Dangers of the Dark Wood Stage

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As you recall, the Dark Wood stage is one of not knowing who you are or why you are here. The past activities and ways of being no longer make sense or hold your interest. You feel lost and don’t know how to proceed.

Two dangers can occur during the Dark Wood stage. The first is to attempt to go back to the old. “Maybe if I work harder, I’ll regain fulfillment in my career or relationship. At least it was safe.” The temptation to go back to the old is great and many take this route only to be discouraged further down the road. An oncology nurse noted to a friend of mine that those individuals who go back to their same way of living after being treated for cancer, are more likely to experience its return than those who heed the cancer challenge and make changes to their lives.

The other danger is a push too quickly to find something new—a new relationship, job, spiritual practice or teacher—only later to discover it was the wrong choice. The relationship doesn’t work out or the job is not so rosy. How can it work out well when there is such desperation at the onset? It’s best to be in this place of unknowing—as hard as it may be—until there is an inner stirring of what is next. This might come as a sudden knowing of the next step. It can also come as an idea suggested by someone or an outside situation presented to you, both of which evokes an inner yes or an inner knowing that is the right step. If a suggestion doesn’t ring true in your own heart, it’s wise not to try it.

I was in this Dark Wood state for over a year after the publication of my book and 10 months after handing over of the administrative tasks at Light on the Hill, the retreat center I co-founded with my husband. I tried writing, but nothing inspired me. I read mysteries, did puzzles, and watched movies. I continued teaching the Hidden Treasure course and guiding retreats but experienced an emptiness inside. This is a different emptiness than one which has no thought activity and evokes a sense of beingness or thusness.  The emptiness I experienced felt like I was falling through space with no sense of ever landing.

Many describe this stage as a most potent and promising one because it a place of pure potentiality. Any possibility might pop up. It’s called beginner’s mind in the Zen tradition. This is the place where the hidden treasure, the divine within, can be found if you stay with it long enough. Telling a person in the Dark Wood about this possibility, however, doesn’t take away the scariness and feeling of dissolution that this stage can bring.

You may find comfort knowing that this feeling of desolation in the Dark Wood is actually spiritual progress! I like to compare this experience to climbing a ladder. When your foot leaves one rung, it hangs in the air briefly before arriving at the next one. This is also true for the spiritual journey. When the Dark Wood surfaces in your life, it simply means you are leaving the old behind and waiting for the new to arrive.

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