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winter solstice: to know the dark, go dark.

"To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings."

Wendell Berry

I recently happened upon this reflection from Palace Gate Counseling Services center in the UK, which beautifully summarizes the interconnection with winter solstice and darkness, and how culture conditions how and what we see. They write, “Culturally we do not value the sacred darkness – the night’s deeps, the winter solstice, dreaming in a cave, Yin energy, the formless, infinite, indefinable, unknowing realms of unconsciousness and shadow. Yet this is where creativity and energy and aliveness are born.”

As the Earth and her creatures prepare in their variety of ways for Winter - while the landscapes become bare and stark, creatures store up food, some enter into hibernation, slow down, or migrate - we humans have our own internal responses to this seasonal shift. This time of longer dark and colder temperatures signal something within us of sacred time. But most of us may not associate the cold, the change of season, and the increase of darkness as sacred, perhaps due to physical or other discomfort or an ancient fear. We may find ourselves hurrying more rather than slowing with the holidays approaching. Or working extra hard to get something done at the end of our year rather than allowing things to lie fallow as the rest of nature models for us.

Yet something ancient within us remembers the call to slow down, to attune to the darkness in a different way. For tens of thousands of years, the solstices have been an important cyclical moment in the lives of humans. We’ve marked our connection with solstice through stone mounds, monuments, or standing stones aligned with the winter and summer solstices. Like Stonehenge in England, or Newgrange in Ireland, or the petroglyphs at Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

Whatever our background lineages and cultures, we are interconnected with the changes of the season at a deep level. What we may not feel connected with is the awareness that these cycles of the year have any meaning other than a date on a calendar or the beginning of winter and the seasonal preparations that may go along with the changes. But, the reality is, seasonal changes are initiations into deeper ways of knowing. Our bodies and psyches are connected with the earth and her rhythms. Spiritually and energetically, we are part of the same cyclical natural systems and patterns that create and sustain life, and there is wisdom available all around us from the particular quality of each season.

One of the magnificent realities of Winter Solstice, the darkest, longest night is that at that point of deepest dark is the exact same moment of the cyclical return of greater light. Most solstice rituals celebrate the returning light rather than the gathering dark. Understandably so. Western culture, and maybe most of the world, worships the light. And I get it. We are, essentially, beings of light. Whatever we know about the mystery of the divine, the source of all things, is light, embedded in all of creation. Everything is light and energy. There is no life without our sun. And yet…

Perhaps out of fear instilled in us by institutions, or by deep past experiences of our ancestors as they struggled to survive, we polarize light and dark. Our culture has instilled within it a mental concept that dark is equated with bad, or hard, or even evil. Something to be endured. A dark soul, a dark thought, a dark time in history, a dark street, a dark forest, dark skin, all bring up immediate instilled reactions of unease or fear in especially those of us with European lineages. The dark also symbolizes the power of the feminine, of moon energy, of the deep earth, which can also trigger an unconscious response. This mindset is so engrained that our societies are built around avoiding it. We filled our theologies with the beyond, and filled our streets, businesses, neighborhoods, and homes with so much artificial light that for the first time in human history, we've created light pollution.

The International Dark Sky Association says, “Less than 100 years ago, everyone could look up and see a spectacular starry night sky. Now, millions across the globe will never experience the Milky Way where they live. The increased and widespread use of artificial light at night is not only impairing our view of the universe, it is adversely affecting our environment, our safety, wasteful energy consumption and our health.” Artificial light has a negative, or even deadly impact on most wildlife.

And, "For billions of years, all life has relied on Earth’s predictable rhythm of day and night. It’s encoded in the DNA of all plants and animals. Humans have radically disrupted this cycle by lighting up the night." Our obsession with light not only impacts ecosystems and health and the beauty of the night sky, it informs our social conditioning, racism, and our spiritual grounding.

Somewhere along the way, we lost the elemental truth that darkness is not opposite from light, but is part of the same whole that generates and sustains life. Darkness is our primordial origins in the darkest depths of the cosmos, then to the darkest depths of the ocean and into the depths of the female body from which our form in woven. Within the deep dark of the loamy earth, seeds are cradled until they burst forth, mycelial networks beneath the ground connect and sustain trees in a living community.

