“I think the sacred is more readily available to us in the dark.”
~ Martin Lowenthal, Getting Enlightened in the Dark
“…some people say we should never, ever leave the light. We should endeavor to be “light workers” who fill every shadow with light and eliminate all darkness. […] If the light’s on all the time, how do we get any sleep? Do we ever get to close our eyes? […]
“Pagans understand that as much as we crave enlightenment…just that much do we also require endarkenment. The New Age just doesn’t seem to have caught on yet. We pagans can help others see that without the darkness we cannot recognize the light. We need literal shadows – and psychological and metaphysical ones – to tell us what’s out there.”
~ Barbara Ardinger, Pagan Every Day: Finding the Extraordinary in Our Ordinary Lives
I was raised in a middle-class white family, on a steady diet of New Age books filled with lofty prose about enlightenment, spiritual growth, doing-what-you-love, positive thinking, and my least favorites of all, “love and light” and “driving out the darkness.”
As I got older and developed my critical thinking faculties, I often thought: Something’s missing in all this white-light transcend-and-rise-above talk. Why is spirituality so often associated with upward movement, and driving out the darkness? Is there something wrong with descent? Would it be so wrong to welcome darkness, or even invite it in?
In many spiritual writings, and in the cultural milieu of my upbringing, darkness is most often associated with evil, suffering, violence, negativity, and death. Rarely is it portrayed as something positive or nourishing, let alone holy and appropriate for religious worship.
So what was I to do, then, when I found the goth-industrial music scene and discovered that I felt much more spiritual while dressed in black, dancing to dark electronic music, than I ever had in any church or New Age gathering?
What was I to do when I realized I had been initiated by ingestion of magic mushroom, to a soundtrack of Lustmord and Skinny Puppy, while staring into the endless black depths of the void?
What was I to do when I had an embodied mystical experience of a dark deity that was every bit as terrifying and unsettling as it was fulfilling?
And what was I to do when I started reading books about native peoples’ sovereignty struggles in the Americas, and realized that I was born and raised on stolen land, in a country founded on settler colonialism and genocide that continues to this day?
It was in an essay by Michael Ventura, many years later, that I first encountered the word endarkenment. He used this neologism in an unflattering way, as so many other writers have, but I loved it immediately nonetheless. To my mind, it suggested something beautiful, positive, sacred, and quintessentially earthy and grounded. A few obsessive web searches later, I found and voraciously devoured feminist writings about it – the most memorable of which was by Molly Remer, who writes evocatively about her conviction that the idea of the dark is “in need of re-visioning” – and it became clear to me that I’d been on a mystic’s path of sacred endarkenment as far back as I could remember. Finally I’d found a broadly applicable word that conveyed something of the deeper essence of my callings to creative and religious practice, as well as my aesthetic, musical tastes, and emotional experience.
So what is sacred endarkenment?
One of my earliest attempts to define it was esoteric: “a clearing and strengthening of inner vision, and grounding it in the earth through an alchemical reckoning with the sacred dark.” This, however, is only a start. There are many other equally appropriate definitions, and dimensions that only become apparent with time and relevant experience.
Eventually I started keeping a list of concepts and practices I associate with sacred endarkenment. Here are a few:
lamentation and funereal dance
stillness and silence
regenerative, healthy solitude
ecologically responsible ways of handling death and decay
handling “dark” emotions with integrity
refusing to center whiteness, and resisting white supremacy
supporting indigenous peoples’ sovereignty
decolonizing time (and spiritual practice in general)
honoring chthonic and wrathful deities, and powers of the underworlds
valuing restfulness, hibernation, and “doing nothing”
trusting inner guidance
receptivity and surrender
I’d love to hear from others on similar paths. Do you perceive any of your practices as forms of sacred endarkenment? If so, what does that mean to you?
For me, as a contemplative polytheist, mystic, and nun-in-training who has been in service to Skaði (and other Beings often considered “dark”) for many years, sacred endarkenment is the theme that underlies my mission and practice at The Black Stone Hermitage, where I live and work. The Hermitage is my personal living space; it’s also a concept that I am developing and extending to others through hospitality service offerings. When the right permanent space is found, I hope the Hermitage will become a subterranean retreat and house of worship that will outlive me, and continue on to serve future polytheists – especially those interested in building a monastic practice around pre-Christian Norse and Germanic religious and folk traditions – through creating space for leisure and sacred endarkenment.
