“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure that you seek.” – Joseph Campbell
Experiencing pain and loss is part of every human’s experience, but too often we skip over the feelings that come with it. Experiencing those feelings is a way to understand what we have gone through and to learn and grow from it. It is a pathway into the deepest part of ourselves. If we skip over those feelings, we relinquish a critical opportunity to create positive change in our lives.
The painting above is called In the Cave. I’ve had recurring visions of cave scenes for much of my life. I view a cave as a “container” which causes fear and provides protection. On the one hand, there is the fear of collapse, as well as one of the hidden terrors lurking in the dark. But there is also a sense of safety from various threats and invasions, both physical and emotional, that comes from the insulation that a cave can offer from the outside world. Since you are often alone in a cave, you need not worry about causing upset or judgment in others when you express your feelings. I imagine we all feel that need at some point. Having been ill as a child, and having, at times, a tenuous hold on life, I often felt the eyes of those around me were fixated, looking for the slightest indication of which way I was headed. I noticed that the slightest reaction might evoke an intense response from those around me. This feeling became very uncomfortable to live with.
A purple giant releases a primal scream in his cave. It is the only place where he can express himself without having to respond to others’ reactions. He needs to express himself because he knows that if he doesn’t, it will kill him. The energy that he has released through this expression, gathers at the top of the cave. It is a brew of molten, lava-like energy that vacillates between receiving the expression and transmitting protection. In this scene, the angel protects his more fragile parts, his inner child. His expression fuels the protection. Together, they are a more powerful force, moving towards integration.
There are ways in which my illness has been a blessing. Right now, as I am writing this, I am lying in bed because I feel so exhausted. I am nauseous and every cell in my body is oscillating to a shaky, staccato beat that I can’t quite catch up to. This feeling is not fun and is, in fact, sometimes downright depressing. When I am able to let go of my judgment and be present with the feelings, it creates an opening into a deeper part of me. If I can isolate myself from the noise of the world – much of it requests and demands that I can’t possibly meet in my current condition – I can enter that opening and access a level of connection, to myself, that can bring great peace. This is not an easy task to achieve; it takes both training and practice. It takes courage and commitment. You must be willing to face the darkest and most painful parts of yourself. It is can be a long and arduous process, but it is work worth doing because it expands the terrain of our heart and our ability to feel and experience emotional connections to other human beings.
I move in and out of this process. I must dole out the time spent in the darkness, often across days, months, and decades, so that it does not become overwhelming. That’s why my mind stored it away in the first place and I need to respect its wisdom. It’s astonishing how well bodies and minds can recover from severe trauma when they are given the space and support to do so. To whatever extent possible, we must give this to ourselves and those around us.
When I do go into the darkness, I need to constantly monitor myself to make sure I can find my way back; that is when I must let go and simply rest, or get up and tackle some task which feels, as least on this day, like it will require a Herculean effort.
It is a deeply felt life which is not the same as an easy life; far from it in many ways. But it is a richer life and, regardless of any of that, it is the only life that would allow me to, as the great Mahalia Jackson sang, “leave this old world with a satisfied mind.”
The piece above was originally published on The Huffington Post