Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Embracing The Dark

When was the last time you sat in the dark without turning on a lamp or lighting a candle, savouring the darkness late at night or early in the morning?

I like the dark, I always have. As a child I used to complain to my mother that I couldn’t sleep with the light shining in beneath my bedroom door. One of the things I like most about my current bedroom is that I can block out all the light from the street lamps outside. When I go to bed there's no difference in the darkness whether my eyes are open or closed. Every night I spontaneously offer a prayer of gratitude for the restful darkness.

This may be one of the reasons why I was open to a shamanic path where spiritual practise involves sitting out in the wilderness at night (no fires) fasting and praying. And when you stay out for many nights in a place with no artificial lights you discover there are gradations of darkness, luminosity from clouds and stars reflected in the lake, and a pre-dawn shimmer in the sky that comes long before the birds begin to sing the sun up.

Here in the northern hemisphere of our beautiful planet, the days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer. We are approaching the longest night of the year, December 21. Hence all the festivals of light in different traditions: celebrations and reassurances of the return of the light during periods of deepening darkness. But with decorative electric lights and the often frantic pace of holiday preparations and celebrations I wonder if we miss the gifts of the darkness.

Darkness- both a literal lack of light and those times when we are feeling loss or lost- asks us to slow down, to feel our way along, to wait patiently until our eyes (inner or outer) become accustomed to seeing the shadows (which can include hidden or rejected aspects of self.) In this slowing down there can be a deepening, a turning inward to sit quietly with what we don'know and with what has happened in the last year, asking for visioning for the year to come. Western cultures tend to associate the dark with what is negative or difficult, and fear of the dark can keep us frantically moving, trying to outrun our own inner places of ambivalence, anxiety and ambiguity. But our fear of what the darkness might hold can rob us of the rest and revelation it can offer.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the festivals of light. But both the literal ones coming up and the times of fullness and activity in our lives might be more fully savoured and celebrated if we could also receive some of the deep listening, personal insights and rejuvenating rest of the darkness. Ask any artist who paints how they make that which is light brighter- they paint what is dark close to the light making both more vivid and real. Perhaps we need to taste the darkness before we launch into celebrations of the returning light.

So, in the midst of all the activity and preparations, it’s worth remembering the darkness and finding ways to give yourself some time to sit and greet whatever it has to offer to you. Even in the midst of the city where there are always electric lights shining, there is something magical in sitting in the (relative) dark late at night or early in the morning when the city is quiet. There, in the dark, we may find some of the insight and vision we need to prepare for the upcoming year.

Oriah (c) 2011


  1. Beautiful post! Yes, missing the gifts of darkness - allowing oneself to taste the darkness - seeing the shadows... I love all of what you said! I find myself in a similar place - calling it the "winter blues." It's so tempting to rush to fix, instead of just sitting with the darkness at hand; being with/in the ebb and flow of feelings that arise at this time of year for so many of us. Thank you for your inspiring words that *acknowledge* this aspect.

  2. Yes, I agree with Mystic Meandering above, beautiful post!

  3. So good to read your post Oriah. Many laugh at me because I enjoy the dark. When I bought a house on a dead end road which went up a mountain, I opted to have no street light on my land. I loved sitting out alone at night in the darkness, being aware of how much easier it was to see the sky and everything in it. I've found many gifts in the darkness, both physical and in times of soul darkness. Thank you.

  4. The older I get, the more I really appreciate the dark. I find myself longing for it, especially when my senses get overwhelmed with all the synthetic light that seems to make up our days. (and especially these holidays) There's a centering that happens when I remove everything else - a sort of letting go.
    That is funny that you mention about wanting to get rid of all the light in your room. I have always been the same way. I've often wondered what it would be like to be in one of those "pod" situations where you are underwater and have no sense of light or sound... to just be suspended in the water, in the dark... There is something about that whole idea that really appeals to me.

  5. I should also say that there may be a physiological reason why some of us like the dark. Just as there are those who need more light exposure during northern winters (those with Seasonal Affective Disorder) there are others, on the opposite end of the scale, from whom a little light goes a long way. Read a book about this years ago called Lights Out (I think) -apparently some of us really do not go down into deep sleep if there is ANY light in a room (ie- shining on our skin.) Like SAD it is an inherited tendency- both my father and one of my sons also find it difficult to sleep with any light in a room. :-)

  6. Thank you so much for this post Oriah! Yes, the darkness is not only a friend to us; it can be a wise teacher as well. As you say here, so often the emphasis is on 'going towards the light', that we can neglect the rightful place of the darkness in encouraging our inner silence. There are so many distractions around us. Darkness helps us to shut these out, to journey inwards to where our own selves are.

  7. I absolutely adore this post. Even though I am one of your "sad" friends, lack of vitamin d, regardless of how long/often in the sun, I crave darkness, the sound of nature, the whisper of the wind through trees, water and grass, with stars overhead. I think, like you, I was drawn to shamanism due to this, but also ancestry driven: my grandfather was from Vardu Norway, being a Saami, the genes run long and deep in our family, even before I knew his history.

    Thank you, all of you. Yes I believe we need to pay attention to letting our 'darkness' exist, as well as our light. By trying to shove it into being positive and happy, we actually create the depression we run from. Glad to finally hear Andrew Weil and others are stating we are not meant to be happy all the time! Once again, thanks Oriah for a wonderful post.

  8. I never thought of the dark in this way before. But it spoke to me. I will oftentimes be reading in my room and not notice it getting dark outside until someone walks into my room and asks me why I haven't turned the light on? Last week in my yoga class we had to switch rooms and the room we were in had fluorescent lighting, and we couldn't dim them. It was just not the same yoga practice. This post gives a whole new meaning to the saying, 'the light at the end of the tunnel' for me. We all wait anxiously for that light to appear that we don't embrace the darkness of the tunnel; we just want to escape it. Perhaps we will not see the light until we've learned the lesson that the dark wants to teach us.

  9. Oh Ann- don't get me started on fluorescent lights! Yes, the lighting/darkening of a room can really change the experience :-)