My then boyfriend, now friend, can tell you exactly how I looked when he dropped me and Pacer off to start the Colorado Trail, just a few months after moving to the state and having only done one very, very, short overnight backpacking trip on the AT. He’ll tell you that I looked like I was about to cry, that he could see the fear written around the worried lines around my smile. I actually didn’t know he could read any of my emotions in that moment until he repeated this scene to me a few months ago, because at the time, he knew what he had to do. He remained stoic, not allowing me to linger too long in our embrace, and sent me and Pacer off down the trail.
My tears are usually a mixture of emotions. Sadness, fear, and excitement all wrapped into a ball, moving from my chest to my throat.
The sadness is partially still from the ending that transitioned right into the beginning, but also a grief for the people I can’t take with my on my journey. It’s a love, really. The tears if sadness also mix in with tears from pure fear…a new beginning is stepping into the unknown. And, even while at this point in my life I know all will turn out okay, the fear of the unknown seems to be embedded into my DNA. Its grip has simply loosened. Blending in with the fear then, of course, is the heart of my adventurous soul singing out loud in excitement, for there is surely much beauty to be seen.
So is the cycle of my life. An ending, a beginning, and all the emotions in-between. Beauty in every step.
The death of a loved on has the power to shift our perspectives on life.
To realize what truly matters. To realize what is actually worth stressing about… little to nothing.
Getting a flat tire. Waiting in a long line at the grocery store. Needing to go to the bank.
I’m sure for some, this could further add to the overwhelm, but for me in August of 2020 my only thought was “My sister is dying, and you’re going to worry about that?”
If challenged, I would have been tempted to play the dead sister card throughout that fall. Most people would have understood.
(Side note: From my understanding, people used to wear black in the year after a loved one’s death not simply to mourn, but so that others could recognize them in their sorrow and offer love and support. It was a way for love to be let in in the face of loss. Beautiful, right? Why do we try to hide our pain now?)
Why do we continue to stress about things that don’t really matter?
As my older sister would say to me and her friends in her final years “Life is too short to be anything but happy.”
Some of us want to brush that quote off as cliche, too simple, too aspirational.
As a mental health therapist, I don’t strive to be happy 100% of the time, but I do strive to live a happy life. My compass is always pointed towards joy in the face of hard choices and difficult decisions.
That relationship. That job. If I’m not happy or passionate about it at least 75% of the time, I’m out. I don’t have the time for that.
This means living by my values, dreaming big, going on adventures, and not giving energy to the negative voices- mine or others- who question my choices.
It is in choosing my own path that I honor my sister and her reminder “Life is too short to be anything but happy.”
…and sometimes, I just have to create the way for others by being the example.
Picture 1: Me and Pacer on top of San Luis Peak during our Colorado Trail thru-hike.
Picture 2: A plaque from my older sister.
Picture 3: Easter 2018 featuring my older sister, me, and our cousin.
Not even 10 minutes into my Reiki session, I burst out crying “but why does it always have to be so hard?”
What I really meant was “why does it always have to hurt so much?” I felt like I had been cycling through periods of intense pain over the past several years. Even in just the last 7 months, I had been closely attentive to my body, battling to stay in it though I badly wanted to dissociate, and letting all my emotions arise as they came up. Yet it felt like it was never ending. And I was exhausted. While I never wanted to end my life, I had been ambivalent about living it. The voice inside of me that said “I don’t really want to be here anymore” was no longer unconscious. I heard it. Yet I quickly dismissed it with thoughts of Pacer, living in the mountains of Colorado, and having a loving family.
So, when at the end of the session my Reiki teacher told me the clear message that he had gotten for me was “Fight for Yourself”, I was confused. What did that even mean? I don’t even like using the word “fight”, anyway.
At my next session, two weeks later, even as he explained it again, I still didn’t understand. I would stand up for myself, I thought. I’ve fought against societal norms and resisted living a traditional lifestyle (not that there is anything wrong with that), and I had begun to actively speak my emotional and intuitive truth on social media. Somewhat frustrated, I said “I still don’t get it.” My Reiki teacher gently reminded me that I would, but that my focus should lean towards finding joy and not needing to having the answer. I left feeling somewhat better, less but still frustrated.
It was another week later, when I was listening to someone else tell their own story via a podcast, that I understood. It was that voice in me, that small, unhealed part of me, that didn’t want to live. That was my darkness. Could I fight for my light?
This may be confusing to some. For anyone who has followed me for some time, you’ll know I often talk about the magic and joy of life. And I 100% feel that that magic and joy. But I also can feel the contrast just as intensely (also finally understanding when Abraham/Esther Hicks talks about contrast).
Until that moment, I didn’t understand what a strong hold that part of me, even if small, had on my soul. How, sometimes unconsciously, it could stop me in my tracks. It could make me small and prevent my light from being fully expressed. Actually, I often hid between the shadows of my hermit archetype and introvert labels.
