Animas Valley Institute -  Guiding the Descent to Soul Since 1980

Befriending the Dark   
Collage: Doug Van Houten 

Part 2
Faith in the Night       
This is the first part of a two-part Musing (one per week)

Friday, September 29, 2017
The darkness is as obvious a symbol and site for the soul as any. The dark is the unknown, the mystery, the medium that holds the unpredictable -- the possible. It is the best blank screen upon which to project all that is unsolved and unloved in our hearts. We are afraid of the dark simply because we can't see what's there and we naturally assume the worst. When it comes to the dark, "better safe than sorry" turns out to mean "better paranoid and vigilant than murdered." Most children -- and the children inside us -- are terrified of the dark, especially the dark beneath things, and thus afraid of what might be in the basement or under the bed -- or in the subway.

The archetypal Wanderer knows she's not likely to run across her soul in the broad daylight of the village. If it had been waiting there, she probably would have found it long ago. The dayworld of family and culture is the setting within which her ego has acquired its particular qualities, both its vulnerabilities and strengths, and so her ego has already embraced most of the possibilities that exist there. Now she must look elsewhere. She must sink into deeper, more fertile, darker soil in order to tap her greatest and wildest possibilities.

One practice you might adopt is spending extended periods of time in true physical darkness, outdoors on moonless nights or in caves, with the goal of discovering and retrieving some treasures from the symbolic dark, your personal wilderness. Wendell Berry knows the dark:
To go in the dark with a light is to know light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.
In befriending the dark, offer your careful attention to everything you hear and feel and smell there, knowing much of what you experience will be "just" your imagination projecting unassimilated elements of your own psyche. You will learn much from what you project. But what you encounter in the dark will also include flesh and blood entities of the night -- owls, bats, deer, raccoons, spiders, mice -- that may be curious about you and even drawn to you. (People of some nature-based cultures say if you regularly encounter raccoons, for example, you might have "raccoon medicine"; on the other hand, you may just have a habit of sitting on raccoon trails in the middle of the night without knowing it.)

The greatest gift of the dark, however, will not be what you find there, but how the dark changes you. Offer your self to the dark and ask it to initiate you in whatever ways it will, making yourself a gift to the dark as opposed to merely hoping for a gift from the dark.

Going into the literal dark serves as a mutually synergistic companion to several other strategies you might employ concurrently for entering the symbolic dark -- dreamwork, for example, or deep imagery journeys, work with your sacred wound, with your shadow and projections, or confronting the inevitability of your own death. Each is a way to stretch your limits and become acquainted with yourself on a deeper level, each practice reinforcing and extending what is learned and set in motion by the others.

Rilke, too, learned to appreciate and love the dark:
You darkness from which I come,
I love you more than all the fires
that fence out the world,
for the fire makes a circle
for everyone
so that no one sees you anymore.
But darkness holds it all:
the shape and the flame,
the animal and myself,
how it holds them,
all powers, all sight --
and it is possible: its great strength
is breaking into my body.
I have faith in the night.
Rilke understood that our very origin is the darkness. We emerge from the darkness of the womb and, simultaneously, from the darkness of spirit, the Great Mystery. When Rilke writes that the fire fences out the world, I hear "world" as that greater portion of the universe we know little or nothing about. The darkness holds it all and so the Wanderer bravely enters that darkness to discover what is there and what is drawn to him. And the Wanderer, like Rilke, hopes not just to find something but to be changed, to be broken into, bodily. We must learn, like the poet, to have faith in the night.

Adapted from Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing Into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche  (New World Library, 2003).
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Soulcraft Musings: 
Exploring Soul and the Human Encounter with Soul 
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