Moana’s Archetypal Message Offers Hope and Healing… Lava Monster and All
I was very excited to see the movie Moana. But it took a long time. Life got in the way…my little one and I went to the theater twice and it was sold out…and then, finally, we saw it. I entered expecting it to be good, but by the end I was sobbing. Like many archetypal stories, this one reaches right onto your heart. And with this one, the hero is a girl. A girl who has nothing but a canoe, a friend in the ocean, and a grandmother who believed in her.
Everybody has a canoe, whatever your “canoe” is: the vehicle that carries you on your journey to awakening. For some it is writing, or art. For some it is meditation, 12 step, or yoga. And everyone has someone who believed or believes in him or her. (More on that later). And every one of us, no matter how far gone, disconnected, unworthy, or unforgivable we think we are, knows the truth about themselves deep down. Not the Demigod complex of trying-to-rule-the-world-because-he-feels-unworthy-so-he-is-constantly-trying-to-make-up-for-it-by-acting-bigger-than-he-is. Not that part. (Although Heaven knows there is a lot of that energy going around, and that part definitely needs both compassion and fierce confrontation). But I’m not talking about that part here. I’m talking about the deeply-humble, but most powerful intuition-heart-knowing.
In Moana, the Goddess Te Fiti is the one who held the “greatest power ever known,” who creates Life. And she shared it with the world! And yet, without her heart she began to crumble, and a terrible darkness was born.
What is this power of creation?
Women have long-held the power of creation in their bodies. It’s not an accident that women with disordered eating hate or try to starve away parts of themselves that reflect this power of fertility: their hips, their stomachs (wombs), their butts. The power of fertility is profound but, in the current culture, relationship with this power is ambivalent at best. This fertile power is not just literal, it is symbolic. Archetypally, the feminine includes the Great Mother, the Earth Mother that holds the power of creation. Long ago the Venus De Willendorf embodied fertility. Hindu goddesses such as Aditi and Aitimmavaru are the mothers of the deities and laid the egg that hatched the gods Brahma, Siva, and Vishnu. In the Wiccan tradition, the Mother Goddess is sometimes identified as the Triple Goddess, composed of Maiden, Mother, and Crone. Another name for the mother goddess is Gaia, Earth Mother.
The feminine goddess archetype also holds the power of destruction, as seen in the Hindu goddesses Durga and Kali dancing on her dead consort, Siva. In Moana, this destructive force is embodied in Te Ka, the lava monster. A similar goddess in Hawaii is Pele, the goddess of the volcanoes. She is also the creator of the Hawaiian islands. This points to how interrelated these forces of creation and destruction can be.
Creation or Destruction?
Any woman with disordered eating knows, in her body, when this force of feeding life turns into a force of destroying or hurting. When eating an enjoyable bowl of ice-cream turns into frantically stuffing the entire carton in, shoveling it down so quickly so it can be violently thrown back up, that is the destroyer. That is where feeding your own life-body turns against the self. There are many reasons for this: trauma and abuse, a family or larger culture that tells women “nice girls don’t get angry,” ambivalence and fear of becoming a women in a culture that does not celebrate the power of the feminine, and many more. We do not have rituals to celebrate becoming a woman in American culture, and so it is a time when many girls start to implode. Mary Pipher, author of Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls writes: “Adolescent girls discover that it is impossible to be both feminine and adult.” And so menstruation, having a woman’s body, and speaking from the place of your inner truth become submerged, hidden, hated, and cut off.
