by Grace Ng Dung
We are all intimately aware of our connection with the four elements, whether we consciously engage them in our daily rituals or not.
Yet there is a fifth element (more appropriately the First Element) which is often overlooked, and earth, water, fire and air all revolve around it’s axis—primal darkness & Void.
Darkness, mother of all physics, is the element that initiates, incubates, generates, and transforms.
The void was venerated in countless ancient cultures, who recognized that stillness and darkness are the pre-requisites for change and evolution.
Mimicking nature, they developed rites and ceremonies to weave a chrysalis of darkness around themselves, with the intent to emerge in wisdom and maturity.
Scottish bards used periods of dark “incubation” and isolation when they were seeking sacred songs, poetry, and inspiration.
Sects of Dzogchen monks spent days on end bundled up within caves and darkened chambers seeking clear vision and the intelligence of dreams.
Vision quests of many First Nations people took place overnight, when the spirits would emerge to communicate with the seeker.
Today, our modern sensory deprivation tanks echo the practices of older cultures—many people reporting experiences of deep peace, clarity, and even transcendental experiences while inside them.
Prescribed darkness creates a void, a hermetically sealed space, safe from all stimuli of the external world.
The senses go silent. The void acts as megaphone for the inner voice, amplifying the wisdom, truth, and creativity buried deep within the psyche. All worrisome thoughts and concerns of the ego finally fall away.
But we rarely “prescribe” darkness anymore.
Our relationship to the dark has grown distorted—we fear and deny it—and it has become difficult to find teachers to guide us through dark initiations in the mainstream culture.
The good news is that darkness is beyond human control. She is the original essence, a force of nature, and natural processes can never be stopped—only rerouted.
In an era where we rarely seek the dark externally, she’ll seek us in the most direct route she has—through our internal worlds of the mind, health, and emotions.
Unannounced and unexpected, this is how she visited me.
She came during her season—winter—of 2014. Appropriately, that was the tail end of the Chinese Year of the Snake, a slippery and strange year of molting.
Something very old within my blood was seeking change; she answered the call.
My body set to work spinning it’s internal cocoon—darkness rapidly swallowed my thoughts and emotions, until I found myself in a place that resembled depression.
It started off as very existential. I was wracked with apathy, and couldn’t stop imagining the death of everyone I knew.
Life felt very meaningless and futile.
Despite my best efforts, thinking my way out of it did not work, and usually made the feelings worse. Colors physically lost vibrancy. I had no energy, no desire to be awake.
I’d never been in a deep depression before, and while there’s no doubt that’s where I was, something about it made no sense.
I hadn’t gone through trauma, hadn’t lost anyone close to me, wasn’t really unsatisfied with my life…so where was it coming from?
In my case, the depression wasn’t the effect following an event, but the prequel—the messenger—of what was coming.
In regards to depression itself, I learned it’s like being in love–you can only understand it by being inside of it yourself.
It is palpable, visceral, and apt to completely change you, even if the whole ride feels irrational.
Then there were the panic attacks. I’d be going about my day and suddenly be hit by intense waves of fear that spiraled into a sick sense of dread that some predatory thing was about to catch me.
The attacks also left me hyper-aware, magnifying all sounds, smells, and light, making them somehow sharper and painful.
They became so frequent that they gradually invaded my sleep.
I’d often wake in the middle of the night with the terrifying sensation of having an invisible spectre of fear literally straddling my chest. It was exactly like Fuseli’s nightmare painting.
The anxiety attacks had hijacked my REM cycles, so that each time a REM cycle started it was replaced by an attack.
This also meant I’d stopped dreaming. The one place I could’ve gone to escape the fear & darkness—my rich dream world—was closed off to me.
The anxiety escalated until it overloaded and fried my nerves, and my nervous system decided to shield me from these overwhelming sensations…. by making everything numb.
I plunged even deeper, and met the most ancient aspect of darkness—the Void.
In the void, I felt absolutely nothing. Not even the fear.
If I thought the apathy I’d had before was bad, this was next level.
No emotion. No hope. No desire. In a sense, it was like floating in space.
When I looked in the mirror, I remembered that it was me, but I felt like I was outside of my body looking at a stranger. Nothing felt like it had any substance.
