Mindfulness, Birth and Arrows

by Georgina Kelly

Georgina lives at Camp Mountain, with her husband, Nagadeva, their two daughters, Tilda (7yrs) and Phoebe Malika (5yrs), and son Vajra (3yrs). Georgina has a BSc (Honours) in Midwifery; and is passionate about the Women's Body of Knowledge, Spirituality, Myth and Story-Telling. She is currently running workshops called 'The Art of Mindful Birthing'. She can be contacted at gmk@techsus.com.au.

This article is the transcript for a talk given by the author at a Gold Coast HMA meeting, May 2007.

The Buddha had something interesting to say about how we deal with sensations we may class as 'unpleasant'. He was asked by his monks, why individuals reacted so very differently to similar sensations. He responded with: when experiencing a feeling which is considered 'painful', those who don't have inner awareness, grieve and lament, beat their breasts and become emotionally distraught. They experience two pains, physical and mental. It is as if the person has been shot with an arrow, and right afterwards, shot again with a second one, so the pain of two arrows is felt. However, the person trained in awareness, when touched by a painful bodily feeling is hit by one arrow, the strong bodily sensation, but not by a second arrow. (1)

So the Buddha was saying that in life, there is pain that we may naturally feel, and then there is pain that we shape ourselves. Our suffering is created by how we perceive physical sensations, how we judge them, and how we respond to them. (2) Our experience of pain can aggravate, frustrate or torture us. Worry, fear, aversion, even anger - "It's not fair! Why is this happening to me?" all exacerbate pain, causing it to be more unbearable. (1)

For many women whilst birthing, the powerful opening sensations they experience can seem fierce and overwhelming at times. This is the first arrow, which women, with awareness, can cope with and work with. The second arrow that can potentially strike is the emotional turmoil that a woman can make of what she is experiencing. So, there would be two experiences happening – the natural bodily feelings, and the pain that was added through thoughts.

Instead of intensifying the sensations and becoming prey to our own thoughts, we can practise the awareness that the Buddha spoke about, avoiding the second arrow, and work with the sensation. We can give birth with our body as our ally, not an enemy. With Mindfulness, which is moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, we allow ourselves to fully experience the sensations of pregnancy and birth.  We cannot stop our thoughts, but we can shift the focus away from them and focus on the sensations. We go through it, watch it, and say 'yes' to it. Then, as Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa said: "... the most powerful energies become absolutely workable rather than taking you over, because there is nothing to take over if you are not putting up any resistance."(3) So in this way, we come back to the first arrow – where we can acknowledge the compelling sensations as the dynamic activity, deep vibrations, or stream of energy that opens us up to birth our baby.

The wisdom to give birth dwells within each of us women, yet it requires the nourishment of Mindfulness to fruit. Unfortunately, as women we have been conditioned by our culture to doubt our selves as 'knowers' and to disbelieve our ability to access this wisdom. We have been conditioned to value the Rational and the traditional masculine way of discernment; and to devalue and mistrust our subjective and feminine understanding of phenomena. We have been conditioned to doubt our bodies, and to doubt birth as a natural and trustworthy process. We have been conditioned to be alienated from our wildness and primal instincts. Our culture has tamed us! So we have a propensity to seek knowledge outside ourselves, and depend upon 'professionals' to tell us about our own bodies and our own selves. Our inner wisdom, if we have the trust and cultivate Mindfulness, will help us Come to Our Senses ... our body/heart/mind senses; our common-senses; our womanly senses; to discover what we know deep within to give birth.

Many women seek information in the hope of having a 'natural' birth ... information that informs the intellect. Having information is important for women to make choices, and to maintain their power. Yet we do need to do this in a non- grasping manner – and with the awareness that we women in this culture have a proclivity for dwelling in our heads. We need to remember that our heads interfere with our ability to give birth; and that we give birth with our bodies and with our souls. So that's the work that will help us give birth – the body work and the soul work.

Our bodies, hearts, minds, experience of our selves and our world all will develop into something new, something different through the pregnancy and birth – the initiation into Motherhood. It is a time for great potential growth and enlarging. It is an opportunity to become more self-aware, spacious and conscious; all vital work to mature us for mothering our children. This is the opportunity to journey down deep. Our beliefs and feelings about having a baby, our sexuality, our relationships, motherhood – all dramatically influence how we experience our pregnancy, labour, birth, and mothering. Giving birth is synonymous to yielding, to opening up. Our bodies and hearts expand as widely as possible for us to birth our babies; the widest open they can possibly be. This occurs with the support of hormones, and by trusting the process of birth, our bodies, our babies, and the birth energy. If we are unable to say 'yes' to this process, the emotional resistance can cause us to be in opposition with what our senses tell us. Resistance comes about often through unresolved issues around the changes we fear the birth will bring about. We may feel fearful of pain, fearful of the change to our relationship with our partner, fearful of losing control. Ignoring these real issues may trigger them to arise whilst we are in labour, slowing down the birth or even stopping it – causing it to seem more arduous or painful. Many women believe that we shouldn’t think what they call 'negative thoughts' about the birth, as they may then happen; and that we should simply practice affirmations to dissipate any fears. In my experience, this merely pushes them down further in our subconscious. Without Mindfulness, they potentially will haunt us in labour like hungry ghosts; taking precious vigour away from the Birth Energy.

