Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark: The Alchemy of Transformation
I sat in the wide, flat meadow that stretches out at the top of the hill behind my house, one bright May afternoon. I was forced there, by the need to clear the cobwebs from my head, to create space, so perhaps a measure of inspiration might go into. The sun beat down from its perch in the clear, azure sky, while a brisk wind tempered the heat, and thankfully kept the horse flies under control. Connecting with character is always a grounding experience for me, and I wondered as I sat there why I don’t do it more often, and then promptly made a mental observe to change that.
I settled in the high green grass on a path that is kept mowed by my elderly neighbor who lives across the street. He has made it his civic duty to keep a clear trail for the Tully X-Country teams in the spring and the snowmobilers during the winter. For this I am grateful. A smattering of wild flowers, milkweed and dandy-lions fringed the path, which wore the remark of both deer and human footfalls.
Some movement in the grass beside me caught my eye. I looked down to spy a caterpillar picking her way gingerly by the grass. As I watched her progress, my fascination grew, as did my compassion for her plight. Like Dante, who begins his Divine Comedy with the words, “In the middle of the journey of our life, I found myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost… “, she was making her way by a forest of towering grasses. From my vantage point, she had no particular destination, and her method of moving by this verdant jungle seemed precarious at best, neither simple nor direct. And the longer I spent observing her, the more I noted a correlation between her journey and our own.
Where she was headed was a mystery to me, but I sensed it had something to do with finding the nourishment that would sustain her in the long night of her transformation, her “magnum opus”, or “great work”, as the alchemists name it. It became freely apparent that it was an arduous task. Checking in on her regularly, I spent about one half hour in that identify, during which time she might only have covered about a foot of ground. I couldn’t help think that it often feels much like that for us humans.
While I had other responsibilities that beaconed, something intrigued me enough to keep there to see her progress. Despite her diligent effort, she quickly got caught in a feedback loop, hindering her forward motion for about five minutes, though, I imagined, might have seemed to her an eternity. I was obliged to wait, to see if she would ever find her way out.
I’ll describe how her circumstance appeared to me: From the dark floor of the earth, this prickly little creature, rear end meeting front, inched her way up a stalk of grass into the light. When she reached the top, she groped around until the weight of her body shifted the fulcrum, which bent the stem low and brought her right back to where she started. From the depths again, she made the trek up the same piece of grass, once at the apex she tipped the extent, and back down she came to her original point of departure. It was becoming a sick game of “Chutes and Ladders”, and I couldn’t help chuckle at how many times I’ve found myself in a similar difficult situation, thinking I am making progress only to find myself stuck in a repetitive pattern of behavior or thought that is leading me nowhere.
This went on for quite some time. And what I found already more fascinating than her existential difficult situation was that all the while she seemed thoroughly unperturbed by her without of progress. She just kept plugging along. Her patience was inspiring. Not once did she stop to bemoan her state. There were no desperate pleas for deliverance, no breast-beating, no cries of “woe is me,” that I could ascertain. This was just the way it was. She seemed resigned to, if not thoroughly at peace with, this perpetual carousel ride on which she found herself.
The Buddha expressed in his First Noble Truth that life is dukkha, approximately translated this method “experiencing.” Now this may seem terribly daunting and pessimistic on initial consideration, except for the fact that he also taught that this basic condition could, with effort, be greatly improved upon. So all is not lost… As the Indologist and South Asian scholar Heinrich Zimmer concludes, “everything in Indian thought supports the basic insight that all is well. A supreme optimism prevails everywhere.” And, if we so choose, we might perceive our experiencing, our tests and trials with the same outlook, and ultimately plumb the depths of our dark experiences for the stimulus that brings spiritual growth.
The deeply disturbing events in our lives: death, divorce, addiction, illness, loss of any sort, these dark nights of the soul, as Thomas Moore describes them in his book of the same title, referencing the Spanish mystic John of the Cross’ poem, may become profound opportunities for transformation, that will ultimately further us along our path.
Moore says, “A true dark night of the soul is not a surface challenge, but… an internal or external event that strikes to the chief of your existence,… not just a feeling, but a burst in your very being, and it may take a long while to get by to the other end of it.”… So one could say a dark night is a spiritual trial, an additional-ordinary experience that throws us off balance, as if the rug has been torn from beneath our feet, and we no longer stand on substantial ground.