Back To Moana
So Moana, from her childhood has this connection with herself and the world. She connects with the ocean; it “calls her.” She connects with the turtles; she connects her Grandmother’s sense of knowing something bigger than what her family and culture are telling her to be the truth. And, like many women struggling with disordered eating, wanting to be good girls, and finding their voice, she wrestles with it. She sings:
“See the light where the sky meets the sea/ It calls me/ No one knows how far it goes”*
“The voice inside is a different song/ What’s wrong with me?” *
This questioning part, this part that doesn’t match up with cultural expectations needs mirroring and validation. Without it, self-destruction (disordered eating, depression, anxiety, etc) runs rampant. We all have, if we look far and deep enough, this person or Being that mirrors our inner truth in our life. It may be a teacher who “got” your art. Or it may have been an aunt who had travelled her own healing journey and was in recovery from alcoholism. If you are lucky, it was a parent. For many of us, we find this mirroring understanding in a therapist. For Moana, this was her Grandmother. Her Grandmother is the self-described “village crazy,” who doesn’t have to answer to Moana’s father (the Village Chief).
“I’m his mother – I don’t have to tell him anything!” *
This Grandmother is what Clarissa Pinkola Estes would call a “Wild Woman,” one who has power in her body. In the Hopi tradition there is a butterfly dancer. As Clarissa Pinkola Estes, PhD writes in Women Who Run With The Wolves, (Ballentine Books: New York, 1992)
The butterfly dancer must be old because she represents the soul that is old. She is wide of thigh and broad of rump because she carries much. Her gray hair certifies…[that] the Butterfly Woman can touch everyone…This is her power. Hers is the body of La Mariposa, the butterfly.
It is not about what her body looks like – it is about listening to her feeling within:
The wilder woman will not be easily swayed…For her the questions are not how to form, but how to feel. The breast in all its shapes has the function of feeling and feeding…Does it feel? It is a good breast.
The hips, they are wide for a reason…they are portals, the handholds for love, a place for children to hide behind…
There is no “supposed to be” in bodies. The question is not size of shape or years of age, or even having two of everything, for some do not. But the wild issue is, does this body feel, does it have right connection to pleasure, to heart to soul, to the wild?…Can it in its own way move, dance, jiggle, sway? Nothing else matters.
Her “Wild Woman” Grandmother mirrors and nurtures listening-to-her-inner voice inside her body for Moana. She sings:
“You may hear a voice inside/ And if the voice starts to whisper/ To follow the farthest star/ Moana, that voice inside is/ Who you are” *
And this is the truth that guides Moana on the hero’s journey that every recovering woman must travel: Who are you?
Who You Really Are
This is the work that I engage with my clients every week: Who are you? How can you listen to your values? What does your inner Wise self have to say? How can I help you separate enough from the critical voices telling you “Stay small” or “Art is not for grown ups” or “You should do something more practical” rather than follow your dream of becoming a Nutritionist/Healer/Artist/Yoga Teacher/Environmental Educator/Women’s Advocate. This process involves separating enough from the cultural dictates and negative messages enough to hear the quiet voice inside. It is the moment when Moana, abandoned by Maui on the boat and despairing, is visited by her Grandmother’s spirit. And her Grandmother asks the question: Moana, Who are you? This is the point at which she discovers “the call isn’t out there at all – it’s inside me.”
You might be thinking “But how is this going to help in my recovery and in the world we are living right now?” Well, there certainly are a lot of “lava monsters” whose hearts have been stolen in the world right now. Where do we start? Where do I start? Where can you start? We start with ourselves. I start with myself. You start with yourself.
The cartoonist Walt Kelly stated, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Moana, in looking for the place to return the heart of Te Fiti suddenly realizes it is in her worst fear. The heart of Te Fit is inside the lava monster. But she is not afraid. Because she knows that fear, that addiction/eating disorder/lava monster/war/global warming/misogyny (as just a few examples J) are not outside her: They are inside her. And the call to awaken was always inside her as well. The call to find her true self. There is nothing to fear.
One of my favorite quotes from A Course In Miracles, A Self-Study in Spiritual Thought says:
The course does not aim at teaching the meaning of love, for that is beyond what can be taught. It does aim, however, at removing the blocks to the awareness of love’s presence, which is your natural inheritance. The opposite of love is fear, but what is all-encompassing can have no opposite.
