The Book of She
Sara Avant Stover : Dancing with the Dark Goddess

Your Heroine's Journey: Dancing with the Dark Goddess

By Sara Avant Stover | 11/22/15

One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious....Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate. — Carl Jung , Collected Works of C. G. Jung, Vol. 13: Alchemical Studies

Two Kinds of Darkness

As a little girl, were you afraid of the dark? I used to envision green, googly-eyed monsters lurking under my bed, or slimy dragons slumbering in the lumpy shadows of my closet. We all grew up associating the dark with gloom and danger, even though it serves as the backdrop for our entire lives. As Clark Strand, author of Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age, notes, “Our lives begin in the womb and end in the tomb. It’s dark on either side.”

We spend one third of our lives sleeping. For much of the year, darkness shrouds half of each day. Our lives are composed of interweaving, interdependent threads of light and dark. And still, darkness gets a bad rap. We’re afraid of it. We resist it. We project it onto others. We avoid it at all costs. And for good reason. Darkness reminds us of our vulnerability. Slipping into night requires a surrender into deep, dreamless consciousness that most of us resist. We don’t want to unplug, power down, and let go of “doing.” We don’t want to veer out of the capable, wakeful part of our being that we rely on so strongly to get by in life.

In fact, we’re so frequently going, going, going that we’ve forgotten how to rest. We feel compelled to reach for the booze, the pill, the smoke, the secret late-night snack to help us check out. When we can no longer find the off switch, we have nightmares while still awake. We can’t get off the freight train of our own minds.

Our demons stir at nighttime, or during the “dark nights of the soul.” About 10 percent of Americans have chronic insomnia, and many people — women especially — associate bed with trauma. Historically, people huddled together by candlelight or firelight at night to stay warm and protect each other. Now, most of us face our dark demons alone.

In fact, most of humanity has simply forgotten how to relate to darkness. Over the years, with the convenience of electricity, we’ve all become increasingly reliant on light. It allows us to be more machine-like, more productive. We can get things done at any hour. But is this really so wonderful? Probably not.

First, women’s menstrual and hormonal cycles have been affected by this shift. Most of us no longer bleed with the cycles of the moon, since we’re constantly exposed to artificial light. As well, we are all becoming increasingly disconnected from our intrinsic circadian rhythms, which affect appetite, the secretion of hormones, body temperature, alertness, and sleep timing. We’re living in a time of darkness deprivation. Seen from outer space, our planet, plundered by light pollution, glows. Most of this nighttime light is completely unnecessary — streetlamps and shop lights staying on, even in unpopulated areas, through the wee hours of the night.

In order to heal, we need to remember how to value the night. We need to honor that this darkness is intelligent and necessary for our survival. We can persist for weeks without food or water, but no one can live without sleep. We need to see the darkness as part of our nature. It’s half of the miracle of life — a safe and holy place — imbued, like dark chocolate, with bittersweet beauty. We need to remember that all true creativity springs from the darkness. We need to learn to hold sleep, surrender, and uncertainty as profound spiritual practices.

At the same time, it’s important to remember that not all darkness should be prized and cultivated. Just like Eskimos have many different words to describe snow, we too must become connoisseurs, discerning different breeds of darkness. While we want to adopt the fertile, pregnant darkness that represents the secret void, the spring soil, or cosmic womb that gives birth to all things (the daemon), we want to remain alert to the blackness of blindness and ignorance (the demon). The latter is a sleepy darkness, where we’re plagued with the temptation to avoid facing our deepest truths.

In fact, if we can’t face what the darkness is trying to teach us, the wisdom of the fertile void turns into evasion, and we choose to stay asleep, unresponsive to our call to grow. Rather, when we wish to heal ourselves, our aim is to be like Sumerian goddess Inanna, who gathered up the lost pieces of herself in the underworld. Unless we too are willing to collect the forgotten wisdom lost in the dark corners of our psyches, we’ll experience resistance, rage, depression, illness, and addictions.

The Book of SheThis feature is excerpted from The Book of She: Your Heroine痴 Journey into the Heart of Feminine Power ゥ2015 Sara Avant Stover. Printed with permission of NewWorldLibrary.com.