Yet, even as I understood that this was actually the part of me that needed the most healing, that I actually needed to fight to keep my light both going and growing, I didn’t know how. I still associated with this darker part of me. “How do I just make it go away?”, I wondered. I knew, deep down, I wanted to live and to live fully, but I wanted more peace and clarity inside of me too. Less pain, more joy. So then the question turned to, could I believe that was even possible?
It took me awhile to understand this part of me and how it showed up. In the morning, this was the taint I felt in my soul. In the previous years, it showed up as a heaviness in my heart and a shortness of breath that I described as “existential angst.” As I continued to heal and released some of the heart pain that wasn’t mine, it simply felt as if someone had taken a dropper, filled it with a dose of pain, and let it drip into my essence. Like a cloud inside my light, keeping it from shining at full capacity, from waking up in the morning excited about my day, even when I living a life I thoroughly felt grateful for.
Tracing this feeling back, I remembered the panic attacks I had in high school. Waking up early to run but not really wanting to face another day. The times I never felt good enough, the fear I held in my body at every basketball game, every social event. Luckily, I had a few good friends who never left my side and let me be me, but I still kept my pain away from them, and from my parents and my twin sister. We just weren’t a family who talked about these things. The one time, my twin sister, brave enough to say anything about her own pain, I clearly remember my stepdad saying “What do you have to be depressed about?” (I have so much compassion for my stepdad now and can see how he still holds on to and buries his own emotions.) And so, my pain became my secret.
Plus, even before high school, my pain was evident just by looking at my appearance. Anytime you see someone who is skin and bones, or becomes large enough that you can no longer decipher their true form, you’re looking at someone who’s “I don’t know if I want to be here part” has taken over. It may be unconscious, especially for a 13 year old girl, but it’s evident. And then, I was basically put on medication (that I would spit out), sent to various doctors, and a mental health therapist. All this told me, or rather confirmed, was that something was wrong with me. This was the belief I was already working off of and trying to cover up with perfectionist tendencies. (Obviously, I’m all for therapists now, but even if kind, the majority of therapists in the early 2000s were still working off of the disease model of mental illness.)
The origins of the pain were still somewhere underneath that. Contrived somewhere earlier on in childhood when I was punished or unseen, especially the part of me that has always been a sensitive, empathic soul. A gift my parents just couldn’t know was actually to be cherished, for their own world had been made up of harsh realities. They were simply trying to protect me from the pain. So my sensitivity became my kryptonite, a superpower better to be hidden.
The pain started to leak out in my late 20s, first releasing some of the pain I took on from the world. I’d see a video or get a piece of mail about the inhumane treatment of animals, and I’d soon be crying on my bathroom floor. I think it was easier for me to make visible the pain I saw around me than the pain within me. It seemed more acceptable, more honorable. And to be honest, my soul was truly confused and hurt by the created darkness of the world.
So, the battle in my 30s became the battle within.
My years learning to be a therapist, speaking to my own therapists, processing with my graduate school cohort, using my skills to guide others on their journeys… this all was a practice for my internal fight. Still, I hesitate the to use the word fight. With no offense to our military, I can only see the external wars in our world as nonsensical. How truly ridiculous that we kill each other over power, fear, and inflated egos? Yet defending beautiful, innocent people is another matter, and here I lean on the example set by Nelson Mandela and other great peace leaders. (This is too big a topic to dive into in this blog.)
The first part of my own battle was surrendering to my own pain. It felt insurmountable at times, as it had been built up for nearly 3 decades. Still, I continued to be a witness to my own suffering and eventually the edges wore off and I gained more compassion for myself. Yet even as the heaviness dropped away, the part of me that felt ambivalent about life still persisted. I didn’t know how to release that darkness, although meditations focusing on “breathing out clouds and breathing in sunshine” provided some relief.
Then, I had yet another opportunity to practice.
In many cases when I have a decision to make, I’ll stay stuck in a type of anxious freeze mode, and I have a debate in my head about my choices, over and over and over again, not making the final decision until I absolutely have to. Then, every once in awhile, I’ll rush into a decision… particularly around tattoos. It’s not that I didn’t want this last tattoo, I just agreed to a drawing that wasn’t exactly what I wanted before having it sketched into my skin. Actually, to make it worse, I only “semi” rushed…I actually had 2 hrs between seeing the image and agreeing to it, with a full opportunity to wait another week since the tattoo artist was heading out for vacation. For me, this was a perfect recipe of wanting to blame myself. While I’ve mostly trained myself out of negative self talk like “you’re stupid”, “I can’t believe you did that”, “why aren’t you better?”, etc., the internal feelings of shame that look like a panic attack on the outside were still very much prevalent. Could I choose to be kind to myself?
Could I choose to forgive myself for acting too quickly? (No wonder why the majority of time I can’t make a decision, if my other practice is beating myself up whenever I make the “wrong” decision.)