In Moana, the, still voice of never-ending, powerful, and all-encompassing love emerges as she sings to the Lava Monster Te Ka:
“I have crossed the horizon to find you, I know your name / They have stolen the heart from inside you, but this is not who you are / You know who you are, who you truly are.” *
*Lyrics from Soundtrack to Moana (2016)
All original art work copyright Linda Shanti Mccabe
The holidays can be hard. They can be especially difficult for people recovering from disordered eating, alcoholism, depression, or anxiety. The intention of this blog is to help you be a bit more fierce with your own self-care and a bit more compassionate with yourself and others. This is not a list to use to beat up on yourself for not doing enough or being imperfect! May it be helpful, useful, and ease some of your suffering during this time.
Try not to let yourself get too Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Getting too tired, hungry/hypoglycemic, resentful, or isolating is a recipe for addictive behaviors and/or depression. Imagine yourself to be a little one (this will not be hard for you parents to imagine) who needs regular meals and snacks, regular emotional understanding, and regular sleep. If little ones get too tired/hungry/emotionally not heard, there will be meltdowns. Be a kind parent to yourself. Pack a self-care bag with protein snacks, water, get to bed on time, make plans with friends and/or providers that “get” you so you can feel nourished and grounded. Practice what a friend of mine calls “aggressive self-care.”
2. Keep 1 Thing Constant
Choose one thing – morning meditation, weekly support group, your meal plan, sobriety, journaling, daily inspirational reading. Whatever it is, just keep coming back to this.
A Word About Kindness and Self-Compassion
The intention here is to help you be a bit more fierce with your own self-care and a bit more compassionate with yourself and others… not to beat up on yourself for not doing enough or being imperfect. So if you HAVEN’T kept one thing constant, just restart it. And when you notice you haven’t kept your thing – whatever your thing is that keeps you grounded and sane – constant (We all fall off the wagon on this. It is part of being included in humanity.), notice with kindness and compassion. Imagine you are a puppy. Gently pick yourself up from the place where you are being unkind to yourself and bring yourself back to the place where you are being kind. Gently bring yourself back to the thing that helps you. Just keep coming back.
1) She’s not trying to keep it in anymore.
“The wind is howling like thus swirling storm inside- couldn’t keep it in-heaven knows I’ve tried.” *
What is “it” for recovering women? Well, many things: her stomach, her anger, her grief, her power, her voice. There comes a time when “keeping it in” doesn’t work anymore.
2) No more good girl.
“Be the good girl…conceal, don’t feel don’t let them know. Well now they know!”
Although being pleasing does have its assets, when it is at the expense of ones self, it is not sustaining. Being “good” becomes pink icing on a pile of rotting unmet needs.
In recovery, we learn that being authentic is the sustenance to our lives. What does this mean? It means risking “when you stop people pleasing, people aren’t pleased.” It means you practice trusting that having a self and your own needs will not leave you alone in an ice storm.
3) She went to nature to nourish her soul.
“I am one with the wind and the sky… My power flurries through the air into the ground. My soul is spiraling in frozen fractals all around. And one thought crystallizes like an icy blast. I’m never going back the past is in the past.”
When Elsa left her childhood home, she discovered freedom in nature in being herself fully. She discovered letting go and releasing the past to the past. Nature has a way of allowing acceptance of all parts of the self and the cycle of birth, death, and the entire experience of the life in between. This allowance can create expansion and letting go of old stories about yourself and your life.
However, Elsa did find herself in a barren landscape, which leads to where Elsa got it wrong:
4) You do not have to isolate to be your authentic self.
Elsa created an ice storm of isolation from the fear of being herself and owning her power. She was so afraid of hurting people she loved by being herself. But what she learned in the end (this is the recovery process of discovering and recovering ones self) is that you can be yourself in all of your powerful glory in a way that benefits both you and others. You do not have to “keep it in,” “conceal,” or create a raging ice storm spewing out harm. How?
