Every human life is made up of the light and the dark, the happy and the sad, the vital and the deadening. How you think about this rhythm of moods makes all the difference. Are you going to hide out in self-delusion and distracting entertainment? Are you going to become cynical and depressed? Or are you going to open your heart to the mystery that is natural as the sun and the moon?..”
(Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul, p. XIV)
Some of you who occasionally stop by the site noticed that I haven’t been posting for a while and wrote me asking if I was alright. Wherever you are, please know my life would not be the same without you and for one thing you are the reason I pulled myself together to write this current entry for which I am very thankful. So – thank you! 🙂 I am alright although maybe not quite in the conventional sense of the word. In fact, there’s been quite a lot of sadness, grief, confusion, and other emotions and feelings of distress that normally would not be associated with an alright state of affairs. But who wants a normal life? Authentic is what makes me wake up in the morning with an anticipation of yet another day of this life, mess and all. If pressed, I would admit that I would not mind skipping some of those emotions but it doesn’t seem to work this way. Not if I want to live a fully expressed life of a three-dimensional human being.
When the dormant for the last 200 years volcano in south Iceland near glacier Eyjafjallajökull erupted this past summer, many of us were reminded that some forces in the universe are out of our control (surprise!). When something larger than our spilling over with entries filofax is on its way from the very core of existence, the only wise thing to do is sit and wait. Wait and wonder. In the overcrowded airports, in the company of our own distress, in the arms of a friend or a lover who cannot take away our troubles neither accompany us on our journey. This journey is to be undertaken by me and me alone, if I am to find my own voice.
Dark Night of the Soul
The phrase “the dark night of the soul” was chosen by the Spanish mystic and poet John of the Cross (1541-1597) as a title for one of his poems and is used by a monk, university professor, and psychotherapist Thomas Moore in his book Dark Nights of the Soul in the meaning of a period of transformation.
I like the metaphor of the night as it is the natural part of the cycle of Life itself. The night is fluid and pregnant with the dawn of the next day. Only on a dark night, away from the distracting lights of the city when I pause to look up and pay attention, can I clearly see the light of the stars scattered over the cold velvety sky and find solace in the darkness. The night frames this beautiful mystery unfolding over my head of which I am a part and so are you.
Dark night is not the same as the day’s worry and it does not always have a happy ending. In one of my earlier posts I talk about my teacher and mentor who killed herself. The part of not knowing what will come out of this is the most difficult one for me but something undoubtedly will. Undoubtedly not what I anticipated. Different.
This time around
I’ve learnt a lot from my earlier experiences and am much better equipped this time around. One of my previous strategies was pretty much to keep it all to myself. There was a lot of guilt and shame associated with it. My cultural background did not give much space for healthy conversations about the state of one’s soul (psyche). It did not seem to make any sense either. What was I missing? How could I possibly complain now living a more protected life than I ever did before, the life that many people in the world dream about? How could I disappoint friends who were used to seeing me frolicking around?
With this approach I saw how easy it was to slip into the place of thick despair without noticing it, the dark closing in, becoming everything. The first time I realised I needed to talk to someone was when I came to the conclusion that the only rational solution to the situation was to take my own life. The memories of my own confusion after the death of my teacher made me question this conclusion yet I resisted the idea of carrying on only because one’s death would make some people sad. It just didn’t make sense to me. This was the first time I attempted to voice my distress to someone I trusted only to find out that I didn’t seem to have adequate vocabulary to express what I was going on through.
Talking about it
I am particularly thankful to Thomas Moore for addressing in his book the question of the special language we can use to talk about what is going on inside us as we journey through the dark night. He points out that the language used in popular psychology today is either heroic or sentimental (all this struggling, conquering, defeating or being defeated). Instead he encourages us to speak in stories and images of our own, resisting the temptation to explain and interpret. When I want to describe the deeply felt experience, how often do I use clichés rather than strong, descriptive words that mean something to me? Words like depressed or depression strike me as flat and failing to express the complexity of human experience. They smell antidepressents and hopelessness. Thomas Moore sees the poetic mindset as a helpful companion on our journey through the dark sea, “…the truth of things can only be expressed aesthetically – in story, picture, film, dance, music. Only when ideas are poetic do they reach the depth and express the reality. ” (*, p. 9)
This process alone – developing the language that reflects my unique experience – is extremely empowering and insightful. What is the quality of the language I choose to express my personal truth?
Lots of practical guidelines in the book as to how to sift this time of “enforced retreat and perhaps unwilling withdrawl” for gold. The one that I found particularly helpful,
“… give yourself what you need at the deepest level. Care rather than cure. Organise your life to support the process. You are incubating your soul, not living a heroic adventure. Arrange life accordingly Tone it down. Get what comforts you can, but don’t move against your process. Concentrate, reflect, think, and talk about your situation seriously with trusted friends”. ( *, p. XX)
This is pretty much what I have arrived to intuitively and have been caring for rather than curing my soul, listening in for the messages from inside. It is not always a joyful time and resistance to change and grief as a reaction to something dying are the guests to be dealt with. The idea of transformation and being “born again and again further into our humanity” is closer to me more than that of growth and development, a sort of a vertical movement.
You darkness, that I come from,
I love you more than all fires
that fence in the world,
for the fire makes
a circle of light for everyone,
and then no one outside learns of you.
… and it is possible a great energy
is moving near me.
I have faith in nights…
R. M. Rilke
* Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore
- Podcast of Tami Simon interview with Thomas Moore about caring for the soul in difficult times
- Episode of Speaking of Faith about Soul in Depression (poetry, reflections, interviews with Andrew Solomon and Parker Palmer
- “Sorrow” by The Nationals from their latest album High Violet
- Selected poems of R. M. Rilke, A translation from German and commentary by Robert Bly.