“Midway upon the journey of our life
I found myself within a forest dark,
For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
These are the words that open the Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow).
Indeed, all of us, who have been around the block for a while, have encountered our own “forest dark.” Maybe more than once. And maybe for prolonged periods of time. Times when the “straightforward path” has been lost for us.
Typically, we encounter this dark forest at times of major life transitions. Although we may encounter the dark forest at any time in our life, there are some specific periods in life – times when we are about to leave a known way of being, and do not yet know how to be the next thing we are called to be – when we are most likely to enter the dark forest and be lost (for a time).
An example of a time when many of us enter these places of unclarity and unknowing is adolescence, when we are no longer a dependent child, but not yet a fully independent adult. Another such time is the proverbial “midlife,” when we may have accomplished many worldly things, but begin to chafe under the “persona,” (i.e., the “mask” we wear to tell the world who we are). It is ironic that it is the very persona that we had worked so hard in the first half of our lives to craft! And then of course there is that final transition, that twilight we approach when life begins to wane, and death’s shadow draws near.
These are times when we often feel confused, clouded, foggy… times when we are not sure how to proceed. Times when the “straightforward pathway” of an obvious next step does not stand out for us.
It is easy to lose heart at these times. It is easy to begin believing that life is always and forever going to be this muddy – this unclear.
Unfortunately, we live in a culture that has little patience with these dark, foggy, cloudy places. We want to diagnose these places as “depression,” or “lack of willpower,” and want to giddy up and gallop past the obstacle – if necessary, with the help of pharmaceuticals. Or, we (and those around us) give up hope, and accept ourselves as “a failure,” or “just mediocre,” with no unique spark that is our own.
The problem that really lies at the root of this quick diagnosis and attempted remediation is the fact that we, as a culture, have lost touch with the guiding myths that trace the long arc of a human lifetime.
Dark forest as a call to individuation
Instead of beating ourselves up, or mourning our bad luck (as if we are the only ones to ever encounter this dark forest), it might help us immensely to remind ourselves, and each other, that what we are encountering is in fact a known and well-marked spot on the map of the human territory – a spot that many before us have navigated.
Myths from diverse cultures across time and place, speak of this dark forest – this place with no clear way forward. Dante’s Divine Comedy is just one such story. The same story is encountered in a different garb in the Indian epic Ramayana – where the hero, Lord Rama, is banished from his rightful kingdom and into the forest, where he loses the two people he cherishes most – his beloved younger brother, and his wife. It is this loss that eventually sets into motion the rest of the story of Ramayana. Similar motifs show up again and again, in myth after myth, and fairy tale after fairy tale. Just think of poor young Snow White, abandoned in the middle of the forest at the behest of her evil stepmother (but also because of the kind-hearted huntsman who cannot bring himself to kill Snow White as ordered by his Queen)!
What we forget as we face our own dark forests is that without this loss of direction and clear path ahead, Dante would not meet Beatrice, Rama would not slay the demon king, Ravana, and Snow White would not be kissed out of her eternal sleep by the prince of real, lived life.
This dark forest is indeed an encounter with the end of a phase of life, and an invitation to enter another.
Carl Jung would have said – as we stand in this dark forest – that it is in fact a time to celebrate! For arrival at this dark forest may just be a sign that we have now completed the task at hand (childhood, active adulthood, or even this lifetime), and are on the verge of beginning our journey into the next adventure (adulthood, elderhood or ancestorhood). Finally, as we stand at this threshold, we are ready to embark on the voyage toward what Jung called “individuation.”
For Jung, individuation was about the integration of opposites – of no longer shoving things we didn’t like into the unconscious, and/or projecting it on to other people. Instead of seeing what we hate and pointing our finger at the abomination out there, we are encouraged to ask, “what is it that I am disowning in here?” In what way is the tyrant, the thief, and the murderer alive in me? Can I be a bit gentler with those that I disagree with? Can I walk the hard road of effort and failure and humiliation, instead of “stealing” the joy from others through my complaining or my envy? Whose hopes and dreams – and even future survival – am I murdering, by filling up the landfills and water bodies with unnecessary plastic that brings me momentary convenience at the cost of sustainability of our planet?
Another essential feature of individuation is becoming who we really are – at our very core! It is our journey to find and own and inhabit our unique selves. Until we enter the dark forest and lose the straight path ahead, we can be assured that we have been traveling the communal path, the path chosen for us by our family, our teachers, our institutions, our society. But as we enter this dark forest – we are finally confronted with the potential of our own unique selves. Our very own flavor, our very own color, our very own taste.
To the extent that we are able to then find our path out of this dark forest – through its many false turns and hidden snags and snares – we start to become truly ourselves. We let go of our persona, whose main goal is to fit in! We become who we truly are – and have always been – although we may not even have known it ourselves!
Admittedly – this finding one’s path out of the dark forest is no small matter. It is, in fact, an archetypal journey for our soul.
But as with all matters archetypal, help exists – only if we stop and look – and trust!
To quote the comparative mythologist, Joseph Campbell:
"We have not even to risk the adventure alone, for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known ... We have only to follow the thread of the hero path. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a God. And where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves. Where we had thought to travel outwards, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”
Hermes: the patron God of travelers
In Greek mythology, Hermes is the God who lives at the thresholds, at the liminal spaces of between and betwixt. He is a patron God of all travelers – whether they be travelers from one place to another, or travelers between this world and the next (the latter role is described as that of the “psychopomp,” i.e., guide of souls from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead).
Hermes is a God of immense complexity and opposing qualities. He has been alternately described as the trickster, the thief or bandit, and the magician. He is depicted as a young God, and as the oldest of all Gods. His child with Aphrodite is Hermaphroditos – the original symbol of the unity of both genders.
