Turn Out the Lights

Under the cover of night, Clark Strand discovers a lost state essential to wakefulness.

Clark Strand

Jon Shireman/Getty

Look up into the sky on a starry night and you will see that there is a lot of darkness in the universe and very little light. So great is the invisible counterweight of darkness, in fact, that we think nothing of chipping away a bit of it in order to make a little something more for ourselves, altering the balance of night and day as if such a thing were permissible, or even possible, in the greater scheme of things. As if we could do so without tipping that shadowy but delicate inner scale that weighs the meaning and value of our lives.

Religious social critics sometimes lament the loss of spiritual consciousness in an age of 24-7 cable television, Twitter, and the World Wide Web. But they are coming into the argument much too late in the game. These things were already inevitable once the incandescent light bulb had come into common use.

Though its significance is seldom remarked upon by historians, this was the spiritual tipping point that would eventually guarantee the excesses of the twentieth century, from world wars to climate change to the widespread pollution of rivers, lakes, and streams. All of these spring directly from the overflow of human consciousness, for which the rising flood of electric light is both the metaphor and the means. Advances in science, industry, communication, and nearly every other area of human enterprise resulted from the influx of good, cheap light like nothing the world had ever seen—a brightness never rivaled by tallow, oil, or gas. It created a kind of universal optimism, a belief in unimpeded growth and progress, the expectation that, going forward, all would eventually become clear. The only casualty in that ongoing conquest of night seemed to be darkness, a thing of little value, an absence really, a blank space on the canvas of eternity that we could fill in as we pleased.

Or so we thought.

The time has come to rethink our relationship to darkness and all that it portends—myths, dreams, fantasies, doubts, uncertainties, and especially the bottomless well of sleep. That is what Green Meditation is for. Green Meditation recovers the balance that humanity has lost in its relationship to nature. Green Meditation is the recovery of the dark.

Jon Shireman/GettyI discovered Green Meditation because I couldn’t sleep through the night. This is a common ailment for people in developed nations as they get older, and there are plenty of theories for why this is so. The one I prefer isn’t popular outside the rarefied world of sleep researchers and paleontologists, however, since it is antithetical to so many aspects of modern life. According to that theory, human beings have been hardwired from prehistoric times to spend a good portion of their nocturnal hours in a resting state that lies somewhere between wakefulness and sleep. Homer wrote about it in “The Odyssey,” the Bible speaks of it constantly, and traces of it are still to be found in many of the spiritual practices that have been handed down to us today. Like the deeper stages of Buddhist meditation, that state operates by a logic of its own. The difference is, it can be accessed without any special training by virtually any Homo sapiens, simply by turning off the lights.

During the 1990s, Thomas Wehr, then Chief of Clinical Psychobiology at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), conducted a study that he later described as an exercise in “archaeology, or human paleobiology.” Wehr asked a group of normal subjects to submit to fourteen hours of darkness every night for one month. Dr. Wehr wanted to know whether modern human beings had retained the circadian rhythms for a prehistoric mode of midwinter sleep—and, if so, how different that mode might be from the way they slept today. To his surprise, he discovered not one mode, but two. The second had been hidden inside the first, compressed out of existence by the modern habit of consolidating sleep, like work, into convenient eight-hour blocks.

In the beginning, Wehr’s subjects slept for an average of eleven hours a night (repaying a chronic sleep debt, he later concluded), but by week four they were back to eight hours again. However, the hours were no longer consecutive. Given the whole cloth of darkness to work from, the full spectrum of human consciousness now began to unfold like the segments of a Japanese fan.

The participants began each night by lying quietly in bed for two hours, and then promptly fell asleep. After about four hours, they woke again for two hours of quiet rest, after which the cycle began again. The “rest” hours were the key. On analyzing his data, Wehr discovered those hours consisted of a mode of awareness that was neither active consciousness nor actual sleep, but another state “with an endocrinology all its own.” What emerged in that interval carried all the mystery and excitement of a major archaeological discovery, only in Wehr’s case what had been unearthed was the capacity for a type of consciousness that had, for the most part, been allowed to wither away. Monasteries and ashrams still kept it alive during the daylight hours, and it survived here and there on the analyst’s couch or sometimes in the artist’s studio. But where it really counted—in the depths of the night, in apartments and houses, cabins, shacks, tents, yurts, yachts, palaces, presidiums, and hotels—it was now mostly gone.