Could I choose, instead, to see the lesson?
This practice, too, was a fight. I wanted to go into self-blame. Being perfect and making the so called “right” decisions was what I knew how to do, how I had learned to protect myself from the fear of not feeling good enough. The hope, from my ego’s perspective, from this protection mechanism was so I didn’t make the mistake again, so I wouldn’t be the mistake.
Stepping away from the shame for a moment, I gave myself the opportunity to realize this was a lesson I had to learn. Humans, yes, are fallible. But is a person, a child, ever a mistake themself? Hell no. We simply become better versions of ourselves when taking the time to learn and gain meaning from our mistakes. The more simply stated, common phrase: sometimes we have to learn what we don’t want to know what we do want.
This tiny step turned out to be a big insight. It opened the door for me to forgive myself for a myriad of other poor (so I had deemed) decisions as well as times I had stepped away from opportunities and my own light for fear of being unworthy.
From this perspective, I could see my adult self giving a hug to the little me wearing a sunflower outfit (hat included) for her elementary school picture, who felt confused by the actions of adults in her life (as well a Catholic school that gave her the message that she was less than for being female). Then, to the high school me, who had learned to push so many people away because she thought her pain made her an outcast. I accepted these younger parts of me, showed them love, and brought them back home in my body.
In other words, I fought for them, and I fought for me. I fought for the part of myself that knew life was magical, a gift to be lived and expressed through my being. While pain, yes, may be a part of living, it doesn’t have to be carried with me on my journey. I was not my pain. I was meant to overcome my pain. To shine my light through it and to realize that my light was the only truth.
As I close, I can’t say the fight is over, the battle is just easier. The darkness is less powerful. I can see it for the fear that it is. I have more say in what I choose to believe and what I give my energy to. I can realize that my light, that I, Ray A. Nypaver, am worth fighting for.
May you always realize that your light, that You, are worthing fighting for.
“I’ve come to believe that there exists in the universe something I call “The Physics of The Quest” — a force of nature governed by laws as real as the laws of gravity or momentum. And the rule of Quest Physics maybe goes like this: “If you are brave enough to leave behind everything familiar and comforting (which can be anything from your house to your bitter old resentments) and set out on a truth-seeking journey (either externally or internally), and if you are truly willing to regard everything that happens to you on that journey as a clue, and if you accept everyone you meet along the way as a teacher, and if you are prepared – most of all – to face (and forgive) some very difficult realities about yourself… then truth will not be withheld from you.” Or so I’ve come to believe.”― Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love
In the midwest, we like to name the “fun” sections of our routes, like “The Stairway to Heaven” or “The Piano Keys”. If you’re not familiar with Cuyahoga Valley National Park, then you probably at least heard of the infamous “Heartbreak Hill” on the Boston Marathon course.
I like to call this section of the Colorado Trail/Collegiate West/Continental Divide Trail “Death by Switchbacks.” Now truly, this section of the trail is nothing short of majestic, but in these few specific miles, you drop down from alpine via what feels like 100 switchbacks, cross a short marshy section (pictured here- it looks much different in the summer!), only to return to alpine via another 100 switchbacks. If you’re already feeling tired, it’s nothing short of a struggle. The good news, however, is that once you make the death march (hike, run, or cycle) up, you meet heaven. (If headed southwest, towards the Alpine Tunnel and Cottonwood Pass to the northeast.)
The ego (how we feel about ourselves, our self-esteem) death uses a similar model as this section of the trail, although I’m going to offer a reframe that it is not necessarily about a part of us that needs to die, but actually about the part of us that doesn’t want to truly live, or “be here”, as I’ve written in previous post. It’s that part of us that says life is too hard, too painful. It’s the part of ourselves we try to numb and call it depression. The ego death is actually about bringing that part into Light and reigniting your own inner fire. It’s accepting that there is pain in the world but realizing it is not our own. It’s acknowledging that there is suffering, but it is not our truth. It’s reclaiming our authentic expression of self and believing in our divine right to live freely, peacefully, and joyously. This is “fighting for the Light”.
Again, the question is, will you choose yourself (Love) over fear?
For what I am holding onto will not allow me to live.
The wounds of our past: slavery, separation, running from love.
Both Mother Earth and I know the depths of the darkness.
Wounds, resurfaced, by no other than a lover.
No longer buried deep, but instead, threatening to consume the light within.
The love within.
What choice will I make?
I hear my body groan in agony.
“Good”, instructs my Mother.
This is the release.
I can’t see the way,
but with signs, she assures me that she does.
My only job is to lean back,
to trust my fall into the night sky,
to trust the stars will catch me.
There is no doubt some type of death will occur.
In my sacred groan, I choose to release my pain.
I choose to let go.
My only chance to return to the Light.
