Looking back at the many layers of my inquiry into women’s psycho-spiritual process of healing obesity prior to and during this research project, I see now that my understanding was most profoundly impacted by the contributions of the co-researchers at the retreat. The honesty, intensity, and openness with which we collaborated to make sense of and teach what we knew about this process changed me completely. Reflecting on the content statements we generated at the retreat, I remember the women’s voices behind each statement - their vocal tones, their facial expressions, and their energy. This, the original text, has lived in me for 19 months.
My experience with them cultivated incredibly fertile soil and planted dozens of seeds for further investigation on this topic. I chose six of those many seeds as lenses of interpretation to tend, nurture, and grow in their own pots; and these seeds have grown into diverse flowers of distinct and unique beauty, adding color, texture, and life to my inner garden of interpretation. As I remove their pots and return them to the wider field of flowers from which they came, I trust they have added a particular depth and meaning to our understanding of the psycho-spiritual process of healing obesity.
The two modes of analysis—conceptual and intuitive—affected my learning in different and distinct ways. My conceptualization of the topic was expanded dramatically by the group analysis with the co-researchers at our retreat in Tahoe. The intuitive analysis deepened my understanding of six critical aspects of the topic and allowed me (or forced me in some cases) to find precise language for my perspective. In working with the magnets I took the topic out of context for the purpose of gleaning new insight. Now the tension of compartmentalizing needs to be released as the lenses fall back into context. My Tahoe painting above (see Figure 3) represents the new beauty, complexity, and movement I now discern in this topic as it manifests in its contextual and natural rhythm.
As the magnets merge back together into their natural relationship, my voice reunites with those of the co-researchers in this final discussion of the project. The following sections include the limitations of this study; the implications of our contribution to women’s psycho-spiritual process of healing obesity in theory and in practice; the methodological implications; and suggestions for future research.
The fact that I had taught 4 of the 5 original co-researchers and all 5 of the resonance panel members in this study greatly influenced the data. I have taught out of my perspective on this topic and all the data have been filtered through me; this fact broadly colors the general and specific interpretations found here. My embodied experience with this issue and my teaching perspective is, in part, what attracted women to this study. The positive aspect of this is that they may have felt more comfortable disclosing private material to me since we already had a relationship based on sharing a common experience. Knowing me personally, they may have developed trust in my view of them as knowledgeable, and thus felt empowered to step more fully into the role of co-researcher and expert. As indicated by the doubt expressed by women who applied for the study and did not know me, it is likely that at least limited exposure to my philosophy was necessary for women to feel confident that I valued the process they were in and was not seeking women who had produced weight loss or completely “recovered” from issues with food and weight. The negative aspect of their knowing me is three-fold. First, their love for me may have motivated them to endorse the perspectives they learned in my classes and to give me credit for aspects of their healing. Second, because I have lost over 100 pounds myself, they may project “guru,” “success story,” or “expert” onto me in a fashion that limits the wholeness of their own view. Third, the work we created together here could have been a regurgitation of my own perspective from many angles. While I fully expected the influence of these limitations to be present in this work, I also credit the women who participated in this study, including the resonance group, for their individual strength and maturity, which allowed us all to confront and shift our perspectives and be influenced by each other. In addition to the material we had discussed prior to the research event, the co-researchers and I all contributed unique, in- the-moment insights that increased our understanding of ourselves in relation to this topic. The evolution of our opinions and effects on each other are evident in the data.
Other limitations include small sample size and low diversity in the demographics of the co-researchers. Our contributions in these findings now need to be replicated in groups of women of diverse socioeconomic status, ethnic heritage, and spiritual orientation in order to verify and expand this material.
My own experience of being obese and making change congruent with my authentic self required a foundation in compassion. Through my relationships with the co-researchers I felt a deepening of compassion, understanding, and appreciation for women in this process. The invitation and tone of connection that I presented consistently throughout the project in the face of diverse opinions and experiences opened the door for honest dialogue and minority opinion. I relied on my committee to alert me to undue influence with the co-researchers and to circularity of my own interpretation in the design and analysis.
Though I aimed to bring objectivity and impartiality to the conduct of this study, I have invariably unconsciously shaped the research project to emphasize agreement and de-emphasize disagreement with my own perspective. This is a limitation of research in general. In every case it is our human nature to affect that which we study despite our best efforts to consciously claim our influences.
Throughout the analysis and discussion of my findings, I questioned my personal limitations to effectively represent the work of our group and my commitment to this issue. Did I include enough raw data from the women themselves? How adept am I at translating my visceral hermeneutic to the written word? How willing am I to follow the pulse of the body and the breath of inspiration in projects of the intellect?
