Descent Into Darkness

IMG_3106“We must drop unguarded into the holy bath of grief, inside of which all truly happy men and women must bathe to transform the great losses of life, in war, sicknesses, the loss of homelands and the loss of one’s confidence in human decency into a wailing that ends in poetry and elegant praise of the ability to feel. For desire, mistaken for love, without the capacity to truly feel the losses that actual loving entails, is what makes murderers of people who have no home friendly enough to allow them both the complete sadnesses and joys their love can feel.”

– Martin Prechtel, Stealing Benefacio’s Roses

There are certain archetypal events that change a life, that leave an imprint so deep on psyche that even if the conscious mind forgets the date, the unconscious reminds you every year through shadows of memories, dreams, and sensations of the day that you were forever changed. These are the “before and after” events, like “before my mother died” or “after my parents divorced”. They’re markers that etch a river of pain in the landscape of a life, an invitation to grieve both stored and current grief so that the channels are cleared and deeper pools of joy and gratitude are revealed

I’ve experienced two such events in my life. The first occurred on February 12th, 1993, when I had my first panic attack while driving down the 405 freeway in Los Angeles. Three months shy of graduating from college, the panic attack, in one fell swoop, irrevocably altered me and charted the course of the rest of my life. Prior to the attack, I was sailing along in a bubble of innocence and arrogance, living in a glass castle of believing that I had a charmed life. I say this with my head bent and my tail between my legs, but it’s the truth. It was the panic attack that shattered my glass castle and initiated me into the underworld of anxiety, and, as such, it was the panic attack that led me to do the work that I do today. For many years, I longed to return to my life before the panic, but it eventually became clear to me that the panic and ensuing years of severe, debilitating anxiety were the greatest gifts my psyche could have offered.

The second archetypal event occurred two and a half weeks ago on September 12th, 2013. It’s so raw and fresh that even writing that date brings tears to my eyes as I recall the moment I opened the curtains to greet the day and saw the flood of water rushing through our land until it reached our deck. It’s a moment I’ll never forget. It’s a date I’ll never forget. As I said, in years to come the intensity of September 12th may recede to the point where the date passes by without consciously recalling the flood. But there will always be some part of me that will be off-kilter before and on that date. It’s indelibly printed like a leaf pressed onto the scrapbook of my psyche, like the river that gouged her mark forever into our land.

When these events hit, the natural instinct is to flee. And I don’t mean run from the actual event (although that may be true as well); I mean escape from the flood of pain, overwhelm, and sheer terror that wash over you during these torrential storms of psyche. The pain is so great that you pray for it to end. You long to return to the “before”, when things were calm and predictable and lovely. I hear it all the time from my clients and e-course members struggling with relationship anxiety: I just want to go back to the way things were before. But there is no returning, and no matter how much you pray eventually you must face the only choice you have: to dive into the darkness and discover the messages that lay hidden in the shadows.

I admit: There’s a part of me that wants to run away. There’s a part of me that wants to avoid our house and let my husband deal with all of the clean-up and repair. There’s a part of me that can’t bear to look at the devastation of our land: the felled trees, the mountains of debris, the creek that has turned into two raging rivers, the endless mud that covers our grass. And as we certainly weren’t the only ones affected by the flood, our once-idyllic road has been transformed into a trash, mud, and truck zone as workers and neighbors attempt to dig themselves out.

But as I drove away from my spiritual teacher’s studio last week while crying buckets of tears, I heard a glimmer of light: There are messages in the mud. “This is the dark feminine,” my teacher said, whose sacred land was also destroyed by the water. “This is Kali, the destroyer.” I’ve had a five year love affair with my land. I’ve written love poems to the green beautiful manifestation of the feminine. And now it’s time to dive into the shadow side of creation and get to know destruction.

Walk into this mud, I hear.

There is wisdom in the cliff that has replaced the gentle slope that led to the creek’s edge.

Gather up your skirts and your courage and excavate the mud like an archaeologist of the dark feminine.

Move toward the great power of the serpent that snaked in ten foot surges through your land and left behind destruction. 

You have borne witness to great life and great death. It is a privilege. It is a gift.

You, who isn’t afraid of the dark, messy places, walk to this new place, the razor’s edge between life and death. There is beauty in the darkness as much as the light.

You, who have reveled in the hieroglyphic leafprints, must divine the new messages. They are here. Do not run away. Move toward.

