Darkness Within Darkness
“Darkness within darkness: the gateway to all understanding.” —Lao Tzu
When you first embark on a spiritual path, maybe you’re hurt or damaged and looking for medicine. Or perhaps you’re wide-eyed and naive, searching for a proper guide. The outside world did something to you, and now you seek redemption. Whatever the particular situation, modern people approach spiritual practice in the way they approach everything: with a give-and-take dualistic attitude. The dynamic is simple: do unto the world, and it does unto you. Give and you receive. Something like that.
This sort of dynamic thinking is often the biggest barrier between a person and genuine practice. Meditating to achieve something (including feeling good about yourself) is not true meditation. Reading spiritual literature just so you can talk the talk is not authentic practice. Attending expensive circle-jerk retreats is not constructive. Paying a guru to flatter your ego in the most roundabout and abstracted way possible is a waste of cash. Making fashion or lifestyle choices to reflect your inner-journey is ineffectual.
The underlying misunderstanding begins with a belief that you are here and the world is out there. It continues with the assumption that, since you feel a sense of lacking, you actually lack something. You think the wisdom and happiness you need is out in the world somewhere to be discovered by you. So you wander around desperately grasping at whatever you can to fill the void. You buy things, initiate shallow relationships and label yourself with various isms and ideologies. You try to shape your ideas to fit your wishes: you force peace, happiness and love onto a life often inevitably devoid of these human ideals. You continue to trip and fall through life, and even a long-term spiritual practice leaves you feeling unfulfilled. Denying the truth doesn’t make it go away.
For an explanation, we turn to the great Tao Te Ching. Darkness within darkness. There is nothing to seek and nothing to find. The only thing lacking is your own awareness of what you already have, what already exists. There is no giving or taking, no mergers and acquisitions. You simply are. You were born, you will die. You will suffer. You will experience relief and bliss. It will all happen to you and from you whether you like it or not, no matter how you orient yourself or how ‘positive’ you try to be. The only barrier between you and what you seek is acceptance. It doesn’t matter what you eat, how you dress, who you associate with, whether or not you exercise, or which ideologies you buy into. The mantra is simple: it just doesn’t matter. The simpler the better.
This is what we practice when we practice meditation: darkness. Literally— you close your eyes and experience darkness. The mind invents its little thought-projections to cast over the darkness, but the fundamental truth is still darkness itself. We rehearse the darkness over and over again, but the main event never comes because— surprise! It’s darkness!
This is why the spiritual life is a long and stubborn process of coming to terms with such simple and boring truths. There’s nothing remarkable to find, no magical state of enlightenment to be uncovered. The moments of magic that do come only show themselves when you stop chasing them. So just stop chasing already. Stop trying to feel better. To force inner-peace is to create a war in your bones. It doesn’t matter how tender you are, or how bad you want to finally feel contented— that won’t come until it’s too late. Just accept now. Accept it fully, whatever it contains. Accept yourself as you are with no conditions. Settle into the darkness and accept the inevitability of life and death, inconsistencies and all. Only then will a genuine practice emerge.
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