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Waking Up To the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age

Clark Strand's brilliant new book on electrified life and its discontents

Clark Strand has been studying the world's spiritual traditions for more than thirty years. A former senior editor at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, he is the author of Waking the Buddha, Meditation Without Gurus, and How To Believe in God, and is the founder of The Way of the Rose, a growing nonsectarian rosary fellowship open to people of any spiritual background. His latest book is Waking To The Dark: Ancient Wisdom For a Sleepless Age. I talked to Strand about what we've lost in an electrified age and the soul's hunger for the gifts of darkness.

Mark Matousek: How did the incandescent light bulb alter human evolution?

CS: Light has its own kind of energy. As people experienced brighter nights and longer, extended days, they began to fill human culture to the brim with new modes of commerce and new ideas. There was a sense of mission behind it. It seemed wrong-headed to oppose the idea that you would electrify your homes and stay up later. No one really questioned the new technology that had the quality of a revolution about it. After Edison mass marketed the incandescent light bulb, and people got a taste of it, theidea spread very, very quickly. But people didn’t realize that by brightening their homes, that they were effectively changing their consciousness and their entire way of relating to the world.

The light bulb was both the metaphor and the means for the conquest of human consciousness during the 19th and 20th centuries. By conquest, I mean the extension of waking awareness into areas of life that, heretofore, it had rarely ventured into. When the sun went down in centuries past, people’s minds began to quiet. They started to slow down, to turn towards bed and rest and the kinds of activities and thoughts and feelings that were naturally supported by the intimacy of soft light, twilight, and finally darkness. All of those were suppressed by the electric light bulb, as we consolidated our sleep nights (like our workdays) into convenient, eight-hour blocks.

MM: So there’s a connection between the loss of darkness and the loss of intimacy?

CS: I think so. There’s a Jesuit historian of technology named John Staudenmaier who wrote a wonderful essay a few years ago called “Electric Lights Cast Long Shadows.” His basic idea was that the loss of the holy dark during an age of increased use of artificial illumination has resulted in losses to human beings that are almost inconceivable. Each generation has become more and more electrified and illuminated as we’ve gotten closer to not just a 24-hour news cycle but basically a 24-hour day, where there are electric lights on all the time. We have begun to lose touch with the more shadowy, numinous side of life. Dreams, visions, imagination, intuition. All of these are suppressed when they are driven into the light. Staudenmaier said that the light bulb carries with it an innate prejudice that all things can be made clear.

MM: I love that.

CS: It’s true. The idea that all things can be made clear is implicit in the idea of wattage; the brighter the light, the fewer the shadows. Science becomes a way of imagining that you can illuminate a thing (including ourselves) from every side so that everything about it can be seen and known about it. But if you do that it erases even the possibility of an interior life. What we call the interior life is a place of shadow. It’s an enclosed space within us that may not be completely dark--ideally you want a candle burning somewhere in your soul to see by. But you don’t want it to shine so bright that there’s no feeling of interiority or privacy.

MM: Talk to me about the Hour of God versus the Hour of the Wolf.

CS: The average American sleeps six-and-a-half to seven hours a night, which is an hour-and-a-half less than people actually slept in pre-modern times. But that sleep used to be delivered in two blocks rather than one. Prior to the industrial revolution, people across the world would turn in not too long after dusk, after maybe puttering around for a little bit, tending to the fire or checking on all the animals. But within two hours of dusk, they were generally in bed and asleep. They would sleep for four hours and then they would wake for two and then they would sleep for four hours more. They’d wake a little bit before dawn and lie in bed until the sun came up or until the animals needed to be milked or some work needed to be done. So the amount of total sleep they were getting was about eight hours.The difference is, in modern times, that by extending our days with electrical lighting, we have compressed what was once a nightly festival of darkness where there was time not only for sleep but for lying awake in that relaxed, open, luminous state of mind that National Institute of Health researcher Thomas Wehr called “an open channel to the world of dreams and visions.” But with the compression of our sleep nights into eight-hour blocks, that channel to those experiences was closed down.

Here’s the interesting thing. As people get older, they tend to suffer from what doctors call sleep fragmentation. That means they start to wake up in the middle of the night. But it’s not what it seems. The pharmaceutical industry will tell you that waking up in the middle of the night is unnatural and you should medicate yourself so that you can sleep through the night. What I believe is actually happening, is that it takes a tremendous amount of metabolic force to override that ancient pattern of sleep and make yourself sleep for eight hours straight. And as you get older, you can’t continue to do it. You can’t stick with the cultural norm, and so your sleep starts to fragment and you wake in the middle of the night. Sadly, instead of waking to what I call the Hour of God, many of us wake instead to the Hour of the Wolf—that eerie, predatory insomnia which strikes somewhere between two and four a.m, Those are the hours we agonize about, thinking “Oh my god, I’m going to be tired tomorrow. I’m going to be exhausted. What’s the matter with me?” We lie awake, feeling vulnerable and unprotected. That’s the Hour of the Wolf.

The Hour of God happens when you give yourself enough darkness to work with so that you awaken to that luxurious place where the body feels very calm because, without artificial light to disrupt the body’s natural cycles, our prolactin levels remain very high when we wake up in the dark. That’s the naturally-occurring hormone that keeps mammals at rest when they are sleeping. It’s the same hormone that rises in a mother’s body when her milk lets down. It keeps you feeling very calm and centered and at peace.

MM: You’ve been drawn to the dark since you were a boy. Is it true that you used to go out walking in the middle of the night? That must have been considered pretty odd.

CS: Well, it would have been if anybody had caught me. Only once, when I was eight or nine years old, did anyone notice what was going on. I came back from one of my nightly jaunts on the golf course and my mother caught me. I pretended to be sleep-walking. She acted like she believed me, but she must have known the truth. After all, I was wearing shoes.

From an early age, I was a cultural outlier and I don’t know exactly why. For some reason, I loved the dark. I was never afraid of it. By the time I was in high school, I was often walking for two hours in the middle of night. Since moving to Woodstock 20 years ago, it’s become a something of a ritual. Not much interferes with it unless I get to bed too late and sleep straight through the night – or if there’s a hard rain. Otherwise I’m up and out the door.

MM: You’re the guy that’s walking around at three o’clock in the morning.

CS: I am. Everybody leaves me alone because they assume I must be dangerous.

MM: You write about the need for a “dark revolt,” which you describe as simply turning off the lights. Obviously, most of us aren’t going to live without electricity. What would you recommend to people who want have more balance in their lives while respecting their modernday needs?

CS: There’s a way to experience the dark just by turning off the lights an hour or two earlier each night and giving yourself more time for rest. If you do that for, say, a month, then chances are you will begin to wake in the middle of the night to that very peaceful, nurturing and creative space that I call The Hour of God. Even if you aren’t able to do that, you can embrace what I call the “cultivated dark” through some form of spiritual practice. You can begin to experience yourself from the inside out, rather than having your experience handed to you by the culture from the outside in. It’s a way of remembering that we have a soul. But in order to do that, we have to recover the “interiority” of our experience. We have to find a space within us that isn’t quite so brightly lit. In very literal terms, you can unscrew half the light bulbs in your house. That’s a good start. You’ll save electricity and you’ll also be healthier. You’ll sleep better and probably be more creative. You’ll begin to approach your life with greater equanimity.

MM: That would be a major step forward.

CS: That would be a revolution.

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