The Next Ten Minutes

The universal element in all our winter holidays is the absence of natural light. On a very primitive level, we’re all a little bit afraid of the dark and that’s why, as the days become shorter and shorter, we string lights around our homes and light candles. We’re holding off against the growing darkness, both symbolically and literally. But in addition to danger, darkness holds a deep and beautiful creative energy. In this exercise (which should be done after sunset or before sunrise), I invite you to immerse yourself in both the lush beauty of darkness and the fragile miracle of light.

What You’ll Need
  • A room
  • A candle
  • Matches


How to Do It

1.  See the light. Start by choosing a room in which you feel safe, one in which you have control over the light switches. Now, before you do anything else, simply sit quietly in the room and observe the light that’s already there. Notice the lights themselves – are they overhead or lamps, fluorescent or standard bulbs? Notice everything you can about each source of light. What color is it? Is it constant or does it fluctuate in intensity? Try to identify every other source of light in the room, even those that are masked by brighter lights. Check the electronic devices – they’re always good for some luminescence. How about the windows? Are street lights or passing cars inserting light into the room?

2.  Go over to the dark side. In preparation for this step, make sure you know where your candle and matches are. Identify a safe place where you can light the candle once it’s dark. Then, one by one, eliminate as many sources of light as you can. Sometimes this will simply mean flipping a switch. Other times it will mean turning off or even unplugging appliances. Sometimes it will require you to block out lights that you can’t turn off, by covering them up or pulling the curtains or shades. Note: you’re allowed to back-track a little as you perform this step, turning a lamp back on in order to locate the cord for the appliance that’s still lit up.

3.  Curse the darkness. Why? Because it’s fun! Also, because it will help connect viscerally to your primal fear of the dark. Imagine the darkness as an evil force that is trying to swallow you up. Imagine it’s sheltering dragons and other malicious beasts. Once you’ve summoned up as much fear as you can, start cursing the darkness. Think of your voice as a source of light that can penetrate the darkness as you call it the worse names that you can think of.

4.  See in the dark. That last step didn’t really work, did it? No matter how much you rage against the dying of the light, the darkness holds steady. So try a different approach. Take a few minutes to simply observe yourself as you sit in the darkness. Observe your thoughts, emotions and perceptions as you sit without trying to fight the darkness at all. What do you notice your mind doing? Is it active or calm, fearful or confident? Then see if you can stop attributing any intention to the darkness and simply notice it. Look into it. Stare into it. Try to see the darkness itself, as if it were a palpable substance. Does your experience of darkness change as you do this? Do you notice your eyes starting to adjust, to be able to make out more detail in the room? Is it possible to notice that change as it happens?

5.  Light a candle. Because, as they say, it’s better than cursing the darkness. Locate your candle and matches. Even if your eyes have adjusted so that you can make these objects out, try to do it without looking, as if you were in perfect darkness. Magnify your sense of touch as you push the match against the strike pad, creating the friction that creates the flame. Look at the lit match for a moment before you light the candle. Notice how staring into it actually magnifies the darkness around it. Finally, light the candle. Set it in front of you. For a moment don’t focus on the quality of the light itself. Just take a few deep breaths and notice the way your body feels. What has changed? Then, with soft eyes, let yourself see the light. Notice what your mind wants to do. Does it like to stare straight into the light? Or does it want to use the emanation of the light to look around the room? Do you feel the impulse to jump up and turn more lights back on? Or possibly to blow out the candle and return to darkness? Take a few moments just to notice these impulse and then, when you’re ready, act on whichever one is the most appealing.

Inner darkness

There’s good reason that we’re hard-wired to be anxious about darkness. Darkness steals away our ability to identify danger before it reaches us. In darkness, we have an inherent disadvantage against all those nocturnal creatures whose vision has adapted to the night (and also  against humans who are wearing night-vision goggles). Darkness is associated with almost every negative human quality – aggression, ignorance, perversity, etc. To Sigmund Freud, darkness was associated the primal urges that lurked in the unconscious. To Carl Jung, darkness meant the “shadow,” that part of ourselves that we rejected and split off from awareness. Freud was the first to articulate the ways in which we develop defenses against the awareness of this darkness within us. To both Jung and Freud, mental health required some degree of re-integration of these “dark” urges into our conscious minds by acknowledging rather than denying our aggressive impulses. In Jung’s view, owning your shadow is an essential part of becoming a more evolved human being. For Freud, the most profound creativity arose out of the sublimation of primitive, “dark” energy into higher order actions.

The issue is not that our inner darkness is a positive thing. It’s that we all inevitably have a dark side, and when we deny it we’re telling ourselves several unsustainable lies. The first is that we are without aggression and hostility. The second is that we are not strong enough to experience dark feelings without acting them out. The irony is that those who most deny the reality of their inner darkness are precisely those who are most likely to act out on those urges. (Which is why variations on the story of the preacher who gets caught with his pants down are so very common.) The truth is that our darkest impulses are bound up with our most vital energy. And allowing ourselves to experience that darkness in a mature way can free up that energy for our use and give us access to our richest creativity.

Variations:

Close your eyes.

It’s a funny thing about closing our eyes…there’s so much light happening on the backs of our eyelids. I have no idea what neurological or anatomical features give rise to this internal light show, but whatever the reason it gives us an opportunity to do this a variation on exercise no matter where we are. When you first close your eyes, the experience seems to be one of darkness. But as you settle in you can become aware of the host of visual sensations which arise within your own mind and body. Try using these sensations of light and color as an object of meditation. Take ten minutes or so to focus on the light that you are seeing. Notice everything you can about it. Then (and this is the best part), open your eyes and see if you can catch the imprint of those sensations on the world you see before you.

Just sit in the dark.

Surely you know the old joke: How many Jewish mothers does it take to screw in a light bulb? Never mind, I’ll just sit in the dark.

We’ve all got an inner martyr. Bring yours into the open by doing this exercise while enacting the spirit of this joke. Give yourself access to a candle, but don’t light it. Fail to light it resentfully. Magnify your feelings of powerlessness and suffering. Imagine what life looks like to those who those who not only don’t acknowledge their own inner darkness, but also refuse to give themselves access to their inner light. When you start to feel your suffering at its most intense, try to shift your perspective so that you are observing rather the martyr rather than in habiting him or her. What would it take to hold this suffering person with compassion?

Further listening: three great songs about darkness and light Absolutely the best song ever written about a nightlight: They Might Be Giants: Birdhouse in Your Soul Spiritual darkness, spiritual light: Hank Williams: I Saw the Light Melting into the dark: Brian Eno: Everything Merges With the Night

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