“There is mud, and there is the lotus that grows out of the mud. We need the mud in order to make the lotus.”
~ Thich Nhat Hanh
Over the past few years, many of us in the helping professions have noticed an emotional shift that feels like a sense of gloom hanging over much of our universe. Many factors have no doubt contributed to these feelings, such as personal, political, environmental, and global issues.
Some people have found themselves harboring a deep sense of darkness or negativity, but the fact is, there is no darkness without light. That is, we would not be able to understand the concept of dark feelings if, at some point, we had not seen the light. In most cases, for happiness to ensue, there needs to be a balance of lightness and darkness or, as the Taoists call it, the yin and the yang.
It’s true that sometimes the darkness overshadows the light, and for some people, it can be difficult to focus on positive thoughts. For very sensitive individuals, watching or listening to news broadcasts can be overwhelming and unbearable. As such, many have simply chosen to completely shut themselves off from this type of negative information overload.
Two rather simple ways we can quash any feelings of despair or hopelessness is to engage in mindfulness meditation and to foster a sense of interconnectedness with those who make us feel good.
As a resident of California, over the past two years I learned a great deal about the power of interconnectedness when my community was afflicted by both fires and mudslides. In many ways, these apocalyptic events have felt like rites of passage in a sense. People have asked if the universe was giving us a message, but I find more comfort in believing that life just happens, and that during these times, it’s important to tap into our heart centers.
While navigating those dark times, I remember reaching out to my spiritual adviser, who suggested sending a prayer to those in need, but also to check in with myself first and answer the following questions:
- What is my body feeling?
- What emotions am I feeling?
- What are the messages from my heart?
- What is my soul/spirit feeling?
One of the world’s most prominent spiritual leaders, and an individual I hold in deep regard, is Thich Nhat Hanh, who has often spoken about how, without bad times, we wouldn’t recognize the good ones. He has also advocated the importance of interconnectedness. The idea is that when people come together, there’s a gathering of energy, concentration, and compassion that emerges as part of the collective consciousness.
In his book No Mud, No Lotus, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote about collective suffering and collective joy. He recounted how he was in California on September 11, 2001, and how he had to shift the focus of his talks to calm all the strong emotions around him. But, at the same time, he found strength in all the energies being harnessed in the form of activism, which ultimately emerged as forms of healing and resolution. In Buddhism, anything we do as a community that encourages a sense of interconnectedness can be a powerful way to help us navigate our way through the darkness.
It has been said that we cannot know the light without experiencing darkness, so most spiritual individuals perceive dark and light experiences as great teachers. Sometimes the darkness might even be a more powerful teacher than the light. Growth and transformation, in fact, are born out of darkness. Carl Jung said that when light is made, so is the shadow, or what some might call “the darkness.”
Taoist principles also come into play in this discussion. In the circular symbol of yin and yang, the black swirl is associated with femininity and the shadow, or the trough of the wave; while the yang or the white swirl is equated with brightness, passion, and growth. Everything possesses both the yin and yang, and they are inseparable and ever-changing. In fact, that’s the story of life: nothing is static.
Thich Nhat Hanh said, “If you know how to make good use of the mud, you can grow beautiful lotuses. If you know how to make good use of suffering, you can produce happiness. We do need some suffering to make happiness possible. And most of us have enough suffering inside and around us to be able to do that. We don’t have to create more.” (p. 14)
Hanh, T. N. (2014). No Mud, No Lotus. Berkeley, CA: Parallax.
Singer, M. A. (2007). The Untethered Soul: The Journey Beyond Yourself. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Books.
Snow, K. (1994). Keys to the Gate: A Woman’s Spirituality Sourcebook. Santa Barbara, CA: Bluestone Books.