Once upon a time, I was afraid of the dark.
When I first began meditating a few years ago, it frustrated me that there was nowhere in my house that felt truly private. The only option was a small patio off of my bedroom, but I had a problem: I liked to meditate early in the morning, often before the sun was up, and I couldn’t imagine sitting outside in the dark. Who knew what kind of creatures were out there?
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.
Our Goddess worshipping ancestors experienced darkness differently. They oriented their lives to the moon, and they likely viewed the fourth phase of the moon, that of darkness and the new moon, as the totality which gives rise to all its other phases.
Put more simply: the three days of the dark moon is the "womb" where a new moon is conceived and born, and where an old moon is received when it dies. Each phase is sacred, but the darkness, with the power to bring forth life, is the most mysterious and sacred of all. In this worldview, much like the phases of the moon, the cycle of life and death was endless, with darkness presiding over both, and neither being proclaimed good or bad.
Over time, this view of darkness shifted. In their book The Myth of the Goddess, Anne Baring and Jules Cashford write that beginning in the Bronze Age, around 2500 BCE, death came to be seen as “an absolute end and the opposite of life." And by the Iron Age, beginning around 1200 BCE, this viewpoint had solidified the notion of darkness as "bad."
"Blackness is an image that was always associated with the Great Goddess," write Baring and Cashford. "It symbolized the ineffable wisdom and mystery of life and its power to regenerate itself. But during the Iron Age, as the goddess was replaced by the god, blackness came to be a symbol of darkness in the sense of evil."
We can still see remnants of the sacred, life-affirming mystery of darkness in many Goddess worshipping traditions from around the world. It is present in the ancient Egyptian Goddess Isis (who has absolutely nothing to do with terrorists, by the way), who was revered as Queen of Heaven, Earth and the Underworld. We can still see it in the Hindu Goddess Kali as well, whose name means black or dark-colored.
Some of the most fascinating examples of our dark Goddess-worshipping roots are the Black Madonnas that appear across Europe, particularly in France. These statues depict the Virgin Mary with dark skin. Many can be found in cathedrals that are believed to be built on top of the remnants of sacred groves where the Goddess was once worshipped. We may fear the dark, but apparently we are also longing for it.
We all emerge from many months of darkness within our mothers. Somewhere, deep within us, we remember this. Everything that sustains us, every last ounce of food, every article of clothing, every piece of shelter, emerges from the darkness of the Earth, whom we still commonly refer to as our Mother. And every last thing, including our bodies, will return to that darkness in the end.
Speaking of mothers, the sleep study researchers found that the hormone prolactin reached elevated levels in participants soon after dusk and remained twice as high as its normal levels during daylight wakefulness - including the period of quiet rest. Prolactin is the so-called "attachment hormone" thought to be responsible, in part, for early bonding between mothers and infants. It seems that even science is reminding us of the sacred connection between Mother and darkness.
Reclaiming a relationship with the DF, then, requires us to reimagine our relationship with darkness. Yes, there are fearsome things lurking within it, only not the things we think.
When we begin our journey into darkness, we realize quite quickly that the things we have to fear the most are the unclaimed parts of ourselves, lurking in the shadows. Yet seeking them out is the only way we can ever truly be whole.
There is also great power within the darkness. And beauty. And if we are brave and willing to come into it again and again, tremendous peace.