Marion Woodman: Pioneer of Conscious Femininity and the Psychology of the Soul

“In T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets, he talks about the rose of the soul….And as we’re working with our own souls, we open our rose petal by petal….At the right time it opens and however fierce the fire that it finds itself in, if it’s given time and love, it opens….And it may be in fire, but it’s the fire that’s giving it its strength. The fire — the suffering as we go through. We can’t avoid suffering; that’s simply part of life. But can we hold the reality of our own rose while we are going through that fire?”

Introduction

Jungian analyst, author, lecturer, teacher, and poet Marion Woodman, LLD, DHL, Ph.D., has made it her life’s work to explore how to cultivate the rose of the soul, even when it’s being singed by the fires of suffering. Using her own healing process as a template, she has developed her own unique, pioneering, and innovative take on Jungian analysis, seeking to bring the body into the therapeutic equation, and women’s psychology to the forefront.

Fiery Rose - Marion Woodman Pioneer of Conscious Feminine
Photo Credit: Zyada

Eminently quotable, Woodman has a knack for describing profound concepts about the body, soul, and psyche with a surgeon’s precision and a poet’s lyricism. Woodman is a prolific writer of books considered to be classics in the field known as feminine psychology. She also developed BodySoul Rhythms®, a therapeutic approach that incorporates expressive arts (such as maskwork and voicework), dreamwork, movement, and ritual, as well as the sacred feminine. A permanent collection of Woodman’s manuscripts, lectures, and correspondence is housed at the OPUS Archives and Research Center at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California.

The crux of Woodman’s work is what she calls “conscious femininity” — bringing the unconscious to light, and shedding limiting cultural pressures that devalue women and universal “feminine” qualities such as vulnerability, compassion, and intuition (qualities that belong to all humans). This shedding process frees one up to explore and embody the wisdom found in the inner life, via exploring dreams, archetypes, creativity, and the deep callings of the soul.

According to Jungian analyst, dance therapist, and Marion Woodman Foundation faculty member Tina Stromsted, Ph.D., “Her work seeks to heal the psyche/body/soul split in people affected by a society predicated on patriarchal values that prioritize perfection, productivity, and goal-directed behavior.” This article will explore the core tenets of Woodman’s work that help to heal that split, divided first into therapeutic techniques and then theoretical concepts.

Background

Woodman initially started out as a high school English and drama teacher in Canada. Then, after years of teaching, she made a pivotal, life-changing decision at age 40 in 1968. Struggling with kidney failure possibly related to anorexia, she decided to take leave from her job and travel to India. She was deeply inspired and moved by the culture and the way that spirituality was expressed there, particularly in the worship of the sacred feminine. In addition, Woodman had a near-death experience there while suffering from a severe case of dysentery — an experience that dramatically changed her relationship to her mind and body.

Woodman emerged from her travels with a renewed sense of purpose and vision, returning to her teaching position, but with a completely new and inspired way of teaching. She began to collaborate with movement instructor Mary Hamilton, making poetry come alive in students by teaching them to access emotion, image, and metaphor via breathwork and movement. Two years later, she took a sabbatical in England and entered Jungian analysis. Eventually, she trained to become an analyst herself at the C.G. Jung Institute in Zurich, Switzerland.

Therapeutic Techniques

     Somatic Work

Woodman extrapolated upon Jung’s analytical psychology, taking it out of the realm of the intellect and into the realm of the body, where it could be danced and explored energetically and kinesthetically. She also developed her somatic (or body-based) approach through navigating her own remarkable healing process — as a survivor of an eating disorder, a serious car accident, kidney disease, dysentery, and, most recently, cancer.

While in Jungian analysis in Zurich, where she was already doing dreamwork, she had a dream that instructed her to take images from her dreams and to “place” them on parts of her body that were ill or that felt energetically stagnant. So she did just that, formulating a process that started with warming up and relaxing the body, and then using a tape recorder to document the images, feelings, and associations that unfolded. Then, these findings were further developed through writing, dancing, drawing, and Jungian analysis.

This process served as the blueprint for the development of her BodySoul Rhythms technique. Woodman developed, refined, and co-taught BodySoul Rhythms workshops with longtime collaborators Ann Skinner and Mary Hamilton for over 30 years. Woodman has since retired from teaching but the workshops have continued with other faculty members.

