Dharma Points: Hello Darkness, My Old Friend

Most of us would rather not acknowledge our dark emotional states. But maybe they have something to teach us.

By Nelle Oosterom

I was having what Buddhists call a “multiple hindrance attack” — a situation in which things look very dark indeed — when the words of a popular song from the sixties surfaced in my thought stream:

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again.

These words are the first two lines of the Simon and Garfunkel hit “Sounds of Silence.” To me everything about the song — the lyrics, the title, the melody — suggests dharma, of bringing to light the truth of the dark, of acknowledging the Jungian shadow. While truly bleak, the song expresses a certain spiritual yearning, as well as a sense of relief.

Darkness doesn’t get much respect in our Western culture, where it is often either ignored, denied, or dismissed as illness and medicated away. 

Thomas More, author of Care of the Soul, has written that our dark places belong to us as much as our light and happy places. They cry out to be seen and heard. He uses the ancient term “melancholy” to describe this state of being: “Melancholy gives the soul an opportunity to express a side of its nature that is as valid as any other, but is hidden out of our distaste for its darkness and bitterness.”

More also points out that in ancient times, melancholy was identified with the Roman god Saturn, who was associated with aging, wisdom, and philosophical reflection: “Saturn weathers and ages a person naturally, the way temperature, winds, and time weather a barn. In Saturn, reflection deepens, thoughts embrace a larger sense of time, and the events of a long lifetime get distilled into a sense of one’s essential nature.”

It seems that Saturn was part of the Buddha’s story too. Before Siddhartha Gautama could become enlightened, he had to become disillusioned with the basic unsatisfactoriness of ordinary life. At the age of 29 he left behind his home, his wealth, his worldly status, his beautiful wife, and even his beloved newborn son to search for a way out of his unbearable suffering. Some modern commentators have stated that he was clearly “depressed.” But look where Siddhartha’s dark impulses took him! He eventually freed himself and was known post-enlightenment as “The Happy One.”

Perhaps darkness is not such bad news after all. Maybe when it comes knocking on the door, it can be allowed in with great care and compassion, as the great 13th century Sufi poet Rumi recommends in this poem:

The Guest House
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.
— Jellaludin Rumi

Sunrise at Val Marie, Saskatchewan.                                                                             Credit: Nelle Oosterom

Sunrise at Val Marie, Saskatchewan. Credit: Nelle Oosterom