My darkness falls suddenly and without warning. One moment I am looking up at the night sky, marveling at the stars scattered like diamonds on a jeweler's velvet, the next I am held from behind with a blindfold across my eyes. Then I am spun three times so I am no longer certain of direction and led into a darkened room, where I will stay for five nights, always in darkness, blindfolded for most of my time there.
This is not a kidnapping. It is a ritual procedure conducted in Haiti as part of the ceremonial process for initiates into Vodou, the Caribbean religion born of African shamanism and carried to the New World in the enslaved hearts and souls of shaman-priests and princes.
A psychologist by training and a writer by profession, I am in Haiti to study Vodou for a book I am writing on traditional spirituality and why it might be needed and important in the modern world. But Vodou is a secretive religion—not surprising, given the harsh treatment of the slaves who practiced it, many of whom were murdered by their masters simply for praying to their own gods—and the only way to know it is to be initiated into it and become a priest. This is what I have chosen to do.
Initiation involves a number of ceremonies and warrior trials, most of which are conducted publicly before the village community. But some, like this particular ritual, are different because, once blindfolded, I am required to spend the requisite days in confinement within the sacred space of the djevo, the heart of the Vodou temple. During this time, the secret teachings of the religion will be passed on to me and I will be visited by the spirits themselves, feeling them as a presence or, more directly, either through the possession of the priests who oversee this process or perhaps through my own possession. Darkness is central to the experience, and it is the darkness that fascinates me most.
I always imagined that being alone in the dark would be isolating, perhaps even frightening. In fact, my body finds it deeply comforting, though I am aware of my mind working overtime, chewing over questions that, on inspection, seem quite meaningless, and chattering on just to save itself from silence.
There seem to be layers and layers of voices in my head, each one with a personality of its own. Psychologists call these subpersonalities. We imagine ourselves to be one consistent person with a stable worldview, but in fact, if we listen to ourselves, we realize each of us is legion.
I can immediately recognize three such voices in myself. The critic is the first. She speaks with a woman's voice and wants to judge me for getting myself into this situation of potential danger and so many unknowns and for not taking my responsibilities seriously. After all, I have children at home who love and need me. The critic delivers a rage of sarcastic comments—"You've done it again, you fool! You've got yourself into another ridiculous mess, lying on a dirt floor, blindfolded, in a jungle hut. It's always the same with you; you never learn!"—before she is silenced by another voice, that of the kindly parent, who answers, "Leave him alone. The boy has to learn. He has to experience the world, because that is what being alive is all about!"
Finally there is the voice of the scientist, the impartial observer who walks between both judgments and offers an "informed" and "objective" view of what is actually happening and why. The scientist thinks himself superior to the others because of his objectivity, but it is this very thing that stops him from feeling and distances him not only from the experience but, to some extent, from humanity itself.
And then, ironically, I'm back in the cycle as the critic leaps in with her new judgments—"You've done it again, fallen for the game of the rational mind, gotten involved with the voices in your head!"—without realizing that she herself is part of this game. It is quite remarkable how easily we slip into mind-stuff and are lured away from simply being, from feeling something and experiencing our lives.
After a few days of this going around in circles in the darkness, though, something new and surprising happens. My mind, having exhausted itself, perhaps, or having no more visual stimuli to feed and distract it, begins to grow quiet. I notice that the chatter has stopped.
From this point onward I feel an opening up of myself. The priest calls in the spirits, who appear through possession states and offer advice, counsel, divination, and healing secrets or who carry out healings of their own on me. While my rational mind, just a few days ago, would have questioned all of this, I now accept it. In fact, I more than accept it: I feel the healings as they take place. Something shifts in my emotions as I drift in mythological, landscapes in the darkness: at a deep, nonrational level I know that of course these healings are real because I experience them as real.
One version of reality tells me that my body is lying on a dirt floor in a squalid hut, but in my mythological mind I am in a great temple, surrounded by gods and goddesses, great pillars of gold, wise elders, visionaries, and master physicians. I no longer know or care which, if either, of these versions is true. What is truth anyway? What is reality? Aren't both simply what we choose to believe?
What I believe right now is that I feel comfortable and comforted here. I am held, loved, supported. I am blissful. This, then, must be the reality of my experience, what is actually happening. I relax even more and drift into dreamscapes. From somewhere I hear the words of Joseph Campbell advising his students to follow their bliss because it is the only way to truth. "The adventure is its own reward."
Hours pass, days—but perhaps they are years or only seconds. In darkness it is hard to tell. This place, this state of being, is as timeless as it is spaceless, with no exact location except in my dreaming mind. But there comes a moment when time returns: my blindfold is removed and I am taken from the djevo and presented to the sun.
This is the first time for days that I have seen nature: the forest, the sky, the earth. Perhaps it is the first time I have ever really seen it, because now everything is alive and different—vast, beautiful, breathing, pulsing, glowing with energy, and singing of its own existence in the hum of cicadas and the whisper of breeze through leaves.
Then, at this most sublime and magnificent moment, I have a Homer Simpson realization: "Doh! It is alive, you fool!" And suddenly I see what I have forgotten or not noticed before: Nature is a living thing and I am part of it—creating this vision, created by it. The it and the I are one.
That grand and inexplicable landscape of mythology that I have been a part of for days (for my whole life, in fact, though I have not been aware of it) is right here in front of me, in the world all around me, the greatest dream of all. The adventure is its own reward.