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A few days ago, after the winter solstice 108 sun salutations practice, a few of the first timers to this intense class told me that they felt off, disoriented and agitated afterward, although they also felt exalted and inspired. I assured them that this is a good sign because the practice encourages the deeply buried to come up to the surface. We would never wonder whether the feel good energies are normal, or even physical exhaustion or fatigue, but when it comes to mental and emotional stirrings we default to feeling that there’s something wrong, either with us or with the practice. That’s because we’re conditioned to avoid, deny and cover up the uncomfortable and the dark and instead focus, often artificially, on the feel good and the light.

Carl Jung said: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious. The latter procedure, however, is disagreeable and therefore not popular.” The second sentence in this quote brings the power of the quote home for me because it tells us the way we operate: we just don’t want to look at our shadow side. Why not?

Just look at most celebrations of the winter solstice and you’ll see that they stress the return of the light, which happens AFTER the longest night of the year. Why do we conveniently skip over the longest night part? Why are we so afraid of darkness? Does the night make us uncomfortable because we’re afraid to look at our own shadow? What would happen if we faced the darkness within ourselves? Would we find an evil monster and an unworthy sinner within, as we subconsciously fear, or would we maybe, just maybe, give ourselves a chance to reintegrate a part of ourselves that we disowned long ago by extending love and compassion to the places from which we once withdrew love and compassion? (We do have an unlimited supply of love within ourselves, after all.)

What if this becoming enlightened is way simpler than we think (and I’d say that everything is way simpler than we think), and all we have to do is make the darkness conscious, like Jung said. Making the darkness conscious means that we first have to acknowledge that there is darkness within, and that’s where we get hung up. But I’ll tell you a secret, which is not a secret at all: you and I and everyone else who walks on this earth has a shadow side because if we didn’t, we wouldn’t be here. The shadow side is not the problem, but denying that it exists is. How can I offer up something to the light when I keep suppressing it deeper into the abyss of my unconscious?

We can’t possibly embrace the light, even though we may conceptually know that light is what we are, until we set free whatever we have hidden from the light. And what is darkness but temporary absence of light? Once light shines on darkness, darkness disappears. But the darkness has to be brought up to the altar of light first.

The first step, then, toward making the darkness conscious is an honest look at all the convoluted ways we have employed to deny that the darkness exists. The second step is a decision to offer up that darkness to the fire of the light. The third step is developing trust that this process will take time, patience and discipline, or, in other words, the third step is repeating the first two steps over and over again.

In celebration of the winter solstice, I invite us all to relentlessly embrace our own darkness. Yes, we ask to be led from darkness to light, but without an honest look at the darkness and our acknowledgement of its existence, we can’t possibly be led into the light. May the time of self denial and spiritual bypassing be over, and may our hearts have the courage to stand up to our conflicted minds and lead us into the basement of our being so that we can recover, with love and compassion, all the light-starved parts of ourselves. This is our journey home.