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The Wisdom of Descent

Posted by on in Paths Blogs

I guess it’s seasonally appropriate—it’s the dark time of year, and once again my mood is dark. There’s a gathering undertow pulling me down, until I’m drowning in the fear of drowning. There’s the kind of anxiety that makes staying still an agony and every activity terrifying. Creativity is absent. These words are hard to write.


But as I write them, there is also a fierce energy—to nail this suffering, describe it, pin it down and shame it with damning description. There is a momentarily energizing burst of anger at whatever brought this on. But mainly there is the sinking feeling, the drowning panic, punctuated by moments of blessed normality that dissipate quickly under the onslaught. It mocks how I used to be, how my life once felt whole. It lets me know that feeling of contentment was all a pernicious illusion, unearned, baseless.


I’ve been here before and I know I will climb out of it. If I’m lucky I might even learn something from this latest bout. This too will pass. But it never feels that way when I’m in it.


This is where faith has to come in. Not faith in a deity, so much, as faith in the yoga, meditation, and ritual that are all part of my spirituality. They have been handed down over thousands of years, tested by countless past practitioners. Even when it feels like the practices are not working, they are, slowly but surely, bringing me back to myself. I know this, even if I don’t feel it. I take refuge in the teaching, in the teachers, and in my fellow travellers on the road of loss and recovery.


I take refuge, as well, in the stories of gods and goddesses who have descended, enduring perilous crossings or violent ends, to survive somehow in one form or another. They are translated into stars like Callisto or Orion, or changed from harbinger of life to patron of death like Persephone, or dismembered, reassembled and reborn like Dionysos…the tales are many and varied, but darkly insistent that, as the goddess Inanna is told when she chooses to descend to the underworld, “No one leaves this place unmarked.” And neither will I.


But, alone as I may feel, I am not alone. The ancient gods travel with me, and teach me, as do the yogis and buddhas: one way or another, sooner or later, one must go down. One must descend. The trick is hitch a ride on the downward flow and dip beneath it. Travel down beneath thought to the body, travel down through the body to the back and the belly—the dark parts too often ignored. Travel down through the body to the mystery of the earth itself. 


So I lie down on the ground. I empty my breath and send the energy of my distress down to the earth’s capacious, accepting depths. I recall the breath and fill myself with the earth’s stability, her peace. The mind is not peaceful, but the earth is peaceful. And we are of the earth, which connects all of us to each other and to herself.


So I sit on the earth and move down to the lowest belly, breathing from it, sitting with the inchoate forces that coil there—the very sources of our individual life, waiting down there for us to find them again. I drop down through them to the earth so I can draw up its strength to merge with my own.


I must dare to go down when it feels like that’s all I’m doing. I have to go down deeper until I’m underneath the thing that’s torturing me and can look up at it from a different angle—not as it’s victim, but as its witness. It’s only from that low-slung place that I can start to observe the deeper causes that underly this latest struggle and the present day triggers that set it off. Only then can I start to discriminate between illusion and reality, and decide what needs to change.


And then, maybe, when it’s time, I’ll start to ascend— marked by the underworld and one tiny step closer to seeing reality—and myself—as it is: whole.

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Archer has been trying to make sense of religion since her parents first abandoned her at Sunday School in the 60s. She’s a mom, yoga teacher and repository of useless bits of information on ancient religion, spiritual practices and English grammar. Check out her column “Connections” in Witches and Pagans.


  • Ted Czukor
    Ted Czukor Wednesday, 02 January 2019

    What an amazing teacher you are, Archer! In the very act of expressing your angst, you give the best step-by-step advice in coping with it. As you indicated, you don't require instruction, only empathetic support.

    I had something of a "dark night of the soul" epiphany myself, this year's end. You might want to read my latest blog entry.

  • Archer
    Archer Friday, 04 January 2019

    Thanks so much Ted--I will definitely check out your blog entry--it's obviously been a right of passage for both of us.

  • Irisanya
    Irisanya Friday, 04 January 2019

    Beautiful. Thank you.

  • Meredith Everwhite
    Meredith Everwhite Friday, 04 January 2019

    This really resonated with me, I feel like I could've written it myself. I'm in a very similar place and I take comfort in knowing that I am not alone, not only as one who is suffering and have had certain painful, upheaving changes & choices made for me, but in the ways you described; we're all surrounded by ancestors, powers, divinity, practices and knowledge that bring us back to ourselves and will lead us back up and out. The trick is to hold on and not forget those things. Thank you for sharing this with such raw truth, and I hope it all does pass for you as soon as possible.

  • Archer
    Archer Wednesday, 08 May 2019

    Thank you Meredith. It's been a process, but I am in a much better place now, and working on understanding and continuing to have faith in the practices and allies that are there to guide us.

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