As we prepare to emerge from the darkness of COVID, these teachings from Jean Houston offer guidance.
October 21-23, 2016: Jean Houston is to facilitate a program entitled, “The Morning after the Dark Night of the Soul”. Early on Friday morning, I set out for the eleven hour drive to the Rowe Conference Center in Massachusetts. The way takes me through mountains softened through millennia to rounded hills. Trees wear autumn colours so achingly beautiful that I want to stop the car, to embrace them. The narrow road curves, dips, climbs. Quite suddenly a sharp hairpin turn opens to a space to park, to take photos…
Full darkness has descended when the car’s headlights pick up the small wooden sign: “The Rowe Center”. Over a narrow bridge that spans a swift-flowing brook, I enter the grounds. In the central farmhouse, a dinner of eggplant parmesan, fresh-baked bread, vegetables, salads and apple crisp awaits.
In a great circle that embraces the dining tables, I join fifty others as we sing a blessing, “Simple Gifts”.
The words pierce through my dazed fatigue, startling me into joy: “To turn, to turn, will be our delight, ‘til by turning, turning we come round right.” I know my coming here is the grace for which I’ve been yearning. Before setting out, I’d written my desire: to be spun around, turned to face a new direction…..
After dinner, we walk from the farmhouse along the path that climbs through the woods to the building that holds the meeting room.
Jean Houston welcomes us, assuring us that, “in the dark night, an enormous gift awaits you.” The music begins. We dance our way into a weekend of teachings, processes, insights, profound inner experiences, one on one conversations spinning our lives into joy.
Using as loom the stages of the mystical path as described by Evelyn Underhill (Mysticism, 1911) Jean weaves together the present darkness of our planet, our personal lives, with the light that sustains the Universe, holding each of us in a fabric of beauty. We’re immersed for a time, brief, endless, in the heart of the spirituality that we’ve been longing to experience, to embrace.
Part of the dark night today, Jean tells us, is way beyond the personal self: this catharsis of refugees, war, weather, the breakdown of systems is “a ritual of initiation that life gives us to deepen”.
Jean turns to Connie Buffalo, her working partner, a member of the Anishnabe/Ojibway People, “How do your people deal with the dark night?”
“We walk in two worlds,” Connie responds. “We know ourselves as timeless beings, called to become more for the good of all people.”
“Mythologize the dark night. Don’t pathologize it.” Jean is introducing the theme when an urgent question from a participant requires a shift:
“What are we to do about the violence, the racism now erupting in our country?”
“The way is love,” Jean responds. “Be there and love. Drop down into the center. Let the facts fall away. Speak essence to essence. (In) very deep seeing, you see the levels of beingness in the person that are not normally seen. Practise going off automatic and into the essence.”
We learn about the practice of deep seeing, first by watching as Jean engages with volunteers from among us, then by working with one another in pairs.
Jean begins by asking the first volunteer to speak of a quality she dislikes in herself. “People say I’m a know-it-all,” the woman responds. Jean invites her to step back a bit, to shake her body, loosening the posture of protection.
In the silence, Jean looks at her. “You are a pattern-keeper,” Jean says to the woman, explaining that one who sees and knows the higher pattern calls others to honour it in their behaviour.
The women nods, smiles, walks back to her place as one who has received a gift, one who sees that her darkness has light within it.
Jean explains that we have within us a “daemon”: our essential self. This daemon keeps us in a state of negative life, a darkness, until the inner self has become strong enough to be seen in its fulness. Winston Churchill stuttered when he was young; his voice was protected by his daemon until it would be needed to save Britain. “The daemon protects you until you’re ready.”
Seeing deeply requires us to drop our ego, to focus on the other, Jean says, inviting us to experience this process of deep empathic seeing, working with a partner, someone we don’t know in the room. I’m surprised at the way this process opens my eyes to see the beauty and light in a stranger, the way it shows me the light beneath my own darkness.
“We’re looking at the other side of the dark night,” Jean says. “Look deeply to discover what’s trying to emerge.”
In the dark night of the soul, Jean explains, ordinary life shuts down so that deep life can reconstitute itself. If you could see it, it couldn’t happen. It’s like the caterpillar within the cocoon. Its cells turn into a moosh, a soup, until the new imaginal cells combine, become strong enough to emerge as a butterfly.
On the drive back, I know I’ve returned to the deep self once more. I’ve been spun around by my friend and teacher Jean to face into the firelight, into the joy. When I step out of the car beside my home, the stars above me are dancing with delight.
Where and how do you find light in the present darkness on our planet?
What emerging butterfly will we see after this dark night?
What do you see now?