These “spiritual shakeups” are natural in the rhythmic cycles of our lives, just as the change of season is to the cycles of character. however, quite often, that is not how we perceive them. Generally, most of us approach them as problems needing to be solved, now. Then, in our haste to “fix” the difficult situation, we create “clever” ways of ridding ourselves of it. As with other states of “dis-ease”, our treatments often include masking the symptoms, instead of finding what lies at the root and working from there to reestablish balance.
We tend to push our feelings away, to deny or suppress them, sometimes with medication supplied by a doctor, but more often we self- medicate. We drink, use drugs, eat, shop, or vegetate in front of the TV or computer screen. We do anything to keep from really having to feel, from truly owning our pain.
When we see these episodes as problems, we miss the point of their turn up in our lives. These events provide us opportunity to shift and change, in an effort to become more integrated, evolved human beings. Typically, however, we are too quick to act or to react, when what we really need… is to pause, to slow down so we may step over the threshold into the unknown. We need to have the courage to venture into the woods. We must go to those places that scare us, move into the darkness and discover what the experience has to offer our souls.
In our culture pain is a four-letter information. Most of us do anything we can to keep from experiencing. What is the purpose of pain, though? Medically speaking, it is a signal, a sign that something is wrong, that something is not functioning well and needs to change, in order to restore equilibrium. It is the same with our spiritual pain or experiencing.
An often forgotten meaning of the information to suffer is to persevere patiently. To navigate a dark night of the soul, one must cultivate patient endurance. These episodes are not to be rushed by. They must be tended, grown like a garden. We need to keep nevertheless, often for long periods of time, allowing for the inner alchemy of transformation to begin.
The farmer first plants the seed thorough in the darkness of the earth. It lies there idle for a time, like our souls, until the seed is ready to move toward the light. This journey, however, once begun, is arduous and takes courage, for it requires heading into uncharted territory. however, this movement may find us heading in the exact same direction, along what seems like that very same piece of grass, for many cycles, but if we are patient, and wait long enough in stillness, something will shift in our inner chief and we will little by little appear into greater awareness, and a new way of being.
The modern mystic Osho says, the seed cannot know what is going to happen, the seed has never known the flower… and cannot believe that he has the potentiality to become a beautiful flower… but a dream possesses the seed and the seed moves. “
Our soul, like the seed, is at first obtain, hidden safely inside a hard casing. Then something inside of us stirs and we know we must move. We instinctively sense we cannot keep cocooned in our present skin any longer. It is then that our transformation begins.
I reached just such a place in my own life, several years ago, when I found my marriage crumbling down around me like the flaming Tower of the Tarot. This experience, as the Tarot card indicates, is what my wise friend Karen Becker called a psychic 2 x 4 upside the head. The relationship had become untenable, and I knew I had to leave, but I had no idea how. I was jolted out of my comfortable place of being, and this soul wake up call sent me spiraling into the depths.
For a long time I felt at sea, adrift in a limbo that offered no solace. There was no solution in sight. I had entered my own dark night. I lost interest in my work, in current events, in maintaining connections with my family and friends. I let myself go, as they say. I had indeed plunged into an abyss. Months went by as I remained in a state of emotional and spiritual paralysis. however though all of it, I held onto a vision of the person I would become, the person I knew existed inside. I was certain I would ultimately climb out of the morass I had fallen into, if I could only keep that soul dream alive.
But there came a point when what was brewing could no longer be contained and like a geyser it came shooting up from below. For a time, I felt like my world was falling apart and finally I had to let in to myself that I needed help to put it back together. It was then that I sought the guidance of both a therapist and a spiritual counselor, much to the relief of my closest friend and confidant, whose resources I had long since depleted.
Fortunately, those professionals were soulful human beings, who gently facilitated the exploration of the roots of my experiencing. No matter how much I wanted to rid myself of the feelings that engulfed me, I knew that in order to heal, I had to sit with them, observe them, and own them.
This healing, this movement, only became possible once I was willing to drop my shell of security. Once I was willing to venture into the darkness, I could begin the hard work of illuminating my shadow world, those aspects my life that I had left untended that had now overrun the garden.
The Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron says, “Our minds are always seeking zones of safety… We fear losing our illusion of security – that’s what makes us eager. We fear being confused and not knowing which way to turn. We want to know what is happening… ” But when we go into into a dark night of the soul we have to become comfortable with uncertainty. It is what Thomas Moore calls a liminal vicinity, one that exists between what we know and what is however to be, and this can be a frightening place to dwell. With the aid of the right individual or individuals, however, this space can be navigated in a safe and productive manner.