Move toward. It’s what I tell my clients and program members every day. Move toward the anxiety, the fear, the heartache, the unknown. Move toward the pain, which is an umbrella word for anything uncomfortable: Loneliness, vulnerability, heartbreak, disappointment, frustration, grief. Our culture teaches avoidance, distraction, and denial, but the way to freedom is through the center of the storm. Move toward the places that scare you, as Pema Chodron would say.

A few months ago in the height of spring, I wrote the following poem. It pains me to read it now as the land that inspired the poem is gone. But new poems will arrive. Darker, perhaps, but no less essential.

Lessons

It’s in the world beneath this world

where poetry and prayer dwell and

where angels dance by moonlight

that I long to live.

When I touch down into that place,

like dipping a watering can of soul into creekwater,

breath rises like sap from sole to mind,

worry and chatter fall away and

I sit in conversation with the spirit woman who sits

in the tall grasses,

to sip wisdom like milk from the stalks.

We walk the woods to read the

words written in the leaves,

each vein a haiku,

each chlorophilic leafprint evidence of glory.

These are the things that matter that

we cannot see at first sight,

that appear by no other light than

sun or moon,

incandescent memory of the way we used to live.

 

What hieroglyphic words are written on the

veins of one green leaf?

 

What golden notes rise from the

sound of water falling over rocks?

 

What hands hold me in warm embrace when

I lie down on the cool earth at noon?

 

What ancient storis spiral up and down the

back of a 100-year-old cottonwood tree?

 

These are the lessons I long to learn, to

sit quietly on this land,

my sons in my lap, and receive.

 

Now, as I walk the land and feel our descent into autumn, I weep. I stand at the pyre of felled trees and weep not only for our own losses, but for the losses of our neighbors – many of whom were hit harder than we were  – for the losses in our community in Boulder and the surrounding areas, and for losses of the Earth herself. Entire ecosystems have been wiped away, sacred groves where both sentient and non-sentient beings have made their homes. When I stand on the land instead of run away, the extent of the losses seeps up from sole to soul the way I used to feel the celebration of life when I stood on our land. There are lessons in this loss; this I know.

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I say this to you now, all who are suffering through your own darkness and wrestling with the archetypal process that beckons you toward wholeness: This is a gift. I know it doesn’t feel like a gift. I know the pain and discomfort feel like too much to bear. But if you’re to harness the power of this crisis and turn it into opportunity, you cannot run away. You must throw yourself full force into the center of the storm with curiosity, with the questions, “What am I meant to learn? What is psyche trying to show me?” leading the way like a lantern in a dark forest.

What are my lessons that will emerge as I dive into this archetypal process? I don’t know yet. I know that, like the glass castle that was shattered at twenty-one as a result of the panic attack, this experience has burst my bubble of beauty that separated me from the way most of the world lives. I could also say that Boulder, our bubble town of spirit and consciousness-seekers, has been flattened into humility, an invitation to join the world in its struggles. I will never learn of a city being hit by a natural disaster in the same way again. I am you. I am here. I am struggling just as others struggle. I have been pulled into the descent, dragged into the underworld to embark on the next leg of my heroine’s journey.

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And when we emerge, there will be runes of poetry, for you and for me. Or paintings, dance, prayers, the play of children, songs or tears wailed at midnight under a full moon. It won’t be the poetry inspired by iridescent swaths of lawn catching the golden autumn sunlight. No. They will be poems discovered in the muck left behind by the dark feminine, Kali’s shadow spewing shards of moon like broken glass in her wake. But there will be wisdom in the poems. And lessons. For this is how we grow, my friends. It’s not by frolicking in the meadows until we find the rainbows, no; it’s in the willingness to transpose our experience into creative expression so that we shift from resistance to acceptance. It’s when we allow ourselves to dive deep into the underworld with a desire to listen and learn that we grow, in great painful surges, toward our next stage of wholeness, and in doing so, perhaps we repair not only ourselves, but a piece of the world.

28 comments to Descent Into Darkness

  • victoria9021

    Sheryl-

    This made me tear up. Thank you for sharing your grief with us, and encouraging all of us to move through the fear and pain that make us want to cringe away.

    I know all of us on the E-course are still thinking of you and lifting you up with good thoughts and prayers.

    -Vicki

  • Celeste

    Beautifully written. Thank you for sharing your insight. Hugs and blessings to you!
    My heart feels your pain as I struggle with my daughters drug addiction.
    I have been overwhelmed with anxiety…Much for me to learn here.

  • Dona

    Absolutely breathtaking consolation!

