Beautiful Darkness

Here is another piece from my years in the woods. I wrote the dark heart of this one last midwinter, sitting beside my fire in the soft glow of its flames, deep night all around like a lover’s embrace. The photo above is of the inside of the Spirit House at Tir Ysbrydol in Wales, a ceremonial space consecrated to the Goddess in all her forms, especially the Dark Goddess. I offer deep gratitude to Emma Orbach, guardian of Tir Ysbrydol, for her visionary work with the Holy Darkness, the Divine Feminine, and the Sacred Earth.

In Praise of the Void

At the time of the Winter Solstice here in the Northern hemisphere, my heart and my voice reach out to celebrate the beauty of darkness.

Yes, it’s true, I’m not going to hide it: I’m a member of the dark side, a champion of the dark forces, a lover of night.

Having lived without electricity for four winters in my little mud hut in the wilds of West Wales, sometimes not even using candles for much of the winter, I have made friends with the dark and, yes, come to love it.

I especially love those moonless winter nights when it’s frosty-cold and the stars are bright and the darkness between them is black-velvet void. I wonder, is that evil of me?

I also love sleep and rest, and the stillness and silence of the mid-night hours. Hmmm, does that make me bad?

And the moist, dark earth where seeds germinate and old forms are decomposed before being recycled into the ground of new growth… is it wicked of me to love this too?

No, no, no! Darkness is divine. The Earth is sacred. In the silence of the night the song of the angels can be heard.

So, relaxing into these longest nights of the year, replete as they are with lovely starry-darkness, I’m delighted to live deep in the woods where the dark is still strong and clean and holy.

I’m grateful to be far away from the synthetic brilliance of the modern world, where God’s opening act in the drama of Genesis—“Let there be light!”—seems to have spread beyond its natural bounds and is now manifesting not only as the splendour of the sun and the cool luminescence of moon and stars but as perpetual electrical glare.

So many bulbs blazing, so many screens glowing, electric candles everywhere!

The long nights of winter are almost a thing of the past, dazzled out of existence at the flick of ten billion switches. There are many people in our world, I suspect, who simply never encounter darkness any more, even for a moment.

Except, that is, as a metaphor for what we don’t like.

The light-bias of Western Culture can be seen not only in its incandescent homes, streets, cities, but also in the mirror of language.

Positive metaphors and usages for ‘light’ and related words abound. We speak of ‘Enlightenment’ as the highest spiritual goal. We talk of ‘seeing the light’ to describe a moment of understanding, comprehension, insight. To be ‘bright’ is to be intelligent. To ‘light up a room’ is to spread happiness. Our ‘leading lights’ are our most talented people.

Words relating to darkness, however tend to be suggestive of either evil or ignorance. “It was a dark day” speaks of tragic events. To be “in the dark’ about something is to occupy a state of ignorance. ‘Shady characters’ are to be avoided, ‘dim-witted’ people are inferior, ‘dark deeds’ are to be censured. ‘Dark forces’, ‘The dark side’, ‘the battle of light against darkness’… we all know instantly what these metaphors mean: dark equals bad.

We use and recognise these metaphors and associations freely without thinking about the deeply troubling fact that by doing so we are perpetuating a gross distortion.

Is it not strange that darkness is so maligned? Is it not very strange that we should deprecate one full half of our wholeness?

Both day and night, light and darkness, are equally necessary for the growth and wellbeing of living beings.

Waking consciousness is unsustainable without sleep.

Life is not possible without death, nor creation without destruction.

We, and the cosmos as a whole, are made of and for both darkness and light, stillness and dancing.

Thinking about all this as I sit beside my gently flickering fire (the only light I tend to have after sunset) I close my eyes. I notice the black space behind them, upon which the creative visions and imaginings of my active consciousness are played out.

As I become more aware of this mind-space, as I focus upon it and not the thoughts and scenes that play upon it, slowly my mental activity subsides. My mind quietens and the dark space expands, deepens, becomes alive with pulsing energy and rich with a flavour of bliss.

More even than the darkness between the winter stars, I love this inner darkness.

The mystics tell us that this space, when devoid of all thought-waves down to even the most subtle ripples, is actually infinite consciousness, the ocean of immortal bliss known as God.

So much for the equation of darkness with evil!

Of course, when my mind is not quiet but agitated with horrible images, clamorous thoughts, disturbing feelings, then the darkness behind my closed eyes is a very different, difficult space to be in.

Similarly, when my heart is full of fears then the moonless nights in the woods are full of terrors.

