“You don’t go through a deep personal transformation without some kind of a dark night of the soul.” ~Sam Keen
In my experience, deep personal transformation like this journey through the chrysalis I am on cannot occur without provoking a dark night of the soul experience, but I also think that any dark night of the soul experience will also trigger deep personal transformation. I suspect we never find out without the other.
I think this is because the loneliness and desolation of the dark night of the soul experience is what opens our minds and hearts to the unresolved sorrows and fears and hidden longings that we have tucked into our shadows, and it is this opening to a more complete experience of our full reality from which we’ve tried to hide that makes transformation possible. This is part of what makes deep personal transformation so uncomfortable (for ourselves and for those around us); it is also what makes it so freeing as we stop carrying around the weight of the unexperienced and unresolved traumas from our past.
I wrote a little about how challenging it has been for people around me to deal with my need to process my sorrow about recent losses, as well as unresolved sorrows from my past, in my recent post about the power of self-respect. So it is no surprise that when I realized that the chapter on Sorrow in Oriah Mountain Dreamer’s The Invitation was the topic for our book discussion group tonight, I was eager to read it, hear what she had to say, and to discuss it with my partner in this book discussion.
This chapter focused on the part of the poem (also called The Invitation) that follows:
“It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon.
I want to know if you have touched the center of your own sorrow,
if you have been opened by life’s betrayals
or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain.
I want to know if you can sit with pain,
mine or your own,
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.”
~Oriah Mountain Dreamer
Yes! That is the invitation I want to hear. I want to be the kind of person that is capable of touching the center of my sorrow, of being opened by my pain, of being able to sit with both my own pain and that of others. Our culture does not understand this kind of longing. As a nation, we run from our pain, we attempt to anesthetize and distract ourselves so we don’t have to feel it, and we encourage those around us to do the same.
This is another way that I am not normal (and I’m ok with that). It’s not that I enjoy sorrow; I don’t. It’s not that I want to wallow in it; I don’t think I do that either. However, I would rather welcome in the pain and sorrow that are there, so I can deal with it in the here and now and let it go. Hiding from it now only means I have to carry it around in my shadow where it will continue to make me miserable for much longer, and that just doesn’t seem to be worth it. It also denies me the opportunity to gain the many gifts that sorrow can bring.
I’ve written before—over a year ago now—about how I have found that allowing sorrow to move through me increases my ability to experience joy in its own turn, and how willingness to sit with pain enriches my life. I’m not the only one who has had this experience, as the following quote would indicate.
“There are places in the heart that do not yet exist; suffering has to enter in for them to come to be.” ~Leon Bloy
Oriah talks about how the ability to experience our own sorrow brings wisdom. In fact, she says that “wisdom is often born in the shadows.” I know this is true for me. Part of that wisdom and enhanced ability to experience life can be seen in our greater ability to sit with the pain of others when we have learned to be comfortable and compassionate with our own pain.
“The only reason we don’t open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don’t feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with. To the degree that we look clearly and compassionately at ourselves, we feel confident and fearless about looking into someone else’s eyes.” ~Pema Chödrön
This ability to be present with the pain of another is something I believe I am called to cultivate. I believe that being truly present to someone is the greatest gift we can ever give them. In fact, I came across a blog post the other day where the author is talking about the importance of presence, and he gives a most beautiful description of what the experience of having someone else be present for you in a time of difficulty is like.
“He listened in a fashion I had never experienced before, nor have I since. Only with metaphorical language – like a bright light dispelling darkness – or with deeply spiritual language – like his offering an openness to the very love of God – could I begin, and only begin, to give a sense of what I believe was his complete presence that day. For about 80 minutes or so, I felt like the world stopped.” ~Dan Mulhern
His entire post is marvelous and should be read in its entirety, but in one of life’s great ironies, the person who listened to him with such complete presence that day was Henri Nouwen, the author of The Wounded Healer—a book that was absolutely instrumental for me many years ago in learning to begin to see myself as a healer and to see that my own wounds were what gave me the ability to be the healer I am.
I know that I am not yet able to give the kind of complete presence to others that Dan describes receiving from Henri Nouwen, but I believe that I am able to provide people with a glimpse of that. People often come to me when they are hurting and need someone to talk to because I suspect they sense that wounded healer in me. I’ve often had people say that they feel a sense of restfulness and peace in my presence when they are struggling—a sense that I suspect comes from dicovering that I am present to them in a way they don’t often encounter in our culture. The ability to give this wondrous gift to others stems directly from my ability to be present with my own sorrow.
For all of these reasons, I find that sorrow—while not a pleasant companion—is a companion on life’s journey that gives gifts of enormous value to us when we are willing to spend time with her.
“I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way;
…But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne’er a word said she;
But oh, the things I learned from her
When sorrow walked with me.”
–Robert Browning Hamilton
May I always have the courage to walk a mile with her when life puts her in my path. It’s worth it.
A Note on Comments: A chrysalis is by nature a very fragile place, and it takes a good deal of vulnerability to share this personal journey of transformation so openly. Therefore, I need this to be a safe place for exploration and sharing for me and for my readers. Comments sharing your own journey, even if your experience is different from mine, are always welcome and encouraged. Expressions of support or encouragement are also welcome. Comments that criticize, disparage, correct, or in any way attempt to undermine the validity of another person’s experience or personal insight—or the expression of that experience or insight—are NOT welcome here and will be deleted.