Into the Shadow

Into the Shadow
by Brian Braganza

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And I feel above me the day-blind stars / waiting with their light. For a time / I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
— Wendell Berry

We approach in silence and wrap around the fire, ten of us, and Jim. The blizzard and wind whipping up so we’re bundled, some of us swish as we walk in snow pants and heavy boots, toques pulled low, heavy mitts and overcoats. Jim, in contrast, is wearing rubber boots, jeans, a brown canvas jacket, worn leather mitts, his hat like a cowboy. He speaks little as we gather; he is working the fire, which flares up then dowses itself in the accumulated snow beneath the kindling. Jim sweeps off his hat scattering snow to the ground and uses it to fan the embers. This time flames rise up to consume the softwood kindling which flares enough to catch. Jim stands, and we hold the silence. Snow again accumulates on his hat and our eyes are captivated by the fire. All of us are men.

Jim greets us, his voice gentle, so we strain slightly over crackling wood. He speaks his gratitude for our arrival, for our presence here with him. He shares of his own landing in this place twenty-five years prior, his state of fracture at that time, and how he would spend days and nights wandering the one hundred and fifty acres of forest. He shares how the forest healed him. He continues to see this land as a place of healing for any who come.

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We have come here to build our capacity for wellness. I am one of the facilitators for the T.O.N.E. project, Therapy Outside Normal Environments. The other men in this circle, our clients, are suffering from some form of mental illness: anxiety, depression, addiction, or post-traumatic stress disorder, and we’re about to take a night walk, without lights, in silence, through an ancient forest in the midst of this January blizzard.

Jim, a stranger to most in this circle, will lead us as far outside of normal environments, as most of these men have ever been.

Earlier in the afternoon they spent time mapping their resiliency, sharing with each other the potential and possibility in their lives. They also recorded images of their shadow sides, sharing how mental illness shows up daily. This evening they will be invited to walk into that shadow.

Jim invites us into this ritual space, into this rite of passage. We introduce ourselves around the fire, and in saying our names aloud, we become known to the circle. 

As darkness closes around our faint fire circle, Jim instructs us on the evening’s task, then turns his back to walk into the night. In silence, we peel away from the warmth of the fire, a symbol of our communal light, as we step alone into dark. We wind up the hill into the wood’s trails leaving a wide enough margin between us, as instructed, so that we can just barely make out the silhouette of the man we follow. Most of these men have not even seen this forest in the daylight, and now as night drops to only a slim light, we trudge silently, the accumulating snow heavy on our feet. This forest is home to red and white pine, red spruce, and hemlock. A pure Acadian Forest, which has been selectively logged for nearly two hundred years. There are few remaining stands of this kind left in Nova Scotia. Trees tower and are broader than five men standing shoulder to shoulder; we are dwarfed beneath them. We hear the blizzard rage high above in the canopy as Jim leads us through this liminal space. 

Snow falls and builds around our shins as we push through. There are times when Jim will stop, and, as instructed, we stop in order, still holding the long spaces between us. He has encouraged us in these times to stand in our silence, to take in all around us, to breathe in deeply and let it whoosh out of us, to let our shoulders drop, to feel our feet well planted, and our heads ascending with the trees. In these moments, Vivaldi’s violin concerto, Winter, plays in my mind. The tension of the strings is the rising wind high in the trees, and I hear the drop-down release as the wind calms. I imagine a canopy view of our small group slowly walking, our bodies obscured slightly by falling snow. 

With the moon behind the clouds and the reflective snow at our feet, there is enough of a glow to see the shadowy outline of the man in front of me and the man behind. We’ve stopped on the edge of a ravine, and I see the near trees. They are in silhouette, too. In these moments, we are alone with our selves, and yet we hold each other. Should one of us stumble, a call out would swiftly bring others to lift him. 

We have reached the depths of the forest. Jim stops as we gather in circle. He speaks softly and invites us to turn out, in silence, and walk away on our own. We’ll take ten minutes to sit or stand in our solitude as snow continues to fall around us. Jim will beckon us back with a crow-call when the time is complete. Jim holds space at the center.

We embraced our shadows for a moment, and they did not consume us or drive us mad.

I walk out and quickly lose sight of those to my right and left. I am alone. I hear a crack as a man steps on a branch, and then it is silent. I walk a little farther then lie down in the snow and hold still. In this moment, the overwhelming ring of silence strikes me. If I still my mind enough, I can hear the impossible sound of snowflakes falling, their swish through the air, their piling up over each other as they land. As I lie still, they quickly accumulate over me, and I wonder how long I’d need to lie to disappear, invisible into forest floor, consumed by the snow-covered land. 

Jim’s raw crow-call shatters the silence. As we return in silence to the circle, I see only vague outlines as each man walks in from their place in the night. We have become a gathering of shadows among the trees, listening to the snow fall. 

Later in the light and warmth of the house, some men will speak openly about their fear in these moments of sitting alone, how it welled up and through them, how it bubbled beneath the lid, spilling over just slightly like the hiss of water as it lands in a fire. Though all have lived with fear through their mental illnesses, few had intentionally stepped into fear this consciously. Jim had encouraged us to notice fear come over and wash through us, to remain in it, to not push it away. These moments of fear and shadow belong to us, and as Parker J. Palmer writes in his book, A Hidden Wholeness, “Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” 

During this night-walk we stepped gently into our shadow-selves. We embraced our shadows for a moment, and they did not consume us or drive us mad. Standing in our silence and fear, we were held by this ancient forest, by the snow falling, by the storm whipping around us, by each other. In daylight moments when the shadows arise, when that hollow pain grips our bellies, we can return to this singular memory that to lean into our brokenness is to accept our wholeness.  §


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Brian Braganza is a facilitator and writer who blends circle processes with experiential community engagement. Brian became a Circle of Trust® Facilitator under the guidance of Parker J. Palmer and the Center for Courage & Renewal. T.O.N.E. (Therapy Outside Normal Environments) is a men’s group therapy project that utilizes adventure and expressive counseling techniques. Learn more at freerangetherapy.ca/tone.