‘The Horizon’, Part 3, Chapter 24: about Loss as a healing impulse, what biosophy can learn from the dark night of the soul, and an overview of the Path of Flames
“Darkness is such that I really do not see –neither with my mind nor with my reason.”Mother Teresa
Three years after receiving the call to live and work in the slums of Calcutta Mother Teresa lost her connection with God — or so it seemed to her. She had beed drawn to a religious life since the age of 12, and followed her vocation to become a nun when she was 18.
Conversations with Jesus and God seemed as normal to her as ordinary people talk to intimate friends. Then suddenly it was all over.
In a letter to her confesser she wrote: “Now Father –since 49 or 50 this terrible sense of loss –this untold darkness –this loneliness –this continual longing for God –which gives me that pain deep down in my heart. –Darkness is such that I really do not see –neither with my mind nor with my reason. –The place of God in my soul is empty. –There is no God in me. –When the pain of longing is so great –I just long & long for God –and then it is that I feel –He does not want me –He is not there.”
Mother Teresa felt rejected by God, as if He didn’t love her anymore. The ‘Saint of Calcutta’ carried this confusing experience within herself while working tirelessly her Charity for the poorest of the poor. For 7 years she endured her inner darkness without mentioning it to anyone, hoping it would be a passing phase.
Mother Teresa’s ‘dark night of the soul’ lasted for the rest of her life. Her experience, however, changed. She learned to love the darkness.
Gradually she began to understand that it was part of her learning process so she could do the work she did. It motivated her to surrender her life more fully to God. In another letter she writes:
“God cannot fill what is already full. He can only fill what is empty… It is not about how much we ‘have’ to give, but about how empty we are, so that we can receive completely in our life, let Him live His Life through us… Turn your gaze away from yourself and be glad to have nothing, to be nothing, to be unable to do anything.”
“Grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined.”Elisabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler
Loss, and the dark side of the human existence were also the expertise of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. After working with thousands of people on the threshold of death the Swiss doctor developed her model of ‘5 stages of death’: Denial — Anger — Bargaining — Depression — Acceptance.
In the last book she wrote before her death — On Grief and Grieving — Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and her co-author David Kessler explain them as 5 stages of loss:
1 — The process of loss begins with a shock, which initiates an experience of isolation. Our first reaction is to pretend it’s not happening. The sudden radical change is too overwhelming, and denial allows us to adjust to the new situation.
2 — The second phase brings up a surge of strong emotions such as rage, helplessness, fear, guilt, despair etc. All these strong feelings are included here under the umbrella of ‘anger’.
3 — The wave of emotions washes the individual to the shores of current reality. At this stage we may try to ‘bargain with God’. We promise to ‘do anything’ in order to get back what we’ve lost. “We become lost in a maze of ‘if only . . .’ or ‘What if . . .’ statements. We want life returned to what it was.”
4 — The fourth stage resembles most closely to what we might think of as the actual grieving. “Empty feelings present themselves, and grief enters our lives on a deeper level, deeper than we ever imagined. This depressive stage feels as though it will last forever.”
The authors emphasise that this ‘depression’ is not a sign of mental illness but a normal, and healthy reaction to a big loss.
5 — The 5th stage is called acceptance, a term which can be misleading. Grief counsellors see people who never recover from a painful loss of a beloved person.
They cannot accept what happened. They are unable or unwilling to adjust to a new life. ‘Acceptance’ might feel to them like a betrayal of the beloved.
When our own life comes to an end, we might assume that sooner or later this finality has to be accepted. Yet this is not necessarily the case either.
Through countless conversations with people who had near death experiences Elisabeth Kübler Ross knew that the experience of death is as unique as the experience of life. However, she observed some common traits.
One of the most important commonalities is that human Consciousness doesn’t ‘dissolve into nothingness’ when the body dies. Death is not ‘the end’ but a transition into another form of life.
Does this mean that coming to terms with loss — assuming it is not completed in this life — carries over into the afterlife?
