“What we find as practitioners is that nothing ever goes away until it has taught us what we need to know.” —Pema Chodron, Things Fall Apart
Every Thursday for the past few months I have visited a local Buddhist insight mediation center, Spirit Rock. One day I attended a course on the Dark Night of the Soul. The course was inspiring and reassuring as the dark night is understood by Buddhists not to be a crisis to move past as quickly as possible, but as a beautiful (if painful) opportunity for spiritual growth. The process is honored as sacred and is given as much time as needed to come to completion.
Towards the end of the day the participants were asked to do a free writing exercise about our journey. We were given 5 prompts. Here is what I wrote:
My dark night began when I first became chronically ill. I thought it started this January, with my bathroom floor moment, when I decided to accept my life whether I was healthy or ill. But now I know that the dark night actually began when I became sick 5 years ago. And I couldn’t see it.
The hardest part was not knowing if it would ever end and feeling that I might be trapped in my bed forever. The hardest part was fighting my illness. Being unable to accept my illness and the impermanence of life. I kept thinking that if I just worked hard enough and diligently enough I could fix it. I could heal my physical body and move on with my life. The hardest part was feeling stuck, like my life had stopped. The hardest part was realizing that I hadn’t been a kind and loving friend to myself and fearing that I might never find a way to be truly content.
I had to let go of the illusion of control; of the idea that I could fix my health by doing the right things. I had to let go of grasping for physical health. I had to let go of the idea that I couldn’t live a valuable and purposeful life unless I was physically healthy. I had to let go of the idea that my illness was getting in the way of my LIFE. I had to let go of shame, guilt, self-judgment, self-criticism and feelings of failure. I had to let go of the idea that it was too late. That I had missed my window. That there is a right way to live a life.
The turning point came when I decided to accept my illness. When I stopped fighting. When I chose to become friends with myself again. When I decided to be truly present to what was. When I stopped grasping and clinging. When I became willing to look deeply at how I got here. When my eyes were opened to all of the emotional and spiritual factors that contributed to my illness. When I started really facing my fear. When I let myself feel all of the feelings. When I stopped trying to fix.
I emerged from my dark night with the gifts of gratitude, awe, a renewed belief in myself, a trust in the power of letting go, more self-compassion, an inner knowing that I don’t have to have everything figured out, that it’s ok not to know where I’m going, that I can look to MYSELF for guidance, that if I create enough space clarity and wisdom will show up when they’re ready. I emerged with the gift of more internal peace, calm, trust, and patience for the unknown. I emerged with greater physical health (who woulda thunk?). I emerged with an awareness of my unique gifts and a better sense for what I bring to the world.
I emerged with a sense of the sacred. With a recognition of the importance of joy. With the knowledge that the gifts will keep on coming. With the beauty of a softened heart. And with a renewed respect for my nervous system and the signs it gives me that I need to care for myself.
And hopefully I’ve emerged with the ability to provide grounding to others going through their own dark nights. With the capacity to extend compassion and understanding to those who are struggling. With the gift of being able to help people feel less alone in this great big world.