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Sitting in the Dark

“Quiet friend who has come so far, feel how your breathing makes more space around you.”

These lines from Rilke convey how it feels to be alone in the dark. We cannot know how it feels to be the man who became the Buddha, a prince turned yogi and seeker in ancient India. Yet we do know how it feels to be human. Along with everyone else who has ever lived, we know how it feels to face the unknown, to have cherished ideas give way like the rungs of the ladder. We know that stillness that comes and sits down with us like a friend

I’m not aware of anyone ever describing the Buddha sitting in the forest alone as an act of grieving, but he had to be. As he sat watching and listening, searching for something real, something more luminous and alive than his old attachments and illusions, he felt grief for a way of life and relationships that were lost. His willingness to feel the suffering that comes from our attachment to things and people and relationships that change became the ground of his teaching.

How can I know this about the Buddha? I know how it feels to be in the woods alone, and also how it feels to lay awake in the dark, and the two are not dissimilar. At such times, we listen to our breathing, our heartbeat, and the night sounds. We watch the tendency of the mind to yearn and grasp for certainty and spin fantasies. In the great intimacy of the darkness, we feel the ache in the heart and feel the truth that much of our anger and furious activity is spent protecting us from feeling that aching sorrow.  

And at moments, when we abandon all hope of things being better and just sink into the feeling, we discover a light in the midst of that darkness, and a little flare of joy or loving gratitude in the midst of that sadness. In a micro version of his great journey, we discover that pain is not the deepest thing in us. Love is. 

As our practice it can feel a bit like Halloween–or rather like reclaiming the ancient root of Halloween. We must learn to sink beneath mechanical custom, decorating the house with pumpkins and some of us with skeletons and even rubber zombie hands reaching up out of the front lawn, all it done in the spirit of seasonal decorating. We go through the motions. I once saw a sprawling Catholic cemetery on Long Island decorated for Halloween–ghosts and gnarled green hands rising up out of the graves. 

“Isn’t this NOT supposed to happen?” my then-little daughter asked.

Our practice is to go deeper. Halloween is typically linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-an or sow-in), celebrating the end of the lighter half of the year and the beginning of the darker half. The ancient Celts believed this to be a thin time, a time when the border between this world and unknown worlds became porous, allowing the passage between worlds and levels to be much easier than it ordinarily is.

The slow work of waking up, of opening our attention, makes us thinner. I am missing a huge marketing opportunity here, but I must tell the truth and add that becoming thin means becoming porous. The boundaries between the separate kingdoms of our head, heart, and body begin to dissolve. We start to feel more, and this can be very painful. We may wonder if a life of delusion wouldn’t be a better option.

According to legend, one rite of Samhain in ancient Scotland was the dowsing of household fires. People would allow themselves to experience the darkness, lighting a new fire from a common bonfire. As we begin to understand that everyone suffers, we begin to experience that common fire. We begin to be able to look at ourselves and others with kind attention. Our hearts begin to open to others and to ourselves, in all our guises and manifestations, even the most frightening.

Moment by moment, we begin to realize that waking up involves waking up to the truth of who we are, and that means the whole truth. A new kind of warmth and vibrancy and ease comes into our lives at moments (and let me stress again that this is a work of moments). We feel just as much as before. But there is also light and warmth, and the understanding that we are not alone in the dark.

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