Aug 15 2011
When you live in a city or suburb of a city, or even a small town, it is virtually impossible to experience total darkness outdoors. The light pollution that emanates from windows, street lights and car headlights prevents you from experiencing the wilderness of night untainted by artificial light. But if you’ve ever backpacked, or visited remote parts of the desert, mountain or prairie, you’ve probably had the good fortune to experience the complete and utter darkness of wild night. What was that experience like for you?
Recently I was staying in a vacation home in southwest Colorado, on a mesa above the small town of Ridgway, Colorado. This was a neighborhood with mostly other vacation rentals on large, two (or more) acre properties completely immersed in juniper trees. There were no street lights installed on this mesa, and most of the houses were unoccupied because the owners didn’t live there fulltime. On this particular evening, a storm had rolled in from the south, where the San Juans had churned up a day’s amount of moisture, and the clouds and rain came in droves over Ridgway, petering out over the mesa where I was staying. What had been a clear and sunny day had turned into a gray and cloudy evening.
A couple of hours after sunset, I ventured outside to let me dog out one more time before bed. What I experienced outside in that wild night floored me.
Because there was no moon and it was cloudy, and because there were no streetlights on the mesa, the landscape of junipers and shrubs and a few rooftops had disappeared into an unmitigated black hole. I waited for my eyes to adjust so that I could see the nuances of the trees, some faint misgivings of shadow and light, but nothing happened. It was black, and it stayed black. There was no sound. The birds were sleeping and the insects weren’t making a chirp or crick. The wind from the earlier had calmed to an oh so slight breeze, just the faintest breath. I saw a flat, black sky above an even blacker clump that during the day was a landscape of thick green juniper canopy. I stood there, feeling as if I were about to fall from the precipice of some enormous black canyon into the dark mystery beyond.
I was mesmerized. Never before had I experienced such darkness. Not even on previous trips to the wilderness, not even during my vision fast in the canyon in Utah (because there were stars and moon and lots of reflective surfaces). Not even in the middle of the night in the mountains of Fairplay, where I once owned a cabin. Always there were stars, always there were streaks of light from houses or towns or cars.
This was a nothingness like I’ve never seen, or felt. And I was both drawn to it and terrified of it. When I looked at it, it felt like I could disappear into that void, and by disappearing know true freedom and unity with the sacred. I could become one with that darkness. The thought of that made me feel untethered and vulnerable. But at the same time, I couldn’t stop looking, I couldn’t stop wanting that release.
I wonder if what I felt was not unlike the prospect of the death of ego. The idea of becoming one with all that is is unimaginable to the ego. It doesn’t want to be erased and made inseparable from everything, from the Universe, from Life Force, from god. It wants to hold on to its membrane and its separateness. It wants its specialness. It wants its distinguishing aspects from The Other. It wants the light, because the light gives the ego form. The ego resists its own demise.
At the same time, the prospect of disappearing into the void of All That Is feels orgasmic and mindblowing. It was a seductive terror. It was the ultimate oxymoron. It compelled me and it repulsed me. I felt as if I could stand on the gravel road of the mesa staring at the void for many more hours or even all night. But I didn’t. I went in and embraced the light once more, and experienced myself as I am in the realm of everyday consciousness.
Perhaps one day I can experience that wild darkness again, and spend a little more time with my friend Carolyn Baker calls the embodied ritual of dying before you die. I sense that there is richness and enlightenment waiting for me in that abyss.