If you are in pain right now, know that you are not alone. This is part of the human journey. To transcend our pain. Not to hold it in, but to release it. To let it go. Realize it is not a burden to carry but a path to transformation. This process of moving through pain often requires more movement of energy than journaling or meditating. I suggest first moving the body and inviting any noises…screams, groans, cries, etc to come to the surface to be released. Then you may find peace in stillness.
I believe this is the difference between suicide and ego death, which is, I know, a big statement to make. But when we hold on to our pain, internalize it, keep it inside, it can absolutely kill our light, our soul. On the other hand, if we choose to step towards the pain and allow it to move, to be released, whether it be by groaning and physical release or talking to a therapist or friend, it is simply the ego that dies so the flame within can burn brighter.
The opposite of the sacred groan is, yes, the sacred moan. I hesitate to write about the sacred moan, for lack of many people understanding. There needs to be some conceptualization of sacred sexuality, even if it is only resonating with the term. The sacred moan is the mirrored twin of the sacred groan. It is the orgasm between two divine energies merging together to create something so expansive that it cannot be held within. It too, must be released. Yes, it can happen during sex, but it can happen outside of physical intercourse too. For it is in the energy, the pleasure, the love, the intersect of two divine energies coming together to co-create something bigger, more expansive, that one could have ever done in singularity.
The day Dad shared the news, I believe, started off as an ordinary day. My sisters and I went to school, came home, maybe ate dinner. That evening, before the announcement, he first took me, Sandi, and Amanda to Brookpark Fun & Games, which maybe I thought was a little odd, being a school night and all. I won a small stuffed animal. I don’t remember what it was, or how I won it. I just remember I had it when he sat us all down on Grandma’s couch.
I think he was standing, we were sitting, Grandma in the other room. He and Mom, he said, were getting a divorce.
At first I didn’t understand it. I think I was only 6 or 7. My only timeline is that my uncle, Dad’s youngest brother, passed away from Leukemia the year before. My sister tells me this is the first time she remembered seeing him cry, the second being just a few years ago when Amanda passed. Soon after the news, Dad had a heart attack, age 40, cause: a broken heart. I remember helping him put on his socks as he recovered that winter. I faintly remember mine and Sandi’s (my twin) kindergarten, 1st grade, and 2nd grade teachers feeling bad for us.
As I was sitting on Grandma’s couch, I remember picturing me and my sisters floating away in boxes in the ocean. Separated. It sounds silly, but I was so little, still partially dependent on my parents for shaping my understanding and view of the world. I must have cried. I just don’t remember. I don’t remember what happened next, when we saw Mom at home.
I think this is the day I first learned how to dissociate. My body partially shutting down and my imagination floating somewhere else, to protect me from my emotions, the emotions that my little body couldn’t yet process on its own.
I needed to my parents. I needed them to comfort me. To tell me that they loved me and that everything would be okay.
But they were in their own pain. They had learned themselves as children to shut down their emotions from their parents. A survival technique most likely used for generations to get through the hardships of life. And so, I was left alone, inside my own inner world.
For much of my life, I tried to dismiss my parent’s divorce as having any affect on my. After all, I figured, lots of kids experience the divorce of their parents. Of course, some of the wounds started to creep up in relationships as I entered my late 20s. Then, I recently learned that divorce, especially when kids have no voice in the matter, affects the part of the brain that associated with self-worth. [To be more specific, the frontostratial pathway, which links the medial prefrontal cortex (self-knowledge) with the ventral striatum (motivation and reward). Thank you Dr. Bruce Perry for sharing this research in What Happened to You? and https://www.huffpost.com/entry/self-esteem-brain_n_5500501]. I don’t think I felt that the divorce was my fault, but I didn’t feel like I had control of anything happening and I certainly had no one to comfort me, save for my stuffed animals Big Abu and Little Abu.
My brain, at the time, must have associated this with not being enough. A belief that I’ve only semi-consciously carried with me for the last 25+ years.
As a kid, self-soothing came in the form of eating, until I heard the “chunky” comments, and then I numbed my way to anorexia. Then there were sports. Sports, of course, aren’t bad. Except exercises fed my anorexia. Basketball, thinness, and grades all become closely associated with my self-worth.
Eventually, I became ruled by the belief, the fear, that I wasn’t enough. My body was too anxious to play basketball well. My shooting wrist would lock up. I’d have panic attacks, simply playing against boyfriends. In running, I was determined to leave the pressure, the past, behind me. I just wanted to bask in the freeness of running outside.
But you can’t escape the shadows that you don’t know are there. (Aka, the unconscious.)
I loved running.
Yet I got caught in the traps of a culture that said “do more” over and over and over again.
My body had enough. The left hip developed a “hitch”. On flat ground, I felt like I couldn’t control the leg’s swing. I developed calf strains. Running, limping, fainting 100 miles through the first one. And finally, an Achilles tendon injury that stubbornly wouldn’t heal.
