RSR ~ ESSAYS
As I walked home from a movie on a sunny day a couple of years ago February, I thought about the renowned groundhog Punxsatawney Phil and the quirky ritual of winter prognostication that has risen around him. They say sight of his shadow will scare him into hiding and compel six more weeks of winter. It's more likely that a self-respecting woodchuck would catch sight of the sun and begin fantasizing over early peas or broccoli starts. One would think that a creature that lives underground much of its life should be pretty used to shadow.
Perhaps we believe Phil will be afraid of his shadow because we live in fear of that darkness ourselves. "Beware the shadow side", we are cautioned. But what is a shadow, really, but evidence of substance shown by the cast of light. Our substantive lives are often shadowed by circumstance. A sibling might die, a parent fall gravely ill, spent love and lost wishes pass through your life like eternal darkness. But there is always significant substance contained within the shadow rich like good humus, readily available for our growth.
I crafted a ritual to intentionally immerse myself in the realm of not knowing. If enlightenment embodies the pursuit of the knowledge of absolute truth, then endarkenment epitomizes the liberation gained from knowing that many things remain ultimately unknowable. I hiked to the crest of one of the highest local hills to watch the sunset. My intention was to see that fading sun as the setting of this most recent stage of my life. The sunset was a brushstroke of orange and magenta, spectacular enough to almost make me forget the symbolism of my act. Jagged rays of light pirouetted against thin veils of clouds. Robust wind conspired to keep any annoying mosquitoes at bay. I was free to revel in the wonder of it all.
As twilight settled into murky gloom, I started back down the trail towards town a couple miles away. I walked back home through the pitch-black woods, symbolically an entry into my own darkness. But this was not the darkness of shadow selves and all its attendant allusions, but of a place where there was no truth, no past, no future, nothing that can be known for sure, a liberating darkness that frees anything to happen, or nothing. Clodhopping back down the trail in near-night, 20 feet from a strange silhouette, I heard a jagged "hrufff" as a white-tail deer high-tailed it to the edge of the woods. It paused, looking back bemusedly as if to say "you could have caught me if you were paying attention." At a place where the white pines thicken, light failed. I hesitated at an ink-black tunnel, fearful. But there was no other way home, and so I entered the dark.
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I’d once encountered a passage in Jim Corbett's Goatwalking where he'd suggested that time alone in the desert night was a surefire way to invite our demons to the campfire.[i] For part two of the ritual, I decided to travel to the desert of my imagination, light a fire, and greet my demons. Once home, I propped a large mirror against a kitchen chair and plunged the room into darkness, lit candles in the four compass directions, placed some sacred found objects around me, and sat before the mirror. Next to me was a bottle of tequila from the high desert southwest, a place and substance for me of great truth-telling. I poured the first shot, looked myself in the mirrored eye and said "Here's to you and all your demons!" Alternating journal writing with dead-honest assessment of myself, my choices, my habits, I toasted my underlying dark truths. In such places, anything could happen. As the night stretched near to infinity, I created a space of not knowing in which I felt that anything or nothing could happen. For the darkness, for all we can tell, could be filled or empty – the choice is ours. I chose full, even as I experienced emptiness.
Darkness gets a bad rap. “Forces of darkness” seek to enslave humanity, certain religious fanatics warn us. “The dark lord rules all” blasts a heavy-metal band, or a Satanic cult, I can’t remember which. Pasty-skin, puckish psycho-babble artists try to tell us about the importance of getting in touch with our “shadow sides.” The cure for all these ills, some would tell us, is enlightenment, the awareness that brings us face-to-face with sacred knowing of great and profound truths. “The truth shall set us free!” cries the prophet.
But what do we make of the sacred un-knowing of the great un-truths? During my ritual, I’d deliberately entered a sanctuary where darkness obscured knowing anything for sure; where the concept of truth proved meaningless against the things that could never be known. Christian mystic St. John of the Cross, author of the medieval text Dark Night of the Soul, explored entry into the unknown as a different way of knowing.[ii] Our modern take on such exploration views our own dark nights of the soul as passage through painful and anguished struggles for understanding. What if we conceived of darkness not as an agonizing skirmish with the embittered-mistress madness, but a playful encounter with our demons and mysteries that require no firm understanding, bursting full of wild fun under the cover of the deep, good night?
