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In the dark places of wisdom: What the stillness teaches

If you are anything like me, you’ll have spent your life sprinting away from darkness. Leaning towards dawn, summer, inspiration, the peaks of achievement the brightness of action.

Humans celebrate midsummer and the full moon, send prayers for the return of the light at sunset, no moon, winter equinox. We race through unlit night skies, away from the perceived emptiness, seeking streetlights and crowds. We believe in midnight hauntings. We leave a light on for the kids.

Stillness often comes hand in hand with darkness, sometimes before, sometimes just after. And stillness, like darkness is something I have spurned in favour of movement. Constant movement. Whacking through the trees in search of the open ground. Sometimes, resolutely in the wrong forest but still stomping onward.

But we are creatures of this planet and The Earth moves in cycles. There is a waxing and a waning, there are long days and there are short. To rise, we must have slept.

Our sympathetic nervous system responds to threat and our parasympathetic nervous system, with its polyvagal ventral and dorsal pathways, brings us back into regulated connection and rest – or it does if we can let it.

The current pace of life, especially city life, can leave us stuck somewhere in sympathetic nervous system fight or flight. And we can continue with this race for a long time, if we’re feeling safe and well balanced enough, as we dash from one social interaction to the next, from one job to another juggling family life, work and play.

Collapse is unacceptable. Dreaded. Medicated.

But, we are creatures of this planet and The Earth moves in cycles. The summer ends. The winter comes. We cannot stay endlessly inspired and sociable. We need to be still. We need to rest. We need the darkness.

More than that. The darkness can be revelatory. The darkness holds wisdom we can’t yet imagine. In the stillness, we heal:

In his book, “In the Dark Places of Wisdom”, Peter Kingsley, delves back into ancient Greek myth to reveal how history has chosen to ignore and hide what the ancients knew about the healing power of darkness. How the God Apollo has been remembered as a deity of light and wisdom only, his connection as a gatekeeper to the underworld and the wisdom that lies in death, all but forgotten.

Yet, as Kingsley documents, the oldest shrines to Apollo were often built on deep caves. Caves which were tended by priests and healers, caves to which the sick and wounded would come to lie down in total stillness and darkness in order to come back into health.

Inscriptions in the temples describe Apollo, not as the sun god, but as the god of incubation, of suspended animation, of the underworld, death and the dark places. Apollo to them was, ‘he who hides away in a lair.’

This was where Apollo’s wisdom came from: in his ability to know darkness and death in this lifetime.

In a poem by Orpheus, Apollo, Sun God, makes love to Persephone, Goddess of the Underworld, Queen of the Dead. In verse their qualities are interchangeable: Apollo’s arrows bring disease and deadly plague but he has the power to alleviate all pestilence. Persephone, embodies death but brings the harvest and with her right hand she heals all wounds.

How did the healing come for those incubating in Apollo’s dark caves? Through long dreaming: the seeker would gain knowledge of their own path to healing through oracles given in dreams.

To gain knowledge of how to heal others, Apollo’s priests would lie down in the utter stillness of the cave to receive instruction through prophesy and the riddle-like oracles given by their God.

The message here is that, not only can we can heal in the darkness and the stillness, we can also receive wisdom beyond our current understanding. It comes only when we allow ourselves time to incubate. When we allow uncertainty to remain indefinitely. When we do not jump back to old paradigms of movement and response.

We are designed to cycle through our autonomic nervous system responses and back again. From flight to flight to stillness to connection and back again. Our ability to move between states is a sign of resilience and well-being. Watch any young animal at play and you see this demonstrated again and again.

The crouch, the pounce, the racing away. The shake of the body, the deep breath, the self-soothing lick or snuffle, the hunkering down.

It’s when we get stuck in one habitual pattern of responses to life that we lose the ability to recover and to innovate, to be flexible.

Often, we are so encompassed by our habitual responses that we don’t even know they are running continuously. Here is where deep rest can be transformational. We allow utter stillness. We embrace the unknown in the darkness.

This time of year – as the clocks go back and the nights draw in, we don’t have to try too hard to get close to the darkness. The trick is to not rile against it but see what it can offer.

I hope you all soaked up that extra hour in bed. Though I think Apollo’s priests would caution that an hour is NOT NEARLY ENOUGH, it’s a start… and there are other things we can do to allow our nervous system to rest and reset, yoga is excellent for this – reconnecting with our bodies; listening to the information we’re receiving, making supportive breath-timed movements. Join me this week in class for a slow flow breath-timed asana practice, Tuesday, October 31st, 9-10am at Scout Hut 6388 or Wednesday November 1st, 8-9pm at YogaFurie.

Reading: In the dark places of wisdom (Peter Kingsley) / Anchored: How to Befriend Your Nervous System Using Polyvagal Theory (Deb Dana) / Also check out Alex Bollag’s work and writing at The Healing Life

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