“It is tempting to speculate,” wrote Wehr, “that in prehistoric times this arrangement provided a channel of communication between dreams and waking life that has gradually been closed off as humans have compressed and consolidated their sleep. If so, then this alteration might provide a physiological explanation for the observation that modern humans seem to have lost touch with the wellspring of myths and fantasies.” Such speculations would be interesting in a wistful kind of way, but only just—if not for one further detail. In the fourth week of the study, subjects reported that in all their lives they had “never felt so awake.” Wehr wondered if this was actually true, or if they only felt that way because they were rested. To determine the truth of their claims, he employed a test developed by sleep researchers to measure levels of wakeful consciousness, and it was just as his subjects had reported: they really were more awake. In fact, they were more awake than the rest of us, more awake than modern human beings were ordinarily thought to be.

One of the consequences of the NIMH study was a reevaluation of the trend toward sleeplessness as people enter middle age. Some theorists concluded that rather than being pathological, the trend might simply reflect a weakening resistance to the pattern that had governed human sleep for countless millennia prior to the invention of artificial light—a pattern that hadn’t changed significantly over the past few hundred years for the simple reason that our basic genetic makeup hadn’t changed. In other words, you woke because you were supposed to, not because you couldn’t sleep. Modern society was suffering from a debilitating hypervigilance—fueled by caffeine, by communications technologies, by entertainment, and by the sheer velocity of human progress, but most of all by light. And yet that jittery hyperalertness was different from true wakefulness. If anything, the hyperstate tended to exclude it. The good news was, you eventually became cured of hypervigilance once it tired you out.

These revelations came to me only after I had suffered for ten years or so, treating as a pathology what turned out to be a cure. Still, by the time I read about Wehr’s sleep study, I had it mostly figured out. Like the second mode of sleep he discovered in his subjects, the teachings of Green Meditation were there already—hidden, perhaps, but still accessible, provided you knew where to look. I had nothing better to do between two and four in the morning than try to find them, and so for years I did just that, piecing together various bits from the texts and teachings of ancient traditions, trying to assemble a coherent picture in my mind. Wehr might appreciate the fact that, when those bits finally coalesced into something recognizable, that picture took the form of a dream I had one night.

I am wandering from room to room in a massive, dimly lit building. With me is another, somewhat older man who I guess has come from India. Many of the rooms seem quite old, as if they belonged to a bygone era. Some are grottoes, and some are actual caves. All are abandoned. My companion does not speak except to identify himself as “Wallah.”

“Wallah” is a word of Anglo-Indian origin that, I later discover, derives from a Sanskrit word meaning “one who saves, carries over, or conveys.”

Next I find myself standing outdoors with some others around a primitive cooking pot. There is meat in the pot, and everyone is eating from it because they are hungry. I am wondering where the meat has come from, when I realize with a shock that the people eating have all cut off one arm and cast it into the pot. Knowing that I will have to do the same if I want to eat, I wonder if I can bring myself to do this.

When I woke from this dream one morning two summers ago, I was already thinking of the famous koan in which the Indian monk Bodhidharma (the patriarch who conveyed Zen Buddhism to China) meditates for nine years in a mountain cave. Eventually his fame spreads far enough to reach the Chinese scholar-monk Huike. It is snowing heavily below the summit when, after a long journey, Huike arrives at the cave to ask for Bodhidharma’s guidance. But the sage refuses to break off his meditation. Again and again, Huike asks for guidance, standing for so long outside the cave that by evening the snow has risen to his waist. Still, Bodhidharma will not honor his request.

Finally, out of desperation, Huike cuts off his left arm and presents it as an offering and a show of his sincerity. At this point, Bodhidharma asks him what the problem is and Huike tells him that his mind is not at rest. “Bring me your mind and I will set it at rest for you,” Bodhidharma says. But Huike explains that this is just the problem—he has searched for it earnestly for many years but has never been able to find it. On hearing this, Bodhidharma replies, “Then I have set your mind at rest.”

