Apotheosis episode 42 - Darkness in a new light. Drawing of a light bulb overlaid with the Taoism Yin and Yang symbol.

Episode 42: Darkness in a new light

Ryan D Thompson Ancient, Perspectives, Taoism

Key ideas

Our childhood fear of the dark never went away; it merely changed forms. Our irrational fear of the dark blinds us to the vital power of darkness.

  • As children, we fear the dark because of what we think we see lurking in the shadows. This fear is perfectly reasonable and rational, since recognizing dangerous creatures can keep us alive.
  • As adults, culture and language embed an irrational fear of darkness in our collective thinking. Deeply ingrained metaphors brand darkness in all its forms as immoral, dangerous, and undesirable.
  • Taoism offers a more balanced perspective, recognizing darkness and light as inseparable parts of a whole. Light can’t exist without darkness; darkness can’t exist without light. 
  • Likewise, our lives would be unbearable without darkness or with an excess of light. Darkness brings creation, comfort, and a potential for growth – if we open our eyes to the dark.


You can’t sleep. You lie in your bed, terrified to move a muscle. In the corner of the room, in the darkest shadows, you see something moving. Or at least you think it’s moving. Is it moving? Looks like a face. And there’s a hand – long, bony fingers. Or more like claws. 

You pull the sheets up over your head. It’s all in your head, you tell yourself. There’s nothing there. You count to three and yank the covers back down. Just then, a flash of lightning outside your window lights up your room. There it is! You saw those eyes leering at you in the darkness. Ahhhhh! You scream as you turn on the lamp…

Only to see a pile of clothes thrown over the chair in the corner, the hangers sticking out the side, curling down like claws. What you thought were eyes were just buttons on your shirt.

As children, many of us had experiences like these. In the darkness, your mind created a story – one that, in your fear and vulnerability, you believed to be real.

This episode is about our fear of the dark – a fear that sticks with us even as adults, despite our claims otherwise. Darkness gets a bad rap. I think that’s a big mistake, as darkness has a lot to offer.

When you were a kid, your fear of the dark was a powerful force. It gripped your heart and mind, often causing sheer panic. No amount of rationalizing by your parents could convince you to let go of your fear. 

In fact, your fear was perfectly rational. After all, it makes more sense from an evolutionary perspective to be afraid of dangers you can’t see. It makes sense for your brain to detect patterns like eyes and claws within the shadows, even when they’re not there. Better to have a false positive that causes you to run for your life than to fail to pick up on those signals and become dinner. 

As we grow up, we gradually shed this fear, at least to the extent that we can go to sleep in our own bedrooms without hiding under the covers. 

But instead of fully overcoming our fear, it merely changes shape. The grown-up version of our fear of the dark is, in fact, far less rational and more transmitted through cultural beliefs and values. We are taught that darkness is to be avoided at all costs. Darkness is associated with evil, danger, and immorality. When people commit harmful acts, we say they have a “dark side.” Someone we don’t trust is “shady.” If someone has a horrible day, they are in a “black mood.” These metaphors are everywhere. 

Especially living in a culture that for centuries has treated people with dark skin as inferior, these metaphors can also be harmful. Repeatedly saying that “dark equals bad” seeps into the collective unconscious, keeping ignorant views about racial inferiority alive.

What would happen if we looked at darkness in a whole new light?

Taoism offers an alternative perspective, perhaps the most reasonable and realistic description of the relationship between darkness and light. The Taoist view recognizes an eternal flow between light and dark, represented in a masterful visual by the yin and yang symbol. Light has elements of dark, and dark has elements of light. They are forever and inextricably linked. Neither is good or bad – they are simply opposite parts of a whole.

Problems don’t arise from darkness; they come from an excess of one or the other. One might argue that there’s no such thing as “too much light” – that light is always a good thing. You might be disabused of this notion if you were to stare at the sun for too long. Or use a magnifying glass to concentrate the sun’s light and hold it over your skin. Anything in extremes can be harmful, even things we ordinarily consider beneficial.

To cultivate a healthy relationship with darkness, one place to start is to consider the creative power of darkness. 

For one, we can look out into the vast darkness of space. Stars are born in the dark void, coalescing from dust in the darkness to form the power cells of the universe. At the dawn of time and the formation of the universe, light did not yet exist. And so the Big Bang occurred in the ultimate darkness, giving rise to all things.

In a similar way, the Judeo-Christian creation story starts with God’s famous first words, “Let there be light!” If God created the light, was he not immersed in darkness?

On a more personal note, we mere humans are also born out of darkness. The spark of life occurs within a dark womb, a place of safety, comfort, and constant growth. As we come into the light, we scream and wail, as if wanting to return to that dark and nurturing space.

And like all these others, even our ideas are often born out of seemingly nowhere, arising from a place of not-knowing – in other words, being in the dark.

Another benefit of the darkness is that it can catalyze growth. Sometimes, we reach a point in our lives where we recognize that something is holding us back – something within our own minds. We all carry repressed emotions and stories, burying them deep in hidden parts of our minds. As I described in a recent episode, this is what Carl Jung called the Shadow

If we hope to grow and evolve as people, at some point, we need to face our fear of the dark. When we embrace the Shadow and integrate it into our conscious mind, we catalyze our potential for transformation.

Finally, we all must rest – and acknowledge the comfort of darkness. When we are tired, the last place we want to be is in a bright room, as light disrupts sleep and rest. Instead, we close all the curtains, turn out the lights, and close our eyes. We embrace the darkness as if we’re going back into the womb. Having lost our fear, we can drift off into a restful sleep. 

Our childhood fear of the dark makes sense. Being afraid of creatures leaping out of the shadows is a perfectly reasonable fear. We would, in fact, be wise to exercise caution when walking alone at night.

But we would also benefit from rethinking our relationship to the darkness. We need darkness. When we treat it as something to be feared, we miss out on a vital part of life. 

Well, that’s all for this time. I hope the darkness brings you creative inspiration, growth, and restfulness. Until the next time, be well!

Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License