Dark Night Essay

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In Buddhism, the lotus flower is often used as a metaphor for awakening, with its roots in the mud and its blossom exquisite. A fully bloomed lotus represents enlightenment, the bud everything that comes before. At first, the bud is tight, solid, a single dense thing. One petal at a time, it softens and opens. 

It’s an apt metaphor for healing, too, or at least my own experience of it, when breakdown sent me reeling into an extended ‘dark night of the soul.’ There was no single panacea—no solve-all secret, no grand rescue, although I certainly wished for one—but rather many petals, each unfurling a different layer of my tightly-clenched being: the nervous system, the physical body, the psyche and the spirit. At every step, mindfulness provided a crucial foundation.

My nervous system had long been operating in fight-and-flight mode, and so my adrenal glands were depleted and I was utterly exhausted. Working with a generous and gifted practitioner of Somatic Experiencing, a body-based approach to healing trauma, I began to learn to function in a more balanced manner—or rather, my nervous system did. As psychiatrist and PTSD researcher Bessel Van der Kolk writes, “traumatized people feel chronically unsafe inside their bodies: the past is alive in the form of gnawing interior discomfort.” Talk therapy was insufficient; my nervous system had to learn that it was safe, and this came through touch and feedback. 

Meditation had been a wonderful training ground for the kind of mindfulness I needed to bring to this practice, a focused tracking of bodily sensations. But it was vital to have a guide to gently redirect me. For wounds that are inherently relational, I believe the healing must be, too.  Over time, I began to learn to trust the body that I believed had betrayed me. Much of what I’d stored away many years earlier was buried in shame; to enter these dark spaces with a guide leavened this shame, steadily eroding the associated emotional isolation. 

As my resilience grew, life became more bearable. Cars passing by on the street no longer felt like they were driving through me; singing no longer cracked me in two; I could be among people, even socialize a little. I began to emerge from a form of hermitage. Then there was movement, Authentic Movement specifically: in a circle of eight women, guided by a wise facilitator, I found the space for my body to begin to express what had long been repressed. This came through voice (as a singer this was key) and also the exploratory movement of my limbs. 

And then, once I was strong enough to return to it, there was free-form ecstatic dance, and the reliable joy it lent. And Biodanza, a guided movement practice centered in presence and deep connection. Then a friend told me about the work of Byron Katie, who teaches an inquiry process to identify and question the thoughts that cause suffering. I dived in wholeheartedly, methodically unpinning many of the beliefs that had kept me mired in fear and self-hatred. I began to see my internal world shift in significant ways. As these old ways crumbled, I started to touch an abiding sense of freedom, and more joy followed.

This list of practices and techniques isn’t comprehensive. There were also friends who were beacons for me at a time when everything went dark. Their care and wisdom kept me tethered to the earth, and to sanity. There was acupuncture, which brought palpable relief to a system stuck in fight-or-flight. And there were teachers from Buddhist and Advaita traditions who had themselves passed through something this extreme, and assured me that I would make it, that I wouldn’t lose my mind.  I’ll never forget how one of them, Jeannie Zandi, took me onto her lap and held me until my body began to calm. 

Then there were the trees. At times I thought of them as my lovers, holding me steadily through these aching years. At night I’d walk to one of my favorites, climb up and lie in its broad branches. There I would rest and pray until I felt strong enough to pick myself up and face the next hour. On sunny days I lay on the ground. In my worst times of exhaustion and despair I was held by the earth itself.

There were drugs, too. I was adamantly opposed to pharmaceuticals, and it took months of hell followed by the personal persuasion of one of our most respected meditation teachers to change my mind.  Did they help?  Yes, I believe so. But they hurt as well. A psychiatrist who told me to stop taking a powerful sleep medication once my sleep had stabilized plunged me back into hell for months. I learned to move in millimeters, and warily. The drugs didn’t heal me, but they eased my suffering. Gradually I came to see them as a kindness I could give to myself instead of a source of shame. 

If there was any abiding thread, any golden string out of the opaque maze, it was learning to hold myself with compassion. At its worst, when my nerves were shrieking and my body on fire, I’d put my hands over my heart and call myself sweetheart, angel, darling. I’d tell the rage it had a good point, tell the fear I wasn’t running away this time, the hatred that it was welcome. 

“Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child,” said the Buddha, “so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings.” I learned to include myself in my compassion. I learned to hold myself like a screaming infant, and give to myself as to a starved child. This wasn’t due to any great ability of my own. I simply had no choice. If I didn’t learn to be patient with myself when I could hardly function, I’d never have healed. 

That’s what I say when friends offer me praise. I don’t deserve it; courage had nothing to do with this. Were you in my position—and I hope you never are—you’d have done the same. It was that or my life. There were moments when I fervently wished I was dead, that some disease would come and take me, some accident wipe me out. But I didn’t die, at least not in the traditional sense, and now that I’m on the other side I marvel at the gifts I’ve been given. 

Half my life is spiritual practice, I said to a teacher recently. Yet the amazing thing is that, on emerging from this spectacularly dysfunctional period, I have the space for ample practice, and to write and sing and teach. When I had no choice but to surrender utterly—to accept that I might be unable to pay rent next month, even that I might not heal—I started to see that I could trust life. I started to relax into it. And life took me by the hands and began to dance.

Recently I’ve begun to teach on the theme of the ‘dark night of the soul’ as a component of awakening. I’ve come to believe that if we muster what it takes to face the work that life presents to us, then life in turn will hold us as we do it. Sometimes that work is in our own minds, other times in our communities; if we are listening, we may discover an organic rhythm between these two dimensions. Both are needed. Most often we do not have to seek it out, this work. Instead, it reveals itself to us—sometimes subtly, like a dove alighting on an outstretched arm; sometimes a tornado that sweeps us up and drops us somewhere else entirely.

