Not only removing birthing from the medical establishment, which views birthing as a medical emergency and relates to it as a source of possible litigation, ecstatic birthing views birthing as a vehicle for transformative, transcendent, spiritual change. It accomplishes this by encouraging women to connect and relate to their bodies and spirits in a way that Western culture does not value or even know. Ecstatic birthing is deeply radical — meaning going to the root — defying the dominant culture’s views on progress, safety, self-determination, love, spirit and our bodies as vehicles for freedom.
Ecstatic birthing is not about doing, it is about being, so completely, so utterly, that everything falls away — self, fear, ego — leaving only deeply intense sensations moving through a woman’s body that, when she chooses to, she can translate into ecstasy.
In the documentary, Birth as We Know It: the Transformative Power of Birth,(1) we witness a woman, on her knees in a tub of water, clearly, consciously, calmly there. No sign of tension or pain. The camera pans down and only then do we have any idea that she is giving birth — in that moment we see the baby’s head is outside her vagina. With her hand she is guiding the baby’s body out, by herself, completely at peace.(2)
“Christine Northrup, an OB-GYN…explains in the film [Orgasmic Birth](3) that orgasms during labor are the results of chemistry and anatomy: “When the baby’s coming down the birth canal, remember, it’s going through the exact same positions as something going in, the penis going into the vagina, to cause an orgasm. And labor itself is associated with a huge hormonal change in the body, way more prolactin, way more oxytocin, way more beta-endorphins — these are the molecules of ecstasy.”(4)
Here, in their own words, are the voices of women who have experienced the transcendence of ecstatic birth:
“Birth is a dark, private, and secret opening up of our ancient sexual selves…During birth, we pant, scream, and throw our head back – this is sensuality with a purpose: we are taking in extra oxygen, releasing adrenaline into our bloodstream, and widening our pelvic outlet. And when the baby comes out all slick and new, we are in ecstasy, enraptured by the most heightened hormonal load we will ever know.” “…the energy flowing through the body in childbirth, the pressure of contracting muscles, the downward movement of the baby and the fanning open of soft tissues, can be powerfully erotic…” “I had a few orgasms during contractions – an absolutely delightful sensation. There was no pain at all…” “Birth has much in common with orgasm; the hormone oxytocin is released, there are uterine contractions, nipple erection, and under the best circumstances for birth, an orgasmic feeling…” “It may even be that many women have orgasms during birth, but interpret them as pain because the sensations are more intense than anything previously experienced and because women are conditioned to expect pain.”(5)
The scientific reasons for why ecstatic birthing is possible — hormonal release, physical stimulation — are fascinating. But for our purposes, as social change agents, it’s useful to understand how ecstatic birthing can reveal methods for how to find our freedom to act and be, even in the midst of experiences or sensations that we typically view as painful and that we are very afraid of.
The practice of ecstatic birthing shows that we can make of our experiences a choice — at every moment choosing to relate to our experience as pain or pleasure. “I had a choice. I could translate the sensation as pain or pleasure. And I just kept choosing to move it through which kept it as pleasure.”(6) This can apply to all our experiences, to our life.
This doesn’t mean that we have to choose to experience pleasure at every moment, though we can in the deep sense, but that we can choose how we relate to any experience. We can either accept what is happening or we can avoid, contract, and dramatically increase the pain we experience.
Scientific studies have shown that more than 80% of pain is psychological — meaning how we relate to the sensations we call pain have everything to do with how much “pain” we experience. The moment we feel pain, our tendency is to contract our muscles and hold our breath. If we consciously choose to expand, relax, and deepen our breathing we experience a release and softening of the sensation. More, we experience a lack of separation from our experience, a lessening of fear, a oneness with life.
By surrendering to life as it is, even to very strong sensations of pain, we can find spiritual freedom and even sexual ecstasy. Mark Sullivan, an MD, using ecstatic birth as an example makes the connections between pain and ego that activists can likely identify with: “We can give up our devotion to pain and struggle, expand and give birth to our babies, our projects and our lives in ecstasy.” He sees “extreme suffering as a kind of transfiguration…This simply does not compute in a secular and scientific world view. In this world, pleasure is good, and pain is bad. The notion that pain and pleasure can fold back onto each other in complex ways is absent. The ways in which pain and pleasure can annihilate the self and liberate one from the bounds of the ego are not included…[Bataille] considered eroticism a “little death” precisely because the boundaries of the self are overcome in sexual climax and the edicts of the rational ego often ignored in its pursuit. We dismiss the pursuit of sexual ecstasy through pain, i.e., masochism, as a perversion that has nothing to teach the rest of us. But for Bataille, this was only one example of liberation through surrender, a paradoxical but universal feature of the human psyche.”(7) It is no wonder then, that all spiritual practice is rooted in surrender.
Birthing, like anything else, can be a path to freedom. Any time we choose to shift how we relate to any experience, moment by moment, can be a profound life-altering spiritual experience enabling us to be more present and therefore more effective agents of social change.
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