Some time ago, a friend gave me a thought-provoking quote that he attributed to turn-of-the-century Russian artist Vladimer Malevich, "No man can be truly free until he is willing to disbelieve today what they believed yesterday." This is a challenging and intriguing statement, intoxicating though demanding. Through endarkenment, I experiment with a willing suspension of belief, understanding, knowledge and truth, the better to enter those mysterious realms where such things cannot gather in the conscious mind alone, but must be sensed deeply and reverently in the skin's paradise and the body's deep.
The wisdom of darkness... We spend half our lives in darkness. We fear it for the absence of light and for what we fell might trap us there, grow uncomfortable with not penetrating its secrets, not realizing the liberation that not knowing can provide. When speaking of enlightenment, we may refer to a refined knowledge of our selves and a deeper understanding of the universe around us. But I wonder if we overrate such knowledge. Endarkenment allows for that which can not be known by mind alone. Darkness makes room for the possibility of any truth, or no truth at all. In this practice of paradox, if enlightenment is the pursuit of the knowledge of truth, then endarkenment signifies relaxation into places of not knowing. Our confusion may also be a gift.
A friend wrote me awhile ago "I am in a state of blissful/painful confusion." What a marvelously complex statement; the bliss and pain of confusion. As with darkness, I believe confusion has also gotten a bad rap. I traced the word back to its roots, the Latin fundere; to pour, cast or mold.[iii] When something becomes fused, disparate elements transubstantiate into a liquid state promoting facile combination. Confusion can be seen as a kind of alchemy, a subliminal shifting and co-mingling of essences with another (where the ‘other’ may be land, human, non-human, or aspects of self). There are times for distinction and separation, but also episodes of inextricable and absolute merging. Confusion has now come to reflect a state of "fusing with," or merging with otherness so that the boundaries inevitably get a bit fuzzy. Maybe to be a part of rather than apart from life will always involve some confusion, as we intermingle deeply with the settings, situations and individuals around us.
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Sometimes, in the place where sadness lives is the only place where happiness knows its full vitality. Sometimes, we get so comfortable in particular regions of ourselves that we forget that parts of us even exist. I discovered this in myself when I met my shadow. A former girlfriend and I were exploring a music and arts festival in Seattle one spring about eight years ago. As we descended a stairway to a concourse of crafts booths, a wiry man about the same age as me - of moderate height, clean-shaven with long wavy hair - elbowed me in the ribs as he passed in the opposite direction. "What the heck was that about? Tiana, "Do you know him?" "Never saw him before in my life!" We turned to get a better look at him - he glared at me as he bounced lightly up the remaining steps then disappeared in the crowd. He never said a word.
The next few months we saw him everywhere; riding the Burke-Gilman bike path, dancing at outdoor summer concerts, shopping at our local grocery store (he hit on my girlfriend at the produce section one afternoon!), lifting a brew at a favorite tavern. We were beginning to think he was following us. If he looked at me at all, it was with a condescending sneer. His actions bordered on arrogance. He didn't order a beer so much as demand it. His movements were feral and hungry; he ranged his territory like an alpha male wolf. He commanded attention; the women I most noticed in our public shared space clustered around him like moths to a flame. I couldn't understand the appeal. I chafed at the assertive way he moved through his world.
I spoke to my oldest Seattle friend about all the volatile feelings aroused by these strange encounters. I was no more than halfway through my first story when Peter said "I know exactly who you're talking about. The guy has pissed me off for years." One afternoon, I went to a cafe to polish a manuscript I was trying to finish. On the other side of the room, commanding a large round table, sat my nemesis typing away on a lap-top, a large sheaf of papers and books cascading around him. He even sipped his coffee arrogantly, challenging gulps that seemed to say "This coffee and this place is for my pleasure alone!" A few weeks later, at an outdoor venue at the same music festival where I'd first encountered him, who should be playing his fiddle and belting out the lyrics in a tight circle of bluegrass musicians? (I am a closet old-timey musician.)