I was frustrated for so long. Now I am simply grateful. I believe my Achilles was telling me “I’m not going to let you run until both you unconscious on conscious believes that you are enough. You don’t always have to do things to feel that way. You don’t have to work so hard to be loved. Only then will you know what it’s like to run embodied with freedom and joy. “
Joy and freedom have always been what I’ve strived for. And I have felt that way in the mountains, yet never without that little voice in the back of my mind too, coaxing me like the serpent of Eden, “You a have enough time. Do that mountain too.”
Now, there are times that I do want to extend the day outside. It’s the pressure in my body that feels awful, unloving, persisting even after I call out my ego and choose to stop. The should haves on the drive home actually driving me further away from myself, the home inside my body.
Striving, I realize, is not the right word for what I want to obtain. For striving for love is not love. It’s actually a returning. A returning to my 6 year old self, reminding her that she is loved. That she has nothing to prove, no need to claim her worthiness. A returning to that core truth, so when the world around her spins in a way she can’t control, only that truth exists. That love, joy, and freedom are always present, if not outside then within. The heart that exist outside of protections, ego, and human form.
I have done a lot of the deep inner work sifting through fear and pain. In doing so, I’ve also developed a deeper spiritual practice, which is ever strengthening. Even so, at this point, I am not immune to the tug of darkness.
While I have never been suicidal, there’s still a part of me (I used to say it was part of my soul, now I think its part of a shadow) that says “Okay. I’m done. I don’t want to be here (in the physical world) anymore.”
What time and wisdom have taught me is simply that this feeling will pass, the light will come back. That darkness can be my greatest teacher, but I have to be brave enough to pass through it.
Eventually, I will remember. I will remember that light, joy, and love never truly leaves us. It just gets blocked. And the only way to remove a block is to surrender to it, to feel the way through the darkness, or rather, the difficult emotions. Maybe the human experience is just learning how to remove the blocks from our path, strengthening the knowledge of our own sacredness and deepening our resolve to be in the light.
[In therapy, especially EMDR, I’m literally helping clients remove blocks, or in EMDR terms “negative cognitions” (including past memories and emotions) that were picked up from false narratives created in childhood in an attempt to explain the behavior of unhealed adults.
If I could talk to a person when they are feeling suicidal, the best wisdom I could offer is “this too shall pass.” At the darkest point, the wisest thing to do is to ask for help, to let someone else be the light until they can retrieve their own. And when they retrieve their light, it will be brighter than before, and when they start sharing that light with light others, they will bask in an even greater light. ]
This is a question many people have, but few have ever truly contemplated. We ask questions like, “If there was a God, how could He let children starve?” If we go any further than that, we usually end up at “There is no God” or “There is true evil (devil) in this world.” Neither of those answers do it for me. They’re just too incomplete, too reductionary. So I chose the path I lead my counseling clients on when they are feeling lost: go right into the darkness.
This essay is my attempt to explain darkness, from a human, spiritual, and mental health perspective and to answer the question “Is darkness real?”
My list on what darkness is or what could be ended up being a pretty long list. It included: evil, depression, night, shadow self, suppression of the light, death, rest, despair, fear, and shame. Some of the things on this list may read as inherently “bad”…but what about the night sky? What about rest? I quite enjoy my 8 plus hours of sleep each night, and anyone in Alaska will tell you that it’s hard to sleep without blackout shades. Then again, during winter, you’ll hear many Americans protest against the long, dark days, although I’ve learned to enjoy the extra time to move slowly and reflect. So if it wasn’t for our resistance to it, would the dark be negative at all?
As I was getting ready to write this essay, a friend replied to one of my social media posts on darkness. She asked me “Do you think the depression that comes with Winter is just something to sink into?” My reply, as usual, was nuanced. I replied “I would say it depends on how we want to define “depression”. Personally, I think surrendering to the “darkness” is simply part of winter/solstice. If I had to start definine things, I’d say depression is more going into the darkness and getting stuck there, rather than being able to go in and pass through.”
My counseling background tells me that depression is a few things. It’s the suppression of emotions, it’s the suppression of one’s true nature, and it’s the loss of hope. I think we could also call it the suppression of light. Like most therapists, I won’t say there are any negative emotions, just uncomfortable ones. However, many people do perceive emotions like sadness, fear, and anger as negative, and for various reasons (that’s an essay in itself), they don’t feel them. Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean they go away. It means the emotions get stuck in their bodies and like clouds that continue to build up, they block out any light. In the darkness of that inner cave, it’s hard to find a way out without any help, or without hope, so people get stuck. Lost. Maybe this is what it means to be a lost soul. The true enemy is not the fact everything feels dark, it’s forgetting that there is a way out.