Listen to your feelings and needs.
Use your power in a way that expresses who you are and why you are here in this planet. Use this power to connect rather than isolate or hurt. And, as Elsa learned from her dear sister, you do not have to and cannot do this alone.
5) And last but not least, it’s not the Prince’s job to save you. Save yourself.
(But It’s ok to ask your sisters, brothers, and community to help.)
* All quoted words lyrics from the song “Let it go” by Idina Menzel
If Elsa were not a Disney character, she would also have a realistic body size and shape. There is still more work to be done in that area. For a great article showing more realistic waist sizes of Disney Princess’s,
Grapefruit, Atkins, Paleo, Pooh: When is it a diet, when is it a disorder, and what is it really about?
Many years ago, when I was in 10th grade, we had to do a “pig lab” in which we dissected a baby pig. As a sensitive 13 year old, this horrified me and I spoke with my Biology teacher about how I would rather not participate. To which he replied, “Do you eat bacon?” The next day I became a vegetarian. By the time I went to college, 4 years later, I became actively anorexic. My concern for others had tipped into self-destruction. I had to spend the next few years sorting out what was helpful and what was not helpful for my recovery in the midst of the concerns I had for others, the world, and the difficult life transitions through which I was travelling. As we say in eating disorder treatment recovery, “it’s about the food and it’s not about the food.”
I recently gave a talk on eating disorders at a bay area hospital and one of the doctors asked me “What do you think of the Paleo diet?” To which I responded:
“I am not a fan of any diet.”
Or, as two of my eating disorder therapist colleagues say, “This is not a die-t; this is a live-it.”
Paleo, Atkins, Vegan
I have spent the past decade and a half working in eating disorder recovery programs and I cannot tell you how common it is for people with eating disorders to be vegan, vegetarian, “Paleo,” “Atkins,” or sugar/gluten free. For the record, there is nothing “wrong” with any of these. And people with sensitive temperaments, physically, psychologically, emotionally, tend to be strongly affected by what they eat. Neuroscience is now showing what we have intuitively known: what, how much, and in what way we eat changes our brain chemistry. Sometimes there are also medical reasons for special food needs. People with celiac disease need to eat gluten free; women with gestational diabetes need to eat in a particular way during pregnancy as a health necessity. However, that being said, from a clinical standpoint, I have noticed a few things:
- 1) Western culture is obsessed with “good” and “bad” foods as well as diets. The trend changes from Grapefruit, to Atkins, from “juicing,” to Paleo, but there is always one that has the attention of people and the media as the “right” way to eat. Usually this includes moral judgments about how some foods are “good” and some foods are “bad” (with the subtext of how you as a person are “good” or “bad” according to how you are eating.)
- 2) This same culture of diet-obsession is also obsessed with body sizes/shapes, and how the current “diet” will provide the right body size/shape/weight. Let’s be honest, there is an undercurrent of “The Thin Ideal.” In one 2004 study “Exposure to thin-ideal magazine images increased body dissatisfaction, negative mood states, and eating disorder symptoms and decreased self-esteem, on women.” (Hawkins et al 2004)
- The thin ideal assumes that thinner is “better” (more attractive, successful, intelligent, young, and on a deeper existential level, provides “freedom” from mortality).
- 3) People who have a temperamental risk toward internalizing stress, being over-achieving oriented, struggle with anxiety or depression, and are caring toward others (often at the expense of themselves) often obsess about food as a way to resolve complex life problems and issues.
Diets don’t work
This has been proven, again and again. Diets do not work. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA):
- 95% of all dieters will regain their lost weight in 1-5 years (Grodstein, Levine, Spencer, Colditz, &Stampfer, 1996; Neumark-Sztainer, Haines, Wall, & Eisenberg, 2007)
- 35% of “normal dieters” progress to pathological dieting. Of those, 20-25% progress to partial or full-syndrome eating disorders (Shisslak, Crago, & Estes, 1995)
- Even among clearly non-overweight girls, over 1/3 report dieting (Wertheim et al., 2009)
- Girls who diet frequently are 12 times as likely to binge as girls who don’t diet (Neumark-Sztainer, 2005)
Geneen Roth, who has been writing and teaching about the connections between emotions, food, and spirituality for decades, came up with a beautiful fourth law of Physics, which states “Every diet has an equal and opposite binge.”
