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As this year’s Autumn Equinox approaches, I have been finding myself drawn to darkness…
No, I’m not talking scary darkness. I’m talking about actual darkness, a dark room, a night sky, etc.
In a recent Instagram reel, I talked about looking forward to my dark autumn mornings, before the sun., and how that helped me find an odd sense of peace and stability.
I didn’t focus too much on that. I figured it was just me, being me, that this was normal and not a big significance. Turns out that simple comment is more profound than I thought.
I have been feeling myself being drawn to the night sky for some time now… I always have. I walk barefoot under new and full moons. I sit on my porch often, taking in nature and listening to the crickets. Since beginning those little “nightly rituals”, I have noticed my life adjust for the better in interesting ways…
As I was listening to my weekly CHANI, a seriously profound astrologer where I gain a lot of insight and knowledge, she mentioned the importance of darkness. Her reasoning behind that immediately piqued my interest and reminded me of my own comment.
Something’s in the air.
How is it possible both she and I randomly talk about the need for darkness?
I’ll just chalk this up to her and me being incredibly intuitive, spiritually astute women and leave it at that. ?
Nature and Its History With Darkness
There was once a period in our lives when electricity didn’t exist. Try numerous periods. Try centuries. We are one of the very few living things created here on Earth that doesn’t have to be left in the dark once the sun sets. We have lights. We have phones. We have electricity to keep us out of the dark so we can continue living.
Nature, however, shuts down for the night, as does most living things. Historically, we are not really used to being without darkness for this long. Studies are only beginning to reveal this fact, but many intuitive scholars were picking up on this much early on.
In the cold, short days of winter, the darkness outside seems to correlate with a darkened mood within us; it’s an observation that goes back at least as far as Hippocrates. Modern science has shown that January and February are the hardest months of the year for the 6% of Americans who suffer from the seasonal affective disorder (SAD), with symptoms including poor concentration, oversleeping, feelings of worthlessness, and weight gain.
But darkness can affect us all and in surprising ways. Science suggests that darkness can do all kinds of things to the human body and brain: It can make us more likely to lie and cheat, make mistakes at work, and even see things we don’t normally see.
“Darkness is like a mirror: It shows you what you don’t want to see.”
“Everybody is responsive in one way or another to light and dark,” says Norman Rosenthal, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical School and author of the book Winter Blues.
To understand what darkness does to your body and mind, you first need to understand the effects of light: Your internal clock gets activated when light coming in through the eye stimulates a part of the hypothalamus called the suprachiasmatic nucleus. This, in turn, sends signals to other parts of the brain that starts waking the body.
Without bright morning sunlight to reset it every day, your internal clock will increasingly run out of phase. “If our internal clocks get signals of alternating light and darkness, they can stay on 24 hours,” adds Josephine Arendt, professor emerita of endocrinology at the University of Surrey in England. “If they don’t have this information, the clocks usually run out of sync with the 24-hour day. For most people, that means they get up later and later.”
Because people living at extreme latitudes experience more winter darkness than those living closer to the equator, which gets a balanced 12 hours of light and dark all year round, researchers have theorized that the farther away you live from the equator, the more out of whack your internal clock might get.
Beginning in the 1980s, Arendt started studying workers at a base in Antarctica, where the sun does not rise at all for 110 days in winter and found that their melatonin rhythms were delayed. Such circadian desynchrony has a range of negative effects: It can affect job performance, mess with your sleep, and even, in the case of night-shift workers, raise the risk of contracting certain cancers and metabolic syndrome.
More recently, a 2015 study comparing rates of depression among workers in daylight-deprived Sweden (in the Arctic Circle) and equatorial Brazil found that Arctic workers were more prone to develop depression and more likely to feel like they weren’t getting enough sleep. A study of nurses in Alaska found that they made almost twice as many medication errors in the darkness of midwinter than they did in the fall.
Rosenthal, who started studying the effects of darkness on health about 40 years ago, says there’s a genetic element to how people deal with prolonged darkness. Surprisingly, Icelanders, who live in darkness 19 hours a day in winter, have a lower incidence of SAD than people in other countries.
Culture seems to play a role as well. The World Happiness Report ranks Finland — a country whose northern regions don’t see the sun at all in winter — the happiest in the world. And adaptations like hygge, the Danish concept of intimate coziness and warmth, help Scandinavians enjoy the coziness that the dark months bring.
Regardless of where on the planet you live, the darkness of your environment can affect your health and even your behavior. In architecture, the term “sick building syndrome” has been used to describe, well, buildings that make the people who live and work in them sick, in part because they are too dark. Research has also shown that students who sat in darker parts of the classroom did worse on tests than their classmates who sat near a window. And a 2013 study found that dark environments made people more likely to lie and behave unethically.
Police report that such darkness is often safer. That’s partly because neighbors soon learn to alert police if they see any lights on in a building. There’s even less graffiti because it’s usually lighted walls that attract the spray-can vandals, not dark ones.
Scientists have now discovered that only when it’s really dark can your body produce the hormone called melatonin. Melatonin fights diseases, including breast and prostate cancer.
It turns out we need the darkness to make our immune systems work.
“It turns off the cancer cells from growing,” says Joan Roberts, a photo biologist.
“So there may be this natural way that Mother Nature has given us, that is, dark night to keep certain cancers under control,” Roberts says.
Even watching TV turns on other immune system hormones that should be active only in the daytime. They get depleted, and you’re more likely to get a cold. Even the immune systems of animals grow weak if there’s artificial light at night.
1962, French geologist Michel Siffre started going underground. He conducted a series of experiments that involved sending human subjects — including himself — into dark caves alone, for months, without any clocks or calendars or contact with the outside world, aside from daily check-ins with his research team above. The subjects lived in total darkness except for a lightbulb that would turn on when they awoke and off when they went to sleep.
