Hello Darkness My Old Friend
I’m not sure how it is in the lives or minds of others, although I do wonder and enquire a lot. I would love to bypass people’s conscious mind though and travel into that place where conscious mind meets unconscious, to really see. To myself too. And I do try. But short of that kind of technology being available just yet I will have to suffice with asking questions and hoping for the best.
Although, the problem is that to get a full picture on someone, or myself, one must be willing to enter that dark zone within to give a full account. Or so I have come to believe. And I often wonder if anyone actually exists without that darkness within. I mean, if someone was born into idealistic circumstances — environmentally and psychologically — would they still harbour darkness as well as light? I can only truly know my own world and my own mind, and even then I don’t think I can completely understand it. But more so than I can know any other, if I so choose, that is. I suspect, however, that to be human is to harbour both energies, both polarities of dark and light, regardless of one’s history. Although, I think that our histories bind to our dark and light, not unlike an alien parasite might.
My life is not complete without intimate knowledge of, and relationship with, my darkness. And what is meant by darkness? It’s those psychological forests that I stand at the precipice of but feel fearful of entering, terror even. It’s that gut feeling that emerges when an uncomfortable emotion arises, which is usually immediately responded to by a cavalry of thoughts sent by conscious mind to guard against attack. This forest can present itself in a myriad of ways, depending on the person: it could be being alone, it could be the prospect of not drinking alcohol or consuming other drugs on a regular basis, it could be uncomfortable feelings that emerge, it could be that niggling knowing that things aren't right in one’s life, but, oh well, if I just keep myself distracted... For some, it could be changing a job, going to a supermarket. For others it is really getting to know one’s self, or revisiting the trauma of their pasts in order to gain freedom from them. It’s usually potentially seemingly terrifying.
Yet, there is a part of us that knows, intuitively, the benefit of entering into the forest of darkness, but we are, more often than not, only willing to do it in a simulated way, a simulacrum of the dark forest, where we have confidence in our relative safety, where others have tread before us and returned unscatehed, unchanged and untransformed in any fundamental way - the rollercoaster ride, a film, travel (generally) etcetera. These things are but an insubstantial placation to our inner knowing, that primal need, to confront and build a relationship with the darkness within. Of course, not always, but potentially. And I suspect this simulacrum of living is learnt and has been passed down culturally for a long time to the point where it is seemingly accepted as truth, reality, the way to exist. But I liken this way of living to Plato’s philosophical problem of the Allegory of the Cave: (copied and pasted from Wikipedia)
Imprisonment in the cave
Plato begins by having Socrates ask Glaucon to imagine a cave where people have been imprisoned from childhood (important to note that they were (based on text) imprisoned from childhood but not from birth). These prisoners are chained so that their legs and necks are fixed, forcing them to gaze at the wall in front of them and not look around at the cave, each other, or themselves. Behind the prisoners is a fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway with a low wall, behind which people walk carrying objects or puppets "of men and other living things". The people walk behind the wall so their bodies do not cast shadows for the prisoners to see, but the objects they carry do (just as puppet showmen have screens in front of them at which they work their puppets). The prisoners cannot see any of what is happening behind them, they are only able to see the shadows cast upon the cave wall in front of them. The sounds of the people talking echo off the walls, and the prisoners believe these sounds come from the shadows.
Socrates suggests that the shadows are reality for the prisoners because they have never seen anything else; they do not realise that what they see are shadows of objects in front of a fire, much less that these objects are inspired by real things outside the cave which they do not see.
The fire, or human made light, and the puppets, used to make shadows, are done by the artists. This can be compared to how illusions are made with light and sound today, with electronics, videos, movies, and 3D visuals. Plato, however, indicates that the fire is also the political doctrine that is taught in a nation state. The artists use light and shadows to teach the dominant doctrines of a time and place.
Also, few humans will ever escape the cave. This is not some easy task, and only a true philosopher, with decades of preparation, would be able to leave the cave, up the steep incline. Most humans will live at the bottom of the cave, and a small few will be the major artists that project the shadows with the use of human-made light.
