You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. – Eleanor Roosevelt
There is a moment in the archetypal story form of the hero’s journey, where the hero’s commitment to a new path or mission brings her/him face-to-face with their greatest fear or vulnerability. In stories, it is often called the ‘innermost cave’ because at this moment it appears that all is lost; that all possibility is enshrouded in darkness and shadow.
In Avatar this is the moment when Home Tree is blown up and Jake Sully is rejected from the tribe. In Lord of the Rings, Gandalf is swept off the ledge by a dragon right in front of Frodo’s eyes. And yet, as the story unfolds, we will eventually look back and recognize this moment as a major turning point for our heroes. A moment of quiet awakening which ultimately ignites the flame of their true purpose for being.
A Vision Quest into the Darkness
Each of us has moments like this in our own lives, where our journey brings us into direct contact with one of our deepest fears or elements of shadow, ultimately to discover and claim some new truth of possibility on the other side.
Recently I have spoken with several leaders from the frontlines of some of our planet’s most intractable challenges (world hunger, child sex trafficking, the earthquake crisis in Nepal) and I have been fascinated by their description of moments similar to these innermost cave moments above, where amidst immersion in an overwhelming issue or challenge, something inside of them sparked to life, allowing them to both embrace and transmute seemingly impenetrable darkness into bold pockets of new light and possibility.
The following is a description of one of my own innermost cave moments, which occurred during a vision quest experience on the South Island of New Zealand. I had been wrestling with some deep internal questions and was given the challenge to spend three sunrise mornings in the depths of a huge cave at the end of a remote beach in order to discover what aspects of myself, my life and the cave itself were hiding beyond the shadows…
Day 1: Standing in the Light, Looking at the Shadows
The distant rhythm of breaking waves echoed softly into the cracks of the smoke-blackened walls as I stepped into the cave on the first day. It was sheltered from the ever-shifting Aotearoa winds, and there was slight dampness in the air. I had visited the cave in broad daylight – with its huge vaulted ceiling entry and labyrinth of alcoves and passageways – but I had never been there in this dark hour before the dawn… and I had certainly not been there alone. A shiver shot up my spine. Clearly, I was in the right place to face something I had lived with my entire life, but never truly seen or understood: my own shadow.
As I stood in the pre-dawn haze in the center of the main chamber, the first thing I noticed was that from where I was standing, I could see clearly into other areas that were also capturing a hint of morning light, but from this place I was unable to see any of the darker, shadowed spaces. Much like trying to look out the windows of a lit room at night, my eyes could only see into those areas that matched the light where I was standing.
Mustering up a little courage, I stepped into a darker passage for a moment and made my first discovery: As my eyes adjusted to the shadows, I found that I could actually see the whole cave better – both light and dark spaces equally. As someone who has at times veered away from looking at my own and others’ shadowy aspects, it was powerful to realise that my view wasn’t limited or closed down by the shadows, but rather expanded by them! Day one, and already I was getting answers, but I had a feeling there was more to come…
Day 2: The Deeper in I Go, the Further I See
The second morning I felt called to venture deeper into some of the unseen chambers of the cave, around corners and into little nooks that never seemed to receive any direct light. Over the space of an hour, I cautiously felt my way through and acquainted myself with most of the main ‘rooms’ in the network. Each step into the unknown seemed to stretch my comfort zone and vision a little more, bringing up fears and then relief with the discovery that these dark spaces, once embraced, were safe – and often illuminating – to stand in.
I wanted to believe this discovery was the main reason for my journey, but something deep inside knew there was more. As I prepared to exit the cave on day 2, I caught a glimpse of a very narrow passage leading off the main chamber, toward what appeared to be the ‘innermost’ section of the cave network. I had noticed the opening to the passage in daylight previously but had discounted it because it was so narrow and tight (barely wide enough for my body) for an unknowable distance, into a completely unknown darkness.
I knew that if I went in too far and got stuck, there might be no way to get out. For some reason, as I left the second day, it was with the creeping feeling that my task for the final morning would have to be to at least try to feel my way deep into the pure pitch blackness of this space… to discover what was waiting for me in the innermost chamber of the cave, and myself.
