Embracing the Darkness

David Rush


Winter is closing in again, and as much of a data nerd as I know myself to be, I am going to resist the temptation to plot a chart of how rapidly the weather has turned to winter and just say that this year’s “Fall” has made a loud THUD in my soul. It seems like the transition from the light season of Beltaine to the darkness of Samhain has gone by very quickly this year, and I am finding it hard to adapt.

In Yoga, we have the principle “satya” (truthfulness) from the Yoga sutras to remind us to keep it real. So when things go sideways, we take the opportunity to look into the mind-stuff that floats up like dust afters and make the connection to our higher self. But in this case I know, from long experience, that it is just the dark. And the cold. And the stress of adapting that is causing much of the difficulty. It’s called Seasonal Affective Disorder and a lot of people (as many as 1 in 11 at Irish latitude) experience it.

I’ve been dealing with SAD for decades, ever since I missed a couple of northern winters while living in Hawaii and Japan, followed by a return to the Great Lakes area of the USA. I remember being disoriented by the changes in the light and slipping into quite a pronounced depression during that first winter back. At the time, I thought I had other problems. And in satya, I really did have other problems, but the way that my body reacted to the changing environment was definitely a contributing factor. It just took a while to figure that out. Part of the depression was purely within my body. Part of it was from the colorations (Yoga Sutras call them kleshas) in my mind.

Within tantra we consider the mind and body to be closely linked. The body is a manifestation of the mind, and the mind is the emanation of the body. We also see life as being made up of cycles: expansion and contraction, novelty and routine, light and dark. Pick your favorite psychological tension and watch; you will find that we experience a dynamic balance, oscillating between the opposite poles.

So when the mind goes into a dark place, we’re not afraid to just let it be dark. We know that feeling better will eventually come, and the darkness can actually help understand the hidden things which trip us up in the best of times. So SAD is not bad. But it’s foolish to suffer needlessly. The mind and body closely linked; self-care is important. It just makes sense to do what is good for the body during the dark months.

I remember when I decided to actually let the world just be dark. Quite literally. I stopped turning on the electric lights and intentionally made do with candles. Now I know that this runs contrary some of the therapeutic recommendations regarding light, but I think the intention behind accepting the darkness helped turn my candlelight into a subliminal message of self-love. Lighting the candles at night was a game-changer. It also turned my attention more towards getting more rest, allowing the dark months to mean for my mind and body what they also mean for the trees and flowers. And more rest allows more room for ideas to take root, getting them ready for the burst of ebergy that comes when the light returns. This might be the most important lesson of all. Because the light days do return. Embracing the dark days helped me develop the patience to remember that.

More recently, I’ve learned that my diet genuinely needs to change during the winter as well. We all know that we get to see a lot less of the sun, but do we remember that sunshine is necessary for the body to synthesize vitamin D? I know that I never really paid much attention to that fact, but in 2015 I was supplementing vitamin D for other reasons, and I had one of the least SAD winters since coming to Ireland. Since then I’ve learned that vitamin D tends to be present in a lot of the foods I end up craving in winter time, particularly smoked salmon. Quite a few people I know have told me of their similar experience, and this has put vitamin D firmly on my “helpful for SAD” list. The clinical evidence for Vitmin D and SAD is ambiguous, so all I’m saying is that it might well be worth a try.

And this very naturally brings us to Ayurveda. Ayurveda is called the “sister science” to Yoga, and is primarily concerned with the health of the body. It is also a huge subject, of which I know little. But one of the core ideas is that food has a deep affect on our health

All beings, that exist on earth, are born of food; then they live by food, then again to the food they go at the end. so verily food is the eldest of all creatures. Therefore, it is called the medicament of all. All those who worship food as Brahman obtain all food. Food is indeed the eldest of all creatures. Therefore,it is called the medicine for all. From food all beings are born, having been born they grow by food. Food is eaten by the beings and it also eats them.

Taittiriya Upanishad 2.2.2

I have had the good fortune of subscribing to a YouTube channel dedicated to finding useful bits of Sanskrit literature and translating them for westerners. In November, they posted a video on Ayurvedic recommendations for the winter season. I’ve included the video below, but the recommendation can be summarized fairly simply. In winter, the digestive heat actually increases because it draws in to the deeper parts of the body. This can cause the body to start breaking down its own tissues, unless the fire is fed with inherently heavy foods. Oddly enough the list he mentions bears some resemblance to a Christmas feast, with sour, sweet, salty, and oily foods. He also recommends self-massage using appropriate oils, but that is a whole practice in itself.

For me, the take-away is that you should genuinely enjoy yourself at the holidays — in moderation, to be sure — and go ahead with all that you understand as self-care. This provides necessary support for the body through the dark season to prepare for growth to come in the spring.

Happy Holidays!

This document was translated from LATEX by HEVEA.