Darkness within darkness

I am amazed at the human spirit that falls into the depths but is not drowned, that faces danger but is not lost. I suspect that we all have our own inner darkness that we struggle to overcome. At times the darkness becomes a darkness within darkness, and we feel it as fear. Most of us, most of the time,  come through it and find the light again. In the rhythm of life we only know darkness because we experience light, and only enjoy light because we have faced the dark.
I read a piece in the Guardian a few days ago, in the column "Facing My Fear" a woman wrote of her own darkness within darkness. A cancer survivor, she has to have an MRI every six months for "the rest of your life," according to her nurse. The writer is claustrophobic. The MRI tube is her worst nightmare, truly a darkness within darkness. She fears it worse than the melanoma, worse than dying. How does she cope? Her strategy is to count to 100, and merge her breath with the counting. When she reaches 100, she starts again. But this is no mere recreation meditative practice. It is life and death. It is conquering fear with every breath, with every number counted, until the ordeal is over. More flippantly, the writer promises herself two glasses of wine when she is finally home again! Such is the courage of the human spirit.
Yet, her darkness within darkness is not mine, and probably not yours. For some the MRI holds no fear, merely an annoying process to pass through. For such, to lie in the tube listening to the clanging and banging, the buzzes and hums, requires no great courage, for there is no great fear. For those who love to fly, sitting in the airplane requires no great courage. I admire greatly those whose inner darkness is to be strapped in a chair thousands of feet above the ground, yet who still walk down the jetway to take their seat. Terra firma at destination's end is truly to walk into the light. Name your own fear, your own darkness.
For the last sixteen years I have lived with a condition, early diagnosed as "lone atrial fibrillation"—an episodic rapid irregular heartbeat. I have an episode of it on average about once a month. My cardiologist told me that the condition is not itself life threatening (unless the irregular heart rhythm produces a blood clot and hence a stroke), but that it will only get worse as I age. Atrial fibrillation feels very strange. By now I'm fairly sure when an episode will happen, as I've learned to read the signs in my body, though sometimes I'm take by surprise. The condition can be a fluttering sensation in the chest, sometimes a pounding, sometimes gentle, sometimes rough, always unsettling. It can take heart rate into the 180s. If the episode is of several hours duration, it leaves me drained of energy, listless. I suppose that after sixteen years you'd think that I have come to accept the condition. And to some extent I have. But still, when your heart starts to do summersaults it makes you take stock. For me it has been a frequent source of darkness—sometimes darkness within darkness. And that feels a lot like fear.
Like the writer who faces her fear of the MRI by counting her breaths, I too have a strategy. For me, it also involves following the breath and periods of zazen when in atrial fibrillation. I find it helpful, too, to use essential oils, to engage in qigong massage and acupressure, to sit in the hot tub if available, to read the wisdom of the Daodejing, and to rest. That routine is possible when at home. When at work, or when traveling, it presents different challenges. But you get by, and soon the light replaces the darkness; the gradual light of creeping dawn, or else the bright sun from behind a cloud.
I'm sure that for other folk who the same condition—I think St. Paul would call it a "thorn in the flesh"—atrial fibrillation would be only a minor inconvenience, requiring no courage to deal with. Whatever the case, we all have our inner darkness, and sometimes it will become darkness within darkness. Such is as it should be. How else would we learn to calm the mind, to face the inner demons, and to give hope to others?
Falling into the depths but not drowned, facing danger but not lost—such is the human spirit. I stand amazed.
+Ab. Andy