Darkness and The Descent

My last piece on Letting Go was picked up by a Medium publication called “The Ascent”, and of course I’m grateful that the piece was resonating with a larger audience.

But I found it ironic that a publication called “The Ascent” would pick up a piece that to me is essentially about the DESCENT.

My former meditation teacher would always talk about two necessary journeys in our lives, the ascending and the descending journeys. We are, as an evolutionary species, always trying to grow, improve, strengthen and reach higher levels.

But what we don’t often realize, is that our ability to grow and reach these levels is proportionate to our willingness to go down into our darkness, to descend into our depths and “dig in the dirt, find the places we get hurt” as Peter Gabriel so eloquently put it.

Brené Brown has done incredible work educating us about her studies in the field of vulnerability. One of the great takeaways of her work that always resonated with me was that we can’t selectively choose the emotions we want to experience. Essentially, our ability to experience great joy is directly commensurate with our ability to feel deep grief and sadness.

In my mind, the same is true of ascending and descending. I often think about it like the aperture of camera lens, the more we can open up, the more we are exposed to and can see, from ALL sides.

The physical equivalent is building muscle mass — muscle tissue of course has to get torn down in order to build back up and strengthen, broken bones mend to become stronger (up to a certain age). We as human beings have to do the same thing emotionally, psychologically and spiritually to be built back up again as the fuller versions of ourselves.

Joseph Campbell highlights the descent as an essential element in the hero's journey. Jesus and Lazarus spent three days in the grave, Jonah, three nights in the belly of the whale, the moon wanes to darkness over a period of three nights where nothing is visible.

Like the moon, there’s a period of time in our lives where we have to become formless in order to be made anew — to come into a new structure and being, metaphysically, we must travel through the darkness. And of course that period requires a descent down into our depths.

When a butterfly goes into the chrysalis phase, scientists have isolated a period of time where they cannot actually identify the structure within the cocoon. The caterpillar becomes formless for a period of time and there’s a specific phase during which scientists have no idea what’s going on.

My same meditation teacher who taught me about the ascending and descending journeys also taught me that those of us that get to face the darkness, if we approach it in a conscious way and have good guides and mentors to take us through the underworld, are very fortunate indeed.


Because the underworld has great gifts for us that we can’t possibly find in the light of day with our worldly eyes, figure out with our rational minds or look to science for explanations.

It shows us, without light and without sight, gifts that can only be revealed from within. Not from society, not from our friends and not from our families. It is an individual experience that forces (yes, forces) us to look deeply within, into our own darkness to reveal unique, individual gifts that only we possess.

If you are in a descending journey right now the likelihood is that everything is falling apart, everything seems to be going away, most days seem dark and without end.

And there’s a reason for that process. The darkness is exposing talents, abilities, and internal strength that cannot exposed in the light of day. Have ever found yourself in a completely dark room when the lights go out? What did you do? You instantly started feeling around with your hands, listening closely, getting very quiet and even relying on your “sixth sense” to find your way to the light switch.

You had to rely on other parts of yourself, parts that you consistently override because of the habitual tendencies to revert to more dominant senses and typically those are the more surface senses, specifically sight.

So right now, yes, try to find your way to the light switch, but also stop, pause…feel into the other aspects of your being that can only be developed in the darkness. Life is conspiring to bring you into the darkness to teach you of it’s arts, don’t fight it, find it’s gifts.

This is not a piece to expound on those gifts or to even put a positive spin on the descending journey and its gifts. It’s a tough and arduous journey. This is a piece to simply highlight the fact that the descending journey is real, it is necessary in our lives and it DOES have gifts that can only be known to you and to you alone.

Find mentors and guides because you will do everything you can to get yourself out of this place, but you’ll just end up wandering and stumbling around in the dark. Even though this is a journey that only you can take, the irony is that you likely need an underworld guide to get you through the darkness. Don’t try to fight it, know that the descending journey is just as beneficial as getting a raise, getting married, having a child or moving into a new house.

It has gifts that are more precious than gold, more valuable than any house you can ever live in. Gifts that can’t be taken away and gifts that ultimately put you closer to your true core.

David Whyte so beautifully captures the essence in a way only a poem can:

The Well of Grief

“Those who will not slip beneath
the still surface on the well of grief

turning downward through its black water
to the place we cannot breathe

will never know the source from which we drink,
the secret water, cold and clear,

nor find in the darkness glimmering
the small round coins
thrown by those who wished for something else.”

Be willing to turn down into the black water, be willing to slip below the still surface. There are beautiful creatures in the underworld, let the blackness envelope you and let them teach you of the gifts that only you possess.

Oh, and you can basically just read this poem and get everything I was just trying to relay (the tl;dr as the kids say nowadays!)

In Impossible Darkness

Do you know how
the caterpillar

Do you remember
what happens
inside a cocoon?

You liquefy.

There in the thick black
of your self-spun womb,
void as the moon before waxing,

you melt

(as Christ did
for three days
in the tomb)

in impossible darkness
the sheer
of wings.

— Kim Rosen




Part writer, part philosopher, part businessperson, mostly clueless. Lover of surfing, meditation, yoga, cooking, and other journeys of the heart.

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Mike Patterson

Mike Patterson

Part writer, part philosopher, part businessperson, mostly clueless. Lover of surfing, meditation, yoga, cooking, and other journeys of the heart.

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