Diets don’t work. They are a set up for deprivation that inevitably has a backlash. And obsessing about food is never about food.
Canaries in the Coal Mine:
So if diets don’t work and disordered eating is not about the food, what IS it about? That is the (hopefully less than) 10 million dollar therapy question that takes rigorous and compassionately curious work. I often think of people with eating disorders or people practicing disordered eating (including dieting) as canaries in the coal-mine. They are the ones that are extra sensitive to family, cultural, and environmental toxicity. If there is something not right in the family system, in the environment in terms of treatment of other sentient beings, or in the balance of power culturally (Have you ever wondered why women and GLBTQ people often struggle more with body image distress than straight men? And what they do and do not have access to?), then the person who develops the eating disorder is going to be the one saying (or acting out) “Something’s not right here! There is suffering! We’re not all going to survive!” They are the ones that are showing things are out of balance.
I share with my clients recovering from compulsive eating that putting a sign on their fridge stating “Its not in there” can be helpful. If you are looking for something in the food or a diet that’s not in the food, I invite you to ask the question what are you truly looking for? Is it kindness toward yourself and others? A feeling of well being? Is it to be seen or feel loved? Is it comfort or companionship? Relief from disappointment, embarrassment, resentment, jealousy? Is it a friend to be with you during grief? Connection with your family or community? Food can’t provide any of these. It’s not in there. I want to invite you, the next time you are considering going on a diet or eating ice cream in order to resolve any of these, to turn toward the discomfort of what is going on within you. Try not to fill it up with the distraction of food. Imagine
“…feelings like disappointment, embarrassment, irritation, resentment, anger, jealousy, and fear, instead of being bad news, are actually very clear moments that teach us where it is that we’re holding back. They teach us to perk up and lean in when we feel we’d rather collapse and back away. They’re like messengers that show us, with terrifying clarity, exactly where we’re stuck. This… [how to stop protecting your soft spot, how to stop armoring your heart] is the perfect teacher.”
―Pema Chodron, When Things Fall Apart
The Don’t Diet Live it workbook, Wachter and Marcus, 1999
Scott E. Moseman, MD Medical Director, Laureate Eating Disorders Program Investigator, Laureate Institute for Brain Research, “Neurobiology for Clinicians” 2014 International Association of Professionals Treating Eating Disorders (IADEP) conference
The Thin Ideal:
Your Dieting Daughter (Chapter 7 “The Thin Commandments”) By Carolyn Costin
National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) website
I once heard the anecdote that if you eat something and eating more of it makes you even more hungry, it is probably mouth hunger. In eating disorder recovery, the terms “mouth” vs “stomach” hunger are often used, mouth hunger referring to hunger that is more about emotions and stomach hunger referring to hunger that is more about physical hunger. I remember in my eating disorder 16 years ago, I would eat an entire pint of ice-cream and be even more hungry afterward. In clinical research and practice, emotional eating is often defined as eating is response to negative affect (depression, anger, anxiety) and gets correlated with binge eating. For those of us recovered, recovering, or wanting to recover from disordered eating, we know all to well what emotional eating is. Or do we? Emotional eating is not necessarily a pathological symptom to “get rid of,” nor is it limited to those struggling with eating disorder recovery. I tell my recovering clients if eating were devoid of emotional connections, then people would eat food pellets at every meal. Almost all eating has an emotional component to it. Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian, Family Therapist, and internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding writes:
“Normal eating is giving yourself permission to eat sometimes because you are happy, sad or bored, or just because it feels good…It is leaving some cookies on the plate because you know you can have some again tomorrow, or it is eating more now because they taste so wonderful. Normal eating is overeating at times, feeling stuffed and uncomfortable. And it can be undereating at times and wishing you had more. Normal eating is trusting your body to make up for your mistakes in eating. Normal eating takes up some of your time and attention, but keeps its place as only one important area of your life.” 1
What is the difference between normal eating, emotional eating, and disordered eating?
