In this holiday-packed time of year one could almost overlook the deepening darkness and the inclination to hibernate that are natural to the season. People of not so many generations back used to sleep more in these long nights. Not us. We turn on the lights, indoors and out, fight nature’s pull to cozy in, and schedule the splashiest late-night parties of the year. Instead of becoming quiet and introspective, we’re more likely than ever to lose ourselves in a frenetic social whirl.
There is, of course, something miraculous and hopeful happening this time every year, something truly worth celebrating: the simple, wondrous rebirth of light where the ever-increasing darkness of fall gives way to the lengthening days of winter and spring. The many spiritual holidays celebrated within days or weeks of the winter solstice all echo our instinctive understanding of light’s importance to our physical survival and spiritual renewal.
Light is an often-used metaphor for all things wise and wonderful. We “see the light,” find “light at the end of a tunnel” and a “silver lining around every dark cloud.” It’s easy to give credit for all things good to the light and simply ignore the power of dark; darkness, with its opposite connotations of fearfulness, depression, ignorance and death.
Yet, here we are in a time of year when it’s difficult to deny the presence of darkness, as hard as we may try. What’s more, whatever we ignore inevitably has a way of sneaking up from behind and tripping us when we’re not looking. This is certainly true of those aspects of self we don’t like. The ones we keep hidden in the dark nether regions of our being because they’re too painful, too shameful, or too imperfect to admit to ourselves, let alone to other people.
So, here’s a different kind of winter solstice ritual, one that honors the moment of deepest darkness that has to happen before we can give ourselves over to the jubilant celebration of light. After all, this is the perfect time of year to give darkness its due and, for once, stop trying to ignore or artificially light it out of existence. And even though it may not inspire the cheerful exuberance of spring or summer, see if this exercise doesn’t leave you clearer, cleaner, and more ready to fully embrace the deep quiet miracle of light that is the season’s truest offering.
As a starting place, take a moment to reflect on the year that’s been, the one that’s following its natural course and ending in darkness. What are the stand-out “points of darkness” you experienced this year? The very worst of times, the biggest catastrophes, the deepest despair, the times you most want to forget ever happened?
As you recall these moments, notice the feelings these memories evoke. We tend to suppress, ignore or medicate pain out of existence in much the same way we artificially cover darkness with light. Unfortunately, all these pain-coping methods don’t make pain go away, just underground until it eventually grows too big to ignore. So instead of sending one more bit of pain to the dark, crowded storage locker of your psyche, this time simply be with it.
Notice how it feels in your body. Is it a sinking feeling in your gut? An empty place in your heart? A cloud of confusion around your head? A lump in your throat? A tense, armored feeling in your muscles? A clenched feeling in your jaw or fists? A fearfulness in your bowels? Instead of turning away from these raw places, this time give them your full attention. Notice the sensation of the feeling in your body and relax into it. Stop struggling. Stop thinking, stop trying to move on or make it go away.
Also let go of familiar interpretations and judgments you have around these feelings: “My sadness is bottomless. If I truly feel it, I’ll just fall deeper and deeper until I drown.” Or “My anger is wrong. I shouldn’t have it. It will hurt someone.” Tell yourself instead that as you stop resisting feeling, pain stops being pain and becomes something usable, something healing. Go deeply enough into these dark parts of yourself until you feel your resistance letting go, struggle being replaced by surrender, tension turning into relaxation, fear giving way to an awareness that there is nothing to fear.
Now, imagine yourself in total darkness. (Try doing this at night.) Most of us can recall middle of the night anxieties where we lay awake in bed, in the dark, and our whole world looked dismal and dangerous in a way it seldom does during the day. The darkness to imagine now is a different one altogether (or perhaps the same, but we are different). This darkness is healing.
So many of us on a spiritual path have invoked the healing power of light, but what about that of dark? Imagine darkness around you like sheltering earth around a seed. Instead of imagining light pouring into the wounded places of your soul, imagine darkness, like a mother, drawing out of you the pain, doubt, worry, resentment, confusion and fear that interfere with peace. Feel it absorbing into itself the thoughts, memories and patterns that keep you from being your true self. Let the dark take back to itself all the darkness in you so there’s nothing left but light. The light that needs no artificial or external inducement. The Inner Light that has always been there. Feel yourself in this dark like a caterpillar in its chrysalis, safe and sheltered while a miraculous flurry of transformation is quietly underway.
Last, but not least, reflect again on those moments of darkness that have occurred in your life this year and now, instead of feeling the pain, ask them to show you their hidden blessings. How have you deepened, strengthened, changed direction, reached out to others or cared more deeply for yourself? How have you learned compassion, acceptance or forgiveness? Or gained clarity, broken down barriers, found your tenderness, released stubbornness and ego, or allowed others to help you? How has your very definition of who you are changed? Give thanks for the power of darkness to polish, facet and bring out the natural brilliance of your heart.
Consider sharing with another person the story of finding great blessing in this year’s points of darkness. Let the power of your spoken word change your personal mythology, transforming defeats and losses into powerful stories of resurrection.