We have to drink the stupefying cup of darkness and wake up to ourselves, nourished and surprised.
. . . Edward Hirsch
It’s strange really, because I’m such a happy person. I’ve led a life of privilege—no trauma, abuse or deprivation. I’ve always felt enspirited and energetic, curious and passionate, loving and loved. I’m ceaselessly optimistic and see my life as a relatively easy ride so far with pretty much everything turning out well. I have alternately climbed the corporate and educational ladders and have been a leader in both. In my early sixties I had the resources to withdraw from professional work and create the life I wanted for the rest of my days. The question is: why did I fall into a deep well of darkness, grief and despair that took roughly five years to crawl out of?
I’ve thought endlessly about this question but for the first time ever, my thinking hasn’t done me much good. I can’t think my way through what happened; it’s not that kind of experience.
There is a natural turning inward as life progresses, a reflective review of what’s behind and what’s ahead, acknowledging limitations and facing the reality of death, sensing the presence of the infinite. As we transition from stage to stage in our growth as adults, we may experience feelings of disruption and confusion. But that doesn’t begin to describe the process of losing my identity, my bearings, everything I believed in and counted on, with nothing to replace it, simply to drift with no control in the blackness, like being stranded in space with no hope of returning to all that once was true.
That undoubtedly sounds like an overly dramatic description. What I experienced wasn’t like deep depression, a melancholy where one not only feels persistently sad but also experiences changes in sleep, appetite and concentration, or has thoughts of suicide. No, it’s more like a mist gradually rolls in, a foreboding, bringing with it a slow-growing ennui that resembles mourning, a sense that something or someone has died but you don’t know what or who.
It took me a long time to even understand that something unparalleled was happening, that this wasn’t going to pass but instead was going to thicken with darkening confusion. Nothing made sense. As I stood helplessly by, my world began to fall apart piece by piece, like a flower whose petals drop one by one as winter approaches.
At first, I resisted. I am adaptable, I am used to solving problems, finding workable solutions, making my way. But none of my usually successful strategies worked. In fact, they seemed to make matters worse. The harder I tried, the faster the breakdowns came. To further confound things, there were periods where I found enough temporary happiness in nature, music, meditation, and relationships to make me think maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t so bad after all and I was back to my old self. Then something—it didn’t need to be much—would plunge me back into the night and a worsening obscurity.
These cycles went on and on, the darkness edging out the light, until one day I realized that I was the one who was dying, I was the one I was grieving, I knew and controlled nothing. Like being suspended in midair between two trapezes, I stretched out my arms in surrender to what wanted to happen.
That was the turning point in my dark night. I gave up. The person I had been essentially died. There was no longer any point in fighting to get back to normal. The struggle was over. I simply waited for whatever would come, not knowing what shape it would take or what new self would emerge.
It turned out that the waiting allowed the hidden parts of myself to arise, the shadows I had kept in the dark and had not claimed as my own. I had to deal with these arisings one by one. Some were quite familiar, others shocking. Most of all, I realized I had discarded a core part of my true self that I needed to recover and bring into balance. There were other gifts among these reckonings. I found that forgiveness of others and myself freed me from my own imprisonment. Acknowledging my weaknesses gave me new strength. Compassion connected me close up.
This inner working took a long time for me, although I suspect that this was mostly because I repeatedly sought to adapt my old story rather than writing a new one. Finally, a time came when I had the courage to step out into the world to raise a trial balloon. This first step may not have been the right move, but it didn’t matter. I was on my way, slowly, slowly, feeling my way into the light. There were a number of setbacks, when I realized I needed to return to the depths to confront yet another demon I hadn’t recognized yet. And on it went until I found myself awakening with an arising spaciousness of perspective, a beginning understanding of the transformation I had been through. I gradually painted my new self into existence with the discernment of my expanded awareness. The fog lifted, the mist rose, and there was a new clarity, brilliance, beauty in everything. It was a new dawn.
Five years later, I am again a happy person. I can’t say happier, just different. I have a feeling of being more authentically who I am, more whole, a sense there is more light shining through me, that the dark journey I have been on brought the precious gift of greater consciousness. I am more deeply grateful, humbler, and more committed to service. And I am more attuned to the exquisite complexity and connectedness among all things, large and small.
As I reflect on my experience, I am struck by its mythical elements, as I understand myths to be ageless tales told and retold with the same basic patterns to act as a compass for taking needed action in our lives. Dark night stories are these kinds of archetypal myths, tales of descent, transformation and ascent, the darkness holding the gift of sight. These stories are always a quest. There is something missing that through a long road of trials, we come to see is some aspect of ourselves we have discarded and must reclaim, integrating the disowned part into a whole cloth to re-emerge as mature members of society. In our current moment, one of society’s most needed quests is the dark night journey to reclaim our lost feminine qualities, in males and females alike, the imbalance in our culture that leaves us feeling disconnected from the world, each other, and ultimately ourselves. The dark night journeys related in the following pages are a retelling of these ancient quests according to the drama of our times and the need for leadership in moving through the dark night of our world.