In the Zen tradition, this story is seen as a foundational myth, a kind of creation story of how Zen came to be, since Bodhidharma is the original patriarch from whom all subsequent Zen masters trace their lineage. As such, it purports to be the first story of a new tradition. But the question that occurred to me that morning in a flash was this: What if, in the course of establishing that new tradition, an older tradition had inadvertently been concealed? What if Bodhidharma wasn’t who we thought he was? What if his teachings were far older than we knew?

In Asian art, Bodhidharma looks more like a caveman than any other figure. He is often referred to as the “hairy barbarian” in Zen lore, and his sitting in a cave for nine years doing pi-kuan, or “wall gazing,” suggests that he represents a kind of “primitive.” This is taken at face value as a bit of added color in the stories about him from the Zen tradition. But if color is what such details add to the story, it is important to understand what color that color is.

The anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss died at one hundred last year, just before Halloween, an ancient holiday that, coincidentally, celebrates the beginning of the “darker half ” of the year. Lévi-Strauss often pointed out that the term “primitive” was a misnomer. He insisted on using the phrase “without writing” to describe those cultures that are more directly connected to nature and whose oral traditions, lacking written records and the relationship to property that such records both express and encourage, are primarily concerned with nature—how to live with it and within it, and how to discern its rhythms and shifting patterns in day-to-day life. This idea becomes relevant once we remember that the main tenet of Bodhidharma’s teaching (as recorded in texts discovered in a cave at the beginning of the last century and now sometimes referred to as the “Dead Sea Scrolls” of Zen) was a special transmission from mind to mind, “not relying in any way on written scripture.” Bodhidharma’s transmission was, then, one that existed “without writing.”

Hiroshi SugimotoThe figure in my dream was not the Bodhidharma whose tradition, subsequently written down by generations of patriarchs, I’d taken up when I dropped out of college many years ago. That Bodhidharma was a figure of fierce resolve, worthy of the kind of sacrifice Huike had offered in cutting off his arm. When I was a monk, he inspired me to feats of concentration and endurance I’d never have thought myself capable of (and, indeed, could not replicate today). According to legend, once when Bodhidharma became sleepy, he cut off his eyelids in anger and tossed them outside the entrance to his cave. There they took root and sprouted into the first tea plants, thus establishing an affinity between Zen and caffeine consumption that persists to the present day.

The “wallah” of my dream couldn’t have been more different. Middle-aged and utterly ordinary-looking in his polyester slacks and blue short-sleeve shirt, he would have said fierceness of resolve was strictly counterproductive, and eyelid-cutting a form of spiritual suicide. If these were on my agenda, I’d be better off practicing my Zen by daylight than wandering with him all night on a guided tour of the abandoned prehistoric monasteries of the world.

Although it had something in common with what I’d learned from my Japanese roshi, this wallah’s dharma was of a different order. The difference was one of scale. His were the teachings of a species, passed on through evolutionary life forces rather than through the written documents and established rituals of a particular sect or school. According to that older dharma, one’s wakefulness was calibrated to the shifting patterns and cycles of nature—both externally and as they existed within one’s own body in response to the changing seasons and the daily ebb and flow of light. If you were in harmony with those patterns and cycles, you were awake. If not, you weren’t—no matter what you did.

Once I realized this, I wasn’t surprised that the figure in my dream had spoken only one word to me. He probably wasn’t capable of speech as we modern humans are. The casual attire and modern human appearance had fooled me into thinking I’d encountered someone more or less like myself, when, in fact, we stood on either side of a vast divide—one species communing with another in that liminal dreamspace that is now, millions of years later, the only place they can meet one another other than an archaeological excavation. Perhaps what I’d stumbled upon in my midnight meditations, slipping in and of sleep, in and out of crisis and self-doubt, as the hours of sleeplessness piled up like slack rope in a far corner of my mind, was the spiritual equivalent of that—an archaeology of the soul.