“The more we weep, the less he must.”Chinese Mourner
George Bonanno, an American professor of psychology, wanted to know how people cope with bereavement. In his book The Other Side of Sadness he describes how people in China deal with the death of a family member.
By following a traditional bereavement ritual the Chinese “help the deceased loved one successfully make her or his way to the land of the dead and, once there, to ensure that she or he finds a good life.”
Chinese mourners also cry at a funeral but the meaning and purpose of Eastern tears is very different from Western tears.
As part of the ritual the relatives of the deceased have to spend the 7th day of their bereavement with ‘unbridled wailing’, George Bonanno writes, because on that day the deceased loved one comes to realise his passing.
A Chinese mourner explained to the American professor, “If we get up early enough to wail before the ancestor finds out he is really dead, then his own sorrow will be lessened. The more we weep, the less he must.”
In other words, the expression of grief of the Eastern mourners is focussed on the painful experience of the dead ancestor rather than their own loss.
Since the popularisation of the ‘5 stages of loss’ listed above Western mourners sometimes assume they ‘have to go through those 5 phases in order to reach acceptance’. This is a misinterpretation.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross observed mainly the process of coming to terms with the loss of one’s own life. Inevitably she also encountered many relatives who had just lost a loved one, but their bereavement process was not the focus of her work.
She describes physical death as identical with the emerging of a butterfly from its cocoon. “The cocoon with its larva is the transitory human body.”
“Was one only allowed so much, so that going beyond triggered adversity of some kind?”Treya Wilber
Ken and Treya Wilber had a joint ‘dark night’ experience. They tell their moving story in the autobiographical book Grace and Grit.
Here Ken remembers a conversation with Treya shortly after they had met and knew they were going to be together ‘forever’:
We are alone, sitting in front of the fireplace, fire blazing against the cool night, the electricity in the house, once again, not work-ing. “Right there, on your left shoulder,” Treya says. “Can’t you see it?”
“See it, no I can’t see it. See what?”
“Death. It’s right there, on your left shoulder.”
“Are you serious? You’re kidding, right? I don’t understand.”
“We were talking about how death is a great teacher, and suddenly, on your left shoulder, I saw this dark but
powerful figure. It’s death, I’m sure.”
“Do you hallucinate often?”
“No, never. It’s just that I saw death on your left shoulder. I don’t know what it means.”
I can’t help it. I look at my left shoulder. I don’t see anything.
Not long after this conversation Treya was diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. Here is her first reaction to the diagnosis:
“This is real. This is happening to me. I lie in bed rigid with shock and disbelief as the world lies quiet around me. Ken lies next to me; I can feel his comforting presence, warm and strong. But suddenly I feel terribly alone. I have cancer. I have breast cancer. I believe this is true and, at the same time, I do not believe it; I cannot let it in. And yet this knowledge awakens me in the night, it catches in my throat and leaks out of my eyes and sets my heart pounding. So loud in this still, soft night with Ken breathing deeply beside me.”
Treya and Ken’s marriage was overshadowed by the life threatening disease right from the start, and they documented their profound journey through the landscape of love and death. Their book is an enlightening record of the process of loss, not through scientific research, or commitment to a monastic life, but through mundane ‘ordinary experience’.
Grace and Grit gives us many insights into the spectrum of intense emotional, physical and spiritual challenges they went through during those years. After the initial shock of the diagnosis Treya’s mind was flooded with many questions:
“Was I being punished somehow for having been given so much in this life, a family I really enjoyed, intelligence and a good education, attractive looks, and now this fantastically-beyond-belief husband? Was one only allowed so much, so that going beyond triggered adversity of some kind?”
“Real love will take you far beyond yourself.”Ken Wilber
Ken and Treya Wilber show the process of loss from two perspectives, the dying and the bereaved. In a letter to friends Ken shares his experience as the caregiver:
“After a few months … it slowly starts to dawn on the support person: the fact that your problems pale in comparison to, say, cancer, doesn’t make your problems go away. In fact, they get worse…, death hangs in the air; and anger, resentment, and bitterness inexorably creep up, along with terrible guilt about having any of those dark feelings.”
