The period of time around the winter solstice, when the light of the sun is weak and our days are so short, is a period of difficulty for many. Darkness is something that we fear in industrialized cultures; it is something that we work to drive away through our own inventions and ingenuity. We instinctively feel the need to light up our lives every waking moment–our houses at night become as bright as the sun, the various screens projecting intense light, keeping us up and wired late into the night. If a room’s lights aren’t bright enough, we call them “dim” and see this as a deficiency, working to make them brighter. Even as I’m walking down the streets of my town at night, motion sensor lights blind me as I walk past people’s houses on the sidewalk. Consciously, automatically, and unconsciously we are continually working to drive away the dark–and in the process, fighting the natural cycle of the seasons.
For a moment, in the span of time reading this blog post, let’s consider an opposite approach–that is embracing the darkness this time of year. Before we continue, I’d like to suggest setting the right mood. Start perhaps turning your screen down to a lower brightness setting, turning the lights off, and if it’s getting dark or is already dark, perhaps lighting a candle to get in the mood. Ok, that’s better!
Our Problem with the Darkness
Our problem with darkness likely stems from a lot of different sources–major religions being one of them. Many of the major world religions have spent literally millennia emphasizing driving away the darkness with holy light, ascending beyond this world, and in associating the “light” with the good. These same religions have taught us that anything associated with the earth, the dark, or the depths of the earth is somehow corrupt and not good–and that is now woven so deeply into our cultural consciousness and our culture’s mythologies. Think about how many stories you know where something dark and evil comes from below! I think it is for this reason that we are driven to turn on the lights at the first sign of darkness, to quest to drive it away. This “obsession” over the light, however, blinds us–by denying the darkness we deny part of our own souls
Another reason that we fear darkness, I think, is the secret fear of losing the ability to see. Works like Blindness Jose Saramago, epitomize this fear–that of not being able to physically see or going unexpectedly blind. I have watched a good friend of mine go blind due to medical complications over this last year, and its been tremendously difficult to watch her struggle with it–the darkness in her eyes has literally turned her whole family’s world upside down. Seeing such a good friend struggle with blindness, I think, is a lesson to me as to why we work so hard to drive away the dark. The hidden fear of losing our sight–either temporarily or permanently–is one that perhaps resides in each of us.
Modern technology also hasn’t helped our relationship with darkness–new CFL bulbs, computer monitors, phones, ipads, and so on all function on a blue wavelength–the same wavelength of the morning sun. This tricks our bodies into thinking its early morning even when it’s late evening, reducing the production of melatonin which allows for restful sleep (it’s so bad that we can now buy melatonin in pill form to force it into our bodies–but our bodies should be producing it). Physically, we need darkness to stay in good health. Darkness helps cue sleep and a host of other beneficial hormones that help us regulate our sleep patterns–and sleep is one of the keys to a long life. The lack of darkness is attributed by a number of researchers to be at least one cause of the rise in depression and obesity in many industrialized nations.
Finally, the holiday season and the associated frenzy that goes along with it also doesn’t help our relationship with the darkness at this sacred time of the year. In ages past, people slept more and rested during the dark months. In temperate parts of the world, when the darkness came was after the last of the long harvest season was finished. They would fatten up on the last of their fresh stores this time of the year and enjoy each others’ company, burn yule logs, and take this as a time of rest. But we are now in the throes of a massive holiday rush–running, buying, doing, parties, activities, the frenzy of the holiday season each year growing in intensity. I’m weary just thinking about it, even as I have worked to distance myself from it.
Embracing the Darkness
Living by the seasons and with the seasons means shifting our mindsets and practices to align more closely with nature’s rhythms–and darkness is part of that cycle. The darkness in this season functions much like the “hanged man” in the Tarot–we draw the hanged man when we are in need of a new perspective. Darkness, even darkness in familiar spaces and ways, gives us that perspective fully and powerfully.
Jessica Prentice has done some of the best research and writing I’ve seen on the importance of darkness–her writings have certainly inspired this post. Her book, Full Moon Feast, describes humanity’s relationship to the dark and cold months of the year beautifully and compellingly. She notes at least one African tribe that sleeps for 14 hours in the darkness, and that uses that extra time for visionary and spirit work. Without this darkness, she says, our souls are robbed of this opportunity to engage in a deep level with our souls.
