I wonder if you, like me, have ever found yourself sitting in the dark, tear-stained and brittle with anguish, listening to Tom Waits, perhaps, emptying a bottle of scotch, or a pot of coffee, maybe smoking cigarette after cigarette, staring out a fractured glass into the night, your soul blank, your stomach churning, your thoughts a tsunami of confusion, your skin burning with grief, your fingers tingling with longing for something you know you’ll never hold again.
Descent to the underworld. The dark night of the soul. The belly of the whale. Meeting the dark goddess. Depression. There are many names for it. And what is ‘it?’ That moment when everything we thought we knew for certain turns out to be false. The lover we trusted betrays us. A death rips us apart. The career we thought was assured vanishes. The belief we thought was beyond belief — was certain knowledge — proves no more solid than marsh gas.
I remember my first time. I was young and my heart had been broken, not for the last time. I lay on a brown couch in a gray room and understood I was at the bottom of an impossibly deep well. There, a skyscraper’s height above me, was a pin-point of light. It was quite evident I would never be able to climb my way up to it. It was too far. I was too tired. I didn’t care. The pain would kill me first.
But, of course, it didn’t. It took a long time, but I eventually clawed my way out, although, looking back now, I’m not sure I handled it properly at all. I think I was so consumed with getting out of there I neglected to learn much about that landscape, and so took little of use away with me. The model I was working from was that particularly North American (and masculine) model which says time spent in the dark is time wasted. We must yearn for and attain the light. Now! We must succeed! We must overcome and be happy again! Happy!
It didn’t work for me, and I think my unwillingness to sit with the darkness and learn from it, my insistence on fleeing from it, may actually have contributed to my later miseries with addiction and failed relationships. So I wonder. I wonder if there isn’t something more, something valuable at the bottom of the pit.
As a child, I began having a recurring dream about riding the roots of a great tree down, down, down, into the underworld, where… well… a number of varied and remarkable things were likely to happen. I still have that dream from time to time, and I take it to mean something profound is happening in my subconscious life. As a writer it’s the sort of thing, I pay attention to, since it’s the material I work with. It took me a long time to realize that the ride down the tree roots took me to the same place I landed when I fell into the dark well. When I realized that, however, I realized that perhaps the point of being there was not to claw my way out, but to recognize it as a sacred journey. It’s the old journey-myth of Demeter, Persephone and Hectate. It is Inanna’s descent.
The dark journey is, I believe, a sort of initiation into a world of deeper meaning, a deeper self. I’ve repeated the experience a number of times over the decades. I’d rather not, to be frank, but it happens whether I want it to or not. I certainly don’t seek it out, but when it happens, what choice do I have but to put one foot in front of the other? Every time it surprises me, and although I have come to recognize the blasted landscape, it is never quite the same blasted landscape. Every journey has its own root, its own challenges, its own gifts.
A few years ago, I found myself once again in the bottom of that pit. All was blackness and grief. Meaning was lost, purpose was lost, faith was thin as thrice-watered milk. Being a writer, I tried to read my way out, reading everything I could by other writers who had suffered, and overcome. But that was the problem. All these narratives about metaphoric battles won, demons conquered, and summits attained rang false. Okay, so this writer had ten years when she couldn’t get published… but…. then went on to win the Pulitzer! Or became J.K. Rowling. Or the writer suffered terrible depression, but then got help and won the Nobel, or some such thing.
None of that felt like the coat that fit me. Surely not every writer who suffers this way snaps out of it and wins the Pulitzer! Are the rest all failures? Is there no meaning past the neon-lit North American version of success – fame and fortune and your photo in the glossy magazines? That narrative was unsatisfying, for me.
And so I had to find deeper meaning. Even with a companion (and thank God for companions, for they keep you alive and nourished, and can even act as North Stars during the worst bits), it seems the journey, the descent, must be taken alone. But this time, rather than immediately trying to rock climb, I tried to breathe deeply, and not panic, and let my eyes adjust to the dark, and see what there might be down here with my name engraved on it. I found allies and guides down there. I found a great deal of my self, which I didn’t know I’d lost. I’m still finding bits of myself, actually.
It turned out to be a rewarding, if excruciating, experience and one which set me on a path I can’t imagine I would have taken otherwise. For one thing, being less afraid of the underworld in general, I now teach in a prison, which is a sort of weekly descent into the underworld (even physically in the case of this particular prison, since the stairs to the classrooms lead, down, down, down…) full of threshold guardians, gatekeepers, shapeshifters and so forth. I’ve also begun work on a novel about such things, which I never would have found otherwise.
All this to say, if you find yourself riding the tree roots down into the dark, don’t panic, don’t despair. What you find down there might surprise you, might, in fact, be exactly what you’re looking for, especially if you’re a writer, and if you’re not a writer, try writing about it anyway; writing creates an excellent map and compass. Could be that’s just what was waiting for you in the heart of the earth, the seed-jewel that belongs to you, and you alone.