Nigredo: Ocean of Darkness, Ocean of Light

Nigredo: Ocean of Darkness, Ocean of Light

In this year’s cycling through the stages of the Hero/Heroines’ Journey we come again to the Nigredo – the place of transformation. I believe to our great loss we have forgotten or suppressed essential information about the Nigredo, both as individuals and cultures. If I could give a pill containing the Open Secrets of Transformation the medicine in that knowledge would serve every person on the planet. We would all know transformation is essential, and that we will come through to the other side changed but whole. The results would be astounding and we would leap forward into a new way of being here now.


Photo by Thibault Penin on Unsplash

What is an Open Secret?

Something that everyone knows or could know if they chose, but that is not identified or talked about as common knowledge. In individuals and communities it includes behaviors that go unrecognized or undiscussed. Usually open recognition brings about change. It can be anything from an individual’s bad breath to bad planetary air. It can be the unspoken goodness found in personal lives or in the unrecognized millions working to save the planet’s ecosystems. It can be unspoken knowledge of a person or culture’s view of gender preference or greed and addiction to power. Silence, Propaganda, Oppression and Payoffs are used to keep Open Secrets tucked away not quite in everyone’s sight.

Open Secret #1 about Transformation: It is Constant

We are transforming every moment from conception to death. Every moment something in us is dying and something else being born. Erik and June Erickson explore in detail the stages of human development – stage, age, and the transformation necessary to go on to the next stage. The baby dies away as the toddler is born, etc. These stages don’t stop at age 20.

Ocean of Darkness, Ocean of Light

The planet of which we are a part has dark and light in equal measure only twice a year, when it goes into the Equinox balance. That’s it – the rest of the time we are tipping more into light or into darkness. People suffer from too much light (sunburn) and from too much dark (SAD syndrome). At any given point of clock time somewhere the oceans are in darkness or in daylight.

At a grim point in 1970’s I was sitting in Boulder Friends Meeting (Colorado) and the economist Kenneth Boulding stood and said this:

There is an Ocean of Darkness and an Ocean of Light:
the one has never overcome the other.
– Kenneth Boulding

If you google his name you will see what Kenneth looked like, his informed views on our economic realities, and how to build a stable society based on peace. He was not afraid of the dark.

We might have been taught it is not safe in the dark. We might have been taught that the dark is evil and the light good, to therefore avoid or shun the dark within and without us, weed it out, and live only in the light. The forces of evil are often referred to as the forces of darkness, and those of good as the forces of light. Depending on the subject under discussion we might be in a room where we see the Other as a force of darkness and find it hard to realize they see us as one also. Evil can be Evil in the eye of one beholder while another sees the same action as Good. It’s an unfortunate metaphor and we pay high prices for investing in it.

An aversion to darkness leaves us unprepared for the wealth found there. Millions of people live in cities that light up the sky at night, and don’t know the cycles of the moon or see the stars.

If we remember instead that dark and light are twin halves of the same whole, we get a little closer to the Yin/Yang symbol. We are a living, moving dance of both the darkness and the light that are in us, individually and collectively. One creates the process of transformation in the other and vice versa.


Photo by Martino Pietropoli on Unsplash

Shadow and Self

Carl Jung proposed that we have undeveloped parts of ourselves he named a shadow. Wikipedia has an excellent article about his life and his helpful contributions to our understanding of ourselves and our society. The points I want to make about Shadow are about the necessary integration of the “dark” to the “light” portions of ourselves – a process of transformation.

For Jung the goal for each person was to develop their true Self, the being we were born to be before adaptations from trauma, or family/cultural conditioning. The integration of our shadow self is important to the whole Self, recognizing and honoring that part of ourselves in “that dark region of the personality which is unknown and unrecognized” – (Depth Psychology and a New Ethic, Erich Neumann)

Recent work on Jung’s ideas by Thomas Singer adds that there is a cultural layer of the psyche in each of us as well, and Donald E. Kalsched suggests this layer is vulnerable to being hijacked.

