every seven days, holy days always fall on moon days, the Sabbath is on the seventh day. The new and the old testaments are filled with references to seven. In the old women's mythology, there's a river Clitor in Greece, which circles the center of the earth seven times. It's a river of blood and it culminates at the City of Clitoris. Whenever ancient Greeks evolved from one stage of being to the next, they were baptized in the river of moon blood, that is, menstrual blood. It was the first kind of calendar.
From the very beginning, brain development in men and women is different, though nature and nurture both play a part. Whether you're male or female, if you grow up in an abusive home, you will develop right brain dominance: it will specialize to read the emotions on faces, as you learn to intuit safe or unsafe situations. However, even in healthy homes, women's right brains specialize in this fashion while male right brains specialize to see things three dimensionally, for spatial orientation.
From an early age, little girls are tuned to detecting what's occurring with others. They maintain this capacity throughout their life, although they begin to silence their relationship wisdom somewhere around puberty. Mary Pipher points to this in her book Reviving Ophelia.
There are two peaks of divorce for women. One of them is at about 28 after 4 or 5 years of marriage, and the other is in mid-life when we tend to take stock of our lives and empty it of things that no longer serve us - including our husbands.
When I got divorced two years ago, I called up a friend to pour out all the details. Just as I began to hang up, I heard a tiny voice pipe up from the other end. It was my friend's seven year old daughter, who had been eavesdropping on the extension, quiet as a mouse, for the entire conversation. "Joanie," she said, "You said why you're getting divorced, but it didn't make sense. There must be something else." She'd noticed a subtext, I hadn't revealed it all. Just as I was figuring out how to respond, she continued: "So . . . You have a boyfriend? Don't you think it's too soon?" Then this little girl asked if my husband was "sexing" with his new girlfriend. She had no idea what sex meant, but she intuited it measured intimacy, thus the seriousness of the relationship. She had many more questions too. That's what little girls are like.
By puberty, most girls begin to shut up. Although there's a lot of lip service given to feminine power and rights in our culture, adolescent girls realize we're still second-class citizens in many ways. It's depressing for them. At the same time, huge hormonal fluctuations begin occurring within their bodies. In some other cultures rituals welcome women into the puberty years and into their incipient ability to mother, but this is hardly the case in Western culture. Plini the Elder, the first century Roman naturalist said that menstruating women, "dull the shine of mirrors, and can kill men with a glance." In Judaism, there are laws of menstrual cleanliness called the Laws of Nidah. In ancient Christianity menstruation was considered to defile holy ground, so women were banned from the cathedrals. Conversely, in Native American culture, menstruating women don't partake in ceremonies because the tribe understands their personal medicine is probably greater than any group ritual.
Right brain activity increases when a woman is menstruating. Researchers have found that women hear more negative words during their period. Well, we all knew that (!), but what isn't so obvious is that this is due to increased right brain function which leads to increased insight, increased creativity, and a much enhanced dream state. Once a month, our worldview expands to include blockages to the flow of energy in the web of life. It's an incredible time, but mostly our culture says, "Oh phooey, PMS, let's give everybody medicine. Put them all on birth control pills to get rid of this." Everyone fears our ability to cry foul during the time of our menses. And we've lost power because of it.
According to the psychologist Carol Gilligan who, for a number of years, has followed a group of young girls from early childhood through puberty, the main lesson facing girls in adolescence is the boundary issue: How can I be compassionate to others without ignoring myself, and if I choose for myself, am I selfish? Actually almost every woman I know is still working on this issue. I think the boundary issue is the major developmental struggle of an entire woman's life.
Things have changed a lot in the mother years since I grew up. When I was a girl, every mother I knew was a homemaker and I was groomed to marry a doctor, not be one myself! Now the majority of mothers work.
A study conducted at Wellesley College, called the "Life Prints Study" asserted that the twenties are the most stressful for women, because that's when women try to figure out what to do with their lives, in terms of relationships, children and their career. The researchers found that working mothers - the busiest women in the sample - were both highest in mastery and highest in pleasure and the women who were lowest in mastery and pleasure were childless women staying at home. I have several artist friends at home without children who are as happy and productive as can possibly be, and I know working mothers who are going crazy but, overall, this is the truth.