To break from theory for a moment, I’ll add my personal experience. When I experienced depression in my teens and twenties, depression was a mixture of numbness and intense self-loathing. Sadness was there too, but the tears also told me I “wasn’t okay”, that something must be wrong with me. Since then, I’ve had many therapy sessions and done a lot of inner work on my own that was all about going into the darkness, which was really just all my unfelt emotions and negative beliefs about myself built up. Feeling the “cloud of my emotions”, and really, experiencing the storm inside of me allowed the clouds space to move. This gave a chance for the sun to come out. Now, the emotions still come, but they pass through my body more easily.
Next, there’s the theory of the shadow self. If you are a visual person, you can literally think of your own shadow as the 3pm sun hits your body and creates a shadow of your body, like a stealth body guard. Our shadow parts are “the guardians” of the parts of us we reject and that lay outside of us, unaccepted and not to be seen, unintegrated into the whole of ourselves. Or maybe more accurately, shadow parts are the black cloaks that surround the vulnerable parts of us left deep, deep inside of us, almost forgotten…and God knows, we’ve tried to forget them. Shadow parts may also be considered our inner demons, the traumas we have not yet faced. If you’re from the midwest, your shadow part might be hiding the emotional part of you, since “being tough” and not showing emotions is considered a value in that part of the country. Or, if you identify as male, it may not have been okay to show your feminine side as a child. In fact, you probably heard it was bad or weird. So you rejected that part of you. To cover up that part of you, you may have even created an alter ego wrapped in toxic masculinity. The problem is, you’re not whole without the emotional, feminine part of you. Our job is to take our shadows, or rather, the parts that they are protecting, and reintegrate them back into our whole being.
Sometime during the writing of this, I went to see a Reiki therapist to help gain insight on why my Achilles tendon wasn’t healing. Among other insights, he shared with me the vision he had of me curled up in the fetal position. I told him “I know that vision.” In my darkest moments, or what I had then considered my “weak moments”, this is the position anyone would find me in. The image had come up many times in therapy, and I had touched on it doing inner child work, but there was always some resistance. The vision goes back to me as a young girl. Feeling alone, dejected, and unloved. My own darkness: the belief that I am not loved. Logically, I know that there are lots of people who love me. Emotionally, I’ve always felt separate. In one break up I found myself saying “Why don’t you love me?”. But it was never about the guy. It was my core wound. And all the shadows around that evolved to help protect me from feeling the pain of that wound. The only cure was to go in and do the intense, intimate work of learning how to love myself, to go back to my younger self and say “I love you. I will not abandon you.” It was and is some of the hardest work I have ever done and continue to do.
But what about evil?
I’ve always considered myself the type of person that feels the immense pain of the world. I resisted much of this sensitivity through my early 20s because accepting the cruelty was too much to bear. How could such evil exist? If there was a Higher Power, how could they let this happen? So I chose ignorance. I didn’t want to think about it…so I didn’t.
Now, I’m a devout vegan. The thought of an animal ever being hurt can bring me to tears instantaneously. In saying that, my goal isn’t to turn everyone reading this into a vegan (though admittedly, that would be lovely), but to simply help others be aware of when they choose to ignore evil in any area of their life, to ignore darkness. Additionally, I stay updated enough on the news to know what’s happening, so I can help or donate when I can afford to. Yet to go deeper into the wars, to women being executed for claiming their right to exist, to the children dying of starvation…well, I could easily get lost in the darkness all over again and simply go numb to the pain. There’s no sense in any of it…because a world not filled with love is nonsensical! Here, I’m not going to claim that I know with certainty the answer as to whether or not evil exists on its own (although I try), but I can theorize that in many spaces, evil exists where love is forgotten. I hand out no excuses, but I see many of the “evil” leaders of the world trapped in a dark space where love and hope has been so far pushed away that their memory has no recollection of it ever existing. I see them as children in the fetal position, in a cave of darkness surrounded by shadows, and wrapped in a heavy blanket of shame. The shame tells a lie: “I must not be lovable”. Because love is a foreign concept, power becomes the desired feeling and monsters help block the lonely child from the fear of being unlovable. With the inner demons too much to bear, they have created a demon out of themselves. If only they knew the truth: that they are love, not their shadows.
Suicide, on the other hand, happens when a person turns their inner demons on themself. They internalize the shame until it truly becomes too much to carry. Too much to live with. Instead of attacking others, they attack themselves in the most destructive way possible. It doesn’t seem like a choice, because all they can see is the shadows inside of themselves and the shadows have blocked out the light.
In both instances, the lie is that one is unlovable. That love is too far gone to ever get it back. If only they knew…
I guess that brings us back to the beginning.
Is darkness real?
Some would argue that if we created a room without windows, only darkness would exist. I would argue back that they blocked out the light.
What about the monsters under the bed? Would they still be there if we turned on the light?
What if we’re too scared to look?
A lot of great spiritual teachers say that fear is the opposite of love, which I believe is nearly the same thing as saying that darkness is the opposite of light.
If that is true, why would anyone ever be scared of love?
