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Waking Up is Hard to Do: The Dark Side of Enlightenment

Silhouette figure with rays of light

Olena Abazid/Thinkstock

What does it mean to wake up, to be a fully realized human being? For those of us who might consider ourselves everyday people with a spiritual inclination, enlightenment can sound so alluring, so desirable.

As we lean in the direction of our awakening by listening to our higher yearnings, and as we consciously and slowly awaken by paying attention to all that is happening around us in our world, it must be said that this shared human longing to be free is, to me, like carrying a burden. Now that simple racist comment at the office bugs us, those slights toward the masculine woman or effeminate man make us feel more and more uncomfortable, etc., as we begin to wonder how those who are impacted by this type of non-physical abuse might feel.

We awaken to the understanding that those who say hurtful things would certainly say them against us if we fit into one of their despised categories. We might feel utterly powerless to stop people from being mean-spirited, so we wonder why we even care in the first place. We may be so used to shrinking back from fear of conflict that now we feel powerless.

Disturbingly, we also realize that we may share these powerfully negative feelings somewhere deep within our own psyche. As we awaken, we begin to understand through personal experience that we are all in this together, we are more similar than different, and all of us are creatures of dark and light. It is here, in this murky awakened place, where our richest, most powerful and transformative work lies.

Carl Jung, the famed Swiss psychiatrist, believed our main task in life was to discover and fulfill our deep innate potential through a journey of transformation he called individuation. It was a journey that allowed the individual to meet the self and the Divine at the same time. Roughly, it amounts to accepting your dark and light energies.

Jung explains: “There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

In making darkness conscious, we face our worst possible fears about ourselves and about humanity and we do not shrink back. We do not encourage these fears nor do we give our power away to them. Simply, we face them. It’s Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars movie when he entered the forest and battled a dangerous enemy, only to realize he was fighting himself. And make no mistake, it is a battle to the death. One of them will be victor.

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross reminds us of this when she says that beautiful people don’t just happen. Beautiful people have known loss, known suffering, but have found their way out of the depths. Beautiful people have a sensitivity, an understanding for life that fills them with compassion.

Compassion is the ability to have concern for the misfortunes of others. Compassion involves empathy, the ability to have psychological identification with (or vicarious experiencing of) the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another. Empathy, we soon realize, is often an uncomfortable experience.

As we seek to awaken so that we may manifest our own beauty while in this world, we must ask ourselves: Can I sit with these things that make me uncomfortable without trying to fix them, erase them, or make them all better?

When we are willing to sit with our own discomfort, rather than trying to change it, something happens within us. An alchemical shift occurs, and our suffering becomes imbued with meaning. Even if we lose that battle to cancer or ALS or even depression, we have won the war if our hearts have broken open to compassion. We have fought the good fight. We have chosen a more enlightened path, ironically, by allowing the darkness to become our teacher.

Will Donnelly

Will Donnelly is a nationally recognized, certified yoga teacher and writer, and is the author of “Practical Yoga’s Wisdom for Everyday People: Essays & Inspiration for Life" (2017), a compilation of his most popular online essays now available at Will has been a pioneer in the field of yoga, developing Practical Yoga, and co-creating a yoga–reality series for fitTV (Discovery Communications, 2004). As a writer and teacher, Will encourages all students to trust their impulses and find their true voice. Will currently lives in Hawaii, where he leads weekly yoga and writing classes at Kalani retreat center. He also leads several popular Practical Yoga adventure and healing retreats throughout the year. Information on retreats, his book, DVDs and other inspiration to be found at

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Practical Yoga's Wisdom for Everyday People: Essays & Inspiration for Life 
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Book cover

Someone to Watch Over Me

A Spiritual Workbook for Children & Families

Someone to Watch Over Me is a sweet little gift for connecting with one's inner spirit, for giving voice to one's inner being, and for connecting one's essence with Guardian Protectors or Guides.  Simple and inviting enough for children, lucid enough for adults...a precious offering."

Edward Espe Brown, Zen Priest, Author of The Tassajara Bread Book et al

This entry is tagged with:
CompassionAwakeningInner SelfFearConscious Living

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