Old stories to find light in dark times

As I’m writing this, it’s the last day of Diwali. Different religions celebrate different things during Diwali – for Hindus, it’s the return of the deities Rama and Sita after exile in the forest; for Sikhs, Bandi Chhor Divas marks the release of the sixth Sikh guru from prison in 1619; and for Jains, it is the moment when Lord Mahavira – the ‘father’ of Jainism – was liberated from the eternal cycle of reincarnation into eternal bliss. Regardless of religion, it’s a festival of goodness prevailing, of light emerging from the darkness. So what better theme for this dark month?

Here in Sweden, we celebrated All Souls’ Day at the Forest Cemetery – a UNESCO site that envelopes visitors in towering ponderosa pines, reveals hidden chapels painted with murals, and feels somehow warm and welcoming in its terrene acceptance of human life and death. Here the world moves on tree-time – slowly watching generations unfold. Every year for All Souls’, visitors come and clean the graves and light candles. It’s amazing to witness whole families gathering for this occasion, and see the cemetery floor glowing with a blanket of candles.

It can be hard to find light in the dark – and this month I’ve found comfort in ancient stories, and wisdom passed down from generations. So come dive in the shadows with me…

The simplest way to enhance every morning

Every morning, Mark Nepo gets up and opens the blinds. Then he takes the dog out. Then he makes coffee. But it’s not just a morning routine: for him, it’s a sacred ritual. 

The first thing I do is I open the blinds and let light in.” He says. “The second thing I do is I care for something living – my dog. And the third thing I do is do something for someone I love – making coffee for Susan.”

It sounds so simple, so obvious to imbue mundane moments with a sweet intention. But like ink dropping into a tank of water, a small bead of thoughtfulness can change everything around it, swirling in unexpected ways, making invisible things visible. Nepo explained on the Jung in the World podcast recently:

“When I am present, those things […] make a difference in how the rest of the day unfolds. When I’m rushing and I have too many things to do […] then ritual turns to habit, and things are disconnected and chaotic. But the value of consciousness is that I can go: wait a minute, let’s back it up. I’ll actually close the blinds and say: ok, let’s start over. Let’s be present and turn the habit back into a ritual. I can open the blinds very much aware that I’m letting light in.”

Nepo’s New York Times #1 bestselling “The Book of Awakening” has sold over a million copies, and his prolific output continues today almost 20 years after its release. In his work, Nepo calls on philosophy and wisdom from Eastern and Western traditions, and his work has a clarity and inquisitiveness that is charming and expansive. He uses terms like “wakefulness” and “arrival” instead of “enlightenment” – believing that it’s not a fixed state, but something you can engage and return to over and over again. In one interview, he quotes Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah lyrics – “it’s not someone who has seen the light – it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah” – to illustrate his take on the “is-ness” of accepting life as it is, beauty and brokenness all at once. This idea is explored tenderly and elegantly in his poem “Adrift”, which you can read further down below. 

In the Jung podcast, Nepo tells the story of Indra’s Net – a story from the fourth sacred “Veda” text, and a concept used in both Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Indra’s Net is often used to illustrate the interconnectedness of all things in the universe.

The story is like this: Indra was the god of connection. In his celestial palace, he created a net to cover and contain all existence – but instead of knots holding it all together, he created jewels. In each of the jewels, the facets reflected everything back. In the philosophical teaching, each jewel represents the individual soul, and the net is the interconnectedness of reality. Changes or movements in one part of the net affect all other parts. Nepo says:

“So when I’m present and openhearted, the jewel of my heart is clear, and ritual reveals the deeper connections. But when I’m not present, then I’m not clear, and ritual turns into habit, and things seem chaotic and disconnected.”

Even if you can’t see the reflections of interconnectedness all the time, Nepo suggests, doesn’t mean that it’s not there – just as the sun still exists behind cloudy skies. 

By Mark Nepo

Everything is beautiful and I am so sad.

This is how the heart makes a duet of

wonder and grief. The light spraying

through the lace of the fern is as delicate

as the fibers of memory forming their web

around the knot in my throat. The breeze

makes the birds move from branch to branch

as this ache makes me look for those I’ve lost

in the next room, in the next song, in the laugh

of the next stranger. In the very center, under

it all, what we have that no one can take

away and all that we’ve lost face each other.

It is there that I’m adrift, feeling punctured

by a holiness that exists inside everything.

I am so sad and everything is beautiful.

Au Pays by Jean Baptiste Armand Guillaumin (1895)

How chaos leads to order

We’re at the end of an era,” Michael Meade said in his Living Myth podcast last month, “and things get torn apart.”

It’s always William Butler Yeats that comes up for me when people talk about chaos in this way – his swirling, apocalyptic poem “The Second Coming” begins with the lines “Turning and turning in the widening gyre / The falcon cannot hear the falconer; / things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” It is a perfect, tense, compact chaos that Yeats conjures. At the time of writing in 1919, the zeitgeist of the post-WW1 “lost generation” was very dark. The tenderness of human life in the face of extreme violence and the disjointed feeling that the order and quaintness of Victorian and Edwardian life had slipped into distant memory was overwhelming for many, and it shows in much of the creative work of the time. 

The news goes in gloomy cycles. I don’t need to list the events around the world – both far and near, local and global. We’re at the end of an era, and the feeling is chaotic. But in these times, Meade suggests, the darkness and disorder is not a sign of inevitable demise, but an invitation to find lost things – to dive in:

Our job is to assist the Earth in coming back from the darkness. We do that by bringing things up from the unconscious, making our own lives more conscious, and enabling us to connect with things that are sacred – things that have wisdom and the power to recreate.”

Meade is a scholar of mythology and anthropology, and uses an ancient myth to help explain the idea. 

The creation myth in the Vedas, thought to be about 4000 years old, begins with the god Vishnu, in an ecstatic dream state, lying on the back of a serpent who floats atop the eternal ocean. In this state, he dreams the universe, and creates another deity, Brahma, who will bring his dream to life. Brahma arrives (from Vishnu’s navel, no less) carrying the sacred Veda texts. Reading the stories from the Vedas for the first time sends Vishnu back into his ecstatic trance, and he drops the books into the ocean. A demon appears and snatches the books and secrets them into the depths. Brahma tells Vishnu it’s his fault, and he has to go and find them. So Vishnu transforms himself into an avatar of a fish and dives into the ocean. He finds the demon and a battle commences. Of course, Vishnu is victorious and returns to the surface with the books, which means Brahma can continue his process of creation. 

It’s interesting, Meade says, that at the very birth of creation, this story has a moment of everything lost. Creation is not a linear start-to-finish process, it is in an eternal cycle of loss and discovery. Many creation stories include destruction, loss or chaos – not because evil demons and dramatic twists make stories more fun (though they do!) but because those are as intrinsic to existence as any bud of a flower or cry of a baby. It says: we are not in an aftermath of creation: we are in an ongoing process of renewal that will never end. From the microscopic to the cosmic: all things must pass through darkness and disorder to find light and order. Meade suggests that darkness is a vital part of the creative process – all makers descend consciously in order to find what is hidden and lost. It is an exchange – by entering the unconscious, you get to bring more things to conscious light. 

“Genuine visions, creative work and wisdom come with the price of consciously entering darkness time and time again.”

Until next time…


Invite your friends to subscribe!

✨ Enjoying? Subscribe →