At the very roots of Chinese thinking and feeling there lies the principle of polarity, which is not to be confused with the ideas of opposition or conflict. In the metaphors of other cultures, light is at war with darkness, life with death, good with evil, and the positive with the negative, and thus an idealism to cultivate the former and be rid of the latter flourishes throughout much of the world.
To the traditional way of Chinese thinking this is as incomprehensible as an electric current without both positive and negative poles, for polarity is the principle that plus and minus, north and south, are different aspects of one and the same system, and that the disappearance of either one of them would be the disappearance of the system
People who have been brought up in the aura of Christian and Hebrew aspirations find this frustrating, because it seems to deny any possibility of progress, an ideal which flows from their linear (as distinct from cyclic) view of time and history. Indeed, the whole enterprise of Western technology is “to make the world a better place” – to have pleasure without pain, wealth without poverty, and health without sickness.
We have been interfering with a complex system of relationships which we do not understand, and the more we study its details, the more it eludes us by revealing still more details to study. As we try to comprehend and control the world it runs away – from us. Instead of chafing at this situation, a Taoist would ask what it means. What is that which always retreats when pursued? Answer: yourself.
Idealists (in the moral sense of the word) regard the universe as different and separate from themselves – that is, as a system of external objects which needs to be subjugated.
Taoists view the universe as the same as, or inseparable from, themselves so that Lao-tzu could say, “Without leaving my house, I know the whole universe.”
This implies that the art of life is more like navigation than warfare, for what is important is to understand the winds, the tides, the currents, the seasons, and the principles of growth and decay, so that one’s actions may use them and not fight them.
In this sense, the Taoist attitude is not opposed to technology per se. Indeed, the Chuang-tzu writings are full of references to crafts and skills perfected by this very principle of “going with the grain.” The point is therefore that technology is destructive only in the hands of people who do not realize that they are one and the same process as the universe.
From Progress to Process
Our overspecialization in conscious attention and linear thinking has led to neglect, or ignore-ance, of the basic principles and rhythms of this process, of which the foremost is polarity.
In Chinese, the two poles of cosmic energy are yang (positive) and yin (negative), associated with the masculine and the feminine, the firm and the yielding, the strong and the weak, the light and the dark, the rising and the falling, heaven and earth, and they are even recognized in such everyday matters as cooking as the spicy and the bland.
Thus the art of life is not seen as holding to yang and banishing yin, but as keeping the two in balance, because there cannot be one without the other.
When regarding them as the masculine and the feminine, the reference is not so much to male and female individuals as to characteristics which are dominant in, but not confined to, each of the two sexes. The male individual must not neglect his female component, nor the female her male. Thus Lao-tzu says:
Knowing the male but keeping the female, one becomes a universal stream. Becoming a universal stream, one is not separated from eternal virtue.
The yang and the yin are principles, not men and women, so that there can be no true relationship between the affectedly tough male and the affectedly flimsy female. The key to the relationship between yang and yin is called hsiang sheng, mutual arising or inseparability. As Lao-tzu puts it:
When everyone knows beauty as beautiful,
there is already ugliness;
When everyone knows good as goodness,
there is already evil.
“To be” and “not to be” arise mutually;
Difficult and easy are mutually realized;
Long and short are mutually contrasted;
High and low are mutually posited;
Before and after are in mutual sequence.
They are thus like the different, but inseparable, sides of a coin, the poles of a magnet, or pulse and interval in any vibration. There is never the ultimate possibility that either one will win over the other, for they are more like lovers wrestling than enemies fighting.
Being and Non-being
It is difficult in our logic to see that being and non-being are mutually generative and mutually supportive, for it is the great and imaginary terror of Western man that nothingness will be the permanent universe. We do not easily grasp the point that the void is creative, and that being comes from non-being as sound from silence and light from space.
Thirty spokes unite at the wheel’s hub;
It is the center hole that makes it useful.
Shape clay into a vessel;
It is the space within that makes it useful.
Cut out doors and windows for a room;
It is the holes which make it useful.
Therefore profit comes from what is there;
Usefulness from what is not there.
This space is not “just nothing” as we commonly use that expression, for I cannot get away from the sense that space and my awareness of the universe are the same, and call to mind the words of the Chan (Zen) Patriarch Hui-neng, writing eleven centuries after Lao-tzu:
The capacity of mind is broad and huge, like the vast sky. Do not sit with a mind fixed on emptiness. If you do you will fall into a neutral kind of emptiness. Emptiness includes the sun, moon, stars, and planets, the great earth, mountains and rivers, all trees and grasses, bad men and good men, bad things and good things, heaven and hell; they are all in the midst of emptiness. The emptiness of human nature is also like this.
Thus the yin-yang principle is that the somethings and the nothings, the ons and the offs, the solids and the spaces, as well as the wakings and the sleepings and the alternations of existing and not existing, are mutually necessary.
Yang and yin are in some ways parallel to the (later) Buddhist view of form and emptiness, of which the Heart Sutra says,
That which is form is just that which is emptiness and that which is emptiness is just that which is form.
