I had no other good choices. So I started slow - first by sitting in the doorway. Then I gradually made my way outside, with lights on inside the house to illuminate the outdoors. Tom and I hung a string of bulbs around the outside, which provided soft lighting, and I began turning off the lights inside. Slowly, I became more comfortable with less light.
One day I realized I didn't need the lights at all. My eyes would adjust to the dark, and it was a quiet gift to open my eyes at the end of meditation and see how the world had changed.
I find myself craving that darkness now. Some of my most peaceful moments have been spent sitting outside alone in the dark, the silence being broken only by the hoot of an owl, or the yip of a coyote off in the distance.
"We come from the dark, and we return to the dark," writes Clark Strand in his beautiful book Waking Up to the Dark. "We are not merely in it, but of it. The darkness does our thinking when we let it, and it is the darkness in which we move."
Why, then, do we fear darkness? And has it always been so?
Strand recounts a sleep study that was conducted by the National Institute of Medicine in the 1990s. The purpose was to evaluate how humans would sleep without access to modern lighting, in the hopes that it would provide insight into how our ancestors may have once slept.
For one month, study participants were removed from all forms of artificial light between dawn and dusk. And for the first three weeks, it was pretty much business as usual. Participants slept the same as they always did, except for an hour or so longer.
On the fourth week, everything changed. Participants began sleeping for about four hours at the beginning of the night, followed by two hours of wakefulness, dubbed “quiet rest” by the researchers. Another four hours of sleep followed.
What was happening during those two hours of “quiet rest,” where participants lay awake in the dark? Researchers compared it to a state between sleep and wakefulness, “a state of consciousness all of its own.” The closest thing it resembled was a state of meditation achieved by long-term practitioners.
As it turns out, this period of quiet rest in the middle of the night was probably practiced by our ancestors for thousands of years. And it served a purpose beyond rest: “In every religion there is a long-established tradition, usually initiated by its founder, that involves waking up in the middle of the night for some spiritual practice – for meditation, chanting, or for prayer,” writes Strand.
Darkness as a pathway to the sacred. What a beautiful, mystical idea – but one that is mostly foreign to the way we live now.
In the first few paragraphs of the Bible, God’s second act, after creating light, was to separate it from the darkness. He proclaims the light to be good; he makes no comment on the dark. But we all know the evils that lurk there.
Most of our mythical and threatening beasts are hiding in wait for us in the dark – vampires, werewolves, witches, even chainsaw-wielding psychopaths. Darkness, too, is the home of the dead, whom we also fear. Hell and the Underworld are far beneath our feet, deep in the darkness of the earth – places no one wants to go.