With a gentle smile and a calm demeanor, the Japanese Zen priest spoke to his largely Western sitting group – in English: “Westerners seem to bring an extra challenge when engaged in meditation. When the dust appears – as it inevitably does in the form of distraction, you Westerners have a tendency to bring in a broom and try and sweep it out. And all it does is kick up more dust.” He paused. “Let the dust settle. Get to know the dust.”
I was part of that weekly sitting group in Kyoto, Japan, nearly fifty years ago. His advice still sits with me, as I continue wrestle/struggle/fight with the dust, which over the years has morphed from an image of dust to an experience of an enveloping darkness.
The world is getting darker. Literally. Where I live, in southern New Hampshire, the lights need to be turned on at 4 pm. The nights are getting longer. And the temperature is getting colder, which has the psychic effect of deepening the darkness. And the avatars of darkness, who are regularly referred to as “conflict entrepreneurs”, inevitably show up from every corner of the world’s landscape, flooding the airwaves and the social media platforms — and exploiting the darkness by preying on our individual and collective fear of the darkness.
Like many, I try and fight the darkness. Which has the effect of binding me up in more darkness, as those agents of darkness inevitably take up residence in my psyche – taunting, tempting and ridiculing. As I try and sweep them out, I can almost see their vengeful smiles, because they know they have ‘got’ me. And they end up swirling around in the cavities of my soul, threatening to suffocate me with their predatory venom.
Our spiritual ancestors were familiar with darkness. They didn’t fight it. Instead, they worked to get to know the darkness. The prophet Isaiah knew the darkness of despair and oppression, isolation and dislocation. And he challenged his audience to see the light: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.” (Isaiah 9:2) The writer of John’s Gospel speaks of the light’s power: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
Isaiah and John knew that light exposes darkness. In many cases, light destroys darkness. In the Christian tradition, during the season of Advent, one candle is lighted the first week, two the second, three the third and four the fourth. Adding more light to the earth’s deepening darkness; and kindling hope.
As Martin Luther King spoke more than a generation ago: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”
Sit with the darkness. Get to know it. And then invite in the light – which, in every faith tradition, is always offered. Shine the light on the darkness. Learn when and how it shows up. Discover how it works – in your soul and in the world. And then – accept its invitation and become an avatar of light. It is a grace each of us has the capacity to claim, a gift that can dethrone the darkness.