The yin-yang principle is not, therefore, what we would ordinarily call a dualism, but rather an explicit duality expressing an implicit unity.
There’s an old saying, rumored to be an ancient Chinese curse, but it’s been a favorite in the West for some time now.
“May you live in interesting times.”
Political figures like to use it when they want to emphasize just how screwed up things are. For example, Robert Kennedy is quoted here from a speech in 1966:
Sounds pretty much like today, as the times are indeed interesting. Shocking and unbelievable things are happening all around us, and with information technologies we can choose to internalize struggles, tragedies and disasters that are far outside of our sphere of personal experience or control. It’s easier than ever to take on the weight of the world.
The burden of doing so is quite heavy, though, manifesting as stress, anxiety, depression, self-abuse or the abuse of nature, conflict big and small, anger, disease, uneasiness, unhappiness, and most insidious of all, fear. In short, absorbing the world’s problems is self-destructive. To resolve this within ourselves, however, it most often only takes a shift in perspective.
Lao-Tzu, the Old Master of Taoism, condensed the human struggle into the prose of the Tao Te Ching. It’s not a religious text, as it doesn’t hail a deity or command you to construct a belief system on its behalf. It’s a simple book of observations about the nature of nature, something that after 2500+ years still manages to serve as a salient guide to living well. For those who understand it, it offers a way of being that helps keep the madness of change at bay.
In times such as these, when uncertainty and chaos seem to be rising against the established order, and when so much discourse is focused on politics and untouchable events and circumstances, it really is up to the individual to create peace, harmony and balance within themselves.
But as humans, we have a tendency to try to control that which is beyond our control, in turn contributing evermore to the development of chaos and disorder. In truth, it is far easier to navigate such discord than we believe, and the way is far simpler than we imagine it to be. Consider for a moment the Taoist view regarding such interesting times.
From verse 16:
When society changes
from its natural state of flux,
to that which seems like chaos,
the inner world of the superior man
remains uncluttered and at peace.
By remaining still, his self detached,
he aids society in its return
to the way of nature and of peace.
The value of his insight may be clearly seen
when chaos ceases.
Here we are informed of the value of tending to the inner world first, which requires the gumption to detach and allow things to be as they are. We are encouraged to let go of personal expectations in order for muddled waters to clear.
From verse 17:
The sage does not expect that others
use his criteria as their own.
It is virtuous to allow others to hold whatever insane beliefs and ideas they choose to, and disengage from the struggle to enforce our opinions and values onto others.
From verse 18:
When intellectualism arises,
hypocrisy is close behind…
When the country falls into chaos,
politicians talk about ‘patriotism’.
From verse 57:
Govern your country with integrity,
Weapons of war can be used with great cunning,
but loyalty is only won by not-doing.
How do I know the way things are?
The more prohibitions you make,
the poorer people will be.
The more weapons you possess,
the greater the chaos in your country.
The more knowledge that is acquired,
the stranger the world will become.
The more laws that you make,
the greater the number of criminals.
Therefore the Master says:
I do nothing,
and people become good by themselves.
I seek peace,
and people take care of their own problems.
I do not meddle in their personal lives,
and the people become prosperous.
I let go of all my desires,
and the people return to the Uncarved Block.
Doing nothing, as advised in the Tao Te Ching, runs in opposition to the cultural zeitgeist, but just imagine how quickly things would change if more people chose to withdraw and not participate in the insanity all around us.
As individuals we face the same challenges as all of those who’ve come before us. We’ve always had to survive and procreate while striving for progress. That’s the human journey in nutshell, and while it isn’t always pretty, it’s always the same story, no matter how complex things become.
Our role, then, is the role of the sage, which is to act in accordance with nature rather than to resist nature.
A fundamental difference between Eastern and Western medicine is that many of the Eastern traditions include practices that help one to develop and achieve optimal health and wellness before the onset of disease, infection and emotional problems. Prescribing Qi Gong to prevent and cure illnesses of the body, mind and spirit is quite typical for Chinese medicine practitioners, but anything similar is almost unheard of in Western healthcare.
In Chinese medicine and philosophy, Qi is thought of as “the natural force which fills the universe,” and while there are many ways of defining Qi, it may be generally thought of as any and all types of energy which are “able to demonstrate power and strength,” including the power to animate objects with life. 
“It is known that all diseases arise from the upset of qi: Anger pushes the qi up, joy makes the qi slacken, grief disperses the qi, fear brings the qi down, terror confuses the qi, and anxiety causes the qi to stagnate. Anger harms the liver, joy the heart, anxiety the spleen, grief the lungs, and fear the kidneys.” – The Nei Jing
Primarily handed down from generation to generation by word of mouth and in actual practice, not in written texts, the ancient Chinese practices of Qi Gong can vary wildly between teachers and schools of thought. It can be many things including physical exercises (both standing and seated), forms that resemble martial arts, breathing exercises, visualizations and, or, meditations.
