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.