“It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.” – Joseph Campbell

trial by fire

Part of the the Heart & the Law collection

The sun rises. The sun sets. Day after day, we take for granted — in the very grain of our language — the geocentric myth that the sun revolves around us, rather than we around it.

Every day, light shrinks away from us, setting the heavens aflame before fading to azure and then to black; and every day it crawls out from behind the horizon, painting first the sky and the clouds, the hills and the trees and finally the land.

It’s easy to forget from where we stand, but we must remember: light and dark do not rotate around us – we rotate around the light and the dark.


I struggled for a long time with my intensity, with the depth of my feeling. I fought with demons of doubt and despair so deep I could barely dream of dawn. I lied to myself about love and joy, because I saw so clearly how my brightest passions cast the darkest shadows.

This afternoon, two of my friends talked to me about their relationships. As we talked, a couple of themes emerged: the first, we need to be better at trusting our instincts even when our thoughts offer up doubt and fear.

The second came up when a friend remarked to me that she was trying not to be too attached to her current situation. I told her that the flip side of non-attachment, if based in fear, is a lack of full commitment to the moment.

We think of daytime and nighttime as opposites, when in reality they are complementary – one defines the other. Like night and day, many of our emotions have also have flip sides. Anger, for example, is the shadow side of discernment – discernment that defines our personal right and wrong, our boundaries, our limits. Anger often strikes when someone or something violates our definition of ourselves; dismissing such strong feeling outright risks losing sight of why we needed to react.

Just about a year ago, my ex came out from Chicago for the summer. We made a lot of mistakes in that relationship. Things ended badly for both of us, abruptly, without closure.

We fought. A whole damn lot. And then some more. We fought as hard as we loved. As I look back on that relationship, however, that fighting wasn’t a mistake. I don’t regret it because when we lashed out at each other, we did it with complete straightforwardness. When we fought, I knew where I stood. She knew where she stood. And for the first time in over a decade, I was able to express what I wanted and what I needed directly, without a filter, without worrying if she could handle it.

For a very long time, I’d been trying to reign in the darker aspects of my intensity – a fiery independence, a willingness to fight and fight hard for myself – giving preference to the lighter passions, my romantic side. I tried to love fully while holding back love’s shadow.

But not with her.

One of my friends today asked, as she was trying to figure out why a guy hadn’t called her, “if he doesn’t like me, why doesn’t he just come out and say it?

I tried to explain that it can be hard to do, especially if you do like and care about someone quite a lot, but not enough. It’s hard to take that step and say what might seem hurtful or disappointing. And then, because we fail to embrace that shadow, we become less honest, to ourselves — and to those we love.

Someone else challenged me that I liked girls like my ex – who was much younger – because I could control them. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. I couldn’t even dream of controlling her, and her independence tested even mine – these are among the reasons I liked her. I could be me, light and dark, all of me, without limits. And at times it still frightened me to be so raw and unfiltered, ferocious. I could sleep at night, however, because I’d said what I needed to say. I’d been me every step of the way.

It’s so easy to fall back into old habits, so easy to want to show you care by doing one little thing here or one little thing there, even though you don’t really feel it, that someone else wants you to do. Yes just this once becomes a string of yeses, and no becomes harder to say. The shadow side of love gets brushed under a pillow, but it doesn’t go away.

And now I’m feeling more and more drawn to my dark side, to say no just because I don’t want to do something, and not need to explain. To do exactly what I want to do. To show that I care in the ways that express me, that express my care, and not conform to someone else’s definition of caring.

You might say I’m feeling selfish. Selfish – self-oriented – is part of the shadow of love. If love is the coming together, the union of two beings, two complete beings must exist, whole in themselves, before love can come into being.

That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn… Loving does not at first mean merging, surrendering, and uniting with another person (for what would a union be of two people who are unclarified, unfinished, and still incoherent – ?) … Merging and surrendering and every kind of communion is not for them (who must still, for a long, long time, save and gather themselves); it is the ultimate, is perhaps that for which human lives are as yet barely large enough.

But this is what young people are so often and so disastrously wrong in doing they (who by their very nature are impatient) fling themselves at each other when love takes hold of them, they scatter themselves, just as they are, in all their messiness, disorder, bewilderment. . . . : And what can happen then? What can life do with this heap of half-broken things that they call their communion and that they would like to call their happiness, if that were possible, and their future? – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet, VII

I want, simply enough, to be me. For me alone. To love the way I love, not the way I’m asked to love. To sneak off into my silent cave for hours, perhaps days at a time. To reach out when it is in my heart.

And she whom I want will be the one who sees me, who hears me, and her heart knows every word, every syllable, every movement, every action, is wholly me, and wants that from me. Who sees my faults and my feats and needs nothing more than what is, and what could be.

And she whom I want will be she whom I see without a need to change, the good and bad alike. What isn’t perfect won’t need to be perfect, because who among us is ever perfect? And who wants a person with no sharp edges anyway?

But for now my task becomes ever more clear – embrace the dark side of me – the selfish me – give it practice and strength so that I can reassemble myself into the whole being I need to be before I can love another without being disassembled by a union which is not yet for us.

We live in a world of day & night. Our entire lifecycle depends on the rising and setting of the sun each day – to sleep, to dream – and our entire environment needs the alternation of light and dark. So why would we try to deny ourselves for another? To do so kills the life of any honest communion, of any love within which surrender is possible.

I don’t want you – or you – or you, not now. I simply want me. And when I have found me, when I have embraced me, when I have surrendered to who I am, without filter or measure, then, perhaps – and only then – will a you who wants who I am rise up in the east like a sunrise: complete meeting complete, in wholeness.

Clouds and all.

Mila (Jacob Stetser)

Mila is a writer, photographer, poet & technologist.

He shares here his thoughts on Buddhism, living compassionately, social media, building community,
& anything else that interests him.

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