In a Dark Wood
The first lines of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, begin with the words,
Midway this way of life we’re bound upon,
I woke to find myself in a dark wood,
Where the right road was wholly lost and gone.1
Because of the pandemic, it can seem like the whole world now finds itself “lost in a dark wood”. We might have once imagined that our material lives were somewhat predictable; we could visit with family and friends, go to work and school, and celebrate together new marriages, and mourn together our loved ones’ deaths. But no longer. Because of Covid 19, there has been a catastrophic loss of human life. People have lost their livelihoods. No one knows when the recovery will occur. As we are asked to shelter in place, and to stay home, we can feel trapped, constrained, and even imprisoned.
The Persian mystic and poet Hafez offers reliable guidance through these troubled times. The difficult world he encountered in the 14th century sounds similar to our own. He wrote:
Hafez, expect no happiness from this turning sphere, for it has a thousand faults, and does us no favors.2 I see nothing that could be regarded as stability in this turbulent world. Nothing of real value.3
Perhaps few of us imagined that our own 21st century world could be this unstable, this vulnerable to a pandemic, and so easily lost.
Our failure to predict what our material existence in 2020 would require has some parallels to our inability to accurately imagine what our spiritual lives might be like. When we were initially drawn to the path of Surat Shabd Yoga, we might have imagined and hoped for swift inner progress. We read in the Sar Bachan Poetry about the inner regions of magnificent light and divine music. Soami Ji wrote:
With the lightning flashes and the heavens resounding, the dazzling scene defies description.4 How can I describe the splendour of that matchless world illumined by billions upon billions of suns?...Each day songs of joy are sung in his praise.5
And yet the experienced reality of our spiritual journey can be quite different. We might be waking (mid-way in our discipleship) only to find that we appear to be in a dark wood. In meditation, after months and years and often decades, we sit in the darkness and listen only to the silence. We might wonder whether we have lost our way. We ask ourselves, what is wrong with us? We wonder where that early enthusiasm has gone when we first set out to find truth, reality and joy. As Hafez observed, “For love that at first seemed easy turned difficult.”6
Thank God, we have the masters, and the saints who have traveled this road to God-realization before us. They encourage us. They remind us of our life’s objective. The masters continually urge us to reassess our priorities and our choices. And they offer us the guidance of the mystics who know their way around the ‘dark woods’. The saints know that such a troubling forest is also holy ground. Such a landscape is frequently in our best spiritual interest and designed to move us forward. As Hazur wrote to a disciple: “It is He who sends us happiness and it is He who sends us pain, depending on what is best for us at the time.”7
He wrote in another letter:
All existence is checkered with light and shade. Storms do come and blow away but that should not shake us. If we do our daily duty – the spiritual duty – as promised at the time of Initiation, we will have the strength and confidence, and the mind will be calm and undisturbed because of faith in the Satguru. The Satguru always helps and supports us but, if we are regular in bhajan and simran, we can see and feel what the Master is doing for us.8
The Satguru sustains and supports us in the midst of the turbulence in our lives. And the masters recommend that we listen to the testimony of the mystics who have also traveled these challenging woods. Hafez is especially eloquent about the many treasures to be gathered when darkness comes close, when we might feel we have lost our way. Gifts like:
- We experience a deep sense of loneliness. We are given the gradual awareness that the only companion that we want and need is the Master. He is the one who can give us eternal companionship. Hafez wrote: “Bring me a trace of the dust from my loved one’s door….I have grown old in exile and estrangement.9… Life’s joy would be fulfilled if, for just one day, my daily allowance was to be with you. With you, one year would go by like a day. Without you, one moment seems like a whole year.10 … What need have I of society, when I have you? Why should I want company, when I can be alone with you? Why should I criss-cross the desert, when I know where you dwell?”11
The Master is the one who is always near us. Our eyes don’t see very well in the dark. It is not always possible to know the help we are receiving. But the masters assure us that grace, assistance and love accompany us at all times. We are never alone. Yet we experience the pain of separation. As Hazur explained, “…the greater your sorrow, and the more you miss me when I am gone, the more effort you will make to see me within yourself, and until you achieve that goal your effort may be compared to the anguish of a woman in labor.”12
Hafez felt the full anguish. “I sigh for poor Hafez whose heart has been driven insane by your absence.13 … “Never will my heart ever become used to separation. Never. Your wound is better than another’s ointment. Your poison better than their antidote.”14
Hafez understood the benefits of his suffering. “Hafez, do not complain of the pain of absence, for in separation there is union, and in darkness, light.”15
- We do what we can do. We might want to still our minds, using the mind, but that is not possible. (Only the Shabd can bring the mind under control.) We might want to surrender our will, but that can only happen when we are no longer following the dictates of our minds. As satsangs are cancelled and as centers close, we might find that even the seva we used to do has been taken away. But now, there is new seva! Baba Ji himself, in his letter to us all, asked us “to show our support and sensitivity by fulfilling our social responsibilities…to stay where we reside, and to restrain from travel that is not absolutely necessary.”
