Love & Light is Hard Fucking Work: On the Alchemy of Darkness

 photo credit: Dan Carlson

photo credit: Dan Carlson

Confession: Even as a self-proclaimed spiritual person involved in many practices considered woowoo, I have to say that when catastrophe occurs—which has been the case far too often recently—I feel angry every time I see or hear the words “love and light.” Not because I am anti-peace, but because love and light take an incredible amount of self-reflection, willingness to dance with one’s deepest brokenness and a commitment to a lifelong journey with no real destination. 

Yet “love and light” are regularly dismissed as ridiculous, childish or hippie-dippie desires. Rest assured, as long as we here breathing on this planet we have work to do. We may get a few glimpses of peace and oneness along the way, but rather than sending love and light and going back into hiding to avoid dwelling in unpleasant realities, what if we say instead: I see injustice. I see violence. I see fear and hatred.  I commit to the alchemy of fear, judgement, hatred within myself because the only way to love and light is through the transformation of one individual at a time. 

Love and light is not a silly, fluffy solution. It is backbreaking, heartcrushing, soul expanding work – but why else are we here if not for transformation of collective consciousness? 

First, let’s consider human consciousness in it’s usual, limited form. Vonnegut described this in a unique and telling metaphor you may or may not recall from your high school reading of Slaughterhouse Five.  Specifically, Billy Pilgrim’s time travel brings him to the planet Tralfamadore, where his human mind is of particular fascination to the locals: 

The guide invited the crowd to imagine that they were looking across a desert at a mountain range on a day that was twinkling bright and clear.  They could look at a peak or a bird or a cloud, at a stone right in front of them, or even down into a canyon behind them.  But among them was this poor Earthling, and his head was encased in a steel sphere which he could never take off. There was only one eyehole through which he could look, and welded to that eyehole were six feet of pipe.  

  This was the only the beginning of Billy’s miseries in the metaphor.  He was also strapped to a steel lattice which was bolted to a flatcar on rails and there was no way he could turn his head or touch the pipe.  The far end of the pipe rested on a bi-pod which was also bolted to the flatcar.  All Billy could see was the little dot at the end of the pipe.  He didn’t know he was on a flatcar, didn’t even know there was anything peculiar about his situation. 

The flatcar sometimes crept, sometimes went extremely fast, often stopped—went uphill, downhill, around curves, along straightaways.  Whatever poor Billy saw through the pipe, he had no choice but to say to himself, “That’s life.” 

I have always loved this metaphor and revisited it various times over the years when my life feels especially chaotic and this whole commitment to love and light feels futile. The one gift the flatcar metaphor offers is that should we choose to be – we can be completely present.    All we can see through the little dot at the end of the pipe is exactly what is happening RIGHT NOW. 

Herein lies the dilemma of humanity – do we focus on exactly what is unfolding before our eyes in this moment, or do we close our eyes and dwell in dreams of the past or wishes and worries for the future?  

Ultimately, we have no idea if the flatcar of our life is plummeting toward earth in order to land in a paradise beyond our wildest dreams, or to nosedive into a black hole.  Why not enjoy the ride?  However, let’s be very clear about one thing – enjoying the ride includes bumps and all.  

So how exactly do we find presence when it feels like, personally or collectively, the flatcar is freefalling from outerspace and there is nothing we can do? 

1.     Wallow.  Likely not what you were expecting here, but wallowing is the first step to acceptance. Spiritually speaking, we aren’t owed anything in this life. We have the choice to learn from our experiences and take action - or to let them overpower us.  Wallowing aids the alchemy process because we have to surrender to the agony of shitty feelings, which perhaps we have tried to previously suppress with our favorite forms of escapism. 

One of my mentors always says “Suppression never healed anything a day in its life.”  Wallowing means feeling, and feeling whatever it is you need to feel, no matter how uncomfortable, means you can start to get to the root of triggers and work for actual healing.  Now everyone has their own wallowing limit and it is important to know for yourself how long of a wallow is too long – but generally if you just can’t pull yourself into the next phase (or out of bed) after a couple weeks, please see a qualified practitioner for help.   

