“Darkness and light are both part of our journey. Darkness is the depth of spiritual potential hidden in the void of infinite possibility. Light is the manifestation of that potential in the external dimension of time and space” (M. B. Beckwith, Spiritual Liberation 240).
Winter has already brought us the hard freezes that obliterate whatever may have been left of last year’s growth, and February is bringing us even deeper into the shivery days of days of winter. For many of us, it seems like it has been ages since we have had a true growing season or a time of harvest. Our human nature is to wish away the dim light of winter and long for the first signs of spring. However, to do so is to throw away a precious prize that cannot be won without journeying through the Dark Night of the Soul, the dark wintry landscape of deep soul work.
What happens to a plant underground during the fall and winter is as important as the above-ground sprouting in spring rains and the blossoming in summer suns. Likewise, when we find ourselves in the midst of difficult times, it is an invitation to open our hearts and minds to reflection and the nourishing opportunities provided by the journey downward and inward. Though such times feel like trial and punishment, Beckwith says “It is a gift to the soul that provides the teaching which becomes the cosmic doorway through which we take a closer step to spiritual awakening” (Spiritual Liberation 241).
We are of a mind in the West that all that is good must grow without ceasing, yet that excess of growth is exactly what defines cancer and makes its “living” a destructive force. In nature, death and mulching are essential properties of life. We can try to ignore it or avoid it, but to be alive is to change, and all change involves a letting go of what was and the creation of what will be. The soul journey is like the mythic journey of the sun – moving across the sky during the day, then descending into the dark underworld at night, only to be reborn on the following dawn. Enlightenment through personal soul work involves both the obvious teachings of the day, and also, those mysteries of the night, of the shadow Self. We cannot know ourselves without spending time in our own shadow.
Despite popular belief, the psychological shadow is not the “bad stuff” in our personality. It actually consists of all the undeveloped or unknown “stuff” in our personalities. Yes, it is true that traits that I choose not to give influence to in my life, like greed or gluttony, are in the shadow because even though I do not want to be greedy or gluttonous, I still have those trait potentials in my humanity. Therefore they are potential resources (or vices) that I choose to keep minimized and not give significant sway over the day side of my personality; yet, should my life conditions change, I might choose to utilize them more, or they might simply slip out and become more active. Besides obvious undesirable attitudes, the shadow contains things like artistic talent, emotions and personality traits, moral or philosophical perspectives, qualities that I may not have exercised or even realize that I possess or have access to. For example, if I have always been subservient to or under the control of others, I may not recognize my gifts to be a good leader until I am pushed into it by life circumstances that force me to step up. Having my life pushed into a new situation might create a great deal of chaos, fear and insecurity, and even grief or anger at being forced into a state of uncertainty. Thus, we can descend into that dark and painful place of destruction and rebirth, leaving the comforts of the day life that we have been used to in order to excavate and unleash previously suppressed potential. But that which is in the day is that which I already know and have accessed. The unknown, the new, my potential, can only be found in the shadows of my heart and mind – that underworld that destroys the pillars of the known world and awakens our awareness to the potentials we have not yet mined or developed.
Sometimes, recognizing that we are in this place is enough to give us some comfort, because just as we cannot stay forever in the light, we will not be stuck forever in the dark. However, by honoring the process, looking for the lessons, recognizing the issues that needed to shift or evolve for our ultimate benefit, can help us move along through the night and not get lost down dark and dangerous side paths of doubt, fear, and depression. When we try to avoid the journey—the darkness, the change—and find instead some temporary reprieve that makes us feel comforted, like striking a match to bring a moments light, we can interfere with the process, delaying it and complicating it, and often causing ourselves more suffering. Ultimately, when the match goes out, as it always does, we may find ourselves with scorched fingers, standing again in the dark, yet no further down the path than when we first lit the match.
Self-love and self-acceptance are critical to the healing process of the Soul Journey: that is, loving not only what we show the world, but what lies hidden in the dark nooks and crannies of our soul. Even in America, we cannot expect life to be so one-sided that there are never recessions, regressions, or set-backs, because those are critical to the process of life: no matter how much savings, insurance, legal support, medical know-how, political balance, or other material resources we have. Now is a perfect time to do what one does in the winter to prepare for spring: prune, cull, rest, look inward, re-evaluate, make plans, thus focusing on reflection and self-support rather than productivity. In winter we can honor our deeper and quieter needs as do the plants when they grow roots, store up resources that make the spring burst possible. Now is a good time to study, meditate, appreciate, hold hands, cook soups and hum by the hearth. The light and warmth of spring will return, and then we will be too busy to rest and enjoy the intimacy of self-reflection that is the primary gift of this Dark Night.