Dark Wood–First Stage of the Spiritual Journey

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After a year hiatus, the writing muse has nudged me again and I’m delighted! I’ve decided to write a book on the spiritual journey, particularly from the Christian, Sufi and Zen perspectives. I will be sharing excerpts with you in this blog—a sneak preview, so to speak.

My inspiration comes from the early Christian teachings on the stages of the spiritual path, the Zen Oxherding pictures, a series of drawings and commentary from the 12th century and the Sufi teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan.

The Dark Wood

The spiritual journey can begin with, and periodically return, to a place where the past ways of being and doing no longer hold interest. You may feel a deep sense of not knowing who you are or why you are here.  Dante describes it well in the first stanza of The Divine Comedy

Midway this way of life we are bound upon,

I awoke to find myself in a dark wood

Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.

Have you ever felt this way? You thought you knew where you were going and suddenly something changed. You may have experienced the death of a loved one, a serious illness, a divorce, or burn-out in your career. In this place of uncertainty, you may no longer have the energy to do what you’ve always been doing in your life. Inwardly, everything comes to a stop, while outwardly you may go through the motions. It’s like falling through space—a most uncomfortable and even scary place. You might ask: “Who am I?” “Where am I going?” Nothing feels right.

If you’ve been consciously traveling the spiritual path for some time, the Dark Wood can occur when your old practices no longer have the same effect. Your old understanding of spirituality or the divine no longer fits.

Christian Analogy

In the Christian tradition, this stage is likened to Holy Saturday—the day after the Crucifixion on Good Friday but before the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. Nothing is happening in the outer world on Holy Saturday. Even though you may feel that nothing is happening during this stage, I would wager to say you are preparing for the next stage of your journey—it’s just happening at an unconscious level.

Zen Ox-herding Picture: Seeking the Ox (Your Buddha Nature)

The first Oxherding picture describes the Dark Wood stage this way:

Desolate through forests and fearful in jungles,

he is seeking an Ox which he does not find.

Up and down dark, nameless, wide-flowing rivers,

in deep mountain thickets he treads many bypaths.

Bone-tired, heart-weary, he carries on his search

for this something which he yet cannot find.

At evening he hears cicadas chirping in the trees.

The tone of the passage moves from paralyzing bewilderment to frantic searching—all to no avail. As tempting as it is, this is not a time for desperate searching in the outer world; rather, it is a time for going inward, into the depths of your own being. I’ve found that this is an excellent time for going on retreat. It can be comforting to know that you are not going crazy but are experiencing an important stage in the journey. To rush through it would only lead to further problems down the road.

Next blog: Dangers of the Dark Wood stage.






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