Darkness of the Womb
What spiritual practices offer you the courage to sit in darkness?
Birth serves as a powerful reminder of the world’s cyclical nature, particularly in the midst of challenging times. In this moving speech, civil rights lawyer and Sikh interfaith leader – Valarie Kaur – invites us to reorient to darkness as we grapple not only with the current state of our country, but also with our interior lives.
What if the darkness we experience in life is symbolic of a womb rather than a tomb? Where a tomb conjures the words - cold, damp, lonely, finite – the womb draws up notions of warmth, safety, love, and potential. As we know, the womb is where we, as beings, begin to grow, develop, and equip ourselves with the tools we need to enter into the unknown world. What if every experience of darkness in our lives offered this same opportunity: to re-enter a safe and nurturing space for the sole purpose of dedicating time to our evolution – what a gift!
While darkness often stirs up fear, if we are able to reorient ourselves to the true gifts it holds, we can discover the inner calm and patience to accept and simply be in that darkness; to allow our eyes to acclimate over time; to welcome both our nightmares and our dreams to take shape; to build consciousness that this is a shared experience we all must embrace to breathe new life.
According to Buddhist teachings, suffering – or spaces of darkness – have a great deal to teach us. As Pema Chödrön notes in Practicing Peace in Times of War, “it is so basic in us to feel that things should go well for us, and that if we start to feel depressed, lonely, or inadequate, there’s been some kind of mistake or we’ve lost it. In reality, when you feel depressed, lonely, betrayed, or any unwanted feelings, this is an important moment on the spiritual path. This is where real transformation can take place.”
But how long must we sit in this discomforting darkness awaiting transformation? Whereas pregnancy offers a more discrete timeframe – around 280 days or 40 weeks on average – our return visits to the womb are ambiguous. Sometimes we stay only a few moments, other times for years. The reality, however, is that time doesn’t matter. We stay for however long we are invited, however long it takes for the transformation to occur.
How might we know when the time has come, when the transformation has occurred, when we are ready to emerge from the darkness? When the challenge of labor begins. As a root word in Latin, labor means to work, to endeavor, to exert oneself and is used to create much more of our vernacular (think collaboration or elaborate). The core definition of the word also signifies to take pains, to produce by toil, to endure pain or suffering. The work we do through labor is, by nature, difficult. So, once we are ready to depart from the darkness and enter into the light, we must labor. And, as Kaur states so powerfully, to endure that labor, we must breathe. Breath softens, opens, and accepts.
So we continue to breathe until we hit the point where we’re convinced we can’t make it any further; the point where our minds and bodies seemingly tell us “no”; the point of transition. As any midwife, obstetrician, labor and delivery nurse, doula, or mother will tell you, this is when you let go. Transition is the point in birth where we physically, cognitively, emotionally and spiritually release. Anything that we are holding onto leaves the body, creating space and energy to breathe new life. It is here where we stop trying to control our minds and bodies, where we surrender to the natural course of the universe, where we push because that is all there is left to do. And in that moment, we emerge into the light.
Perhaps this is one of the more challenging lessons the body has to teach the mind and spirit: that darkness is a gift; that we are capable of growing in our discomfort; that we can endure pain and suffering through breath, through acceptance, through love. So when you arrive next at that place in your spiritual journey where you think you can no longer endure, remember to trust your body’s urge to bear down and you’ll breathe anew.