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.

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Today, I am a Flamekeeper of Brighid

candle-2The longest night is upon us. For three short days, we have watched the watery sun rise and set in the same place on the horizon, barely skimming the treetops at its highest point, filmed over by hazy clouds. This morning, it was impossible to tell just when the sun had risen, and indeed even though it has been up for half an hour, it’s just as dark as before, with heavy overcast skies letting in only a small amount of light. I lit a candle in my lantern dedicated to Brighid just as the sun rose somewhere behind the clouds, and in Her name I lit my solstice flame. The candle’s flame burns very low, just barely alight as it struggles amidst a pool of wax and an insufficient wick. There is the tiniest amount of light at the tip, with a small blue aura beneath. I look at it even as I type these words, and its struggle portends much to come.

It has been a difficult year for many. Across the Western world, we have been rocked by unprecedented political change. There is not much hope for the future. Political leaders do not have the common good in mind, and greed runs riot. Things have not changed for the better. Across the globe, war, strife and unrest rage, with millions of innocent beings suffering. And there is still more darkness to come.

But even so, we can still take hope that the seasons change, the sun’s light will return. My candle is guttering now, in a valiant effort to stay alight. I have tried to help it, tipping out excess wax, but the wick and wax balance is not favourable. Just as in today’s political, economical and social climate, things do not look in our favour. But still we struggle on. We are a light in the darkness, no matter how small.

Somewhere, behind the clouds, the low sun is rising. We are the sun, we are the earth. We are the wind and the rain. We are the wild beasts and the tame. We are our neighbours and our enemies. We are our deeds. We are our poetry. We are our ancestors. The flame might go out in the physical, but it still shines in our hearts and minds. Where does a flame go when it dies? A flame is always there, simply needing the right conditions to manifest. So too with all of life. We all depend on conditions, yet we all have the flame within, waiting to manifest. The spark of awen, the spark of inspiration. To share this inspiration is at the heart of all that I do, in the hopes that my words inspire others not to give up hope, to remember their connection to each other, to all of nature. The flame that burns within our hearts and minds can never be extinguished. Instead, it kindles a new flame in the hearts and minds of others, and we tend that flame with all that we have, for our future ancestors.

The wick is barely glowing now in my lantern on the windowsill. But the flame of Brighid burns brightly in my heart. Though there is a long darkness ahead of me tonight, and a long darkness for many to come, there is still a light that shines. Even the smallest light shines in the deepest darkness.

And so, I will tend to my flame today. Today, I am a flamekeeper of Brighid. And should that flame go out, I will simply light another, and another, and I shall persist.

Blessings of the winter solstice to you all.

 

(Originally published today on my blog, Druid Heart, on SageWoman’s channel at Witches and Pagans.)

 

The Wisdom of Gandalf

A lovely reader, Donal commented on my Make Tea post about how the US feels like they’re living in a Tolkein epic right now. It may indeed seem that all the forces of evil are set against us, overshadowing all. I was instantly reminded of my all-time favourite Druid, one of my greatest inspirations and heroes since I was a young lass: Gandalf. Tolkein was writing during some very dark times in his own day and age, and through Gandalf presented wonderful wisdom and awen.  This got me through some pretty dark days in my own life, and still continues to inspire me each and every day. I hope that they can also inspire others. x

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Make Tea

She lit the candles and incense, and sat down upon the cushions. Breathing deeply, she inhaled the fragrant scent, and allowed her gaze to wander over the items on the altar. She tried to focus, her gaze finally resting upon the image of Brighid, and the flame that the goddess held in her hands. As the darkness fell, both within and without, both figuratively and literally, she focused on the flame being offered. She took it within her heart, and for a brief moment it flickered, then died out as the darkness consumed it in a deep blanket of despair.

Breathe.

She focused once again on the image, this time on the watery vesica pisces symbol. Yet her mind would not focus, her thoughts filled with grief and anger, darkness and despair. She breathed through them, trying to remain in the present moment. But the darkness was overwhelming, and as she floundered, she cried out: “Help!”

The voice of the goddess spoke softly in her mind. “Make tea.”

She sat for a moment longer, determined to spend at least ten minutes at her altar. At last, she gave up and blew out the candles, allowing the incense to burn itself out. Make tea, the goddess had said. Alright. Let’s make some tea.

