Ashwagandha, Authoritarianism and the Great Mother. October 31st 2020
The great wheel turns again into the darkening. The growing season winds to an end and the veil between the worlds grows thin. Pumpkins are hollowed and lit from inside to guide the way for hungry spirits, or to scare off unwanted ghosts. Offerings are left out and prayers whispered for loved ones who have crossed over. This is the root season. All the energy and magnificence of the summers growth has receded from dying stalks, leaves and flowers, back down into the roots. Essential nutrients and sugars are stored in precious tubers and bulbs below ground, hunkered down for the long cold months, to await another growing season. This is the season of numb fingers, bare branches, pitch forks, and our mudroom filling up with medicinal roots and the last of the gardens' haul to be processed. As the first fires are lit in the wood stove there is a sudden draw to make hearty stews, and to decoct roots into teas and syrups to boost our immune system and support our bodies' resilience to stress.
This year the powerful October full moon falls on Samhain. My own belly looks like a moon, round and full as I approach the birth of a second baby in December. With this fullness, and the constant learning involved in parenting a toddler, the role of the archetypal Mother has been on my mind. And I believe right now the whole world needs the fierce strength of the Mother. In this time of great fear, violence and the rise of authoritarianism, I am finding strength in calling on her- She is the holy life-bearer, the ferocious bear, the one who is both fiercely loving and vulnerable. She defends her babies and her boundaries. She is all powerful, and yet so much of her power comes from the great surrendering and trust in the mystery of life and death. She wields her strength and compassion without the use of authority or dominance, and she stands up for justice because her love is greater than fear. She is who we need right now!
On a grey October day I had finally managed to get myself and my son Jamie out the door in the morning, sufficiently bundled, and up the hill to my Ashwagandha patch. The wind was cold and damp and everything felt so much harder in the adjustment period back into boots and so many layers. I was relieved to finally get to harvesting these precious roots, and Jamie contentedly helped pull out the smallest plants for a short while. Just as my fingers were warming up and I was finding a technique with the pitchfork that didn't strain my sore pregnant back so much, Jamie peed his pants. We weren't even half way done. And so with a sigh, we trudged back down the hill to the house and I was reminded of something I had recently read in a parenting book about the importance of always finding the humor, and of remembering the priorities "that I am raising children, not flowers" (even though I'm trying to do both!)
Ashwagandha is a small shrub in the nightshade family, and the root has a long history of medicinal use in the Ayurvedic tradition in India. The root is considered an adaptogen, which means that it helps the body to be more resilient in the presence of stress. While many adaptogenic herbs tend to be more stimulating, ashwagandha is known for its relaxing and nourishing qualities. Ashwagandha is anti-inflammatory with a special kinship for the joints. It helps to build the blood (by increasing iron and red and white blood cells) and vitality, and is considered a reproductive tonic. This is one of my absolute favorite sleep tonics, as is helps relax the muscles and the mind! Ashwagandha is known for its gentle ability to promote sleep and help reduce the kind of stress and anxiety that leaves you wired and tired, which, as most of us probably know too well right now, can become debilitating over time. While ashwagandha supports the endocrine and nervous system, it also acts as an immunomodulator, meaning it helps the immune system stay strong and amount an appropriate response.
This herb has a strong distinct bitter smell that I love. I associate the smell with this time of year, when it feels important to be grounded, putting the gardens to bed, digging roots and making medicine, setting intentions, getting enough sleep, and taking care of myself and my loved ones. Energetically it is considered warm and moist (sometimes drying).
While some herbal traditions consider ashwagandha to be contraindicated during pregnancy, in Ayurveda this herb is considered a great tonic to be taken during pregnancy, and has been used during pregnancy for a very long time. Whether or not it is used during pregnancy, I love this herb for the postpartum period to help nourish new parents after the birth. Ashwagandha can be taken in a tea or tincture, and traditionally it is decocted with some form of fat such as warm milk.
