Embracing the Wisdom of the Dark


Winter Solstice Reflections from the Port Townsend Day of Mindfulness Retreat led by Kurt Hoelting at Quimper UU Church, Sat., Dec. 9, 2017

The poet Galway Kinnel writes: "I know that I love the day, / The sun on the mountain, the Pacific / Shiny and accomplishing itself in breakers, / But I know I live half alive in the world, / Half my life belongs to the wild darkness."

We are on the cusp of the Winter Solstice, in the trough of the long wave of a slowly-shifting tide of daylight and darkness here in the Northern Hemisphere. Strictly speaking, at this latitude, in the weeks that surround the winter solstice, two-thirds of our life belongs to the wild darkness. What wisdom dwells in this dark time of year that we need to pay open-hearted attention to? How does our practice of mindfulness help us open to that essential wisdom?

The winter solstice season offers a built-in natural invitation to renew our intimacy with the wisdom of the dark. In the coming days and weeks, when the earth's axis is tilted away from the sun to the greatest degree in our annual cycle around the sun, it can feel as if time stops, somewhere in the heart of darkness. It's as if we are holding our breath in the moment when darkness dominates the cycles that we are all inseparably bound within. The daily change in daylight slows to a moment of cessation, like the moment of slack tide, or like the moment of pause in the breath itself as it shifts mysteriously from inhalation to exhalation. It is as if time stands still in these precious moments of pause.

This is the season when we are offered an important opportunity; to listen to our bodies, and to the pulse of the earth itself within us. In our practice, it is a good time to notice also the seductive currents present the culture around us that pull us back into the glare of spotlights that try to stamp out the darkness, that pull us into a frenzy of activity that leans away from what our bodies and our hearts actually need during this time of natural pause.

Each of our choices to come to this retreat today – whatever our specific reasons, or our particular tradition of practice, reflects that pull toward pause that our bodies and hearts long for now, that reclamation of a practice of presence to counter the tide of busyness. In that sense, it reflects a pull toward wholeness.

The poet Rilke writes; "I love the dark hours of my being. / My mind deepens into them. / There I can find, as in old letters, / the days of my life, already lived, / and held like a legend, and understood. / Then the knowing comes: I can open / to another life that's wide and timeless."

I want to talk about the place of darkness in our lives from several different standpoints. I am a Zen practitioner, but I am also a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher, in the non-sectarian lineage of Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine. This approach to the dharma is rooted in the teachings of Vipassana, or Insight Meditation, and specifically based on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. In Vipassana we are taught to pay close and detailed attention to how experience manifests, from moment-to-moment, in four distinct but always related ways; in our bodies, our emotions, our thoughts, and our relationship to the wider world. We are taught to move from the dance floor to the balcony to witness these different domains of experience from a less judging and reactive place, less caught in the changing weather blowing through the surface conditions of our lives. There are seasons of light and seasons of darkness, moments of ease, and moments of intense physical or emotional distress. None are to be banished. In our practice we come to see and trust, as the poet Rilke says, that “No feeling is final”. Each will pass. Therefore each can be welcomed as a temporary guest and teacher.

That is maybe especially true of the dark times, since it takes conscious effort and courage to open to what we do not want. It is an always counter-intuitive way of saying “Yes” to our lives. In this exploration of the transformative power of darkness, I want to start with the body. We are creatures. We are primate mammals. During the dark time of year, if we are tuned to our bodies, we can feel traces of our deep ancestry in the pull toward hibernation. We can feel the earth's own yearning for pause. There is a kind of physical and emotional solace that can come in the moments when we give ourselves to the slower pulse of a planet bathed for lingering weeks in half light and darkness. But we have to choose to give ourselves to it, to notice the ways that we resist it, and by knowing how to welcome the fallow times with a listening heart.

In a culture that doesn't know how to pull back on the throttle of our doing and our striving, we may feel caught in the dissonance between the rest that our bodies need, and our endless To-Do lists that keep us caught in the turbulence. We may feel claustrophobic, anxious or fearful in the presence of the dark, which can send us scurrying again for the glare of artificial lights. As with everything that arises in our practice, it is important simply to notice when this urge us upon us, to recognize it without judgment as simply another form of reactivity, and to use that knowing as an invitation to return awareness to our bodies, as our most intimate expression of now

What do we miss physically when we try to banish the darkness, when we try to leap across the dark hours of our being?

Perhaps we miss the deeper physical rest our bodies are craving – the longer hours of sleep, the days and weeks of non-doing and non-striving that was built into the lives of our indigenous ancestors during the dark time of year. We miss the chance to hunker down in the company of people we love, to gather around a fire telling stories, reciting the poetry that is the story of our people, making art, making love, laying fallow for a time with the rest of the earth community.

We may miss also the pleasure of choosing to live more fully in place, exploring our home terrain more often under our own power, with our senses more fully deployed. More than most American's, those of us who live here in the Salish Sea bio-region are still a People of Place. By developing a practice of presence, we become intimate with our place on earth in the same ways that we become intimate with the people we love, by building that love through the marrow of all seasons.

This is also what we are doing internally when we take our seats in meditation. We are choosing to come into our lives as they actually are in this moment. These periods of extended pause, of deliberate non-doing, bring us back to ourselves, back to our senses, rooting us literally into the ground upon which we sit and stand. It roots us back into the primacy of the moment we are actually inhabiting. We learn to see this very moment more realistically as the only moment we will ever have, and therefore as precious beyond measure.

