During my husband’s years as a water pourer for sweatlodge, he had a statue on his altar of the “weeping buddha” –
a powerfully built yogi with his face buried in his hands. There were many stories about this traditional Balinese statue, from a meditation on the tragedy of war to a folk remedy for daily heartaches. The statue went with him to the sweatlodge ceremonies he led, and was often the catalyst for deep healing. Upon his death, it passed into the hands of another water-pourer, and continued its impact.
As much pain as the statue expressed, somehow I also found it deeply comforting, a reminder that the “dark night of the soul” is one aspect of the spiritual life. Not a pathology to be medicated, not an inescapable, eternal black hole, but one aspect of life…a natural response to loss, transition, and the sufferings of the people, the beings of the earth, and the planet.
In Original Blessing, theologian Matthew Fox offers tools for navigating these dark times of the “via negativa” – letting go, allowing silence and solitude, letting the pain be pain, trusting the darkness and the sense of falling as avenues to compassion and deeper wisdom and connection.
As I prepare for the second Spirituality Conversation Circle, on the Via Negativa (see Events), I find myself walking this path again. Or rather, becoming increasingly aware of the via negativa that our culture, and all the cultures of the world, are experiencing as environmental and social systems break down at an ever-increasing pace.
I see the television ads for antidepressants and drugs to boost antidepressants, and I wonder what would happen if we all actually admitted our hidden, socially-unacceptable (You Can’t Afford the Luxury of a Negative Thought) feelings of grief and loss as one species after another falls to extinction, whole regions of the world’s oceans are deadened with oil, radiation fills the air and waters of the planet.
But in this society, in this economy, popular wisdom says, we can’t afford to be incapacitated by such feelings…we are supposed to remain happy, positive, upbeat and perky! Don’t think about such things now…instead, medicate, immerse in virtual reality, shop more!
Does anyone else see the cognitive dissonance here? This is our planet, our home, our inheritance and our bequest to our children. No matter how corporatist we may be, we cannot deny our chemical, organic, and genetic ties to this miraculous spinning ball of fire, earth, water, air, and spirit, and the millions of beings (whether created or evolved) that share it with us. Does this planet mean so little to us that we cannot allow ourselves to admit, and grieve, its slow destruction at our hands?
Ah, but once we admit the grief and loss, the full (literally) earth-shattering tragedy of what is happening, how can we see daylight again? How can we not be incapacitated, sucked into the black hole of despair, leading at best to paralysis, at worst, to the temptation to self-destruct?
In a dark time a few months ago, I wrote:
if the news were a movie
and i a child watching
i’d be asking mommy
can we go home now? i don’t want
to watch any more
…but it’s not…
The news is filled with people leaving the movie of their lives. Just the other day a woman told me on Facebook that suicide was an understandable option, given the state of the world. When I shared with her the words of a wise teacher — that we can give up, we can choose a way that avoids the issues, or we can take action — the woman reacted as if I were judging any way other than taking action.
I am in no position to judge. As I write, I have a dearly loved cat sleeping her way either to death or to recovery on my lap, and can only respect her process and support her as I can…the fourth of my cats to have faced this passage in two years. This is following the death of my husband in 2006 and the death of my mother in 2007. All of these losses are compounded by the ongoing news of global environmental destruction and disaster.
These losses are not unique to me – they are simply my particular experiences of the pain each person undergoes, my portion of the suffering of the cosmos described in Buddhism.
I have not considered “walking out of the theater” for many years, but in times of sheer emotional exhaustion, I have wanted simply to stop. I have spent nights crying, praying for help…and somehow, whether from an inner nudge, or a guide’s advice to go out and stand barefoot on the earth, or the call of a friend, or a book falling in front of me to be picked up…sometimes a simple distraction that takes all my attention and relieves the pain through work…the strength comes to pick up and go on. Every time, somehow or other, the strength does come.
Those are the easy shifts…the quick fixes, so to speak…but there’s a deeper level that they don’t touch. I have seen it happen again and again in myself and among my friends and animal companions; I believe it is happening today in our culture and on this planet: that at some point in our lives, whether in regard to our physical, mental, or spiritual health, we find ourselves in a place of deciding whether we choose to live, what our life means to us, how deep the resources are that we must tap if we are to continue living. And – perhaps – choosing life at its most profound level – not “the good life” of endless distractions, but an essential life with purpose, vision and mission. Life that serves an integral, creative, positive purpose in the greater scheme of things.
At a time like that, I am coming to believe there is no option other than to give up – that is, to let go what is not essential. In Original Blessing, letting go is described as a key element of the via negativa: Letting go of the illusion of control…the constant need to be busy-busy-busy, whether with work or entertainment…the need to source our identity based on money, things, status, or even relationships. To let go of stuff of all sorts that’s cluttering up our lives, our minds, our bodies, our souls, hiding the deepest, most essential core. To allow ourselves to be emptied, give up pretending to be anyone but who we are at the place of pure awareness and connection to all that is.
Such a time is happening now as I sit vigil, watching my cat negotiating her passage in dreamtime. She is not in pain, she needs nothing from me, she is simply in process, and inner guidance tells me that all is as it needs to be. I do not know what her final choice will be; I have no control here, there is nothing I need to do to fix things. I am alternately grieving over her, giving thanks for her beautiful life, and listening to inner guidance, learning to let go and trust.
I don’t have answers… What I do have, what I cling to at this moment of loss and unknowing, is the example of teachers who have survived the dark nights and still maintained their hope and vision – if anything, deepening their vision by passing through the dark. These teachers aren’t superhuman beings who dwell on heights the rest of us will never reach, heights where they are untouched, unweakened by the soul-stopping weight of grief and pain. If anything, they are unequivocal about the grief they have experienced, the depth of their own falls into despair. And they are unequivocal about those times of grief being a crucible of growth, compassion, and deepened connection to Spirit and to other beings.
Dr. Fox again: ” The divine image [is] present in every being, indeed, every atom in the universe. It is the “light in all things.” It is also, with its incarnation in Jesus, the wounds in all things. Divinity is both the light and the wounds in all things. ”