(Essay) Autonomy and the Pillars of Conditioned Fear by Kaalii Cargill

Mural painting © Kaalii Cargill, detail from the Papyrus of Hunefer (c1275 BCE)
Mural painting © Kaalii Cargill, detail from the Papyrus of Hunefer (ca. 1275 BCE)

Author’s Note: The very fact that I am writing about this implies a privileged orientation to the World – I give thanks that I have enough food, water, shelter, safety, belongingness, and self-esteem to even be having this conversation.

When I first considered the question of “How Goddess feminism, activism, and spirituality?” I thought I would answer by describing the monthly rituals I share with other women in our local park – our gatherings have been taking place in various forms for over twenty years, celebrating Goddess by chanting, processing, casting a circle, sitting together in meditative silence, opening the circle, and walking together beneath the trees as I believe women have been doing since the beginning of time. I could also describe the altars I have set up in my home – honouring the elements and the various faces of Goddess: Mother, Hetaira, Warrior, Priestess, and others. And I could answer the question by describing my writing that draws on Goddess mythology and ancient women’s practices. And my artwork that expresses my relationship with Goddess through image and symbol.

Yet all of these are external expressions of an inner ground that has involved a fundamental transformation of how I think, see, hear, and feel myself, others, and the World. In order to change the systems of oppression that perpetuate patriarchal values, I have also needed to engage my inner world. As well as challenging external structures, Goddess feminism, activism, and spirituality is about developing the inner ground to move through the negative conditioning and choose different ways of being and acting in the world.

In my PhD research[i] exploring women’s reproductive autonomy, I asked women about their experience of birth control. The issues they identified were:

  • choice vs no choice,
  • empowerment vs powerlessness,
  • control vs lack of control,
  • taking active responsibility vs not assuming active responsibility.

I believe these are also fundamental issues in Goddess feminism, activism, and spirituality. In my research, I “unpacked” these issues to explore the characteristics of women who practised radical, alternative methods of birth control.

These women:

  • were dissatisfied with conventional methods;
  • valued choice, control and empowerment;
  • were ruthless in their determination to achieve their intention;
  • actively sought viable alternatives;
  • assumed this was possible outside the existing forms;
  • approached the alternative practice with concentration and commitment.
  • experienced a permeability between conscious and unconscious processes and experience (access to dreams; active imagination; creative expression; healing trance states)

These characteristics also contribute to autonomy (independence from the social environment, with a reliance on one’s own resources) and resistance to enculturation[ii] (detachment from the culture in which one lives, with adherence to one’s own rules rather than the rules of society). Autonomy and resistance to enculturation are core aspects of Goddess feminism, activism, and spirituality. To sustain this we must actively challenge external structures of oppression and also confront the internal structures that have developed through negative enculturation.

We have all experienced negative enculturation. It conditions us to be insecure and fearful and sets up internal response patterns that work against autonomy. One example is the internal “sound track” of negative commentary, judgement, and self-blame that so many people experience. Another example is the constant threatening stimuli (e.g. media stories or cinematic images of violence; everyday advertising that denigrates women) that evoke regressed, emotional states of fear and insecurity that are abstract and persistent. We call this “generalised anxiety”, and people tend to blame themselves for experiencing it. This sort of fear is very different from the adaptive fear a hunter-gather may feel towards a predatory animal – that sort of fear mobilises an adaptive response to a real threat. Abstract fear permeates our experience of self, others, and the World. The usual antidote to the insecurity and fear evoked by negative enculturation is to align with cultural values: vote for increased border security, take end-point medications at the first sign of illness, use contraceptive chemicals despite the unwelcome side-effects, and so on.

But what if we choose not to align with cultural values? How can we manage the conditioned fear?

In the ancient Egyptian sacred texts there are poems about the pylons or pillars one must pass through on the journey between the Worlds – the pillars are guarded by demons that must be met and overcome. To develop the inner ground that supports autonomy and resistance to enculturation we, too, must pass through the pillars of conditioned fear:

The life-giving heart of the world beats to the rhythm of the Moon, cycle and gyres, spiral pathways crossed by one narrow road, thin as a flint blade that the fool walks. The ways of the father world are devious. Temples fill with demons offering illusion. A woman walks alone by her own light.[iii]

She comes to the first pylon. She speaks. Demon of shame and blame, whose heart is an accusation of unworthiness! Demon whose words are chains that chill and bind a woman’s spirit! The woman spins. With a cry she drives away the demon and she goes on her way. Her name is “Banisher of Shame”. Blessed is the woman.

