“I wish I could show you, when you are lonely or in darkness, the astonishing light of your own being.” ~Hafiz of Shiraz
One week before my twenty-ninth birthday, the love of my life broke up with me. The pain of it was agonizing, heart-stopping. I could not think. I could not eat. I could not sleep. I could not breathe.
I expressed and released pain, anger, denial, guilt, sadness, and on and on, until I exhausted myself. The bottom had dropped out of my life, and my sense of self was left shattered.
If I could be so wrong about something I had felt such certainty about, I thought, then there was nothing that I could possibly be right about. I was tragically flawed and inevitably doomed.
So I did something desperate and extreme. I dropped out of graduate school, gave away all my furniture, threw away most of my belongings, and moved across the country.
My intention was escape: to run from the darkness, as far and as fast as possible, and to somehow exchange my old, broken life for a shiny new one.
It didn’t work the way I expected it to.
Instead of the dynamic new life in a vibrant city I had envisioned, I created instead an involuntary retreat into solitude and self-reflection.
Moving far away changed only my environment; it didn’t change my internal landscape at all. After the excitement of change of scene faded, I was left with the one thing I couldn’t leave behind: me.
Because I didn’t know anyone, I spent a lot of time alone. This was back in the days before social media, before the Internet was what it is now, and way before smartphones.
I put pen to paper and wrote, a lot, just to purge the thoughts from my head. Many days passed for me in silence, simply because there was no one to talk to.
In my search to understand why something so unbearably horrible had happened to me, I embraced with passionate zeal every tradition or tool for healing and self-knowledge I could find.
I meditated, I did yoga, I breathed; I learned about the Saturn Return, the chakras, flower essences, fasting, mantras, shamanism, dream work, the I Ching.
All of this helped, but still, I was left with the dull, leaden weight of my loneliness.
I didn’t know how, but I was determined to find a way out. I clung to that intention for dear life: not the belief that it would get better—I wasn’t quite there yet— just the possibility that it could.
After a few months of existing from moment to moment with my solitude, I began to see myself more clearly, stripped as I was of everything familiar and alienated from everyone I loved. And slowly, surprisingly, and strangely, I began to notice qualities in myself that I didn’t know I possessed.
Because I did everything by myself, I learned self-reliance. If I got lost while driving, I had to navigate my way out of it. If my car broke down (which it did), there was no friend I could call for help.
I learned to take risks. Because everything I did was fraught with uncertainty, I realized that I could go out on a limb and figure out how to deal with it.
But even more than that: I found out that eating one perfectly ripe peach on the way back from the farmers’ market was an exquisite experience when performed solo and in silence. I could enjoy watching a fantastic movie even if I had no one to talk to about it when it was over. I could walk on a beach at sunset and appreciate the beauty without aching for someone to share it with.
My internal landscape had become, to my amazement, rich, complex, and interesting. The gradually dawning knowledge that I could not just survive alone, but feel whole and happy—even in small bursts—was a revelation to me.
Out of the ashes of a devastating personal loss, I found an unlooked-for self-respect and a renewed excitement about living my life. Gradually, a vision of myself emerged, contrasted against the darkness that had enveloped me.
Since then, of course I’ve had other experiences that have pushed me to an edge, but I’ve found my way back to center each time by drawing on the essence of who I am.
It doesn’t mean I’ve lost all my flaws or figured it all out. I am always me in those ways, too. I can still be critical of myself or get distracted by life’s endless dramas or get wrapped up in anxiety and worry. But I know that I have a map that can get me back to where I want to be instead of being stuck someplace awful.
It can take time to find the way back, but you can be sure of the way by keeping just a few things in mind.
When something unthinkable happens, the question isn’t Why? The question is Who?
Who are you? That’s the only thing you can really know. Let what is inexplicable be inexplicable. You can’t change what has happened and you can’t control other people. But you can choose to let adversity teach you something about yourself.
If you lose everything, you are still you.
Nothing that happens, no matter how bad, can erase who you are. You are always you, no matter what happens. Experiences may change you, but deep inside there is always that shining seed of self, the blueprint of who you truly are, guaranteeing the possibility of renewal.
Loss allows space for something else to take root in you. You can let it be wisdom, not bitterness.
When everything else has been taken away, you have a choice to mend the pieces that are left or to stay in the shadowlands. When you move in the direction of wholeness, the power of your intention can ignite your own personal revolution.
An open mind and an open heart can turn the key.
It is hard work to generate gratitude and serenity when you are suffering. Luckily, just wanting to be that kind of person can be enough. With your intentions set in the right direction, peace and contentment will find you.
In persevering through my own darkness, I found a self—call it my authentic self, my immortal soul, core being, my heart center and sanctuary—who can survive whatever life throws at me.
My experience has taught me that the human capacity to endure—and to do it with grace, courage, and joy—does not really depend on anything outside of ourselves. Even when life seems impossible, the brilliant light inside yourself is enough to see your way through your own darkest nights.
Photo by Angela Marie Henriette