I’m sharing my story now because I hope to help others locate the narratives to usher them through their own experience of the underworld—and to do so without the terrible burden of shame our culture heaps on anything resembling mental illness, which I at times found as crippling as the experience itself. I want others to discover the gifts hidden in these dark nights, gifts they will in turn deliver to a world that sorely needs them.

I want, in short, for others to suffer less than I did. I still have to rest a lot, and I topple into adrenaline-charged emergency mode at the drop of a hat. But I am more resilient, and better at letting go, and it seems that my suffering has diminished in inverse proportion to the growth of these capacities. Most days I am happy. I no longer need crisis to invoke change; the dance has slowed to a foxtrot.

At some point, many of us will be broken by life, whether in ways obvious or hidden. If we stay soft, stay open, the heart will expand, the mind grow clear. Breaking and healing: I’ve come to believe they are different movements of the same underlying love. Sometimes that love must be ferocious to wake us up. 

We are seeing this play out in the world today: more darkness center stage, more light rising in response. Not only is there the individual experience of breakdown, but systems and institutions that we believed unshakeable are also beginning to crack. Ecosystems are changing before our eyes, and the scale of environmental loss is prodigious. It can be terrifying to watch the dissolution of the things that we believe have kept us safe; excruciating to see the destruction of things that we love.

Faced by these circumstances, it may take every ounce of will we possess not to collapse into fear or explode into rage. But even as the skies darken, there are considerable gifts. We are being offered a superb opportunity to develop the strength and wisdom we will need to rise to the occasion. 

There is, I would venture, a greater story unfolding here, with a much wider arc—one that bends inexorably toward the light.     

On the day last month when the earthquake touched us so timidly, I came home late, near midnight, and parked my car close to the cluster of small, tidy housing projects near my apartment in Brooklyn.

In addition to public housing, South Williamsburg is home to shabby artists’ lofts like mine, apartments of Hasidic Jews and one extremely tall, high-priced condo. There isn’t much crossover between subdivisions: I’ve never been in the condo or the public housing units, and have been in the Hasidic buildings only three times, to turn on or off various electrical fixtures on the Sabbath or High Holy Days. But I’ve lived here nine years, and by now I know more than a few of my neighbors. We recognize each other’s faces; we stop to pet each other’s dogs.

This night was different. When I got out of the car, I noticed across the street, in the direction of my home, a large crowd of people. I watched as a shirtless, taut young man marched through the group and then paced angrily once he reached the center. The crowd went silent: he had their attention. Then other men started yelling, then shoving. It was impossible to tell what the fight was about. Some of the people looking on thought it was hilarious, others were shaking their heads. No one was going to stop it.

It got noisier and more heated. I began to feel afraid, and took off toward my apartment, pulling out my phone to dial 911. I was sure I would be safe once I rounded the corner. I’d walked down that street a thousand times alone at night. I had the surface of things memorized. There’s a parking lot on the right, and the front entrances to a handful of public housing buildings on the left. Street lights overhead, and a row of empty garbage cans near the curb. This was as much my street as anyone else’s, and I felt safe there.

And then, the shirtless man turned down the same street as me. He was moving quickly. Others followed. The crowd began to shift in our direction.

What must my face have looked like? A 40-year-old woman, summertime tan suddenly paled, I shrank into myself. Once I saw him up close, I could see that the man was a teenager really, just a puffed-up kid. But in that moment, I was scared.

A door to one of the public housing buildings opened, and a woman motioned me over nervously. “Get in here,” she said. A bunch of other women were crowded in the lobby, along with some teenagers and a few children. “Are you O.K.?” I thanked her and told her I was fine. “It’s a little crazy out there,” I said, and then I shut up, because there was nothing I could tell them that they didn’t already know.

Some of the women were working their cellphones, trying to track down their children, who had been playing hide-and-seek outside. One woman ran upstairs to find another phone. I didn’t think to offer mine, because I, childless and single and in a daze, thought: who has numbers memorized anymore? Later I was ashamed to realize how foolish I’d been, that if you’re a mother, you have plenty of numbers memorized. I assumed one of them had already called 911, so I never bothered to hit “call.” Most of us just stood there, peering out the window, waiting for whatever was swelling out there to subside. Someone said, “You live around the corner, right?”

After a few more minutes, the darkness outside lighted up with the flash of lights from a police car, and there was a deep release of breath. “Cops are here,” said the woman who had invited me in. “You’ll be all right now.” I said, “Thank you, ladies. So much,” and pushed my way out the door, hustling the block and a half toward home, looking back for only a second to see the police cars partly concealed by the thick of the crowd.

Out in front of my building I ran into two of my neighbors, one of whom was walking a three-legged dog she was taking care of for a few days. She was cheerful, and the dog was sweet, and whatever had happened down the street hadn’t touched them. My story surprised them. We all talked about how nice it was that the women had taken me into the lobby, though the word “nice” didn’t seem grand enough to express how I felt about it all.

In the morning the streets were clear and empty, and as I walked back to my car, the clip of the cool weather was a relief. Last night was a fluke, I thought. I know where I live, and I’ve never seen anything like that before. And then I stopped cold in front of my car: on the front windshield was a bloodstained white T-shirt.

What had happened after I left? What had happened on those streets after I went home? Who was inside, and who was outside?


Jami Attenberg is the author of “The Melting Season” and the forthcoming novel “The Middlesteins.”


An excerpt from this article appeared in print on Sept. 25, 2011.

Townies is a series about life in New York, and occasionally other cities.

It was impossible to tell what the fight was about.
We peered out the window, waiting for whatever was swelling out there to subside.

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