The Return of the Soul to Our Culture
Our culture’s understanding of birth, and of the life of the unborn child in the womb, has undergone radical shifts in the last generation. Pregnancy and birth used to be regarded in western society as a medical event. Pregnancy was supervised by a medical doctor, as though it were a disease. Doctors became authority figures, deciding what births should look like, and in the case of caesarian sections, when they should occur. Doctors determined the experience of both mother and child to a large degree.
Birth moved. Instead of occurring in the bedroom or parlor of the home, it migrated to the hospital. It moved from the status of a family milestone to the domain of the medical professions.
Expectant mothers began to seriously question the prevailing norms in the fifties and sixties. Midwifery had never been quite stamped out, despite the best efforts of governments and doctors. Midwives began making a comeback; some began influencing or even running the obstetrics departments at hospitals. Home birth, water birth, husband-coached childbirth, and a variety of other organic alternatives began to catch on. Even the hospital environment changed. Many hospitals have banished stirrups, forceps and plastic sheets, and have now built special birthing rooms, complete with soft fabrics, low lighting, music, and baths for the mother.
Alongside the changes in the physical environment for birth, parents, researchers and caregivers began to realize the effects of psychological and emotional health as well. Early studies showed that children exposed to classical music in the womb scored better on early childhood academic measures. Many other experimental studies have now been performed and replicated, showing many effects of early psychological conditioning. Parents with a rich verbal life produce children who develop vocabulary sooner. Parents who speak to their children in the womb produce better learners. Children in the womb may react distinctly to musical stimuli.
Lionel had distinct music preferences in the womb. When he was moving about rapidly, his movements would become slow and calm if Mozart or Bach was played. But he kicked violently on hearing Beethoven or Brahms, and didn’t stop till the music had been turned off. Brenda and I had to leave a theater once, because the baby was kicking her painfully in the ribs as we watched a movie with a loud, discordant score by Prokofieff! Many parents have similar stories.
These discoveries led to a generation of products to facilitate learning in the womb; belts containing tape players, music CDs designed for the fetus, songbooks for the expectant mother, and many others. Parents realized that what they did with their children at this stage of development affected a child’s subsequent life, sometimes in powerful ways.
The Marriage of Psychology and Chemistry
At the same time, the science of endocrinology was coming of age. The effects of endocrine secretions were being mapped, and their sometimes-dramatic effects on both mother and fetus started to be understood. While blood and plasma do not travel between the mother’s vessels and those of the placenta, many molecules can and do. One of the placenta’s most important functions is to convey oxygen from the mother’s blood supply to that of the fetus. But hundreds of other molecules cross the placental barrier as well.
Emotion is a biological event as well as a psychological one. When we feel good, our brains produce endorphins. Other glands and organs also produce hormones in response to pleasure, pain and every emotional state in between.
In one landmark study, a group of researchers studied the effects of spending five minutes in the morning concentrating on a powerful positive memory. They measured the body’s output of Immunoglobulin-A, a factor associated with immune system function. People whose immune systems are functioning at peak levels have more Immunoglobulin-A in their bloodstreams than those whose immune systems are suppressed. The immune system itself is a useful benchmark, because it is composed of parts of the circulatory, nerve, and muscular system, as well as the brain. By measuring immune system function, you have a summary of how well many other body systems are functioning.
They found that test subjects had a big immediate spike in the levels of Immunoglobulin-A in their bloodstreams after their five minutes of positive reflection. For the control group, who did not do the contemplation exercise, levels of Immunoglobulin-A stayed flat.
But the study did come up with one big surprise. The researchers found that, amongst the happy thinkers, levels of Immunoglobulin-A dropped only slowly in the subsequent hours, taking up to eight hours to drop back to the baseline level. Five minutes of positive contemplation produced a workday’s worth of boosted immune system function! Tinkerbell was giving us a valuable piece of health advice to Peter Pan when she said, “Think your happy thought!”
Our thoughts and feelings, every minute of every day, together brew a powerful cocktail of mood-altering chemicals. Positive mental and emotional states produce marked effects in our bodies.
They similarly affect the body of the unborn child. When the mother is happy, the biochemistry of bliss is flowing through her veins, and from her into the baby’s developing body. When the mother is upset or angry, the chemical messages are likewise passed along. The fetus develops in a biochemical stew determined largely by the mother’s emotional and mental state. The fetal cells are literally bathing in this mix as they grow. And the combination of hormones brewed by the mother becomes of the imprint of what feels “normal” to each cell of the fetus.
This is why behavior doesn’t start getting learned after birth. It starts long before the brain is distinctly developed in the fetus. The mother is giving even the first two cells of the dividing egg a biochemical message of what mix of hormones constitute the home signal. Tinkerbell might have told mothers to think happy thoughts for the sake of their babies’ future happiness. No matter how close we get to friends, children, and lovers, none of us will ever have an emotional and psychological link to anyone in our entire lives that is closer than the one we had with our mother in her womb.
If a mother’s heart and mind are filled with turmoil, these signals likewise transmit to the child. A fetus developing within a fearful or angry mother has the biochemical cocktail of stress running through its cells. Its cells divide in a broth conditioned by the chemistry of hate or anxiety. After birth, such psychological states feel normal to the infant, because they replicate what it knew during the formative period of its physical self. Upset mothers are creating a powerful program of upset conditioning in their children-to-be. Such conditioning is more than a psychological impression or “vibe”; it’s biochemically hard-wired into the child’s cells.
