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Women's inner strength extolled

Writing on personal struggles can be helpful, speaker says

Women seeking inner strength, either spiritual or otherwise, have a variety of options not often discussed in religious circles, particularly among Latter-day Saints, according to speakers who addressed a local group of feminists Saturday.

Their ideas on "Pathways to Inner Strength," were grouped as one of several presentations during the annual Counterpoint Conference, hosted by the Mormon Women's Forum at the University of Utah.

Phyllis Barber, a writing teacher at Vermont College, said she uses journaling and writing to discover the inner strength that has grown out of life's challenges. After what she described as a "difficult 33-year marriage and divorce," she said she has now written a book about the process.

In her years as a writer, she has often been "forced to write from another person's point of view," and tried to do so in her book, she said. "The process of thinking about 'what would he say or how would he see this' has been very helpful for me."

Barber said she works with some students who have been abused, and she asks them to write about the situation from the perpetrator's point of view, a process that "has become very healing. It's very easy to get locked inside your own head."

She's also learned writing can make "art of all the chaos," as women sit down to honestly spill out on paper the details of their lives so they can examine and craft something from the experiences. In such cases, part of the goal is to find "what did I do and how culpable am I," acknowledging "the wide array of emotions and behaviors of which you are capable."

Vickie Eastman, an executive recruiter, said her credentials to speak about inner strength come only from going through immense suffering. Her son had a terrible accident at age 10, and her marriage subsequently failed after 26 years.

"I was a stay-at-home mom and found myself the sole support for four children. I learned something about summoning inner strength because I had to," she said.

She described life using a metaphor involving Russian nesting dolls. Each doll represents a layer of life that can be stripped away, including health, marriage, children, job and money.

"When you get inside, down to the last, little tiny doll that doesn't open up any further, that's when you find out who you really are and what is most important to you."

Women all play several roles, and Eastman said when the focus on one particularly stressful role becomes overwhelming, she gives herself a break in that area and focuses more intently on another dimension of herself, indulging her time in poetry or classical music. "I look for those keys to take myself somewhere else for a while."

She also uses a personal ritual that has become a source of daily strength, she said, filling a designated bowl of water each morning while thinking of every dimension of her life, both positive and negative. When it's full, she takes it to a private place in her home and "dedicate(s) all it contains to the service of life." Each evening before bed, she takes the bowl outside and pours the water on the ground, then lays down to rest.

The process involves "taking in whatever has been given and then letting all go completely."

Marybeth Raynes, a clinical social worker and family therapist, said a process of interior "triangulation" can be helpful for women who are looking for inner strength. The three part process involves thinking in detail about one's:

Most meaningful spiritual experience.

Most enjoyable spiritual practice, including contemplation, meditation or service.

Most potent, personal experience that has never been labeled as "spiritual."

Then she suggested looking for any kind of relationship between the three, to determine whether there are similarities or simply differences, whether any leads to the others, or whether they are distinctly separate.

As women examine the details of such experiences, they can find their own inner map or constellation, she said, helping them find the source of "how I know what I know."

Often by writing about the experiences, women will find they are in conflict, she said. By choosing to write from inside one of those voices at a time, "you start to understand what the other part of you is saying. As you do that, gradually they become friends."

Building on one's inner strength also can be boosted as women exercise regularly while focusing on one or two simple practices in five areas of their lives: social, physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual.

Exercise is necessary, she said, because a concerted internal effort in each area will tax physical strength, often when "unfinished business" comes into consciousness and needs to be dealt with.

Lorie Winder Stromberg received the Mormon Women's Forum 2005 "Eve Award" during a luncheon ceremony at the conference, and paid tribute to the forum's founders.