“The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.”
— Joseph Campbell
Today is the day after Good Friday.
The day of sitting in darkness. The day of reckoning. The day of death, slow and silent and heavy upon you.
The day of facing that cave you fear to enter, going inside, and sitting. Staying there, through the discomfort and pain and terror.
Facing the monsters that meet you until you see yourself and shame becomes acceptance.
Perfect love casts out fear.
To be perfect means to be whole. To be perfect in love means to love the whole self.
When you love and accept your whole self — every part, every shadowy dark place, every secret, every fear, every desire — you can love the whole self of others.
Because when you love your whole self, you see that you are no different.
There is no other. We are all capable of the greatest, highest good and lowest, darkest evil. We are shadow and light, sweet and sour, every dichotomy poured into one package.
The Bible says we have this treasure in jars of clay. How fragile we are, how powerful, how complex, how simple, how human, how divine.
Let’s go into the cave. It can be scary to go alone. Let’s go together.
One step then another, we get closer. We’re taking our time.
Here we are, in the opening, the heavy, jagged rock arcing over us. The sun on our backs, all the sounds of life behind us. Birds calling, wind pushing the trees around, voices, color, light, a world of movement and sound. The shadows of the cave are lighter here, the edges of shadow just there, at our toes. We feel the cool air waiting for us. We see how the shadows deepen, how the air gets thick and cold and dark.
Let’s take a few more steps.
Amazing how quickly all the noise and light and movement fades. It’s another world now. Like when you dive underwater — deep, deep, as deep as you can go — and everything above the surface is muted and hazy.
And now we must part ways. I can’t go any farther with you. This is your place.
I squeeze your hand, look into your eyes. You’re scared, I know. I see it. It is scary. We’re all scared of what we don’t know, what we can’t see. This may be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. But I know you can do it. You can face it. I’ll be waiting for you.
You nod. You know: this is the path. You can’t go forward without going into this cave.
As much as you love the light, you love yourself more. Or you want to. And right now, that means going into the darkness.
You step forward, not quickly but without hesitation. You’ve made the choice now. You won’t be stopped. The shadows close around you as your footsteps fade into silence.
When the disciples went to the empty cave, calling, looking for the body of Jesus, they didn’t find him.
They found the grave clothes he had left behind.
The wrappings of the dead. Discarded. No longer needed.
What has death to do with life?
The Bible calls it Christ in you, or the Christ mind, or the Holy Spirit.
Other traditions have other terms. We could call it consciousness.
Let’s call it your spirit. The part of you that can’t be named (that’s why we have so many names for it).
Everything you carry — everything that is not your spirit — is in question now.
What belongs with you? What doesn’t? What serves you? What controls you? What is a burden, a weight you no longer need to carry?
You can go into the cave with all sorts of shit, but you’re going to come out much lighter… or you’re not going to come out at all.
It’s weird how clearly you can see when you’re sitting in a cave, in complete darkness.
Here are some things I’ve found in the cave:
- Desire for control
- Worrying about the rules
- Need for approval
- Desire to be “good”
- Lots of rules (If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.)
- Lots of beliefs (Being a woman means it’s my job to do all the emotional care-taking and hold all the shit together.)
- Lots of shoulds (You should always be polite. You shouldn’t ask for what you want directly; it’s rude.)
- Lots of definitions (Meeting needs and fixing problems is what love is.)
- Lots of formulas (If you are real about who you are, then you’ll make people uncomfortable and they will reject you and you will be alone.)
- Lots of fear
And lots of other fun stuff, too!
Wait — what? Is this the treasure I was promised? Is this all that’s in the cave?
Let’s take a closer look. Maybe there’s more here than I think.
Let’s crack open this little fun pack of Defensiveness.
What’s inside? Oooh, interesting. Familiar faces: self-righteousness, resentment, anger, offense, self-pity.
What is all this doing here? Is it serving me, or is it controlling me? What does my spirit want, and how does this Defensiveness multi-tool give it to me — or not?
It serves me when I want to protect myself from being hurt again. Or at least I think it does.
That’s what I use it for — if someone’s hurt me, I pull out the multi-tool and I am ready to handle it.
Sense of superiority? Check.
That keeps me from really listening or trying to understand their silly reasons or justification, so I won’t be fooled into believing them and getting hurt again. I wear my self-righteousness like armor. I use it as an excuse for staying in these shitty feelings and trying to control things: whatever mistakes I make, they’re certainly not as bad as the hurt I’ve been caused. Self-righteousness build an easy bridge to self-justification.
That makes sure I’ll never, ever, ever let them — or myself — forget how they hurt me, so I won’t let my guard down and I won’t ever let it happen again.
Anger? Oh, yeah, of course.
Anger is the cover emotion of all cover emotions. When I feel sad, hurt, rejected, abandoned, betrayed, broken-hearted… well, that’s vulnerable. It opens me up to being hurt again. So instead, I’ll feel angry. Anger is powerful, aggressive, demanding, proud; and it feels much, much safer than that other stuff.