Singer’s talks at the 2022 Jung in the Heartland Conference are:

  • Cultural Complexes and the Soul of America: A Way to Frame the Psychology of Polarization How do cultural complexes contribute to the profound divisions as well as the possibility of soul making in the U.S.? This talk focuses on the interrelationships between soul, cultural complexes, and polarization in the United States today.
  • The Imaginal as a Way to Heal Polarization in the Individual and Collective Psyche This talk will focus on how the imaginal can provide ways of “seeing” our individual and collective splits in the hopes of finding ways of healing and even transcending them.

Kalsched’s recent book: Wrestling with our Angels: Inner and Outer Democracy in America Under the Shadow of Donald Trump

These important, new ideas were helpful to me in this exploration of the Oceans of Light and Darkness, and particularly in deepening the story of Koschai the Deathless (below).

Dark and Light in Fairy Tales

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”– Albert Einstein

Einstein’s quote is also about Emotional Intelligence. Fairy Tales teach that there are forces in the world that are not friendly to human beings, and how you can survive and thrive regardless. There is a Nigredo point in every story, and the Hero/Heroine transform and succeed in saving themselves and most often others. Our emotional selves need this information.

During the last couple of generations there has been a tendency to either remove the fairy tales from our view as children, or to literally rewrite them without the dark. A quick personal example was a requested script on Grimm’s Hansel and Gretel. In the story Hansel can see only the Gingerbread Witch who feeds his greediness, and Gretel can only see the Dark Witch who will eat Hansel once he’s fat enough. In the script we had the witch be either two actor/dancers working back-to-back or a single person in a two-sided costume. Blocking permitted Hansel only to see the lollipop witch and Gretel only the other. The director of the play removed the Dark Witch (it would frighten the children) and put in two Gingerbread witches.

Children are already frightened by both inner (e.g., nightmares) and outer demands (e.g., to “grow up”, change). Fairy Stories let them know they will go through many different Roads of Trials, Nigredo deaths/transformations, and make it to the Gates Out. Fed on a diet of Gingerbread, protected from the “dark and evil” things in our gestalt, what resiliency can they have when they meet the shadow, or find themselves in the unexplored dark?

Suicide is a major issue in our time. It goes past statistics when it’s someone close to you. People ask “Why?” I am not naïve in believing that the person raised without true Fairy Tales may not understand the process of transformation they are undergoing. They enter the Temenos and feel trapped there, or think that they are dying (the old self is!) and don’t know how to get to the Gate Out.

If you were not raised with Fairy Tales, nothing stops you from reading them now. If your Head doesn’t understand them, your Emotional being will. Try reading aloud, maybe to another person, or listening to a podcast. If you find a story that resonates, read it to yourself or listen to it over and over. All of you is listening.


Photo by Ridwan Meah on Unsplash

Koschai the Deathless: Refusing the Nigredo Transformation

Going further in: Koschai the Deathless stories tell us what happens to someone who refuses to even consider transformation. By the time we meet Koschai the Magician in the tales, his soul is hidden away from any death inside nested objects (like a Russian doll): an egg inside a duck, duck inside a rabbit, the rabbit in a chest, the chest buried or chained up on an island far from human habitation, reachable only by riding Koschai’s magical horse. The magician has spent his lifetime protecting his soul in many different guises rather than transforming it as he matures. At each crisis he added another protective layer.

The objects vary:

  • Some stories start with the soul in a needle inside the egg.
  • Some tellers take license with what precedes the egg and duck, and the list can be quite long and include farm animals.
  • One teller asks the audience for what’s next (often a cat inside a dog).

A Wikipedia entry summarizes Koschai the Deathless, character and stories or if possible, read the originals in the Russian Fairy Tale Book.

In the HellBoy world Koshchei the Deathless is a six-issue miniseries written by Mike Mignola and illustrated by Ben Stenbeck. It’s also a trade paperback published January to June 2018. I suggest you Google HellBoy, Koschai: it’s a fun search. We are provided with Koschai’s backstory:

  • An old monk records Koschai’s history
  • Good man but authoritarian until corrupt figures beat him
  • Dragon finds him and rescues him for seven or nine years of service
  • Leaves, marries a Princess who kills him
  • Dragon finds him again and saves him again
  • Dragon teaches him magic (perhaps to be finished rescuing him)
  • Koschai hides his death (his soul)
  • Without it he has no mercy

I think the Dragon is attracted to Koschai in the first place because he recognizes a kindred greediness. Greed is a Deadly Sin. Its Quickening Cure is Compassion/Mercy. The dragon saves Koschai twice, teaches him survival skills. Koschai does not transform.