So how can we work with fears mindfully?

One quality of mindfulness is openness, towards all we experience within and without ourselves. This means giving space to things, letting them exist completely as they are. (4) It correlates to having an open and honest heart and mind; welcoming whatever we are experiencing in a natural and expansive way If something arise which we do not like, such as fear, there are two ways of responding ... either to turn towards those things and experience them in every respect, or to shrink away from them, trying to shove them out of your mind somehow. (ibid)

If you decide to pull the shutters down and not look at something, it becomes a charged area. As soon as that particular area is touched upon, you automatically slide over it and keep justifying yourself so that you never look too closely at the matter. (4, 85) In Vajrayana (Tantric Buddhism), when we try to throw out fear, and other mind-states we consider negative, we throw away the wisdom that is knitted in with them. Pema Chodron, Buddhist nun, writes that: 'Between repression of the fear and acting out the fear, there is something wise and profound and timeless' … transmutation comes from the willingness to sit with the feeling, to honour it, and to listen. (5) The poet Rilke wrote that our deepest fears are like dragons guarding our deepest treasure. (6) How can this be? Fear is scary; and we want to run from anything scary. But if we look into it without the judgement, we might see behind the fear there is marvellous softness, an immense heart, and a unrestrained mind – a very awake basic state of being. Through listening to the part of us that is fearful, and acknowledging it, we can open up to a larger part of ourselves that is equated with our ability to have compassion for ourselves and for others, and our ability know. (ibid)

The authentic acknowledgement of fear can also lead us to act; to take responsibility; to realise we have choices. We don’t need a strategy to try to 'correct it' – it is the turning towards it that is important. This will cause a 'gap' to evolve, alongside its own inspiration. (4)

Mindfulness is also about having what is called in Buddhism, the Beginner's Mind. It is having the awareness that you cannot control life; that it is a path of unpredictability. We are required in Birth to drop the illusion of certainty and control; and to be ready for anything. So part of the process of pregnancy is about taking us into mystery, and preparing us, in a sense, to be unprepared! We can run into trouble if we become fixed on how we imagine the birth will be ... or plan for a 'perfect' birth. While we hold on to something, our hands are too full to receive. We block wisdom this way. When we abandon our fixed agenda, the Birth Energy can intensely engage with us to birth our babies as we allow our body to speak the language of sensations, and listen to what we need emotionally and physically in the moment. The middle ground is to not discount what you know, but to first and foremost listen to the body, let go of any plans, expectations or beliefs about birth; and stay open, alert and trusting.

So in my understanding, besides the obvious physical care we need in order to be well and nurture and support a thriving baby; we need to do the Soul Work. Soul Work is about Life, embracing Life – not retreating. The purpose of spiritual practice in any tradition is to enlarge one’s comprehension of what it means to be authentically human. How we give birth is analogous to how we live our lives; how we express ourselves as specifically woman. Through the practice of Mindfulness, we can open up to what is alive in us – particularly in pregnancy, birthing, and mothering. With the awareness of our intrinsic wisdom and our bodies' beauty, we perceive the strong sensations of birth (and even fear and pain) as our teachers, our midwives, and the energy that transforms us.

I wholeheartedly agree with Benig Maugher who writes that every woman yearns to experience birth as an expression and celebration of infinite love and creativity. (7) I believe this is possible with Mindfulness, along with intimate support from others with shared values, optimal health, and a safe and sacred birth space. Through Mindfulness, we will inevitably encourage a deep connection with our feminine wisdom; our bodies; womankind; and the babies we mother.

(1) from Samyutta Nikaya – the grouped discourses. Access to Insight – Readings in Theravada Buddhism.  http://www.accesstoinsight.org/index.html 
Chanchaochai, D. (2005) The Pain of One Arrow.Bangok Post. July. The Buddhist Channel http://www.buddhistchannel.tv/index.php?id=6,1408,0,0,1,0

(2) Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990) Full Catastrophe Living – How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation. Piatkus: London

(3) Chogyam Trungpa (1988) The Myth of Freedom: and the Way of Meditation. Shambhala: Boston. 

(4) Rigdzin Shikpo (2000) Openness Clarity Sensitivity. Longchen Foundation: Oxford, UK. 

(5) Pema Chodron (1998) 'To Know Yourself is to Forget Yourself'. Shambhala Sun – Buddhism, culture, meditation, life. http://www.shambhalasun.com/index.php

(6) Sogyal, Rinpoche (1994) The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. Harper: San Francisco.

(7) Maugher, B. (1999) 'Wounded Mothers'. Birth Matters. Journal of the Maternity Coalition. Inc: Australia.