The five years of their marriage were a huge challenge for both of them, but there wasn’t only darkness. Treya went through many treatments and explored many ways to find inner peace.
“It wasn’t until the walk in the Botanical Gardens that I felt at peace with the situation.”, she writes. “This is the way things are. We’ll do the best we can and take what comes. No way to predict, no need to hold on, no use in craving a particular outcome and feeling aversion to another, that only leads to suffering. It’s a good life, Ken is my sweetheart, and just look at the color of those roses!”
Treya’s attitude towards life, her discipline and constructive engagement with the situation was a huge help for both of them. She went for orthodox treatment, complemented by a range of alternative therapies.
Meditation practice provided both of them with much needed support. Treya points out the value of spontaneous personal experience to help her learn and grow.
“I love the melting into spaciousness, into emptiness, of my meditation. … I realized what a real help that is going to be for me at the point that I am dying. Because that was an experience and not a teaching, not something that I’ve learned or been told is true, but that just came to me spontaneously. I really think it will help me a great deal in terms of letting go.”
Her personal direct experience of ‘melting into the emptiness’ enabled her to reach true and total acceptance at the end of her life. Here Ken describes the final hours:
“And so began the most extraordinary forty-eight hours of our life together. Treya had decided to die. … I put Treya in bed that evening, and sat down next to her. She had become almost ecstatic. ‘I’m going, I can’t believe it, I’m going. I’m so happy, I’m so happy, I’m so happy.’ Like a mantra of final release, she kept repeating, ‘I’m so happy, I’m so happy. …’
Her entire countenance lit up. She glowed. And right in front of my eyes her body began to change. Within one hour, it looked to me as if she lost ten pounds. It was as if her body, acquiescing to her will, began to shrink… Within that hour, she was a different being, ready and willing to leave.”
This description confirms the observations of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Treya Wilber was preparing to ‘leave her cocoon’.
At the moment of his wife’s death Ken Wilber could feel his heart break. “Real love hurts;” he writes, “real love makes you totally vulnerable and open; real love will take you far beyond yourself; and therefore real love will devastate you.”
“Mourning is the state of mind in which feeling revives the empty world.”Walter Benjamin
The Path of Flames leads through the experience of loss and helps us move towards greater self-acceptance.
Loss challenges us to break old attachments of the Ego, an attachment to a beloved person, a special pet, a precious property, a valued life style, a good reputation, or a state of health taken for granted.
You can use loss as an opportunity to learn and grow, but it can be damn hard to grasp the ‘lesson’ the loss is supposed to teach you. When something is lost it is no longer there. What remains initially is emptiness, nothingness, darkness, absence of something that has brightened up your life.
It is particularly hard to make sense of anything when the inner light has gone out. This is the problem with accepting loss. What is one supposed to accept?
True acceptance cannot happen without mourning. After loss something must die, if only an attachment to something precious. The death of our attachment triggers the sense of darkness and emptiness.
Ken Wilber remembers the moment when there was no longer any doubt that Treya was going to die: “With that thought I began crying, sobbing actually; uncontrollably and very loudly. A few people speaking German asked me, I presumed, if I was all right; I wished I had my little German card that said ‘Dr. Scheef gave me special permission to do this.’”
The separation comes as a shock, and may bring your plans to a halt. On the flip side it gives you the freedom to create something new. In this sense every incident of loss can be interpreted as a moment of changing gears on your life’s journey.
Loss asks us to ‘go into neutral’ before changing into another gear, which is another word for transformation.
The practice of dealing with the experience of loss in a constructive manner leads to a profound transformation. Ken Wilber describes his experience here:
“My continued service to Treya generated in her almost overwhelming feelings of gratitude and kindness, and the love she had for me in return began to saturate my being. I became completely full because of Treya… And in her love and compassion for me, Treya also became completely full. There were no empty places in her soul, no corners left untouched by love, not a shadow in her heart.”
Overview of the Path of Flames
The Path of Flames is designed to use the experience of LOSS as a healing impulse. It is ruled by the Soul, and it stimulates Self-Recognition.