This is where I usually have to bring inner child work into therapy. When I work with adults, some of them are very set in the belief that they are not good enough, that they don’t matter, that they are undeserving of love. Then I ask the question…would they ever say any of those things to a child? Could a child ever not be good enough? Could a child ever deserve the bad things happening to them? “Hell no!”, they say. But what about their 7 year old self?
Without going too deep into attachment theory and developmental research, a child’s view is “selfish”, in that it’s hard to see outside of themselves for answers. If a parent hits a child, the only reason a child can come up with is that it’s because they are bad, not because the parent has issues. And so, this little, innocent child believes they are defective. Something must be wrong with them, because in a young child’s eye, their parents know everything and are the omnipresent being in their world. Truly, children depend on their parent’s for survival, so a child must learn to do whatever they can to survive, even if it means coming up with a facade, or the belief that they don’t matter. That’s the only way they can make sense of misattuned love. The only way we can make sense of darkness.
As adults, we forget about our own light, that the power is in us, not our parents and their demons, because we’ve created our own. We’ve spent our whole life living in the shadows and allowing fear to protect us from harm. It’s hard to see any other option. (Fear truly is responsible for our primal safety. For example, if a child can tell when a parent is upset, they probably know it’s a good day to stay in their room and “hide”. Remember, basic psychology tells us that fear is our bodies’ survival response, allowing us to fight, flee, or freeze when we need to.) The fact that we’re actually free beings, that love is our core, and we’re capable of truly amazing things…well that sounds crazy.
And I, as a mental health therapist, say “then we all must become crazy.” Or maybe we’re already crazy for living in a lie for so long.
Yes, it does suck to know that we’ve all been living in one big lie our whole lives (and many will choose to reject this simply because the “truth is too much to bear”, that they didn’t have to live in so much pain for 10 ,20, 50 years…), but the sooner we accept it, the sooner we can move to toward something better.
With that, my answer.
No, I don’t believe darkness is real. It exists, yes, but only because we’ve made it up. It’s been created from our own internalized darkness, not that different from how we’ve created skyscrapers that block out magnificent views and create large shadows in the afternoon sun. Darkness is simply fear and negative, false beliefs about ourselves that, and when given the power, can lead to truly evil acts.
Even as I type my answer, my shadow, my inner critic, wants to come in and say “Who do you think you are to say you have the answer to such a big question? You, Ray, are full of it.” However, after having gone through my own darkness, another thought, a ray of hope, comes in to say “But what if it is, darkness, really all just a myth? What if you’re right? What if there is something better?”
Being my own devil’s advocate, I ask myself the next logical question: Why does darkness exist? What is its purpose?
I’ve already explained, in part, how I think darkness arises around the absence of love, or rather, the belief we are unlovable. Yet, if you believe in a Higher Power,, couldn’t that Higher Power just wipe that thought out and send us a big sticky note that reads “YOU ARE LOVED UNCONDITIONALLY”?
As someone who loves discussing purpose and meaning, all I can do here is draw on the wisdom of the existential authors that have come before me. We must each make our own meaning of the darkness.
Is it to grow? Is it because that in suffering, we find joy? Is it our challenge to return to love, and therefore deepen our understanding of it?
The answer may be individual or it may be universal. I’m not entirely sure. What really matters is that we each have an answer for ourselves, for the meaning presides over our evolution.
Which leads us to…death.
Here, I turn to the sky.
Every day, the sun sets, and night takes over. The next day, the sun rises. A new day is born.
My main personal experience with death was witnessing my older sister’s slow transition to death in her cancer-ridden body. I still consider it a blessing that she was able to make that transition at home, surrounded by her family. To me, it was the hardest, most sacred, most love-filled moment I have ever been present to. Even at her funeral, amidst tears and mascara stains, there was so much love surrounding me and my family. Today, while I do feel my sister’s presence when I’m experiencing hardship, I feel her the most when I’m in a state of bliss. When I’m in the mountains on a bluebird day with my dog by my side. During those times, I don’t need to call on her for support, she is just there.
My research, both in reading and in viewing others, as well as personal experience, also tells me that we all experience several deaths within ourselves during this lifetime. In fact, biology tells us that we literally have a new physical body every 7 years. Then, there are our own internal transitions, leaving old versions of ourselves behind and becoming someone new. Various cultural traditions have honored these changes throughout history. Poetically phrased, this is the “phoenix process” of death and rebirth within our individual human experience. Until our ultimate physical death. Then, does everything go dark?
I don’t have a therapeutic or scientific way to answer this question. Yes, the physical body most certainly dies. From there, my current perspective is that life, in all its intricacies, is just too miraculous to be limited by this physical realm. My older sister tells me there is more, and so does my inner knowing. That answer is satisfactory enough for me.
The final question: If darkness, a human creation, is present inside of ourselves and in the world, how do we overcome it?
Ignoring the darkness can’t be the answer, as it just creates more shadows. What about fighting it? If we fight anything, shouldn’t it be darkness?
