by Susan Chiat
What do you think of when you hear someone described as powerful? Do you imagine that person to be friendly and empowering? Or fierce, intimidating and controlling? For the most part, power has been given a bad rap in our Western society. Historically, it has been used as a tool for domination over another person, a group of people, or the earth herself. Women, in particular, have suffered from an inherited sense of powerlessness, although all beings share in the debilitating effects of power when it is used for controlling others.
Equally steeped in mythology and misunderstood is the meaning of passion. Often relegated to describing angry emotional outbursts, lustful advances, or the lonely suffering of Christ, passion is also frequently shunned and viewed as childish. Many adults are embarrassed to be passionate because we might stand out. But inherent in passion is a flame that burns brightly. Passion is exactly the kind of enthusiasm and zealousness for life that does indeed make us visible, for passion sparks the fire in our hearts and gives us the energy to connect with life in energizing and creative ways.
What if we were to dispel all our old beliefs about passion and power and began to acknowledge them as part of the creative force available to everyone? What if we begin to express our power in balanced and healthy ways that contribute life-affirming and sustainable energy to our world? What kind of world would we be creating for ourselves, for our children and for our childrens children? It is from this desire to refresh and revitalize my own relationship to passion and power that I recently interviewed a number of women whom I feel exemplify the right use of these essential elements in their lives.
I began my interviews with one of the most passionate and powerful women I know, the renowned wiccan priestess, environmental/peace activist, and best-selling author, Starhawk. Initially upon meeting Starhawk, one might underestimate her power, which at first glance seems quiet and contained. But when you catch her penetrating hawk-like gaze and hear her speak, you immediately grasp the depth of her awareness and her ability to understand and integrate human psychology, ecology, and the spiritual mysteries.
Starhawk has devoted over 25 years to researching and practicing the use of the Goddess-worshipping religion known as wicca or witchcraft. Over the years, she has faced ridicule and harassment for publicly declaring herself a witch. Through her writing, workshops, public rituals and activism she actively honors lifes sacred things air, fire, water, and earth even going so far as to put her life on the line in civil disobedience to protest nuclear power plants or the logging of the last remaining old-growth redwoods in northern California.
In her classic text on wicca, The Spiral Dance, Starhawk speaks about magic and power, explaining the link between having the personal power to keep even the smallest commitments in ones life and the ability to work with magic in larger spheres. She writes:
"Energy is ecstasy. When we drop the barriers and let power pour through, it floods the body, pulsing through every nerve, arousing every artery, coursing like a river that cleanses as it moves. In the eye of the storm, we rise on the winds that roar through mind and body, throbbing a liquid note as the voice pours out shimmering honey in waves of golden light, that as they pass, leave peace. No drug can take us so high, no thrill pierce us so deep because we have felt the essence of all delight, the heart of joy, the end of desire. Energy is love, and love is magic."
In her latest book Circle Round: Raising Children in Goddess Traditions, Starhawk offers readers support in helping to pass the wisdom of wicca to the next generation.
Starhawk defines power in three ways: "power over, which is domination and control; power from within, which is creative power and energy; and power with, or social power and influence." She says "I see women using our power from within as we always have to nurture, create, spin, weave, cook, write, garden, and generally create and sustain culture. I also see that women have not come into as much power with as I would have liked to see after the lifetime I've spent as a feminist. I think, in general, men are still listened to more and taken more seriously, and I've also seen, alas, that when women are in positions that allow us to wield power over, we behave no better than men."
On the subject of passion, Starhawk exclaims that "Passion is what engages our deepest selves, focuses our energies and makes us come alive!" Like many women, she was "raised in the era in which women weren't supposed to follow our passions directly or gather power; we were supposed to do it through men." She feels that women still hold back our passion and power out of a "fear of being rejected, being a bitch, being unladylike, or being left lonely."
Starhawk suggests that in order to live a life of passion, both men and women need to "Figure out what is sacred...what is most important, what you care deeply about and what you would take a stand for. Then go for it. Devote your passion, your life energies, your work to it, and don't let anything deflect you or scare you or turn you aside. Youll live a life filled with passion and youll make a difference to the world."