Siffre’s goal was to study isolation, but in the process, he wound up showing that humans have a biological clock: an internal mechanism that controls when the body sleeps and wakes, among other functions. In the cave, without exposure to natural light, his subjects’ internal clocks fell out of sync with the 24-hour day/night cycle taking place above, warping their sense of time. Some fell into a 48-hour rhythm, sometimes staying awake for 36 hours and then sleeping for 12. When researchers told them their experiments were over, some subjects were surprised, believing they still had weeks or even months left to go.
Siffre’s work formed the foundations of chronobiology, which may explain why darkness seems to have such a profound impact on our bodies and minds.
Using the Power of Darkness
Philosophers have long touted the importance of embracing darkness along with light, from the dualism of yin and yang to Carl Jung’s concept of the shadow self (“I must have a dark side also if I am to be whole”). And Western scientists agree that when it comes to dark and light, balance is everything.
A longtime student of Indian spiritual traditions, Anoula Sifonios went to her first darkness retreat in Thailand in 2017 and was so floored by what she experienced that she soon started leading retreats of her own. In an echo of Siffre’s early experiments in caves, attendees spend nine days sleeping, eating, and meditating in total darkness, without any natural or artificial light at all.
Sifonios’ experience echoes findings from Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb’s legendary and controversial sensory deprivation studies from the 1950s, in which participants reported vivid, dreamlike hallucinations after just a few hours in isolation, anything from dogs and eyeglasses to squirrels marching through the snow and old men in bathtubs.
“Darkness is like a mirror: It shows you what you don’t want to see,” Sifonios says. After just a day or two in the dark, she began seeing flickering lights behind her eyes. Then came the visions. “You start seeing geometric patterns, tunnels, buildings that are carefully carved and decorated, symbols from traditions you don’t know,” she says. “You really see all sorts of images as the subconscious mind is emptying out.”
In 2007, German artist Marietta Schwarz undertook a similar experiment: She wore a blindfold for 22 days and dictated aloud everything she “saw” while hooked up to an MRI, including a leopard-print pattern and the opening credits of Star Trek. The scan showed her cerebral cortex lighting up just as it would be not blindfolded.
“People talk about paleo diets. Let’s pay attention to paleo lighting.”— Julio Cortázar
As author Will Hunt explains in his book Underground, this may happen because the brain is used to getting a constant stream of visual stimuli, and when that stream is suddenly cut off by total darkness, it starts making up its own.
For Sifonios, the visions stopped around day six and gave way to a profound sense of peace.
After the retreat, she found she needed less sleep and had tons of energy, and she noticed other physiological and psychological effects that lasted months.
“So many people are afraid of the darkness because it’s like going into the unknown,” Sifonios says. “But there’s a sense of security inside the darkness that people don’t guess they will find. Darkness has much more to offer than we imagine.”
Randy Nelson, a professor of neuroscience at the West Virginia University School of Medicine, wants us to remember how our ancestors lived when we were thinking about darkness and light.
“People talk about paleo diets. Let’s pay attention to paleo lighting,” he suggests. “What was caveman lighting like? It was light during the day and dark at night. That seems like a reasonable path. It kind of reflects the past 3 to 4 billion years of evolution on this planet. Let’s do what evolution suggests might be the way to go.”
What the Bible Says About “Darkness”
Besides frequently using darkness as an analogy for sin, evilness, Satan, and other evil things, there are some key verses that stand out to me:
“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rules, against the authorities, against the cosmic powders over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”– Ephesians 6:12 ESV
“To open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”– Act s 26:18 ESV
“Even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is bright as the day, for the darkness is a light with you.”– Psalm 139:12 ESV
The darkness is light with me…
Indeed it is.
Darkness has had this stigma constantly surrounding it as a negative thing, but some forget that darkness has been here before God created anything else. In fact, I believe that there is a story we have yet to know that involves the creation of darkness…. But that I’ll share for story night later sometime 😉
There are very distinct differences between “darkness”. There is evil darkness and then there is natural darkness. This is how I separate the two by understanding terminology. Once we work past the stigma that darkness is evil, and realize the physical darkness (natural darkness) is a powerful energy that evil utilizes, then we realize that “darkness is a light with us”… ?, a grounding peace we are able to feel once we work with its properties.
How to Use Darkness for Self Care
I have adopted some rituals over the years that I will share here so that you too can try utilizing darkness for self-care purposes (behind the physical benefits we naturally get from it):
Remember, Darkness shows you what you don’t want to see. Shadow work, if done effectively, is done while physically being in the dark (probably 80% of the process). Darkness reveals things we otherwise wouldn’t see if we weren’t out in the dark.
Full Moon/New Moon Walks:
Walk barefoot in the dark (as dark as possible- i know city life makes this hard sometimes). Have your hands available, nothing in them, no distractions. Just walk silently and barefoot, focusing on your feet digging into the earth beneath you. Imagine your feet as massive weights powerfully pounding down with each stride. Imagine invisible roots attaching themselves to the earth beneath you with every passing step. This is a grounding technique. Helps with insecurity, depression, and closures.
Avoid Harsh Lights in the Evening at Home
Once the sun sets, avoid turning on harsh lights. Keep the lights as warm as possible, avoiding the white/blue hue bulbs. Try to have candles throughout your rooms (fake candles work too). Preferably have Himalayan Salt lamps throughout. I have little plug-in ones for light lights throughout my house as well as large lamps for common room areas. Those have amazing benefits in and of themselves.
Darkness is severely under-appreciated, judged wrong, and under-represented. I hope to change that…and I’m glad others are starting to catch on as well.