The system is incredibly diverse, however, the science behind the flow of energy in and around the body has been well documented for thousands of years, and many schools of thought are in concurrence about many of the basic and even more esoteric concepts and terms involved. Among the most important concepts in Qi Gong training is an understanding of what are known as ‘San Bǎo’ (三寶), or, The Three Treasures.
Jing (Essence), Qi (Internal Energy), and Shen (Spirit), are the Three Treasures, The Three Foundations, or The Three Origins, and are the root of life.
“In Qi Gong training, a practitioner learns how to ‘firm his jing,’ and how to convert it into Qi. This is called ‘Lian Jing Hua Qi,’ which means to ‘to refine the Jing and convert it into Qi.’ Then he learns how to lead the Qi to the head to onvert it into Shen. This is called ‘Lian Qi Hua Shen,’ which means ‘to refine the Qi and convert it into (nourish) the Shen.’ Finally the practitioner learns to use his energized Shen to govern the emotional part of his personality. This is called, ‘Lian Shen Liao Xing, or ‘to refine the Shen to end human (emotional) nature.’” -Dr. Yang, Jwing-Ming 
Jing means a number of things and as a word it can be used as a noun, a verb or an adjective. It is considered the essence, the original source from which a thing is made, and also the refining process by which a person’s essence is polished or sharpened. Jing is the energy given to you at birth that enables you to grow and to develop strength. Many believe it to be the most important part of a you because it is considered to be the root energy to Qi and Shen. Learning first how to conserve and firm your original Jing is critical to Qi Gong training.
Qi is, again, the energy that fills the universe. There really is no clear explanation of how it works or of the vessels in the body which provide for the flow of Qi, but it can be distinctly felt as an energizing and healing force that can be manipulated and moved by the mind and body. Qi supplies the energy your organs need to function, and much like electricity in a factory that provides differing levels of current for different machines, the flow of Qi must be consciously regulated in order for the body to function optimally.
Shen is more difficult to describe in Western terms, but it may be considered to be spiritual or mental energy, the supernatural, the divine, the immortal soul, or the cosmic energy that drives and elevates consciousness. Shen is also the emotional mind, the part of us that governs our mood and behavior, the force that collects and utilizes wisdom. In order to raise your Shen you must first nourish and fill the brain with Qi, which is how dedication to the practices of Qi Gong can lead to a very real spiritual awakening.
“Buddhists and Daoists believe that when you are alive you may use your Jing and Qi to nourish the Shen… When this is built up to a high level, your will is able to lead it to seperate from the physical body even while you are alive. When you have reached this stage, your physical body is able to live for many hundreds of years. People who can do this are called ‘Xian,’ which means ‘god,’ ‘immortal,’ or ‘fariy…’ The ‘Xian’ is a living person whose Shen has reached the stage of enlightenment or Buddhahood.”-Dr. Jwing-Ming Yang, The Root of Chinese Qi Gong: Secrets for Health, Longevity and Enlightenment
The roots of depression, anxiety, fear and other negative emotions are found within the energy body, and in our modern world of stress, over-work, over-stimulation, and constant hustle, the nervous and emotional systems of the body are the first to breakdown.
Qi Gong is itself a true treasure for those seeking physical and mental wellness, as well as happiness in our short, beautiful lives. It is the most practical method of strengthening and building life force energy within the body, mind and spirit, and catalyzing meaningful personal transformation. The presence and experience of Qi is universal to human beings and can be directly experienced with Qi Gong.
Anyone can develop the presence, awareness and sensitivity to come to know The Three Treasures. And what a treasure it is to see a happy, healthy person.
“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” – Lao Tzu
A few mornings ago the surf was rising, so I drove down to one of my favorite spots at sunrise with the vision of catching some sweet waves before the world woke up and the water got crowded. Apparently I wasn’t the only one with this idea. As the first rays lit up the ocean, I paddled out to find about 30 other surfers already out there. Instantly I felt behind, like I’d missed something. So I hit the water with a sense of urgency, trying to make up for lost time – paddling this way and that to dodge people, ducking under big waves, navigating currents and looking for my groove. But every wave I paddled for seemed to have someone else on it, or it broke too soon or too late for me to catch. The harder I tried, the more difficult it seemed to find my flow with the ocean… Until eventually I got so tired I couldn’t keep paddling – so I stopped for a moment, sat up on my board and just let the current take me.
Before long I had drifted away from the main peak where everyone was jockeying for waves, to a quiet little area where I was sitting all alone. Catching my breath, I started noticing the way the light was dancing on the water, the way the dawn air brushed against my face. As my lungs slowed down and I let go of trying, I started feeling good just being out there. Just feeling the ocean, and me in it. Right about that time, I glanced up to see the rising face of a beautiful wave picking up right before me.”What are you doing way over here?” I smiled, turning to meet it, stroked once or twice and popped up onto a clear blue wall that carried us both all the way to shore.
As my lungs slowed down and I let go of trying, I started feeling good just being out there.
Wu Wei is a Chinese concept central to Taoism and a core theme of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching. Translated literally as “non-doing”, Wu Wei is not so much about “doing nothing” as it is about aligning our movement with the greater flow of life. Often referred to as ‘natural action’, Wu Wei does not involve excessive effort or struggle, but a kind of “going with the flow” where we are able to move with the energy of the moment and respond freely to whatever situation that arises.
