The dark woods is a powerful image for the place of depression or grief. It feels solitary and disorienting, and we may have trouble finding a path leading out, in case we wanted one. Sometimes it is lonely, in the quiet place where nobody can hear us. Time seems to stand still. When we make progress but still haven’t emerged, people say we’re “not out of the woods yet”.
Spirituality plays a part in the journey through the dark woods, and emerging at the edge. We are in an alien world; it may feel wild and enveloping and without boundaries, as if it will go on forever. Depression is like that. It takes time for us to notice soft moss and birdsong, hints of life continuing in the midst of our inner darkness, and to make friends with any part of this place. It is the role of therapy to help us move out of the dark woods as quickly as possible, back into daylight, where we can see the path ahead of us and resume our comfortable lives. It is the role of spiritual guidance, by contrast, to help us slow down and adjust to the unfamiliar and disorienting darkness, and to not miss anything that may later seem important.
The edge of the woods is a place of spiritual significance. The edge is the place of transition between worlds, where the darkness and intimacy of the woods becomes bright daylight and open space. The edge has ambiguous, filtered light, not fully in the woods or outside it. Sometimes, in our life journey, we are between self images, and must wait for clarity, often in an uncomfortable place. Perhaps an old relationship has ended, or an old job no longer fits. Perhaps our familiar world has been torn apart by a natural disaster, and we are at our most vulnerable. Emerging from a time of darkness and reentering the world of everyday, is not usually a return to the same life we left. The person who emerges from depression as a healthy human being has changed, sometimes in unexpected ways. The edge of the woods is the place where we get our bearings, and figure out who we have become.
Places of profound change are sacred ground, and we do well to pay attention. We are fortunate if we have good friends to be with us when we sit at the edge of the woods, and come to know ourselves again. We may not intend to visit such places, but we certainly know when our journey has taken us there. It is a confusing place. Spiritual guidance is the discipline of listening supportively with a person who is at the edge of the woods. Upon reflection, we may find unexpected gifts there.