Just as the seed moves toward the sun, in our soul’s progress toward enlightenment, there will be obstacles. There will be uncertainty; there will be struggle. The evolution of the soul requires effort. We will have to slog by the manure of our lives, move around impediments, and persevere harsh weather. These obstacles may be ones we create for ourselves, or those we seemingly have no control over, but they are all a part of our inner course of action, natural occurrences in the never – ending cycle of the birth, growth, decay, death, and eventual rebirth of our souls. But we don’t have to go it alone. In fact, at some point we need to come out of our shells and proportion our experience, if for no other reason than to have it mirrored back to us so we can look at it more objectively.
The work I was doing with those two counselors was ultimately very productive. During that time there arose a thorough call to begin my course of action of yoga teacher training. Along with furthering my understanding of the asana or yoga poses, that 6- month intensive challenged me to name and confront my demons, many of which, I discovered, were closely connected to my current crisis. It was harsh medicine, at times, but the more closely I examined my shadowy inner life, the less I could disown it. Moving more deeply into my yoga and meditation practices and seeking specialized help were transformative and very empowering experiences that were crucial to my healing course of action. When we approach these soul challenges mindfully, and sometimes with expert help, we can transform what might become breakdowns into breakthroughs.
In addition to my contemplative practices and therapy, the lifeline I clung to most firmly throughout was my creative work, born out in both my journal and theatrical designs. The daily entries served as a wonderful supplement to the writing I was doing for my yoga training. It was a method to work by all of the turbulent feelings and emotions I was processing in therapy, and a functional way for me to begin to understand how I had come to the place I was currently in. The design course of action served as a form of alchemy. by the language of imagery and visual metaphor, I was able to transform the mundane into magic, to translate my inner life into outer forms, which had a profound affect on my ability to heal.
The author Thomas Moore indicates that when we find ourselves in darkness we can bring illumination back into our lives by the time of action of creation. He says, “Creative work is a bold attempt to be like God. You can expect it to take you to the edge of human possibility, where the scenery is as dark as the night sky. You can’t know where you are going or what you are doing. You have to have faith and a spirit of adventure that allows you to feel at home in the dark… understanding that the night is the time of birthing and passaging. To be creative is to be produced. “
I am fortunate to make my living as an artist, however we are all innately creative beings. When faced with a crisis of soul, we can turn to the inner wellspring of creativity that exists within, and transform our pain into a thing of beauty. You may express your creativity in the form of a painting, in dance, or music, or perhaps in a well-crafted letter to a loved one, in a bed of flowers you’ve planted in your garden, or in a luxurious meal prepared with care.
Creative expression in any form plays a pivotal role in the evolution of our souls. the time of action of creation can serve as a crucible that distills the dross and slag of our experience, and extracts the impurities that encase and no longer serve us, so the pure golden ore of our essence, our inner luminosity can shine forth. One doesn’t need to produce a symphony to be an artist. A simple act of creation, performed mindfully, can be a very profound healing experience for the soul.
By now, you may be wondering what ever happened to that little caterpillar I left struggling in the grass awhile back… Well, I was glad that I truly waited long enough to find out, because something very interesting happened that completely changed her destiny, and resonated deeply with my own experience. There I sat, poised to observe her take another turn on her crazy carousel ride. On the 4th or 5th go-round, something miraculous happened. There she clung, outstretched, seemingly stranded, dancing back and forth, and just as gravity was about to take its unavoidable toll, sending her plunging back down into the dark, a good stiff breeze came along that shifted the direction in which the blade swung, forever altering her fate and enabling her to head off on a totally new path. I breathed a huge sigh of relief, and nearly shouted “hurray!” for her new found freedom.
We can learn exceptional lessons about our own experience when we sit nevertheless long enough in character, as we are all but reflections of the greater Cosmos, the Infinite, the Eternal. Observing this little worm, I was reminded of my own journey, and how with a little patience, hard work, creativity, and a touch of Divine intervention, it is possible for a painful experience to usher us toward our own course of action of metamorphosis. As I watched that tiny creature amble along to meet her destiny, I recalled an anonymous quote that graced the cover of one of the many journals that held vigil for my soul during its dark night… Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over… it became a butterfly.