“How can those who live in the light of the day possibly comprehend the depths of the night?” — Nietzsche
Sunset marks the end of day and beginning of night, when light fades and darkness emerges, revealing the moon and stars and the vastness of space that surrounds us. Darkness is the rule, not the exception; most of outer space exists in darkness. Given that photoreceptors in our eyes depend on light to create vision, light is praised for “showing the way” while darkness is often given a bad rap. However, while darkness obscures our view of what’s around us, it shows the way inward into the depths of our psyche by serving as an blank canvass for our inner world to be projected on. To this point, take a moment to contemplate what you imagine lurks inside the darkness of the following photo taken deep inside the Big Horn Mine:
What you imagined inside the darkness is a projection of your subjective reality. Because we cannot visually see what’s actually there in darkness, it is left to the imagination to fill in the blanks. And when it comes to the unknown, its easy to project our fears, conflating darkness with fears that may not be grounded in actual danger. For example, during one of my night hikes in pitch black darkness, I approached an odd-shaped boulder and confused it for a bear. My body reacted immediately in a fight or flight response despite the trigger being a figment of my imagination. The darkness revealed my fear of encountering a bear, but more specifically, a fear of a violent and untimely death.
Perhaps there is an evolutionary value in projecting fear into darkness. In the wild, predators can hide in the cover of darkness. We can easily trip and fall when we can’t see where we are going. For those struggling with anxiety, it is often at night when we get stuck in excessive worrying. On a physiological level, darkness cues our bodies to fall asleep, leaving us in an un-guarded, vulnerable state, which can be terrifying for trauma survivors. Darkness is when most people retreat into the safety of their homes, spending their evenings surrounded by four walls that protects but also confines.
Despite this fear, what lurks in darkness are the same objects, people, and realities that exist during the day time. Evils such as hate, inequalities, and deceit exist in the day just as much as the night. In some ways, daytime evils may be worse because our inaction in the face of visible evils is an evil in itself. Moreover, this article from the Atlantic suggests that people are more likely to die mid-day than at night.
While the unknown quality of darkness lends itself to projections, fear need not be the only projection that darkness reveals. It is often at night, people dream both literally and metaphorically about their aspirations and wishful fantasies. Darkness can be the blank canvass to creatively express our inner world. And for most, it is the time of day when societal demands are lifted, allowing us to be free to engage individual pursuits and needs.
To this point, there has been a recent trend of “revenge bedtime procrastination,” in which individuals stay up late and sacrifice sleep to engage in desirable activities that they don’t have time for during the day. While I do not endorse this strategy, the problem is not so much the desirable activities but how busy and over-worked we are during the day, which doesn’t allow us enough time to recreate and more fully connect with all life has to offer.
From these perspectives, it may be helpful to intentionally embrace the darkness, to reveal and connect with our inner world, including the unexpressed and/or unconscious parts of ourselves. The following are recommendations that can help you get in touch with darkness.
Set boundaries from work. Evenings are a time to release, relax, recover, and recreate. Thus, be mindful when day-time, work demands and activities bleed into the evening without your awareness and/or consent (e.g., working overtime). View your personal, evening time as sacred. You may consider designating spaces where you spend your evenings as “No Work Zones,” changing into a different set of clothes, and establish firm time boundaries marking when the work day is over. Also, be intentional of de-identifying with your work persona, recognizing that your overall sense of Self is more expansive than who you are at work.
Allow space for chaos. In his podcast, Jordan Peterson emphasizes the importance of finding a balance of order and chaos in our lives. Our days are often full of order, such as staying focused and organized, keeping to schedules, working in orderly physical environments, and coordinating plans with others. Chaos need not be destructive, it can be expressed in spontaneity, freedom, and disruption of the status quo. It is often not until the evening when we have the freedom to let our minds wander, engage in something new and different, and connect with parts of ourselves that we can’t express in daytime settings.
Express suppressed sides of yourself. Daytime is often dominated by the superego that has us abide by social norms and standards of appropriateness, requiring us to hide and suppress certain aspects of ourselves, such as unwelcome personality traits, identities, needs, desires, and impulses. The cover of dark affords us the freedom to express these suppressed parts without worry of judgment or consequence from daytime others. For example, you may consider donning funky and/or gender-bending clothing in the privacy of your room to express hidden parts of yourself; or express socially restricted thoughts and feelings through art, such as writing, drawing, singing, and even psycho-drama.
Engage in activities different and/or opposite to daytime activities. Personality tests like the Myers Briggs reveal traits that are not set in stone, but more to what is dominant and non-dominants aspects of yourself, akin to your dominant handedness. Furthermore, the brain is organized in a bilateral way, composing of two sides or lobes. While not as simple as the left brain being more logical and the right brain more creative, neuroscience has shown that different parts of the brain serve different functions. From these perspectives, it may be helpful to engage in activities different from and even opposite to what you engage in the day, to develop non-dominant sides of our personalities as well as cultivating neuro-integration. A simple and concrete example is brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand.
