This time of year, we descend steadily into darkness. During October and November, the LA day shortened by two hours, shedding a couple of minutes a day, a rate that will continue until December 21st. We fell precipitously on November 1st; with the end of Daylight Savings Time, the sun set at five o’clock instead of six.
All this darkness can be disconcerting. Biblically, darkness often connoted sin, evil, and separation from the divine, and those associations permeate our secular language as well. We entertain “dark thoughts”, live in “dark times”, and go through “dark nights of the soul”. But, as Barbara Brown Taylor points out in her lovely Learning to Walk in the Dark, darkness is necessary — physically, psychologically, and spiritually. Here are three reasons why:
- Our bodies need it. “Every time we turn on a light after dark, receptors in our eyes and skin send messages to our adrenal, pituitary, and pineal glands to stop what they are doing and get ready for the new day. …Even the light from a cell phone charger or glow-in-the-dark clock can cue your body that morning is on the way.” These mixed messages compromise our sleep, which has been shown to compromise our immune system, our memory, our mental health, even our relationships. Instead of fighting the long dark evenings with artificial light, we could take the season’s cue and rest. This is a natural time of year for slowing down and letting our bodies rejuvinate.
- Our psyches need it. Through exploring her own aversion to darkness, Taylor arrived at this: “when the sun goes down, it is time for another natural thing to happen, as the slower, quieter, and more tactile rhythms of night time open doors that remain shut during the day. No doubt there are frightening things behind some of those doors, but there are also stunning things, and eventually, with some practice, one learns that all these doors open on the same room.” Those doors often reveal fear, grief, loneliness, and anger. But to the extent that we dull ourselves to painful emotions by refusing to enter the psyche’s dark places, we also dull ourselves to joy. “To want a life with only half of these things in it” — only the happy half of the human experience — “is to want half a life.”
- It’s where the light is. In the Bible, when Moses went to the top of Mount Sinai to meet God, he walked into a huge cloud enveloped in darkness. Moses’ entire encounter with the divine occurred within that dark cloud. “The darkness in this story … is so different from what other Hebrew words mean when they say ‘dark’, that it has its own word in the Bible, araphel, reserved for God’s exclusive use. This thick darkness reveals the divine presence even while obscuring it….” The counterintuitive idea here is that the divine light is in the darkness. They arise together, and instead of the light dispelling the dark, they simply coexist. Gregory of Nyssa echoed this when he said that “those of us who wish to draw near to God should not be surprised when our vision goes cloudy, for this is a sign that we are approaching the opaque splendor of God.” All of this reminds me of the Buddha’s description of the inner brightness of the mind: “Luminous, monks, is the mind, and it is colored by defilements. … Luminous, monks, is the mind, and it is free of defilements.” (AN 1.49-52) The mind’s intrinsic quality, apart from the states that visit it, is luminous. As Thanissaro Bhikkhu noted, “To perceive its luminosity means understanding that defilements such as greed, aversion, or delusion are not intrinsic to its nature….” Instead, the mind is a mirror for whatever states — skillful or not — arise in it. This is the inner brightness we can find when we close our eyes in meditation, shutting out the light around us, and venture into the araphel — a potent, dazzling darkness.