Darkness Visible: Ceremonial darkness

My darkness falls suddenly and without warning.

One moment I am looking up at the night sky, marveling at the stars, like diamonds scattered on a jeweler’s velvet, the next I am held from behind, with a blindfold across my eyes. Then I am spun three times so I am no longer certain of direction and led into a darkened room, where I will stay for five nights, always in darkness, blindfolded for most of it.

This is not a kidnapping. It is a ritual procedure conducted in Haiti as part of the ceremonial process for initiates into the Caribbean tradition born of African shamanism and carried to the New World in the enslaved hearts and souls of shaman-priests and princes.

A psychologist by training and a writer by profession, I am in Haiti to study this tradition for a book I am writing on traditional spirituality and why it might be needed and important in the modern world. But this is a secretive tradition – not surprisingly, given the harsh treatment of the slaves, many of whom were murdered by their masters simply for praying to their own Gods – and the only way to know it is to initiate into it and become a priest. This is what I have chosen to do.

Initiation involves a number of ceremonies and warrior trials, most of which are conducted publicly before the village community. But some, like this particular ritual, are different, because, once blindfold, I am required to spend the following days in confinement within the sacred space of the djevo, the heart of the temple. During this time, the secret teachings of the religion will be passed on to me and there will be visits by the spirits themselves, felt either as a ‘presence’ or, more directly, through the possession of the priests who oversee this process.

Darkness is central to the experience and it is the darkness that fascinates me most.

I might have imagined that being alone in the dark would be an isolating experience, perhaps even frightening. In fact, my body finds it deeply comforting, though I am aware of my mind working overtime, chewing itself up over questions which, on inspection, seem quite meaningless; chattering on just to save itself from silence.

There seem to be layers and layers of voices in my head, each one with a personality of its own.

Psychologists call these sub-personalities. We imagine ourselves to be one consistent person with a stable worldview but, in fact, if we listen, we are all of us legion.

I recognize three such voices immediately. The ‘critic’ is the first. She speaks with a woman’s voice and wants to judge me for getting myself into this situation of potential danger and so many unknowns, and not taking my responsibilities seriously. After all, I have children at home who love and need me.

The critic delivers a rage of sarcastic comments – “you’ve done it again, you fool, got yourself into another ridiculous mess, lying on a dirt floor, blindfolded, in a jungle hut. It’s always the same with you, you never learn!” – before she is silenced by another voice, that of the ‘kindly parent’, who answers with “leave him alone. The boy has to learn. He has to experience the world – because that is what being alive is all about!”

And finally the voice of the ‘scientist’, the impartial observer who walks between both judgments and offers an ‘informed’ and ‘objective’ view of what is ‘actually’ happening and why. The scientist thinks himself superior to the others because of his objectivity, but it is this very thing that stops him from feeling and distances him not only from the experience but, to some extent, from humanity itself.

To me (whoever ‘me’ is, now I understand that I am more than one person), this dialogue – these claims and counterclaims over who ‘I’ am – seem fascinating – until I realize I have been hooked once again by the chatter and am following this useless and circular dialogue in my head instead of experiencing what is actually happening to me right here and now. My head has me trapped in theory and bullshit, not what is.

And then, ironically, I’m back in the cycle as the critic leaps in with her new judgments – “You’ve done it again, fallen for the game of the rational mind, got involved with the voices in your head” – without realizing that she herself is part of this game. It really is remarkable how easily we slip into mind-stuff and are lured away from simply being, from feeling something, and from experiencing our lives.

After a few days of this going round in circles, though, something new and surprising happens. The mind, having exhausted itself perhaps, or having no more visual stimulus to feed and distract it, begins to go quiet. I notice that the chatter has stopped.

From that point onwards I feel an ‘opening up’ of myself. The priest calls in the spirits who appear through possession states and offer advice, counsel, divination, and healing secrets, or carry out healings of their own on me and the others present. Whereas my rational mind, just a few days ago, would have questioned all of this, now I accept it. In fact, I more than accept it, I feel the healings as they take place. Something shifts in my emotions as I drift in mythological landscapes and, at a deep, non-rational level, I know that, of course, these healings are real: because I experience them to be.

One version of reality tells me that my body is lying on a dirt floor is a squalid hut, but in my mythological mind I am in a great temple, surrounded by Gods and Goddesses, great pillars of gold, wise Elders, visionaries, and master physicians. I no longer know which of these versions of reality is true – if either – or care. What is ‘truth’ anyway? What is ‘reality’? Isn’t it all just what I choose to believe?

What I believe right now is that I feel comfortable and comforted here. Held, loved, supported. Blissful. That, then, must be the reality of my experience and what is really happening. I relax even more and drift into dreamscapes. From somewhere I hear the words of Joseph Campbell, advising his students to follow their bliss because this is the only way to truth. “The adventure is its own reward”.

Hours pass, days – but perhaps they are years or only seconds. In darkness it is hard to tell. This place, this state of being, is as timeless as it is spaceless, with no exact location except in my dreaming mind. But there comes an event in any case – a moment when time returns – and I am taken from the djevo, where the blindfold is removed and I am presented to the sun.

This is the first time for days that I have seen nature: the forest, the sky, the Earth. Perhaps it is the first time I have ever really seen it – because now everything is alive and different, vast, beautiful, breathing, pulsing, glowing with energy, and singing of its own existence in the hum of cicadas and the whisper of breeze through leaves.

Then, at this most sublime and magnificent moment, I have a Homer Simpson realization: “Doh! It is alive, you fool!” And suddenly I see it: everything I have forgotten or not noticed before – nature is a living thing and I am part of it too, creating this vision, created by it. The ‘It’ and the ‘I’ are one.

That grand and inexplicable landscape of mythology that I have been a part of for days (for my whole life, in fact, though I have not always known it) is right here in front of me, in the world all around me; the greatest dream of all. The adventure is its own reward.