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The Dark Emotions

The Path of Descent

The Dark Emotions
Thursday, March 26, 2020

Author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor invites us to consider the lessons that suffering has to teach us and reminds us that we can only learn when we are willing to stay put instead of turning away.

[Psychotherapist Miriam] Greenspan says that painful emotions are like the Zen teacher who whacks his students with a flat board right between their shoulder blades when he sees them going to sleep during meditation. If we can learn to tolerate the whack—better yet, to let it wake us up—we may discover the power hidden in the heart of the pain. Though this teaching is central to several of the world’s great religions, it will never have broad appeal, since almost no one wants to go there. Who would stick around to wrestle a dark angel [see Genesis 32:22-31] all night long if there were any chance of escape? The only answer I can think of is this: someone in deep need of blessing; someone willing to limp forever for the blessing that follows the wound.

What such people stand to discover, Greenspan says, is the close relationship between “individual heartbreak and the brokenheartedness of the world.” [1] While those who are frightened by the primal energy of dark emotions try to avoid them, becoming more and more cut off from the world at large, those who are willing to wrestle with angels break out of their isolation by dirtying their hands with the emotions that rattle them most.

In this view, the best thing to do when fear has a neck hold on you is to befriend someone who lives in real and constant fear. The best thing to do when you are flattened by despair is to spend time in a community where despair is daily bread. The best thing to do when sadness has your arms twisted behind your back is to sit down with the saddest child you know and say, “Tell me about it. I have all day.” The hardest part about doing any of these things is to do them without insisting that your new teachers make you feel better by acting more cheerful when you are around. After years of being taught that the way to deal with painful emotions is to get rid of them, it can take a lot of reschooling to learn to sit with them instead, finding out from those who feel them what they have learned by sleeping in the wilderness. . . .

“One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light,” Carl Jung wrote, “but by making the darkness conscious.” [2] Reading this, I realize that in a whole lifetime spent with seekers of enlightenment, I have never once heard anyone speak in hushed tones about the value of endarkenment.

What a compelling word and question it invites us to consider: endarkenment. What are we learning about ourselves, each other, and even God through these times? What are we only now coming “to know” through this time of not-knowing? 

Reference:

[1] Miriam Greenspan, as quoted in Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (HarperOne: 2014), 85.

[2] Carl Jung, as quoted in ibid., 86.

Adapted from Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark, (HarperOne: 2014), 85-86, 88

Image credit: Agitated Sea at Étretat, Claude Monet, 1883, Museum of Fine Arts, Lyon, France. 
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The “cross,” rightly understood, always reveals various kinds of resurrection. It’s as if God were holding up the crucifixion as a cosmic object lesson, saying: “I know this is what you’re experiencing. Don’t run from it. Learn from it, as I did. Hang there for a while, as I did. It will be your teacher. Rather than losing life, you will be gaining a larger life. It is the way through.” As impossible as that might feel right now, I absolutely believe that it’s true. —Richard Rohr
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