I keep the hurt close. The pain is always simmering at the surface. The smallest thing can bring it up, boiling. It’s sensitive, fine-tuned for danger, because this is how I will protect myself: I will keep it sensitive, keep that wound open and then I will never relax and so I will never get hurt that way again.
Of course, I’ll have to keep living in the pain of the original wound to prevent the potential pain of some hypothetical future wound.
But that’s not important, right?
Because I’ve still got self-pity.
It’s me, myself, and I, and we’re all very hurt and sad, and hurt about being sad, and we want everyone to know that our hurt and our sadness is undeserved, we are innocent, we have done our very best, we have been patient and long-suffering, we did not deserve this, and no one understands how deep the pain, how long the suffering, how cruel the wound, how unfair the experience, how wrong wrong wrong we’ve been treated. Undeservingly, of course. You can’t feel sorry for yourself if you can see your own responsibility for the pain.
All these tools I use so well to guard and protect myself against pain.
But is that what I really want? To be protected from pain? To be closed in, closed up, simmering with hurt, alone with my self-righteousness and anger?
Sometimes it’s what I feel like I want. My hurt feelings roar, my brain screams at me, my memories and beliefs and fears talk a good game about self-protection.
But my spirit tells a different story.
I want love. I want connection. I want freedom.
Defensiveness gives me none of those things. It does not serve me. It controls me. It keeps me locked in this dark place. It it not the treasure: it is the dragon, and to get to the treasure and get out of this fucking cave alive, I have to kill it.
Of course, I can’t kill any part of defensiveness with aggression: that just creates more defensiveness.
My sword for this battle is having no sword at all.
My shield is being open.
Letting myself feel with this other person who has hurt me: empathy. Letting myself see the wound, the cause below the surface, the feelings I don’t name, the responsibility I don’t take: honesty.
When I feel with the person who hurt me — when I empathize — I change.
Suddenly I’m feeling their pain, and I get it: why they’re lashing out, why they’re wounded and defensive, why they made mistakes, why they withdrew, why they hurt me. Empathy is not to excuse or justify bad behavior or convince myself to tolerate more of it; empathy is to gain understanding of why it occurred.
And when I understand why someone has done something, I can’t sit in judgment anymore. I can’t believe my self-righteous assumptions anymore. Because now I know. I know the pain and confusion and heartache and longing that led to the choice, whatever it was. And when I know, I can’t hold on to the superiority and judgment and separation. I can’t believe it, because as soon as I feel it, as soon as I understand it, I realize: it could have been me.
When I connect with this person’s feelings, when I get it, when I empathize, I am identifying the same feelings in myself. I am seeing the same capability, the same potential. Otherwise, I couldn’t understand. And seeing that the same feelings, the same motivations, the same potential is in me, how can I judge and blame and separate?
It could just as easily have been me.
Had the situation been reversed in some way, the roles switched, the game a little bit different… I could have been the one to cause the hurt, make the mistake.
And as I open to this truth, as I open, as I let myself see what is, the defensiveness fades. I don’t have to fight it. I don’t have to overcome it. I just have to realize that it’s not serving me. It won’t protect me from future pain; all it does it keep alive the pain of the past, by dragging it into the present.
It is a burden I do not have to carry. It is not serving me, and I will not let it control me.
That’s the story of what I’ve found, and a battle I have fought, in the cave I feared to enter.
You will have your own stories, of course. Your own battles. Sometimes you will get scared — the dragon looks so big — and run away, hide, try to ignore it. Sometimes you will get wounded. Sometimes you will get tired. Sometimes you will get lost. Sometimes you will want to give up. Sometimes you will give up.
But you won’t give up forever.
You will remember. A voice will stir your memory.
You will think of light and calm waters. You will swear someone calls your name. You will have dreams. You will sit awake at night.
You will feel an energy you don’t understand. Something won’t let you give up. Something won’t let you go.
Remember me? I’m waiting. We all are. We cannot fight the battles for you — every one must go in alone — but we send you love. We send you prayers, energy, thoughts, help, words, memories, stories to encourage you, to remind you: you’re not alone. Not really. We toss in candles and blankets and loaves of bread to guide you, warm you, sustain you.
And we wait in faith for you to emerge, resurrected, triumphant, bearing your treasure, into the glorious light. It will be a great party.
Oh, you’re wondering: what is the treasure? When do you get it?
Well, when you slay the dragon, you get the treasure.
Maybe you’re wondering if it’s worth all the trouble.
What’s left in that cavern when the dragon dies? The cavern gets lighter. You look around. The dragon’s body disintegrates, disappears. (Don’t ask: it’s magic. Just go with it.)
You check the corners, walk the walls. Nothing here. No pile of gold coins, no scattered jewels. No bones, no weapons, no amulets, no secrets, no scrolls, nothing.
This cave… is empty.
There’s a pool of clear, still water. You go for a drink, lean over, look in — and stare. You’re glowing. Your eyes are diamonds. Your face is gold and silver. Your mind is blazing with holy fire. Your heart is a wellspring of life. You look at yourself, and you know all the secrets.
You are the treasure.
You always were. You just needed to see who you really are.
Go in the cave and dump that old shit. Do the thing. Kill the dragon.
Come on out when you’re ready to party.