The Dark Night of the Soul

As the nights draw in, and the cold brings us indoors for longer periods of time, the winter months are a good time for reflection. Though we may not need to take stock of our material goods as much as our ancestors did with today’s easier lifestyle, we must pay due diligence to our emotional and spiritual well-being. For the long winter months can be the most difficult for many people, and coupled with the physical stress of lack of sunlight, fresh food and often companionship we often have a trying time ahead. We are laid upon the anvil of Brighid, to be pounded and wrought into something stronger if we are able to see it through.

Taking care of our thoughts and feelings is essential to maintain a balanced equilibrium throughout the winter months. We have to work with emotional responsibility, and take charge of our behaviour rather than letting impulses, reactionary behaviour (which is often improper), and the deluge of other destructive human emotion to rule our world. We have to come to know our shadow side, to come to terms with the good and the bad, and to feed that which will sustain us. We acknowledge the necessity of destruction, but we need not feed it through the long winter months within our souls. We do not ignore negativity, but rather work with it in order to better understand our own sense of self, and in doing so, better understand others in the process. We all have destructive and negative thoughts, but what defines us is whether and how we act upon these thoughts. Sometimes it is necessary to work with destruction, but often we do not seek the way which will cause the least amount of harm. For us Druids, we need to remember the balance of the whole, as we strive towards holistic living and becoming a beneficial and nourishing part of an ecosystem. We have to remember our place within the whole, and take responsibility for the role that we play in our life, and in the lives of others.

There are far too many people who, knowingly or not, vent their emotions, their failures, their worries, anger, stress and more upon others. Let us not be like them, let us not add to the suffering in the world. We have to take a long, deep look at blame: at who we blame for our emotions, our behaviours. Only when we do so, can we begin the on the path to emotional responsibility. Certainly, there will be external factors beyond our control, but essentially the life that we live is up to us to determine, here in the gentler West. We’re not suffering the ravages of war or famine for the most part, though in the UK the rise of poverty is accelerating at an incredible pace under our current Conservative government. Many may suffer from ill health, physical or mental or both. But in working to take the reins and guide our souls towards integration, we must first of all be willing to do so. We must want health, healing and wholeness, for it will not happen without our effort.

We not only have to look at who we are blaming, but also when we blame ourselves for our suffering. That is not to say that we give ourselves a carte blanche, and do not take responsibility for suffering that we have caused, to ourselves and others. Rather, we acknowledge and then move on from there, instead of staying stuck in the well of stagnant waters in our soul.

I’ve had someone blame me for their depression for a blog post that I wrote years ago and then suffered years of bullying and undermining behaviour in a professional capacity as a result. I’ve had a friend stop all communication with me when I provided them information on a disease that they had, which they didn’t like hearing but which I shared because I was worried about their health and their becoming re-infected (they were terribly misinformed, and I referred them to the NHS website). I’ve been ill-treated by my first dance instructor, whose jealousy and competitiveness ruled her emotions and her behaviour towards me. These are but a few examples of things I have gone through that require my own personal emotional responsibility. I cannot control how other people react to life, or to what I do, even though I do my work with the best intention in mind, and keep to a strong code of ethic. These behaviours are lamentable, and I wish that I could help these people in coming to terms with their own suffering, and alleviate the misplaced blame and anger that they have laid upon me, but I cannot. I cannot make others act as I would wish; I can only live the example that I wish to see in the world. I will not perpetuate the destruction or suffering, the anger or the legion of other emotions that are involved.

It’s not all roses and light in my world. I regularly work with my shadow, with anger and vengeance, with pain and suffering in my life, and in the lives of others. How that energy moves in my life is what I work to control, to transform. I work towards not allowing these emotions to cause further destruction around me, though I may use them to bring about certain endings in life situations, and to take stock of where it is that I am investing my time and thoughts. If it isn’t beneficial to the whole, if it isn’t nourishing, then the investment stops, and I seek to work with energies that will sustain both myself and others in my life. That’s not to say that I don’t go through dark periods as I come to terms with things happening in my life, but I know that there is transformation awaiting, if only I have the courage and the will to seek it out.