We each have moments in our life when we access flow. In these moments – through sheer focused intent or absolute letting go (or a combination of both) – we enter a state of connectedness to what we are doing, and our movements become simultaneously highly productive and effortlessly expressed. The world around us seems to slow down, and in that space, it is as if we become one with the very thing we are trying to do. The words pour onto the page revealing what to write, the waves of the ocean carry us and we are part of them, the rhythm of the song we are dancing to comes right through us… and becomes a pure expression of who we are.
While each of us catch glimpses of this state of flow in peak moments of movement, love and creative endeavor, we often believe that these extraordinary experiences are the realms of the elite, only accessed through miracle or mastery. But what if this sense of flow was actually meant to be our normal way of being – available to each of us in every moment? What if, beyond the many details and mixed agendas of our daily life, we each had direct access to experience a sense of oneness and flow everyday, no matter what we were doing?
Wu Wei is a Chinese concept central to Taoism and a core theme of Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.
How do we learn to do, without doing?
Historically, many Taoist adepts chose to explore the essence of Wu Wei by withdrawing from society – wandering freely through the mountains, meditating for long periods in caves, and cultivating a daily existence which was nourished and guided directly by the energy of the natural world. According to Lao Tzu, the ultimate expression of Wu Wei is found not only in retreat from the world but in our experience of flow in the way that we live in it.
“When we learn to work with our own Inner Nature, and with the natural laws operating around us, we reach the level of Wu Wei. Then we work with the natural order of things and operate on the principle of minimal effort. Since the natural world follows that principle, it does not make mistakes. Mistakes are made–or imagined–by man, the creature with the overloaded Brain who separates himself from the supporting network of natural laws by interfering and trying too hard.” – Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh
While many of us wake into our day with multiple “to-dos” stacked on our list and a sense of urgency to get things done, it’s powerful to consider that there is a natural order in everything we do. If we tune in and follow the order, things get done effectively, efficiently and without extra effort. If we go against the order, it takes extra time and energy to get things done and in some cases (like me in the surf) nothing will get done, no matter how hard we try.
If we go against the order, it takes extra time and energy to get things done.
Following the Way of Nature
Whatever our intent or outcome may be, and whatever our mind may be saying about how urgent or pressing things are, Wu Wei tells us that ultimately the most effective way of doing anything is to follow the way of nature. As we tune in to the natural flow of any task, we may find that there are critical actions for us to take, but by aligning with the energy of what we are pursuing, we can often achieve way more by doing less.
How nature does its work reveals many perfect examples of Wu Wei. The cycles of the sun, the rotation of the earth, the orbit of the moon, the flow of rivers to create and feed valleys, the life of a tree to grow and give life to so many others… Each is highly productive, fit for the purpose to naturally deliver that which it was born to deliver. Each does it’s work without doing it.
Some people intuitively interpret ‘non-doing’ as something passive, laid back or lazy. In the eyes of Tao, there are times for action, but if no action is needed based on the laws of nature, then doing anything may be ‘overdoing’. In fact, sometimes action can do more harm than good.
If we are growing a plant and we have created the right conditions for growth with healthy soil, sun and water, there comes a time when the very best way to ensure the growth of the plant is simply to leave it alone. More water, more sun, more fertiliser won’t help, in fact too much of any of these may stifle the growth of the plant. We remain attentive, connected to the plant’s needs but for the time being, doing nothing is just what is needed. Wu Wei teaches us to not force actions but to let them take their course of nature.
“When you work with Wu Wei, you put the round peg in the round hole and the square peg in the square hole. No stress, no struggle. Egotistical Desire tries to force the round peg into the square hole and the square peg into the round hole. Cleverness tries to devise craftier ways of making pegs fit where they don’t belong. Knowledge tries to figure out why round pegs fit into round holes, but not square holes. Wu Wei doesn’t try. It doesn’t think about it. It just does it. And when it does, it doesn’t appear to do much of anything. But Things Get Done.” – Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh
For the time being, doing nothing is just what is needed.
Finding our Wu Wei Today
If you are depressed, you live in the past. If you are anxious, you live in the future. But if you are at peace, you live in the present. – Lao Tzu
When we look around at the world today, it seems there is so much to do. Amidst our striving for progress, personal achievement, and in some cases, survival, the idea of “non-doing” can feel out of reach. Fortunately, the essence of Wu Wei is simplicity and there are some simple things we can do (and not do!) each day to help us align with the natural flow of life. Here are a few:
1.Spend time in nature – If our fundamental aim is to align with the natural flow of life, there is no better teacher and no better place to connect with this aspect of ourselves than in the natural world. When we step into nature (ideally without plastic-soled shoes) we plug into a Wu Wei world, where natural, generative, flow-filled systems abide on all levels. If there was a “practice” to discipline ourselves around in the aim of bringing more Wu Wei into our lives, being in, observing and connecting with nature would have to be one.
