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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Reblog: Meditation – The Gift of Transformation

My latest blog post for SageWoman 🙂

gundestrupMeditation is a huge part of my spiritual life. It is something that I try to do every single day, in various shapes and forms. I find that sitting meditation, or zazen is the best way for my self to refocus on what’s important, to stop the chattering ego and really get deep down to the issues at hand. So much clarity is gained from simply stopping, from allowing the silence to fill your soul. In that deep pool of quiet, in that dark heart of Cerridwen’s cauldron, lies transformation.

You have to be willing to do it, though. It’s difficult, as many of us don’t really like spending time alone, much less sitting still and “wasting time”. However, I would posit that this could very well be the best use of your time, realigning you to the present moment, grounding yourself in the reality of the here and now. We can get so carried away on our emotions, on our problems with the world, on our own sense of self that we become blinkered to the rest of existence. Life is constantly happening, all around us, and we hardly notice it. Sitting meditation is a great way to pay attention to it, to our selves, our bodies and our minds, to see how they work, to get in touch with them once again, thereby allowing us to get in touch with the rest of the world on a much clearer, positive level.

Like a deep pool, the waters may become disturbed, but if we stop the mud will eventually settle to the bottom, the clear water rising to the top to perfectly reflect the sky above. We can become as this pool, reflecting with clarity the present moment in all that we do, in all that we say and in all that we think. It’s not easy, but it’s well worth it.

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Reblog from SageWoman: The Darkness Within

shadowself

Reblogged from my channel at SageWoman:http://www.witchesandpagans.com/Druid-Heart

The winter solstice is fast upon us, even though technically the shortest night has already been upon us (for a brain-thumping explanation, see http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/12/the-astronomical-hijinks-of-the-shortest-day-of-the-year/282109/).  Thoughts turn inwards at this time of year, when in the darkness we are confronted with our shadow selves, should we choose to face them.  We have the opportunity to learn more of ourselves, and in doing so, better serve not only ourselves but the world.

Performing a meditative journey, I met with my shadow self – that part of your self that you fear, that you loathe, that you don’t understand as well as those things that cause you pain, grief, rage, etc.  This confrontation was very interesting – my shadow self described to me all the things that she thought I was, as well as all the emotions that crippled me. She delighted in telling me them, it seemed – with each utterance she thought she had gained power over me.  The words hit me and reverberated throughout my body – I literally felt them, each and every one.  When she was done I was still standing, though shaky.

I knew that in order to gain some semblance of control, I needed to know her name and so I asked. She refused to tell me, delighting instead in playing games. I finally had enough of it all, and named her myself in words strong and full of intention – “You will not give me your name, and therefore I will name you myself. You are Joanna Alida van der Hoeven.”

She deflated, knowing that I had named her correctly.  “I know who you are,” I said.  “You are all that I fear to be, all that I have been in the past for good or ill and all that I might be in the future.  But you are merely a potential.  The past is gone, and I am not the same person I was then. The future has not happened yet, and so no one dictates that for me. In the present moment, I simply am who I am, free to be who I wish, decried by my words and deeds and actions.” I remembered the words to my favourite film, Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, and faced my shadow self, stating “You have no power over me”.

The encounter was over, and I had emerged tired but triumphant.  Haunted by some aspects of the past, I have realised that they do not dictate who I am now. The past is there to inform us so that we do not make the same mistakes again.  The past informs the present and the future.  We are not our past, just as we are not our future – we can only be who we are in this present moment.  Our lives are filled with potential for good and bad and we can either let fear dictate our actions and allow past mistakes to re-emerge, or we can accept it; we can own our mistakes and become simply the best people we can be at this moment in time.

I have had a mantra over the last few months, that when I question my motives, or feel fear or grief or rage, happiness or unhappiness, I ask myself this – “Whom does this serve?” Taken straight out of Grail mythology, this question is the one that must be asked upon directly viewing the Grail in order to heal the wounded Fisher King.  These four words contain so much power, and have so many different meanings.  It questions us to look deep within ourselves, but also to the greater world at large.  It deeply explores our intention, which to me is one of the greatest powers one can have both within Druidry and the world.  Intention is at the core of every action we make – but we must look deeply at the intention before we act, if possible, in order to ensure that our actions are honourable.