When you lose something valuable — a close relationship, a golden opportunity, a treasured object, or a long held dream — three things happen at first: the loss comes as a shock, it puts an end to hopes and expectations, and you feel powerless to do anything about it.
These 3 aspects of the experience are represented in the first 3 steps of the Path of Flames. They may trigger emotional waves of anger, rage, fear etc. What seemed bright before is suddenly obscured by an inexplicable darkness.
This process makes it easier to enter the inner darkness and move through it without getting lost in it.
1st Flame — Soul — Shock
A shock is a clash with reality which doesn’t allow you to move forward as intended. Any experience of loss can cause a shock. It may occur suddenly — e.g. an accident happens, bad news arrive, valuable belongings disappear — or it may come as a gradual realisation, and it is uncomfortable to pay attention to the signs.
At the first step on the Path of Flames you are encouraged to acknowledge the ‘shocking truth’.
Acknowledge the shock of your loss. Describe what happened.
What is the shocking truth?
2nd Flame — Will — Loneliness
As a result of the ‘shocking loss’ you feel cut off from the life you had hoped to live. This makes you feel isolated and lonely.
Tune into your loneliness, acknowledge and describe it.
In what way do I feel cut off from life?
3rd Flame — Body — Powerlessness
When the shock and loneliness are overwhelming you plunge into an inner state of powerlessness. This may be accompanied by fear, rage, or despair.
How do I experience my powerlessness?
4th Flame — Intellect — Regret
Loss often brings up regret. You may wonder whether you could have done anything to avoid the loss.
Find out what you regret in relation to your loss.
What do I regret?
5th Flame — Instinct — Mourning
Now tune into your emotional state. Allow your grief, sadness, disappointment, and associated feelings come into your awareness.
Mourn your loss. Express your grief.
How do I feel about my loss?
6th Flame — Imagination — Darkness
Now you are ready to enter the inner darkness. Through your explorations of the previous 5 steps on this Path you have gathered some impressions of what is going on inside. Nevertheless it can be very scary and unsettling to step into this dark inner space. Proceed with caution.
The darkness can feel empty and still. Move towards your inner stillness and emptiness.
Close your eyes and visualise your inner darkness.
Let the flood of inner turmoil wash over you and recede.
Let stillness emerge out of the dark and allow it to envelop you.
Feel the waves of shock, loneliness, powerlessness, regret, and mourning as they flow into the sea of infinite Consciousness.
7th Flame — Intuition — Grace
The darkness invites you to let go of everything you are clinging to and empty yourself. In a state of inner emptiness you are ready to receive something new that gives you confidence. The state of inner emptiness prepares you for receiving gifts of grace.
Grace is a gift we receive. It may come in the form of some unexpected help, a new option or opportunity opens up, a quiet sense that ‘everything will be ok’ arises from within. All of this can be called grace.
Listen out for the quiet reassuring voice of grace.
In what form am I receiving grace in my current situation?
8th Flame — Inspiration — Gratitude
The Path of Flames leads you out of the unsettling experience of loss towards a new sense of fulfilment. As soon as you become aware of your personal gifts of grace you are on your way out of the devastating emptiness. Now you are ready for a new experience of fullness, and this can be promoted by the sensation of gratitude.
Turn your attention to the experience of gratitude.
What am I grateful for?
The philosopher Walter Benjamin describes mourning as “the state of mind in which feeling revives the empty world.”
In his dissertation on the Origins of the German Tragedy he points out that every tragedy also contains a portion of humour:
“The comical – or more accurately: the pure joke – is the obligatory inner side of mourning, which show itself from time to time, like the lining of a piece of clothing at the hem or lapel.”
Even the story of Ken and Treya Wilber offers glimpses of the humorous inner lining of the tragic human struggle for life. And despite the long lasting darkness in which she lived, Mother Teresa’s face is lined by traces of the ‘divine comedy’.
© Veronika Bond, 2017
This is a draft of chapter 24 of The Horizon, volume 2 of The Solo System.
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