The sun set yesterday at 4:33, giving us almost 15 hours of night. We are now 2 weeks away from the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. Even though we have electric lights and can stay up all night working or playing if we choose, still our psyches and our bodies are affected by the long dark nights. My husband and I were done dinner by 6:00 last week, we both noticed a strong desire to go to bed. We resisted this on principle, of course. But there is a powerful inner urge to curl up with a blanket on the sofa as the nights grow.
To help us consider what makes this time of year special, I’d like to speak of “yin” and “yang” a duality that comes from ancient Chinese philosophy. Yang is the bright, active quality. Our culture loves this yang energy- we love doing, love knowing, love productivity, those active “yang” activities. “Yin” - associated with darkness, the moon, passive, cold, wet -is rarely celebrated in our culture.[i] Our culture is out of balance.
Here at the start of winter we feel like the absence of bright active yang, but in Chinese Philosophy, the Yin and Yang are both needed for the universe to exist. The long dark nights are not merely an absence of sun, they have a subtle quality of their own, special gifts unique to this early winter season, where nights are long and getting longer, Our human bodies, minds and spirits need the long nights at winter solstice as much as we need the long days at the summer solstice.
American teacher Jeanie Zandie speaks about this cultural imbalance, and our need to value Yin. She talks about the moments in the human life cycle that are yin moments; when we are gestating in the womb, when we are toddlers wobbling, when we are healing from illness or injury, when we sleep or rest, when we come to die. In our culture which values Yang so strongly, we tend to devalue those yin times as inefficient, wasteful, keeping us from doing what matters- our active productivity.
But some things can only happen in the dark. Consider a child growing in the womb, being held, surrounded, fed by its parent’s body. It grows without conscious intention. The parent too, while in the process of the great miracle of growing another life, embodies this yin energy. I remember when I was carrying Nick, I was often so tired I couldn’t make it through the workday without a nap. I would look at my book about baby growth, and see “ah, I’m tired today because we are growing lungs.” I noticed that not only was I tired, but my mind was less focused, and I joked “thank goodness growing a new life is an unconscious process- I can’t even remember where I put my keys, how could I be responsible for something so complex as forming a human lung?” Gestation is just one process that requires that dark yin energy to flourish.
Many religious teachings use imagery of moving from darkness toward light, as if light is sacred, and darkness unsavory. Our Unitarian tradition was born out of the enlightenment, rooted in the idea that humans could and should shine the light of reason and science into all the dark corners of our unknowing. This revolutionary new way of understanding the world empowered individuals to know for themselves based on the evidence of their senses. It was a turning point for humanity and our culture, shaping who we are today.
But the more we explored, we also came to understand the limits of our knowing. Jung, in his work with the psyche, along with many other psychologists how shown us the unconscious patterns and processes that inform our actions. Neuroscientists today understand that a large part of human processing happens without our conscious awareness[ii]. Even if we work our whole lives to shine the light of consciousness on the workings of our psyche, there will always be unconscious material. There will always be both yin and Yang.
Starhawk, author, activist, teacher in the Reclaiming tradition, writes in her book The Spiral Dance: “Starlight vision, the “other way of knowing,” is the mode of perception of the unconscious, rather than the conscious mind. The depths of our own beings are not all sunlit; to see clearly, we must be willing to dive into the dark, inner abyss and acknowledge the creatures we may find there.”
This dark time of the year is ideal for such “starlight vision.” At this time of year, when the sun is fully set before dinner, the light is more subtle, and it allows us to see more subtle things. By being quiet and still and listening deeply to ourselves, we notice all sorts of subtle, interior movements, like a feeling of peacefulness, or a settling of all the debris of daily life, of tenderness, of softening towards some old wound or tension. This is the reason many people close their eyes in prayer or meditation, to reduce the visual and auditory nose of our busy cluttered lives. Sometimes we will stop a business meeting and ask “how is everyone doing” and in that pause, folks will notice they feel angry, they feel frustrated, they feel anxious, they feel exhausted. Even big feelings like anger, frustration, anxiety can be hard to notice in the bustle of our activity. But as soon as we pause, they become immediately obvious. Perhaps that is part of what this bustling season is about- we keep busy because we may be afraid of what we will notice, what we will feel if we slow down.
We are a bit afraid of that inner dark I think that yin. But as Starhawk says: ”to see clearly, we must be willing to dive into the dark, inner abyss and acknowledge the creatures we may find there.” The transition from the long bright hot days of summer, to the cool dim velvety nights of winter is challenging every year, for humans and for other living beings, But as our eyes and psyches adjust, there are many beautiful things to see.
Often we talk about these early December weeks as a time of waiting for the return of the sun. But there is another quality of waiting I’m thinking of this year, like the waiting of an expectant parent, that cannot be rushed, where will and effort are not helpful. Like waiting for a loss or illness to heal. Preserving our energy for the unconscious processes of knitting tissue together or allowing the tears of grief to flow.
This month, as we celebrate the growing darkness, I encourage you to notice its subtle gifts to the psyche, to the spirit, and to our eco-system. Release the urgent striving of the harvest season, be, as poet Wendell Berry says “dark and still.” May you notice the many ways that “the dark, too, blooms and sings.
If you are inspired to take some time for a meditation on the wise yin of darkness, let me recommend this beautiful meditation by Jeannie Zandi
[i] . The philosophy also traditionally ascribes malensss to Yang and femaleness to Yin. but I don’t want to get trapped into a gender binary today- so I am going to talk about the duality without gender, which is a departure from traditional philosophy.
[ii] In a current text on the topic, Gozyaniga, Ivry and Mangren report that “The vast staging for our mental activities happens largely without our monitoring.”