2. Give without condition – As we come into alignment with the natural world, we are reminded of the generosity that comes when living systems are in harmony with themselves and each other. A single seed produces fruit which feeds many and gives forth a thousand more seeds. The sun gives everything that it has without being drained. A river gives life each step and turn of the way as it follows its calling from mountain to the sea. One of our most natural expressions of flow we experience in life is to give freely to each other. When we allow ourselves to follow our spontaneous callings to give – even in small ways – we bring ourselves into alignment with the generous nature of life and (without trying or looking for it) open ourselves to receive in ways that we could not have imagined.
When we step into nature, we plug into a Wu Wei world.
3. Let go of how we think it’s supposed to look – There may always be elements of our life that we consciously plan for, but every step along the way will invariably reveal passageways and possibilities that we could not have predicted. Sometimes our efforts to fulfill the plan and gain a predictable outcome shuts us off from seeing what other possibilities may be waiting to reveal. When we find ourselves struggling (as I did in the surf this week), often it’s because we have a fixed idea of how things are supposed to be, according to our desires or “the plan”. As we let go of our agenda and attachment to have it be a certain way, we open ourselves up to how it actually is… and in that space of acceptance, we become available for flow to find us!
If you’re in tune with The Way Things Work, then they work the way they need to, no matter what you may think about it at the time. Later on you can look back and say, “Oh, now I understand. That had to happen so that those could happen, and those had to happen in order for this to happen…” Then you realise that even if you’d tried to make it all turn out perfectly, you couldn’t have done better, and if you’d really tried, you would have made a mess of the whole thing. – Benjamin Hoff, The Tao of Pooh
Sometimes our efforts to fulfill the plan shuts us off from seeing other possibilities.
4. Stay open to spontaneous emergence – One of the fundamental principles of Wu Wei is that the essence of flow is not premeditated, but arises spontaneously. We can play our part to create the right conditions, we can bring ourselves into the ocean, but we can’t make the waves. My family has a beautiful, well-planned veggie garden, but amidst our consciously planted rows of lettuce and kale, one of the most productive crops this season was an entire patch of pumpkins that rose spontaneously from the compost. As we take steps in any area of life, one of the great invitations Wu Wei offers is to remain open to what is emerges spontaneously (inside and out!). What whispered calling or fresh impulse may be giving us an opportunity in this moment to experience our intended outcome (and more!) in ways that we never could have planned.
What simple things can you “not do” today to begin opening yourself to the greater flow of Wu Wei in your life?
“Be still like a mountain and flow like a great river.” – Lao Tzu
Anyone may go through a period of sadness or challenge that is so deep-seated and tenacious that it qualifies as a dark night of the soul. Not long ago I was giving a talk at a university when a man shouted at me from back in the crowd: “I’m terribly depressed. It’s been years. Help me.” I shouted back my email address. In his voice and body language I could see that this man was not caught in some passing depression. His life was broken by some loss, failure, or long-forgotten emotional wound that left him in a desperately dark place.
I reserve the expression ‘dark night of the soul’ for a dark mood that is truly life-shaking and touches the foundations of experience, the soul itself. But sometimes a seemingly insignificant event can give rise to a dark night: You may miss a train and not attend a reunion that meant much to you. Often a dark night has a strong symbolic quality in that it points to a deeper level of emotion and perhaps a deeper memory that gives it extra meaning. With dark nights you always have to be alert for the invisible memories, narratives, and concerns that may not be apparent on the surface.
Faced with a dark night, many people treat it like an illness, like depression. They may take medication or go into counseling looking for a cause. It can be useful to search for the roots of a dark night, but in my experience the best way to deal with it is to find the concrete action or decision that it is asking for.
Engaging the Night
A dark night of the soul is a kind of initiation, taking you from one phase of life into another. You may have several dark nights in the course of your life because you are always becoming more of a person and entering life more fully. At least, that is the hope.
One simple rule is that a truly deep dark night requires an extraordinary development in life. One outstanding example is Abraham Lincoln. With his early life surrounded by death and loneliness and his adult life weighed down by a war in which thousands of young men died, he was a seriously melancholic man who, in spite of or through his dark night, became an icon of wisdom and leadership. One theory is that he escaped his melancholy in his efforts for his country, but another possibility is that the very darkness of his life—he once said, “If there’s a worse place than hell, I’m in it.”—was the ground out of which his leadership grew.
As a therapist, I have worked with people profoundly sad and discouraged, and I join with them in looking for ways to transform that heavy mood into a weighty life. Contemporary people often don’t take their lives seriously enough. This tendency might be an aspect of the cult of celebrity, where we lose sight of our own importance by making too much of it in others.
In the archetypal psychotherapy that I practice, we always say: Go with the symptom. I don’t look for quick escapes from the pain or good distracting alternatives. I try to imagine how a symptom, like a long-standing dark night, might be re-imagined and even lived out in a way that is not literally depressive. As far back as the Middle Ages at least, dark moods were considered to be the work of Saturn, a spirit symbolized by a planet far out in the solar system. He was cold, lonely, and heavy, but he was also the source of wisdom and artistic genius. Look through history and you will find a great number of creative men and women who have struggled with the Saturnine humor.