This monastic mission of service is literal as well as metaphorical. Through my Black Tent Temple project, I design and create customized endarkened tent-like meditative spaces by combining black and purple textiles, themed playlists of dark ambient music, and subdued lighting. They can be adapted to serve many needs; previous uses have included shrine rooms for dark goddesses, and an ecological grief circle for animists. At the Many Gods West conference this year, I will be creating a Black Tent Temple space for polytheists. Priestess Gerrie Ordaz has also built a Black Tent Temple at the Oasis event held by Earth Traditions, a Pagan church in Chicago.
Other kinds of dark physical spaces designed for purposes of rest, restoration, healing, and contemplation include those built by the darkroom retreat movement and Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, many of which have rooms built specifically for the purpose of dark retreats – lengthy solitary retreats designed for advanced practitioners, in a space completely absent of all light.
Retreating into the dark can also provide space for incubation. In his remarkable book In The Dark Places of Wisdom, Peter Kinglsey writes beautifully about receptive practices of incubation in ancient Greece: lying down to rest in a special enclosed place – often a den, or a dark cave – and either falling asleep and dreaming, or entering a state described as neither sleep nor waking. In this way, people received prophecies, messages from the gods, healing, and visions. The key was to do absolutely nothing – to exert no effort, no struggle, no interference with the process. That was how the healing would come: through surrender.
One day, I believe, we will have polytheist and Pagan monasteries with similar incubation spaces.
If polytheists are to create appropriate spaces for this kind of incubation in our religious practices, we must make room for doing nothing. We need true leisure – an abundance of unhurried, unstructured, and uninterrupted time.
This points to a structural constraint facing the modern polytheist revival: as things now stand, few of us have sufficient leisure time to cultivate such a practice. Time management skills, while useful in some cases, can only take us so far in a world where most of us must spend the bulk of our time earning a living. Even our best attempts to slow down – worthwhile though they may be – won’t be sufficient to develop a religious culture that honors leisure in a world that economically and socially penalizes those who don’t keep up, and in which women and marginalized folks are saddled with a disproportionate and never-ending burden of unpaid, unreciprocated emotional labor.
Sacred endarkenment practice, then, may bring us into social justice activism – recognizing and properly valuing emotional labor, supporting the movement for unconditional basic income, and resisting the ways our time is colonized and conscripted into the service of white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.
Trusting embodied emotional intelligence is another way we can practice sacred endarkenment. Cultural, economic, and social pressures often leave us few options but to layer a false veneer of pleasantries and “positivity” over our authentic emotional experience, so as not to drag others down. Many of us habitually hold ourselves at a certain distance from what we call dark emotional states — pain, suffering, conflict, grief, despair, sorrow, anger. Yet sometimes there is bittersweet, hidden medicine to be found in dark emotional processes when they are faced and addressed skillfully and with kind hearts. This is the medicine of sacred endarkenment. Those who create and hold space for it are doing valuable emotional labor, and opening paths to genuine joy.
We practice sacred endarkenment when we look deeply into darkness and acknowledge its worth, instead of turning away. Annihilating forces, after all, are just as essential to life as generative ones, as alchemists know.
There is nothing inherently negative about darkness. Darkness has been discredited – and associated with evil and doom – by oppressive forces that benefit when noses are kept to the grindstone and “dark” emotions are suppressed. Why?
Because within the sacred dark lies deep wisdom, regenerative power, and liberation.
Negativity is not inherent in darkness itself. It is in suppressing or avoiding it that we run into trouble. Excessive focus on “the light” or “positivity” is a form of spiritual bypassing that can lead us away from inner power. Sacred endarkenment practice can lead us toward it.
Crucially, inner power is the only power that can’t be taken away, because it relies on nothing external.
Sometimes, what wants to speak or manifest through us seems frightening or overwhelming. When we find the courage to give it room to speak and listen for the deeper wisdom and true voice within it, we learn that beautiful parts of ourselves – and beautiful Beings of many kinds – often wear dark masks.
There is powerful medicine to be found in dark places that emerges only under conditions of receptivity, unhurried time, and sustained attention…and it shows itself only on its own terms. We will only find this medicine if we can move beyond our collective avoidance of the dark. When we create and hold space for restorative, restful, and regenerative darkness, we will be in a position to receive its wisdom.
From darkness we are born, and to darkness we shall return – and this is a blessing.
This is the practice of sacred endarkenment.