Original versions posted on 12/21/2007 and 12/01/2008 at MySpace
Tomorrow is the first day of Yule, and as I sit at the trailhead of my journey to the Dolmen of the Winter Solstice, aware of the ice and snow and awaiting inspiration, I turn to embrace the darkness that is growing around us every day. A major thrust of my spirituality at this point involves affirming Nature as-it-is and striving to understand myself as a part of Nature. As such, I never associate ‘darkness’ with 'evil.' Darkness is 'the absence of light,’ as the old cliché goes (a statement of the obvious); yet it is much more, poetically and existentially—and I continue to find rich rewards in meditating upon the darkness and reveling in it as the Winter Solstice approaches each year. I dwell deeply in Earth & Spirit, affirming darkness as 'natural' and even 'necessary' to our pathing of wisdom’s touchstones. To be ‘earthen’ in a spiritual sense we must embrace darkness and befriend it; for we seek the wisdom that darkness embodies.
Whenever I start down this meditative path, it always strikes me that darkness is primordial; but it is not the arche (Gk. “beginning, origin, first principle”). Though the universe today is a dark place; i.e., darkness is more prevalent than light, it started out with a brilliant flash – called ‘the Big Bang’ – that would have blinded (and certainly incinerated) flesh and blood animals like ourselves had we been there to witness it. As the universe ages and expands, it becomes more and more dark. Today, lights – like the stars and galaxies – shine out of the darkness in our night sky. Stars are points of light in vast oceans of cosmic darkness; and our sun would be one of those points, seen from some other vantage point in our galaxy. Darkness backgrounds all light as we experience it. Thus darkness is the prevalent state in the universe today; and it is growing more so all the time, for the universe is expanding, and the points of light – in the umbra and glare of which life has come into existence and gone extinct, time upon time again – are moving further and further away from one another.
We exist in a privileged place; our planet flies about in its orbit just 93 million miles from a yellow star. Owing to Earth’s rotational motion, we are in darkness for more or less half of our time, and then in light for the rest of the time. Day follows night and night follows day; this is a 'given' (i.e., something we can't change just by thinking about it differently). Because of how our planet is titled in relation to the plane of our orbit, we get changing seasons. So long as we reside here on Earth, we are bathed in light and darkness, alternately. If, however, we were to venture out into space and leave our solar system, we would quickly be plunged into the interstellar darkness, where we would sojourn for 'a long time' before ever coming into the light of another star. While this is a sad fact for living beings like ourselves, who depend upon light in so many ways for our existence, it is perhaps good to meditate upon the fact that the light we so value is so rare in the universe.
As Winter Solstice approaches, the balance of day and night shifts, so that the darkness that we experience becomes more pervasive. This darkness is a physical phenomenon; it is not a ‘negative’ state. The increase of darkness at Winter Solstice stems from the fact that, because of the angle at which our planet is tilted in relation to our Sun, seasons occur, and at one time of the year, days are longer than nights (i.e., at the Summer Solstice) while at other times (i.e., the Winter Solstice) nights are longer than days. Meditate upon this as the nights grow longer! An earthen spirituality will embrace both daylight and darkness; and it will urge that we can learn something from darkness as well as from light.
One of the things that always stood out for me in early Celtic mysticism is that darkness doesn’t carry the same negative onus that it does in monotheistic, patriarchal religions. In traditional Christianities, for instance, darkness is usually associated with the chaos out of which God culled the world and is linked with the absence of God. While there are Christian mystics for whom ‘darkness’ is a metaphor for the coming of God close to the soul; the dominant use of darkness in Christian mysticism and theology is to represent a ‘negative state.’ Celtic spirituality in its early development also had an ‘apophatic’ approach; in which to commune with the divine was to be carried beyond our mere mortal sense of light and its value_ into the Divine Darkness. An earthen spirituality would represent a third approach to darkness; not treating it as either anathema to the divine or as a manifestation of divine intimacy with the human soul—but rather as a physical experience from which positive effect can be gleaned, if meditated upon and engaged with properly.
During December, try meditating on darkness and in darkness. In the northern hemisphere – in the temperate latitudes – it is darker at winter's tide than at summer's tide because of the way the earth is titled on its axis. While this might seem a trite thing to point out, it is actually a profound fact of our existence. It is this 'tilt' (approx. 23.45°) that creates the seasons. Reflect on this. If our planet were not tilted as it is, we would not have the seasons we have, and neither would we have the bio-diversity that now exists on Earth, as the living things on the Earth today are a product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution in ecosystems that go through seasonal changes. Imagine the Earth in your mind and how it is oriented in relation to Sun. Much of what we depend on for our survival as a species is linked to the fact that the Earth is tilted in relation to the Sun in its orbital plane. (1)
Reflect on the fact that darkness is pervasive in the universe today. Consider the fact that as the Earth ages, it is slowing down and both days and nights are growing longer. (Millions of years ago, the day was shorter than 24 hours long; millions of years from now, a day will be longer than 24 hours). Experience darkness; sit at night in a darkened room and take stock of how differently everything ‘looks’ in low light. Have a single candle lit in your place of meditation until the Yule begins. Meditating in a darkened setting can be relaxing and give your senses – especially your eyes – a rest. If you can, go and meditate out-of-doors in the evenings leading up to Winter Solstice. Look up at the stars; note the phase of the Moon (if it is up) and watch it changing over the next couple of weeks. Remind yourself that as a primate your senses are biased in favor of sight (seeing is the dominant sense; with hearing, etc., being somewhat less developed)_ and that the absence of light often sent our ancestors scurrying for cover and shelter—even today there is a fair amount of ‘fear of the night.’ As your eyes adjust to the lack of light – which may take half an hour to 45 minutes – you will notice a subtle shift in the quality of your surroundings. In some people this shift is more dramatic than for others; and this is related to the rods in your eyes becoming more active, as the cones (which detect color, etc) go into a ‘rest’ mode.
Once the Yule begins, I start adding more colored, decorative lights to my place of dwelling. It is good to try and not over-decorate. The lights should accent the darkness; not obliterate it. Decorative lights are naturalistic symbols of the stars, and mythically symbolic of the playful and benevolent ‘spirits of the Yule’ (e.g., the Elves of Saint Nicholas)—by whatever names you know them. Meditate on this light-augmented darkness; commune with the colors that now illumine your place of dwelling and your place of meditation (e.g., your meditation table, if you have one). There is an aesthetics of the unadorned darkness, and then there is an aesthetics of the light bejeweled darkness. Meditate on the meaning that the colored lights that you have used to decorate your place of dwelling have for you personally, as well as their more traditional meanings. Allow yourself simply to enjoy their beauty and ‘illumine’ you, symbolically.
In this way – by experiencing darkness and by meditating upon it – I embrace the absence of light and attempt to glean it for runes of wisdom’s touchstones. This meditation complements my focus on the prevalence ad importance of light at the Summer Solstice each year, and enriches our experience of Nature as the seasons turn round and round, and we follow them, as earthen pilgrims. After Winter Solstice, it will be time to affirm the ‘return’ of the light, once again, and revel in its increase, day by day—but we can only be prepared for that if we truly dwell in the darkness, now, and embrace it as a positive earthen experience.
So be it!
1 If you want to know more about these kinds of relationships between the seasons and life on our planet, you might want to read John D. Barrow's The Artful Universe (Oxford, 1995)