The Self Arising

Moving out of our darkest times and finding the peace of self-knowledge.

Posted Dec 19, 2011

It takes a long time to learn to listen to the still, small voice within. We tend to seek direction outside ourselves, while our soul's language is drowned out by the commotion of day-to-day doings, all the external strivings that distract us. It is possible to lose awareness of this inner voice for years and to be carried along by the force of society's dictates and other people's conceptions of a worthy life.

At any point in the lifespan, suffering makes our need to hear what is within acute. When we endure a dark night of the soul, we feel as though everything that had once been definite has become uncertain. We wander around, unable to find our bearings. To be lost this way awakens primal fears about our capacity to survive, about who we really are and what we have to offer anyone. All relationships are open to question. It seems there is nothing to count on, that no one can be trusted completely.  We feel like Job standing alone on a barren rock face.

harvest moon rising
When I sleep in the woods, I sometimes douse the campfire and shut off my flashlight in order to feel the full impact of the darkness. In pre-industrial times, when we only had fickle moonlight, oil lamps, or firelight for illumination, darkness was powerful beyond measure. I find a kind of solace in joining this continuity with every person who has ever lived. There is a whisper of terror beyond rationality as my ears detect every rustling leaf. The wild ancestry in my senses is reawakened and I become a vividly alive, breathing presence.

Those times when despair brings us to the very ground of our existence we feel united with every person who has ever sorrowed. This state of connectedness is both the basis of our humanity and the one conviction that transcends all that divides us. Curiously, an irrefutable peace often arises in response to this core belief in what it is to be human. We all suffer and die, and thus the circumstances that brought us to our knees suddenly seem surmountable. We can stand up, dust ourselves off, and go on. The end comes eventually, and in the meantime we might as well live life to the fullest. What is there to lose?

In this way, suffering brings us to its own reprieve. When I became a therapist in my late twenties, I was surprised at how elders delved so readily into life's deepest questions. The young wanted to talk about interpersonal anguish - calamities in love, anger at parents - while older people wanted to figure out what life and death and joy were all about. I learned that later life is when our most profound existential grappling occurs, especially following a fright like a heart attack or a stroke, but also in the natural course of getting older. We have to bear periods of difficulty so many times and in so many ways that we accumulate skills of toughness as well as a wonderful readiness to seize the day, to take hold of whatever happiness is within reach.

 A seventy-one-year-old woman losing her central vision was devastated when her doctor informed her that her blindness would only worsen with time. An avid reader, she grieved hard and long. Then, she decided to hold a book give-away party. She invited all of her friends to come over and choose armloads of books to take home with them. She retained a single row of the books that meant the most to her. To her delight, three friends offered to visit weekly to read aloud to her. She ended up keeping three books going at a time, so that each reader could pick up the story line where it had been left the week before.

One of her readers told me, "I look forward so much to these afternoons. It's the only time I stop rushing around. Plus, there's nothing like being immersed in a good novel with a friend." Their reading sessions were animated by mutual pleasure and sweet intimacy, rather than mere utility. Reader and listener, giver and receiver, had quickly become indistinguishable.

A few months into her new way of reading, this woman observed, "Something has been taken away, and something has been given." When first facing a loss as profound as losing her sight, she was unable to discern the compensations just around the bend. Unexpectedly, the burden of encroaching blindness had led the way to the quenching of a vital need for further closeness with her friends. Her grief about vision loss still revived with each diminishment of her condition, but this sorrow never overtook her spirit as it had earlier. She began to live in a state of gratitude for the colors and shapes still visible and the friends that made all the difference. She was able to hear and heed her inner voice more clearly than ever before, and this brought her peace.

Adapted from: LIFE GETS BETTER: THE UNEXPECTED PLEASURES OF GROWING OLDER, Tarcher/Penguin, 2011.