Most trees and plants grow by reaching upward toward the light while sinking roots into the darkness of the earth.
We grow as we look upward and let our hearts expand with light and joy. And it feels good to feel rooted as well. But there’s another growth path that’s not much fun.
It’s the downward path. Think of “crashing,” “bottoming out,” “losing control,” “horrible suffering”—the stuff none of us would deliberately choose.
Many wisdom or spiritual traditions recognize two paths to awakening. The first is sometimes called the “via positiva,” the upwardly striving path that takes us toward the light. Many spiritual practices strengthen our capacity to connect to a higher plane of existence, the numinous, the transcendent.
But there’s another path, the “via negativa,” which embraces the downward spiral, the suffering, and the idea that we cannot always be in control.
It’s not such a popular path. Who craves the dark night and the opportunity to fall apart?
The way down
Fortunately, we don’t have to want the path for suffering, tragedy, or grief to find us.
In On Becoming an Alchemist, author Catherine MacCoun describes a vertical axis connecting the upward and downward paths of inner growth. At the “top” is our connection with spirit, or our higher self.
At the “bottom” is the growth that happens when we fall down, lose control, and lose a conscious connection with a higher self. Joining this path is not something we choose—it just happens. Grief, loss, and catastrophe don’t ask for permission to do the heavy lifting of shattering our complacency, humbling our sense of in-controlness, and devastating our sense of self. During “a dark night,” we may descend into a world where we don’t know who we are, or where we are.
Many of us have experienced this descent, if only for moments. We receive the call that our child has died or that cancer is taking a loved one. An accident or tragedy brings unbearable suffering. We feel ripped apart by the loss of a job, marriage, home, or body part.
We bottom out. And then, hopefully, we grow.
A journey down
I had the tiniest taste of this when returning from a recent trip. For the most part, the trip was wonderful, offering me lots of time with a favorite friend. But under the surface was the current of a different reality: she is seriously ill. I felt fine when I boarded the plane to fly home and fine when I headed toward the Uber pickup area. But maybe I was kidding myself. Or maybe I was pushing too hard to get to the ferry that would take me home.
Whatever the cause, my cool evaporated when the Uber app failed me. For 25 minutes, my supposed driver and I shouted to each other over the phone, “Where are you? Where are you?” At that point, I knew I would be missing my ferry. And I started to melt down. Forget about being a mature seventy-year-old woman. I felt myself becoming quietly hysterical—and then discovered that I’d lost my wallet.
That’s when I crashed. Obviously, my mishap was nothing when compared to experiencing the fires in Lahaina, the war in Ukraine, or the illnesses of friends. But my body didn’t stop to consider this as I spun out.
I’ll spare you the details of how I made it home. The unexpected kindness of a stranger made it possible. I was humbled.
I woke up the next day as if hung over—in some alternate reality of sorrow, loss, and shame about my spacing out and losing a key belonging. I used my old mantra for hard times: Put one foot after the next. That’s when I remembered the power of being humbled. And MacCoun’s words about the need to sometimes travel the downward path.
What we learn by breaking apart
When I taught leadership, I challenged my adult students to consider when they had learned the most in life. (It was never in school!) They described small tragedies: losing a job, marriage, family member, or friend—which had forced them to grow. Despite the past pain, they were always grateful.
My little wallet-losing event gave me a small taste of the journey down, when we feel like we are:
- Losing control
- Falling apart
- Unable to believe that something is happening to us
- Confused, angry, shocked
- Furious that the universe or God let this happen
- Ashamed about our weakness
- Abandoned, anxious
When we hit bottom, something may shift. In the aftermath of an accident, loss, or tragedy, I have also felt:
- Clear that somehow I would make it through
- Relieved to just be present
- A calm sense of surrender and peace.
We usually don’t stay on the bottom, or at least I haven’t. We eventually rise. As we do, we can reap the gifts of the darkness:
- Compassion for others who are suffering or who have gone through great loss
- Connection to the planet and its many beings
- Greater sense of presence and gratitude for the small things of life
- Awareness of the incredible beauty around us
I’m not advocating for accidents or tragedies that can brutally break our hearts. Yet these things may happen. If we’re lucky, we become stronger. I am most attracted to friends in my life who have been tested and toppled, only to rise again.
Sometimes when we rise again, a new healing is possible.
Sometimes when we rise again, we see the world differently.
Sometimes when we rise again, we can begin to soar.
After three days of praying for my wallet and wrestling with its loss, my errant belonging was found at the airport— lighter for cash but otherwise intact. I was so grateful for its return and also for what I learned from the experience.
Once again, I realized that life isn’t set up to always go our way. I felt a deep connection to those who are suffering—in ways more dramatic than I may ever know.
And I remembered that life, even when it knocks me down, still holds an incredible beauty waiting to be noticed.