Master Yoda says, “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”
I say, How you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.
As much as I adore Star Wars, the one thing about the Jedi that bothers me is their refusal to create space within themselves for the dark side. How is it that they acknowledge the Force has both light and dark sides but choose only to train in the light and against the dark? It seems to me that this oversight is partly responsible for the creation of Darth Vader and Kylo Ren. If Anakin Skywalker had learned how to deal with fear and anger besides just “rising above” them, perhaps things would have been different.
I know some people aren’t thrilled with the latest Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, but I loved it. Rey – the heroine – is in a remote corner of the galaxy trying to convince Luke Skywalker to train her in the ways of the Force. She stands on a precipice overlooking an untamed sea. In the rocks below is a deep, black hole out of which creep dark tentacles. Rey dives straight into the well of dark. She needs to know it. Rey does not hide from or attempt to push past the dark.
Last week I went to the grey place. The grey place is where I allow myself to feel the darker side of being human and yet remain connected to the core of something brighter and bigger than my little self.
After five or so days in the grey place the shades of emotion turned dark and on Saturday I had a panic attack. Full blown breathless heaves and a wash of tears. I let myself be in the panic for a time then I chose to regain control of my breath. I was shaking and exhausted and I knew there was more to come. I cried it out and vented to a friendly acquaintance who happened to be standing near me, and who did her best to offer all sorts of helpful solutions: Have you journaled about it? Focus on gratitude. Think positive. Get out of your head.
The thing is, in the darkest, most acute moments of panic I don’t need to journal or practice gratitude or think positive. Such “helpful solutions” are not helpful. They are irritating and shame inducing. They are the product of well-intentioned Jedi absolutes.
What is helpful is allowing.
During my grey week I read The Book of Joy by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. “The two leaders [tell us] . . . that there is no joy without sorrow, that in fact it is the pain, the suffering that allows us to experience and appreciate the joy. . . . The more we turn toward the suffering, our own and others, the more we can turn toward the joy.”*
There are dozens of practices that help us cultivate joy: yoga, mind training, shifting perspectives, gratitude, meditations. None involve turning our back on suffering or pushing it away as though it doesn’t exist. All of the joy practices involve acknowledging the dark aspects of life. Too many are in the midst of profound suffering as result of natural disasters or the violent, tyrannical actions of others, but, as illustrated by the lives of the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Tutu and others in The Book of Joy, a person can maintain compassion and even joy in the midst of profound pain. This is only possible by integrating the darkness with a firm commitment to the light.
In the year and a half or so after Cole was born I didn’t feel the core of light I’d become accustomed to accessing in my heart. Postpartum depression is no joke. With all of my yoga, meditation, gratitude, prayer, sharing, service, I couldn’t access the sensation of ground-of-being serenity. But I knew it was there. It was time for help. And by help, I mean medication.
I also mean the help of compassion from others that affirmed my experience without trying to shame me out of it.
The Sith Lords of Star Wars are correct that tremendous power can be drawn from the dark side of the Force. It’s how they choose to wield it that is the problem. Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama know how to draw on the power of the dark side not for supremacy but for the good influence of radical compassion.
When I gave into the panic on Saturday, I offered myself radical compassion. When I later shared my darkness with a safe friend who didn’t try and fix my emotional state, the tension in my body dissipated and lightness returned.
Wookipedia – The Star Wars Wiki offers two versions of the Jedi Code that are a part of the official canon. The first is the mantra of fully trained Jedi.
There is no emotion, there is peace.
There is no ignorance, there is knowledge.
There is no passion, there is serenity.
There is no chaos, there is harmony.
There is no death, there is the Force.
The second is recited by Jedi younglings – Jedi’s in training.
Emotion, yet peace.
Ignorance, yet knowledge.
Passion, yet serenity.
Chaos, yet harmony.
Death, yet the Force.
Perhaps if the Jedi stuck with the mantra of the younglings Anakin would not have become Darth Vader. Then again, after being offered radical compassion even Darth Vader accepted his darkness and reconnected with the light.
* Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams, The Book of Joy, page 303
For Christmas my mother gave me a necklace of three pine trees etched onto a little gold circle, and a pinecone charm on a gold chain with a card that read “Vive Gamache!”. Armand Gamache is the main character in the Three Pines book series by Louise Penny. Three Pines is a fictional town on the border of Quebec and Vermont that stands at the center of the novels. Its inhabitants are a flawed, loveable community of characters whom I consider friends.
Prior to receiving this beautiful gift, I had been wearing a longhorn charm necklace as a symbol of courage. Today I wear my three pines. Which is interesting because my guiding word just changed from “courage” to “community.” And even more interesting because I received the necklace before I received the word.
It’s also interesting that I made the mental connection between my new necklace and my word on the feast of Epiphany. Some suggest a spiritual symbolism to the gifts of the magi: gold for Jesus’ kingship; frankincense for his divinity; and myrrh, an anointing oil, foreshadowing his death. This interpretation can be found in the carol “We Three Kings.”
Such is the way of things. Little gifts illuminating the path ahead.
One of my prayers of late is: God, show me what you would have me do and make it clear and obvious. Grant me the wisdom to see it, the serenity to accept it, and the courage to carry it out. When I shared this with a friend she jokingly and lovingly said, “That’s all?! Pretty big prayer.”
Yes, it is. And for some dashed reason, because of the clear and obvious part, I still expect the guidance bit to show up as directions written out on a whiteboard. This has yet to be the case. I try to keep the prayer open, but in truth I’m praying this over some very specific areas of my life.