In addition to vocal work, movement, dance, breathwork, and yoga, Woodman’s somatic work also incorporated the use of nurturing touch. For example, she would have a women’s group split into groups of two to exchange the experience of being held, as a mother would hold her child. In Woodman’s view, this helped to instill a sense of the “positive feminine” in group participants, especially for those who did not experience much physical affection from their parents. Woodman also referred clients for bodywork when appropriate to support the work done in individual analysis or group workshops.

Woodman’s somatic work also delved deeply into body image. In her workshops, she had participants draw outlines of one another’s bodies on paper. Then, each participant filled the rendering of her own body with images and words, expressing her feelings and thoughts about her body. This exercise allowed participants to begin the process of exploring feelings about their bodies in a safe and nonjudgmental environment. As part of this process, they could also examine the sources of negative, self-critical feelings about their bodies, and the inner and outer resources available to transform these negative feelings into more empowered ones.

As a survivor of anorexia, Woodman has also incorporated a great deal of understanding and insight about eating disorders into her work. According to author Pythia Peay, “Woodman was among the first to apply Jungian concepts to eating disorders, and to link addiction to the neglect of the ‘feminine’ in contemporary culture.”  Woodman sees eating disorders, addictions, and compulsive behaviors as an expression of longing for spiritual fulfillment. Her books Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride and The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa, and the Repressed Feminine are both considered to be pioneering works in the understanding of eating disorders from a Jungian lens.

     Dreamwork

Dreamwork is a central technique in Jungian therapy. In dreamwork, images and metaphors that emerge in dreams are explored in therapy through several means, such as active imagination, dialoguing, expressive arts, and writing. Jungian-oriented dreamwork is less focused on consulting dream dictionaries for “cookbook” descriptions of the meanings of particular images and symbols. Rather, the therapist works with the client to discover meanings that are specific to the client and the contexts in which the client lives.

Woodman’s dreamwork techniques were also heavily influenced by her experiments on herself during her own healing process. As mentioned above, Woodman worked with healing images from her dreams, “placing” them on different areas of her body that she felt needed healing or more vitality. According to Woodman in her book The Pregnant Virgin: A Process of Psychological Transformation, “The symbol is recognized as an individual gift of healing that works on three levels: emotional, intellectual, and imaginative, appealing to body, mind, and spirit. The dream image planted in the body acts as a magnet attracting the energy, transforming it and releasing it as healing power. Vibrant energy is released into the dark, chronically blocked muscles; ensuing dreams articulate the complex that has had that area in thrall. The psychic energy frees the physical; the physical illuminates the psychic.”

Theoretical Concepts

     Masculine and Feminine

Similar to her predecessor Jung, Woodman also works extensively with the masculine and feminine. In Jungian analysis, these terms are not used to indicate gender. Rather, they are used to describe qualities or aspects that are experienced by every person. This is similar to the Eastern concepts of yin and yang, or Shakti and Shiva.

It is important to note that while Jungians are careful to explain that they use the terms “masculine” and “feminine” to describe universal qualities and not gender, we live in an era that is challenging outdated, inaccurate assumptions and binaries regarding gendered language and gender. Therefore, we may see terms such as these evolve in the future to take into account the sociopolitical evolution that has been occurring. Writers and theorists are exploring and critiquing Jungian concepts, helping to carry the field forward.

According to Woodman, neither the masculine nor the feminine is superior; they are interdependent aspects of every human. For example, the feminine is often associated with receptivity, intuition, compassion, flexibility, and nurturing. The masculine, in turn, is often associated with logic, assertiveness, discipline, control, and structure. Both the masculine and feminine are needed. However, either aspect can go into overdrive and create an imbalance.

For example, someone who lost a job might flail after losing a structured schedule and become a poor manager of time, sleeping until 2 p.m. and forgetting appointments (imbalanced on the feminine side). On the other hand, someone who just became promoted at work might become overzealous about working to feel worthy of the promotion, pulling all-nighters at home on the computer, causing damage to health and relationships (imbalanced on the masculine side).

Woodman has extensively explored what can happen when either aspect is out of balance, both in individuals as well as society as a whole. “I don’t think patriarchy has anything to do with masculinity. It is a power principle that becomes a parody of itself. You know as well as I do that women that are trapped in patriarchy could be worse patriarchs than men. So patriarchy has done as much profound damage to men as it has done to women….That’s what I’m going to write about…the patriarchal handling of men. And I mean handling,” she remarks.1

In her work with women, Woodman stresses that creating a sound relationship to one’s inner masculine is critical for personal growth. She also explores the effects of the patriarchy on women who have devalued the feminine in their lives in favor of rigidity, emotional numbing, and overwork.

