The Crucible of Darkness

T’is the season of darkness in the northern hemisphere. It is also a time in which many of the world’s religions, regardless of hemisphere, prepare to celebrate a festival of lights.  Presumably this tradition has its roots in the cultural response to darkness, that which challenges our safe and secure human existence in the face of mysterious threats or the threat and challenges of mystery...

Modern secular society isn’t much for the darkness either.  Writer and eco-activist Bill McKibbon characterizes the dark to be one of the three endangered species of human experience in modern times – the other two are silence and solitude. The prevailing attitude tends to privilege the light—whether the actual light of day, the artificial lighting of the night, or the light of knowledge, progress etc.—viewing it as a kind of deliverance from that which would otherwise jeopardize our sense of order, security, identity, or wellbeing. Ironically, it seems that despite all of the light penetrating dark spaces in modern times, our world is still confronted with some form of collective shadow wherever we turn.

By contrast, wisdom traditions view turning toward the darkness or shadow as central to spiritual practice. The journey toward freedom or enlightenment is less a conquest of the darkness than a metabolizing, an embrace, a realization of the non-duality of what we encounter both in darkness and light, their interpenetration in the larger whole of existence. What happens when we allow an embrace of the darkness, turn toward the shadow sides of ourselves as persons and leaders?

An answer can be discovered by actually visiting the dark, literally speaking. Consider taking time to sit or lie on the floor in a room in your home that is absent of light in any form (note that you may need to unplug something to make this possible!). Or just take a moment to pause before turning on the lights when you enter your house or a room when it is dark. What you discover in the process may not surprise you, but it may give you a new perspective in relation to some of the questions and challenges you are facing just now.

Darkness brings us closer in to ourselves, closer to our vulnerability as well as our resourcefulness.  We can’t rely on the same things in darkness that we do in the light.  There are ways of knowing that become important in the darkness while other ways of knowing seem irrelevant. Our experience here is a solitary one, allowing the socially driven notions and concerns about who we think we are to fall away. This provides an opportunity to see what else may be there.

Give yourself to the direct, embodied experience of the dark as an unknown territory that has something to reveal to you. Notice how you feel in your body in the darkness. What concerns and instincts arise or fall away?  What experience of yourself, your being-ness comes to the fore under the cloak of darkness?

The pace of things slows in the dark. Nature cycles all living things through periods of darkness – what does that allow for?  What is the wisdom in that? Certain things are lifted from us in the dark; demands, expectations fall away in the space of this quiet, solitary place. The urgency we feel in the daylight naturally loses some of its hold when darkness descends. At the same time, there may be new anxieties or fears that arise, ones that are tied to the deeper core of our being. The invitation is to examine the discomfort with curiosity, or even wonder.

As you accustom yourself to being in the darkness, bring to mind something you have been feeling “in the dark about” in your life.  Some question, or situation, a cross roads or transition point. Breathe the question through you in the darkness, feel it in your body. How you are with the situation right now?  What would it be like to be in the dark with this question as if that is exactly where you need to be? Let the question spread itself out in the darkness – there is nothing to hem it in here.

Darkness invites us into not knowing. There is so much we can’t know there. In fact, to survive in the darkness, one has to embrace the not knowing, respect it, use it as a platform for curiosity, discernment, guidance. There is no room for judging what we don’t know when we’re in the dark. The steps we can take can only really be considered one at a time. Questions, then, can grow roots in the conditions of stillness and quiet that darkness provides.  

Let your question grow roots in this still place – how many layers beneath the ground does it need to go before it finds the nourishment it needs in the very center of your being? Breathe through the layers, trust the darkness to provide you with discernment about what is important and not important to see about your situation right now…..

These are some of the gifts to our leadership that turning toward the darkness brings: the room not to know; a stillness and solitude that gives immediacy and directness to our experience and allows us to see the emptiness in the constructions we create; the lifting of urgency so that our questions can breathe and go deeper; access to our instinctual, intuitive ways of knowing; being with our vulnerability as deep intimacy. Imagine what it would be like if, collectively, we took on such an embrace…

Jung writes: “when the soul embraces and accepts suffering, the pain reveals itself as the birth pangs of a new inner being.”

And Rilke offers “if only we could arrange our lives in accordance with the principle that tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us to be alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience.”

The womb of darkness is ultimately a transformative crucible, at some moment giving way to the luminous, inner light of Awareness, of Being itself. This then is what the celebrations are about, the festivals of light.  They celebrate an inner transfiguration of the darkness more than its escape.

May this be your experience during this season and in the coming of the New Year.

Photo: Winter on the Elwha by Julia Smith