Departure from the cave
Plato then supposes that one prisoner is freed. This prisoner would look around and see the fire. The light would hurt his eyes and make it difficult for him to see the objects casting the shadows. If he were told that what he is seeing is real instead of the other version of reality he sees on the wall, he would not believe it. In his pain, Plato continues, the freed prisoner would turn away and run back to what he is accustomed to (that is, the shadows of the carried objects). He writes "... it would hurt his eyes, and he would escape by turning away to the things which he was able to look at, and these he would believe to be clearer than what was being shown to him."
Plato continues: "Suppose... that someone should drag him... by force, up the rough ascent, the steep way up, and never stop until he could drag him out into the light of the sun." The prisoner would be angry and in pain, and this would only worsen when the radiant light of the sun overwhelms his eyes and blinds him.
"Slowly, his eyes adjust to the light of the sun. First he can only see shadows. Gradually he can see the reflections of people and things in water and then later see the people and things themselves. Eventually, he is able to look at the stars and moon at night until finally he can look upon the sun itself. Only after he can look straight at the sun "is he able to reason about it" and what it is.
Return to the cave
Plato continues, saying that the freed prisoner would think that the world outside the cave was superior to the world he experienced in the cave and attempt to share this with the prisoners remaining in the cave attempting to bring them onto the journey he had just endured; "he would bless himself for the change, and pity the other prisoners" and would want to bring his fellow cave dwellers out of the cave and into the sunlight.
The returning prisoner, whose eyes have become accustomed to the sunlight, would be blind when he re-enters the cave, just as he was when he was first exposed to the sun. The prisoners, according to Plato, would infer from the returning man's blindness that the journey out of the cave had harmed him and that they should not undertake a similar journey. Plato concludes that the prisoners, if they were able, would therefore reach out and kill anyone who attempted to drag them out of the cave.
Those people that go within, who step outside of their caves, to confront and traverse their own wilderness, I am in awe of. I have met and been surrounded by such people in different contexts many times in my life. I am energised and lifted up by those people; they support me to continue on my own journeys thanks to their courage and willingness to confront themselves. I too am one of those people, sometimes.
I was surrounded by such a group last weekend during an ayahuasca drinking ceremony I participated in. This group of people came together to drink the DMT (dimethyltryptamine) based plant medicine and surrender themselves to the plant and their deepest selves. The plant medicine consists of the ayahuasca vine which is combined with an “admixture” plant that also contains DMT, whose capacities are activated when combined together. And those capacities are truly amazing, perhaps miraculous and other worldly (possibly literally, definitely figuratively) with profound, potentially life changing, and also confusing, confronting and sometimes incomprehensible effects. Regardless, it takes one deeply inwards and is a very personal journey for each participant, while all share in the unique personality of the particular plant combination.
One never knows what one will experience before ingesting the tea — whether a dark and horrific journey or a playful interaction with other worldly beings, surgery by alien technologies, ecstatic and blissful states, visions that cannot be comprehended by our everyday minds, or it could be a combination of all of these things or other incomprehensible and infinitely possible teachings and spaces. However, it is thought that one will always be met with the healing or visions that they need based on who they are when engaging with the plant.
I have participated in ayahuasca ceremonies just twice now (consisting of drinking of four different occasions), so I am certainly no expert and can only talk from my own experience and research. And based on the two groups I have journeyed with, not everyone’s trip is bound for terrifying darkness, but darkness insofar as it is their own unknowns. And everyone responds differently to their interaction with the plant, so it is a very personal journey, while paradoxically a shared one too. One thing that is consistent and inviolable, however, is that once you drink the tea you hand yourselff completely over to it and there’s nothing you can do (to my knowledge and from my experience) to alter its trajectory, no matter how dark and scary it gets. All one can do is attempt to surrender to it, communicate with it, observe it and journey with it.
So many times in my life have I been confronted with my darkness and chose to turn away, fearful of embracing it and journeying with it to the other side of it. One thing I like...well, I don't know that “like” is the right word, because it certainly isn’t always necessarily pleasant...but value maybe, about the ayahuasca experience of embracing my darkness is that once I drink the tea, I can’t turn back. Even if my conscious, small mind begs it of me and of the plant and of the facilitator. And it does! Or has. I have begged of both plant and facilitator to make it stop, believe me!
