Dark night of the Soul
When I was thirty four I got hit by a bad bout of depression. As far as I could see it came from nowhere. There was nothing in the outer world that seemed to be the cause. Yet I was stricken, I lay on the couch and could hardly make a cup of tea, let alone cook a meal or clean my teeth or other daily tasks.
In the evening, when the light was almost gone, I’d be compelled to walk by the sea, alone on a darkening beach and felt such pain inside that I could hardly bear it. The pain felt physical, but there was no physical cause. It was a pain of the psyche, of the heart, of my innermost being. The experience of being in this bleak, hopeless inner space felt so unbearable that I even promised myself I would put myself out of this misery if it had not gone in a month or so.
I did not intend to kill myself, simply to reassure myself that I would not allow this suffering to go on forever. As I wandered in desperation along the beach, feelings and thoughts rose up in me. I felt like an alien who had come to the wrong planet. Seriously, I actually had the compelling feeling that I had been sent here by mistake. Someone who looked like me and could have done and been all the things I was supposed to do and be, should have been sent - but there was a mix up. There I was, adrift in a life that was not mine, on a planet I was never supposed to have been on and because I was the wrong person I was not connected, there was no meaning or purpose for me here.
Hearing the Call
Many heroines and heroes have found themselves in this dark place - lost in the forest, eaten whole by a wolf or put to sleep and surrounded by a thicket of thorns. The daylight world has disappeared and they are alone, in a strange country without a map, not knowing the language.
Myths and fairytales can be useful guides on this inner journey. A favourite of mine concerns a girl called Persephone. In the version best known today she is playing innocently when Hades, the dark god of the underworld, comes up through a crack in the earth and abducts her - takes her down into the dark to make her his queen.
In an earlier version of the myth, however, Persephone is not abducted. Instead she hears cries of despair coming from a crack in the earth. Despite her mother telling her to ignore them she feels so moved by the cries that she slips into the crack and voluntarily goes into the underworld. When she returns she tells her mother she has been doing her work - leading the souls of the dead, who have lost their way, into the light.
This version has a much lighter feel to it - and shows what happens when we hear the distress signals in their early stages and have the chance to voluntarily go inwards to do the work needed.
At the time I did not understand what was happening to me, but the depression that abducted me, as surely as Hades abducted Persephone, did much essential inner work. First of all I was disconnected from my ordinary life. Nothing in the external world had any attraction - it felt as dry as dust. There was no person and no desire that could rouse me out of my apathetic state. Any semblance of normality was only achieved with extreme effort. There was no desire even to talk about what was going on.
Energy was being withdrawn from my outer life in order to connect me to my inner world - to what was going on - and had obviously been going on for some time - below the surface of my conscious life.
The compulsion to move from the cosy lit lounge where my flatmates were and to go out into the dark and roam along the beach was also very important. I was alone - but in a safe space, in nature, quiet with little sensory input - particularly visual. This seems to be important. In meditation we are taught to focus on one thing or close our eyes. In tarot the need to go inwards is often indicated by the image of a character blindfolded. We close our eyes to the external world in order to go inwards.
It was here on the beach with no distractions that I felt the inner pain most acutely - I could not get away from it. It was here roaming along with no purpose or goal in mind that the thoughts and despair about not belonging, having no purpose, being the wrong person, were finally allowed into my conscious mind. The despair and loneliness that came with these thoughts were given space to be fully felt. Although the feelings were intense it was also quite dreamlike. I had no fight left in me so I simply allowed them to be there.
One other thing was helpful to me at this time. I wrote a series of short poems, each striving to express with precision how I was feeling. This creative recording of the process was invaluable - it not only assisted the internal connection, but also channelled that experience into creative form in a way that honoured and validated what I was going through. I noticed that when I wrote these poems, even though I was in touch with the essence of my despair, I did not feel so bad. In winter, though the land may seem bare and lifeless, seeds are germinating below ground - the process of renewal has already begun.
Sometimes she feels like this
In the elephant’s graveyard
even the air is dead.
Her body steals between pillars of bone
though she is not in it.
To be neither dead nor alive and no end to it.
Beyond, a glimpse of red, too far to reach.
An eagle flies down and plucks out her eyes,
she’ll see better that way.
Naked and Hanging Upside Down on a Tree
In the Persephone myth - the one where she goes down voluntarily - she is met by a wise woman and a kindly king who are there to help her. Even so, part of the process is for her to hang on a tree, naked, for three nights - a theme that is repeated across many myths and religions and always in connection to gaining wisdom, to redeeming the suffering, to the great cycle of death, rebirth and renewal.
To be naked is to be your authentic self. This is the stripping of the roles, masks and identities of the external world. In another myth of descent to the underworld, the queen Inanna is obliged to give up something at each level of her descent - her crown, her jewellery, her clothes - everything that symbolises her power and status in the outer world.
