The Tunnel at the End of the Light: The Practice of Darkness
"Mystery and imagination arise from the same source. This source is called darkness . . . Darkness within darkness, the gateway to all understanding."
We are all familiar with the Icarus myth: a boy creates a magical pair of wings from bee’s wax and feathers, and begins to fly. He flies higher and higher despite his father’s warnings, continuing ever-upward toward the light of the sun. He is consumed by his drive toward the light until the wax in his wings begins to melt in the sun’s heat, his feathers drop away, and he falls into the Aegean Sea and drowns.
We might sum up the moral of this tale in this way: “Too much light and your wings may be lost.” Yet within the religious traditions of many denominations there is often a largely unbalanced emphasis on embracing light and following a sole trajectory of ascension. As the myth of Icarus informs us, though, the inevitable curse and course of those who chase spiritual light is that they must eventually fall back down to Earth. In less mythic terms: The more we walk toward the light, the longer our shadows grow behind us. The route back to the source, then, is not upward to the light, but downward into darkness.
When Buddha realized enlightenment, he touched the Earth--a simple gesture reaffirming his connection to our physical, planetary home. Putting “pennies in our shoes” is the analogy mythologist Joseph Campbell came up with to translate the actions of the Buddha--and is something we all may need to do to counter being taken ever-upward in our spiritual pursuits and disciplines.
The philosopher Pliny also remarked that for every step toward the light there must be an equal and opposite step into the darkness. He knew that for every branch of every tree to be secure in high winds, the trees themselves must be firmly rooted within the dark earth, anchoring all that rises up toward the sun. Before the temple is built, he informs us, we must dig downward to secure its foundations.
The vast majority of indigenous spiritual traditions of the world contain this safeguard. Those within these most time-tested traditions know well the potential pitfalls and challenges attached to seeking to step into a greater intimacy with the supernal realms of the Gods--and darkness is the tool they use as both a means to this interaction and a safeguard for their journey.
We might say that darkness, when encountered mindfully, can become the most potent spiritual tool we have at our disposal; a statement that seems all the more remarkable because the power of darkness in this context is so rarely talked of, written about, or taught. In fact, historically, such use of physical darkness was embraced only by the most advanced practitioners.
It is said that the best place to hide something is in plain view--and how much more plain could the opening to darkness be for us, present as it is every time we blink and every day when the sun goes down? Every night, as sun sets, the darkness descends and we may choose to allow our perception of everything around us to be altered, for after darkness falls, all cats become leopards.
Most people, however, are quick to dismiss the power of the ubiquitous: Its potency often goes unseen by the novice and is not explained by the master. Something that is as common as darkness is seen as holding no value and is often ignored, its potency obscured as the seeker searches for more complex, obtuse, and obscure means to arrive at his royal destiny.
Yet all we need do is close our eyes.
The Modern Search for Meaning
“One thing that comes out in the myths is that at the bottom of the abyss comes the voice of salvation. The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.”
Darkness work is truly cross-cultural. It can be found within Taoist teachings dating back 2,500 years and can be traced to Buddhist, Christian, Hindi, aboriginal, ancestral, and indigenous traditions. Within many paths and faiths it is considered a secret--a staggering one kept hidden by its very prevalence. It is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere.
In many traditions darkness is used to mark the very start of a person’s induction into spiritual advancement. Within these initiatory practices, the length of time an initiate remains in darkness varies from culture to culture, from just a few hours to a staggering nineteen years.
The experience of shamans and seekers engaged in introspection in dark caves may seem a million miles away from our contemporary life, but there is something within darkness--its healing essence or mythic quality, perhaps--that endures, even today, as a source of illumination and even miracles.