It made me angry to feel this, but I had to admit I was envious. While I wrote in cafes, he WROTE! While I played my music for myself in my living room - he played it with others wherever he damn well pleased. Now that I was single again, it seemed that every woman I saw this man with was invariably the one I was most attracted to in the crowd (and most afraid to approach). Cautious and unfailingly polite, I often let life come to me and accepted what I wanted of it. My nemesis, on the other hand, seemed to know what he desired and pursued it with ferocious attention.
It was around this time that I began to call him my "shadow". It seemed that he embodied a stunning array of personality traits that challenged my sense of propriety. He also challenged my self esteem. I felt meek, plain, boring, wimpy in comparison to him. Often, our first impulse when we encounter shadow energy is to lash out at it. In the company of my friends, when I saw my shadow, I would point him out, tell my stories and seethe. I stared after him with my own venomous glare. I tore him down in my mind, and thought of all the ways I was superior to him. But eventually, I had to face the reality of my envy; if someone made me that angry, then there must be something within me I felt incomplete about that his presence called out in me.
I began to see my shadow in a new light. When I encountered him now, I watched his actions intently, keen on picking out the things about him that bugged me and looking at those same facets within myself as if my shadow were holding up a large mirror to me. Then I explored each one of those elements, squirming and fidgeting as I looked honestly at the ways I embodied these "qualities" I so envied in my shadow.
It is not that I wished to 'be' this man - I had no desire to cut a rude and arrogant swath through my life. Instead I concentrated on acknowledging what it meant to uniquely embody those elements of another which so challenged me. It was as if, in integrating these 'shadow' elements, I needed to learn to cast my own light. Gradually, I've developed a strange affection for him. I wonder now if he looks at me as his shadow too, and learns from me in a similar way.
These shadowy places, that arouse so much emotion when we think of them, are pathways into new habitat within ourselves. Our discomfort, instead of being a signal to vacate a territory, is often an invitation to learn what might bring us into comfortable connection with an aspect of ourselves.
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There was a character in the old Li'l Abner comic strip named Joe Btfsplk. He was a grumpy old soul who stomped around with a constant black cloud literally looming over him. I felt a bit like Joe these last years; dragging myself from one harrowing debacle to another. But light indeed shone beyond my shadow, illuminating my earth-bound substance. As I explored an endarkened state of not knowing, I began to view the numbness I felt after three close familial deaths a bit differently. Perhaps my emotional paralysis was less a state of disturbed dysfunction than some sort of alchemical purgatory, another word which has been given a pejorative slant.
The primary definition rises straight out of Catholic doctrine: a between place where souls of those who’ve died must atone for their sins. Even the secondary definition takes a strong lean toward Christian guilt tripping: a place or state of temporary suffering or punishment. But down in the roots, there is a more nuance. Evolving from the Latin purgare it refers to any place serving to purge, cleanse, purify or expiate (itself a lovely word of making amends).[iv]
Artist/author Nick Bantock’s The Museum at Purgatory transformed my view of that liminal space. His story follows ‘Non’ the museum’s new curator and his encounters with the souls who pause in Purgatory on their passage to various dystopias and utopias. What Bantock reveals through these characters is the twinning of our usually dualistic natures (good/bad, happy/sad, playful/somber). His purgatory is a restful place of reintegration and, quite often, redemption.[v] And so I begin to see my own version of purgatory in a different light, as a way-station to weave together parts of me divided against one another and restore equilibrium and equanimity. Here I rest at a still point, ready to enact my future with these seeming opposites entwined and inseparable in all that I do. But even amid the grace of not knowing, there remains yet a necessity of conscious intention in knowing paradox.
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[i] Jim Corbett, Goatwalking: A Guide to Wildlands Living, a Quest for a Peaceable Kingdom (New York City: Viking, 1991) 1-48. The first three chapters in particular lay out the philosophical lessons and implications of wandering the Sonoran desert as a solitary wildlands goatherd.
[ii] Kieran Kavanaugh, and Otilio Rodriguez, "The Collected Woks of St. John of the Cross," (Washington D.C.: ICS Publications, 1991).
[iii] The New Century Dictionary of the English Language 305.
[iv] Ibid. 1421.
[v] Nick Bantock, The Museum at Purgatory (New York City: Harper Collins, 1999).