From the tide of Samhain to the Winter Solstice, I use this period for deep introspection, for reflection and spiritual work that honour the darkness both within and without. I look at where I have laid blame in my life, and where others have blamed me with equanimity. I look at the success and the failure in my life with equal measure. I take stock of what will keep me going through the winter months, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, and then simply do the work necessary. Prayer, meditation, work, ritual; all these are pathways for the soul to come to terms with the self. I can seek further guidance from the ancestors, from the gods, the Fair Folk and the spirits of place. My relationship with these beings is integral to my spiritual path, and this relationship too must be nourished. Giving in return for receiving is essential to any functioning ecosystem, to the integration sought by those on the Druid path.

The world provides us with examples each and every day of how not to be: from world leaders insulting each other over social media, the bad behaviour of colleagues, the trials we endure from friends and family and more. Seek out the darkness within and without, and work with it in order to reclaim the energy that lies in the shadow. For it is in the darkness that the seeds wait for the warmth and light of spring. The darkness is nourishing, if we allow it to be, if we are able to seek the calm and centeredness necessary before transforming the energy into something that will grow and flourish. Take a long, deep look at your own self, and in doing so, come to know your own dark night of the soul.

Note: St John of the Cross, 16th-century, Spanish poet and Roman Catholic, Discalced Carmelite mystic, priest, and Doctor of the Church St. John of the Cross, OCD wrote a poem entitled “The Dark Night of the Soul” in which the human soul sees communion and integration with the divine.

dark night soul

 

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Finding balance

Finding your balance point is a major part of this season, the season of harvest. We learn of need and abundance, of just enough and not quite enough. We learn what needs to be worked on still, and what we can sit back and enjoy. Having a birthday that falls right in the middle of the harvest season is a great reminder for me to stop, to take stock, in my own personal life. Too often for me the focus is outward, and rightly so in my opinion, working on deep integration and relationship. Too often too many spend their entire lives looking inward, and missing the entire outer experience of being in the world. The curse of self-awareness is a blinkered view of the world because the focus is centred on the self. When the self becomes “we”, however, our views can change rapidly. But right here, right now, I am about to celebrate another year’s passing in my life, camping with my husband, taking our canoe out and enjoying some time together away from all the demands of everyday life. With the equinox approaching, the crops still being taken in, the apples in my garden ripening, I see how everything in nature is working in a balance, where if something is out of kilter, it will more than likely fail.

Taking this time is essential for my own personal balance. Teetering on the tipping point of a situation can be gloriously inspiring, invigorating and exciting, but so can finding that harmony within. So many people feel alive only when they are tipped one way or another, but for me balancing in the middle of that teeter-totter was always the best place to be on the playground. Literally. I loved finding my balance, seeing the ends of the teeter-totter stretched out to either side, knowing that I could keep them both off the ground and in balance through finding my own centre. I didn’t need the drama of a great high or a low bump while sitting on the edge of that playground attraction – that middle place was the most exhilarating, where I found I used the most skill to find and maintain my own balance to affect the whole.

I’ve always had good balance physically. Learning to ski and ice skate from a very early age, riding bikes all summer long, I knew how to find and work with that sweet spot to my own advantage. With ice-skating in particular I loved spinning, finding that spot on the blade of my skate that allowed me to spin at speed in one place, ignoring the dizziness and simply being in the moment of perfect balance, often one leg lifted, creating beautiful shapes and feeling physically present and wonderful in that moment.

Spiritually, my work in Buddhism has helped me to understand the wisdom of the Middle Way. This is not to say that my life isn’t full of spiritual or emotional ups and downs, but instead the focus is to incorporate the teachings of harmony and balance into everyday life.

I simply don’t understand the need to create huge dramas when life is so utterly wonderful. I’m not saying my life is wonderful, for again there are equal amounts of pleasure and pain, work and enjoyment, life and death. But being in that moment of moving beyond opens me to the wonder that is so utterly inspiring to Druids the world over. It is that exquisite taste of awen, of inspiration, where souls meet and worlds are broken open into new and deeper meanings than ever imagined. That wonder is not just found in great highs and at the turning point of the lowest lows, but also in perfect balance.

This harvest season, as we approach the equinox, I’ll be working further with balance, opening my eyes to see it in the world around me, to allow it to inspire me further in my work. In the heathland and forest of my home, where the ecosystem maintains itself without human intervention. In the cycles of water and wind that roam over our blue planet. In the dance of stars and moons that hurtle through time and space. And at the centre of it all is balance, even as the world spins without, here, at the very centre is a stillness that is so exquisite there simply aren’t even words to describe it.