She went downstairs and put the kettle on. Let’s make tea, she said to herself. Mindfully. She prepared the small teapot with herbs known to lift the darkness and soothe the nerves: St John’s wort and skullcap. She also added some lemon balm, to ease tension and also for flavour. She inhaled the scent of the dried herbs, and mixed them together before placing them in the teapot. She looked out the window in the light of the setting sun, a small muntjac deer feeding alongside a magpie underneath the bird feeder.

She placed on a tray the teapot, strainer and saucer, as well as a small handmade earthenware cup. She brought these to the table, and laid them down with her full attention. The kettle had boiled, and she carefully filled her small iron kettle with the water, feeling the steam against her skin. She brought the iron kettle to the table, and placed it on a heat-proof mat. She sat down, her mind still battling the darkness around the edges, her thoughts seemingly not her own. She knew her hormones were swirling in a dance similar to that which she had experienced at adolescence, though now she was at the other end of the brilliant spectrum. She had to take care of herself, of her body as well as her mind.

She opened up the teapot and breathed. Mindfully, she took the iron kettle and filled the teapot with water, replacing the kettle with equal attention. She inhaled the scent of the herbs, and replaced the teapot lid. No other thoughts entered her mind, just these simple, small actions. Working with mindfulness, working with full attention to her actions, there was only the present moment.

She sat back and waited for the tea to brew. Slowly, she felt the darkness returning, crowding at her mind. Despair at the state of the world, at the constant struggle she faced with work, with others who could not do the simplest of tasks, with expectations from both strangers and friends, knowing that if she didn’t do something, no one would – stop. Breathe. Focus. Three minutes stretched to an eternity as the brew steeped in the teapot.

She took a deep breath, and the darkness receded an inch. She picked up the teapot, and concentrated on pouring the tea through the strainer into the small bowl. She kept up her concentration on her breath and on the pouring, and it filled her entire being. Nothing else mattered in that moment. Just pouring tea.

She put down the teapot and picked up the cup. The scent of the herbs brought back memories of a wonderful little shop called StarChild in Glastonbury. She allowed the brief memory to flicker, and then she refocused her attention on the cup in her hands. The heat radiated through the bowl, and she had to pick it up carefully, her fingers near the cooler end of the rim. Quietly, she took the first slurp, allowing the air to cool the hot water before it reached her tongue. She concentrated on nothing but drinking the tea, sitting alone in the dining room, with night falling outside.

She drank the first cup, and then brewed another in the teapot. She kept her mind focused on the present, acknowledging past wounds but not allowing them to flavour the present moment. She had worked hard to name them and transform them, and was working on it still. Three minutes again slipped past, and outside her dining room window she saw the Christmas lights from the house across the street go on.

She poured herself another cup, and drank it mindfully. A third cup was brewed and drunk, and when she finished she sat back and bowed to her tea set. She felt a little better, the darkness within relenting, though not wholly gone. She acknowledged and allowed the herbs to do their work on her body and her mind. With equally careful attention, she rinsed the kettle and washed the teapot, bowl and strainer, and then went upstairs with a lighter heart, to Skype with her mother and find even more comfort and peace, there in the moment, utterly in the moment.

Dark Moon Wisdom

Dark Moon Wisdom

You don’t have to shine to be powerful.

Release.

Release into the darkness, allow the night to fill your soul.

Find your sovereignty in the darkness.

Face the shadows, name the fears.

Then allow the dark moon to guide you further, deeper within, towards utter integration.

Feel the deep magnetic pull.

You don’t have to shine to be powerful.

 

© Joanna van der Hoeven

All About Ego

Ego is a funny thing. We can get so wrapped up in it without even noticing it. Differing from our functional self, which helps to get things done on a day to day basis, ego is a large part of the representational self, the story that we tell ourselves and the world around us.  Is it true? Probably, for the most part. It is from a biased perspective? Absolutely – everything that we perceive is.  Is it something that is worth having? I’m not so sure…

Our society fuels the ego like no other.  Social media is a great place where one can either be puffed up or dragged down by people they have never met. (Yes, the irony/hypocrisy of writing this on an online blog is not lost on me.)  People can use social media to help fuel the ego, and not in altogether productive ways. Sure, expressing your creativity is great: put up that piece of artwork that you’ve worked so hard on.  Give us an excerpt from your latest book. Tell us of the charity work that you are doing in India. This is an expression of your self that is not separated from your functional self. It’s not all representational – unless you are totally attached to it.

