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Why We Wake Up in the Middle of the Night (and Why It's OK)

A new book explains our addiction to artificial light, and the damage it does.

Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock
Source: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

Do you suffer from Insomnia? Maybe you’re addicted to light.

Clark Strand, senior editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, ponders this question and much more in his new book, Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age. According to Strand, light is a full-service addiction: “It doesn't just give us a high by triggering the release of endorphins in the body,” he explains. “It targets our photo receptor cells, triggering changes that are much, much bigger than that. Light is the master switch for all hormone production in the body.”

Here’s more from my conversation with Strand:

Jennifer Haupt: How much of a problem is light addiction?

Clark Strand: Human beings once consumed carbohydrates only in season. Beginning sometime in midsummer, they would “fatten up” on plant sugars in preparation for the winter, during which time such foods would become very scarce. Women in particular would put on enough fat to carry them through pregnancy—which, in Lower Paleolithic times, would always begin in late summer. The trigger for this all-you-can-eat carbo-fest was more hours of light. People naturally craved the fat-building carbohydrates that were available during that time of year.

With the innovation of campfires about one million years ago, our ancestors began to drift from their evolutionary niche as hunter-scavengers and gatherers. It took almost a million years to get there, but eventually they arrived at agriculture, which allowed them to consume carbohydrates at any time of year. This, in turn, made them fertile all year long and substantially increased the number of human beings who could live in close contact with one another, thus inventing cities—and culture.

Today we live in a state of perpetual hunger—for food, for sex, and for stimulants of all kinds—because our bodies are convinced that it is August every day of the year and there’s no way to convince them otherwise. The mind can scream, “Slow down! It’s March, don’t eat so much,” as loud as it wants and it just doesn’t matter because the body is responding directly to light. The body “knows” from its photoreceptor cells that it’s time to eat and mate like there’s no tomorrow if it wants to pass its genes on to the next generation. No one can argue with the body about this, as long as we leave the lights on after it gets dark outside. The body is the ultimate bottom line.

JH: You write that people can choose to view waking up at night as natural and take advantage of that time rather than seeing it as a sleep disorder (insomnia). Do you get up every night?

 Dion Ogust
Source: Photo: Dion Ogust

CS: If I get to bed very late, I will sometime sleep straight through the night. Otherwise, I always wake after about four hours, following that "primordial pattern of sleep" that Dr. Thomas Wehr discovered as part of his NIH studies during the 1990s. It's been like that all my life. I suppose I'm a bit of a cultural outlier in that respect. From childhood on, I've been getting up in the middle of the night to wander outdoors, meditate, pray, or sometimes just to sit on the back porch and let my mind wander among the stars.

Many people experience waking up to the dark as some kind of nocturnal obstacle course of anxiety and apprehension, but it was viewed as a nightly blessing before the introduction of artificial light. That restless dread so many of us feel in the middle of the night is really just a byproduct of our artificially lengthened days and the amount of wattage we've taken in through information, advertising, news alerts, and, of course, actual light.

In the absence of artificial illumination, the human mind naturally begins to quiet down a couple of hours after dusk, and then remains quiet and at peace throughout the dark hours of the night. After about four hours, through some mysterious trick of mammalian biology, a light goes on inside our heads and we wake for about two hours. But it isn't an artificial light, or even an outward light. It's an inner light, softer than a candle. It doesn't come on strong or dominate our consciousness the way a light bulb does. It doesn’t even require us to be fully conscious or awake. It's gentler and more receptive than that. It's inviting, a little like that tiny white spot in the dark "feminine" half of the Yin-Yang symbol.

The Song of Songs describes that state of mind with the words, "I sleep, but my heart is awake." This isn't a metaphor: It's an actual state of mind that anyone can reclaim just by turning out the lights. It's part of our biological and spiritual heritage. It's encoded in our genes.

Why experience "the Hour of the Wolf," when you can experience "the Hour of God"? That is the ultimate question for our light-saturated culture of insomnia. Of course, I'm not speaking of God in religious terms when I use that phrase. The hour I am talking about is much, much older than religion. I believe— and Thomas Wehr reached the same conclusion—that this is the state of mind that all religions in the world are attempting to get back to today.

JH: What have you learned about yourself in your exploration of the dark?

Random House
Source: Random House

CS: In a word? Everything! Don't get me wrong; I haven't attained anything like perfect self-knowledge in the dark. What I have found is a "working knowledge of the soul." I’ve learned what makes me happy (and what doesn't). I've learned what is (and isn't) of true value in world. I've learned the difference between my innermost heart's desire (which is surprisingly attainable) and those desires which the culture manufactures for its own purposes (which are insidious and nearly impossible to fulfill). And, most important, I have learned that I am not alone.

As I write in my book: In the dark we recover our simplicity, our happiness, and our relatedness, because in the dark we remember our souls. Once that happens, we know what life is. And then, finally, we remember how to live.

Clark Strand is the author of numerous books, has been a regular writer and columnist for the Washington Post/Newsweek "On Faith" blog, and is also the founder of "Way of the Rose," a growing nonsectarian rosary fellowship open to people of any spiritual background, with members around the world. His extensive collection of essays and video teachings can be found on the Tricycle: The Buddhist Review website, as well as a library of "green meditation" videos on YouTube. He lives in Woodstock, NY.