We are all familiar with the Icarus myth; a boy creates a magical pair of wings from bee’s wax and feathers, and begins to fly. He flies higher and higher and despite warnings to descend he continues ever upward towards the light of the sun. The more he is consumed and intoxicated by his drive towards the light, so the wax of his wings begins to melt, his feathers drop away and he falls into the Aegean Sea and drowns. We might sum up the moral of this tale with the words ‘too much light and your wings may be lost ’ and this is one of the challenges of the times we live in, where within spiritual traditions of many denominations there is often a largely unbalanced and unhealthy emphasis on embracing light and following the trajectory of ascension. But as the myth of Icarus informs us, the inevitable curse and course of the spiritual light-chaser is they must eventually fall back to Earth.
Upon enlightenment touching the earth
When Buddha realized enlightenment, he touched the Earth – this simple gesture connecting him to this world and reaffirmed his connection to our physical, planetary home. Putting ‘pennies in our shoes’ is how the mythologist Joseph Campbell described what we may need to do when being taken ever upwards in our spiritual pursuits and disciplines. The philosopher Pliny remarked that for every step towards the light there must be an equal and opposite step into the darkness. He knew that for every branch of every tree to be secure in the high winds, there must be firm roots within the dark Earth, anchoring all that which rises up towards the sun. Before the temple is built upwards – he is informing us – we must dig downwards to secure its foundations, and within the vast majority of indigenous spiritual traditions of the world, that specific safeguard is ever present.
The tool of darkness
We might say that physical darkness is the most potent spiritual tool that we have at our disposal, a statement that might seem all the more remarkable by the fact that it is so rarely talked of, written about or taught, which is due largely to the fact that historically the application of physical darkness was a tool typically embraced only by the most advanced of practitioners. It is said that the best place to hide something is in plain view, and how much more visible could the opening to darkness be for us, for it is present every time we blink. Every night as sun sets, the prevalence of darkness descends and all that is around us rapidly looses its value. Yet in the recognition that most people are quick to dismiss the power of the ubiquitous, its potency goes unseen by the novice; something that is so very common, that is largely seen as holding no value – is ignored, its value obscured as the seeker seeks out more complex, obtuse and obscure means to arrive at their royal destiny. Whereas in truth, all we need do is close our eyes.
Everything is alive
Interaction with physical darkness can be found within the shamanic traditions of indigenous peoples the world over and the revival of interest in shamanism in the West has brought increasing numbers of people to recognise the potency and power of physical darkness as a tool for exploring and interacting with their own luminosity. Let us remember that shamanism is animistic; it considers that everything is alive, that everything has spirit and this includes not only obviously sentient and corporal beings – trees, animals, mountains – but also more abstract concepts such as darkness According to a number of shamanic traditions darkness is considered to be the oldest and wisest spirit in the universe – the first teacher and first god. For what was there, before there was darkness? Thus, part of the adventure of moving mindfully into darkness is the opportunity to interact with this vast, wise and ancient spirit who has witnessed every dawn and every sunset of every world within every universe.
An access to the self
As well as seeking direct communion with the spirit of darkness, the pragmatic application of ceremonial darkness is a classical method for accessing aspects of the self that are typically hidden from us, accessing invisible landscapes that may be considered either within or outside of ourselves and embracing the deeper aspects of our unconscious and supra-conscious states. Being in continuous and complete darkness over extended periods of time brings about the ceasing of mind-chatter, remarkable internal stillness and, from this pool of quietude, our innate powers of intuition and creativity are dramatically released.
The gifts of darkness include the experience of unusual phenomena, such as remarkably lucid levels of uncommon consciousness, where the borders between dreaming and not-dreaming diminish and then disappear altogether. The chatter of the mind ceases and we are able to explore our own luminosity, and – one of the primary aims of the shaman: to experience the world as a sea of energy, moving in beauty, spawning itself for its own love of being.
