I would suggest that what Edna achieves in The Awakening is not so much a rebellion but a prologue to rebellion. She achieves the necessary first step towards making herself into the kind of woman capable of rebelling. That is to say, she learns how to speak out; or, simply put, she learns to say No.
Edna Pontellier progresses, in The Awakening, from a woman who appears to be muted, inarticulate, and incapable of telling a story to one in full possession of her own voice. As such, Chopin's emblematic tale of Edna's proto-feminist awakening can also be understood as the story of Edna's achievement of speech. What "awakens" in Edna, along with her sensuality, is the art of telling, of making her desires and her emotions into narrative form.
The Awakening, I suggest, is a story about Edna's inherent need to speak, and to have her story told. Edna's tragedy in The Awakening is that she finds that what her story says is unacceptable in her culture, and that in order to live in society she must silence herself. This she rejects. The rebellious quality of The Awakening is that Edna would rather extinguish her life than edit her tale. As readers of the novel we must continually react to Edna's preference of death to compromise, 2 and to the textually implicit equation between the silencing of the human voice and its result--a quite logical and perhaps even reasonable choice of death.
From the very beginning of the novel Edna finds it difficult to place her experiences and emotions into narrative form. When she and Robert try to relate to Leonce the "adventure" they have had out in the water, they fail. But Edna cannot appreciate conversation because, when we first meet her, she is essentially mute.
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For the first six chapters of the novel she says all of four sentences. When she wants the jewelry which her husband held for her while she had her swimming lesson, she reaches out to him "silently" and he responds, also in silence. Her initial words in the text concern her husband's movements: she tells him to take an umbrella, asks him whether he'll be home for dinner to which she gets no reply , and later realizes, when it is dinner time, that Leonce will not return.
She does not speak again until he does come home, and then she expresses gratitude for the spoils he brings her from a successful night of gambling. When things fall apart, as they did for my friend, it's tempting to try to piece them together as quickly as possible and get your old life back.
Yet when you do that, you miss what a crisis can offer: an awakening to what's not working in your life, an opening to the potential for change. A spiritual initiation—an exceptionally difficult life passage that shakes your foundations and makes you question your purpose—is just this sort of sea change.
It's an opportunity disguised as loss; a chance to strengthen the thread of awareness that connects the outer part of your being to the inner, to descend deeper into the soul. It's human nature to avoid the emotional roadblocks that pepper the path to spiritual maturity, to seek instead the slow and steady pace of the ordinary traveler.
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Yet reaching higher spiritual ground requires an extraordinary traveler. It demands the kind of sea change that arrives at key junctures and can transport you to a higher level of spiritual functioning. As a psychologist, yoga instructor, and yoga therapist, I have helped many clients through initiations. Going through this process, I've noticed that yoga, which helps reveal the workings of the mind, provides tools to help you navigate an initiation and jump-start your progress on the spiritual path.
Spiritual initiations are transitional; they leave you between worlds. Like a snake undergoing a brief period of blindness after shedding its skin, you're temporarily sightless: You're neither your old self nor a new one.
This amorphous, transitional feeling can be challenging—and it can manifest itself in all areas of your life. A client of mine in her late 50s who had been on the verge of a life change for years came to me with acute anxiety and insomnia. During class, I noticed she moved through the transitions between poses with her eyes closed.
She similarly "spaced out" during life transitions, hurrying through or avoiding them, which built up internal pressure.
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The mission during spiritual initiations is to slow down and look straight into your soul, and to root out the kleshas , the afflictions of spiritual ignorance that can block your progress. The feeling that your life is coming undone is the call to awakening that begins an initiation. The call can take many forms: illness or accident, betrayal by a spouse, the death of a loved one, an urge to enter psychotherapy or to begin a period of self-examination, the recognition of an unhealthy situation or relationship.