Another woman who exemplifies passion and power is author and shamanic practitioner Sandra Ingerman. Like Starhawks, Sandra Ingermans work focuses on using the spiritual realms to help with lifes challenges. For more than a decade, Ingerman has worked with shamanism, a system of spiritual healing that dates back tens of thousands of years and is practiced, in various forms, throughout the world. Sandra is educational director for Michael Harners Foundation for Shamanic Studies, author of a number of books including Soul Retrieval: Mending the Fragmented Self and Welcome Home: Following your Souls Journey Home, and a licensed counselor. Her mission is to help educate people to "move away from their past woundedness and to refocus their energy on creating a positive present and future." She helps to empower her clients and students to find the sources of their passion and power to use for their own personal healing while adding to the overall well-being of society.
In her shamanic work, Ingerman defines power as simply our "ability to use energy." She asks her students to look at how they use and can transform energy. "In our society," she says, we are taught that "the answers lie outside of ourselves and that everything is geared toward happiness being outside of you. But," Ingerman states emphatically, "change happens, and happiness happens because of you."
Ingerman thinks that the only way we can deal successfully with issues of passion and power is when "the responsibility is on the individual and not on the authority." "It takes work," she told me. And while Ingerman is encouraged by the people she meets who are practicing spiritual paths and taking workshops to learn, she still feels that many people have more excuses than they do the willingness to do the hard work it takes to make constructive changes in their lives.
The theme of passion is especially important to Ingerman because of a client she worked with ten years ago who had AIDS. During a shamanic journey she undertook to explore the reasons why this woman had a life-threatening illness, a power animal told Ingerman that the cause of her clients illness was apathy and the cure was passion. "Sometimes," Ingerman told me, "other life forms, such as a virus or bacteria, want to live more then we do." One crucial key to increasing passion in our lives is to develop our "ability to use our imagination." Ingerman suggests that we start getting more into our creativity and passion by simply beginning to "imagine something different in our lives then we now have."
Ingerman feels that the socialization process is a key obstacle to finding our passion. "In following passion, you have to step out of the socialization process and tap into your own creativity," she says. She recognizes that many people think they are not creative. In her work with her clients, Ingerman sees "a lot of fear and intimidation about getting into our creativity," and she admits that it sometimes takes "a lot of courage to move into that direction."
Ingerman encourages her clients and students to "start really slow and think small" because "people get paralyzed by the creative goals they set for themselves." She suggests they take a class, "bring a plant into the house, take a walk," or do other simple steps that will support them in increasing their experience of both passion and power in their lives.
Cathy Angell, an award-winning photographer and author, didn't fully understand what being in her power meant until she began receiving positive feedback while drumming one evening for her womens circle. Angell started noticing other times in her life when she felt this sense of power, whether it was in nature, doing photography, or teaching. Then she observed this sense of power in other women. The vision for her book, My Spirit Flies: Portraits and Prose of Women in Their Power was born. In it, she shares inspiring stories and rich images of women aligned with their power. The issue of power is particularly pertinent for women, Angell claims, because "we've been socialized to think about other peoples needs." For mothers especially, it is "hard to find time," but "even if you love being a mother you need to remember who you are as an individual as well," she says.
Angell believes that "everybody comes into world with talents and abilities" and that when people follow their passion, "it is like their spirit really does fly." "It is really just putting your feet on the path and walking. A lot of people get stuck in the fear place and never move beyond it," she declares. From writing her book and living her life in a more powerful way, Angell says that she "learned that when you are coming from place of power and living from passion, life starts to flow with a sense of ease that you never would have dreamed of."
Starhawk, Sandra Ingerman, and Cathy Angell will be offering lectures and workshops along with more than forty other women presenters at the 1999 Women of Wisdom conference, Dancing our Passion, Birthing our Power, held February 12 through 20 at the Seattle Unity Church. Please call (206) 622-8475 extension 135 or (206) 689-6482 for tickets and information.