As I mentioned above, I have been reading a great parenting book that I highly recommend called Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids. How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting by Dr. Laura Markham. She continually comes back to what she refers to as her three big ideas: Regulating Yourself, Fostering Connection, and Coaching, not Controlling. I have been especially appreciative of plant allies such as ashwagandha in the help of self care and self regulation. As a parent, especially in the current state of the world it is so easy to feel totally overwhelmed and drained, with nothing extra left to give, despite the constant demands of little ones who need our presence and stability. While I can't delve into all of the helpful things I have learned from this book, it has reaffirmed many of my beliefs around compassionate parenting and the importance of not using discipline or punishment as a way to teach a child a lesson, or get them to behave better.
When we are already exhausted, resorting to yelling, timeouts, or other forms of discipline often seem like the easiest way to deal with hard behavior. but the author explains a lot about brain development, and the way in which punishment (even things such as timeouts) teach all the wrong lessons. Consequences and punishment model force, leaving the child feeling helpless and scared. It convinces the child that they are bad and their big feelings are scary, and it also teaches kids to focus on whether or not they will get caught and punished again, rather than learning about the impact of their behavior. She also asserts that people who were raised by authoritarian parents who used fear and control to guide behavior are much more likely to replicate this style of parenting unless they actively engage in healing from their upbringing and learning about brain development and other parenting styles. In this vein it is easy to see how the trauma, disconnection, and the need for an external controlling force to make sense of the world is passed down.
I was on my way to a midwife appointment and was listening to the radio. A program came on where the author of a book called On Fascism, Mathew MacWilliams, was being interviewed. The topic was "The soil in which authoritarianism takes root." MacWilliams has studied authoritarianism for years and described how right now the soil in the U.S. "is very fertile for authoritarianism." 18% of Americans are highly disposed to this kind of rule, while 40% can be easily activated by an authoritarian leader, which as he described, is exactly what we are seeing right now. These statistics came partly from a scale based on four questions which are actually about child rearing. MacWilliams described how the values that people possess about how children should be raised strongly affects their world view including their views on policy and desire to have an authoritarian leader. The author found that people who scored high on this scale are much more likely to support authoritarian policy and rule, and while it is not deterministic, it is definitely probabilistic.
While I don't know the details of this scale and how the numbers work, what MacWilliams explained was that people who believe kids should be raised to respect authority, have good manners, follow the rules and be obedient are more likely to support authoritarianism. MacWilliams went on to describe how authoritarian leaders tap into intolerances that already exist and make it feel like your values are being threatened by anyone perceived as "other". They use ritual to build their base. They perpetuate the story that there is a need for uniformity, and someone who is strong and able to exert control. They fan the flames of fear. Fear is the greatest tool of the authoritarian.
I realize this all seems pretty obvious, but as all the connections became clearer to me I felt sad, scared and also really excited. I was seeing so many interwoven layers of how trauma and uninformed parenting styles, and a culture of authoritarian patriarchy and colonialism all lead to where we are today- literally starting with the way babies' brains get hard wired!
With so much pain in the world right now, and so many things to be involved in, and fight for, it can feel debilitating and isolating to be a full time parent. I absolutely love being a mom, and feel incredibly fulfilled, and sometimes I feel a great swell of anxiety that I am not doing "enough" as a mostly stay-at-home mom. Some days alone with a toddler can stretch into an eternity, made harder by the sense that the whole world is collapsing while we sit on the potty and read the same book for the hundredth time (luckily for me he has mostly ripped it up now, as you can see in the photo above!) But as I reflect on all these interwoven threads I am reminded of a quote I heard from the author Robin Wall Kimmerer about doing good in the world. She said:
"raise children, raise a garden, and raise a ruckus."
I feel hopeful and so empowered by the thought that anti-authoritarianism and change really does start at home. I feel hopeful thinking about all the other people I know who are actively choosing to parent in a way that is building connection and anti-authoritarianism. And I feel hopeful and appreciative of all the people I know who are not parents but are early childhood educators, mentors, and active aunties and uncles with an explicitly anti-racist and anti-authoritarian framework. The role of the Mother is crucial in this time of great change and to believe anything else is to fall prey to the false narrative of the patriarchy.
So, this Samhain season, in the great uncertainty, whether or not you are an actual mother- may we all call on the energy of the Great Mother. May we embody her fierce loving courage and conviction, and remember to take care of ourselves and our beloveds, to look to the nourishing roots, to sleep, to practice self regulation, to find connection, to take a breath, and be ready to fight like hell.