Soul Topics

Walking dark alleys for a purposeful existence

[Image credit: Geylang Adventures]
While we might love adventures, we are unwilling to venture into scary places where the unknown or ‘other’ exists, and we unfortunately deprive ourselves.

Darkness has a negative connotation. Darkness provokes an instinctual aversion, representations of some place best left alone, buried and unexplored. It engulfs the road less travelled.

Buried deep within our individual unconscious, darkness is rendered voiceless, as we seek to portray our most desirable face. If outward manifestations of life mirror our collective consciousness, by extension, we live in such a divided world. Poverty exists alongside wealth, but they are simultaneously worlds apart, seemingly distinct entities. Races and nations terrify one another, as if common grounds of our fundamental humanness have been usurped by colour and identities. The world is as fragmented as our individual selves.

The reason why the world lacks unity, and lies broken and in heaps, is, because man is disunited with(in) himself.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

The world is vast. Some of us could care less. Still, it provides a mirror reflection – through everyday interaction with it – of ourselves, and where we need healing. But, healing is a ‘feminine’ word, one that only the broken and withered down would associate with, we suppose.

Yet, in healing, we must do battle; we must acknowledge and confront our dark side. Therefore, it is more associated with purpose than we think. Purpose, a ‘masculine’ word carrying intent and direction. Something we’re all figuring out. Something that matters for a meaningful existence.

We have all heard of stories of people with a dark past, who have healed, fought, and now claimed to live stronger, purposeful lives. What we aren’t normally acquainted with is knowledge of how to work with forces in the nourishing dark, to tap into potency.

Geylang: Dark alleys and “white knights”

Geylang. A neighbourhood notorious for its less than glamorous red-light district. Where migrants, street sellers, gamblers, and sex workers gather.

Now a highly regulated place where the illegal sale of sex drugs and sex solicitors are increasingly driven out of sight, by surveillance cameras, stepped up police patrols and occasional raids. Even bright lights now light up most alleys – darkness disappears.

At least, on the surface. Geylang seems more cleaned-up. Do these problems really go away?

They don’t. A cleaned up neighbourhood does not indicate a safer sex industry. Physically wiping out the ‘dark’ elements never resolves, but relocates these problems into underground spaces. Now, partly due to law and policy enforcements, sex work is increasingly driven into online spaces, private apartments and the heartlands where they become less visible. The consequence? There is greater danger of abuse behind closed doors, and the struggles of sex workers – merely finding a way to live better – go unheard. They continue to be cast in the shadows.

Geylang, however, is not an exception. Problems concerning marginalised communities manifest in countless neighbourhoods across the world. Why do educated politicians fail to appropriately tackle these issues?

Robert Bly offers an interesting perspective of how each individual lives through the evolution of ‘red’, ‘white’, and ‘black’ stages in one’s lifetime. ‘White’ stands for the fight for the good cause. ‘Red’, however, stands for the expression of anger, aggression and a fight for what is his or hers – what matters to the individual. The ‘red’ happens on a more selfish, personal level, and is lowly, unglamorous, disdainful and uncultured.

Yet, it is necessary to not bypass the ‘red’ stage. One who bypasses the ‘red’ knows not what he stands for, nor what he truly wants to fight for or against.

The danger with the white knight stage in our culture is that he is often insufferable because he has not lived through the red. 
If a man hasn’t lived through the red stage, he is a stuck white knight who will characteristically set up a false war with some concretised dragon, such as Poverty or Drugs.
– Robert Bly, in Iron John

Politicians – in general – are white knights fighting for the common good. Intellectually and positionally, they are our representatives, advocates, and the moral crusaders. They are expected to be, and have to look ‘white’. Yet, not many politicians have walked the dark alleys, where trouble brews and voices count. There remains a disconnect between policies formulated and the realities of everyday living. Formulating policies from comfy walled offices neglects much of the actual transactions and conflicts that happen on the ground, or underneath. Voices go unheard, and trouble only grows silently darker with resentment.

Differences persist. The neighbourhood stays fragmented. Me vs You. Us. And Them. Dawn does not come before the night.

Ironically in Geylang, the ‘light’ of religious institutions co-exists with the ‘dark’ of brothels; they contradictorily co-exist as the religious institutions provide outreach to sex workers, engaging them on occasions or religious events. The dark aspects could not be eradicated, but are to be embraced and integrated.

Using the nourishing dark to know what we stand for

Clearly, it is through walking the lowly terrains of life that enable us to extend appropriate help to those in need, by essentially seeking to understand difference. To relieve suffering, its experience must first be understood.

Likewise, the metaphorical ‘dark alley’ refers to the suppressed places within us, where fear lingers. The suppressed ‘dark’ which was unbearable is now given permission to be felt, so that the self might eventually experience goodness through darkness rather than by fighting against it – this goodness is now of a different quality, that of deliverance. Herein lies the opportunity for transformation of the self, and by extension, the world.

Service comes with knowing with a better idea what we would truly stand for, after having experienced the lowly Earth. This is a process of stretching and nourishing the depths of one’s spirit, akin to exercising a muscle by breaking it down and building it up stronger.

