Last Friday saw my first visit to The Globe in London: the replica of the iconic building originally erected by Shakespeare and his playing company in 1599. I finally found a good excuse to visit - walking passed the venue back in the autumn, I saw a poster advertising an anthology of plays under the title “Dark night of the soul”. The phrase caught my eye because of research I had done as part of my psychotherapy training: an exploration as to how the mindfulness movement might in fact have a shadow side; and how reports of psychotic breaks might be a spiritual breakthrough rather than breakdown, depending on how they are viewed and worked with.
The “Dark night” was originally a phenomenon explicated by St John of the Cross: the need for a pilgrim to enter the dark before any kind of spiritual epiphany. In the case of the anthology at The Globe, the phrase was being used to explore the Faustian myth…
“Doctor Faustus sits in the Wittenberg study, restless for knowledge and frustrated with the limitations of conventional scholarship. Coveting fame and power, the Doctor conjures the menacing demon, Mephistopheles, who offers Faustus a deal: in exchange for twenty-four years of supreme power and service from the demon, Faustus must sacrifice the immortal soul to a fiery Hell. The Devil’s deal is signed in blood and Faustus’ is elevate to unrivalled notoriety and travels the world performing wonders. Yet as time ticks on and Faustus’ final hour of reckoning approaches, the true cost of the bargain becomes an all too certain reality.”
Many of you will know this idea: the act of bargaining appears in many plays, poems, TV series, films, songs across popular culture. I imagine when you read the passage above, you envisaged a male Doctor? Indeed, that was the case in Marlowe’s original play (circa 1592). The “Dark night” production however switches that on us as The Globe explains:
“Throughout history there has been little exploration or discovery of what the Faustian myth means for the woman, the female, or the feminine. Dark Night of the Soul brings together a chorus of female voices at the crossroads, asking the question: What would you sell your soul for?”
So, what WOULD you sell your soul for?
After the performances (a really fun night out), I reflected on this. Not so much the question, but rather how often we all might ‘look to the sky’ as it were and seek to strike a bargain: it might be selling our soul, it might also be promising goodness in exchange for another chance. When I was young, this was a common plea early December - “Dear Santa”….
I stopped believing in God (and Santa) many many years ago. I’m not sure I really ever believed in God (as ‘He’ is portrayed in the Christian faith, or as ‘He’ was presented to me during my Church of England education). But I know for sure there have been times I have asked for some sort of divine intervention in a crisis I faced.
I guess I notice this type of theism even more as someone on the Buddhist path. I don’t practice Buddhism as a religion, but all Buddhist traditions centre on non-theism. The View of Buddhism (and how it helps the practitioner work with suffering faced in everyday life) is how rather than turning toward a force outside of our Self we investigate the nature of mind. In other words, there is no saviour - we must do that work ourselves (by examining our grasping, aversion and ignorance of reality- to name but one of the working methods). Buddhists understand that what we get in life is a function of what we put in i.e. karma. This doesn’t have to be the metaphysical view of being re-incarnated, and what we might ‘inherit’ from a previous life, but rather a more straightforward version. For example, how others treat me will undoubtedly be a reflection of how I treat others.
It’s interesting to consider - how do we sell our souls…and what might we get in return?
Attending the plays have also given me a chance to consider how I still have expectations and desires as to how lifeshould be for me. This has been a great area of growth for me. As someone who sought control (for safety), I am learning to loosen my grip and instead, play with the situations life sets up for me. As spiritual teacher and author Byron Katie says “Life is simple. Everything happens for you, not to you. Everything happens at exactly the right moment, neither too soon nor too late. You don't have to like it... it's just easier if you do.” So as tempting as it is to want something different to what we have (and in Faust’s case, bargain with the devil), what we have NOW can tell us so much that we need to hear.
And the Faustian myth from the female perspective? Well, another reason that the advertising poster jumped out at me last autumn was undoubtedly down to the zeitgeist - a societal awareness of the need to address the patriarchy; and personal awareness of how much I have neglected the feminine archetypes in my psyche. Perhaps a female Faust wouldn’t exchange her soul because she would be more in touch with the feminine qualities of openness, space, and flow? Of course, as I have written before, this is not a gender divide but rather how much we all are (men and women) in touch with the feminine aspects within.
So, an invitation to ponder - as the audience were in the final play of the anthology:
What is your most precious thing? And what would you exchange for it?
If you had one wish, what would it be?
Have you ever "souled" out?