The effects of prolonged darkness are unique for each person, and, at the same time, quite consistent. They include the attainment of renewed energy, the ability to move past self-limitations, to meet life’s challenges with greater ease, and to step into the unknown without fear. With no visual distractions from the outside world, the mind is forced inwards towards self-examination and the questioning of the material universe. The imagination is fired and unbridled, and, according to the wise ones, priests and shamans of many traditions, reaches out to the spirits, who hear this call and bring their gifts of insight and intuition, of seeing the world not with the eyes, but rather in a way that the soul remembers.
There are other, less transcendental, reasons for the impact of darkness upon us. In the biochemistry of the brain, the neurotransmitter, seratonin, is produced by the body in reaction to light, and enables us to inhabit normal waking consciousness – to see ‘reality’ as it is normally experienced.
The Chemistry of Dreaming
In darkness, however, melatonin is produced instead and is then converted into pinoline, which is involved in dreaming and new states of consciousness, so that we see reality in a wholly uncommon way. Once pinoline is released into the brain, the production of another biochemical, DMT, is stimulated. DMT represents the body’s natural ability to create any reality we choose and, interestingly, is also one of the main active ingredients within many psychotropic plants, such as the visionary Amazonian vine, ayahuasca, which is known as the ‘vine of souls’ and is known to bring about a movement from this reality to the parallel universe of the shaman, where the tutelary spirits are encountered, healings are received and guidance on important and pressing life issues are granted. Simply being in darkness, therefore, will lead naturally to a new sense of reality.
The student of darkness becomes a poet of the soul and explorer of the Infinite. He or she becomes a seer – literally a see-er – someone who witnesses the world not just with the eyes, but with the entire body. My own introduction to spiritual darkness work was within The Path of Pollen, a shamanic tradition of Old Europe which works with the honeybee and the hive not just as a metaphor, but as a repository for an astonishingly rich wisdom.
Painful initiation to The Path of Pollen
Darkness arrived as a sanctuary to me. I had endured a terrifying and painful initiation into The Path of Pollen at the hands of my teacher and mentor, a Welsh alchemist whose laboratory was his back garden and who carried the formal title of ‘Bee Master’. The initiation involved being stung in multiplicity by honey-bees on various parts of my body, the effect of which brought about a transference of my human awareness to that of the honeybee, a creature that lives in total darkness within the hive. Immediately following this initiation I was taken to a darkened room and placed within a hexagonal hand-woven wicker structure some four feet in height and three feet in diameter, a distinctive shape that encouraged either a curled, fetus-like position or a squatted haunched stance, with head slightly bowed. I learned to feel comfortable within this curious structure, the way a fakir learns to feel comfortable on a bed of nails; a marked unease giving way to unexpected gratitude. And other than the briefest of exits to imbibe my strict diet of fresh pollen and honey, to drink cool spring water and to relive myself, I was to spend the next twenty-three days and nights within this miniature monastic cell.
By entering a prolonged period of darkness we make an internal journey from the sunlit to the dark side of our valleys. I had walked through a door in a wall which opened to another world, allowing me to flee the prison-house of language and the tyranny of conceptual thinking and literalist intractability. But there was a price to pay for this freedom for there were challenges on the road ahead and I moved from feeling on the one hand like a spiritual commando and on the other to feeling utterly inadequate to the task. The very first thing that was apparent to me is that when the light of the world goes out, the mind – for a period – goes out too. And there followed a swift return to a primeval condition, a time where darkness was a god, a god as revered and as strong as the god of light.
From that communion with the darkness some direct supersensual contact still endures, deeper than anything can be expressed at rational level. A ritual plunge into the cosmic dream, the holy unconsciousness and the parallel universe of the sage, the shaman and the saint. But one should enter a country such as this as if it were the embodiment of some profounder level of ones own being, spread out before one and inviting one to wonder.
Simon Buxton is author and former faculty member of the Foundation for Shamanic Studies.
Excerpt from the book by Karen Sawyer (2008): Soul Companions – Conversations With Contemporary Wisdom Keepers – A Collection of Encounters With Spirit. Winchester and Washington: O Books. S. 220–233.