  • sarah

    This is amazingly beautiful and raw – thank you for sharing your experience and for being a beacon of light during others’ dark nights.

  • Erin

    Tears streaming. A friend from Canada forwarded this post to me. I live in Boulder too and our land was ravaged too. Your post so beautifully captured and acknowledged the transition and the grief of what happened. Looking forward to the growth emerging from this dark feminine.

  • Gabrielle

    As always your posts are so timely. I am struggling with my own grief about my mothers cancer diagnosis a month ago. She is still here fighting but I know our lives will never be the same and I feel the loss of normalcy so profoundly. I am trying to be hopeful that she will survive but I’m also overcome with waves of grief when I think about facing life without her. I want to run when I feel this way because grief is exhausting! Sometimes it’s hard to see the gifts in these terrible losses. Thank you for the reminder to remain open.

    • My heart and prayers are so deeply with you, Gabrielle, as you walk through this heartbreaking time. Yes, if you can remain open, you’ll be guided through the trenches and find your way to grace and clarity. Let the grief guide you. There is so much wisdom in the tears.

  • To move forward into the feelings of loss. You always offer the rest of us a way through. May that be so for you- may your words of love come back to you through others and through blessings from above. ((*)) ~ a long time reader~

    Teri

  • AprilBride

    So Beautiful! Your poem touched me so much, it was just beautiful. Thank you for sharing this. I’ve often felt there was a me before anxiety and a me after anxiety. And I feel there was a me before marriage and after marriage, and one before the death of my friend and one after. Thank you for your words and for sharing your grief with us.

  • Thank you, Teri and April, for receiving me so beautifully.

  • Rae

    WOW. Just….WOW! So gracefully said as always Sheryl. Someone shared this quote with me recently and it has been constantly on my mind:

    “If you look at a mountain range, all the growth is in the valley.”

    May you honor and cherish all the growth in your valley, while never losing sight of the beauty of the peaks.

  • Grace

    Years ago, I participated in a women’s only Course in Miracles. Needless to say, it was divine. My favorite quote from that year came from a lovely women named Claire. ” Tears nurture our new growth.”
    Blessings to you, your precious family and your beloved land.
    Lots of love.

    • It’s an entirely new level of awareness, Grace, how essential and nurturing the tears are. I will water the land with my tears and watch the plants, flowers, and grace re-emerge, as nature always does.

  • Kate

    Wow. I am deeply moved. Blessings.

  • Clara

    Oh Sheryl, you are an absolute gift! Your capacity for transforming your own trauama and loss and suffering into wisdom and beauty is truly amazing. It is real alchemy in action – and we are all the beneficiaries. This post was waiting in my inbox when I woke up this morning, and it resonated with me so strongly that I read it allowed to my partner as we lay in bed hearing a vicious, destructive wind raging outside. It struck a chord with both of us, as we continue to integrate our own life-altering before-and-after event of almost 3 years ago – a trauma so massive and so confusing that it obliterated every belief system we had cherished until that point, and drastically altered every important relationship in our lives – not to mention our relationship with each other. We flounder, we forget, we resist reality and torment ourselves with how much better things we before our crisis, we indulge in escape fantasies and defeatist attitudes. Your words were a beautiful, hearfelt reminder that moving into pain, every kind of pain, is the only way, the ONLY way. Thank you, Sheryl. My deepest prayers of gratitude and strength to you and your family. You cannot know the far reaching impact of your chronicaling your inner journey in the way you do. It helps heal broken spirits all around the world.

    • Right back at you, Clara. You’re going to bring your light and wisdom – much of which was born from your own archetypal experience – to every client who is blessed enough to work with you. And thank you : ).

  • Angela

    Dear Sheryl,
    I’m deeply sorry for your loss, it must of been so frightening for u and ur family.
    My heart and thoughts go out to you and your family.
    There is no better teacher than yourself who has been through the storms of grief, confusion and irritability than yourself.
    You keep saying this a gift initially I thought how can emotional and physical pain be a gift but I totally get it now.
    I took 2 weeks off work cos I broke down and cried to my supervisor I couldn’t carry on with work. Relationship anxiety is not a breeze physically and emotional and mentally exhausting and frustrating but I know I will reach my wholeness and I might even think I learnt a lot about myself.