I think maybe that’s part of the challenge we face–the frenzied culture works hard to keep us always going, going, going, doing, doing, doing, and time for deep introspection and reflection is generally not encouraged. The darkness asks us, individually, to be with only ourselves and our own thoughts. It is this darkness where we can commune with spirit, in waking dreams or in sleep, in meditation, and in visionary work. Part of this is because darkness functions through visual sensory deprivation–but when our external visuals shut down (as in meditation, dreaming, journeying), our inner visuals have the ability to be developed and honed. It allows us time to sort through things, it gives us space and distance from everything that surrounds us, and allows us rest and quiet.
And darkness serves us as a negative space to compliment the other spaces in our lives–the middle points as well as that of the light. We appreciate the light all the better if we are not always in it. It gives us balance and perspective. Darkness, furthermore, allows us to have some sacred distance between ourselves and the many inventions that our lives are full of–distance from electronic devices, from artificial blinding lighting, from television, and so on.
As the darkness came across the land, starting at Samhuinn, I have worked to embrace the darkness and live more fully present in it during this time. Some of these were full immersion, while others were just steps to reduce artificial lighting–but all were meaningful and helped me get into better tune with the season’s time of low light and darkness. This has led to a number of activities and insights that I’d like to share today that can help you do the same.
One of the most simple, and yet profound, shift you can make is to shift from electric lighting to candlelight evenings. These are evenings where you light your living space using oil lamps or simple candles (instructions for candles are here, and I’m working on a post forthcoming about easy olive oil lamp designs using recycled/rancid olive oil). Besides being an earth-friendly practice, it’s not that hard to do at all, and you’ll find that you quickly adapt to this lifestyle. Your eyes adjust, your rhythms change, and the world seems to slow down. Peace and tranquility are present in these candlelit evenings. Sleep comes much easier and stays much longer. It’s almost hard almost to put into words how profound of an effect this can have on your living this time of year–or any time of the year.
After switching to candlelight evenings earlier this year (and doing occasional ones in years past), I along with friends and family who were visiting and who took part, noticed a substantial increase in our sleep and restfulness as well as our general well being. I would say to give one evening a week a try for a while and see how you like it–I first started doing the candlelit evenings occasionally, and now I do them nearly as they have really improved our quality of life. I have even done some painting and artwork in candlelight, and that has given it a really different kind of quality than artwork done in full daylight or electronic light.
A few tips for candlelight evenings are as follows:
- If you have animals or children, observe them carefully around open flames. My two cats took some adjustment, but both now know they cannot go near the flames. I’m assuming children could be likewise taught to respect fire.
- A good stock of candles is a necessity and it pays to source them carefully. I wouldn’t go buy new candles because the cost can quickly add up and we don’t want to create additional consumer demand for “stuff”. Thrift stores always carry them cheaply, as do yard sales and auctions. I recently got a HUGE box of candles of all sorts at an auction and this box will probably last me for at least several years. If there is a local beekeeper, they will likely offer beeswax (in candle form or just in block form that you can turn into your own candles). Beeswax is extremely efficient and burns beautifully when compared to paraffin or even to soy. It also smells amazing.
- Be aware, however, that some really old candles have leaded wicks–we recently discovered one such candle in our stockpile and quickly put it out after it started dripping little molten silver balls into the wax.
- To maximize candlelight for reading or delicate work (like painting), I would suggest an alternative to the “lots of candles” technique. And this is to use an old-style candle lantern that directs the light all in one direction (here’s a photo of one from Wikipedia–I’m traveling and forgot to take a photo of mine!) I bought an old metal scoop at a yard sale that has a flat base and works for this purpose–and even a tin can cut in half would do just fine for shorter votive candles. The point here is that you can carefully direct candlelight to be more efficient for your needs.
- Likewise, good candle holders are a must–but make sure they are not made of wood, as forgetting about one can lead to a fire hazard (I speak from near experience)! A good candle holder has a handle so you can take it with you and a dish for catching wax. The little ones that are meant for dining tables are much less useful when you are walking around your house.