This ancient idea that a dark night may be connected with genius and inspiration could help us today as we try to be constructive with a Saturnine disposition, like Lincoln’s, or a period of smoky moodiness. We might imagine it as the root and basis of an engagement with life that could give meaning and purpose. This doesn’t necessarily mean that eventually the dark spirit will go away, but it may have a counterweight—some extraordinary creative activity and involvement in life—that will make it more than bearable and may diminish it.
With our contemporary view of anything that looks like depression, we think: I’ll never be happy, never have a good relationship, never accomplish anything. But with the medieval image of Saturn, we might instead tell ourselves: A dark night is the sign of a high calling. My pain and loneliness will prepare me for my destiny.
Finding the Gift in Darkness
There are many examples of men and women who endured unimaginable ordeals and yet contributed in a striking way to humanity’s progress. Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years under harsh conditions, yet he never lost his vision and sense of destiny. One of his younger fellow prisoners said of him: “The point about Nelson, of course, is that he has a tremendous presence, apart from his bearing, his deportment and so on. He’s a person who’s got real control over his behavior. He is also quite conscious of the kind of seriousness he radiates.” This is dark night talk—presence and seriousness, the key gifts of Saturn—as a long tradition holds. Mandela’s dark night was an actual imprisonment, not a mood. Still, he teaches how to deal with a dark night. Don’t waste time in illusions and wishes. Take it on. Keep your sense of worth and power. Keep your vision intact. Let your darkness speak and give its tone to your bearing and expression.
The regenerative power of nature grows more beautiful after a devastating forest fire at Yellowstone Park in 1988. photography | Wikimedia Commons, Jim Peaco
As strange as it may sound, there is a temptation in a dark night to slip into enjoyment of the pain and to identify with your emotions and moods. “I’m a lonely person. I’m depressed. Help me.” One striking quality we see in men and women who are dealing with their dark nights effectively is a lack of masochistic surrender to the mood, which can be forceful and dominating.
Mandela had “control over his behavior.” He didn’t succumb. It’s important to live through the dark night, acknowledge it, notice its qualities, and be affected by it. At the same time, it is not useful to be too attached to it or to let it dominate. You don’t want to be the hero who slays dragons and tries to obliterate the darkness, but you do need all the strength of heart you can muster.
While giving a dark night its due, you can also cultivate a love of life and joy in living that doesn’t contradict the darkness. You can be dedicated to your work and your vision for humanity and also feel overwhelmed by the suffering in the world. To do this it helps to have a philosophy of life that understands the creative coming together of conflicting moods. The rule is simple: Human beings can do more than one thing at a time. You can acknowledge your darkness and still find some joy.
An example of the dark night leading to a transformative presence in the world is Maya Angelou, who went from not speaking for five or six years as a child out of guilt and the wounds of abuse to reciting the inaugural poem for Bill Clinton and inspiring millions to make something of their own dark nights. In all her public appearances, Angelou showed both the pain and the joy that shaped her mission in life. She carried her pain throughout her life and yet her joy seemed to increase with her impact on men and especially women around the world.
Angelou’s experience demonstrates in an intriguing way how a dark night might take away your ‘voice’ and then give it back with added power. The question is, how do you go from a dark night to having a positive impact on the world, thus giving your own life purpose?
The first step is to embrace the darkness, take it to heart, winnow out any subtle innuendos of resistance. Then find any images that are trapped in the thick dark mood or situation. Those images may hold the clue to your release and future service. Angelou lost her voice, a fascinating symptom and a strong image, and then became known worldwide for her voice. The cure lies in the illness, the hint at future activity within the symptom. If you tone down the dark elements because they are painful and discouraging, you may also hide the gifts that are there for you.
The Return of Aliveness: The Dark Night of the Soul
By Eckhart Tolle
The ‘dark night of the soul’ is a term that goes back a long time. Yes, I have also experienced it. It is a term used to describe what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life… an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness. The inner state in some cases is very close to what is conventionally called depression. Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything. Sometimes it’s triggered by some external event—some disaster perhaps. The death of someone close to you could trigger it, especially premature death—for example, if your child dies. Or the meaning that you had given your life, your activities, your achievements, where you are going, what is considered important, and the meaning that you had given your life for some reason collapses.
It can happen if something happens that you can’t explain away anymore, some disaster, which seems to invalidate the meaning that your life had before. Really what has collapsed is the whole conceptual framework for your life. That results in a dark place.
There is the possibility that you emerge out of it into a transformed state of consciousness. Life has meaning again, but it’s no longer a conceptual meaning that you can necessarily explain. Quite often it’s from there that people awaken out of their conceptual sense of reality, which has collapsed.
They awaken into something deeper. A deeper sense of purpose or connectedness with a greater life that is not dependent on explanations or anything conceptual. It’s a kind of re-birth. The dark night of the soul is a kind of death. What dies is the egoic sense of self. Of course, death is always painful, but nothing real has actually died—only an illusory identity. Now, it is probably the case that some people who’ve gone through this transformation realize that they had to go through that in order to bring about a spiritual awakening. Often it is part of the awakening process, the death of the old self and the birth of the true self.