Demons and Daemons

If you bring forth that which is within you then that which is within you will be your salvation. If you do not bring forth that which is within you then that which is within you will destroy you. — Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospel

In my late teens and early twenties I found solace in odd places — with the great dames of literature who lingered dangerously on the dark side. I read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar three times and maniacally scoured her poetry and journals. I adapted Virginia Woolf’s adage that every woman needs a room of her own. I adored Susanna Kaysen’s bestselling memoir Girl, Interrupted and, even more so, Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie’s portrayal of this on the big screen. In retrospect, these women mesmerized me because a piece of their dazzling insanity also lived within me. My own paternal grandmother, Leona, whom I never had the chance to meet, suffered from bipolar disorder in a time before it could be diagnosed as such.

Each of these brilliant women didn’t quite fit in. Infused with a spark of genius and fragile ego structures (or “holding environments”), they couldn’t secure a place for themselves in a society that prized “normalcy” and conventional women, so they were banished into the borderlands of psychotic breakdowns. Constantly crisscrossing the paper-thin wall between brilliance and lunacy — without proper inner or outer support — none of these women fared well in the end. Sylvia committed suicide by sticking her head in an oven. Virginia suffered from bipolar disorder and drowned herself at the age of fifty-nine. Susanna ended up in a mental hospital. Leona smashed all the windows in my father’s childhood home with a hammer, underwent electric shock therapy, and slit her wrists with a razor blade — although she did survive this attempt to end her own life.

Emily Dickinson also hovered all too near the centripetal lure of madness. However, in the end she was able to die a heroine rather than a victim. Like us, she was a “Father’s Daughter,” obsessed with meeting her father’s standards of perfection in the presence of a mother who was both psychologically and emotionally absent. As a result, she sought masculine models of success and split her secret, inner world off from her outer world. Later in life, when she was no longer under her father’s supervision, she projected her father onto another man and fell so deeply in love with him that she completely lost herself. When he eventually abandoned her, she had no inner resources to draw upon to cope with her grief. Completely devastated, she was almost suicidal.

Yet through her own sheer will and divine spirit, Emily prevailed. Rather than giving her feminine soul completely over to suicide, she sought another path and immersed herself in her own solitude. There, she began a daily writing practice — writing one poem a day for an entire year. It was those poems that made her famous, because in the depths she journeyed to within, Emily finally found her creative roots and her mature, feminine voice. Quite simply: her writing saved her life. She trusted her genius more than her brokenness, and in so doing, she successfully rewired her dark, destructive energy into artistic genius and psychological wholeness. Emily transformed her destructive darkness, or demon, into her fertile darkness, or daemon, thus embodying her soul’s full, creative splendor.

In his book Grace and Grit, the philosopher Ken Wilber explains this concept of daemon more fully.

[Daemon] — the Greek word that in classical mythology refers to “a god within,” one’s inner deity or guiding spirit...[is] also known as...the tutelary deity or genius of a person, one’s daemon...is also said to be synonymous with one’s fate or fortune....[And] her own higher Self.

Wilber elaborates that, as we saw with Emily, our demons and daemons are, ultimately, the same thing. Which direction they turn — into death or life — is entirely up to us. He continues: [There] is a strange and horrible thing about one’s daemon. When honored and acted upon, it is indeed one’s guiding spirit; those who bear a god within bring genius to their work. When, however one’s daemon is heard but unheeded, it is said that the daemon becomes a demon, or evil spirit — divine energy and talent denigrates to self-destructive activity. The Christian mystics, for example, say that the flames of Hell are but God’s love denied, angels reduced to demons.

Just as the indigenous plants that grow directly around us hold the medicine for our ailments, the weeds of our inner demons contain the salve of our highest selves, or our SHEs. Rather than going to war with our demons or denying them by always striving for the “light,” let’s acknowledge that we cannot fully know our true, ecstatic nature as women without tapping into our dark sides. Have you grown tired of desiring one half of life, and always running from the other half of it? What if your true feminine power was waiting in that other half of life — the one you’ve been sedating, hiding, or hating?

The Buddha taught that our fundamental obstacle to true happiness resides in our incessant clinging to the eight worldly dharmas. We’re always enmeshed in pursuing one or detesting the other. These include:

gain and loss
praise and blame
fame and disrepute
pain and pleasure

Round and round we all ride on the Ferris wheel of life.