This study breaks new ground in a variety of ways by adding new research and findings to the field of obesity treatment from a transpersonal perspective. The design and results are novel and useful because they contribute the voices and lived experiences of obese women as experts on their relationship with body, food, and weight to the body of knowledge on obesity. The findings include a developmental model for women’s embodiment that grows out of—and is embedded in—differentiation theory, which is further described below.
The quality of spaciousness engendered by expanding one’s view to the transpersonal perspective brings to conscious awareness the fact that, regardless of how much is learned, mystery always exists. This awareness fosters an open system of inquiry —beginner’s mind—for both women in the process of healing obesity and the health care professionals who care for them. Additionally it provides a container in which the opposing forces of growth can be held, thereby fostering transformation.
The following growth model (see Figure 4) is oriented around the Wisdom of Space but includes the interactions among each of the magnets. It represents my current perspective on this process of growth in women.
Growth through this model occurs through holding the tensions of two energetically opposing poles, which ultimately transform into a transcendent third position. This process of holding the tensions is well-established in Jungian literature including Woodman (1985, 1990). The first pole has its origins in what was previously a transcendent third position. Eventually, familiarity with the transcendent insight encourages its evolution into the position of the first pole of a new threshold of growth. This is where this diagram begins. The second pole is a newer, alternative, and energetically opposed position to the first pole. Adoption of either position demands a pull from the other. Both poles continually refine themselves toward stasis, and this causes the tensions to build for new growth and new awareness. The transcendent third position is a new insight, new knowledge, new growth - born out of the tension between the first and second poles. As the coil of knowing moves on horizontally over time the new position becomes old and the cycle begins again.
The Wisdom of Space magnet is the boundless container for the whole process, the transforming, mysterious, and compassionate presence that holds the sometimes violent, sometimes gentle process. It encourages paradox, including the both/and aspect of growth motivation.
The Power as Love magnet reveals how we act in relation to the tensions between the two poles. Do we act out of domination to control our anxiety? Or, in the face of anxiety do we settle into the spaciousness that surrounds us and act with dominion?
The Motivation to Change magnet speaks to the inner urge for growth. The mechanistic mindset and the nature of duality encourage either/or, black-and-white thinking. This translates to supporting one or the other of the opposing poles, often demonizing the pole not supported. The struggle between the two poles indicates that neither pole alone will bring satisfaction. The only satisfaction in the process, albeit temporary, comes at the birth of something new. Therefore, motivation toward growth (rather than deficiency, defense, survival) encourages the growth of the tension between the two poles. This is the both/and Motivation to Change that presses on for new awareness.
The Learning and Knowing magnet is represented by the circle connecting the three positions in space. The circle is actually a coil or spiral that moves horizontally through time, revealing the cyclic progression of knowledge and wisdom over a lifetime.
The Meaning Making magnet is not in the diagram but represents how we interpret and explain the process of growth to ourselves and others. It is our cosmology.
The Call to Differentiate Magnet is represented by the whole diagram of the differentiation process.
The Beauty magnet invites the observer to take a step back and view as a whole the dynamic process of life expressing itself.
Figure 5 illustrates the spiritual nature of this transformation process as I see it. There are two axes (similar to the two-axis symbol of the cross) represented by the horizontal knowing coil and the transcendent third position, with space as the boundless container of the whole process - wordless and undefineable. The process is continuous: There is no beginning and no end.
Many woman experience diet control, black-and-white thinking as the first pole of rigid structure. The second pole is giving up dieting and permissiveness with food, and is initially a step toward growth. However the poles continually refine themselves toward stasis. A woman adopts the freedom of the second pole; but, as it refines toward stasis, she experiences the frustration of being unable to implement structure and feels pulled toward the first pole, experiencing it as punishment. Her desire for the maturity of incorporating structure increases, though she may fight against her awareness of that. Forcing oneself into one position over the other is an act of domination, and increases the tension between the two. The attempt to will herself onto a diet brings a stronger pull for the “no limits” of the second pole, and results in the diet-binge cycle. The more firmly rooted she becomes in either position, the greater her discomfort. Symptoms and life experiences will confound her feelings of safety in the static position. With compassion, dominion, a strong sense of herself as no more or less than human (divine and limited), she doesn’t “know” which position is best, but she will consciously and compassionately explore the nuances of her current dilemma. With the wisdom of her own timing she will eventually birth a new, embodied awareness of her ability to apply structure and limits to her relationship with body and food, as an act of generosity toward herself.
The experiences of the women in this study indicate that reliance on outside experts, or received knowledge, for answers to the profoundly intimate process of healing their relationship with body does not work. As they reveal through their frank and comprehensive disclosure, healing occurred for them when they stopped relying on the advice of '‘experts” and began trusting themselves and their own bodies.
