The songs playing in stores at this time of year tend to be jingly, sparkly and bright. Or maybe just a bit too jingly, sparkly and bright??
As much as the festive season is well underway by this point, a number of cultures and belief systems see the dark days of the fall leading up to the winter solstice (on December 21st in the Western Hemisphere) as a time of potent reflection, preparation and quietness.
For example, religions and belief systems that follow the cycles of nature see the fall as a time of dark that leads to transformation, and breaks open into light on the solstice.
Advent, which is celebrated by some Christian churches (Catholic and Protestant), is seen as a time of reflection and reconciliation, longing and anticipation leading up to Christmas.
This post will look at the idea of safe/sacred darkness, why it’s valuable, and how you can make the most of this time leading up to the winter solstice.
Pre-winter solstice and the need for darkness
The concept of the necessity of darkness is actually reflected in poinsettias, those bright, cheerful plants that are so popular over the festive season.
Have you ever kept a poinsettia plant after the holiday season, only to watch it turn into (and remain) a green, leafy plant? That’s because poinsettias are “obligate short day” plants. This means that they’ll only rebloom into floral colours with a minimum number of continuous short days (i.e. long nights) during the autumn.
During this time, the poinsettias need more hours of darkness than hours of light, otherwise they won’t bloom into their colourful potential.
We as humans are the same. We need periods of quiet, stillness and deep reflection to bloom into our own potential.
The darkening days of fall provide the perfect time to explore the sacredness of our deep wisdom.
But darkness sounds creepy…
We have lots of ideas about darkness that remind us of fear and danger. Things that go bump in the night. The stuff of horror movies and nightmares.
Darkness also plays an incredibly important role in our lives. The majority of us lives in a part of the planet that has both daytime and nighttime.
We know there is an entire area of research devoted to the effects of light on human circadian physiology. The idea is that the function and health of this physiology is dependent on regular exposure to both light and darkness within a period of about 24 hours.
In fact, most organisms require this synchronization (referred to as “entrainment” in the literature) to light and dark.
We also experience broader seasons of light and dark. In the Western hemisphere, the days get shorter from the summer solstice through to the winter solstice. The days get “shorter” and we spend an increasingly greater proportion of our day in darkness.
A number of people in the spiritual field say that the “veils are thin” during the fall. For some this means the spiritual “veils” are thin so that the spiritual world is easier to see. In my personal experience there’s a bit more nuance to it.
The increasing darkness allows us to see what is already there. There’s less bright, shiny distraction, and more unembossed, simple truth laid plain to see.
That’s why the autumn can be a very disruptive or transformative time. As we encounter the truths about ourselves that we have been ignoring, we’re faced with the choice of what we do next.
Reclaiming sacred darkness
Recently I attended an Advent Quiet Day at an Anglican church. They opened the event to non-members of the church, and I was keen to learn new perspectives of the time leading up to the holidays.
The theme of the day was reclaiming darkness as sacred.
That really resonated with me. I’ve previously written about the importance of throwing ourselves into those dark, scary places within ourselves if we’re serious about healing.
But there’s something to be said for taking a broader look at darkness as something that can be sacred.
Just as the poinsettias find their gorgeous and inherent colour by structured exposure to darkness, so can we find our beautiful and inherent wisdom by intentional exposure to our inner darkness.
What it means to explore our inner darkness
It’s honestly not creepy. I’m not talking about summoning anything scary or going anywhere we’re not invited.
What I’m talking about is diving deep within ourselves, to contemplate, to sit in silence, to visit those emotional spaces in ourselves that we tend to avoid.
There are different ways to explore our personal, sacred darkness. Some people do work to explore their “shadow” side (based on Carl Jung’s work). There is a great deal of work that can be done to explore your shadow if you’re interested in that, and I encourage you to look up options for that if you are (check out The Tools).
But I’m actually suggesting a more quiet, less active kind of internal contemplation. Check it out.
A sacred darkness reflection for you
Here’s a simple (non-scary) reflection you can do between now and the winter solstice (December 21st).
Step 1: Decide on a simple intention
- Choose a simple intention (see below) and write it down.
Some ground rules:
- Keep it positive
- Focus on your own inner self, not other people or situations
- Choose something that seems fairly broad (a one- or two-word intention instead of a sentence)
A few ideas that are perfect for this time of year:
- Inner stillness
Step 2: Listen to/read lyrics about sacred darkness
- Option 1: Read this poem entitled “A Blessing for Traveling in the Dark” by Jan Richardson.
- Option 2: Listen to “Sounds of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel (I recommend the cover by Disturbed). While it’s playing, really listen to the lyrics.
Whichever you choose, let the words and metaphors sink in, but no need to do anything more with them. Just read/listen.
Step 3: Sit in the silence with your intention
- Now sit in silence, and do a bit of concentrative meditation on your intention.
- As you sit, gently gaze at the intention you wrote down. Do some deep breathing, continuing to gently gaze at your intention.
- If your mind wanders, that’s totally fine! Gently bring it back to your intention. One great option is to silently repeat the word/intention to yourself.
For beginners to meditation: I suggest setting an alarm for three minutes for this step.
For intermediate to advanced: You know yourself and how long you like to meditate. I suggest 5 – 15 minutes.
Optional add-on to sitting in silence: add a candle
- If you’re able to, I suggest lighting a single candle (be fire-safe) and turn off the lights.
- Make this space sacred and special for yourself. If you use palo santo or other incense, go for it. But it’s not a necessity.
For those who identify as more spiritual: I recommend a darker pigmented candle (red, dark green or dark blue are great options) for this work leading up to the solstice, as a metaphor of the darkness leading up to the light of the solstice.
Step 4: Make some quick notes
- In a journal/journal app, jot down some quick (or long!) notes on your experience.
- Doesn’t matter if your thoughts don’t seem to have anything to do with your intention, if they’re in your head, just jot them down.
Enjoy this reflection each day leading up to the winter solstice, or make a special evening of it for yourself. You’ll get the most out of it if you do it daily.
As always, these are suggestions only and you should find what works for you.
- The Tools by Phil Stutz and Barry Michels (also their website and exercises here: https://www.thetoolsbook.com/the-tools-1/).
- “A Blessing for Traveling in the Dark” by Jan Richardson. My thanks to the Vicar at St. James Cathedral for sharing this poem and her deep wisdom with us during the Quiet Day.