THE FRUITFUL DARKNESS Joan Halifax Harper San Francisco: San Francisco, 1993. 240 pp., $18.00 (hardback).
JOAN HALIFAX is a cultural anthropologist and author with a specialty in shamanism and some status as a leader of workshops, founder of the Ojai Foundation, and a thoughtful contemplative. She is also a classic modern seeker of knowledge, availing herself of the wisdom of rainforest shamans and incarnate lamas, Western poets and deep ecologists, to answer the eternal questions.
Part autobiography, part guide for the perplexed, and part critique of “modern culture,” The Fruitful Darkness is at its heart a demand for a realignment of our relationship with nature. Drawing on two decades of earnest pilgrimage, the author concludes passionately and convincingly that the West has lost its way, a diversion that accounts for the precipitous decline of the planet’s ecology, our personal anguish and alienation, and the dearth of spiritual underpinnings to social life.
Perhaps she should have written two books. At a little more than two hundred pages, The Fruitful Darknesscannot accomplish all it sets out to do. The book wends its way somewhat unnervingly through personal anecdotes, philosophic musings, confessions, and ethnographic descriptions. Those wishing to learn more about Halifax will have their curiosity only partly satisfied.
She reveals some, but not much, about her background, her history with her first husband, a brush with mental illness. The fruitful darkness of which she speaks–the Shadow and its potential for shedding light on ourselves and social constructs is not really plumbed enough to merit the title.
Those seeking insights into a shamanic scholar’s view of the human condition will find themselves on firmer ground. Her descriptions of the lifeways of the indigenous peoples she has studied and the convictions her lifelong study has imbued in her are fascinating and told with a uniquely personal enthusiasm. Peppered with deftly chosen quotations from Buddhist teachers, Huichol and Lacandon shamans, Lakota elders, and Western intellectuals, her plea for “reconnecting with the body of the Earth” through the rituals and insights of indigenous peoples is both compelling and, to my mind, on target.
Still, I yearned for tighter editing. The narrative is uneven. We abide with the author through the death of her mother, segue into a philosophical discussion of silence and language, double back into a description of her trip to Mexico’s Lacandon country, veer off into an attack on humanity’s alienation from nature, and so on. A discussion of the iconography of the mountain in Buddhist philosophy might end with the phrase “A short while later, I traveled to Nepal.” Characters from the author’s life appear unintroduced and then disappear again. Awkward wording, undefined terms (“mindground” and “root-truth,” among others), and the occasional half-sentence mar the flow of the text.
Yet I share with the author a great love for anthropology, overwhelming sorrow and anger over the fate of the planet and the plight of indigenous peoples, and a profound conviction that indigenous wisdom and the experience provided by contemplative disciplines are the source of personal and planetary renewal; as such I was fully engaged, granting the author the license one would when reading a letter from a friend. The text offers moments of insight and shared delight. Who cannot be intrigued by the image of our anthropologist toting the ashes of Everest conqueror Tenzing Norgay at the behest of his wife, to be dropped at Dolma Pass of Tibet’s Mount Kailasa? Likewise, one cannot hear too many times the admonishment, forwarded by thoughtful observers from Einstein through Martin Luther King, Jr., to a host of Eastern and shamanic adepts, that our enlightenment hinges in part on expanding our circle of compassion to include all beings, to “extend the frontier of community.”
Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote, “our own life is the instrument with which we experiment with truth.” The Fruitful Darkness is a description of just such an experiment, told by a woman with a passion for the planet and for personal transcendence.
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