Wendel Berry: Our real work

It may be that when we no longer know what to do

we have come to our real work,

and that when we no longer know which way to go

we have come to our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed.

The impeded stream is the one that sings

– Wendell Berry, Our real work

This is true in a conventional sense. When we no longer know what to do, we are turned back on ourselves and need to find a different approach, one that’s outside of what’s familiar to us. We enter unknown territory, and that’s where we learn, discover, and are transformed.

It’s also true in a more universal sense. We never really know what to do. If we are honest with ourselves, we are always baffled. We live in and as the unknown, whether we notice or not. When we notice this, and to the extent we take it in, we open up for the same kind of exploration of an unknown terrain, and the same possibility for us to be transformed.

In practice, we obviously still know what we know and have the experiences and skills we have. We also have the skills and experiences of others, and we have our own inner guidance. We have a lot to draw on, and we’ll make use of it in an ordinary way.

And yet, we also know that we ultimately don’t know. We are always entering the unknown and we live from and as the unknown. And that opens us up for a more genuine receptivity and curiosity, a deeper sense of adventure and discovery, and for allowing ourselves – as this human self and the field it all happens within and as – to be tranformed.

Wendell Berry: To go in the dark

To go in the dark
with a light
is to know the light.

To know the dark,
go dark.

Go without sight,
and find that the dark,
too, blooms and sings,
and is traveled by dark feet
and dark wings.

– Wendell Berry, Terrapin: Poems by Wendell Berry

This is a very beautiful poem and I wish to allow it to work on me and do its part in transforming me.

In our culture, we are used to elevate the light over the dark, physically and metaphorically. We light up our rooms from corner to corner. We light up the outside and the streets. We bring bright flashlights with us into nature.

We value knowledge over the unknown. We value knowing over not knowing. We use light as a metaphor for something good and desirable and dark as metaphor for something bad and undesirable.

What does it mean to go in the dark with a light? Physically, it can mean to bring a bright light into the dark, for instance when we are out in nature. We see things mostly as we do in the day, we lose our ability to see in the dark, we don’t see the stars as clearly, and it silences and scares away the animals that are out during the night.

In some situations, we may also miss out of realizing that we can navigate in the light of the stars and the moon, we just need to allow our eyes to adapt to the dark, pay more attention, and slow down.

If we instead go dark, we get to experience a whole different side of nature. We get to experience and know the night as it is, with its own life and animals and activities. And we may realize we don’t need to bring a light to function and navigate in the dark, we just need to adapt, pay attention, and slow down.

I am reminded of two of many memories of being in nature at night.

One of my most beautiful memories from childhood is of a Saturday when my mother was out of town, I was going to watch children’s TV in the evening, the TV broke down, and my father and I instead went into the local forest at dusk and quietly walked in the forest after dark. We listened to birds and other creatures rummaging in the forest. It was a magical experience I still remember fondly and it did something to me. At the most obvious level, it helped me appreciate nature at dark.

Another memory I have is on the same theme but different. I did a wilderness retreat in the beautiful desert in southern Utah with Kanzeon Zen Center. The moonlit landscape made it easy to get around at night at night without a flashlight and I never used one. Most people attending the retreat – including teachers – were loud, only in passing seemed to notice the amazing beauty of the starry sky and the landscape at night, and used bright lanterns and flashlights which must have ruined their night vision.

Metaphorically, going into the dark with a light can mean to meet another person, a situation, or ourselves thinking we know. We know how the other is. What the situation is. How we are. And we know what to do. We stay within what we know, unless there is grace and the situation surprises us enough to release us out of this fantasy.

To go dark means to acknowledge we don’t know, to meet the person or situation with curiosity, receptivity, and get to know what’s there as it presents itself to us. It means to slow down, listen, and learn.

This also applies to meeting metaphorically dark areas or parts of ourselves. Parts we – and perhaps our culture – don’t like. Parts we wished were not there. Parts that don’t fit how we want to see ourselves. Or parts we simply are unfamiliar with and perhaps didin’t even know were here.

If we think we know what these parts are and how we should relate to them, or mainly rely on familiar techniques and tools, we go in with a light and may miss out of something essential.

If we instead go dark, knowing we don’t know, with receptivity and listening, we may discover more of what’s there. We may discover how these parts of us experience themselves and us. What they would like and need from us. Something we don’t know and didn’t know we didn’t know. And how we can create a more fruitful and rich partnership.

We may get to know the dark more on its own terms and we may learn from it. We may also find that getting to know it in this way transforms us. We may find just the medicine we need in the dark, and it may be something entierly different from what we expected or knew from before.

Although we are mostly day creatures and the day and light – both physically and metaphorically – are important, useful and even essential, there is also value in the dark and in going dark and getting to know the dark on its own terms.

They are two sides of existence, and two faces of life and the divine.

They are both expressions of life, the divine, and who and what we are.

And while it seems that getting to know each requires a slightly different approach, what’s required is perhaps not so different. It’s slowing down, listening, receptivity, realizing we don’t know, and a willingness to discover and learn.

In that sense, the dark can teach us not only about itself, but about who and what we are and existence in other forms that just the dark.