Yet, fighting in itself is a dark act that creates more polarization and more darkness that can only block out the light, although it can never kill it. The energy of war can never heal.
I’m tempted to use the word “surrender”, but that word, even if I define it as “stepping into the flow of Life”, will most likely be misunderstood. Instead, I will choose to offer this word, “befriend”. Maybe a seemingly odd choice still, but remember, fear is a protection mechanism. The shadows created by fear are attempts to keep us safe from feeling the pain of core wounds, with the ultimate core wound being the false belief that we are unlovable. Personally, I can look at my own darkness and thank it for protecting me as a child and as an adult, thank it for showing me what needed healing. Of course, looking at and befriending darkness on a worldy scale is a much bigger challenge. Here, I’ll simply say that what we’ve been doing obviously hasn’t been working, and we will only find creative solutions when we release our own internal fears. So the simple answer, almost too simple to be believed, is that the more we heal our individual selves, the more we heal the collective.
And that is the final piece to this essay. The darkness of separation. Another lie we’ve believed. Why loneliness is a known factor of early mortality. You and I, or “thou”, to draw on the work of Martin Buber, may not be the same, but we are connected. We are one part of the Whole.
If darkness was created out of lies we’ve believed, it’s truth that can bring us to the light.
“The opposite of love is fear.” -Said in different ways by many people, but I usually think of The Course in Miracles or Marianne Williamson’s A Return to Love.
After all, the Lumineers say “the opposite of love’s indifference” and plenty of others will say it’s hate.
What if we add the caveat that the only way to move towards love is to befriend your fear?
Fear certainly isn’t bad. It’s our key primal survival mechanism. But in our modern world, fear has gone a little haywire. We fear what needs to not to be feared.
Fear in today’s world, you see, protects one from the risk of love, the risk of getting hurt, of having your heart broken. If it’s not the opposite of love, we can at least say it’s the biggest block to love.
Really, it’s all based on a myth. Love never goes away. It may change forms, but it can never disappear. Love surrounds us just as much as the air surrounds us. We’ve just been trained not to see it or deny its existence. Instead of being all encompassing and always existing energy that is all around us, we’ve been told love is limited and that love can hurt us. This is a lie.
While yes, a break-up, divorce, or death can be a source of great emotions such as sadness, fear, and anger, it’s not love that is hurting us. It’s the lie that it’s gone. Love is the cushion we fall back on. It’s in the arms of friends and family waiting to comfort us, our dogs waiting to lick the tears away, the Voice within us telling us it will be okay. It’s still in the relationship that was, it’s still in that other person, even if the relationship ceases to exist how it once was.
This doesn’t mean we still don’t get to have our uncomfortable emotions. We just need to take the time to feel them, as scary as they can be, and let them pass, so we can move towards a path of freedom, a path full of the love that awaits us.
Side note: You’re living a human existence in a world filled with fear. If you don’t understand this right away, that’s okay! You just have to believe it’s true. Personally, it’s been months and months of dedicated inner work to get me to this point, and I’m still not fully there. I just trust my Higher Self that the message is pure.
“Love in your mind produces love in your life. This is the meaning of Heaven. Fear in your mind produces fear in your life. This is the meaning of hell” ― Marianne Williamson, Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles.
“A Course in Miracles says that only love is real: “The opposite of love is fear, but what is all-encompassing can have no opposite.” When we think with love, we are literally co-creating with God. And when we’re not thinking with love, since only love is real, then we’re actually not thinking at all. We’re hallucinating. And that’s what this world is: a mass hallucination, where fear seems more real than love. Fear is an illusion. Our craziness, paranoia, anxiety and trauma are literally all imagined. That is not to say they don’t exist for us as human beings. They do. But our fear is not our ultimate reality, and it does not replace the truth of who we really are. Our love, which is our real self, doesn’t die, but merely goes underground.” ― Marianne Williamson, A Return to Love: Reflections on the Principles of “A Course in Miracles”
Why do we always want to tell others how they hurt us? Most of us knowing we would never get an apology, or even recognition that we have wounds. My own experience is rarely an acknowledgement of my feelings. Usually, it’s a complete lack of a response and I feel abandoned all over again.
Maybe it’s a wish things could somehow, miraculously, fantastically, work out. Maybe the hard parts could be undone, erased. Less from a feeling of sadness or anger. More from love- back to the denial of a love lost.
Even when we know its fantasy, even when we know we want to be loved differently. By someone who hears our needs and does more then speaks words, but takes appropriate action.
What to do when left with our own hurt?
Acceptance… yes, of the situation. But more so, of the fact we are still grieving.
From there, the only other answer I have found is to sit or walk with the hurt, even as it lingers. To keep showing up for myself and my pain that few others in my life ever could. To stop grasping at the clouds. To witness myself “I see your pain, and I am with you.”