Sadly, it seems to me that most of the lights and luminous gadgets are there to dazzle out and distract us from these disturbing contents of our own psyches.

Unfortunately, not only does this electrical field of distraction do nothing to address the underlying issues, which only multiply, but it is having huge negative impact on the ecology of our planet.

Most tragically, however, the techno-matrix and the cultural mindset that gave birth to it is cutting us off from the blessed darkness both inside and out, just as it’s cutting us of from the nourishing earth beneath our feet.

The fundamental conflict expressed in the imbalance between darkness and light cuts through our world like a knife, cleaving not only light from darkness, but heaven from earth, spirit from matter, man from woman and self from other.

So, as our world prepares to almost completely overlook deep dark of the Winter Solstice before plunging into the blazing celebration of Sun-return on the 25th, I ask you to spare a thought for the darkness.

It too holds many gifts for us.

We can use this powerful dark time of the year to tentatively feel into some of the awkward psychic content stashed in the inner shadows. Consciously choosing to access and release the pain and fear we carry in the dark places within allows these places to become a source of strength and nourishment rather than a store of suppressed negativity.

Perhaps, on the longest night, you might join me in turning off the lights for a while during the long evening and let in a little of the enveloping night. We can allow ourselves to be still in the darkness, relaxing for a moment into the womblike space of the void which forms the backdrop of our inner world and in which our whole universe is suspended:

Closer than breath, closer than thought, luminously dark and alive with infinite possibility, true matrix of creation, mother of all things.


 

Primitive Luxury

On Embracing Natural Simplicity

Maybe it’s a strange choice, in these days of fabulous luxury, to embrace an elemental way of life close to the earth. Surely only a lunatic would choose to abandon modernity’s comforts and conveniences in favour of a life steeped in nature’s raw juices, right?

It might be fun to camp out in the wilds for a week’s break from the city, or it could be inspiring to go on a ten-day shamanic wilderness quest for a slightly deeper natural experience; but why would anyone choose to live full-time without electricity, gadgetry and the whole heavenly host of goods and services designed to make life easier, smoother, more satisfying?

Simplicity? We’ve just spent thousands of years emerging from that irksome state. Why return?

It’s a fair question. Most of us prefer ease and pleasure to hardship and pain, and there’s clearly nothing wrong with that. But I question the narrative that equates simplicity with hardship, and luxury with wellbeing. My hunch has always been that the opposite is in fact the case, and I’ve made some radical life-choices based on the belief that a simple life close to nature is more deeply nourishing and conducive to wellbeing than anything the modern world has to offer.

Unplugging quite fully from the matrix I’ve let go of my car and driving licence, bank accounts, utilities, phone-line and internet connection. I don’t have an email address, a flushing toilet, life-insurance or any electrical devices. I don’t possess any keys, require any passwords or have any batteries to keep charged.

My dwelling is a tiny roundhut deep in the woods between two mossy streams. I built it by hand using very basic tools and natural materials. Inside it is warm, dry, light and big enough to do yoga in. I cook food and heat my space with fire, with wood that I cut by hand using axe and bowsaw with prayers of thanks to the trees. I draw water for drinking, cooking and washing from a clear, spring-fed stream that flows just outside my felt-blanket door. I am outdoors most of the day, at work and at rest, and much of the year I go barefoot.

Immersed in the natural world, held in the Earth’s embrace, at home among the rocks and streams, the animals, plants and trees, I am in near-constant relationship with the elements, the seasons, sun, moon, stars and the web of life.

My world is abundant in natural beauty, peace, slow growth and quiet joys. In this place I find that contentment is wealth, and the simplicity within which to enjoy the elemental wonders of this infinitely precious Earth-walk is my greatest luxury. In this way I am, as Thoreau put it, rich in proportion to the number of things I can afford to let alone.

But of course, living elementally—especially in cool, rainy Britain—also has its awkward side.

My life involves much that most moderns would find challenging, much that civilisation has, for thousands of years, been striving to iron out of human experience: plenty of exposure to the capricious weather; cold, mud, daily chopping of wood and carrying of water. And yet I find that actually my feet of earth are of perfect weight to give balance to my wings of thought. I wouldn’t exchange one for the other. In so doing I would lose the value of both.

More awkward are the psychological factors of choosing radical simplicity: deep in the woods there very few distractions from the clamouring mind or the biting shadows of the heart. Modernity has created a vast media to shield us from these unwelcome companions. Without its protection I am exposed to the disturbing contents of my own psyche in a way that can often be acutely uncomfortable.

