Four Questions

According to Angeles Arrien, anthropologist, storyteller, and author, when someone came to an indigenous healer with dis-ease, the healer would ask these four questions:

  • When did you stop singing?
  • When did you stop dancing?
  • When did you start being uncomfortable in the sweet territory of silence?
  • When did you stop being enchanted with the stories, especially the stories of your own life? 2

The many responsibilities of midlife, life changes, physical changes including menopause and relationship changes, can all create a sense of dis-ease. Therefore, it’s important to take a closer look at each of these questions:

  • When did you stop singing?

Metaphorically speaking, when did you stop using your voice to carry your truth? In some African cultures, before a baby is born, she is given a song by the community. It is her song, one she will live into. The song sings the essence of the new person who comes into the world already known. Over time, that baby grows into her deepest, most authentic self with the support of the community. As she grows into a strong sense of who she is, her song becomes more and more her own. Her song moves and changes and comes through her.

The poet Rumi says:

God picks up the reed flute world and blows.
Each note is a need coming through one of us,
a passion, a longing-pain.            

        Remember the lips
where wind-breath originated,
and let your note be clear.
Don’t try to end it.
Be your note.
I’ll show you how it’s enough.

Go up on the roof at night
in this city of the soul.

Let everyone climb on their roofs
and sing their notes.

Sing loud! 3

What is your song? How has it changed over time?

  • When did you stop dancing?

In Africa there is a saying, “If you can talk, you can sing. If you can walk, you can dance.” Metaphorically speaking, dance is the movement of life through you. To dance is a way of learning who you are now, of letting the goodness, the grief, the joy, the sorrow express itself through you. It’s also a way to connect with your body as it is now, and to celebrate it.

Some years ago I went to a belly dance studio to watch a class. The teacher, Zedena, was a heavy set woman dressed in bright silk skirts with a belt of jingling coins around her ample waist all topped by a softly clinging leotard top. Necklaces and bracelets adorned her neck and arms. Women of all ages, shapes and sizes, dressed more casually but each with a flowing scarf tied around her hips, danced in a circle around her as she taught the steps. Hips swayed and faces lit up. I was amazed at the beauty of all these women dancing together.

When I spoke to Zedena about this, she said, “Oh, yes. We see this all the time. Usually men drag their wives to a restaurant that has belly dancing, thinking it will be titillating. What they don’t realize is that belly dancing was originally only done by women for women. It was an expression of the deep feminine, and it was never meant for men. The men get bored very quickly, but the women feel something. They feel the power of it, the self-possession of it and they want more. We get many of our students this way.”

Dance will help you remember yourself. It will help you tell the story of who you are now, if even only to yourself. You don’t need to dance publicly. Just take 10 minutes. Put on some music you like, and in your own living room let it move you. Let it inform you. Let yourself express the story within you today, then the next day, maybe with different music another part of your story, and the next day, another part.

  • When did you start being uncomfortable in the sweet territory of silence?

This is a powerful question for midlife, a notorious time of busyness and responsibility.  Something in us wants time alone in silence. We intuit its sweetness. At the same time we don’t quite know what we’d do with ourselves if we had it.  Many of us have not learned to say no to the outside voices in order to hear the inside voice. But it is that inner voice that gives us access to our real story through our own eyes, our own knowing.

…and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world…    Mary Oliver, from The Journey 4

Paradox, the both/and of things, is something we begin to reconcile in midlife. We develop a capacity to hold the seeming contradictions.  In order to stride “deeper and deeper into the world” we need to pull back and take time in the silence to hear our own voice.
Some practices I recommend:

  • Take ten minutes a day to sit in silence. Just notice the workings of your mind.
  • Go for a twenty minute walk three or four times a week. Not for exercise, not because you should, but to be with yourself, in your body, outdoors.
  • Take a breath each time the phone rings. Just one breath or two before jumping into action can give you a spacious moment of silence.

When did you stop being enchanted with the stories, especially the stories of your own life? Ahh. This is the question for midlife women. How to become enchanted again with our own stories.

It was hard to find my own stories at first, although I knew they were there. I gained access to them in a sweat lodge in Colorado when I sat in the dark with ten other women. It was so dark in the lodge that we couldn’t see each other. There were just voices as each woman spoke, and after while, each voice seemed like my own. I wondered then if the stories that felt so buried weren’t really my stories at all, by our stories, for as each woman spoke, I heard some of myself in that speaking and a little bit of me woke up or healed or was inspired in some way. I noticed the same thing happened when I shared my experiences, too. Then I thought about the Native American Give Away Ceremony where you give away what is yours so that you don’t become attached. I thought, “What if I were willing to give my stories away?” And sure enough, as I became less attached to hanging on to them, I found the words to tell them.