After a period of unknowing which can last from a few weeks to a few years, the next step presents itself. This first step can take many different forms: a new job or creative venture, a new or renewed relationship, an inspiring person or spiritual teacher, a meditative practice, an insightful book, or some inner shift. Finding the Way is a more heartening stage than the Dark Wood stage because you realize there is a path you can take—a way out of this place of disorientation and unknowing. Dante found Virgil who would serve as his guide for the first part of his journey.
If you who have been traveling the spiritual path for some time, your first step out of the woods may be finding a new, more relevant practice or a new way to engage in your present practice. Alternatively, your first step may be some interior shift that makes it clear how to proceed.
The Dark Wood stage does not necessarily precede the Finding the Way stage. As you recall, the stages are not in any particular order and there is much stage hopping. They are merely delineated here for teaching purposes. My experiences of finding inspiring people and a guide came before plunging into the Dark Wood.
How did you find a way out of the Dark Wood, or if you did not experience the Dark Wood stage prior to finding your way, what sparked you to want to grow psychologically or spiritually?
Did someone tell you about a workshop or retreat you decided to attend? Were you drawn to a teacher who became known to you? Were you excited by a book? If you’ve found yourself in the Dark Wood more than once, was the way out different each time?
Encountering inspiring people can be a first step on your journey because they show you the qualities you would like to embody in your own life. During my time in graduate school, I met several inspiring teachers. One was Fr. George Maloney, a Jesuit priest of the Russian Byzantine Rite and my mysticism professor. He struck me as a person on fire with love, who radiated an intensity for living life to the fullest in all he did. I wanted to be like him.
I also had the good fortune to study with Fr. Thomas Berry, a pioneer in the field of ecology and spirituality. He possessed a deep sympathy for all of life, which he so poetically expressed. He opened me to the value of all religious traditions. In referring to other religions, he would say: “I don’t just want roses in my garden, I want tulips, daffodils, and all kinds of flowers.” He also said, “There should be a world Bible with the sacred scriptures from all the religious traditions contained within.”
Sometimes inspiration from someone requires no words at all. At a conference on spirituality at St. John the Divine in NYC, an announcement came over the speaker that Swami Satchiananda would lead a class on yoga. As he stood up in that beautiful sanctuary, I became immediately struck by the magnetism of his whole being. His eyes were aglow and his stance majestic. I thought, “He knows something I don’t know, and I want to know it!”
Finding a spiritual guide can be a step out of the woods. Some people have dreams of their guides before meeting them. Some come to an inner realization that this particular person is to be their guide. Some have dramatic first encounters with their guide.
Just after graduate school, I became acquainted with a priest, who radiated a wonderful peace and depth. Before becoming ordained, he spent a year in solitude and deeply experienced the workings of the inner life. Before meeting Fr. John, I had never thought of asking someone to be my guide, but something deep inside prompted me to ask him. He gave me a small book called The Radiant Heart to see if I resonated with it. I looked at the cover of the book and saw the foreword was written by my admired professor, Fr. George Maloney! The book’s approach of seeing similarities in the world religions reminded me of my other inspiring professor, Fr. Thomas Berry. Its title, The Radiant Heart, pointed to my own heart-centered spiritual path. These signs indicated that Fr. John was to be my guide—the first of several on my journey.
Finding the Way feels more secure than the Dark Wood stage. At least you feel you are doing something. You may encounter people who inspire you, begin working with a guide, or find a spiritual tradition that speaks to you. You may start to devote yourself to a meditative or other spiritual practice. You are learning perseverance and starting the purification process, one of the next steps on the path.