Darkness used to creep me out. I had a house in the mountains of Fairplay, Colorado for a few years, where on a moonless night it was almost completely black outside except for the glitter of the Milky Way. Walking through the house in the middle of the night to get a glass of water was nerve-wracking for me. The flat black of night through the windows made me imagine serial killers and rabid predators lurking on the porch.
One night I decided to face my fears and I took a very short walk up the road at night. After the stiffness of my initial fear relaxed a bit, I noticed some things. There were occasional comets that flashed across the sky and were quickly extinguished. I saw stars that I had never seen before—there were so many of them. I saw the haze of the Milky Way that at deceptively looks like a thin cloud in the night sky, but isn’t.
What enchanted me most were the comets, or shooting stars. I wondered how often they hurl toward Earth when I’m not watching or even aware—like during daylight hours or on the other side of the world. The Earth is constantly and dutifully shielding its creatures from a pelting of space rocks with its atmosphere. I felt the Earth as my gigantic mother, shielding me from harm.
The experience transformed my relationship to the darkness. I saw the dome of the sky above me in a different way. It was a window onto the universe. It allowed me to see that which was necessary, but invisible—the protective atmosphere around our planet. I saw the sky as a time machine of sorts, since I was looking at objects that sometimes weren’t even there anymore, just their light and energy making its way steadily across space and time.
Sometimes when people are alone in the dark in the wilderness, they feel fear. They fear that something “out there” is stalking them or out to get them. They imagine bears and mountain lions hurling out of the dark to claw at them and eat them alive. That’s how I used to feel, too. But the chances of getting eaten or attacked by a predator are pretty slim, to say the least. You have a better chance of dying in an automobile accident on the way to the campground than you do while you’re sitting alone in your tent.
When you fear the darkness, what you’re really fearing is the darkness within yourself. Darkness is uncertainty. It’s not knowing what’s around the corner or behind the tree. You’re frightened about becoming lost in that uncertainty. You fear you’ll never come out, and the darkness will eat you up. It can be paralyzing, unless you can face it and be comfortable with it.
Befriending the dark means befriending and overcoming your fears.
A Contemplative Activity for Hiking in the Dark
Most open space trails and parks close after sunset. Don’t let that stop you! There may be a large park nearby with a lot of trees, or you can try to park on a street and walk to a trailhead. If you’re motivated, you can go up into BLM land or National Forest, where there are no restrictions on what time you have to be out.
(For this hike, you might try the Flatirons Vista Trail, Mount Sinitas or Chautauqua if you live near Boulder.)
If you’re not comfortable going alone, bring a friend but stay completely silent during this activity. It’s better if you go alone because the purpose of this is to befriend the darkness, and the only way to reach deep into your inner fear is to face it alone.
Bring a flashlight so you don’t trip or stumble. You start by going as far as you’re comfortable, and walk slowly. Stay on the trail, and if there isn’t a trail, stay near the road so you don’t get lost. Stop when you start to feel a little too creeped out or frightened.
Here’s the challenge: turn off your flashlight. Stand still, absolutely still, and LISTEN. Which sounds feel unsettling and which ones comfort you? Maybe the sound of distant cars comforts you now. Take mental note.
If you get too uncomfortable, turn your flashlight back on. Try to go as long as you can and relax into the scenery.
Walk a little further into the woods or trail—again, as far as you can before getting too uncomfortable, and look up and around. Really get into your feelings. What do you imagine coming out of the darkness? What do you fear? Name it. Say it out loud.
Hear yourself saying it out loud. Does it lose its power or gain power that way?
Take several deep breaths and release all tension in your body.
If you start to feel more relaxed, find a place to sit (or stand, if you prefer) and remain there for at least 10-15 minutes. Ask yourself: What do I fear?
Say the answers out loud. The answers may change or stay the same. Keep saying it until you feel you have gotten to the core of what it is you’re really feeling and experiencing, or until you’re no longer able to remain in place.
Return to your car or home when you’re ready.
When you drive home, consider at what point you felt different and completely back to normal after your moment in the woods. Was it when you got back in the car? When you turned on the car stereo? When you returned home and turned on the lights? What makes you feel safe?
You may surprise yourself and feel comfortable in the dark. Or, you may find yourself feeling creeped out a bit longer than you thought. The key here is to realize that the woods are no different or dangerous in the dark then they are in broad daylight. What changes is your perception, and often that perception is masked by your internal fear and uncertainty.