You arrive at a place of conceptual meaninglessness. Or one could say a state of ignorance—where things lose the meaning that you had given them, which was all conditioned and cultural and so on.
Then you can look upon the world without imposing a mind-made framework of meaning. It looks, of course, as if you no longer understand anything. That’s why it’s so scary when it happens to you, instead of you actually consciously embracing it. It can bring about the dark night of the soul. You now go around the Universe without any longer interpreting it compulsively, as an innocent presence. You look upon events, people, and so on with a deep sense of aliveness. You sense the aliveness through your own sense of aliveness, but you are not trying to ﬁt your experience into a conceptual framework anymore.
Another important strategy is to avoid making the dark night too personal, too focused on yourself. Yes, you feel it intimately and alone. But it could still have more to do with the suffering of the world than with yourself. Maybe dark nights are generally less personal than they feel. At any one time, beings on the planet are suffering. The planet itself is suffering; it is going through a dark night constantly. If you live in a place where children are hungry and dying in wars and in domestic violence, you are within the realm of the world’s dark night. Listen to political leaders deny climate change and you worry about the future, not of the planet on which you live but the planetary being of which you are a living part. If you can stretch your moral imagination to perceive this suffering, then you will have the energy and focus to work toward a transformation.
By definition, visionary people imagine utopia, a word that means both ‘no-place’ and ‘good-place.’ It is an imagined state of the world in which people are free of their struggle, where at least the basic insecurities and inequalities have been dealt with. But oddly, it takes the pain and despair of a dark night to envision utopia.
Think about it, you wouldn’t be compelled to imagine a perfected life unless you were steeped in its imperfection. The emptiness of the dark night transforms into the no-place of a wonderful world. If you don’t feel the hopelessness of a dark night, you will probably float through life identifying unconsciously with the values and expectations of the culture. You won’t know that there is something wrong, something that calls for a response from you. Personally, you may not feel your being. You may eventually decide that you’re a nobody, for you become a somebody by identifying with the world outside you. Self-realization is not a private psychological achievement managed by a strong will and a hygienic attitude. A strong sense of self emerges when you own and activate the awareness that you are your world. A mystical sensibility and social action go together. Through an essential shift in imagination you realize that you are not the one suffering; the world is.
The real stunner is that when you begin to serve the world, your darkness changes. It doesn’t go away completely; nor should it. It continues to feed your vision of utopia and your frustration at the imperfection of it all. But your personal darkness converts into anger at injustice and then into compassionate vision and effective action. The darkness and the vision are two parts of one flowing movement.
Maybe it isn’t that your darkness eases but that your ego investment in it diminishes. It feels as though it goes away because you’ve been grasping it. There may be a degree of love for the darkness and a disdain for hope. You don’t want the challenge of being alive and engaging the world. It may be easier to sink into the pit. Some people resist participating in the transformation of the world because they glimpse the challenge in it. They will have to give up a long-held philosophy of easy, comfortable pragmatism and, maybe for the first time in their lives, feel the world’s suffering.
You see this pattern of waking up from pleasant unconsciousness to awareness of suffering in the story of the Buddha, and one of the key words Jesus uses in his teaching, not often pointed out by his followers, is ‘wake up.’ But waking up is also entering your dark night instead of remaining in the oblivion of avoidance. You do wake up to a joyful message, the meaning of the word ‘Gospel,’ but the dark night is always part of the picture, the other side of the coin.
The best source in classical spiritual literature for describing the paradox of darkness and vision is the Tao Te Ching, where on every page you are invited to live without polarization. Chapter 14 is a good example: “Above, it is not bright. Below, it is not dark.” ‘It’ is everything. Below, where you might expect darkness, it’s bright. Above, where you think you’d find light, it’s dark. Keep this paradox in mind and you will be neither a sentimental idealist nor a cynical pessimist. You will be part of the transformation of it all because it is happening in you.
When I was 18 years old, I suffered from anxiety and stomach problems. A compassionate physician and practicing Buddhist referred me to a Taoist monk who specialized in meditation and martial arts. I ended up healing myself of anxiety and stomach issues by doing meditation, and went on a great journey of self-discovery.
Here are 9 lessons I learned while studying with a monk:
1. Keep trying until you get it right.
The most important life lesson I learned was trying something three times (maybe even four times) before you stop trying and move on. Also, this monk taught me that, even after multiple tries, you should work on different angles to approach things that are difficult.
If you keep trying, you’ll eventually get where you’re going.
2. The answer to your question is inside of you.
As part of the original monastery training, a monk didn’t answer direct questions from a student unless it was a well thought-out question. A Chinese proverb says, “Teachers open the door, but you must enter by yourself.”
Some forms of Zen Buddhism use a very similar style of training.An old saying (by Taoist monks) goes like this: “In making a four corner table, the teacher shows the student how to make one corner. It’s the student’s job to figure out how to make the other three.”