When we literally or emotionally beat the perceived “darkness” from a child we can create monsters. A child raised by a dragon, a greedy monster might learn magic and know how to hijack others with similar experiences in our collective societal soul. It’s possible that the ancient “caterpillar to butterfly” metaphor of transformation is too soft for such a child. The ancient image of the phoenix might be a better match –  burn into a crisp and then rise from your own ashes.

Alice Miller explores the roots of violence, using Adolf Hitler as an example in her book For Your Own Good: Hidden Cruelty in Child-Rearing and the Roots of Violence. Here is a link to an interview in OMNI on the Natural Child site which articulates this process in great detail.

How to Integrate Light and Dark

We are dependent now on the Ocean of Light refusing to be overcome by the Ocean of Darkness. Remember always that when we look across the divide and perceive Darkness, the other side is doing the same thing. We see ourselves in the Light. So does the other side of the mirror.

What is to be done? The Carter Center sponsored a discussion with one of the participants of the transformation of the Irish people, who have now raised their first generation of children who were not taught to kill each other. They began, as did the labor movement in England, with meeting each other one by one over coffee. All will to “change the other” was set aside: the only goal was to get to know the other person, what happened to them, what they fear, what they hope, without judgment. And in that exploration both can be transformed as they discover there is truth and goodness, lies and evil in both of their lives and perceptions.

The same transformation phenomenon happens when we recognize and love our “dark” side. We discover in that process that our “light” side needs the “dark” as day and night need each other. We are whole when we have both our Ocean of Darkness and our Ocean of Light in harmony.

BOTH the light and the dark need transformation: the name of the angel of darkness is Lucifer, which means Light. Jesus said “I am the Light” and was murdered for it, going down into darkness to be transformed. The opposites are each other’s redemption.

Nurturing Our Selves When in the Nigredo

We might hide our soul away but Koschai the Deathless warns us of that choice. We are in an elemental process, and instead might tend the elementals within us:

Earth: Tend our body – food, exercise, sleep. Maybe I want chocolate, or that exercise is a walk outdoors to sit in a chair in the sun, that sleep is in short naps or many long hours. No judgment.

Water: Drink it every day, the best to be found.  If baths appeal, take one. Sit by open bodies of water, maybe by the ocean if lucky and watch the light change dark to light, light to dark.

Air: Breathe. Train in other times to sit and breathe into the musculature that tightens from anxiety. Watch the clouds. 

Fire: If an open fire is impractical or impossible, a candle flame is not. And sunlight bulbs bring the sun’s fire to a body, as many savvy persons prone to depression know.

And, let your friends and family know you are going through a transformative time, and be specific about the help you could use and what you don’t want to do (parties, yes or no, for example).

Embrace Our Whole Selves

There is always some part of us that needs to die and pass away, and some part of us needing to be born. It’s not the act, it’s the attitude – the mindset of thought that accepts the possibility of death and rebirth over and over in our own lifetime.

I stay open to these opportunities and try my best not to ignore them. I choose to embrace my whole self, and live without an aversion to the darkness or love only the light within me.

I rock between dark and dark,
My soul nearly my own,
My dead selves singing.

The Abyss by Theodore Roethke


The personal comments coming my way by email are welcome and appreciated. AND it is very useful to me and others when you comment in the area prepared for that purpose at the end of this blog. All of us can benefit from your experience. And if this blog was useful to you, please pass it along to others.

    • What Open Secrets do you know that have been tucked away?
    • When did you become aware of your own transformations on your life’s Hero/Heroine’s Journey?
    • How do you experience the dark – outdoors, within the Self, within the culture?
    • When in a needful time, how do you nurture yourself?
    • What other questions come to you?

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