The Darkness Within Light

by Philosophy

Ever stare at a candle-flame, focus on the wavering and flickering quality of its nature? There comes a point when the flame is all you see, everything around you fades away into darkness and there’s a feeling of centeredness in which the attachment or association your thoughts have with the so-called external reality is reduced to a fraction of its normal energy-draining experience. For decades, ideas often associated with the self-help movement and various forms of spirituality, have been thrown around, promoting positive thinking as a war against negativity. Often it’s connected with the fight against cancer in which negativity lets cancer win and more simplistically with attracting monetary wealth. Positive thinking has a long history of running up against the difficulties of life and saying that a smile and a chuckle will do what dedication to work often won’t.

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I am not removing the power of looking at life through the lens of more positive framing. Our experiences are shaped and the particulars of them focused on through the emotional lens applied. How many of us, has decided to force a smile and view things from a different perspective, only to find our anger and negativity waning and opportunities that were unseen suddenly becoming noticed? It was not creation going on here as much as the opportunities always there in potential, invisible until our minds opened the space for them. This experience of positive thinking is essentially the positive side but like all good ideas, the attempt to frame the whole of existence through only one lens gets us into trouble. What happens in this myopic view is not the renewal of positive thinking but the erasure of all other kinds of thought. The exclusion of all else ignores the breadth of human experience.

Just as a continued focus on depression, negativity, and worthlessness can close a person off to the very real facets of life that are important, beautiful, and ecstatic, so a simplistic willful focus only on positivity can blind one to very real difficulties that are nipping at our heels and sometimes beating on our back. This is, what Ken Wilber notes, a refusal to see life as a system of interlocking nests within nests or contexts within contexts all the way down, in which one method of inquiry within one context is broadened to all, losing nuance and the acknowledgment of a differentiated reality.

So why the candle example? A flame is beautiful, giving light, giving warmth, associated with the crackling flames of a roaring fire and the tenderness of a romantic dinner. If focused on too long, however, everything else disappears and becomes ignored eventually leading even this singular vision. A flame does not exist without fuel, without a context through which it exists. To focus solely on the flame is to ignore the multi-faceted reality which gives it form and forget the thought and intent which brought it into existence. The flame that began as warmth and object of focus becomes a consuming and destructive fire.

I remember learning to drive and getting my first car, a rather horrible vehicle that signified so much of the journey through adolescence. If I were to focus only on the vehicle itself I’d lose the context of its associated goodness, the laughter among friends, transporting nine people at a time all piled in, and the freedom of travel. If I focused solely on the associated good times I’d lose track of the terrible gas mileage and the way the brakes seized up and almost ran me off the road. There is no singular view that encapsulates the totality of the experience of owning that vehicle and I do my life a disservice by focusing on one to the exclusion of the others. Good and bad here are less important than the meaning and lessons learned from reflecting on the whole of that time.

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I want to note a slightly different framing here, that sometimes the “darkness” is actually truth under a false light. The desire within positive thinking is, I believe, reactionary, an offering to counter the supposed negative or mechanistic soul-denying view of a purely scientific/technological reality. While there is legitimacy in this framing of the scientific view of reality, it is itself a reactionary position against the ideological context that science grew out of. In a time where truth was dictated by religious declaration and those who questioned the divine nature of these declarations were killed. It is little wonder that science began and was fueled by an abject denial of the spiritual and sought to boil everything down to a flatland of mechanisms, or as Wilber says, “its.” This is not the world of science today, however, as specialists recognize the interconnection of various disciplines and there is a willingness, not to blindly accept the mystical but, to account for it a space of meaning. Science has always been constrained and found freedom within the principle of contextual-criticism. One’s ideas are acknowledged for their particular contribution and critically analyzed for their ability to account for the information available to a greater or lesser degree than so far offered by others. Indeed, it is here in this “darkness” of critical uncertainty that truth is so often sought and found. Light being light is already illuminated and serves not to broaden our vision but to showcase where we have yet to look.

As a flame flickers we can notice the light and the shadows it illuminates. Avoiding the over-reliance on intuition and the human tendency to be overly emotional, allows us to perceive both the light and shadow of our experience. We can embrace our pain so we can revel in our joy. Our perspective does indeed help shape our world but it is not the only act in town as even that perspective is given shape and nuance via variables over which we have no control. We can and should burn with the fervor of seeking truth, the universe is a life-giving spectrum of possibility becoming actuality, though a responsible traveler will do so with an eye towards the dark of an uncertainty asking for a light.

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