They did this because they were preparing a student to deal effectively with problems in the real world.
I traveled to South Korea one time, and I found it fascinating how much you have to rely on your intuition when you don’t speak the native language of a country. I remember one instance, I had trouble explaining to the cab driver where my hotel was, and he didn’t speak English. So I had to get out of the cab and ask several people until I could find someone to tell the cab driver in Korean how to get to my hotel.
In life, whenever we try new things, we have to go into new places with only a small amount of information. The real world doesn’t give us all the answers. The greatest teacher is inside of us.
3. Real wisdom in life comes from doing something and failing.
Prior to starting meditation, I used to get upset when I’d try something and fail.
I’ve been in sales since I was sixteen. I remember going to work and getting so angry with myself because I didn’t get a sale. If I ever got rejected, I’d get upset with myself, and I’d want to quit my job. But I just keep failing over and over—until I became good at it.
I remember, when I first started doing meditation, I ran into several problems. For example, at first it was difficult to calm down; but if you stick with it, its gets easier and easier. I tried for only a few minutes, and then every day, I added more time onto my meditation.
When we struggle, we learn about ourselves and what we need to do to become stronger.
4. When you start to do meditation you recognize the egotistical mind.
Everything in the ego’s world is the result of comparing. I compared myself to other salesmen and would blame myself because I wasn’t making as much money as them.
When I started doing meditation, I began to build separation from this egoistical mind, which is consistently making these comparisons. A lot of us try something and get rejected, so we give up. Even worse, we blame ourselves for a long time and get depressed. When I started to do meditation, I began to identify my ego and was able to build separation from it.
That’s what happens when we meditate: We separate from the part of ourselves that dwells on comparisons, and start learning to live a life that isn’t driven by our egos.
5. We must be both compassionate and resilient.
The monk wouldn’t meet with me to train unless I called him a minimum of three times. I hated this part. I used to call and call and he would never answer. But this is how life is. How many times do you have to call or email someone to get something done in the real world? It’s usually several times.
Most of us blame ourselves when we try once to do something and fail. At the time, I hated this part of the training, but now I think it was the most important life lesson.
There’s a Taoist proverb that says, “Cotton on the outside, steel on the inside.”
It reminds us to be compassionate, but not weak.
6. Patience is a virtue.
The monk always made me wait—and I dreaded this.
For example, when I got to his house to train, he’d make me wait for a minimum of a half-hour, sometimes longer. We’d go out to dinner on Friday nights and he’d show up at the restaurant an hour late.
He’d tell me to meet him at a particular restaurant at 7:00. I’d get there and find out that he wasn’t there. So I’d usually be sitting in the restaurant by myself fumbling with my phone, acting like I was texting someone, while worrying about what everyone at the restaurant was thinking about me.
Keep in mind, it’s not like I could call him; I don’t think the guy ever turned his cell phone on. Then he’d show up at about 8:15 and act like nothing happened.
His first question was always, “How’s your mother and father?” (Of course in my head I’m thinking, “What do you mean, ‘How’s my mother and father?’ I just waited here for an hour and fifteen minutes.”)
But after a few years of this, it never bothered me; and not only that, it spread to every area of my life. Because of this training, I can honestly say that I very rarely get upset about anything. I never get agitated anymore when I have to wait in a long line or when someone cuts me off on the highway.
Patience is the gift of inner calm.
7. Detach from your ego.
At first, it’s hard to sit at a restaurant by yourself. You’re constantly worrying, thinking that people probably think you’re a loser because you’re sitting by yourself. But the reality is, you will never be happy if you care about what people think you!
Prior to starting meditation, I’d get upset over just about anything. Now, nothing really bothers me. Recently, I was in the airport and there was a several hour delay on my flight. I just used that time to do meditation. Ten years ago, I would have become extremely upset. An airplane delay would have ruined my day.
When you let go of your ego needs, it’s easier to accept and even benefit from whatever comes at you.
8. In Taoism, they say, “No self, No enemy.”
It’s the enemy within that causes all of our fears, worries, and insecurities. If you come to terms with this enemy within, it will impact every area of your life. It’s the identification with the “self/ego” that causes all of life’s problems.
How many times do we not go for something because of fear? Think about all the fears that we have conjured up in our minds that stop us from being truly happy. If you can conquer the enemy within yourself, you won’t have an enemy outside yourself.
9. Happiness come from within, and also comes from outside.
I learned this from observing the Buddhist Physician I met. He used to do meditation in his office before he would interact with his patients. He was one of the happiest and most compassionate people I’ve ever met.
By creating happiness inside, he was able to increase that emotional state by spreading it to others.
We must cultivate happiness from within, and work to spread it around to everyone we interact with. The monk used say, “Everyone has a purpose or a mission in life.”
We have to find happiness within, and also find our purpose on the outside.
About the Author
Robert Piper is a meditation instructor & the creator of monkinthecity.com. He studied with a Taoist monk for 9 ½ years & traveled to Asia & Australia in search of other meditation teachers. Robert is currently writing a book on meditation to make it more accessible for stress relief, health & happiness.