During the mother years, generally women are stressed but fulfilled. In terms of relationality, first comes their children, then work, then comes their relationship with their husbands, and finally, lagging in distant fourth their relationship with friends. This is a mistake, because we know that the single biggest boon to health is good relationships. If you're in a good social support system, you're much likelier to stay healthy than not. In my thirties, I went through various difficulties, which, for one reason or another, I could not discuss with my husband. I realized you cannot expect a single person to fill every role, so I started a woman's group. The support was a godsend. In fact, I co-authored a book with one of the members. It's called On Wings of Light.
In mid-life, working women get sick of the hierarchical nature of the corporate or academic world. Cooperation enhances creativity yet in corporate settings, cooperation is mostly discouraged. Consequently, women tend to defect from those settings in their early forties. It's a values shift. It used to be called the mid-life crisis, but it's a natural life stage. You've lived long enough to reevaluate what you accepted when you were younger.
:Jung said that both men and women in mid-life orient less toward their nuclear family and more toward the world family. Also, we turn into our opposite at mid-life - men develop their feminine aspect and women develop their male aspect. Certainly this is corroborated at the hormonal level. We want to bring our lives into integrity with what's important to us, and all the hormonal changes that occur in this so-called parimenopause allow us to do that.
The greatest sadness in medical science is the medicalization of menopause. It's considered a disease, like our ovaries are failing. Dr. Susan Love, author of Dr. Susan Love's Hormone Book says ovaries don't change, they just change careers - like so many of us do in mid-life! No longer in the business of manufacturing eggs, they now produce male hormones as well as our female ones. We make 20 times more testosterone in mid-life than we did in our younger years. So, having re-evaluated our lives, we now have the hormonal balls to do something with them.
During the child bearing years, our pituitary gland excretes a couple of hormones - FSH and LH - that affect ovulation. Now, in menopause, instead of making less FSH and LH - because you don't need to make any eggs anymore - there's a 1,300-fold increase of these hormones! Conventional medicine says the pituitary continues to produce FSH and LH in the hopes of goosing our ovaries into coughing up one last egg! The body never makes a 1,300-fold excess of anything out of a mistake. There's a reason for it.
Many pioneering doctor researchers, such as Christiane Northrup and Mona Lisa Schultz are beginning to wonder whether FSH and LH are not the neurotransmitters of intuition and wisdom. Empirical studies suggest that while psychic dreams, insights and intuitions occur only during menstruation in our childbearing years, during the parimenopause and menopause, we come into that state all the time.
Studies show that women who have a positive view of menopause have far fewer negative symptoms than women who fear it. That's the mind-body connection at work. Therefore, the idea that we may need hormonal replacement therapy needs to be looked at very carefully. Certainly, hormonal fluctuations can be difficult, and many women need support. But we have options. 95% of women who chose natural therapies to treat the symptoms of menopause report satisfaction with alternative medicine.
Regarding hormone replacement therapy, Susan Love suggests we weigh up the data on osteoporosis versus the data on breast cancer, and ask ourselves this: In order to avoid a broken wrist, am I willing to get breast cancer instead? Similarly, the aggregate data on heart disease suggests that instead of living to an average of age 79.6, if you take estrogen supplements, you'll make it to 81. Is it worth it for another few months?
If you're active, eat well, don't smoke or drink a lot of carbonated beverages, you're likely to have better bones and a strong heart to start with. We must avoid allowing menopause to become a sudden medical condition the way that delivering a baby has now become a medical emergency.
When I worked with Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School, (he first studied the physiology of meditation), we researched reports on Tibetan meditation. Certain monks went up to caves in the Himalayas, dipped sheets into icy cold water, and during meditation they liberated so much body heat that steam rose from the sheets as they dried. This was Tummo Yoga - Tummo means "fierce woman." By pulling this life force energy up the various chakras, they burned away defilements, impurities and ego. When I had my first hot flash, I thought, "Those monks were learning to do what mid-life women do naturally. When I have hot flashes, I'll pretend I'm doing Tummo. I'll feed my junk to the fire." But I never had another hot flash. And only later I learned that if you have a positive view of your menopause, you'll have fewer symptoms. I think that's what happened.
From ages 63 to 84, we enter the crone or wisdom years. While we all harbor fears of senility and dependency, I believe old age has been unnecessarily medicalized too. Only 5% of elderly people are in nursing homes. Why don't we ever hear about the 95% who aren't who are out there doing all kinds of wonderful things? And what about losing brain cells? We lose brain cells for a reason. Failure to lose enough brain cells, results in confused circuits, like retardation. Our brains, our lives change. Right up until death, which is just another -- the thirteenth -- cycle of life.