Every time we wear a mask, every time we socially distance ourselves, every time we wash our hands, we are serving the master and the sangat and our brothers and sisters. Every time we offer selfless assistance and kindness to those in need, we are doing seva. We, of course, always have our most essential seva to work on, and that is our meditation. Hafez, says to his master, “Alas I have not yet sacrificed everything to you. Love’s labors means I still have much to do.”16
So we do what we can, and offer what we have. But it is important to remember that the service we give to our Master always falls short. Hafez freely confessed his own poverty.
“Destitute, broken, I come to your court for mercy. For apart from you, I have nothing myself. No hold on life other than your affection.17 … My bewildered heart repeats only your name… If the impoverished lover scatters before you the false coin of his heart, do not chide him. For he has no other money.18 … My heart had resolved never to be without that friend. But what can we do, my heart and I, now that all our efforts have proven vain?”19
The answer to that question is that we can, and must seek refuge with the one who can help us through this storm. What was true for Hafez, is true for us. “I have no refuge in this world other than your threshold; nowhere to lay my head except at your door.”20
- We know that we don’t know. In a dark wood, we can finally understand that we don’t understand at all. We don’t know where we are, or what is happening to us, or what comes next. As Hafez admits, “Hafez, our existence is an enigma. Our answers only fables and spells.”21
Once we are thoroughly bewildered, we then have to trust our guide to take us out of here. As we come to realize our own blindness, we turn to the one who has the vision, the experience and the merciful compassion to free us from all prisons. His grace, his protection, and his assessment of when and how we will move forward is what we rely on.
Perhaps one day, we will finally be able to answer the question, ‘who are we?’ The story is told that “someone once asked an old monk to talk about himself. After a long silence, the old monk responded, My name… used to be… Me. But now…it’s You.”22
In Persian, the word sabr means patience, resilience and endurance.23 Humbly, obediently, trustfully, we can move gracefully through shadow and light. Knowing that our Master is with us will give us that patience, resilience, and endurance to weather every storm, and to rest, at last, in his arms.
I confided in the wind all my fond hopes.
Trust in God’s grace, the wind replied.
The evening supplication, the morning prayer
Are the keys to the treasure you are searching for.
Go forth this way and the road will lead you
To the one who is the keeper of your heart.24
- Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy (The inferno), Canto 1, lines 1-3, Dorothy Sayers, tr. (Baltimore: Penguin 1959)
- Hafez: Translations and Interpretations, Geoffrey Squires tr., (Oxford, Ohio, Miami Univ. Press, 2014) p. 49
- ibid. Pg. 210
- Soami Ji (Shiv Dayal Singh), Sar Bachan Poetry, (RSSB, 2002), p. 11
- ibid. Pg. 15
- Hafez, op.cit, Pg. 3
- Maharaj Charan Singh, Light on Sant Mat (RSSB, 1974) p. 132
- ibid, Pg. 139-40
- Hafez, op.cit, p. 142
- ibid, p. 274
- ibid, p. 368
- Maharaj Charan Singh, St. John the Great Mystic (RSSB, 1971) p. 144
- Hafez, op.cit, p. 243
- ibid, p. 200
- ibid, p. 53
- ibid, p. 148
- ibid, p. 152
- ibid, p. 115
- ibid, p. 189
- ibid, p. 224
- ibid, p. 102
- Theophane the Monk, Tales of a Magic Monastery (New York: Crossroad, 1981), p. 18; in Parabola Journal Vol XVIII, 2, May 1993, p. 62
- Hafez, op.cit, p. 263
- ibid, p. 294