During both of my ceremonies, when the first wave of it commenced...the dropping over...intense fear overcame me and I wanted it to stop. Desperately. My visions and sensory experience were very dark and were now permanent to my mind. This world that I was in was forever. It was how I imagine one’s hell to be. It is very difficult to articulate and convey the visions one has, and I won't even try. For they are not in any way connected to the regular world. And I learnt from the plant that the visions are less important than the teachings and the feelings through the dialogue one has with the plant. My visions — and visions can be auditory, optical, olfactory, somatic, psychic and other dimensional — were reminiscent of the horrific nightmares I used to have as a child. They too seemed permanent and fixed. And so I battled with all of my phalanxes and armoury, everything I could muster. But there was nothing I could do to stop it. Resignation and eventually surrender were the things that seemingly allowed for it to be a healing rather than an enduring, to traverse through it rather than advance my armies into the territory of futility. Once I surrendered I could just observe it, with some detachment but definitely not complete detachment.
In my regular life, when I’ve been confronted with fear even marginally analogous to this, I have at times chosen to abandon ship. Because I could. And because the fear triggered reactive safety responses and I wasn’t willing to endure those particular darknesses at the time. Sure, I could commence onto those foreign lands with all the gusto and commitment in the world, but at the edge of the forest or just a part of the way in my small self would take charge and choose the safety of the shadows of my cave instead.
During this second of my ayahuasca ceremonies, on the second (and last) night of drinking the tea I, seemingly inevitably, had entered the darkness again and felt that intense fear and apprehension building, the bewilderment and regret, the “What the fuck were you thinking?!” … “Yep, you’ve done it this time!” effect. The dark entity was back and tormenting me. I was trapped here. Experiencing DMT has been likened to near death and actual dying experiences. I’ve never died before, well not that I am aware of, but if it’s anything like this particular ceremony I do hope it ends like this one ended. For, following my journey into my dark, the plant took me through wave after wave of bliss and joyfulness. It was beyond optical visions, for they had ceased, but were replaced with different kinds of vision and healing. During one wave, it was the complete experience of euphoria and love of all things and everyone and myself. The next wave was complete unification with everyone and everything. For a time, everyone in the room was unified and danced the choreographed dance and sang the same divine song of life. It was perfect. Another wave came and it was the unadulterated experience of my body, without any mind or thought at all, but only somatic and inner sensory experience. It just was. My body danced, or the plant danced me. Everything wondrous and beaurtiful. But not like other experiences I have had with drugs, for this morphed into my post-ayahuasca reality. It became a knowing. A felt sense. A known experience. It has become a part of me, embodied. And just when I thought it was over, a new wave. And I was God or divine energy or creation or creativity or whatever you want to call it, or a part of it anyhow. Of course I was. Of course we all are. And I felt gratitude and understanding for the plant taking me through my darkness. It was okay. And more than okay. The plant was telling me that both are important, the darkness and the light.
This is life. An ever changing and transforming dance between the polarity of things. A divine balancing. And I am responsible for it...for shaping this balance, for dancing this dance, for creating. There are many ways to embrace our dark and the light and this is but one way. A way to break through. A forced dragging from the cave, perhaps. But it is, I believe, a way that bypasses the shadows and shadow makers of my cave. There are no doubt other ways too. And for those who do, no matter which medium you choose, I am awed and inspired by you. You are the real heroes and leaders of humanity.
Visiting my darkness when it knocks on my door is important for me to live in the fullness of my light. To consciously embrace it daily or regularly or even intermittently, I avoid living in the halflight and the illusion of my cave. Whether it is meditation, sitting still, being alone, walking in nature, not avoiding myself with regular substance use or behaviours, writing, creating, working on relationships, changing career, going into therapy, studying something new, not running when that seems like the easier thing to do... We live in a relative universe and can only know light because of the dark. My life can only be great because I’ve experienced mediocrity. I know my truth because I have lived the lie.
By embracing my darkness, it becomes just another state, a reference point. But by avoiding it, it grows and festers within me. It becomes my monster, a monster fed and enlarged by my avoidance of it. It sits in the deepest recesses of my (usually) unconscious self, growing, stifling, occasionally bursting forth out into my world in less than helpful ways. Leaving my cave every now and again may not always be pleasant or what I consciously want, but has proven to always be a far greater show than I’d ever known before.