This is an opportunity to transcend the lament "Why is this happening to me? During this acute phase you'll most likely experience a klesha called asmita , which is a disruption of the ego, or sense of "I am," and a tendency to cling to old definitions of Self: the Provider, the Responsible One, the Caretaker, the Black Sheep, the Boss, the Martyr, and so on.
When you answer the call to awakening, you leave behind, at least for a while, this familiar territory and may feel unmoored. You can counter this instability by centering yourself with restorative yoga and by connecting with your breath, either through formal pranayama breath control or by simply focusing on the inflow and outflow of your breath. Imagine that thread of awareness connecting your outer mind with your deepest inner Self; with each exhalation, descend further down that thread of awareness into the center of your being.
This growing connection to your deepest Self will help during the most difficult parts of your awakening.
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As you leave your unhealthy world behind, you may experience a profound sense of separation. This letting go has a parallel in your yoga practice; you may need to temporarily relinquish your usual form of yoga in exchange for a more grounding, internally reflective practice. One of my yoga therapy clients, diagnosed with cancer, struggled to maintain his vigorous vinyasa practice while exhausted from chemotherapy.
If he couldn't practice vinyasa, he felt, it wasn't worth practicing at all. Gradually he realized his harsh mental attitude was interfering with his recovery. He began a restorative practice and discovered that its quiet and calm gave him needed support, helping him mobilize his inner resources toward healing. This is where another klesha, dvesha an aversion to pain , comes into play. Your challenge now is to take a good look at the way you've been living and to weed out old habits and beliefs that once fortified your ego but no longer serve you: an abusive or lifeless relationship, an addiction, a history of powerlessness, overwork, or the glare of self-hatred, for example.
As you do this, you're left to face the great canyon of emptiness that lies underneath.
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While it can be frightening, facing this inner void clears the slate, making way for change and regeneration. To renew and conserve energy, you can cultivate pratyahara a turning inward of the senses , which is the fifth of the eight limbs of yoga. Pratyahara helps you sit with pain without being consumed by it or overidentifying with it. Now you're ready for an extraordinary pilgrimage into the depths of your own Underworld. Here, you simultaneously suffer the death of who you thought you were and encounter your shadow side: the parts you keep hidden, the qualities, behaviors, and motivations that may be difficult for you to acknowledge.
The tasks of facing the Underworld and your shadow provoke the klesha called abhinivesha , which is a fear of death and the tendency to cling to life. Though painful, the death of the ego is essential so that, like the mythical phoenix, you can rise from the ashes and come to life again in a more mature form. Suffering and death break through the defensive structures that frame our personalities, so we can get closer to our souls. To emerge intact from this stage, it's helpful to explore samadhi the eighth limb of the yogic path , a total absorption with the Divine, or deepest Self.
You can do this most effectively in Savasana Corpse Pose , which normally comes at the end of a yoga practice. All too often, we shortchange Savasana, thinking perhaps we can't afford to lie and rest; yet it creates a space for the blending of all eight limbs of yoga for the awakening of our deepest Self. A student recently confessed she'd been leaving class just before Savasana; in the midst of a traumatic breakup, she feared it would feel too "deathlike," that her feelings of grief and loss would overwhelm her.
But Savasana's full surrender to the process of death was just what she needed.
Realizing it could help her move on, she began to enter Savasana earlier in her practice and stay in it longer. The contraction and suffering experienced with the death of the ego can close your heart and make you feel dry, barren, and exiled. This may seem like a spiritual wasteland, but it's one of the richest and most verdant paths of your awakening. Although you might not yet see it, the seeds of your new self are sprouting beneath the soil of your awareness.
This is often when the klesha avidya ignorance or delusion is stimulated: You can't see what you'll grow into.
You may also have trouble recognizing the last stage of your transition for what it is—a passage through the birth canal. Instead, avidya compels you to rush into your fledgling spiritual self, to restructure your life, to build a new ego and end this seemingly endless period of waiting. To contain the tension of waiting for your new form, you can call upon dhyana meditation. Dhyana teaches patience, so you can sit with whatever is present and act in the context of mindfulness.
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