So the longer darkness of the solstice season invites us back into that practice of presence. It invites us to re-commit to a listening heart, to a renewed intimacy with our own inner life, to the magic that is alive always in this very place, and to a renewed friendship with the transient nature of all life from which beauty and aliveness endlessly low.

Psychologically and emotionally, the dark time of year echoes the darker emotions that lurk in the human unconscious, and our primitive fear of the dark that triggers such a visceral, embodied resistance to what we can't see. The literal and metaphorical dark brings us up against the unknown in a direct and primal way. In times of grief, uncertainty and loss, the whole world can feel dark, echoing St. John of the Cross's “dark night of the soul”. The poets and saints teach us that this upwelling of fear is actually a great moment of opportunity. It is the time not to flee into an artificial light, but to persist in the darkness, to face directly what we can only learn from the darkness.

The poet Theodore Roethke wrote that, “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.”

The Zen teacher Joan Halifax tells a powerful story that as a young child of four, she contracted a condition that caused a temporary blindness that lasted for two years. She recounts how stark that moment in her young life was and remains for her to this day. The external world that had been the raw material of all her adventures and explorations, suddenly disappeared. What she discovered in its place, in the weeks and months that followed, was a vast inner world and inner light that she would never have seen otherwise, never have noticed. Even though she eventually recovered her sight, this experience re-shaped the whole rest of her life in the direction of exploring the inner life of the spirit, and the tactile life of other senses beyond sight. She had to face her primal fear of the dark, and her helplessness in the face of it, very early in her life. It left her much less afraid of that elemental darkness, and much more willing to dwell in the presence of unknowing, which is in many ways the essence of our practice.

Learning to turn toward rather than away from the places that scare us, the dark corners where fear lies in wait, is the beginning of freedom from fear. It takes courage and gumption to stay put in the dark, rather than fleeing when darkness is upon us. All of us, I'm sure, can think of times when we chose to face our fears rather than running from them. Perhaps take a moment to bring to mind such a time in your own life, when you faced into your pain or fear without running from it. These are often the transformative moments in our lives, when we find out that we are bigger than we thought we were, stronger and more resilient than we thought we were. In this sense, our practice is much more than simply self-care, or the quest for more balance in a life we still think we control. It is actually more interesting than that. And more terrifying.

And this brings me to that wider domain of our practice, where our daily lives meet the complexities and wounds of a world that seems to be coming unravelled. How do we navigate our own stress and difficult emotions in relationship to a world that seems to have lost its bearings, even lost its mind?

After the 9/11 attacks my father went into his room and closed the door, refusing to talk for two days after. I wasn't around at the time, but as my brother Kim tells it, this scared my mother enough that she asked him to go talk to Dad. My Dad was a proud WWII veteran and lifelong Republican, who had struggled mightily with the changes we all went through in the '60's. Kim found him in his room, sitting in a chair and staring at the floor. He told my father that this was hard for all of us, that his silence was scaring mom, and that these are the times when we need to be there for each other. At that point, Dad raised his head and met Kim's gaze and said, “Son, I'm sorry I had to live to see this.”

I wonder if there is anyone in this room who hasn't had that thought or feeling, at some point in the midst of our daily news cycles that keep us riveted to the latest global tragedy, the latest political scandal. Whether we are talking ecological extremes, political instability, global terrorism, resurgent racism and xenophobia, the assault on Democratic institutions, we are living through changes on a scale that no previous generation of humans has had to contend with, global changes on an existential scale. Just bringing up the topic can trigger anxiety, fear and outrage. It is hard enough to deal with our personal challenges and losses. What do we do when the very ground on which we stand reveals itself to be fluid and beyond our control?

Once at Tassajara Zen Monastery, a student asked Suzuki Roshi if he could please just summarize Buddhism in one phrase. Without missing a beat he gave his answer. “Everything changes.” Even with monumental changes like the ones we are living through now, the Buddha taught that it is what we do with the inevitability of change and loss that matters. It is our resistance to change that causes suffering, not change itself. The Buddhist entrepreneur Paul Hawken, in addressing the specter of climate change, asked a really interesting question: “What if this isn't happening too us? What if it is happening for us?” What if we, of all the thousands of generations of humans, are the ones who have been privileged to be here at just this time, when the need for kindness and compassion – toward ourselves and others - is not just a good idea, but a matter of survival. On the eve of the winter solstice it is fair to ask, what if the dark times in our lives are for us, rather than against us?

My father went through his Dark Night of the Soul on 9/11. He died not too long after. It was never clear whether he found the inner peace he was looking for before he died. Not all of us do. But when it feels like the changes are too much to bear, that is when we most need our practice. That is when we need to open our hearts, rather than closing them. That is what our practice invites us into, one precious moment at a time. Turning toward rather than away from what is difficult in our lives, with curiosity rather than resistance – that is what our practice invites us into. What we discover, whenever we take refuge in the aliveness of now, is that this peace was here all along. Nothing can take it away from us except our own forgetfulness.

The 14th Century mystic Julian of Norwich was excluding nothing in the human condition when she said, “All shall be well. And all manner of thing shall be well.” May this season of darkness be a time of remembering – and experiencing for ourselves again – how true this still is.