I was always rubbing my hands together, trying to feel my skin because I couldn’t feel my skin anymore.
I ate because I knew I needed to, but I couldn’t taste anything and had no appetite. Music sounded metallic and I couldn’t bare to hear it.
Everything felt so illusory that I felt like I was trapped in somebody else’s bad dream.
It was deeply isolating in a way I can’t truly describe.
Physical contact didn’t help; when I talked to friends or family, it was as if I was talking to them from miles and miles away, even if they were right in front of me. It felt like there was no way to close that immense gap.
One day, reflecting on this void I floated in, I thought “I’ve been abandoned by God.” And I truly felt it.
That surprised me because I never used the word “god” anymore, even though I did have some faith in the forces of the cosmos.
But now it was gone. I felt and believed that I was truly alone, that we are all truly alone, and it had taken me up until now to fully understand.
I imagined that somewhere off in deep space—wherever that is—there was some impersonal being that could see me, and it was shaking its head and laughing that I had believed life was meaningful. I’d been tricked into thinking there was some higher force behind it all.
But I’d been wrong—there was absolutely nothing out there.
I never felt truly suicidal, but I did have this blossoming new kind of sympathy for everyone contemplating suicide.
Because if I could be surrounded by people who loved me, living a life that was externally quite good, whilst I couldn’t feel any of it, enjoy any of it, connect to anyone, or even feel my body,
It was after I’d spent a long time floating in that void (though time is irrelevant there), thinking “why stay? Whats the point?” when I thought “I would never wish this on anyone.”
The thought was like a lightning bolt. I would never want anyone to feel this isolated and disconnected from life. I envisioned millions of people across the world, people I didn’t know, going through the exact same thing.
That was the reason to stay.
I told myself if this feeling didn’t end, if I never got out of it, the one thing that would be of any importance would be helping others going through it, at the very least letting them know they weren’t alone.
And just like that, I felt something. I had empathy.
One extreme—apathy —had birthed its opposite.
The remedy was in the poison.
Because the void, in essence, is paradox.
It’s full and empty in itself.
Nothing and everything.
All of the world is inside it.
The empathy was my lifeline out of the abyss.
I wanted to understand this space, for my own sake and for others.
Searching for stories, I found the others: many of them on the other side of a computer screen, some in the pages of books, and a few within my own sphere of friends.
All had been visited by darkness. The sheer number of people I found brought me incredible relief—what I was experiencing was common, even if it wasn’t popular to talk about.
I’d never been so excited to know I wasn’t unique.
And then there were the butterflies—those people, many of them teachers and guides in one form or another—who had not only plunged into the darkness but emerged from it renewed, transformed.
The insight and stories they shared carried me to the understanding that this state was natural.
Like the three days a snake spends blind while it sheds its old skin, and the weeks a caterpillar spends literally dissolving into liquid and reforming a new body……this darkness was giving me a new life.
It was stretching my soul.
“I see depression as Jung did, ‘the empty stillness which precedes creative work.’ Darkness, whether in mood or in night, is natural. So if we flow with the black bile or melancholia and endure the terrible darkness of depression, eventually we will break through into the light of joy.
Often we need to have the light go out in order to experience the solitude of a dark silence, which helps us germinate or incubate a creative idea or image. Depression forces us to withdraw or retreat in order to conserve energy.
To quote William Styron’s Darkness Visible: Memoir of Madness,
‘For those who have dwelt in depression’s dark wood, and known its inexplicable agony, their return from the abyss is not unlike the ascent of the poet, trudging upwards and upward out of hell’s black depths and at last emerging into what he saw as “the shining world.” There, whoever has been restored to health has almost always been restored to the capacity for serenity and joy, and this may be indemnity enough for having endured the despair beyond despair. And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.’”
— David Rosen, “Evolution of a Jungian Shaman”
There was another thread running through all the teachings and traditions that I encountered—not only was my psyche in the middle of initiation, but it was happening in a specific place outside of time; The Underworld.
I figured out I’d moved into the underworld only after researching the strange cravings that started once I’d quit fighting this whole ordeal.
One of the things I craved was dirt—I imagined dirt constantly, specifically being buried underground.