Day 3: Entering the Innermost Cave
In the meeting place of pure light and pure darkness is the fullest expression of color – Chip Richards
As I stepped toward the cave just before dawn on the third morning, there was a mist on the ground that almost seemed to be coming from the cave’s mouth, as if seeping from the restless dreams of a sleeping dragon. A dragon that was quite possibly waiting to devour me whole as I ventured into the depths of its belly.
As fears of bandits, murderers, and rogue feral animals spiraled in my mind, I crouched onto my hands and knees and began to feel my way into the darkness of this last remaining unexplored chamber. With hands outstretched to meet the walls, I inched my way deeper and deeper in. Soon I was on my stomach squeezing under the jagged roofline. My mouth pressed close to the soot and sandy floor.
My ears, aware of the fading sound of waves behind me, my eyes anxiously searching for something, anything, to adjust to. Several meters of inch-by-inch sand crab shuffling and the ceiling gradually began to recede, eventually opening into what seemed to be a small room in the very heart centre of the cave. The ocean’s surge and the rising light of day were nowhere in this place. Only impenetrable darkness and the rhythmic dripping of water on stone.
My breathing became very shallow. My pupils eclipsed my eyes in efforts to adjust… but my efforts were futile. I had no idea of the dimensions of the chamber or what (or who!) else was in there. I could see nothing but my mind started going wild with fearful visions. I was scared. I felt incredibly anxious and vulnerable. I felt like ants were crawling inside my skin and murderers were moving in. I could feel the walls closing in around me, full of all the haunted spirits and wounded beasts that had ever been to this dragon’s lair.
I wanted to run, but this was not an option… I wanted to scramble out of there five times faster than I had crawled in, but I knew this would risk hurting myself and getting stuck on the way out. Somehow I forced a shaking breath into my lungs and dug myself a little deeper into the sand.
If this was the energy of what was lurking in the shadows of me… this is where I needed to be. I took a deep breath into my fears and nervous imaginings, and with it, I strangely felt my belly begin to relax. I took another and my shoulders gently dropped. I closed my eyes (which was no different than having them open) and took one more breath. My whole being began to settle into this bed of tiny stones and shells… into the earth beneath it.
As I began to relax in my body, I became aware of a deep stillness in the cave. A stillness that only the very center of a mountain could know. A stillness that knows without seeing, and sees without looking beyond itself. A stillness that wants for nothing. Yearns for nothing. A stillness that puts restlessness to sleep like a sweet child on a rainy night.
I felt this stillness in my body… and a very real sense of peace washed through me, as though it passed from the open hand of Mother Earth herself. Held gently in this womb, I felt safe, calm and connected. There was nowhere else I wanted to be, but from this place, I could imagine going anywhere… being anything! In this place of absolute darkness, it was as though a light switched on inside of me that I did not even know had been missing.
I opened my eyes, and just as I did, the first ray of the sunrise must’ve reached over the ocean horizon, because it stretched and bounced its way through the angles of the cave, sending a single hazy beam into the inner sanctum where I sat. The timing was incredible. The very moment that I arrived at genuine peace and light within the darkness, the light of day had come in to find me. I stood up and stretched my arms to the ceiling and the walls around me…
As I stepped back into the main cave chamber (which itself was still quite dark), the contrasting light to where I had just been actually caused me to squint. Everything seemed so much brighter and alive. I realized that while I had always been an optimistic, ‘glass-half-full’ type of guy, my reluctance to explore the shadows of my own innermost cave had actually prevented me from seeing and experiencing my greatest light. Now I could see and feel the equal gift of both. I ran down to the water’s edge and dove in, nearly freezing my head right off of my shoulders…
Looking back across the beach toward, the ocean mist mixed with morning light reflecting a rainbow across the mouth of the cave. With it came the final reflection of my Day 3 lesson: That in the meeting place of pure light and pure darkness is the fullest expression of color.