     Role of Politics

While Woodman’s work plumbs the depths of the inner world via somatic work, dreamwork, and the expressive arts, it isn’t completely divorced from the external world. As is evidenced by her observations of the effects of the patriarchy on all people, Woodman is an astute observer of the effect of politics and current events on the individual and collective psyche.

In her workshops, Woodman sought to link the inner and outer worlds. Workshops would normally start with a discussion on current world events and observations on global suffering. She also encouraged participants to become involved in bettering the state of the world. Woodman sees inner work as a means to develop the stamina to tolerate the deep level of despair in our current world, as well as a way to counteract that despair and to cultivate change.

“We can no longer say I am right and you are wrong….It is the feminine principle that can bring a whole different thinking process….Instead of breaking things off into parts, it would say, ‘Where are we alike? How can we connect? Where is the love? Can you listen to me? Can you really hear what I am saying? Can you see me? Do you care whether you see me or not?’….What I’m talking about here is presence and relatedness.”

Incorporation of Soul

The concept of soul is a pillar in Woodman’s work. In the forward to Mystic Journey: Getting to the Heart of Your Soul’s Story by Robert Atkinson, Woodman defines the soul and its role in inner work:

“Psychological work is soul work….By soul, I mean the eternal part of us that lives in this body for a few years, the timeless part of ourselves that wants to create timeless objects like art, painting, and architecture….Whenever the ego surrenders to the archetypal images of the unconscious, time meets the timeless. Insofar as those moments are conscious, they are psychological — they belong to the soul….Soul-making is allowing the eternal essence to enter and experience the outer world through all the senses…so that the soul grows during its time on Earth. Soul-making is constantly confronting the paradox that an eternal being is dwelling in a temporal body. That’s why it suffers, and learns by heart….Yet, having no tongue, other than the transitory language of the body, it learns to speak in metaphor.”

Soul and spirituality are integral threads continuously woven throughout Woodman’s work. Her workshops always had an altar, and each workshop opened with a prayer at the altar, asking for guidance in working with particular emotional issues occurring in the group. In addition, as mentioned in the introduction, the workshops incorporated ritual, using archetypes as a tool for healing.

As mentioned earlier, Woodman also traces serious issues such as addiction to a disconnect with the soul, or more specifically, to unfulfilled spiritual longing. Rather than simply “fixing” the symptoms of addiction, Woodman feels that it is imperative to get in touch with this spiritual longing and to bring it to awareness. As Woodman sees it, once this is done, healing from the types of addictions that are rampant in our culture can truly begin.

“I always try to grasp the metaphor at the root of an addiction. That varies. With food, it can be mother; with alcohol, spirit; with cocaine, light; with sex, union. Mother, spirit, light, union — these can be archetypal images of the soul’s search for what it needs. If we fail to understand the soul’s yearning, then we concretize and become compulsively driven toward an object that cannot satisfy the soul’s longing.”2

     Presence: The Art of Seeing and Being Seen

During her time teaching embodied poetry in high school, Woodman came to grasp the power of fully witnessing the students’ work. She noticed that when her attention lapsed or if she became distracted, it was immediately observable in the students — they became less spontaneous and more self-conscious, with a sudden uptick in fear. Further, she also noticed that when she perceived a physical or emotional energy block in a particular student, her observation of that block immediately influenced the block without any verbal exchange with the student. In an interview with Dr. Tina Stromsted, Woodman noted that “I suddenly understood that perceiver and perceived were one.”