If the arm-cutting had shocked me, this thought took my breath away. If the dream was meant to convey a teaching not only “without writing,” but possibly even “without words,” that would mean that what I’d been calling Green Meditation had existed for far longer than I’d thought—that it represented a way of being in the world that preceded the consciousness of the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens with its enhanced capacity for language and the intricacies of symbolic thought. I’d known that it predated Bodhidharma, who, after all, was a kind of symbol for its origins in antiquity. But there is an enormous difference between antiquity and prehistory—like the difference between treading water at the deep end of a swimming pool and floating in the middle of the Pacific Ocean atop miles of deep blue sea. If Green Meditation were older than Shakyamuni Buddha himself—not by thousands of years, as I had thought previously, but by hundreds of thousands, or even millions—then Shakyamuni’s was simply one of the first versions of that teaching ever to get written down.

The meeting between Huike and Bodhidharma records a collision between two very different kinds of spiritual culture: one with writing, and one without. The first is driven to achieve increasingly higher levels of contrast and illumination (along with the enhanced powers of discernment that inevitably accompany them), but in so doing it becomes divorced from nature to such an extent that it can no longer find itself anywhere in the world. It can’t locate its own consciousness, much less locate its mind as Huike had tried to do. And yet it can’t help but look for them, and so it can never really sleep. It can never come to rest.

The other kind of culture is content to be in nature as nature, occupying caves and catacombs and other twilit margins of the world where the distinction between self and other is far more numinous, biological, and vague—where much can happen, but it is all right if nothing does, or if the same thing happens year after year (even for nine years), so long as it happens naturally. That world craves no novelty, is indifferent to fame or profit, and to most possessions, and would surely find it puzzling that one person should be considered more (or less) awake than another. But it always knows where it is—simply because it is connected to the earth.

A story from the larger Buddhist canon illustrates this point. According to legend, on the night that Shakyamuni became an “Awakened One,” as he sat in deep meditation under the Bodhi tree, the tempter Mara assailed him with many threats and distractions, including vast armies of demons and seductive dancing girls. When these failed, as a last effort to unseat the aspiring Buddha, Mara challenged his right to sit upon the throne of enlightenment.

“Who bears witness to your attainment of Buddhahood?” demanded Mara.

In answer, Shakyamuni reached the fingers of his right hand down to touch the ground. “I call the earth as my witness,” he declared.

One legend tells us that the earth quaked at Shakyamuni’s request. Another that “myriad thousand-fold flower blossoms” rained down from heaven. Still another has the Earth Goddess herself emerging with her body half out of the ground to confirm the Buddha’s attainment. Every legend agrees, however, that the earth itself bore witness to the appearance of a buddha, or “World-Honored One.” This is the traditional account, commemorated by hundreds of thousands of paintings and statues across Asia, which often depict Shakyamuni in this pose, referred to in Buddhist iconography as the “Earth Witness” mudra.

But what if that account were wrong—not in its particulars, but in our traditional reading of them?

Photo by Andrea FellaThe teachings of Green Meditation remain in ancient stories like this one as a form of “sediment,” a term used by historians to describe the way certain details drift into the record without anyone being aware of them. This includes the geological and archaeological records, which collect actual physical sediment, and even the genetic record preserved in our DNA, where geneticists can find traces from our remotest evolutionary past. According to the Harvard historian Daniel Lord Smail, the author of “On Deep History and the Brain,” such sediment can even be found in religious writings and other ancient texts, provided we know how to look for it.

Whenever we read documents for their sediment, we interpret them in much the same way that a paleontologist would interpret a tooth, or a population geneticist a strand of DNA. We search not for the meanings that an author chose to leave behind but rather for the information that was accidentally or unintentionally preserved inside that little trace of the past.

In the story of Bodhidharma, the sediment lies in his “primitive” appearance, his dwelling in a cave, and the fact that his teaching is passed along without the aid of written texts. In the story of Mara’s challenge to the Buddha, the sediment consists only of the Buddha touching the earth. The traditional account preserves that “little trace of the past,” but it doesn’t understand it. For the real point of the story is not the earth bearing witness to Buddha, but rather the Buddha’s bearing witness to the earth.

