Saturday, March 13, 2010

The dark also rises

A couple of years ago we went to Naples, a trip arranged by my husband's siblings, and while we were there we decided to visit a monastery that sat at the top of a hill overlooking the city.

We took the funicular to get up to the top, but got off one stop too soon, and found ourselves facing what looked like an endless flight of steps up the steep side of this hill, weaving through a network of homes built into the hillside.

To this day I wish I had photographed the steps when I was standing at the bottom of them -- they really seemed horribly daunting, and the truth is that I collapsed in tears (it was a very hot day) about a third of the way from the top because I just didn't think I could make it. (Not the first time this sort of thing has happened; fortunately my husband deals well with this side of me).

But the only memento I have of that staggering climb -- other than the many photos of the monastery we eventually reached -- is this one photo of a gate we passed on our way up to the top of the hill. And what does that say about me, I wonder, that even though I didn't have the presence of mind to photograph the climb before me, I still noticed this work of art along the way? Looking at it now, I am beginning to see that this photo is a testament to the creative power of the shadow.

I say this primarily because of something I read in Robert Bly's Little Book on the Human Shadow this morning: "Our shadow tends, because our parents urged unselfishness on us, to lie in being greedy or sneaky, wanting fame without deserving it." But, he says a bit later, if we acknowledge/own/accept our shadow, it can give us back the energy that was previously spent repressing it. "It is said that some old Zen people have done so much work on their shadow that they will do greedy things right in front of you and laugh. By showing the greediness directly, in daylight, somehow they bring it out of the world of shadow and into the world of play... When the shadow becomes absorbed the human being loses much of his darkness and becomes light and playful in a new way."

One way to incorporate the shadow, Bly adds, is to express it through art. In this case, that happened somewhat inadvertently, but the fact is that in spite of my feeling overheated and exhausted and upset while climbing those blasted steps, some part of me -- probably the greedy part -- saw (and WANTED) this wonderful gate. And so, for a moment, I was taken completely out of myself, out of my trials and tribulations and frustrations and into enchantment; I was enchanted by this gate; I WANTED it -- and so I stopped to take a picture.

All of which I mention because I want to emphasize that we don't have to associate the darkness of the shadow with evil. Properly channeled and understood, the shadow can be a gift. I'm thinking now of an exercise I wrote about once before in this blog:

The purpose of the exercise was to get us more comfortable with our shadows, and it went something like this:

1. List three positive qualities about yourself
2. List their opposites.
3. List three things you are trying to become.
4. List their opposites.
5. Look at the six opposites -- which are, essentially, your shadow self -- and find positive qualities about each of them.

I'm not quite certain where we were officially supposed to take all that -- it's been over three years since I took this workshop -- but when I look at my notes I see, and remember, that this process was a great revelation for me: I learned that the aspects of my personality which most shame or embarrass me (of which greed is certainly one) actually have value -- particularly in connecting me with the rest of humanity.

And now, today, I see also that, in addition to the fact that learning to accept -- and even love -- my own shadow enables me to be more loving and compassionate toward others, it can also enhance and feed my own creative energies.

Looking at this image again now, after having written this blog post, I see that circle in the upper left, dark against the golden wall, a sort of reverse sunrise. It even has a face -- or at least eyes to see, and you get the distinct sense that there could be someone behind that screen looking out. Something in it says to me, "Do not be afraid." Which probably reflects the messages I was getting from my husband as I sat panting and exhausted on those steps; messages I share with you now:

Don't worry.
I know you can do this.
There's nothing to be afraid of.
What's the worst that can happen?
Take your time.
Take it easy.
I'm here for you; let me help you up.
Just take it one step at a time;
I promise you can do this.

And isn't that, in its own way, the message we long to hear in prayer?

And so I say, amen.


Jayne said...

All I could keep thinking is that had you not gotten off one stop early, you'd have never seen that gate. Wow... what an exercise to undertake. Just reading the five steps made me squirm just a bit. Will have to digest this and revisit. :c)

Maureen said...

Excellent post, Diane.

That gate is wonderful. I'm glad you got a picture of it.

Anonymous said...

thank you for sharing your encouraging words...and that photo of that very cool gate... wall and greenery.