Woodman has extrapolated upon Jung’s work in focusing more deeply on the way that the therapist is present with clients. Her keen observations about what qualities of presence are healing and which ones are not can be applied to any relationship. She has also observed the self-numbing that happens when people are not exposed to other people who can be fully present with them:

“I would just ask each of you to think about that for a minute and ask yourself who was able to hold presence for you as a child. Who saw you? Who heard you? Did you have a teacher that could hold presence for you? Was there anyone where you could be totally yourself and trust your own heart responses with that person, your own exploration with speaking your soul responses? Where you knew that when you came into their presence, they were, you know — you could say, ‘Gosh I am somebody. They’re happy when I come.’ Or did you think, ‘I have to please this person so I better turn off, be cool.’ You’ve heard that over and over again in our culture. Be cool. Don’t get too excited about anything. Don’t be yourself. And sure don’t depend on anything. Don’t be there. And the vitality goes out. It’s tragic.”1 

Conclusion

Marion Woodman has left (and continues to leave) a rich legacy of pioneering work in Jungian analysis, somatic psychotherapy, and feminine psychology. She has also left a trove of piercing and poetic writings that map the route to bring the soul back to everyday living, via methods such as movement, dreamwork, expressive arts, ritual, and more. She has fearlessly called into question the imbalance of power in dominant culture and its effects on individual and collective wellbeing. Last but not least, she urges us to more fully inhabit ourselves so that we are better able to be present for our relationships and for the world at large.

References and Further Reading

1Marion Woodman keynote speech delivered at the 3rd Annual Women & Power Conference, sponsored by the Omega Institute/V-Day, 2004. Transcript of speech available at http://www.feminist.com/resources/artspeech/genwom/conscious.html.

2Woodman M, Sharp D. Conscious Femininity: Interviews with Marion Woodman. Toronto: Inner City Books, 1993.

Atkinson, R. Mystic Journey: Getting to the Heart of Your Soul’s Story

Goodman M, Woodman M. The Ravaged Bridegroom: Masculinity in Women

Stromsted T. Cellular Resonance and the Sacred Feminine: Marion Woodman’s Story.

Woodman M. Addiction to Perfection: The Still Unravished Bride: A Psychological Study 

Woodman M. Bone: Dying into Life

Woodman M. The Owl Was a Baker’s Daughter: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa, and the Repressed Feminine

Woodman M. The Pregnant Virgin: A Process of Psychological Transformation

Woodman M, Danson K, Hamilton M, Allen RG. Leaving My Father’s House: A Journey to Conscious Femininity

Woodman M, Dickson E. Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness.

Woodman M, Mellick J. Coming Home to Myself: Reflections for Nurturing a Woman’s Body and Soul

About This Contributor: Chiara Viscomi, MA, CMT, is currently pursuing her clinical internship in counseling. She received her master’s in counseling psychology with a certificate in creative expression at Sofia University (formerly known as the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology). Prior to that, Chiara received a BA in psychology and a BFA in drama from New York University. She is passionate about expressive arts therapy, Jungian psychology, transpersonal psychology, and integrative approaches to wellness. In addition to her clinical work, Chiara is a longtime professional writer and editor in the healthcare field, as well as a musician and performing artist. To find out more about her counseling work, visit www.lapishealingarts.com.


  1. Chiara Viscomi, thank you for writing this very well-written piece.

    Just wanted to share and rap a little on a couple parts that stood out to me (quoting from above):

    “Woodman was among the first to apply Jungian concepts to eating disorders, and to link addiction to the neglect of the ‘feminine’ in contemporary culture.” …

    “I always try to grasp the metaphor at the root of an addiction. That varies. With food, it can be mother; with alcohol, spirit; with cocaine, light; with sex, union. Mother, spirit, light, union — these can be archetypal images of the soul’s search for what it needs. If we fail to understand the soul’s yearning, then we concretize and become compulsively driven toward an object that cannot satisfy the soul’s longing.”2

    This is deep, and very interesting. I have found that addiction is related to a spiritual issue or spiritual longing; it more than a “behavioral issue.”

    To link addiction to neglect of the feminine, this idea has also appeared in ecopsychology, which to me is still a bit ephemeral, yet my gut tells me that it is true.

    I’m also thinking of lyrics to a Mike Ness song called “Dope Fiend Blues”:
    “…I’m going back where it’s safe, going back to the womb
    I find my mother’s comfort, here in a needle and spoon…”
    Source: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/socialdistortion/dopefiendblues.html

    Btw, any neurochemists out there? Is Mike Ness right; do Oxytocin and Opioids both induce similar “warm” and “safe” feelings?

  2. Thanks for your comment, Clark. I’m glad you found the article of interest. Addiction is definitely a complex issue that has many root causes. I like Dr. Gabor Maté’s work on addiction–specifically, its relationship to attachment: http://beyondaddiction.ca/2016/03/28/attachment-and-addiction/.

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