Once we realize this, a very different meaning begins to emerge. Shakyamuni reaches down to touch the earth, not to call it as a witness to his own self-importance, but in recognition of where he comes from, what sustains his consciousness and his life, and where he is destined to go when he dies. The gesture says, “Nothing can be lost or gained. Everything is here.” Shakyamuni isn’t justifying himself, establishing himself as worthy of emulation and respect, or even defending himself against Mara’s challenge to his authority. He is teaching Mara. That gesture is the first sutra taught by the Buddha, and the most striking thing about that sutra is that it contains no words. Why? Because it doesn’t need them. Even the crickets understand that sutra. Everything understands it—except for modern human beings. In the story, Mara is us.

It is remarkable how similar this wordless sutra is to the fundamental principle of modern ecology. Once we understand this, the meaning of Huike’s arm-cutting finally becomes clear, and an ancient koan yields up its store of vital teachings on how we are to live today. The official report issued by the Stockholm Conference in 1972 (predecessor to the 1997 Kyoto Accord) offers such a potently worded version of that teaching that it could almost be added to the traditional commentary on this koan.

Life holds to one central truth: that all matter and energy needed for life moves in great closed circles from which nothing escapes and to which only the driving fire of the sun is added. Life devours itself: everything that eats is itself eaten; every chemical that is made by life can be broken down by life; all the sunlight that can be used is used. Of all that there is on earth, nothing is taken away by life, and nothing is added by life—but nearly everything is used by life, used and reused in thousands of complex ways, moved through vast chains of plants and animals and back again to the beginning.

Huike’s act has nothing to do with sacrifice, and even less with sincerity or fierce resolve. It is, quite simply, the price of admission. We all pay that price, whether we want to or not, because not one of us can stand apart from the matrix of biological blessings that the earth provides. We eat, and we are eaten. The truth is as simple as that. But whether or not we become awake to that truth depends entirely on whether we pay that price willingly or try to jump the gate. Any enlightenment that involves its denial—any that involves the earth bearing witness to our importance as individuals or as a species—is a sickness and a tragedy beyond belief. We don’t even own our arms.

I took more than a year to reflect on all of this before I wrote a word about any of it. During that time, I barely spoke about Green Meditation even to my closest friends. The night after my dream about Bodhidharma and Huike, I moved my office outdoors onto the back deck and began spending twelve to fourteen hours a day in natural light. The mosquitoes were bad that year, and since our house in Woodstock is surrounded by wetlands on three sides, this could have been a problem, but I let them bite me, and after a while they stopped. In any case, I didn’t care. I walked and ran a great deal and began a tradition of hiking in the Adirondack High Peaks with my son, who had just turned eleven and was old enough to tackle serious climbs. And I stopped worrying about sleep and let it have its way with me—or not—as it pleased.

Our family lives in the woods at the end of a long driveway. Often at night I will walk to the end of it to look at the stars. Once I’ve reached the road, there are a lot more of them because of the gap in the trees. Sometimes I walk a ways toward town following the flow of stars above my head rather the road itself, which on moonless nights is so dark I can barely see my shoes. At the bottom of the hill there is a grassy field that used to belong to horses but now belongs to no one but the sky. About twenty years ago, something terrible happened at the house whose owners the horses belonged to, a large white Victorian with lots of outbuildings and apple trees, but now no one remembers what it was, or they won’t say. The house has been empty since, although a single porch light remains on always, 365 days a year. Someone must replace the bulb when it burns out, but it’s a mystery who this might be. No one comes and no one goes. The house follows the seasons to the accompaniment of that solitary trickle of electric light, falling a little further into ruin with the passing of each one.

Something about starlit roads and fields makes them good teachers of Green Meditation. The eighteenth-century Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught his disciples to learn from such “teachers”:

The best time for meditation is at night, when everyone is asleep. Ideally you should go to a place outside the city and follow a solitary path where people don’t even go during the day. . . . Meditation is best done outside the town in a place where grass grows, because the grass will awaken your heart.