2.     Inquire Within. When you reach your wallowing limit, the next step may start to come naturally:  Question everything, starting with your own mind.  Just because we have thoughts does not mean we have to believe them.  If that sounds totally insane, consider for a moment the last time your brain synthesized unrelated pieces of information and created a story that was 100% false: your boss gives you a look you perceive as weird and you convince yourself you will be fired; someone likes a photo of your new love interest and suddenly they have been together for the past decade; a friend doesn’t respond instantly to your text so you assume they are mad at you.  

I cannot emphasize enough the life-changing magic of not believing everything you think.  Question your self-critical thoughts and doubts, question your internalized beliefs, question your assumptions about the experiences of others, question, question, question.  If you need a jumping off point for this work, Byron Katie has simple and free resources to get you started.  If we are incapable of questioning our own minds and creating change in our lives, how can we can question imbalances of power and unjust social systems and change the status quo? The revolution can only start from within. 

3.    Know your allies.  We are talking about alchemy here.  The transformation of the base metals of fear, violence, oppression, into the gold of peace, love, oneness.  Within, and without.  This is a lifetime of work, and we have to take care of ourselves if we want to take care of each other.  Start to connect with your environment and the people around you.  Get to know the local plants and herbs. Grow your own food.  Who are the healers, musicians, artists, leaders?  Find them. Seek out the help you need to cultivate a healthy body, clear mind, and strong spirit so that you may in turn help others who need your gifts.

Never underestimate the power of people coming together, united by love and not by fear, by joy and not by complacency, by responsibility and not by aggression.  We also must not underestimate our own power, even when the flatcar seems like it is derailing and all is lost.  As long as we have breath, we have choice. 

4.    Create space.  Fear is a state of contraction where energy can’t flow.  Love needs space.  First we must take time to clear our personal spaces of clutter. If we spend the majority of our time in an environment that mimics this state of contraction, we will absorb it.   

We need physical space in order to create mental space.  We need powerful breath that reminds us that in spite of everything we still have spirit.  We need body movement that allows us to forget the world, even momentarily.  We need practices of forgiveness and gratitude.   We need alone time in nature.  We need to repeat this endlessly because we are human and sometimes love, forgiveness, and gratitude do not come easily but must become disciplines that we work towards every day until they flow unconditionally.

5.    Take action. It is easy to become paralyzed by the big picture, by all the work that must be done internally and externally to create positive change.  Come back to the flatcar metaphor – what can you do in this moment, right now? And now? And what about now? 

If all we can do in a particular moment is breathe, that is enough.  If all we can do is offer kindness, that is enough.  If all we can do is infuse our daily tasks with a commitment to compassion and service, that is enough.  Of course there are other, perhaps bigger, steps to take as well.  But if we don’t first truly work through our bullshit and move in the world from a place of authenticity, the change we seek is not actually happening. 

This does not mean that we become robots spewing the love and light gospel. It means we figure out how to be, rather than just do.  It means that we have a handle on our triggers and don’t become self-righteous reactionaries.  Ultimately, human interactions make the world go round.  We must not forget that we get to choose our part in these interactions.

Without a doubt, these are dark times.  We can no longer be complacent and ignore that our society is sick.  We can no longer ignore that each and every one of us is complicit. Times like these can further breed hatred, violence, and fear if we collectively allow it. 

In the words of the Dalai Lama, “We cannot solve this problem only through prayers. I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place. We need a systematic approach to foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony. If we start doing it now, there is hope that this century will be different from the previous one. It is in everybody’s interest. So let us work for peace within our families and society, and not expect help from God, Buddha or the governments…”

Yes, love and light is hard fucking work.  Change is uncomfortable and may seem daunting.  But we can't forget the metaphor of the flatcar and that there is so much more to the human experience than we may ever know.  May we help each other to understand this illusion of separation.  May we hold each other tenderly through the darkness.  And may we all truly know love and light.  

Francesca MariniComment