Strange is it not? that of the myriads who
before us passed the door of Darkness through,
Not one returns to tell us of the road,
Which to discover we must travel too.
~ Omar Khayyam (Translation by Edward Fitzgerald)
Darkness, depression, separation, and melancholy are the shunned depths of the spiritual road, yet they are as much a part of the journey as joy and the choruses of laughter we fall into from time to time.
Night accompanies day and gives it a kind of brilliance it might not otherwise have without the contrast, but there’s also a wonder in the darkness by itself, too, an opportunity to encounter the true beasts that lurk in the wilderness of the mind. There’s a different kind of life in the night where an entire slew of unknown creatures come out to prowl and play, an interaction that cannot be viewed without our entering into the territory with open eyes and keen senses. The powerful emotions and shattered expectations down here in the belly of night make for a swirling setting in some magical realism tale—vivid and rich, pitfalls and forests strewn about.
Delving into the mind in the midst of great doubt or depression, when we are feeling alone or crushed against a tight situation, sheds an attentive light on the power of the mind—its depths and its expansive nature—and in the end, the silent revelation of a calm, pervasive being sitting patiently, meditatively below night and day, sun and moon.[i]
It might be interesting to go toward (into) the night instead of resisting it, to sit with it, turn it upside down and find the marrow within its dark clutched claws.[ii]
Literature and other art forms often derive their roots from what is rough and sinuous. From this perspective, the artist reaches down to conjure up the nutrients from the soil of the unconscious—the place where dreams, memories, hate, love and evolution manifest and fall back. Though darkness can feel painful and alienating, some of the greatest works stem from this evocatively dense place and that alone is something worth looking into:
I wake and feel the fell of dark not day.
What hours, O what black hours we have spent
This night! What sights you, heart, saw; ways you went!
And more must, in yet longer light’s delay.
~ Gerard Manly Hopkins, “I Wake & Feel the Fell of Dark not Day.”
The stanza above comments on the experience of depression—that dark space sucked down deep in the caverns of the mind where light does not enter and the world shrinks into a pit of blackness. Some fall prey to depression’s vortex and succumb to its gravitational pull without any opportunity to escape, and I am not sure this is a bad thing—a time for our consciousness to surrender and get crushed against the bottom of life where, ironically, life still remains as it is.
The night is also a creative arena where we might glean a profound insight about who we are, the nature of life, or the breadth of compassion, that it remains prevalent when the light is lacking in our lives as well.
Though I cannot speak for those with real disorders and chronic issues, I can speak to the common human experience of melancholy and feelings of being disassociated from the vibrancy of the world. Down and away, marinating in the density, I ask myself, “Where am I?” The answer can vary, but when things begin to clear and I have paid my respects to the relics of the night, it becomes an emphatic, “right here.” My vital sense of connection restored, life continues to move on while my sense of being deepens more thoroughly into the present moment.
Gerard Manly Hopkins is considered one of the great poets of modern English literature. His writing style and creative diction inspired an entire generation of writers and poets from the likes of T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats who felt alienated and pulled awry during the tumultuous years—the sheer chaos—of the early 20th century. Yet this inspiring figure (muse) repeatedly ran into the black hole of darkness himself, delving into the abysmal mental circumstances he suffered throughout his life.
Hopkins struggled with depression and his expression of his experiences in the cold depths led to the creation of some of the most intensely beautiful writing of our time. “I am gall, I am heartburn,” he writes: intense, through and through–something for us to feel and remain in solidarity with as we read. His articulations changed the lives of others, though they may or may not have been able to rescue him.
Entering into the realm of the night has its dangers, but when we can learn to release ourselves and venture into its awe-inspiring depths, it can change the way we interact with life.
The darkness isn’t just relegated to the arts; even some of the great Zen minds of the 8th and 9th centuries have run into trouble, doubt and despair. Zen literature often lacks descriptions of the master’s pasts, but we can assume they too experienced the same world, the same trials and tribulations, burning questions, love interests, funerals, and the same rampant human mind, before they deepened beyond the grips of judgment and discrimination into the vast, borderless territory of Big Mind. One of the most well-known Chinese master’s, Hsueh-feng, toiled for more than thirty years before a good friend—not one of his many teachers—finally pushed him through his final mind-made barriers in a small mountainside hut while waiting out a violent snowstorm:
While Hsueh-feng sat meditating hour after hour, Yen-t’ou chastised him for imitating a clay figure and urged him to get some sleep. Hsueh-feng gestured to his chest and said that his heart was still not at peace (after all these years). Yen-t’ou then took the time to have his friend describe his moments of light and times of darkness before Yen-t’ou finally burst out, “Don’t you know that what enters through the gate is not the family treasure? Let it flow forth from your heart to cover the sky and the earth!” Hsueh-feng was suddenly, deeply awakened.[iii]
After spending years trudging through the night, Hsueh-feng experienced such a profound transformation that he could not be held fast. In that moment, he transformed into a Zen master. His experience freedom might not have occurred without spending time in the night while working on himself over the years.
There are some styles of living where darkness is neglected and covered under the façade of positivity. And this is okay.
I think it’s important to be wary of how we might blanket an issue and pretend it is okay or hide behind a mentally created wall when in fact whatever is there should be upheld and intimately met—sat with and understood. We could be doing ourselves the greatest disservice and missing out on a profound opportunity to blow down our smaller selves and meet the being within.
Note: Photography by Don Dianda
[i] If the dichotomy of day and night were taken from the perspective of earth, then the pervasive sense of equanimity is the universe itself – the one that holds sun, moon, and earth together and flows with the moment.
[ii] Zen koan: “If you turn things around, you are like the Buddha.”
[iii] Note: Yen-t’ou also became a well-known teacher who was eventually murdered during an imperial crackdown on the monasteries. Both Yen-t’ou and Hsueh-feng are considered Dharma descendents of Te-shan.
Editor: Lynn Hasselberger