I didn’t want to be dead… I just felt like if I could sleep in the Earth, under the ground and covered with soil, I would somehow feel much better. My mind could stay empty that way.
I wanted to hear specific sounds, too. I played tracks of thunderstorms and wolves howling, and would lay listening to them every night.
The wolf howling really satisfied me. Then I wanted to hear drumming — not modern music — but repetitive native drumming, echoing a beating heart.
There was a new presence with me; it felt like the great mass made of every human to have ever lived and died was with me.
They had come from inside the earth, and I was part of them.
This territory was disquieting and strange, and yet primally familiar. It felt like I’d returned to an ancient home.
Piecing together my experiences with the teachings of others, I learned quickly that the Underworld is not a myth or poetic metaphor.
It’s a subterranean sphere, outside of time and space, where a part of the soul always resides.
Accessible through the subconscious (our personal underworld), it is home to the ancestral bloodline—that single original bloodline that connects every human on the planet.
It contains the collective unconscious, and houses the memory of all the dead throughout history. It is the matrix where all biological instructions and templates are stored & replicated. It’s the land of the spirits.
One hand of the underworld is the tomb, the receiver of the dead. The other hand is the womb, sending spirit up and back out to the physical plane, where it experiences life in a new body.
After meeting with the ancestral dead, I was prepared for rebirth.
My fantasies about dirt & underground burials faded away, and now—sitting at the back of my thoughts was the image of a massive black hole, and the infinite space of dark matter.
Dark matter, dark matter, dark matter.
I heard the word internally over and over, like a mantra.
I started waking up between 3 and 4 am—no longer from panic attacks, but this time with the curious feeling that someone was in the room with me. Visiting & watching me.
I felt the living presence within dark matter, and I couldn’t deny that it was very female. Subtle but totally undeniable. Female…
Female in that it was nurturing, even if it was terrifyingly vast. Female in the sense that it was the creator of galaxies, the genesis of a trillion solar systems, the mother of time and space.
It’s the dark mother, I realized; not dark matter. And that mother cared about me, because it made me.
Her presence was something I kept to myself, and at first I honestly wondered if she was just a metaphor my mind had given form to.
But in the three years that followed, I’ve encountered a handful of other people following various spiritual paths who all described meeting that exact same presence and called her by the same name.
The phrase “dark mother” intuitively came to all of them.
In his book Waking up to the Dark: Ancient wisdom for a sleepless age, Clarke Strand recounts his own visitations with the Dark mother or Black Madonna, and the deep peace and unconditional love her presence brings.
In closing, he delivers the “Gospel of the Dark”, and proposes that all the answers and healing we seek as a human race could be remedied by cultivating a relationship with this ancient benevolent spirit.
My own relationship with the darkness taught me the true meaning—the original meaning—of the word ‘sacrifice’; “to perform a sacred rite”, to give something away in order to receive something better.
When my dark night ended, the despair, depression, spiritual nihilism, and old identity disappeared. My new life started.
I felt reconnected to every aspect of life—to my family, to friends, to humanity, the earth, the spirit world, my ancestors, the cosmos & stars, and myself. I could feel them all with me.
The irony of truth seemed laughable now—I’d felt incredibly disconnected and alone, only to realize that I was and always would be intimately connected to all existence. Everything is alive.
My fear of dying was gone. I’d stepped out of time and seen the bigger picture, and my purpose in it.
Behind the veil, there really was an invisible pattern weaving everything together. Everything had a purpose, everything was meaningful. Love was behind it all.
The teachings I’d encountered helped me find my own spiritual path within ancient magical practices.
Teachers of traditional lineages also miraculously appeared, and became intimate friends and guides that I’ll be lucky to know the rest of my life.
In that alchemical journey through the darkness, I’d found the philosopher’s stone. Happiness.
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About the Author:
Grace Ng Dung is an artist and illustrator seeking to re-enchant the world. A childhood obsession with books—coupled with a set of angelic parents—pushed her to pursue a life writing and illustrating her own stories. A frequent visitor of Faeryland, she is driven by a desire to illuminate the invisible world of spirit and the human psyche through the use of art, and strives to inspire others to care for the earth. She aims to love more and think less. Visit her at www.gracengdung.com or on facebook.
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