In the tarot this process is linked to the Hanged Man. We might ask, what does it mean to hang upside down? Here the guidance is to observe and trust the process. Feel without acting on your feelings - simply allow them to be, observing what thoughts and images accompany them. Upside down you are called to look at your life from a different perspective than you normally do - from the perspective of your soul.
In this potent symbol of hanging on a tree we see that inner work is most decidedly not like work in the outer world. Inner work is much like dreaming - in a deep dream you are simply in it, not deciding or choosing or controlling, simply carried along by the energy of the dream itself. To do inner work you need to be receptive, not active - to listen and wait, not decide and do. You are in the realms of the unknown. The dynamic, decisive, logical self has no place in this shadowy realm.
To those who are very at home in the external world, who are practical and good at creating homes, building businesses, relating to others and fulfilling ambitions, this way of being may feel alien, even scary. It may take time to learn the skills of letting go and being receptive, learning to see your life from a spiritual point of view.
Now, at the age of fifty-two, I can look back on my depression with gratitude and a great deal of compassion and love for the person I was then. I see now this was a major turning point for me and that after this everything changed. There were still many challenges to face and times of despair and healing to go through, but something important had shifted that allowed my life to develop in a meaningful direction that did have both purpose and connection.
You might ask - how does this process work? What does all this hanging about, symbolically naked and upside down, actually achieve? At the time it happened I couldn’t have told you. There was no conscious piece of enlightenment, no insight or moment of ah-ha.
I came out of the depression as if someone had snapped their fingers. Desperate to do something other than lie on the couch I went to stay with a friend in the South Island. For two days I depressed her with my depression, till we went to a backpackers at Banks Peninsula. There I met a fellow backpacker who enjoyed english literature and ended up having a lively conversation about books and, hey presto, I was back. I felt happy and interested in life again. It wasn’t the guy I talked to - I felt no attraction to him and never saw him again. It wasn’t anything we said. It seems I had done my inner work and it was now simply time to return to the outer world. Just so does sleeping beauty awake. When the hundred years is up, the thorns retreat allowing the prince - symbolising action in the outer world - to connect with now deepened feminine aspect.
It helps to have people around you who care about you when going through this process - especially if they have gone through such initiations themselves. Persephone has the kindly king and the wise crone to tend and assist her rebirth. Inanna says to her friends if I have not returned in sixty days come and get me.
What helped me was to have caring flatmates, a kind friend - even the friendly stranger at the backpackers played his part. Of equal importance were people from my past who saw value in me and cared as I went through difficult times in my childhood. Even though these people were very much on the periphery - a teacher, a friend of my parents, an older girl I met only once - nevertheless they helped me to believe in myself - perhaps they saw my soul, who I truly was, or could be.
Return to the Sunlit Lands
Around this time in my life I had several dreams all variations on a theme. I would be in deep water and see a dead body on the bottom. I swam down and pulled the body to the shore. As I stared at it, bedraggled and muddy, I saw, with a shock, it wasn’t dead. Then, with another shock, realised it was me. The body would come fully to life and there was a joyful reunion. At the time I had no clear idea what this meant - I just felt it was a good sign.
Most of us have an internal graveyard or dungeon where we keep those parts of ourselves we have silenced and suppressed. This separation happens when we feel a part of us is not acceptable to those around us - we may fear loss of approval, being ridiculed, rejected, punished - even, in extreme cases, killed. These fears may be linked to past lives if, for example, you were exiled, tortured or put to death because of your healing gifts, for speaking out, for being disobedient to those in power.
Extreme sensitivity to the expectations of others can cause us not even to be aware of when we are being authentic and when we are not. We may live for years not questioning our lives - until something within, some part of our hidden authentic self, makes it’s move and decides to get our attention. It may do so subtly, as a feeling of stagnation, a restlessness, things just not working out as we had planned or hoped. Or it may do so in dramatic fashion - a relationship breaks down, we have an accident or serious illness, lose a job - something that forces us to dig deep, to go down to our bones and reconnect to resources and aspects of ourselves we never knew we had?
Looking back on my experience of depression I’d say the shift happened because I truly connected with my buried selves. I felt their pain, their grief, their frustration and longing. In this way they became a part of me once more. I reclaimed them and the buried treasure that came with them.
Upon Persephone’s return to the upper world winter becomes spring and flowers bloom upon her touch. So we see that doing this inner work yields results in the outer world - not only a sense of happiness and joy, that alive and engaged feeling, but also productivity - we are creative, useful and contribute.
In my own life I was more and more able to connect to my joy and had the inner strength to follow my true heart yearnings. I wrote and published a book of poetry and did live readings. On a whim I learn to tango and salsa dance and loved it. I left teaching and began the journey to become an artist.
Persephone returned regularly to the underworld to continue her work, and so might we follow this inner rhythm, if we are wise. Some of our descents may last for a while, or they might only take the length of a meditation, a five minute drifting away internally, a walk along the beach.
(All of the above cards are from a wonderful deck called The Golden Tarot created by artist and tarot designer Kat Black)
(All of the above cards are from a wonderful deck called The Golden Tarot created by artist and tarot designer Kat Black)