As the understanding of the effect of a mother’s psychological state on the fetus has grown, women have begun to take care of their psychological health during pregnancy in new ways. Prenatal yoga classes have sprung up everywhere. There are endless relaxation tapes and baroque music CDs for pregnant mums. Pregnant women are to be found meditating in record numbers. They take more time off work before the birth. They encourage their children and their husbands to provide a quiet, calm emotional setting for the family. They go to therapists and support groups. They monitor their inner state for old habits of anger and fear, and when they are tempted to blame or condemn, they breathe instead. Doing this, they are giving their children the immense gift of an innate understanding of what inner peace “feels like” in a biochemical sense. For the child, knowing what the body feels like when the hormones of peace and serenity are flowing is a gift, a gift that benefits the child all life long.
The Third Great Leap
Parents reclaiming the birth experience from allopathic medicine was the first great wave of change. Parents taking control of their own emotional space was the second great wave of change. We are now at the start of a third great wave, that goes beyond the physical birth environment, and beyond psychology: Parents reclaiming the territory of the soul.
Over the course of the last thirty years, polls have revealed steadily increasing numbers of people identifying themselves as spiritual but not religious. As cultures have looked beyond their ancient religions for answers, Buddhism has taken firm hold in the western and northern parts of the globe, Christianity has grown in the east and south, and Islam has surged far beyond its historical crescent from North Africa to South East Asia. Many people claim no religion, yet report deep spiritual experiences.
Moving pregnancy and birth from a sterile ward to a more natural setting was an important first step. It reflects a greater attunement to the mother’s body and the child’s body. The next step is to consider the mother’s heart and soul, and the child’s heart and soul. How can we midwife the birth of a whole soul? Aware of our own spiritual journey, how do we relate to the spiritual journey of a child being born to us? We all ask ourselves the great existential questions, questions like, “What is the purpose of my life?”; “What is God’s will for me?”; “What work is my soul looking to accomplish through me?”; “How can I give my spirituality meaningful expression in the world?”; “How can I know God” and so on. It’s only a matter of time before we begin to ask these questions not only for ourselves, but for the children being born to us as well.
When I wrote the first edition of this book in the late nineteen-eighties, midwifery was catching on again, and there was an explosion of interest in alternative birthing techniques. But the deeper questions about the spiritual meaning of birth had not yet been asked. Today, many parents realize that taking care of their own souls is important. They are beginning to ask how to relate to their children on a soul level as well. Birth is a spiritual event as much as, perhaps more than, it is a physical event. It is perhaps one of the two or three most significant spiritual events in people’s lives.
It is comparatively easy to educate yourself about the physical processes of birth. There are literally thousands of books, videos and web sites on the subject. You can understand the pregnancy process step-by-step, week-by-week, trimester-by-trimester. The territory is well know, the maps are many and accurate. The psychological territory is also being mapped in research like the Immunoglobulin-A study outlined above.
When you venture into the soul’s territory, though, the terrain is vague and unknown, the data scarce, the maps partial and sometimes contradictory. How do you connect with the soul of a fetus? How do you know that any intuitive impressions you receive aren’t just your imagination? Are there reliable methods of connecting with a baby’s soul routinely, methods as clear as Tinkerbell’s? Is communication with a soul susceptible to methods and techniques at all; is it not properly the misty province of seers and mystics? Where does soul-to-soul contact with my baby fit into my religion? Is the baby’s soul well developed enough to be able to communicate back to me?
My prediction is that, in the decades to come, we will map the territory of the soul as surely as we’ve mapped the physical features of the earth or the psychological functions of the brain. Our understanding will always be incomplete, but for the next generation of parents it could seem inconceivable that we not ask the above questions, and foster soul-connection between parents and children.
This book’s modest goal is to give parents easy yet effective techniques to allow contact with the soul of the child. You don’t need great intuition or psychic powers. The instructions are paint-by-numbers simple. Yet I can almost guarantee that any parent who tries these things will be surprised if not awed by the insights they obtain from their children in the womb.
The Soul in the Great Religions
I’ve tried not to tie this book to any religion in particular. I was raised a Baptist, and thoroughly enjoy the church services at the Charismatic Episcopal Church, where my father and brother-in-law are both priests. I’ve learned a great deal about non-attachment from Buddhism, and I practice sitting meditation several times a week. The great cosmic archetypes of deity in Hinduism, and some of its forms of worship, speak to me. I’ve read a great deal of Jungian psychology, as well as other psychological schools. I’m indebted to The Emissaries for their marvelous classes, which while drawn primarily from the Judeo-Christian tradition, emphasize the Great Tradition that spans ever religion; what Aldous Huxley called the Perennial Philosophy.
I love Sufi dancing, poetry, and stories. Living in the United States for twenty-five years, I’ve inevitably read Native American wisdom and taken Sweat Lodges from traditional Indian medicine men. I’ve been a member of several churches, most recently Unity and Religious Science. I haven’t found one of these spiritual practices that would fail to understand the concept of a soul, and there isn’t much in this book that would conflict with any but a fundamentalist interpretation of any of the above spiritual traditions. The same great truths run through the teachings of all the world’s religions, and I try to reflect them in the following chapters.