17 March 2015

The Psychological Distress of Transformation

Darkness :: Week 3 

Recently I made a 4-day private retreat to devote time to nurturing communion with God. I visited my favorite Benedictine monastery on the Nebraska plains.

The short hour and a half drive is just long enough to let the weight of my responsibilities roll off my shoulders—like a good forward fold in yoga. Driving into the retreat center in the middle of Midwest farmland always feels like coming home.

And so, as I entered my little monastic cell, it was if I was coming into shavasana after a long, intense asana workout.

I thought I would be inspired to write during my retreat to solitude, silence and stillness. But I was surprised to discover how tired I was. This often happens when we withdraw from our normal, active lives. We find we’ve been going quite hard and strong and in the embrace of sacred space, we can let down.

I ended up taking two–count them—two naps on Saturday. The first one happened after a long walk around the lake. I lay down on a bench to gaze at the sky soak in the warmth of the spring sun. I was in the the flight path of the Canadian geese. These extraordinary creatures were making their long flight back north and I enjoyed watching their flight pattern—the way they worked together and took turns leading.

Another bird in the distance sang a simple song of just two notes, rhythmically, over and over again like a monk’s chant, and I fell asleep.

The second nap took place later in the afternoon. I couldn’t continue to fight the impulse of my body to crawl into bed and drift to sleep. So I relinquished my will to have a “productive” retreat (I know. The antithesis of retreat. :-/) and gave into the familiar invitation to be completely still and silent. I slept about an hour. Still, how hard it is to let go of doing and simply be.

The retreat proved to be a necessary departure from productivity; a practice in being. The days were marked with deep peace, a sense of being held and connected and an understanding that everything belongs.

When the solitude, silence and stillness lifted, I made my way back to Omaha. And along the way something happened that threatened to unhinge me from my sense of belonging, being held and connected. In the grace of the retreat I received greater awareness of my connected-self sense. Following the retreat that consciousness was severely tested. Darkness set in in waves and waves of terrifying fear, anxiety and worry.

It’s not as if my fears came out of nowhere. There was real life stuff that played to anxiety. That’s the thing. Incarnation. The stuff of life, our circumstances, intermingle with our divine humanity giving us opportunities to experience faith, hope, and love as well as fear, despair and antipathy.


I was in distress and being called to greater faith, hope and love.

The temptation was to act on the dark energy that was coming to the surface in me and project it onto someone or something. The invitation was to ride out the turmoil with the presence of God; to let God evacuate these deeper layers of my separate-self sense and bring me into deeper union with God.

As I mentioned last week, dark seasons are often marked with really tough questions; questions of identity.

Who am I? Who am I called to be in the circumstances of my life?

Who is God? Is God real? Is God present in my life circumstances?


One moment we can be perfectly fine and the next we’re struggling with tumultuous thoughts and feelings of doubt, fear, loneliness, loss, anxiety and worry. Something happens and we’re triggered. The darkness that had been buried in our unconscious begins to surface.

The spiritual journey is not divorced from our physical and psychological reality. Incarnation. God has chosen to make God’s home in us. The Divine takes residence in our human experience. And so as we grow in our capacity to make conscious room for God in our life and in our being, a struggle takes place between our low and limiting human nature and our high expansive divine nature. (Romans 7:13-25)

Being transformed into the likeness of Christ is a delicate process of psychological consent, crucifixion and resurrection.

As we agree (consent) to God’s presence and action in our life, the darker parts of our humanity gradually surface and manifest in a separate-self sense that is plagued by fear, doubt, anxiety and all other emotions that constrict us and cause us to close in on ourselves, becoming increasingly self-absorbed and unavailable to the world around us. At this point we experience darkness. We feel separated from God. This is a period of necessary purification.

In the spiritual journey, as the darkness in our psyche surfaces, our separate-self sense is called to die (crucifixion), over and over again at ever deepening levels, so that the mind and heart and very life of Christ can emerge (resurrection) in us in greater measure.

On the spiritual journey, there is certainly some darkness. But the light always dawns. Enjoy The Five Stairsteps as they remind us in their classic 1970 R&B hit “Ooh Child” that when our head is clearer, we will walk in the rays of the beautiful sun.

Darkness does not have the last word.


  • Remember the last time you were unhinged from your higher, freer self. How did you feel? What were you thinking? How did you act?
  • Remember the last time you were living from a place of being connected, held, at one with yourself and the world. How did you feel? What were you thinking? How did you act?
  • Notice the difference.