I’m writing this now from the comfort of my parents’ home in central Indiana, where I’ve been spending the bulk of my time the past week resting, reading, and spending time with loved ones. What I love about being here, especially this time of year, is the very real sense of light and dark.
Nighttime feels different to me in the winter than in summer. There is something more permeant about it, as if the darkness can actually penetrate your body. Instead of the warm, luscious movement that I feel in the air of summer evenings, nighttime in winter seems to beg for stillness. When I visit the rural countryside of my childhood home near the winter solstice, the time of year when night is longest, I am always struck by how different I feel here than in the constantly lit atmosphere of New York City. With nighttime gently wrapping itself around the house from all directions, I don’t seem to have the stamina or the desire to disrupt the natural order of night and day by staying awake long after dark. It might just be that the chance to relax and recover from the fatigue of my normal life is all too needed, but I deeply relish the opportunity to turn in early, to lay awake in bed for a few minutes in a completely dark, still room, allowing the night to swallow me up until I fall asleep. It feels both luxurious and simple at the same time.
When I think back on my childhood, especially on memories of holiday celebrations and rituals, this sense of light and dark is very present. While I wasn’t a child who was particularly afraid of the dark, a sense of reverence for the mysteries of the night were common themes in my world, and indeed, I think many stories that people are told in childhood reinforce this idea that late night hours are magical, mysterious, or sometimes even cause for fear.
For instance, take one of the most basic tales of contemporary childhood: Santa Claus. Children are told that they must go to sleep in order for Santa Claus to bring them gifts and that if they don’t, if they try to stay awake to see him, he won’t come. Now, for obvious reasons, parents need their children to be asleep in order for “Santa” to do his work, but this is just one example of reinforcing a sense of magic or possibility that only occurs in the deepest of night, when ordinary humans are fast asleep and unable to disrupt the mystical transformation that takes place between night and day. When we wake up the next morning, somehow the world is different than it was before. Transformation happens.
One of my favorite childhood memories is of Christmas Eves spent riding in the car late at night, when my father drove us home from my grandmother’s house or sometimes, from a candlelight church service. This was one of the few nights of the year that I was allowed to stay up until midnight, and I truly loved it. It was thrilling and mystifying. In the backseat of the car, I would press my nose to the cold, slightly foggy window and stare up at the sky. I could see twinkling stars and moonlight shining on snow. The world seemed both old and new. We would go home and often sit in the living room in the dark, with nothing but the lights of the Christmas tree on. Eventually, I would happily go to bed, not wanting to risk my chances with Santa Claus by trying to stay awake. That was our ritual, and while some details have changed, Christmas Eve to me is still very much about honoring the night.
I held on to my reverence for the night for a long time, and I remember very clearly the first time I stayed awake through the night until the sky began to brighten with sun. Looking back, a teenage slumber party seems hardly worthy of the occasion.
As we grow older and eventually stay awake at all hours of the day and night, we begin to lose this sense of mystery about the dark. As adults, we push through our bodies’ natural biorhythms, pull all-nighters in college, travel across time zones, experience that 3am back spasm or sudden illness, and then the uniqueness of each daily cycle of light and dark begins to fade.
Not typically one for New Year’s resolutions, my hope for 2015 is to attempt to regain a glimmer my childhood appreciation for the dark, and in so doing, bring a better sense of balance to my life. From the practicality of needing regular, good quality sleep in order to be healthy, to the spiritual dimension of honoring nighttime rituals, inviting darkness into our lives and yoga practices is especially necessary when we live in the City that Never Sleeps.
As adults we run the risk of becoming jaded and cynical, immune to the mysteries of the life that we once thought magical. We experience disappointment and heartache and stress and worry that keep us up at night, and on top of it all, we bombard our senses with nonstop input in the form of the internet, smartphones, incessant email and texting, and the never-ending glow of artificial light upon our eyes. In short, we don’t often give ourselves over to darkness. This darkness, while sometimes frightening, is also a necessary part of healing, learning, and the creative process. The contemporary FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) has overridden our instinctive sense of when to turn off and rest. Our desire to learn and do and constantly input information has led us to forget how to lean on ourselves for comfort, for inspiration, for the simple satisfaction of being on this planet and being alive. We fear silence and solitude because we don’t trust our minds to go somewhere that might be uncomfortable to us.
I am an only child, so my best friend growing up was my imagination. I had an insatiable belief in possibility and hope for the adventures of my future life, and while of course I have matured into my adult self, I am beginning to wonder if honoring the cycles of night and day, of darkness and light with greater rigor can return a bit of this magic to my daily life. Winter is the perfect time for reflection, rest, and ritual. In the heart of winter we can prepare for the blossoming energy of spring where we can produce, create and teach with renewed energy that we found in the dark of the previous months. We just have to invite the natural darkness of the season to run its course.
I’d like to end with a poem I discovered through one of this community’s favorite podcasts, On Being. Enjoy, and Happy New Year.
The Winter of Listening by David Whyte
No one but me by the fire, my hands burning red in the palms while the night wind carries everything away outside.
All this petty worry while the great cloak of the sky grows dark and intense round every living thing.
What is precious inside us does not care to be known by the mind in ways that diminish its presence.
What we strive for in perfection is not what turns us into the lit angel we desire,
what disturbs and then nourishes has everything we need.
What we hate in ourselves is what we cannot know in ourselves but what is true to the pattern does not need to be explained.
Inside everyone is a great shout of joy waiting to be born.
Even with the summer so far off I feel it grown in me now and ready to arrive in the world.
All those years listening to those who had nothing to say.
All those years forgetting how everything has its own voice to make itself heard.
All those years forgetting how easily you can belong to everything simply by listening.
And the slow difficulty of remembering how everything is born from an opposite and miraculous otherness.
Silence and winter has led me to that otherness.
So let this winter of listening be enough for the new life I must call my own.