The Jungian analyst and author, Murray Stein, in his essay, “Hermes and the Creation of Space,” describes Hermes so:
“Hermes as servant and messenger of the sky god Zeus, Hermes as swift and winged, Hermes as thief and bandit, Hermes as inventor of the pipes and lyre, Hermes as guide of souls and as god of dreams and sleep, Hermes as promoter of fertility among plants and animals and as patron of health, Hermes as god of good fortune, Hermes as patron of traffic and business activities on water and land.”
In ancient Greece, crossroads were marked with heaps of stone in honor of Hermes. In fact, the name Hermes derives from these stone heaps, which were called “herma.” Thus Hermes is “he of the stone heap.” These stone heaps at the crossroads reminded the wayfarer of the presence of divine guidance on the path. Upon arriving at a herma, the traveler would present offerings to propitiate this God of duality. For Hermes is known to have quick changes of mind! (Indeed, in later Roman times, Hermes transforms into Mercury – the God who is equated with quicksilver – neither solid nor liquid – and one of ever-changing hues!)
“Eccentricity:” a lesson we learn from our encounter with Hermes
So, we may ask, “how does Hermes serve as the patron God of the traveler – especially the one who is lost in the dark forest?”
Of course, there are as many answers to such a question as those who seek such an answer. Here is my version.
Hermes intercedes by inviting the lost traveler to let go of fixed positions, fixed identity, and fixed destination. As the dweller at the threshold, Hermes teaches the traveler – the seeker – to move away from the “center” – where things are clearly defined. At the town center, at the place where we know who we are – where we know our roles and professions and what is expected of us – we are unlikely to meet this God with his winged slippers and his unpredictable comings and goings.
Indeed, James Hillman, the post-Jungian thinker, writer, and beloved teacher of many, would often urge his students to stop being so obsessed about becoming “centered.” In his uniquely trickster-ish way, he would challenge his students to instead become more and more “eccentric” – to become their unique selves – rather than a culturally sanctioned cog in the wheel!
The intertwined snakes of Hermes’s caduceus
Hermes carries with him a staff along which rise two intertwined snakes. The caduceus is a symbol of bringing together and “integration” of opposites. Integration is not averaging, it is not about becoming mediocre. It is an invitation to bring together the light and the dark, the masculine and the feminine, the spirit and the soul, the earth and the sky. Indeed, it is the bringing together of life and death – of time and timelessness. It is a “compromise” in the original Latin sense of the word: “com” (with, or together) + “promittere” (to promise). Through the task of individuation, with the help of Hermes’s caduceus, we bring together the promise from two opposing realms – so we may inhabit both and disavow neither – and be able to dance between the two polarities. We become both the earth and sky, both fire and water, both male and female, both lover and beloved.
Discernment and revelation: a practical interpretation of the intertwined snakes
As we become ready to leave to center of the dark forest, we need to pick our path with care, and in consultation with the Gods. This is where we are invited to use the two opposing tools - as symbolized by the two serpents on the caduceus.
The first tool is one of thinking and perceiving, of staying present to what is arising in the moment. This is what has been called “discernment” in the spiritual literature. It is about paying exquisite attention to the choices in front of us, and choosing between them with intention and attention. Do I turn right or left at this fork? Do I rededicate my effort at my current job, or do I quit to follow a newly arisen passion? Do I move to the countryside and live a more monastic life, or do I jump into the sociopolitical fray with both feet?
But as we discern, we need to be equally aware of the presence and importance of the second tool: that of “revelation.” This is what the ancients called “fate,” from Latin “fatum,” meaning “that which has been spoken.” It was understood, of course, that it is the Gods that are doing the speaking. This idea is by no means a Western one alone. In Islam, there is the notion of “Maktoob,” an Arabic word meaning “that which is written.”
Sometimes, our fate is revealed to us with breathtaking intensity. We all know of people - maybe even ourselves - where one outside event has turned around the best-laid plans! Just as someone is contemplating this or that – weighing the pros and cons – separating pennies from dimes – they receive a medical diagnosis that grinds the whole machination to a halt! All the weighing and measuring and balancing are no longer of any use, once the Gods have spoken. When the Gods speak like this, all we can do is drop to our knees in front this immensity!
But we must also remember that not all revelations speak with the voice of thunder. Sometimes, the revelation could just be a simple smile from a stranger, a word on a billboard, or a symbol in an “ordinary” dream. Things that the contemporary dream teacher, Robert Moss, delightfully calls “Sidewalk Oracles.” We must remain open to these omens and oracles that accompany us daily, if only we will listen.
Lila: when fate becomes destiny
The risk, once again, is of becoming too one-sided. We can get so caught up with discerning, that it becomes our next ego project. We can be zoomed in so close to the facts of our life that we lose all perspective. Then, we are deprived of divine grace, or if you prefer, blessings that come from our own souls. Equally, we may just sit around and wait helplessly for the next revelation, for “our ship to come in,” and thereby never embark on the journey out of the center of the dark forest.
But, when we wield Hermes’s caduceus – with discernment and revelation playing off each other – then life becomes an adventure. It does not guarantee a smooth passage or a lack of failure and suffering – but we finally feel that we are taking our fate – the words that the Gods have spoken for us, and transforming it into our “destiny” (Latin: “destinare,” meaning “to make firm, establish”). We are thus finally neither passive followers, nor heartless leaders, but co-creators with the divine will!
The Hindus call this way of being “Lila,” which means “divine play.” And the fruit of Lila is Ananda, or bliss.
May each of us have the courage to inhabit the Lila of our lives! And may we share our Ananda with all our fellow beings everywhere.