While the women did learn to appreciate their own expertise at caring for themselves, they continued to require additional resources in support of their learning process. They struggled with maintaining their sense of self as they attempted to incorporate expertise outside themselves. This is made more difficult by the multitude of “experts” who purport to have the answer.
Women will continue the useful struggle of learning to embrace their own authority with regard to body. However, a profound opportunity lies before healthcare researchers and service professionals to assist women in this process. The first and most obvious step is for obesity experts to acknowledge the power of their position to do harm to those they seek to help. The second is to begin incorporating the contextual knowledge of women’s lived experiences in their healing perspectives. This will likely need to include the “fat people can be healthy” revelation. The third is to utilize the power of their position to do greater good by advocating women’s embodied knowing as “connected” researchers and practitioners. They can do this by applying the “connected teaching” concept put forth by Belenky et al. (1986) to their work with those people displeased with their obesity or seeking a healthier relationship with body. The connected teaching position is non- hierarchical and allows both the professional and the healthcare recipient to learn and teach out of their expertise in hope of cultivating useful knowledge for both. This perspective requires a fundamental shift in the prevelant view of those in treatment for weight loss as empty of significant knowledge.
Additional areas and questions for consideration in obesity treatment follow. Is the present body size truly a threat to the health and fulfillment of this individual? Is there a sacred longing for authentic expression which requires action toward change in body size? If yes, what is the timing? Do not assume an immediate change of direction is required. What is fulfilling about the present body size or larger? What’s the story about this body size? Is there a purpose, value, gift, or sacred aspect? If one unpacks the cultural assumptions about right body size and eating/moving behavior, what knowledge arises about this woman’s unique body and process of self-care?
The conduct of this study includes a modification on a true intuitive inquiry design due to the fact that the lenses or magnets were developed after data collection rather than as the product of cycles one and two of the forward arc. This was unavoidable since the hermeneutic perspective of intuitive inquiry (Anderson, 2000) was developing concurrently with this research. Nonetheless, intuitive inquiry served as a useful tool for this exploration, particularly in relation to ontogeny of the research, the structure, and foundation in compassion. Future applications of intuitive inquiry in research will offer useful expansions and definition to this new methodology. I expect the method will take on many different shapes and flavors; Anderson (1998b, 2000), as the originator of this method, encourages the centrality of the researcher’s unique perspective in the design itself.
Suggestions for Future Research
As discussed in Limitations above, further research into this model needs to be conducted with other groups of women - spiritually oriented and otherwise. Additionally, each of the six magnet areas and each item in the Content and Proceses lists are distinct and fertile areas of exploration, most of which are as yet untapped in the research literature on obesity. I would like to see and conduct further research on the short- and long-term effectiveness of treatment programs fashioned on a model of academic learning in a group context, based on the principles and values of women’s circles and with an emphasis on embodied knowing and self-care rather than weight loss.
It is not by accident that the circle is the shape of women’s gatherings. As in my definition of space, the center holds the entirety in the presence of wisdom, compassion, courage, and strength. A circle only has integrity when contained which, in our case, means it has a level of honesty, safety, and confidentiality. Since most women’s circles operate with a precept of confidentiality, it is unusual for “outsiders” to know of its process and/or products. My commitment to social change encouraged me to find a way to expose the beauty and power of the women’s circle while at the same time protecting it and the women from exploitation and other misuses of power.
Our circle, like many women’s circles, was filled with knowing, laughing, learning, singing, growing, confronting, modeling, crying, experimenting, connecting, feeling, testing, intuiting, sharing, raging, discerning, expressing, and loving. It feels awkward to hear myself speak of love in research, however I am reminded of Anderson’s (2000)perspective:
To know others we must love them first and see the world from their perspective. To know a phenomenon of experience or of nature, we must love it and become its friend. It is as though what is observed gently yields itself to our knowing. There is no object, no subject, and no intrusion. By loving what we study we approach tenderly. (p. 31)
If it is true that one must love what one seeks to know, then women’s circles are most appropriate and compelling places to conduct research on women’s experiences, knowing, and power. In this compassionate context, new and critical knowledge and wisdom has been revealed about women’s psycho-spiritual process of healing obesity. I believe the fruits of our experiences together speak both to women in this healing process and to the culture. Emerging from the perspective of a positive psychology, I am hopeful that, like the co-researchers in this project, the culture may use the confounding motivation of obesity to shape itself anew in a form that affirms the complexities of life and the mystery of our place in it.
A researcher must also leave what she studies, which means leaving what and whom she loves in the context she has known them. My understanding of the feminine through the women in my life brings me comfort at this transition, when what I have loved, carried, and given birth to must die to me in its current form. What is constant, like the continuity of the circle, is the fact of the potential for new life, new questions, and new sparks of aliveness. The life cycle, like the hermeneutic cycle, like the cycle of breath, will begin again, and offer something new in the exchange for me and for the world.
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