Move your body. Modern work life is often sedentary and encompasses a small number of bodily movements and postures, often limited to sitting, standing, and walking. However, our bodies are designed to move in so many different ways. Just think of all the poses in such practices as yoga or tai chi, and the different types of dances. One of my favorite ways of moving my body in a dynamic way is dancing freestyle in the dark. During daytime, I would be too shy and self-conscious to dance by myself, let alone in front of others. However, in the cover of dark, I can dance to my heart’s content and also get a good workout out of it. If you lack privacy, you can go into a bathroom, close the door, turn off the lights, put on headphones, and dance away.
Attune to the body and its needs. Given that modern work life directs focus away from our bodies towards the outer (e.g., screens, other people), we often neglect our inner experience of our bodies (i.e., interoceptive awareness). Thus, during the evening, it may be helpful to engage in practices of attuning to and sensing the body, such as the five senses grounding and body scan meditations, drinking chamomile tea, or smelling pleasurable scents (e.g., candle, incense). Furthermore, given how stressful modern work life can be, it may be helpful to be intentional about engaging in relaxation exercises, such as a progressive muscle relaxation, listening to nature sounds, or the simple practice of closing your eyes and breathing slowly. Lastly, it is important to be responsive to our body’s sexual needs and engage in sexual intimacy with a partner or yourself that is not limited to stimulation of sexual organs and/or achieving orgasm, and more on sensual touching and experiencing of the whole body.
Connect with loved ones. One of the great things about companionship is checking in at the end of the day. The simple question, “how was your day?” provides an opportunity to share not only what happened during the day, but your experience of what happened, revealing your inner feelings and thoughts. The confiding of our day-to-day inner lives creates a special, intimate bond with our loved ones. It is not just coincidence that confessionals or therapy offices where people confide their deepest secrets are dimly lit.
Gaze upon the moon and the stars. “I hope you still feel small when you stand beside the ocean” is a lyric from Lee Ann Womack’s “I Hope you Dance.” Gazing upon the night sky can remind us of how small and insignificant we are compared to the enormity of the universe. Unfortunately, the bright lights of big cities obscure our view of the stars. Thus, it may be helpful to seek out look-out spots, or plan trips to remote areas in nature (e.g., Joshua Tree) to go star gazing.
Engage in quiet solitude. Daytime can be quite noisy with sirens and construction work, small talk and mindless chatter, managers droning on about policies and procedures, and so on. Thus, evenings (or early mornings) may be the only time to find a quiet space to be in solitude. In Anthony Storr’s “Solitude: A Return to the Self,” solitude allows us to take back ownership of ourselves from societal forces (e.g., conformity) that strip us of our individuality. Solitude allows us to re-connect what’s truly important and meaningful to us.
Transition from passive consumer to active participant. Depending on your job, you may spend countless hours in front of a computer screen followed by more screen time after work bingeing TV shows and/or playing video games. Escaping into fantasy world is not bad in itself, but when done excessively through the medium of TV shows and/or videogames, you are consuming someone else’s fantasy and not engaging your own. Thus, it may be helpful to turn off the screen and actively engage your own stories, such as writing or sharing stories of the comedies and dramas of your own life, or creating your own make-believe stories like when you were a child.
Write in a journal or diary. Journals are a repository for our private thoughts and feelings, including ones that are too shameful to share with others. Akin to the confidentiality found in therapy, journaling allows us to be attune to the darker parts of our psyche, as opposed to being blind to the shadows that lurk within our unconscious.
Meditate on your shadow. While Jungian psychology uses the shadow as a metaphor for unwanted aspects of ourselves that are pushed into the unconscious, it may be helpful to meditate on your literal shadow as a symbolic representation of your inner shadow. Notice how your shadow morphs and multiplies as you walk around in different lighting. You may also consider asking your shadow, “Who are you, really?” With open curiosity, turn your attention inward and wait for a response. You may be surprised what answers back.
Keep your bedtime. It may be helpful to not let the night seep into the day, by allowing yourself to go to bed on time to ensure you get enough sleep and offset the nasties of sleep deprivation the next day. To this end, it may be helpful to set an alarm clock for when you go to bed. Ideally, your evening ritual can be engaged in consistently on a nightly basis, so it is important to pace yourself.
Habituate a sleep ritual. It may be helpful to keep a consistent sleep routine to cue your body that it is time to sleep. Nearly every night since childhood, I have had a sleep ritual of imagining a make-believe world, akin to parents reading a bedtime story to their children. These never-ending stories have been so habituated, that I notice my body and mind begin to fall asleep almost immediately once I start imagining my stories.
Write down your dreams the next morning. Freud referred to dreams as the “royal road to the unconscious.” Since dreaming occurs when we are asleep at night, the earliest chance we have to understand our dreams is right after we wake the next morning before amnesia of the dream sets in. Thus, it may be helpful to keep a dream journal next to your bed, and write down whatever you can remember and then contemplate the meaning of the dream.
The evening gifts us with darkness that illuminates the hidden aspects of ourselves as well as neglected parts and/or sensations of our bodies. The cover of darkness frees us from the judgments and consequences that keep us from expressing certain parts of ourselves that lay hidden during the day. Like the moon and stars that remind us of the vastness of the universe, these hidden parts show us how vast our Self is in comparison to the parts we are conscious of. Cultivating a robust evening ritual can help us make the most of what darkness has to offer, making way for a more integrative and holistic sense of Self.
This essay was originally posted on my blog (www.parklatherapy/blog) on June 9, 2021.