Afraid of the Dark


“What hurts you, blesses you. Darkness is your candle.” 

Most of us outgrow our fear of the dark by the time we reach adolescence. What causes this fear, however, often doesn’t go away. Instead, it manifests in countless subtle ways. We think that being afraid of the dark is for kids, and yet adults merely transition into being afraid of darkness as a concept.

People are scared of death, the unknown, the Other, the enemy. They are scared of confronting dark thoughts or harmful emotions. Culturally, we try to apply the same principle to the darkness that we tell children to apply to the dark: ignore it and it will go away. But unlike the monsters in the dark, the darkness won’t go away just by being ignored. If anything, it will only grow stronger.

The best way to rid yourself of fear and anxiety is to expose yourself to whatever haunts you. This can be really difficult, but not as difficult in the long term as the alternative. Buried feelings, when ignored, only get weirder and more severe over time. This is why people with repressed childhood memories end up manifesting bizarre or neurotic behaviors in adulthood.

Kids stop being afraid of the dark when they spend enough time in the dark to know that the monsters aren’t real. We can learn from this. We need to expose ourselves to the abyss just enough to know that we are stronger than it, otherwise it will control us. Meditation is one way to do this. It lets us face thoughts we might otherwise overlook or repress. We become more familiar with these thoughts and they don’t scare us quite as much.

This is what I think about when I read about unhappy billionaires trying to conquer death through science. It’s what I think when I see people lashing out against people they don’t understand, or fighting holy wars, or living boring ultra-secure lives just out of fear. It’s what I think when I see people who are so scared of the unknown that they are willing to cause concrete harm over something that only has the potential to cause abstract harm. When we are controlled by thoughts and feelings, we create more of this abyss without realizing it. It will never go away, and we should learn to work with it rather than against it.

There is a Tibetan meditation meant to help practitioners overcome lust and longing. In involves contemplating yourself being cut into little pieces, each individual organ and body part recognized. You acknowledge your mortal flesh in all its varied components, slowly and deliberately. You imagine them rotting and decaying. Gross, right? Maybe it’s because I love death metal, but I think this is a wonderful meditation. It’s wonderful precisely because, at first glance, you may find it revolting.

Such a sense of revolt represents an ignorance, a fear of the unknown. Making peace with your flesh and your inevitable death, you find natural calmness in your own body rather than conflict. This is the equivalent to the kid looking under the bed with a flashlight and remembering that his fears are purely psychological. We can extend this to other fears, make peace with them, and then move past them. They hold us back in ways we don’t realize until we overcome them.

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