She comes to the second pylon. She speaks. Grave Keepers of tradition! Old men stroking grey beards! Your truths are lies. The woman devours all in the flame of her lioness mouth. Her name is “Burner of Lies”. Blessed is the woman.

She comes to the third pylon. She speaks. Demon of Romantic Love! Ecstasy of self loss! Madness of standing outside myself! The woman breaks the arrow, takes back the wings. Her name is “Virgin”. Blessed is the woman.

She comes to the fourth pylon. She speaks. Demon of phallocratic technology! Insane desire for power! The woman spins. Her name is “Love”. Blessed is the woman.

She comes to the fifth pylon . . .

[You get the idea – please feel free to continue on your own . . .]


The ultimate threat behind all the other threats is the fear of death. As soon as there is one Coke bottle, the fear of death also translates into fear of losing what one owns. And when there is fear of losing what one owns, there is also fear of losing one’s sense of self. We have learned to cultivate an independent, individual sense of who we are – something that is rampantly reinforced in social media where self is defined by what we want to be and how we are seen by others – “Buy this product/do this workshop, and it will actualise/individuate/complete you.” We have also learned to fear losing this.

How do we face all these fears?

Two of the inner processes that support us to pass through the pillars of conditioned fear are:

  • Witness – developing an observer self – not as detachment from the outer world, but to develop self-awareness so that thoughts, emotions, behaviours, and our sense of self are intentional and congruent with deep values, rather than automatic and conditioned.
  • Engaging “shadow” – the idea of “shadow” is based on the Jungian understanding that anything that is disowned and out of awareness will act autonomously through us and our relationships with self, others, and the World. This is especially important in terms of conditioned fears that may not be consciously recognised.

Practices that support these processes include meditation, journalling, working with dreams, inner dialogue, and honest, cooperative engagement with others in work, play, and ritual. For some of us, therapy that works effectively with trauma is vital in silencing the negative, internal “sound track” and developing the inner ground to pass through the pillars of conditioned fear.

Another practice that dissolves conditioned fear is immersion in Nature. In some cultures, self is implicitly part of one’s community and family, and people do not experience themselves as separate from Nature and from each other. This relates to the right to habitat – natural, nurturing environments support autonomy and resistance to enculturation. When I was speaking with women for my PhD research, I wanted to know what supported some women to practise radical, alternative methods of birth control. Access to Nature in childhood was one of the most common answers. Access to Nature – and wilderness where possible – is vital to developing and supporting the internal ground to change the existing structures.

One of the strongest links we still have to Goddess is through the life-giving power of women and Nature. Women still give life through their bodies. This is so obvious that we forget the magic of it. Life does not come through men’s bodies, test tubes, or incubators; life still comes into being through women’s bodies. Despite contraceptive chemicals and more than two thousand years of negative conditioning, women’s bodies continue to respond to the cycles of the moon, to the rhythms of Nature. The ancient magic of the life-giving power of Goddess is still within us.

As well as fighting the external fights, we must remember to do the inner work to dissolve conditioned fears and fully engage Goddess feminism, activism, and spirituality. Thus we are restored to ourselves, each other, and the World soul.

[Editors’s Note: This essay is included in She Rises Volume 2: How Goddess Feminism, Activism, and Spirituality?]

[i] HK Cargill, 1999, A Phenomenological Investigation of a Psychobiological Method of Birth Control, Doctoral thesis held at Monash University, Clayton, Victoria, Australia. Published as Don’t Take It Lying Down: Life According to the Goddess [available from Amazon http://amzn.to/1SACplF and http://kaalii.wix.com/soulstory ]
[ii] AH Maslow, 1954, Motivation and Personality, New York, Harper & Row.
[iii] Adapted from Normandi Ellis, 2009. Awakening Osiris: The Egyptian Book of the Dead. Red Wheel/Weiser.

Read (Meet Mago Contributor) Kaalii Cargill.

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Wow Kaalii you are so right. Primary ways to deal with condtioned fear are learning how to witness for ourselves and doing shadow work. As a Jungian therapist I use both these techniques and learned both through my own struggle. Inner and outer work often complement each other.

For me being with Nature is still the most powerful medicine to dissolve fear.

Wonderful article! Thank you!