Night Sea Journey

The period of greatest gain in knowledge and experience is the most difficult period in ones life. ~ Dalai Lama

When I was a child, I would spend hours by myself getting lost in a world of story books.  One of the books I pored over was a children’s bible and one of the stories that really captured my imagination was the story of Jonah inside the body of a large fish, popularly thought to be a whale.

My understanding of the story is that Jonah was ordered by God to go to the city of Nineveh to prophesy against it. Jonah wasn’t happy with this, so he decides to flee from “the presence of the Lord” by sailing to Tarshish, which, geographically, is 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

A huge storm arises and the sailors, realizing this is no ordinary storm, cast lots and learn that Jonah is to blame, throwing him overboard, at which point the sea calms. Jonah is miraculously saved by being swallowed by a large fish specially prepared by God where he spent three days and three nights, before it spewed him out on dry land.

In Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul the story of Jonah is recounted by the author who explains:

Because the story is associated with the sun setting in the west and traveling underwater to the east to rise in the morning, this theme is sometimes called the “Night Sea Journey.” It is a cosmic passage taken as a metaphor for our own dark nights, when we are trapped in a mood or by external circumstances and can do little but sit and wait for liberation.

Moore goes on to write:

Imagine that your..suffering, is a large, living container in which you are help captive. But this container is moving, getting somewhere, taking you to where you need to go. You may not like the situation you’re in but it would help if you imagined it constructively. Maybe at this very minute you are on a night sea journey of your own.

I find this metaphor really striking and it makes me think back to being in the midst of my cancer treatment. I remember feeling as if time had been reduced to round after interminable round of chemotherapy punctuated by an interlude of recovery between the sessions, before going through it all again.  I felt as if I was in suspended animation during those months, that life as I knew it had stagnated.  And yet, something was happening – the big fish was moving slowly forward, in quiet motion, calmly riding the waves, carrying me towards a new life. I was being shaped by this experience in ways I didn’t yet understand.

Something was incubating in me as I sat in the womb like body of the whale. It was a time of waiting and trusting – trusting that the toxic medicine which was making me so sick, was also curing me of the cancer.Trusting that I was being prepared in some way for a new life. I just love what Moore says about this mythical night journey:

In your dark night you may have a sensation you could call “oceanic” – being in the sea, at sea….The sea is the vast potential of life, but it is also your dark night, which may force you to surrender some knowledge you have achieved….The night sea journey takes you back to your..original self, yourself as a sea of possibility, your greater and deeper being…By riding the wave of your dark night, you are more yourself, moving toward who you are meant to be.

Are you on a night sea journey of your own? Do metaphors, symbols and images help you to make sense of what you are experiencing in life? While those around you expect you to make sense of your experience in practical or medical terms, can you go beyond this and find a deeper understanding of who you are and what you are going through right now whatever that difficulty might be?