Once the decorations are packed away and the festivities are over for another year, winter’s darkness can feel less romantic and more of a struggle. Nature-wellbeing guide Claire de Boursac shares her tips and expertise in the latest Wellbeing in Winter instalment.
For many the darkness of winter is a struggle, something they dread as it approaches and bemoan once it is here. However, the darkness of this time of year can offer its own gifts and magic if we take the time to discover them.
One facet of this is saying a heart-felt ‘yes’ to the dark’s invitation to retreat inside, slow down and rest. Embracing the hygge with cosy evenings under fluffy blankets and the soft glow of candlelight is indeed a delicious way to spend dark winter hours. Another perhaps less common way to embrace the darkness is to get outside and immerse yourself in it. For the last couple of years I’ve held an unusual meditation session where we do just that – gathering in nature at dusk and mindfully, silently watch the darkness fall.
Through my training and work as a therapist over the last decade, I’ve learned that there are treasures to be found when we move towards, instead of away from, our fear or discomfort. Through my work as a nature-wellbeing practitioner I’ve deepened my own relationship with nature and especially with the changing seasons, and I’ve come to love each season for what it is.
At the end of last summer, as I heard people around me complain that it would soon be dark, the therapist part of me and nature-wellbeing part joined together in curiosity: what would happen if people really engaged with the falling of darkness in the afternoon? My suspicion was that they would discover a different way of relating to the dark days of winter. I invited people to join me at the beautiful Culpeper Community Garden in Islington on an afternoon in early December. I led them through some simple mindfulness and nature-connection exercises to help them relax and be present to open up all their senses to the world around. We sat in mindful meditation and watched the darkness fall. Due to popular demand, I repeated the event this year.
As well as busting some myths (the sky doesn’t suddenly become dark but in fact takes over an hour to transition from sunset to darkness) this experience revealed the beauty of this time of day and its distinctive atmosphere. At some point the trees took on a pink hue, even though there was no pink sunset. I felt a thrill when the shapes of the plants and trees around me blurred into each other as it got darker and then seemed to ping back into definition as my eyes adjusted and I saw them clearly once again. When the birds sang their last song of the evening and the garden fell silent, the atmosphere changed once again. The hour was peppered with unexpected moments of magic as another phase of the transition to darkness took shape.
‘Beautiful’, ‘enchanting’, ‘magical’, ‘memorable’ were just some of the words used by those who attended. Afterwards many, myelf included, had a very different winter and somewhat of a love affair with the dark. I found myself waking in the morning excited about walking to work in the dark so I could soak in the transitions in light and atmosphere for the hour spent in near-empty streets. Before last year I’d replaced my morning walk to work with a bus or tube ride until the light mornings returned – I now realise I’d been missing out! Nowadays, when I see the light start to fade at 4pm, I’m reminded of those beautiful, peaceful moments in the garden and even if I’m inside working I know that there is something lovely happening in nature and I have positive associations with the fading light.
Those of us who were enjoying the dark last winter were obviously in the minority. Lone voices in a sea of darkness protests – it’s not surprising, as the dark does indeed pose challenges. Darkness is often associated with fear. Few horror films take place in bright sunshine. Dark corners might hide something sinister. It’s understandable we may feel less safe without the light.
We also tend to associate darkness with night time so it can feel like it’s time to go home and to bed when we’ve still got an hour left at work, making the end of the working day a dreary struggle. It’s not our impulse to switch off and rest that is at fault here, it is the fact that our lives typically don’t allow us to respond to this natural impulse. Relatively recently in terms of human development, this is exactly what we would have done. Can you welcome these dark evenings as an invitation to take life a little slower? You can embrace the darkness without going outside to do so. Perhaps give yourself permission to spend the evening (or Sunday afternoon) snuggled on the sofa reading a book or chatting with your beloved by the warmth of candlelight. It’s a great time to getting all hygge and transforming your home into a relaxing sanctuary.
And of course, these short and often cloudy days mean less time in the sunshine and the vitamin D that it provides. For many, a daily supplement takes the edge off but for some the lack of light has a significant physiological and psychological impact.
I’m not suggesting that meditating outside in the dark is going to solve all this. But it will be dark for up to 15 of our 24 hours for another couple of months. We cannot change this but we can change our attitude to it and that is a powerful thing. In order to know the darkness, in order to befriend it, you have to really experience it, as expressed in the poem by Wendell Berry.
To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
and is travelled by dark feet and dark wings.
To Know The Dark by Wendell Berry
If I’ve piqued your curiosity and you’d like to try embracing the darkness here are some hints.
- Start at the time of sunset. It should take about an hour to get dark from then. Find somewhere, preferably in nature and with no or low artificial light. This could be your garden, a park, countryside or a beach. Choose somewhere you’ll be safe and go as a group if you don’t want to be alone. Be sure to be warm enough – layer up, take something insulating to sit on, have fire at your back or even take a hot water bottle. This is an experience, not an endurance test!
- If you don’t want to be outside you can watch from the warmth of your home. Place a chair by a window and turn the lights off. You won’t get quite the same depth of sensory experience but you’ll be able to appreciate the visual changes.
- Start your watching with some simple mindfulness exercises to bring you into the present moment, connecting to yourself and the place you’re in. Take some slow, mindful breaths. If you’re in nature, spend some time looking in detail at the plants and trees around you, feeling the textures and smelling the smells. Spend a few moments listening carefully to the sounds around you. This will help you experience the shifts more vividly.
If watching the sky get dark doesn’t suit you timing-wise, you can do the reverse and start in the dark hour of the morning and observe the arriving light. We’ve had some misty mornings recently, and it’s also lovely to go outside and be (safely) in this space, exploring the shapes and colours that emerge through the fog.
If you have an automatic ‘I can’t do that in the dark’ response to any of your routines or favoured activities, why not revisit this assumption? Might it actually be fun or interesting to do this activity in the dark?
There is no right or wrong way to feel about the dark days of winter. You may always dislike them or you may grow to accept or even to enjoy them. I share my thoughts not as a prescription or from a place of ‘should’ but as an invitation and idea that you ‘could’ play with experiencing it.