I continue to wait and watch, to be still and to pay attention to the non-whiteboard ways God speaks to me. Such as the necklace that so conveniently symbolizes the energy of community and whatever that word is asking of me. Such as the sharing of an acquaintance that knocked me out of my self-centeredness and into the reality that once again I overloaded an action with the expectation of a hoped for result. Such as the appearance of a lady bug – symbol of good things coming to fruition – in my house hours before getting the news that my divorce was final, and again just before receiving a long-awaited e-mail scheduling a job interview.
In the acknowledgments of her latest book Louise Penny writes:
Some might argue that Three Pines itself isn’t real, and they’d be right, but limited in their view. The village does not exist, physically. But I think of it as existing in ways that are far more important and powerful. Three Pines is a state of mind. When we choose tolerance over hate. Kindness over cruelty. Goodness over bullying. When we choose to be hopeful, not cynical. Then we live in Three Pines. I don’t always make those choices, but . . . . I know where I want to be, and I know how to get there.
Some might argue that the ways I see and hear God speaking to me through friends, animals, nature, books, dreams, music, and synchronicities are not real. Perhaps they’re right. Perhaps God is not real. But if not, what else is there
I know where I want to go. I don’t know where God wants me to go. Not in any long-term, task oriented sense. What I do know is who I want to be and who God wants me to be along the way. What I do know is how to pay attention to the little gifts God leaves on the path.
So thank you, Mom, God, Louise Penny. Thank you for the gift of Three Pines.
If you feel so inclined, I’d like to hear about the gifts that help illuminate your path. Post your experience in the comments section below.
Happy New Year to you.
Even though 2017 brought tremendous difficulty in the world at large, overall it was a good year for me. I did some cool things, wrote a bunch, went to New Mexico. It was also challenging and frustrating and full of change. Many things I had hoped would come to my definition of fruition did not.
It is what it is.
In year’s past, I’ve written about and set an intention rather than a resolution. In yoga we call this a sankalpa – a word or small phrase in the present tense that represents where we want to go or what we want to cultivate. The past few years have brought so much upheaval I didn’t bother with anything more intentional than courage. And that has served me well.
I hadn’t planned on designating a new sankulpa for this year either, but as I was lying down for a little rest the world community sprung to my awareness. For the first time my sankalpa is focused outward, not inward. I don’t know what community is asking of me, but I do know enough to let it be, and open to what this energy wants to create through me.
If you’re into the idea of setting an intention all you need to do is take a few moments to breathe, reflect, and listen. You could take a walk, read something sacred to you, and journal. Or not. Just be on the look-out for what shimmers. Finding an intention is more about receptivity than focus.
If you want a little guidance, I suggest Christine Valters Paintner’s free Give Me a Word retreat. You need to sign up for her newsletter. (Which I format and send each week.) I know you’ll enjoy the wisdom she has to offer.
Finally, I’d like to leave you with this upbeat little blessing from one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman.
May your coming year be filled with magic and dreams and good madness. I hope you read some fine books and kiss someone who thinks you’re wonderful. And don’t forget to make some art – write or draw or build or sing or live as only you can. And I hope, somewhere in the next year, you surprise yourself.
Today I’m flying low and I’m
not saying a word.
I’m letting all the voodoos of ambition sleep.
The world goes on as it must,
the bees in the garden rumbling a little,
the fish leaping, the gnats getting eaten.
And so forth.
But I’m taking the day off.
Quiet as a feather.
I hardly move though really I’m traveling
a terrific distance.
Stilllness. One of the doors
into the temple.
~ Mary Oliver
Christmas Eve was strange. Each Sunday after the announcements and before the offering plate goes around the rector invites “anyone to come forward who would like to make a donation to Heifer International marking special times and moments in our lives.” On Christmas Eve I made a donation in celebration of the now official divorce. I felt light. Airy. But as the service drew to a close, loneliness set in. Without Cole around the house felt too quiet. Too empty. My head too loud. Too full.
In the afternoon I met a friend and we walked the trail around Bond Lake. Just that one hour made the silence in my house bearable. I still watched TV for a good portion of the day, but for one hour after returning from the walk I sat in silence with a cup of tea. I didn’t read or write. I just sat, pushing myself to be present to my painful thoughts and occasionally refocusing them on gratitude. I sat, listening for God.
I don’t know that I heard God. Not in any clear or dramatic way. But I made room.
We have entered an interesting congruence between nature, culture, and the liturgical calendar. The shortest days of the year are behind us and light ever so slowly returns to the world as we dig in for the incubation of winter. Our western culture presses us toward goals for the New Year. The liturgical 12 days of Christmas celebrate the post-partum space between birth and the visit of the magi. Between incarnation and gifts given and received.
Now is a potent time for silence. “Silence has two functions,” writes Sister Joan Chittister. “The first effect of exterior silence is to develop a sense of interior peace. The second value of silence is that it provides the stillness that enables the ear of the heart to hear the God who is ‘not in the whirlwind.’”
The cultivation of silence is of primary importance to St. Benedict. And it is of primary importance to me. I rise early in hopes of getting a few moments of silence before Cole announces his exuberant presence to the day. I consciously arrange my schedule when he’s gone to make room for stillness.
But here’s a secret. Even when I’m being quiet, when I’m not speaking a word to anyone, when the TV and music are off, there is still noise. It’s in my head as I obsess over interactions or worry about the future or script conversations with people not in the room. Writing, journaling, doing some of the dishes by hand all help lower the volume on my thoughts so I can listen for God with the ear of my heart.
During these sacred days of Christmas, during the last breath before the New Year, I encourage you to take some time for silence and focused reflection. Pick up your journal or planner or note pad. Reflect with gratitude on where you’ve been and jot down your visions and longings for the future. Listen with the ear of your heart for the desires planted by God. Breathe on them. Imagine them coming to life. Feel them. Taste them. Then let them go. Remain still and enter the temple.
Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Photo © Melinda Thomas