Even more onerous still is to encounter some very deep fears, those fears that are at the root the mysterious millennia-old campaign to subdue and control our natural environment. I don’t have names for these fears, but they are tremendously strong. Just look at what they have done to our Paradise Earth! Coming face to face with one on a dark night is really quite shocking!

It’s scary in the woods, as most fairy tales will tell you!

But one soon adjusts to the physical challenges, and personally I prefer to face as many of the painful contents of my psyche as I can. Better out than in. Moreover, it’s not as if the modern world is without its chores, irritations, even terrors.

On balance, I’m not sure that living elementally is actually any more inconvenient or scary than life in suburbia. It’s only the nature of the irritants and horrors that are different. And at least in the woods these irritants aren’t toxic, nor am I adding to the horrors through my participation in an insidiously destructive culture.

So I find I’m willing to step out of the matrix of human-centred technological involvements and to re-inhabit a largely more-than-human web of relationships. What I gain most by this step are a renewal of my deep sense of belonging on the Earth and a restoration of my felt connection to the circle of life: the natural matrix of human existence. I believe these two priceless gifts are much more valuable than any of the comforts and luxuries I let go of in choosing to live as I do. They are also worth the journey through the shadows of the psyche this choice entails.

Many would say that my choices are too extreme, almost fanatical. Maybe they are. But only by contrast with the everyday extremism that passes for ‘normality’. Viewed in the context of the whole span of human existence, and in relation to the lives of all other beings on this planet, my lifestyle isn’t actually very extreme at all. In fact, I’m better off than most: I have a cosy shelter, enough clothes, plenty of wholesome food to eat and warm friendships unmediated by technology. Beyond these basic needs I find I need little else. In fact, most other things only get in the way of my that which makes me truly happy.

However, mine is not a way of life that I imagine many people will consider particularly appealing any time soon. Things might have to get a lot more uncomfortable in suburbia before serious amounts of us are willing to grasp the nettle and imbibe the healing properties of its sting.

 

————————————–

The bones of this piece were written with pen on paper by the dawn’s light one morning during my years in the jungle. Emerging from retreat has been interesting, but I can already hear the devas calling me back in again…

Wonder

Today I awoke to stream sounds and birdsong. Through my open felt-blanket door poured sunshine filtered green by the jungly canopy and rich air alive with verdant scents. My heart was full of wonder at the fullness of the natural beauty that surrounded me. I felt clearly that the gift of this day is valuable beyond calculation, wonderful beyond measure.

Day! What a beautiful word. If I allow it to roll around my tongue and my mind as I say it I feel a sense of expansion and delight. It opens, exceeds itself, reaches a fullness and extends into joy.

Day! What a wonder!

Yes, wonder feels like the most natural response to the day’s dawning, to the sun rising, and indeed to all that is illuminated by sun, moon, stars or any other form of light.

Why there isn’t more wonder in the world, I wonder? And what would it take to inhabit a permanent experience of wonder in the face of the day?

Perhaps it tales a cleansing of the doors of perception. Maybe a quieting of the mind. Possibly a greater appreciation of the Being of beings, as opposed to mere involvement with beings. Or the living of a life free of mechanical actions and heartless routines. Probably it has something, if not everything, to do with love.

All I really know is that wonder is the beginning and end of true philosophy, the most natural and sophisticated response to a direct encounter with the miracle that is this and every moment.

How to open repeatedly to that encounter is the question of prime importance in my life. I cannot answer it for anyone else. There are a billion ways, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous, all of which can backfire.

One way to get in touch with this is to close our eyes and ears for a moment and imagine that nothing at all exists —the whole universe completely empty, void. Try to remain in that void state for a minute or two. Of course its hard to concentrate on the void, so accustomed are we to the world of beings. But if we were to remain in the still, empty, silent fullness of the void for any length of time we would, upon returning, have a heightened sense of appreciation: for the sheer exuberant existence of things, for the really quite strange and awesome fact that anything exists at all, anywhere. With this experience comes wonder, and a sense of the vastness of the gift that we each day live within and are part of.

However we get there, to live in wonder in a world ensouled is such a rich and full experience that it affords us the luxury of simplicity in external things. In the crisis of our times this is the one luxury we can afford lavishly to indulge in. Indeed, it’s the only luxury we cannot afford to do without.

Simplicity arising from wonder is the divine ground of ‘sustainability,’ the source of true wealth: the wealth of sunlight and birdsong; an untroubled heart, open and loving; time to be still and to really listen; the giving of the gifts with which we are laden and which ungiven become our burden.

May we all experience this day as a wondrous gift and give freely of the wondrous gifts that are ours to give.