The Form and The Light

22 Apr
In an obscure night
Fevered with love’s anxiety
O hapless, happy plight!
I went, none seeing me
Forth from my house, where all things quiet be
     – Saint John of the Cross

Cold and wet, dark and stormy, solitary and anxious: I stood on the edge of a great chasm. All the layers of clothing could not protect me from the way Earth evoked the internal dialogue of my soul. Although I was above a great river on the Colorado Plateau, I could have been anywhere, in any time. To my soul, it was 10,000 years ago. To my mind, it was now. The bereavement of this lifetime was trying to catch up with me, but my anxiety was working hard to suppress it.  Once again, I had found myself in the transformative cycle of grief and love.

The context: I was guiding a river trip for a group of clinical psychology students on a stretch of river I know well – a stretch on which I have spent over 70 days of my life. The first time I ever saw Labyrinth Canyon, I was in the midst of heart-wrenching loss, and I was looking for the godhead in the Earth. My journey has led me back to the river over and over again. And now, I know the deep intricacies of those 60 miles of Labyrinth. I know the deepest recesses of Trin Alcove, the pour-overs and petrified forests of Keg Springs, the wastelands above Cowboy Steps, and if I were blindfolded and led into the canyon somewhere, I could take off the blindfold and tell you exactly where we were.

I wish to know my soul like I know the Earth. I have spent much of my life on the material plane, mastering its trade. I can walk the mountains and survive for months. I can build a business and thrive in it. I can teach others my trade and inspire them. I can design programs and package them into the world for the sake of humanity. But do I know my soul, my spirit? The place where my body and mind meet the utterly frightening light of the sacred?

When I wonder how to know my soul, I am reminded of what Rumi said: “You left and I cried tears of blood. My sorrow grows. It’s not just that You left. But when You left my eyes went with You. Now, how will I cry?” Our survival on the material plane is punctuated by glimpses of the shadow and light behind the veil, but it is so hard to see because we are entrained to see shapes and objects, feel emotions and think thoughts – all of which we name. And when we name things, when we use language, we activate the part of our mind that separates, compartmentalizes, and establishes a way for us to fathom the forms we experience. From Plato to Buddha to Postmodernism, we have established that this is what our individual and collective brains do. We attempt to organize, which works well for us in the flesh, but also determines our cyclical separation from the divine.

Saint John of the Cross, the 16th century Spanish mystic known for his work, The Dark Night (others expanded this title to The Dark Night of the Soul), seemed to know the sensuality of the search for spirit, the way our raw experience of earth, wind, rain, and fire can bring us to our knees. The dark night of the soul is not theoretical to me; it is an experience that I have lived over and over throughout my life. And as painful as it has been – especially in the darkest of days when I lost my beloved father – I have found the greatest love through these cycles of darkness. My shadows are the gateway into the light of being, the light of the divine.

I will continue my pilgrimages through Earth – back to Labyrinth Canyon, back to Mount Kailash, across the vast, cold steppe and into the warmer forests. But these pilgrimages will all lead me back to the same experience – the cycle of grief and love. And each time I find love amid the shadows, it is more vast, more frightening, more powerful, and more like the home I somehow know.  I embrace it, and if it seems to leave me momentarily, I have committed to keeping my heart strong and open to its inevitable return.


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