“Midway through the journey of our life,
I found myself within a dark wood,
for the right way had been lost.”
~ Dante Alighieri, The Inferno
I think most of us have been lost in a dark wood at some point in our lives and we can probably count on having to visit these primeval forests again.
An allegory for passing through uncertainty and the suffocating layers of darkness and density we encounter as we move deeper into the depths, the quote above speaks to being lost in the midst of our life experience and the increasing sense of viscosity that comes with moving through what cannot be grasped or controlled…just lived.
We may feel a strong pull to do something about the sensation of falling, feeling alone or remaining stuck but being with the moment might be the most powerful move we can undertake—an attentive kind of turning toward, instead of going with the knee-jerk desire to run or suppress a difficult reality. Muck, storms and night, these are the contributors and beneficiaries of fertility, sunrays and daytime.
It is easy to parcel what we meet into the discriminating categories of the mind, but if there is any wish to enter into the now, we might have to begin taking down the barriers of likes and dislikes, to truly feel what is here—and then slowly, patiently, enter into the oneness that binds the illusion of day and night into the flow of existence. Reverently and attentively passing through the night is a good place to witness the mind.
Dante was a thirteenth century Italian poet who fought on the winning (and then losing) side of a continuous power struggle in the democratic city-state of Florence, before he was finally exiled from his home. For many years, he tried to reignite a past feud and forcefully push his way back into the city ,without success. As he aged, he dove into religious and philosophical study, the sustained practice of which led to the creation of his three-part Divine Comedy.
Though it is fascinating to tread through the levels of hell in the Inferno, I find the quote above to hold a great deal of practical meaning for us now—especially when it is placed against the prospect of sitting next to a half-submerged devil on a lake made of ice, listening to the sounds of those wailing in anguish above us for eternity. (Note: Our Western culture actually believed in this version of hell, by the way—an imaginary creation of the mind that led to a lot of suffering over the last thousand years. Our own little stories aren’t much different than this fantasy of hell, in that they are fundamentally derived from the same source, running about outside the direct experience of what is now. In meditation and mindfulness practice, this becomes a little more clear.)
There is a lot of humor here I must admit, something for us to learn a thing or ten.
There are many ways to approach the Inferno, but I enjoy the interpretation that goes in line with the quote above—heading towards the unknown and descending into marrow of what it means to be a living, breathing, human being. In Buddhism, hell or suffering is subtly defined as life lived outside the experience of this moment, where one is easily governed by the rushing nature of the small mind. You aren’t sent to this hell by a patronizing, morally dignified figure. You suffer—or put yourself in hell—on your own.
If Dante’s hell is a mind-made entity, then in this case, hell is the unexamined mind, not the center of the earth. It could be right here, when we judge ourselves, create stories and act out in a way that has nothing to do with the now.
The process or journey of heading into the mindfulness version of hell isn’t like Dante’s stroll through the Inferno, in that there are no linear explanations, set layers or encounters with internal guides—just a trail and an unknowable, wild landscape to begin to rediscover. With staff in hand, heading toward the night means paying attention to what is here; if there is grief, then we feel grief—if there is a sense of being lost, then we should feel that too—allowing the wide array of sensations to reverberate through the mind and pass through the body.
Deepening into the layers of hell, in this sense, means going into the regions our mind does not wish to visit and shedding the light of awareness on darkness. The more troubling, the more dense, the more defensive, the more uncomfortable and the more icky, the more we should probably attempt to move toward as a way to become more intimate with what we shun.
What are some examples of hell? Maybe we have just lost a job or a loved one and our mind is running about wildly, attempting to envision a desolate future. It could be nestled in a powerful belief system too—“oh I believe this so vigorously that if someone attempts to question it I will (A) become extremely defensive (B) attack the other person’s character or (C) begin an inquisition and set them on fire.” One of these is enough to constitute hell and if you experience all of them, well then there have been others who have been there too.
Hell could also be in our reaction to sickness or even death. In all of these examples, hell is in the mind and the severity of it depends on the strength of our reaction. In the end, hell is hell. But in a fun, “turn things around kind of twist, consciously going into hell presents us with the greatest avenue for freedom. Here’s what Zen Master Lin-chi has to say about the matter:
“Followers of the Way, the Dharma of the buddhas calls for no special undertakings. Just act ordinary, without trying to do anything particular. Move your bowels, piss, get dressed…Fools will laugh at me but the wise will know what I mean. If wherever you are, you take the role of host, then whatever spot you stand in will be your true one. Then whatever circumstances surround you, they can never pull you awry. Even if you are faced with the crimes that bring on the hell of incessant suffering, these will of themselves become the great sea of emancipation.”
Lin-chi didn’t mess around and he was pretty good at turning people’s lives upside down—flaying them out and pressing their minds against their darkness, not as a way to punish them or hurt them but to force his pupils to deal with reality so they might find wholeness, freedom. In this sense hell, ordinariness, nirvana, going to the bathroom and sleeping, floated in and out of one’s life depending on one’s state of being.
This is an intriguing kind of hell, because it involves the life that is here, not the fantastical stories of the imagination. And when we meditate or stop ourselves in the midst of a mind storm, we might feel, “wow, where was I? The sun is shining and the birds are calling, yet I am preparing for an argument that isn’t here and that most likely will not take place.” It is so subtle, but the validity runs deep.
The last line of Lin-chi’s quote represents the teeth. “Even if you haven’t been present all day and you acted like a fool, freeing yourself from this state of mind will be like looking out on the edge of the Pacific Ocean for the first time—the vastness itself blows everything to pieces—Breathing in, I am breathing in. Breathing out, I am breathing out.”
At least that is how I see it; I don’t know, you might have experienced this before. Letting go, especially when you have put yourself in solitary confinement with judging demons who prod you with tridents and rub your mind in fire, is a very liberating feeling. You might laugh or cry, smile or reverently bow. I don’t know. And the moment you become free, the world shines in its own way and the most ordinary functions have a tender light-heartedness to them.
Heaven, purgatory, and hell are all right here, in this mind. When you or I begin to realize that, the lusciousness of life becomes paramount and the time we have to cry, play with children and respect the natural order of the environment is the greatest gift.
Conclusion & a Note: Hell. It is easy to talk about tragedy in a blog. It is easy to say, “Oh, relish it!” It is much more difficult to live it. The structure of the Inferno has two qualities to it: (1) as the transgressions increase the punishments increase in severity and as the voyager descends, the darkness becomes more palpable. (2) And yet all along, hell is still hell. When we practice mindfulness, especially when we are in hell, it is good to remember these two points. Yes, dealing with a wrongful death or an unfair tragedy is more intense, something like the ninth layer compared to a first layer crime: resting with a nasty thought or fantasy. But always remember, hell is hell. And remember too the teeth of Lin-chi’s quote—the greatest freedom comes from sitting with and claiming the darkest, densest night.
Ed: Bryonie Wise
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