The Only Way Out is Through: Bottoming Out and The Dark Night of the Soul
There will be days so dark that nothing offered to you will bring you comfort. Kind and encouraging words will fall on deaf ears and you’ll feel as through you were on a rickety raft in the middle of an ocean so black like pen ink, you can’t see through. The tide will feel unusually cruel and you’ll be so far gone you won’t even bother to curse the god that you’ve long lost faith in. Your aloneness will settle right into fibers of your achy bones and only the taste of your own bitterness on your lips will keep you company.
There are moments so dark that we wonder how we actually survive them. There is physical, emotional, and psychological pain so all-consuming that we are sure to drown or implode. When we hit bottom our mind naturally wants it to end. The minutes stretch on like hours, we experience the longest days and nights imaginable, and nothing brings comfort or reprieve.
In my own days of hitting bottom, I was preoccupied by dark daydreams as though my mind had been taken over by a demon, and in some ways it had been…I did have the Lyme pathogen in my brain! I would imagine getting hit by a car and some pained part of me would secretly wish it would happen…anything to make the pain go away. I got so sick at times I would imagine someone finding my remains in my apartment. I would think about my belongings and who would get certain things like my journal collection or who would look after Injeia, my beloved cat? I would also daydream about calling 911 and being taken to emergency…but then I’d remember they’d probably leave me worst off than they found me.
No one was coming to save me.
In the darkest hours my thoughts were not my own. The shadow itself was thinking through me. Even the darkest days imaginable however, had moments of reprieve. Seeing Injeia’s green eyes twinkling in the sun, having a hot shower, or I would find moments of solace in my writing. There were brief openings in which I would not only forget how sick and miserable I was but I would forget myself all together. What do I mean? I would forget that ‘I’ exist. I would become the warm water washing over my body; I would lose myself in the sunlight. For just a brief moment I would disappear and so would my suffering. I realized that ‘I’ can’t suffer when there is no ‘I’ present. I’m not talking about ‘checking out’ or becoming numb either—quite the opposite.
A walk in the woods connects me with this experience regularly. Getting ‘lost’ in the woods, the sound of my feet crunching, the brilliance of the sky, and the towering trees, takes me out beyond myself. Walking by the ocean does this beautifully as well. My experience of being a small, localized self gets suspended temporarily as I gaze out on the horizon and expand my presence out to meet it. On the darkest days however, I’d hardly make it past the stoop of my front door.
I had a lot of trepidation about writing this post and giving voice to the 'dark night of the soul' experience that I went through. Generally speaking, people are not talking openly about this stuff and as a result we often feel 'damaged' or 'broken' if we hit bottom. Truth is, people have been experiencing 'the descent', this bottoming out for as long as there have been people.
I write this not to fix you or save you. There is actually nothing I can say to take the pain away, to dissolve the bitter taste, or to glue pieces back together. I will tell you though, that I believe this experience of darkness is, on some level, necessary or else it wouldn’t be happening. It’s not an accident or a mistake. I write this to honor your passage through the underworld and to honor my own.
The descent, phase two of the mythic hero’s journey, is also called ‘the supreme ordeal’ in the literature. Not " a-kind-of-intense-time" or "a-sort-of-shitty-ride" but supreme because it not only breaks part of us off, or breaks us open, but because a true 'descent' completely devastates us. We are pulverized by its intensity. It shatters us in our entirety; it completely disables our sense of who we are, why we’re here, and our understanding of what life is about, and our conception of god, spirit, or source.
The supreme ordeal takes different forms for each of us. For me, and others reading this, it comes through a bout of chronic illness. For others it’s the loss of a child, hitting rock bottom with an addiction, or even surviving a natural disaster.
The carpet we were standing on has been pulled out from under us and we’re left flat on our back gazing up at eternity or more like down into the abyss of what feels like an infinite black hole. The ‘dark night of the soul’ or supreme ordeal leaves us completely unhinged with no sense of up or down, no illusions left to cling to, or appeasing beliefs left to stand on.
This is exactly why it’s so effective at transforming us.
When the caterpillar is summoned by the pulse of life itself into the cocoon and bids its life as a crawling creature goodbye it is essentially being summoned to its death; death of the self it knew itself to be. In the cocoon the caterpillar literally disintegrates. If you or I were to peak inside the transformation mid-course we would not find a caterpillar-butterfly hybrid. Not at all! We would find a chaotic soup that is neither caterpillar nor butterfly. Transformation is messy.
Within that cocoon soup are special cells called ‘imago cells’ that are encoded with the blueprint of the butterfly. In the complete decimation of the caterpillar, lies the activation and composition of the butterfly. The only way out is through.
There is no way for the caterpillar to avoid its death or to side-step its demise, not if it wants to be a butterfly. The only way out is through, and through is, much to our dismay, the most terrifying process imaginable. It truly is a supreme ordeal.
I tell you this, not because it will make your own unraveling easier, and not because it will make you exempt from the undergoing in any way. I tell you only so that you know that you are not alone. In fact, you are in good company. The ‘supreme ordeal’ of various incarnations and magnitudes has been an intrinsic part of the human path of initiation for as long as there have been humans. Most spiritual teachers of our time, the mystics of ancient days gone by, and likely the profound and kind people that you admire the most have all been groomed and ripened by this exact process of journeying through the dark.
I’ve come to believe that becoming “a genuinely adult human”, as Bill Plotkin calls it, entails an initiation through the underworld of our shared human suffering. We grow not only through the good times but especially through the challenges life presents.
How else are we to open our hearts wider than we thought possible? How else are we to become wise and mature beings? How else are we to develop the kindness and compassion that will transform this world? What else would do this more effectively than our own suffering does?
:: CREATE ::
I invite you to create an altar to the dark, the mystery, the shadow, and the underworld of existence. You can do this whether you are currently struggling or whether you are having ‘the best time ever’. Your altar, a little sacred space filled with intention and reverence, can be created on the mantle of your fireplace, the lid on the back of your toilet, a corner of your kitchen counter, on your bedside table, or anywhere else you’d like. An altar to the dark might have stones, images of the night sky, a raven or owl feather, a grief-laden poem you wrote, a picture of something that scares you like a spider, or a small bowl of rich, dark, soil.
Notice any resistance that comes up in this process of honoring the dark. We live in a culture that not only doesn’t honor the shadow side of being human, but also often doesn’t even acknowledge its existence. We're scared that in nodding our heads toward the dark that we’ll ‘attract’ more of it. I no longer believe this. In fact, I feel that by paying heed to the shadow we can integrate it, call the darkness into the light of our hearts, honor the paradox of existence, and in turn heal and become whole.
Copyright © 2015 Marie-Ève Bonneau