I am a conduit. I am an interpreter. I am not the thing itself.

When it becomes all about the representational self, that’s where the problem comes in.  We begin to live inside our heads, inside our stories and do not seek alternative points of view. We can become deluded by our story, confirmed by people we may have never even met. We can react viciously to things that upset us, through online comments, blog posts, etc.  Why would we want to do this? Why would we want to hurt another? Why should this be? Is it because the ego is such a fragile thing?

The ego seeks to reaffirm itself in everything that it does. It’s based on its own self-preservation, fuelled by an erroneous concept that one would lose their identity with the loss of ego. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are plenty of people out there with a very strong sense of identity and purpose, yet who are not fuelled by their ego. These people are inspiring, for they know that the work they do and how they live their life is more important that who they are.

No one is perfect. Everyone succumbs to their ego every now and then. But when we live entirely through the ego’s whimsy, then we are in big trouble. We may see other people’s success as our failure. We may take slight at something because we haven’t been included in it. We might want to make someone look bad and undermine everything that they do because they have hurt us in some shape or form. We cease to see with the eyes of compassion, instead only seeing through the eyes of “ME”.

Where does this all lead?

Is it worth it? What will be the outcome of living in your ego?

I don’t think it will be happiness. We will rage against those who argue against us. We will delude ourselves with notions of grandeur, or delusions of all shapes and forms. We will spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about things that don’t really matter.  We spend all our time reinforcing the ego. What really matters in life? Your ego, or living well?

These are questions that I have asked myself, as I quest inspiration to live an integrated life. For me, integration cannot happen without the falling away of the ego’s hold on our reality. It’s about realising that I am not important, that no one is important; what is important is the work we do, not so much the words we say (though speaking honourably is a good thing). Our actions are important. Our walk, rather than our talk is important. It’s all about getting the work done, through the functional representation of the “I”, without the representational “Me” getting in the way.

Is this all semantics? Quite possibly.

The Song of Amergin is not an ego-boost. It’s about integration, realising that one is not separate from nature. It is about seeing the universe in yourself. It is about knowing that you would not exist were it not for everything else. It is about relationship.

At this time of year, when darkness fills my life, fills my soul, when the songs of winter flood through this land I see the little spark of ego, clinging desperately onto its belief systems and self-affirmations. And I smile to it as I watch it go out, letting the darkness and silence of integration fill my mind and my world. I am reminded of the Zen saying “hold lightly to your opinions”, because they will change. Impermanence is the nature of the world, the nature of nature.

This blog post was inspired by a Guardian article I read today about the backlash from the pagan community on Alex Mar’s latest book, as well as our government’s reaction and bombing in Syria. It’s not entirely about these things, but about these things and more.

 

 

 

 

Reblog: Darkness and the Winter Solstice

Here is a reblog from today’s post I put on on DruidHeart, my blog for SageWoman Magazine at Witches and Pagans…

The solstice season is upon us, and it’s only a couple of weeks before the longest night of the year here in the northern hemisphere. It’s a season of darkness and cold, where we are given the opportunity to find the gifts that darkness brings. It can be hard, when the rest of the world seems to be doing their best to stave off their fear with bright lights, noise and extended shopping hours, but if we are able to push beyond that we can see the sacredness of this holy time, and the exquisite power that it brings.

I am mostly a diurnal creature myself. I prefer to go to bed early and rise early, rather than staying up late. However, at this time of year the darkness catches up with me, and by 4pm it is pitch black out there. My usual sunshine nature turns inwards, and time for reflection and contemplation kick in. But that is not all there is to the darkness that pervades my life at this time of year. The sweet relief of darkness beckons me to release into its embrace, when edges are abandoned and we are allowed to float free in space and time.

Darkness breaks down edges and boundaries. Our visual nature cannot cope with darkness; our low-light vision is pretty terrible. We can’t see where the edges of things are, and they all become one in a tapestry of shades of black that we are unable to penetrate. This causes many to panic, terror rising in our bellies as our instinctive fear of the dark come to the fore. Through many millennia of existence, we have been creatures of the daylight, and know that our soft bodies are food for many things after the sun sets. This instinctual fear is still deep in our genes, as anyone who is out in the woods with bears and cougars at night can sympathise. Deep in our bones, we know that there is danger in darkness…

To read the full article, click HERE.