- Old oil lamps are not hard to find, they are really efficient, and worth having around. I got to know these well with the amazing amount of power outages I experienced while living on my homestead in the Detroit metro area! The issue that I have had with these practical lamps is that they burn kerosene or lamp oil, and both of these are derived from fossil fuels. They are also really stinky when they burn–kerosene is insufferable, but even the more “refined” oils are kinda smelly. And other oils for these are not easy to use–they won’t typically burn olive oil or other vegetable oils that are more sustainable due to the fact that vegetable oils aren’t as flammable and don’t draw well through the wick. However, there are alternatives to this for oil burning–you can purchase little vegetable oil burners, or you can make your own. I’ve been experimenting with using rancid olive oil (leftover from herbal oil infusions that sat on my shelf for too long) and various olive oil lamp designs–I’ll be posting on this in an upcoming blog after some more testing and development!.
Night walks and Night Rituals
A second way of embracing the darkness is to do simple night walking and dark night rituals. Taking a walk in the dark–on any piece of land, without a flashlight–can teach you a great deal. Full moonlight on a clear evening provides not only ample light, but so much light that you can see a moonshadow (and don’t you know, the sun shows the shadow of your body, the moon, of your soul!). Even waxing or waning moonlight, however, can be sufficient for walking without lights (note that the brightness of the moon varies based on where you are living–its much brighter in the tropics than it is in the northern-most and southern-most parts of the earth). Try it–its amazing. When I had my homestead, each night near the full moon, I would take night walks–walking around the pathways of my property. Even though I knew the paths so well in the daylight, in the night, they surprised me, opening up mystery and wonder. Now, I walk the streets of my town at night, without light (its a very safe town) and really enjoy the experience (although its hard to get your eyes adjusted because of all of the lights from the cars).
A step up from this is to do darkness rituals, such as the one I’ll describe below. The idea here is that you create a ceremony that honors and embraces the darkness in some way–there are lots of ways to do this. This past week, a friend and I did both did a night ritual and night walk as an early Winter Solstice celebration. Above my town is a mountain that has a park–the park includes an overlook, the highest point in this area. Its a bit of a steep climb, but well worth it. We bundled up (it was cold that night), took skins to sit on, took two flashlights as backup, and set out about an hour or so before sunset to climb the mountain. We got to the top just as the sun went over the horizon. We then opened sacred space, and sat, watching the town lights come on all around us and watching darkness fall. Several deer came to greet us, and we simply sat in the darkness, taking it all in, doing personal visionary work and meditation as we each felt led. The moon came out (she was only in her first quarter, but our eyes were adjusted and she shed plenty of light) and as our eyes adjusted, we gained deep awareness and insight.
A part of me, inside, was afraid of making our way back down the mountain because parts of it were very rocky and steep–but we did, easily, using nothing but moonlight to guide us the entire 30-minute walk home. There was no need for our backup flashlights! I think this was me battling my secret fears–the fears we all have–of trying to move about in the dark. But you really do get your “night eyes” and the world is very bright, even in the darkness! When we came out of the park, we were blinded by the headlights of the cars–it was really intense. But regardless, my fear was laid to rest, and I learned a valuable lesson about the darkness. It took care to make it down the mountain to avoid roots and rocks on our path, but it was a delightful experience, and we experienced that path so much different than in the day.
I did something similar, but in the opposite direction, on the Summer Solstice–in that ritual, my mother and I drove out to a secluded overlook in the hour well before dawn to see the rising of the sun upon the landscape. It had a very different energy, one appropriate for the Summer Solstice!
Going along with my night walks and night ritual above, you do a simple darkness vigil. And by this, I mean sit in the darkness for a period of time, longer than you are comfortable with, preferably for at least an hour or more and definitely outside if you can manage it. I really like doing this at dawn or dusk because if you are outside, this is when the animals are on the move–if you are sitting still somewhere, they will walk right by you oftentimes. I would suggest that prior to your vigil, you open a sacred protective space using whatever methods or traditions that you typically use (I use either the AODA’s Solitary Grove Ritual without any tools or just the Sphere of Protection for this purpose).
The idea here is to do this without fire or light–sit in the darkness itself. The light, even candlelight, creates a different relationship with the darkness on the land–and you want to bring it in fully.
