This evening, as night falls, I am embracing the darkness. I am allowing the day to come to a close. I am not turning on the light. Gradually, the muted colors of winter become less distinct outside my window and the snow shifts to blue in the evening light. I am listening beyond the civilized sounds of traffic and radiators and the hum of the refrigerator to the natural quiet of a winter night as a great-horned owl hoots in the woods across the street.
As dark descends on New Jersey, dawn is breaking on the other side of the world. These moments of sunrise and sunset are always happening. Our earth moves through space, perpetually spinning its orbit, turning on its axis, while light and dark rise and fall, following one another, alternating day and night throughout the world, all the time. Life activity accelerates and declines by this alternation. And we, in turn, are governed by these rhythms.
Our relationship with the light and the dark has changed dramatically since the advent of electric lighting. Now we get to decide whether to be in the dark – or not. Darkness can be abruptly dispelled by the flick of a switch. We need never be bothered with wondering what is lurking beyond our little fire – we can light the whole world now. Since the Enlightenment, there has been a continual drive towards overcoming nature, developing the capabilities that would allow us to live outside of natural law. People have always feared the dark and have been constrained by the limitations of night. But now, freed from those limitations we are like adolescents, drunk on our power, wanting to have complete freedom all the time – with no capacity for temperance or reverence. Why bother with darkness when we can have light? Why stop our activity when we can keep things going 24/7? I am thinking of Times Square or Las Vegas – no chance of quiet dark or the beauty of the night sky in those places.
Surely, the desire for light is natural; but to what degree do we continue the relentless and blinding lighting of our world without considering the value of the other end of the spectrum?
Darkness holds healing for us too and is necessary for our well-being. The night is a time for rest, stillness, and an inward focus. During the day we share a collective reality, but at night the senses are quieted, distractions fall away and we each enter into a very private experience through sleep and dreams. Physically, the pineal gland is governed by the rhythm of light and dark. It secretes melatonin in response to darkness. Melatonin is what allows us to enter into restful sleep. Taking supplemental melatonin does nothing to rectify our disconnection with natural rhythms and, arguably, can make us weaker in the long run. We sleep better if we are acclimated to a schedule that corresponds to light and dark. And spiritually, darkness symbolizes the unknown, the uncertain, the perilous. It is in grappling with the darkness, the doubt, fear and grief of human experience that we grow and develop.
Our circadian rhythms are as much governed by our internal order as by our relationship with our environment. If we can align ourselves with the rhythms of day and night and develop sleep/wake cycles that correspond… allowing both the generating power of the light and restorative capacity of the dark to influence us – physically and spiritually – then maybe we can begin to accept the natural laws that would dictate that we slow down, become more quiet, rest and be more contemplative. This in turn might allow us to better tolerate the particularly private, challenging, and regenerative experience of darkness.