Part 1 Finding Heart in the Dark (reproduced from Animas Valley Institute www.animas.org)
This is the first part of a two-part Musing (one per week).
Friday, September 22, 2017
During my first few years of backcountry wandering, I carried a large hunting knife, at least seven inches long. I never showed it to anyone, but at night it lived with me inside my sleeping bag. I was panicked by what I imagined might come out of the night to eat me. Every night, upon first getting into my bag, I would repeatedly practice unzipping it as fast as humanly possible, grabbing my knife, and unsheathing it — all in one motion. Just in case. I didn’t sleep well.
Gradually, through years of wilderness immersion, I learned to befriend the dark and to uncover (sometimes) the personal demons I projected onto the outer shadows. Now I can say there is no place that feels more like home than my sleeping bag beneath a roof of stars. And I haven’t seen that knife for years.
Michael, a fellow psychologist and wilderness guide, has also wrestled with his fear of the wild dark — on the first night of his first vision fast, for example.
It was past midnight, moonless black, when I prepared my altar. Questions and anxieties began to fill my mind. What if I got really sick? No emergency room up here. What if I became hypothermic or dehydrated, or got stomach cramps? Then I imagined grizzlies, mountain lions, and bobcats. I began working myself into a full-blown panic.
I heard a rustling of leaves in the woods, not ten yards away. My heart jumped. I tried to make out an image. Ever so slowly, the noise moved through the darkness toward me. It must be an animal of some kind. Friend or foe? A grizzly or some psychotic killer hiding out in the backcountry? I froze. A dark shape approached, seeming to show no fear. I sensed a gentleness, an openness. I closed my eyes and tried opening my heart. The sound made its way through the dark. I opened my eyes. Something passed in front of me and mysteriously continued into the woods. A doe! Her beauty and grace deeply touched me. My eyes welled with tears. Such gentleness in the midst of my fears!
On the last day, I began to have anxieties about how to incorporate what I had experienced; how to stay true to myself and not let demands of my home and work life overtake me. I prayed to see the doe a second time. I knelt down, kissed the grass, gave thanks to the earth, trees, air, and the Creator for providing safe passage. I looked up — and there she was. My body shook with elation. I wept.
I knew then that, come what may, life would flow on, as fierce and gentle as the river and the wind. My task was to let go and let myself be carried, each day closer to home.
For me, the key element in Michael’s story is this: in the midst of his fear, he closed his eyes, voluntarily going deeper into the dark, and opened his heart.
To read past Musings click here.
Adapted from Bill Plotkin, Soulcraft: Crossing Into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (New World Library, 2003).