Light and dark: heights and the depths of human capabilities by Emily Wilson

The theme of the dichotomy of light and dark continues to emerge and evolve for me as I reflect about my experience on our Learning Service practicum.  This is a theme that I have worked with in my art and in my own life for many years.  It is a theme that others in our group have pondered and reflected on including Erin’s post: Stories of shadow and light.  While traveling in Cambodia, art helped me to process the opening of my eyes, the breaking open of my heart, and the pain and inspiration that accompanied.

During this Learning Service practicum, cultural exploration, reflection, learning, and humility were important aspects.  In light of this, I was so incredibly grateful to visit some of the greatest, oldest, most auspicious temples in the world, including Angkor Wat, Ta Prom, Bayon, Banteay Srei, Banteay Samre, and Pre Rup.  The beauty, peace, and wonder that I experienced spending two days wandering through these reverent places filled my heart with light.  I experienced oneness with Spirit and with other people.  I felt peaceful and quiet; small and big.  I walked with mindfulness, found small retreats to be alone in such huge complexes, chanted, mediated, and drew.  I was blissful and filled up with the amazing feats that man can do, creating beautiful structures, intricate carvings, and mammoth places of worship.

Juxtaposed, were the visits to the sites remembering the genocide and atrocities of the Khmer Rouge.  “During the three years, eight months and twenty days that the Khmer Rouge held power, it is estimated the around 2 million people perished, over one quarter of the total population.  Some died of brutal torture or execution, while others coughed their last in miserable circumstances of starvations and untreated illness” (Fawthrop & Jarvis, 2005, p. 14).  The Cheung Ek Museum, or Killing Fields was an incredibly dark and terribly sad place.  I also spent much time wandering in this place, sitting in mindfulness, chanting to myself.  I felt deeply and let my heart crack wide open.  I experienced a closeness to Spirit here too, but in a different way; understanding the capacity of people to destroy rather than to create; the capacity for great suffering; the fleeting life that is in all of us.  I tried to walk around the bones that were reaching up from the ground, asking to be noticed, but inevitably I walked on some.  I mourned and wept, I drew and wrote, and I noticed all that was emerging inside of my soul.  I was somber, and felt a need for quiet, for solitude.

Visiting the Tuol Sleng Museum (S-21) was equally as heartbreaking and dark.  This place felt less reverent and more shocking; even more “real”, more graphic.  I felt the horror and misery of those tortured and killed in this grisly prison, which was once a high school.  I met a survivor, Chum Mey and was struck by the light he carried despite what he went through.  I spoke to the tour guide, who was holding so much pain from her own tragedies of the Khmer Rouge.   I imagined the lives of the millions of people and families that perished and for moments, I touched into impact of this genocide.  The heights and the depths of human capabilities, the light and dark of these experiences, was a lesson both in the culture and history of Cambodia and its people, and the nature of human kind.

A commonality in all of these experiences was my desire to be creative in order to process.  I sketched, wrote and painted as a way to cope with intense emotion.  I found time in coffee houses alone, while I sat in temples, on benches outside a mass grave, and in our group response art time.  Art was and is still a vital part in managing and integrating all of this.  Another similarity in these light and dark occasions was my developing ability to sit with a spectrum of emotion.  Sitting and being in the places of darkness.  Seeing the amazing ability of the human Spirit to be incredibly resilient despite terrible circumstances.  Being broken wide open, touching into feelings of pain, suffering and sadness that I typically avoid, and being awestruck by the light and resilience I see in others has changed me and finding my BREATHE has allowed me to change.  In working with befriending emotions using mindfulness there is no need to try to understand, explain or change them, rather, “…simply acknowledges their presence and return to the breathe”  (Welwood, 1983, p. 84).

1Angkor Watt 2Response Art at Angkor Wat
3Pre Rup 4Ta Prom
5Banteay Samre 6Banteay Srei
7Bayon 8Ta Prom
 9Response   Art At Bayon  10Response Art After   2 days of temples
11Response Art- Breaking my Heart   Open
12Serene Pond at Killing Fields 13Response Art
14Meeting Mr. Chum Mey at S-21
15Response Art After Killing Fields   and S-21

Please note that while individual members have varying views on topics discussed in our blog, NCAS-I as a whole honors multiple perspectives, within respectful reason, and does not aim to censor material shared in our blog writings. So please keep this in mind while reading our blogs. And please feel free to add your perspective too.


Welwood, J. (1983).  Befriending Emotions. In J. Welwood (Ed.), Awakening the heart.  (pp. 79-90). Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc.

Fawthrop, T and Jarvis, H. (2005). Getting away with genocide?: Elusive justice and the Khmer Rouge tribunal. Sydney, Australia: University of New South Wales Press, Ltd.

One thought on “Light and dark: heights and the depths of human capabilities by Emily Wilson

  1. Pingback: The Service-Learning Trip: What is happening in Cambodia and what are we doing there? | Naropa Community Art Studio-International

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