Tapping into the potency that lies within the dark, its potential is unleashed; the ‘dark’ becomes a nourishing force that now drives us forward with purpose.

Soul Topics

Descending into a Man’s Wounds

Every man receives a wound at some stage of his life. In fact, all of us, males and females, whether aware or unaware, receive multiple wounds from childhood that usually has much to do with our parents, family, and our childhood environment.

One gets called stupid and remembers it for the rest of his life. Another grew up with an abusive father, a broken family. One may have had his heart broken, and decides to neither love nor trust. Another felt shamed for his existence and never believed in his worth. What have our wounds got to do with our lives now?

Because we don’t talk about our wounds, the conscious mind remains unaware, and these wounds are go on to be deeply ingrained as a subconscious programme in our psyche. They become part of the reasons why we behave the way we do. Unfortunately, the value of wounds have been elided in our culture. We strive to keep a positive image of ourselves and the world, and thus remain ignorant of our deepest hurts, do not discuss them, suppress and bypass them. We give them the least honour of all. As “ascenders”, we might hope to change the world, but we have not taught to examine our “dark side” which run our lives – and by extension, our world – in the first place.


Robert Bly says, in the presence of a mentor, dip the wound into the water. In mythology – another realm that has become foreign in our culture – we learn that the strongest version of a man only emerges after he has “descended” into the darkness of his wounds, where he wrestles (gracefully and consciously) with his “dark side”. This is a fascinating idea which presents a revolutionary possibility, one which stands at a stark contrast to our cultural notions of ascending beyond it all and the avoidance of poverty. That is a linear path of growth taught and inculcated to us, and every young man has hopes and dreams that are definitely far from wrong, and are meant to be pursued. However, at some point, even those hopes and dreams – realised or not – begins to fade, and the man may even enter a lethargic state, and he loses motivation or interest, thinking that he has lost himself. During these seemingly “down” times, it is paramount that the man recognises the source of his negativity, hopelessness, lethargy and fatigue, and it is a time conducive for the man to delve into the unconsciousness of his wounds. However, most of us would assume that going down is wrong, which is actually a natural process of men’s evolution.

Growth and Evolution has never been a linear process. What goes up must come down. And what hits the ground bounces back up. Life is more of a cyclical process, if you think of the cycles of nature, our Earth, seasons, the night and day, the yin and the yang. The key is to live gracefully in both opposite stages. Thus, what men have to learn is how they could live gracefully when Life takes them down. Men have to learn how to descend into the darkness of their wounds. This has to be a conscious process – in other words, this differs from depression and a languishing life during which a man does not know what he is doing.


The Story of Iron John

The mythological story of Iron John introduces a compelling idea, that every wound becomes a womb when the man has consciously nourished it. The “sacred water” has healing properties when the wound has been dipped.

Before one is born, the womb is a place where one could completely relax into, and effortlessly receive nourishment and providence from the mother. The possibility offered is that, instead of depleting us of vital energy, the wound when nourished, could provide us with so much nourishment that, by extension, we would eventually emerge with greater depth of inner resource than ever, by which would “overflow” and become a force we would use to serve our world. How does this process work?

The boy in Iron John, after having “ascended”, descends into the basement of kitchen work and ashes, where he grapples with the mundane and poverty. What this means is that a man needs to consciously allow himself the permission and space to “go down” the stairs, to completely feel his pains, and necessarily by extension, those of his father and mother, and the state of poverty by which the world lives, its enormous pains and suffering. He takes the road of grief.


The process, being conscious and total, becomes an art of wrestling gracefully with the “dark” forces that are unseen, that are within his psyche but also governing the world at large, all pervasive, powerful and magnificent. The suffering that the man feels is not confined to his narrow self, for the world shares a similar suffering if one develops the capacity to see beyond him, a necessarily inevitable, painful suffering. His suffering is not merely his. During this process, the man works with anger, melancholy, grief, deep shame, but develops virtues such as kindness, compassion, and a renewed passion and heart.


By a will larger than his own, the man needs to stay there for a while before he emerges. However, when he does, he would be a different man, one that is more grounded in his masculinity. A more complete account of this process could found in the story of Iron John expounded by Robert Bly. We now know that a man’s descent and diving into his wounds is a necessary and unavoidable process in the evolution of a male. But first, we must gradually develop the awareness of the wounds within that deprive us of life force.

In fact, why would most men try so hard to eradicate their flaws and imperfection? If it bothers them so much, they are likely to be actual wounds that should be taken a deeper look at. But even after, I have come to find that when a wound has been used as a doorway into a man’s poverty, where he, by extension, feels deeply for the injustices and pains that the world endures through similar wounds, the compassion that fills him allows him to see his flaws as inconsequential. Instead, his inner calling, purpose, and desire for service grows. The need to eradicate one’s imperfection disappears. A wound, while it is present, is like a scar: It reminds a man that he is neither beyond or below but an ordinary, fellow human being that lives, breathes and feels with a burning heart for all that he has been through, and through it, understands why he is still alive, and what he represents and would stand for.

(Photo Credits: Pixabay)