In the darkness, the shadow self has power.  What we are unaware of deep within our selves can control us in so many ways. We must learn to confront our shadow selves, to acknowledge them, to own our past and our mistakes, our fears and our grief, in order to tumble out towards the light once again, ever repeating this cycle even as the seasons change and the tides turn. The awen lies all around us within nature – all we have to do is open our eyes to see it.

(The journey meditation that I performed was part of a series contained in Jenah Telhyndru’s Avalon Within: A Sacred Journey of Myth, Mystery and Inner Wisdom.)

Blog image is from a quilt taken from The Free Motion Quilting Project: http://freemotionquilting.blogspot.co.uk/2010/05/shadow-self-part-2.html

 

Reblog: Courage

Reblogged from my blog on SageWoman’s channel at Witches & Pagans: http://www.witchesandpagans.com

As the darkness approaches, I find myself thinking more and more about courage. What is courage? Personally, I think courage is so subjective – there is no one definition that would suit everyone. Yet I shall give it a go in any case.

The dictionary defines courage as: the quality of mind or spirit that enables a person to face difficulty, danger, pain, etc., without fear; bravery. I would posit that courage is the quality of mind/spirit that enables a person to face difficulties, etc in spite of fear. It is just not true that the brave know no fear – I believe that they simply get on with it. There is no such thing as a fearless person, unless that person has not the mental capacity for it, having suffered physical brain or emotional trauma.

What causes fear? For the most part, fear is the unknown. As humans, we crave constancy, security. We’re not especially fond of change, at least in great quantities. We fear what we cannot see – many are afraid of the dark. Is this an instinctual fear, based on what could attack and eat us from the shadows? I had an experience a couple of weeks ago, in my own backyard, where I went to offer some food at my altar – a large dark shadow that was not usually there made me stop in my tracks. A bear, my first thought was. Then my brain worked through the processes of logic – there are no bears in Britain. I’m not in Canada anymore. What animal would be big enough to create this? A stag? Would he attack me in this, the rutting season? No, he couldn’t get through the hedge with his rack at this time of year… After going through these thought processes (which probably took less than a second) I simply stepped forward to investigate, and found it to be a large branch from the beech tree that came down in the high winds. I smiled at the brain’s way of dealing with it and made my offering, honouring the darkness and shadows as well.

Growing up in Canada, in bear country, you are taught to be afraid of large, dark shapes at night and early morning. You stay away from them. That learned behaviour has stayed with me even though I have lived in the UK since 1998.

So, what is the great thing about learned behaviour? It can be unlearned. My fear of the dark, of the unknown, can be investigated, experienced fully. Now, of course it is healthy to have a certain instinctual fear of large shadows in the dark, just in case I find myself alone in the woods when I get back to Canada for a visit. I can’t expect my brain to make these logical leaps in time to deal with the situation of a real bear being there – my brain would rightfully tell me to leg it. However, dealing with a fear of the unknown can be unlearned.

In new situations, I don’t have to automatically feel apprehension. I don’t have to worry. I don’t have to react. I can breathe, and work with what is actually happening at the moment, rather than living in the past or fast-forwarding to the future. In the present moment, we cannot know fear – we can only fear outcomes. When we are hurt, when we are in pain or in danger, if we are thinking in the future, “when will this stop!” then we are not in the present moment – we have given over to the future. Facing the current moment of pain, of danger, requires us to be totally present. This very easy to say, not so easy to do. Still, it is worth the effort, I think.

While working on this concept, in the meantime one can learn to live with the fear, in the form of taking on the notion of courage and running with it. Face the darkness in spite of your fears – they may only be tree branches anyway. Fear is a very human emotion, one that has kept us alive for millennia.

For me, fear is a god. Fear can be crippling, fear can drown us in its depths; it can suffocate us until we know no other escape. As such, fear can kill. Yet, like most gods, only in submission to these raw flows of energy would we risk death. By working with the flows, riding the currents of fear, developing a relationship with it, we can better understand it as well as its place in our lives, and the rest of the world. In the meantime, may all your shadows only be deadwood. You’ll only find out by checking it out, at any rate…