Caves have long been a theme in human spiritualities. Almost any tradition you look at will have some mention of caves and the role they play in personal transformation and spiritual self-realization. In the traditions of the West, caves have been used by spiritual communities and individual seekers since the Paleolithic (between 40,000 and 11,000 BCE). Some of the earliest members of our species to venture into Europe, used caves for what appear to be rituals pertaining to hunting, initiation and spiritual rebirth. As some of the first known examples of human art are preserved in these same caves, questions about the origins of art have long been tied up with questions about human ritual and religion (if you would like to explore these caves and their art, see Randall White's Prehistoric Art: The Symbolic Journey of Humankind, 2003).
In historic times, the ancient Celts -- both Pagan and Christian -- were wont to use caves as places of meditation and mystical transformation. One cave -- on an island in the middle of a lake in Ireland -- called Saint Patrick's Purgatory -- has evidence in it of pre-Christian as well as Christian use (see Nigel Pennick's Celtic Sacred Landscapes, 1996, p 124 for one discussion). Since the Middle Ages it has been used as a place of retreat and as a destination for pilgrims. Individuals and sometimes groups on a spiritual quest would go into the cave at dusk and remain there overnight. Many came out in the morning having dreamt dreams or seen visions or -- if things didn't go as well -- being more or less on the mad side of sanity.
Later, Saint Francis of Assisi went into a cave to pray and center himself after he had 'left the world' and decided to follow Christ as His Vagabond. There he had divinely gifted dreams and experienced the presence of his God in prayer. After his cave experience he went out and began his ministry, but he returned periodically to the cave for personal refreshment and spiritual succor. Many people before and since the time of Francis have found such nurture in caves.
It would take a book to detail all of the historic and prehistoric examples exemplifying the role of caves in the lives of mystics, questers, saints and pilgrims. I chose these three simply to illustrate the point that caves have been experienced as powerful places, where the person venturing into them is likely to have experiences that transform them, and where they have found the strength which then enabled them to help transform the world in which they found themselves.
Caves have been symbolic of many things in human spiritualities. The air that moves in and out of some caves has been thought of as the 'breath' of the earth; whether the earth was understood as divine (i.e., as the Goddess) or as the creation of some God. Caves have about them an aura of mystery, owing to the fact of the human aversion to being in total darkness. They have been places where dreams and visions have transpired, and where strange beings, whether natural or supernatural, human or not, may be encountered. This experience may be grounded in the fact that light deprivation affects us in very specific ways. After being in total darkness for more than an hour, for instance, a sense of disorientation will set in, making it difficult for you to find your way around. More severe forms of disorientation may transpire the longer you are immersed in total darkness, and most of the lore about visions and the experience of monsters, saints and demons in caves may stem from this very basic biological response to light deprivation.
Caves have been symboled as "the womb of the divine" out of which a person entering into them can emerge 'reborn.' To go into a cave is seen in various spiritual traditions as analogous to dying. Re-emerging is seen as rebirth. Caves have also been used as metaphors for solitude, as in "the Cave of the Heart," -- a monastic metaphor that alludes to the solitude the monk is seeking in their own "heart," the deep root or the "center" of their being. At first, the mystic goes into an actual cave to find solitude (as Saint Francis did). Later on, the mystic goes into themselves and finds the solitude they once experienced in the cave.
Today, caves still play a role in human spirituality and mysticism. As symbols they may guide us in our quest for solitude; that place of quiet wherein our 'soul' can be restored; our full 'powers' returning to refresh us. As metaphorical of the existential 'center' of the person, the image of the cave may help to provide us with a deep mooring in our own becoming, bringing clarity to the mind and the heart. Dwelling in this 'center' may lead to thresholds of self-transformation necessary to make possible a new stage in our life's journey.
The experience of actually going into caves is still attractive to many people today, and this is just as true for secular people as it is for those of a more traditional 'religious' inclination. Organizations of Cavers exist almost anywhere in the world where there are caves to explore. These organizations are devoted to mapping, studying and preserving caves. They study the caves scientifically and experience them for various reasons, most having to do with personal edification, stemming from the adventure involved in caving as well as the wonder and awe experienced in caves.
Going into caves today requires a knowledge of the often fragile ecosystems that caves represent, coupled with an understanding of how to venture into them and come out without causing damage or being injured in the process Any human intrusion into a cave brings with it consequences, but there are more and less contaminating ways of exploring caves. It is the spiritual duty of those who explore caves today to go in and return in such a way as to leave the cave in as unmolested a state as possible.
If you want to have an experience of being in a cave, try visiting one or more of the commercial caves that are open to the public, such as Mammoth Cave in Kentucky http://www.mammothcave.com/ or Indian Echo Caverns http://www.indianechocaverns.com/ in eastern Pennsylvania. Commercial caves allow people without training as cavers to go underground and experience the beauty and strangeness of caves. Make an attempt to understand the geology of the cave you visit; how old the rocks are out of which the cave has been sculpted, how long ago the cave began to form, how old the various formations – stalactites, stalagmites, soda straws, 'cave bacon,' and etc. – are, and how they formed. Find out what animals – if any – live in the cave (bats are a common resident in caves; though their populations are now under threat from a condition known as "White Nose Syndrome"). Once you have prepared for the journey and taken the tour, you can use the experience in meditation as a source of images and bodily sensations to guide your own cave meditations.
When I first started getting into geology and going to commercial caves, I had the good fortune to be on a tour where, to give us the sensation of total darkness, the tour guides turned all of the lights off for a short time. Though it only lasted a few minutes, and though we knew the lights would soon come back on, the experience was eerie and had the effect of heightening my senses. When the lights came back on, my shoulders were tingling, and I knew I had tasted of what it might have been like for Francis or Patrick or the cave painters of the Paleolithic to be in total darkness, ether simply communing with it or else on a spiritual quest.
Whether or not you can have the experience of actually being in a cave, if you are seeking for spiritual renewal or insight, or else yearning for silence and solitude, making a study of caves and then using the imagery of caves in meditation can be a boon. In WellSprings of the Deer (2002) I made reference to caves as one possible destination for a pilgrimage or quest; and such a cave can be either imagined or actually existing. If you find yourself drawn to the theme of ‘caves,’ following your inspirations may bring you to a rewarding place.