  • Tea

    Dear Sheryl,
    Your words are always such a wonderful beacon of sanity, providing me with rest from all the “you need to feel good all the time” messages in the personal growth industry that I come across so often as I am trying to find my own way through some very uncomfortable psycho-spiritual-energetic crisis that feels like it will never end.
    Sometimes my whole being feels like it’s attuned only to the very darkest aspects of life, and it feels like all there is is decay and loss.. I feel the wisdom in your words, and at the same time really don’t want it to be true that we can only grow through intense pain.. Because that would entail that our greatness will always only be defined by the amount of disaster we go through, and that just makes life seem very hard, because the disasters will never ever end. If there will never be another way to grow, then wars and crimes and diseases will never end.

    I send you my best wishes in the difficult times you’re going through.

  • Adrianna

    I read “The Conscious Bride” before getting married almost two years ago. I loved it. It was everything I needed and I thought I was prepared for the death of my old life and the grief that would come. But still, two years later and completely in love, I find myself violently missing my previous normal when I get overwhelmed. I miss the old simplicity. I felt this way last night and thought I’d come poke around your website today. And here this post is, with so much beauty and sadness helping me remember that I’m ok.

    I feel like my grief for my old life should have passed already. I don’t want to go back, but I don’t always want to move forward either. I’m starting to wonder if the grief will always be there in some form. I thought it would go away eventually. I feel guilty it hasn’t yet.

    I’m sorry for your present grief. But how lovely to love/have loved a place so much.

    • Adrianna: I’m glad you stopped by and received some words that will help you light the way. If there’s still deep missing of your old life it likely means that there’s more grieving that needs to be done. Certainly there will be waves of grief that arise from time to time (I have those waves when I think about our life in Los Angeles or even pre-baby times nine years ago), so yes, there is an element of grief that settles into our hearts. It’s only a problem if it’s limiting you in any way; otherwise it’s just a normal sadness that lives in the heart that we touch into when our hearts are open.

  • Gardenia

    Sheryl,

    Another beautiful post from you Sheryl. So inspiring that even in a time of crisis like this, you are able to summon such wisdom and courage and perspective. Your teachings are so valuable and you truly inhabit them. Continuing to send prayers as you walk toward and into and out of the mud. (And I’m not in the least surprised that you are a wonderful poet.)

  • Sheryl, this blog is beautiful & so true. I had my first panic attack while my ex Bf was holding me in his arms. I was convulsing & felt like my body was caving in. It was so scary. I would wake up with panic attacks every morning, especially next to him. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong. I didn’t seek help. I just thought it was him. I wanted to flee so bad, but I didn’t. I knew he was the one. I’m also an rocd sufferer. We had a great connection, I fell head over heels in love with him. My story is kind of like yours. One day, it was like everything turned off. I just didn’t “feel right” I went completely numb & the anxiety took a tremendous toll on me. I felt “disconnected” like the feelings weren’t there & it freaked me out! This was only a few weeks into the relationship. We were talking prior to this for a few months but didn’t see each other often, just at work. We dated for over 3 years. I broke up with him in feb 2013 because I THOUGHT I wasn’t in love with him or happy with him. Boy, was I wrong! I moved out if state & my OCD flared up bad. 2013 was a very difficult year for me. I never cried so much since my Mother passed when I was 12. I’m 27 now. You are so right when you blogged “the voice says it’s not safe” & “initiation to relationship anxiety” I couldn’t believe it. All those years I thought it was him. Also, I say the something you say. If I hadn’t of went through all this pain & faced my fears I wouldn’t be here today. The anxiety was protecting me from getting hurt. Maybe if I got help we would still be together. This year taught me a lot about love & relationships & life. I feel as the emptiness thawed out like you said. Kind of like my feelings were buried for so long & now they have surfaced. It’s amazing. If it wasn’t for the anxiety & your blogs I would have never known. I ended up moving back home after 7 months because my mental health was so severe. I wasn’t around “familiar” things. We’ll I ended up connecting back with Tim, my ex. It was so bizarre. Out of no where I felt the connection we had, but stronger & it’s growing stronger each day 🙂 I realized that I still love him. I love him so much that it hurts. He won’t give me another chance. We have history & the way I left. I was running away from my problems for them to just follow me. I’m trying everything in my power to get him back. I go through numbness periods where I feel nothing sometimes due to the rocd. I’d rather feel something then be numb. It feels amazing to feel love for him. He is the best thing that ever happened to me. He is the greatest guy I know 🙂 thank you Sheryl for being so inspirational! I’m glad I found your website. I’m trying to catch up on all the blogs! This makes me want to do work too. Because of what happened 🙂 I want to help others understand. Sorry this is so long! Just had to share 🙂