That is the 10 million dollar question! I remember early in my eating disorder recovery, I needed to have some guidelines around meals in order to know what “normal” eating was- I had been so dis-connected from normal eating and it had been so long since I had felt able to trust myself. A “meal” in my eating disorder could be ice-cream with a bag of cookies or a bowl of broth. Neither of those took into account my stomach hunger, my body, or frankly, my emotions. I was either bingeing or starving not only my body but my emotions. It was like I was letting the fearful, angry toddler inside of me prepare all of my meals. In my recovery, I needed to have some guidelines around eating that helped me include my physical and emotional needs. These included guidelines such as: eating every 4-5 hours, eating a variety (at least 3 food groups) of foods at each meal, not eating the same thing every day (variety), and allowing dessert. It also helped me to establish some food recovery “bottom lines” that included: no bingeing, no restricting (skipping meals, avoiding food groups), no isolating while eating, and no purging.
Being a mom of a toddler myself now, I can see firsthand how toddler food preferences don’t necessarily veer toward vegetables and prefer sweet tastes such as cookies or ice-cream. There is a reason for this! As one Nurse Health-educator points out, “newborns are born with innate taste preference for sweet, rich, and fatty flavors and naturally reject sour or bitter flavors. This is mother nature’s way of ensuring that a newborn will accept the sweet and rich flavor of breast milk.” 2 So how does a parent deal with a toddler wanting to eat only cookies? Interestingly, guidelines to eating disorder recovery are similar to those presented to parents feeding picky childhood eaters: eat together, serve three foods, don’t force cleaning one’s plate or eating vegetables in order to get dessert, allow choice while pairing trying new foods with familiar foods. 2
But what about the emotions that I’ve been starving or bingeing?
That is where the good news and the bad news is it’s not about food. That is where no food can attend to the anger, sadness or fear that is crying for your attention. As Geneen Roth’s sign on her refrigerator states “It’s not in there.” That is where moving toward rather than away from those feelings, with tenderness rather than avoidance or aggression, is the only way out. That is where I call in the principle of what in yoga is called “ahimsa,” or non-violence toward the self. In medicine and therapy, it is referred to the principle of do no harm. It is what being a good parent, one that is emotionally aware, does with grace. Geneen Roth, asks the following questions:
“Can you imagine how your life would have been different if each time you were feeling sad or angry as a kid, an adult said to you, ‘Come here, sweetheart, tell me all about it?’ If when you were overcome with grief at your best friend’s rejection, someone said to you, ‘Oh, darling, tell me more. Tell me where you feel those feelings. Tell me how your belly feels, your chest. I want to know every little thing. I’m here to listen to you, hold you, be with you.’ All any feeling wants is to be welcomed with tenderness. It wants room to unfold. It wants to relax and tell its story. It wants to dissolve like a thousand writhing snakes that with a flick of kindness become harmless strands of rope.” 3
As you are considering emotional eating or disordered eating, I invite you to go deeper with these questions. What would it be like to bring even a tiny bit of kindness and some fiercely advocating compassion to yourself? Even for a moment? Even one moment of kindness can make a timeless amount of difference…Before my very last binge 16 years ago, I stopped before I went into the corner store to buy ice-cream. I thought of all the women struggling with the same feelings of sadness, overwhelm, and fear that I was struggling with in that very moment. I had the visceral experience of compassion. I held my own hand and I said “Honey, it’s not in there.” The tears started flowing, and I finally turned a corner.