The Valley of the Shadow of Death
The 23rd Psalm. It’s probably the most popular of the Psalms, and I’m sure you are all familiar with the words: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me…”. Trouble is, I think. that while the words may be quite comforting for people, very few really understand them or what “the valley of the shadow of death” really refers to unless they have descended into it consciously. While it is also true enough that in all probability it refers to a geographical place– the accursed Valley of Hinnom also called “Gehenna” — very little in the ancient world was only geographical, but was also. and principally, symbolic or spiritual form, or what we today would call “archetypal form”.
And so, “the valley of the shadow of death” is also archetypal, and is also this phenomenal world of Time and Mortality, which is called “samsara” in the East or is called “Ulro” by William Blake, for the “shadow of death” hangs over, and covers over, all that is time-bound and temporal, corresponding to the law of impermanence. In those terms, the “valley of the shadow of death” corresponds to what Marty Glass (in Yuga) refers to as “the Fall Into Time”. The “valley of the shadow of death” not only corresponds to the “dark night of the soul” of St. John of the Cross, but has its correspondence in Hermetic philosophy and alchemy. In our terms, today, we might also think of the journey through “the valley of the shadow of death” as “chaotic transition”.
The “valley of the shadow of death” is a real spiritual place, and not just a metaphor for our descent into, or passage through, this world of Time and Death we call “samsara“. It is the realm of the Shadow, which is represented in alchemical symbolism by the Sol Niger — the “Black Sun”.
I am going to tell you of my own descent into, and journey through, the valley of the shadow of death, which is also the domain of the Shadow and of the Black Sun.
It was while I was a second year university student that I became interested in Carl Jung’s manoeuvre called “active imagination” which is basically a form of mindfulness practice. Active Imagination is simply a process of letting go of normal everyday thoughts and allowing the contents of the unconscious to emerge into consciousness without prejudgement — just observing in an unattached way — neither steering or directing — the flow of the images, moods, and such that enter into the field of awareness. This is a very effective practice, but one that also brings you into contact with “the Shadow”.
It was a few weeks after I had begun this practice that I awoke one morning to a strange and terrible world, which I remember as my “Days of the Black Sun”. At this time, I wasn’t even familiar with the Black Sun as an alchemical symbol or of any of the mythology of the Black Sun, which I only came across later in trying to find answers to this experience. But I remember it now as “the valley of the shadow of death” and the shadow of death as the Black Sun.
The world was cold and colourless under the light of the Black Sun. If you think of a negative of a photograph, that is the appearance the world assumed for me then. People around me appeared to be phantoms, except in one respect, that their eyes had a strange, but demonic and sinister, glow. The light of their eyes was clearly visible, but had the same cold and colourless quality as the Black Sun. I endured this horror for three days, and the only reason I probably didn’t lose my marbles completely was because I knew it probably had something to do with my explorations of “active imagination”. On the morning of the fourth day, after a pretty tense and sleepless night, I went early to the university, before sunrise, and sat waiting for the dreadful Black Sun to rise again. But instead of the cold and colourless shadow of the sun, what rose was the warm and colourful sun, and I was happy to see it. So, those were my own three days in Hell, in the valley of the shadow of death.
In those terms, I can say that I passed through the valley of the shadow of death, and I know what the Psalmist meant by that. Today, when I think of our present “chaotic transition”, I also am reminded of those days of the Black Sun.
Was it a transformative event? Did any good come of it? I can’t really say yes or no. The only difference afterwards was that, while before I had been a lazy and somewhat mediocre student, afterwards I aced all my courses, and eventually graduated with the highest grade point average of any student in that graduating year.
That description of my “days of the Black Sun”, which was like living inside the negative of a photograph (a nihil) — my own journey through the valley of the Shadow — might dissuade people from the practice of “active imagination” or mindfulness. While I can hardly blame people for avoiding that, it’s also a pity, because I know that if we don’t face it in ourselves, we will have to face it in other terms — as even our present ‘chaotic transition’. One way or another, either within or without, we all have to face the Shadow, and undergo our own descent into, and journey through, the valley of the shadow of death, for this Hell is pretty much what we are traversing right now.