Candle meditation: Using mindfulness to cope with darkness

Science and Health

Most of us have a little darkness now and then. You know, those days when, for whatever reasons, we feel a bit heavy, disconnected or less motivated than usual.

Sometimes the feeling comes after loss or sudden change. It could be sadness or grief, or just generally feeling blah. Or maybe it shows up out of the blue for no apparent reason whatsoever. It can make us feel empty, irritable, tired, guilty, and feeling bad about ourselves, and even frustrated or anxious after trying to “fix” whatever is wrong with us. 

Sometimes we tend to avoid or resist what we’re feeling or numb ourselves with substances or activities that divert our attention, thinking we can push away the darkness, which only exacerbates the problem. Sometimes nothing we do seems to help.

What if we learn to approach ourselves with patience and self-compassion and learn to become aware of whatever we’re feeling without being swallowed up by it? 

In mindfulness, we intentionally turn – with curiosity – toward experiences that we might avoid. We “befriend” our experiences. Turning toward all our experiences can help us to shed some light on them. This is similar to sunlight on mold.

A coronal mass ejection from the Sun imaged on August 31, 2012 (credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Wikimedia Commons)

Flow with this metaphor for a minute: Mold can’t survive the sun’s ultraviolet rays. When the mold spores are exposed to light, they can’t thrive. So, too, our negative or intrusive thoughts are like the mold; when they are exposed to the light of examination, they are less likely to survive. 

It’s as if we’re shining a spotlight on our thoughts to become aware of them, but without getting overly attached or caught up with them. Simply notice them and let them go. 

One way to deal with thoughts is to examine them. Another way is to observe sensations in our bodies – sensations such as tension, pressure, heat, cold, tightness, heaviness or butterflies in the stomach. As trauma expert Bessel van der Kolk wrote, “Our body keeps the score.” In other words, whatever we are experiencing in our minds also shows up somehow in our bodies. 

“Our body keeps the score.”

Bessel van der Kolk

There’s a constant connection between your body and mind, known as the mind-body connection.

Think about how you felt the last time you were really happy. Maybe you felt more energy in your body or lightness in your chest and heart area. It was an entire body experience. Most of us feel basic emotions in our stomach or chest, which affects gastrointestinal activity (our kishkes) and connects to our breathing and heart rate.

Whether you’re feeling happy, sad or angry, your brain communicates and receives signals, and you experience immediate changes in your body. 

Many of us may notice our thoughts and maybe feelings but not necessarily our physical sensations. 

We can learn a lot by paying attention to our physical sensations, by taking a moment to notice what we’re feeling in our bodies.

We can train ourselves to “get out of our heads” and notice what we are experiencing in the present moment, as opposed to regrets about the past or worries about the future. We work on practicing placing our attention where we want it to go rather than ruminating or thinking about something over and over. We recognize that thoughts come and go, and that they’re not necessarily facts. We try to accept the way things are rather than wanting things to be different than they are.

When we practice mindful meditation, we practice noticing our sensations, feelings and thoughts without getting tangled up in them, which can help us see things in a fresh way.

HOW CAN we shed more light on our thoughts, feelings and sensations to improve mood and well-being?

This time of year, we have the shortest days of the year with the least amount of light. And yet we naturally yearn for light. Sunlight is essential for our health and emotional well-being.

These are some of the benefits of sunlight: 

  • Promotes a sensation of well-being and improves mood
  • Boosts the immune system
  • Relieves pain
  • Promotes relaxation
  • Helps people feel more alert
  • Reduces depression

Some people feel the direct effects of the fall and winter months when there is less sunlight. Shorter days and less daylight may trigger a chemical change in the brain, leading to symptoms of depression or seasonal affective disorder. Light therapy and antidepressants can help treat it.

How can we get more light on these days of less light? Light candles.

Candles play an important part in Jewish ritual. We light candles to remember Shabbat and bring light into our homes. We will soon celebrate Hanukkah. The candles we light symbolize the ner tamid (“eternal light”) from the Temple and the miracle of the continued illumination of the menorah, even though there was very little oil left. The Hanukkah lights are placed in the window as a symbol to remind us that darkness can be dispelled with hope.

Below is a mindfulness meditation using a candle as the focus of the meditation. You can observe your hanukkiah after you light it.

During the meditation, you will train yourself to focus your mind and your gaze on the flame, especially when thoughts come up and pull at your attention. Thoughts are natural, but we can train ourselves to simply observe these thoughts rather than interact with them, and candle meditation is a good way to try this. 

The writer is a psychotherapist and certified mindfulness-based stress reduction teacher.

Candle meditation 

(5-10 minutes)

The story of Hanukkah teaches us that light can triumph over dark.

As the winter begins and we experience more darkness, may we enable more light to enter our lives, giving us the capacity to manage the darker days with acceptance and patience.

Winter, therefore, is a perfect time to start a mindful meditation practice. 

Begin with these steps:

  1. Find a space where you won’t be disturbed. Sit straight but relaxed, and make sure that your candle is at least 50 cm. (20 inches) away from you. Start to notice your breath, breathing in and breathing out. 
  2. Stare at the candle and allow it to be the main focus of your mind. 
  3. Hold your eyes steady. 
  4. Take a few moments to bring your awareness to the flame – notice its color, how big or small it is. How does it feel to notice the candle in this way? 
  5. When you feel distracted or bored, return your attention to the flame.
  6. When you feel your eyes getting tired or watery, close your eyes and focus your awareness on the image of the candle in your mind. Once you feel that the eyes are ready, open them and focus once again on the candle
  7. Allow your breath to flow naturally without controlling it in any way. 
  8. As you focus on the candle, imagine the light flowing into you with each inhalation.
  9. Continue to keep your eyes fixed on the flame.
  10. Where is your mind right now? Return your attention to the candle when your mind has wandered.
  11. Take a few more breaths to focus on the candle. 
  12. Slowly return your gaze and attention to the room.