My Dark Night of the Soul in Aid Work, Part II

This week an anonymous Missing in the Mission blogger shares what she terms her ‘dark night of the soul’, in the second of a two-part post. Grief can be scariest when it seemingly erupts out of nowhere, yet refuses to be stemmed.

Read Part I here.


Original artwork by Francesca Belardini Arte.

Fast forward to August 2012. My dark night of the soul had been triggered, I believe, by a Qi Master I just happened to be put in touch with through an advert I’d seen offering 40% off an acupressure treatment. The Qi Master had massaged gently around various parts of my body before telling me with a look of concern on her face that I appeared to be holding in a lot of anger, as my liver was extremely blocked.

According to eastern medical traditions, which she’d studied and followed for years, blockages in the body prevent the circulation of vital energy known as ‘qi’ (chi) which in turn can have a deep effect on our emotional wellbeing. Unlike Western medical sciences and their propensity to isolate pain to one particular area of the body from which it originates, Eastern traditions see the body as a whole, with qi acting to ignite every part of our being, determining our mental, physical and spiritual health.

I went home from my massage slightly baffled, both by what the Qi Master had told me and by the unfamiliar pain I’d felt when she was massaging my midriff and abdominal area.

The next morning it felt as if what I’d been bottling up for so long was quite literally popped open, and out came a flood of difficult and frightening emotions. It was an outpouring of grief – of uncontrollable tears, resentment, anger and despair that lasted until the end of the year. Rather than run away from it, I tried to embrace it as best I could. I went back to the Qi Master and had more treatments. I started participating in regular group chanting sessions, something I’ve never done before and often shied away from. I meditated – either in stillness, or dance, or slow, mindful movements influenced by Qi Gung and other ancient Eastern traditions. I began to understand what was happening to me without fearing it; I was processing and healing from what had hurt me in the past and which I’d chosen to bury, quite literally, in the pit of my stomach. In Eastern traditions the liver and intestines are the place where anger is often held.

Still the tears kept coming. I was going through a shedding process, yet I did not know for what reason, and what it was to lead to. All I could know was that a big change was taking place within me, and I just had to let it happen – the laughter, the tears, the heartache, the anger – they all had to wash through me, and I had to embrace them in order to truly heal.

What did all this mean? I was beginning to realize that there was no point in trying to understand or intellectualise these experiences. Ultimately, we either feel something or we don’t. I had come from an unreligious and unspiritual background, and the only ‘wisdom’ I had known about for most of my life was to be found in books. At least that’s what I thought for so many years, as I led my life doggedly following my head over my heart.

But August 2012 changed all that. A chance encounter with a Qi master had caused me to burst open, and out came a flood of emotions, passions and vulnerabilities which my domineering head had suppressed all my life. From there on, through the fog of darkness, uncertainty and fear I began to seek a deeper clarity than what I could find through mere rational argument or debate. My dark night of the soul, as frightening as it felt, was a rite of passage; it was a call to go deep inside myself, beyond pretensions, aspirations or false identities. It was an opportunity to feel the transformative power that we all hold but are often too afraid of, and to take a brave step forward and away from old habits which have been damaging to me and to others.

And now? If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the last few years, it’s that transitions take time. But I’m in a very different place, with a very different approach to my life. Since 2012 I’ve done one of the hardest jobs of my career in the aid sector and although there was emotional turmoil, I felt better equipped to just be with it and stay present, whether through yoga, meditation or whatever other practices work for me at the time. I understand but am not ashamed about the limitations of what I can do in the pursuit of justice and an end to suffering in the world. I’ve realized that this work is more about building power within ourselves, to see our role and purpose in this complicated world we live in, than it is about ‘empowering’ others.

I also understand and respect the need for self-care as we work to support others around us, whether near or far. If we are to feel fully able to face what can be insurmountable challenges in aid work, it is essential for all of us to take the time to slow down, to check in, to listen to our heart (or liver) and what it is trying to tell us. To have quiet solitude – whether through walking in the forest or sitting by candlelight. And to not be afraid of what we find in those moments, as there is probably a deep and life-changing lesson to be learned. These lessons help us better understand ourselves and each other, and see more clearly where we stand in this shared humanity.

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