Choosing your battles

We often spend so much of our energy needlessly. Disputes, arguments, feuds, grudges, long-held anger and frustration are just some examples. We need to choose our battles wisely, for they are not all worth fighting.

Sometimes there is nothing we can do. When faced with ignorance or denial, we are often facing an impassable wall upon which we can either hurl ourselves time and again, or simply shrug and walk away. It is not our duty to make the ignorant wise, or to force someone into changing their mind. That can only change from within. Our energy is a precious resource that must be used wisely. There are many fights that are worthy of our time, but we don’t have to attend every argument that we are invited to.

Think about the energy used in holding a grudge against someone, for a few days, a few weeks, a few months or a few years. How could that energy have been better spent? How much energy is involved in a family feud, from all sides involved? How much time is wasted arguing on social media, trying to prove your point and making a stranger change their mind? How much energy is spent talking behind people’s backs, trying to get people “on your side”? Is it really worth it?

Even if it’s something you truly believe in, proselytising the issue doesn’t really do much. In fact, it can even have the adverse effect of pushing away those who are either in agreement or disagreement: they’re simply tired of the hearing of your message over and over again. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t have opinions, and that we shouldn’t share them, but when we spend so much energy shouting into empty space then maybe it’s time to rethink the situation.

People fall out with each other over the silliest of things sometimes. Letting ego get in the way, they don’t want to listen to anyone’s version of events other than their own. To do so would compromise their reality, the story that they have told of themselves. People often don’t want to change their story, for it may put them in an unflattering light. We have to evaluate the situation and say, “Right. I can offer my version of events, I can try to communicate with compassion, but I will only spend X amount of time of this. I’m not here to change anyone, because I know that true change must come from within. I can walk away at any time, for there are no “winners” or “losers” in this situation, only wasted time”. When we set these parameters, we can work with others without losing our minds.

People are going to behave in any number of ways. We can’t change their behaviour. What we can change is our response to their bad behaviour. We can let them know that we do not approve, and then we can walk away, wishing them well and focusing on the things that really matter in our own lives. Let it go. Walking away is not losing. It is opening up a new path for you to find better things to spend your time on.

I have seen ridiculous grudge matches and people trying to save face on all manner of social media. I have known families who don’t talk to each other for reasons which are entirely inaccurate, the transgression being entirely made up in their own heads. I have seen people treat others very poorly in face to face interactions. We need to find the balance point between standing up for ourselves and learning when we are expending energy needlessly.

Some battles are worth fighting for. We just need to have the right goals in mind when we are fighting. If we are trying to change all our friends’ eating habits to match ours because we are vegan, what really is our agenda here? Instead of spending time arguing or posting social media comments about it, why not spend time volunteering at an animal shelter if your ultimate goal is to help ease the suffering of other animals? If we are spending time trying to undermine someone’s work or persona, what is the real agenda there? Why would we want to do that? Wouldn’t the time be better spent focusing on yourself? Blowing out someone’s candle does not make yours burn any brighter. If we refuse to speak to a family member because they did something wrong in the past, shouldn’t we look to our own lives and remember the ways that we too have failed or wronged someone? These are only a few examples, and some may be rather simplistic. They all have multiple ways of dealing with the issue at hand.  What matters most is our intention.

We don’t have to put up with anyone’s crap, if you’ll pardon my vernacular. But we don’t have to start slinging our own either. Either way, you’ll just end up with a stink in the air.

I’ve walked away from people and situations in order to focus on what really matters. Even when I was totally “right”. It has saved me a lot of time and trouble. I could have spent months trying to change other people’s minds, but instead I worked on what really matters to me. I can say with all honesty that the energy was well spent, and the outcome even more positive than I had dreamt of in terms of benefiting myself and my work/goals/life. I can’t change other people, they’ll do what they will do, with their own demons to fight, their own achievements and successes to encourage them. I have to live my life, not try to please or fit into theirs. I can walk away into better experiences.

Choose your battles wisely. This present moment is what really matters. Live it, instead of losing yourself in a battle that doesn’t or shouldn’t even exist. Life has difficulties enough already. Be kind, be compassionate and be mindful. You may find the battles beginning to lessen, and a peace of mind settling deep within. Enjoy that, for that is what life is all about.