Sometimes we’re up and sometimes we’re down. No one can stay up forever. If this is a fundamental life truth, then why do we punish ourselves by always trying to make it otherwise? Only by finding equanimity, that part of ourselves that can hold steady through the entire Ferris wheel ride, regardless of where we are in the spectrum of “up” and “down,” can we know true freedom.

Facing Your Shadow

Charging out to buy a pack of smokes, even though you “quit.” Sitting down with a box of cookies, unable to stop yourself from eating the whole thing. Spacing out on Facebook for two hours, even though you’re exhausted. Picking a fight, when what you really want is closeness. These are some of the many ways that our Dark Goddesses, also known as our “shadows,” can show up. Our “shadows” represent the part of us that’s usually hidden, secretive, and hard to understand. No matter how much we “work” on ourselves, they’re still there. Yoga, meditation, positive affirmations, detoxing — none of these seem to help. “What’s wrong with me?!” we think. Nothing! Nada. Our shadows are a normal, useful, and necessary part of being human.

No one is exempt from a shadow, and we never get rid of our shadows. As Ursula K. Le Guin wrote, “When you light a candle, you also cast a shadow.” We all have little rooms and pockets of shadow in our inner homes. And the more light we shine in the world, the bigger our shadows will be. A truly effective spiritual practice helps us to find these and integrate them with the light of our loving awareness, slowly and patiently, over the course of our entire lives.

“The shadow,” a term conceived by Carl Jung, refers to the hidden, unconscious aspects of our psyches. It’s our blind spots — those parts of ourselves that we fail to see or know. John Welwood describes our shadow as all of our undigested life experiences.10 We are all born whole, yet very early on, those parts of ourselves that we are told are “bad” or “unacceptable” slowly get squashed into the cellars of our psyches. Likewise, our brilliant and wonderful aspects also aren’t permitted and recognized, so we lock those away too. (We’ll explore this “light side” of our shadows in chapter 9.)

As we grow up, our families and cultures insist that we only live out certain parts of our nature. The more polished our personalities (or our egos) become, the more shadow builds up, holding energy equal to our egos. For example, as women, it’s okay for us to be polite, but not bitchy. We need to be pretty, but not sexy. It’s better to be helpful than selfish. These darker aspects of ourselves never leave or get integrated; they simply get suppressed and compressed in the cellars of our psyches. They become part of our “shadows,” the deeply despised parts of ourselves that we don’t want anyone to see. Yet as I noted earlier, without recognizing our shadows, we can never be truly alive or empowered, because we are only living out one half of our existence.

Because our psyches want to find equilibrium and our bodies want to move toward health, our shadows will not settle for being locked away forever. In fact, if they stay hidden for long enough, they’ll start to take on a life of their own. Then we’ll start to act out in ways that feel beyond our control. We’ll yell at someone in traffic, cheat on our spouses, binge-eat when everyone in the house has gone to bed, or betray our best friends’ trust.

You can identify your shadow behavior because:

  1. you’re ashamed of it and feel guilty afterward.
  2. you feel like you’re being “taken over” when you enact it.
  3. you often do it in secrecy.

Again, it’s important to understand that, when left unattended, our shadows can accumulate even more energy than our egos. When this happens, they threaten to destroy us — and everything that we care about in our lives. We see this in the case of addictions and extreme violence toward ourselves or others. Marion Woodman describes this unconscious shadow material as being like a volcano, gathering a tremendous amount of heat, energy, and intensity under the surface, threatening to erupt all over our cherished light-filled creations at any moment.

Journaling Questions

  • What self-sabotaging behaviors keep coming back to haunt you (the ones you’ve been “working on” for years but can’t seem to “get rid of”)?
  • What are you not able to accept about yourself?
  • What is the negative feedback loop that life is currently offering you? What’s the wake that your actions are leaving behind you? These both point to your shadow.
  • Where are you doing something that doesn’t feel like you?
  • What do you fear is the worst that could happen if you allow the world to see who you “really” are? Aerate your fears about this.
Sara Avant Stover Sara Avant Stover is the author of The Book of SHE and The Way of the Happy Woman. A pioneer in contemporary women’s work, she has been featured in Yoga Journal, Newsweek, and Natural Health and on ABC, NBC, and CBS. Visit her online at thewayofthehappywoman.com.
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