The call from Wendell Berry to go dark is a re-orientation of our senses and our metaphorical way of seeing. We can learn to see darkness as gestation of light. Darkness as beautiful. And spiritually, darkness as the place of everything and no-thing. Where stillness and silence and open awareness bring us into contact with the real beneath what we call real. Darkness as sacred space.

It is the poets and mystics that call us into a different relationship with the dark. And into a different way of seeing. This poem by Rainer Maria Rilke brings yet more depth.

You, darkness, from which I come,

I love you more than all the fires

that fence out the world,

for the fire makes a circle

for everyone

so that no one sees you anymore.

But darkness holds it all:

the shape and the flame,

the animal and myself,

how it holds them,

all powers, all sight —

and it is possible: its great strength

is breaking into my body.

I have faith in the night.

Rilke knew that darkness is the holding space for all things, and for all sight, a different algorithm, a different "place" beyond our cultural or literal way of seeing. He challenges our conditioning. For how we identify or recognize the outer world brings with it certain assumptions, or preconceived ideas, that shape our experience. Seeing implies some kind of measurement or rationalization and can come with the rigid structures of our culture or of our own making.

Speculative fiction writer and essayist William Gibson says, “we see with our culture, which is what makes it hard to see our culture.” So how can we see beyond the illusions of our culture so we can truly see it? How do we see beyond the illusion of our own mental constructs to behold the sacred, the real? The poets and mystics know. Indigenous wisdom knows. The darkness knows. The earth knows. Our soul knows. Going without sight into the dark involves seeing with the inner eye. It involves a vibrational knowing, like so many other beings in the animal kingdom. Seismic, or vibrational sensing, is an ancient sensory mechanism that conveys information through the earth, a plant stem, a spider's web, a honeycomb, or other being.

Solstice invites us to surrender to the wisdom of the dark, the initiation of the heart, of our intuitive embodied knowing in connection with the web of life. It invites us to go without sight and develop other capacities that lie latent within us. For the creation of what is new and yet unknown, cannot come through the mind’s analysis and measurement and instrumentalizing. As important as those functions can be. There are many spiritual teachings around developing our other ways of knowing and sensing that expands beyond the external and beyond the five senses: indigenous use of plant medicine, holotropic breathwork, learning to listen to our own inner intuition, and aligning with energetic positionings within. This seasonal shift and the larger evolutionary shifts we are in invite us into the the undiscovered and unknown within.

When we reorient in new ways, from a sacred beholding, from within, it create a rupture in cultural norms, where the unanticipated can enter and alter our way of seeing, and our experience of the world. Beholding allows us to suspend the rational or the making or measuring. It allows us to sink into our experience fully, whatever it might be, enraptured by the real. When we meet the real, without the mind narrating what we are meeting or seeing, we encounter those natural forces that are beyond our agency or ability to explain, and new worlds become possible. True illumination can come forward from within.

To go dark is to see the darkness bloom. To turn from outer light to inward light. The inward light radiates and illumines wisdom that is needed for this time, for it emerges from the dark unknown. To see without intention to shape the world or our lives in a certain way. To see without explaining or making meaning with the mind.

These words from poet Fred Lamotte bring together the elemental truths of Winter Solstice… that "night becomes the path for mystics of all wisdom traditions. That Hindu devotees called Krishna “the dark Lord,” only to be found after long nights of yearning. In Islam, Mohammad’s ‘night journey’ leads to his mystical ascent. Within the Christian tradition, Jesus did not become Christ by rising into light, but by descending into the depths, until he emptied himself. Medieval Christian contemplatives called God, “the divine darkness.” And for the Hebrew poet of Psalm 139, “Even the darkness is not dark to Thee, for the light and darkness are one.”


International Dark Sky Association IG account series on Behold the sacred, surrender to the real

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Jules Myers
Jules Myers
Dec 26, 2022

Thank you for helping me to reorient to the darkness as "the place of everything and no-thing," as a feminine place that holds everything. And for the gorgeous gems of poetry and psalms. I do love Wendell Berry and Rainer Maria Rilke. Two more reasons to love them.

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