It’s cold this time of year for many of us, of course, and to address that, I use the “hot rock” method that I learned from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books. The method is simple: you heat up something that has good thermal mass (a rock, brick, or fire iron). You can heat it by placing it close to an actual fire (I would place mine on top of my woodburning stove); alternatively, if you don’t have an actual fire, you can place it in an oven. Then you wrap it in an old towel, and take it with you. It holds the heat well for quite some time–usually a good hour or more. I usually stick this in my lap if I’m doing a winter vigil, keeping my hands on it and pressing it against my belly. This, warm layers of clothing and something to keep the cold off of your butt (like a skin or yoga mat) will really help keep you warm. You could, of course, also use hand warmers, but they have a lot of chemicals and plastic–the hot rock method is heavier but no less effective.
Of course, the question you might be asking is – what do you actually “do” at one of these vigils? There are lots of things you can do. Start with your feelings–explore what you are feeling and work through it. Pay attention to the land, especially the movements of animals, wind, trees, sounds, and the like. Ask questions, aloud, and see what animal or plant messengers answer. Take in the darkness, and use it to work on a soul level with your own darkness, hidden spaces, fears, dreams, the things that are unspeakable in the bright light of the sun. Open yourself up to it and see what comes.
Lunar Tea infusions
This is an idea I learned from Rosemary Gladstar–the lunar herbal infusion. An infusion is a tea, specifically of delicate plant material like leaf or flower, where the hot water is poured over the tea, covered, and allowed to seep for as long as you’d like (sometimes overnight for the strongest medicinal extraction). You can do this and then allow your infusion to sit in the moonlight or in the darkness overnight.
I have made a few teas by boiling water, pouring them over herbs in a mason jar, sealing it up, and then sitting it in the moonlight for the evening. I have been using this method using plants that gain deeper awareness and insight: Indian ghost pipe, lemon balm, and hawthorn being one such recent combination that had meaningful effect on helping me shift my senses and embrace this dark time. Another good combination is bay, lemongrass, and peppermint. (You can also use cinnamon here as well, and its a very powerful visionary herb, however, it is a demulcent herb, so it will thicken up your brew–excellent for a sore throat, but a little weird if you haven’t drank it cold before). You can use these infusions as part of your night walking, night rituals, or any other spiritual practice. Think of it like drinking the moonlight!
Electronic Light Mitigation
If you are going to use screens (TV, computer, phone, etc) at night or use light bulbs, there are better ways of using them that pay homage to the darkness. Various dimmer programs exist for computers–my favorite program is a free program called F.lux. It automatically adjusts your color and brightness as the evening progresses, so even if you are on your computer later at night, it’s not blazing blue light at you. It makes a world of difference–I’m writing this now mostly by “computer candlelight” thanks to f.lux.
It’s worth paying attention also to the kind of lightbulbs that you use: the older ones often are more yellowish or cast a yellowish hue is better on the eyes. Lower wattage and lampshades also help. I also have an old-school lava lamp that creates really diffused light–I often use this for providing some low light to my main living area, and supplement it with candles or oil lamps for moving about the house. It’s not much different than a good oil lamp!
Activities in the Dark
Another thing I like to do is to do various activities in the dark that are traditionally done in the light–exercise or yoga, for example, is delightful in candlelight or no light. I also enjoy playing my panflute in the dark–no need to see, and the darkness makes the music more beautiful. Even eating a meal in candlelight or near darkness can be a special treat–the shutting down of the visual senses allows for the other senses (including inner senses) to be emphasized.
I hope that you find these suggestions enlightening (or perhaps, dimming?) as we quickly approach the Winter Solstice. I think that a lot of us see the wheel of the year as a string of rituals and celebrations–and it certainly can be that–but it can also be more. Really embracing and living in that energy of the season can make a world of difference–we go from fighting against it, and wanting it to be over, to really living in the present moment with it. I’d love to hear your own suggestions for embracing the dark season this year.
PS: I’ll also direct your attention to my posts on the Winter Solstice (or Summer Solstice, for those of you in the southern half of the planet) and sustainable activities surrounding those days–I’ve finished that series of posts, but they are still some of my favorites :).