By Rev. Jesse Eugene Herriott, M.A.
When darkness falls, where do we go? Everybody goes somewhere. When it thunders outside and the lightning strikes, in a weird sort of way, I find comfort. Growing up in the Deep South, in Sumter, South Carolina, some of my earliest memories are of the rain hitting the tin roof of our home. Tink, tink, tink in repetition went the sound of the rain hitting the roof. Then there was the loud whipping and cracking sound of the lightening. “Y’all better come on inside”, my mother would yell. My brothers and I would be racing to come into the house in order to get out of the weather. Then of course we would track up the house with our wet shoes, which would lead to another conversation with Mom. Ha! To this day, I’m baffled that she raised the four of us by herself. Oddly enough, I’m sitting on the porch while typing; the sound of the rain against my roof comforts me still.
For some of us, the eerie sound of a creaking floor or the loud chariot roll of thunder sends us running for cover- and it should. Lightning strikes still happen. Our internal, instinctual drive to seek cover and shelter was given to us by our ancestors for a good reason. The desire to find comfort from the things that cause us discomfort is a natural survival drive. It keeps us whole and safe. Instinctually, our bodies are wired to know limits, boundaries, and when we’ve had enough stimulation. We are daytime creatures. The dark is when we sleep. However, there are some periods of emotional darkness that seems to reverse our clocks; anxiety can keep you up at night. Mania can make you work all night. Drivers deep within the recesses of our unconscious direct us forward, backward, inward and outward. But there are some periods of darkness we cannot escape. Wherever we go, they follow us. Everywhere we go there they are because everywhere we go, there we are. So as my fingers type, I cannot help but wonder, where do I go?
Spiritual teachings instruct us to do three things:
1. To go within
2. To turn to teachings that encourage us
3. To turn to our communities and support systems.
Siddhartha Gautama Shakyamuni, “The Buddha”, considered by some to possibly have been a contemporary of Socrates, instructed his followers to take refuge in our divine nature, in the teachings (dharma), and in the sangha (the community). Jesus the Christ informed us to love ye one another, and to find comfort in our inner advocate (Paraclete in Biblical Greek), the Holy Spirit, which is our divine nature. Many other great beings gave similar teachings. Myrtle Fillmore reminded us that we can find peace in our threefold nature: physical, spiritual, and mental natures. Navigating during the daytime is easy, but the things that shape who we are are born from adversity. I think we should examine those dark moments rather than run away from them. In the words of Spiritual Teacher Jack Kornfield, “the way out is through.”
Darkness is simply the absence of light. During the daytime, we can see in order to navigate; in the darkness we feel our way through. When we take refuge or find comfort in any of the ways described above, we can learn to feel safe during those times because of the support we are getting when we are there. Rushing through those moments will only lead to us returning back to those states because we have not gotten the lesson. I do not personally think a person should throw themselves into these states consciously; the feedback loop created by incessant rumination of stories of dark periods in our lives over and over again can be just as traumatizing as the actual events themselves. Yet, when they do arise, learning to skillfully stay with those feelings a little bit longer each time will help us to cultivate wisdom, especially when we learn to see through them. When we cannot see through them alone, practicing this skill with someone trained in working with difficult emotions can help.
There’s no greater wisdom like the wisdom born from experience. Nobody can take that away from you. When a person has seen, heard, and felt life from those places that come up from the deepest recesses of the human experience, it changes them. You can tell when you first meet someone, if they’ve truly lived. There’s a certain glimmer in their eyes, and I don’t mean to glorify dark moments. Darkness can be scary. But if we can hold those feelings of darkness, shame, guilt, and embarrassment in loving awareness, maybe we can learn from them and grow through them.
When it gets too dark, I’ve learned to ask for help. First, I’ll ask for help from within. When I cannot feel that help from my own personally developed felt sense, I like to turn to spiritual texts to see how my heroes navigated life. One of my more interesting discoveries is that there really is not anything new under the sun. We may have different ways of explaining and interpreting life, but at its core, humans have had similar existential questions and crisis throughout the ages. Finally, when darkness falls and I cannot feel my way out, I turn to my sangha: my personal community, which is made up of friends, loved-ones, guides, mentors, counselors, spiritual friends, and others who may not know that they are providing help.
For me, this community of my own making helps me to hold my feelings of inadequacy and darkness in loving awareness so that I can see through them and hear the truth of my soul attempting to shine through like the rays of the sun obstructed by a cloud. This is where my personal rubber meets my personal roads; when like Jacob from the biblical story, I accept the truth of my life and wrestle with it. It is alright to not have everything figured out; this is how we grow. We learn new information- we gain new insights. This is how we evolve. When things are too dark, we stay as long as we can, and then we go inside for comfort. When darkness falls again, we try to stay a little longer; then one day, one moment, in the twinkling of an eye, those seemingly dead parts of ourselves arise. Those parts of ourselves that were held back and held down are caught up into consciousness and are quickly changed under the light of a newfound awareness that this too shall pass. Eventually, whether it passes or not, we develop a certain resolve about it. Whether it leaves or goes, we pour it a drink and invite it to sit down and talk to us and through us. It shows you things about yourself and what has brought you to this point in your life. As Howard Thurmond put it, the darkness becomes luminous. Luminous darkness seems like an oxymoron, but it offers us a chance to not run away from ourselves; we are gifted with the chance to see who we really are and accept how we have shown up. We are all made of God-stuff, but there are some other things in there too that do not quite feel like God sometimes. We do not have to agree with it - we do not have to even like it at times - but those feelings can and will be there for as long as they decide to stay. The cyclical nature of darkness is that it comes and goes in waves. I think there’s comfort in that- or at least it can be. You can find comfort in knowing that there’s more to you than a smile. The depth of the human soul, the suffering of experience, the trauma of everyday life is real. It’s just not the only real thing in your life.
The Rising Sun
Whole people help people. People who know themselves, who have been to places within themselves and have come out to tell the story, and people who have been tested, tried, and refined by their own lived experience have a certain wisdom that cannot be found in a book. My own life “has not been a crystal stair” to borrow from Langston Hughes. But I do know that just as much as darkness has fallen, the sun has risen in my life, and I can smile at that. I know that I am supported - you are supported - and when you feel you are not, you can ask for the help you need. Your dark moment will, like all the others who too have experienced that darkness, be met by the rising sun. An there is an internal wisdom that you will gain about your personal experience of this life that could not come in any other way.