Rebbe Nachman once explained the theory behind these solitary vigils with a metaphor he called “Bypassing the Bandits.” He explained that the daylight world of traditional religious observances was like a public highway traveled by many people. “Murderers and robbers lurk there all the time waiting for the unwary, because they know the road. But when a person goes on a new path that is as yet unknown, they are not there to ambush him.”

The murderers and robbers of the rebbe’s metaphor are not literal, of course. They represent the various pitfalls of organized religious life: boredom, complacency, competitiveness, ambition—the very things you’d think wouldn’t be a problem on the spiritual path, but always are. At night, alone in the moonlit fields, with the grasses and crickets to keep you company, it is possible to reclaim the vision you had when you originally set out on that path. There, it is likewise easier to maintain it. Nature is the great teacher and always has been. Shakyamuni went to the jungle to find its teachings, Moses up the mountain, Jesus to the desert, and Bodhidharma and Muhammad to their caves. Sadly, we tend to forget this, and so it is important to have a practice that reminds us of it again.

Rebbe Nachman once said to his disciples, “Behold! I am taking you on a new path, which is really the old path—the ancient path traveled by our fathers of old.” One night I happened across this passage just as I was beginning to read “The Lotus Sutra.” One advantage of a twilit reading of the world’s different religious scriptures is a blurring of the distinction between them. The difference between Hasidic and Buddhist meditation, which seems so important by daylight, becomes irrelevant in the dead of the night with no reference point but the beating of a single human heart.

That night I was reading the chapter from “The Lotus Sutra” entitled “Emerging from the Earth.” In that chapter, the various bodhisattvas and mahasattvas who have gathered from all directions to hear the teachings of “The Lotus Sutra” vow to “diligently and earnestly protect, read, recite, copy, and offer alms” to that sutra during future ages after Shakyamuni is gone from this world. Unexpectedly, however, Shakyamuni tells them that this is completely unnecessary. There are already innumerable bodhisattvas and mahasattvas who are in charge of preaching and protecting the sutra on its journey into the deep future. According to “The Lotus,” when the Buddha had spoken these words, the earth “split open, and out of it emerged at the same instant immeasurable thousands, ten thousands, millions of bodhisattvas and mahasattvas.”

Like most contemporary Buddhists, I had always interpreted these bodhisattvas of the earth as ordinary laypeople. According to the historical logic of the Mahayana teachings, Buddhism was destined to pass through three distinct phases following Shakyamuni’s death. During the first, the traditional teachings of Buddhism would remain in full force and effect and would therefore be able to enlighten those who embraced them. During the second, those teachings would become overinstitutionalized and would work only for a few resolute souls who could summon up the diligence necessary to recover them in their degraded state. By the third, they wouldn’t work at all, and it would be necessary for laypeople to reinvent them, since those monks and nuns who remained in that “Latter Day of the Dharma” would only serve as obstructions to an enlightened way of life.

The bodhisattvas who emerge from the earth in chapter fifteen of “The Lotus Sutra” represent these reinventors, who are really recoverers of an ancient way. Their path seems new, but only because the memory of the old path has been forgotten. Really, it is the same path that Rebbe Nachman talked about, the path that all of the world’s patriarchs and matriarchs have traveled of old. “The Lotus Sutra” spoke of that old path being lost and reclaimed over and over again on its journey through deep time. And as I read the sutra that night, I found myself wondering what its authors would have made of Charles Darwin and Louis and Mary Leakey and the countless “bodhisattvas” who had emerged when they’d first split open the earth, recovering the remains of our bygone ancestors, either by inferring their existence from current biology, as Darwin did, or by literally digging them up like the Leakeys. Together with their colleagues and successors, these pioneers of deep history had produced something one might call “The Evolution Sutra,” the message of which was, in essence, the same as that of “The Lotus”: The journey you are on is much, much longer than you thought. But to negotiate that longer journey required a wakefulness that was more in touch with our biology than our ideology. The “green” of Green Meditation didn’t designate a color that was visible by light.

The sutra’s creators would probably have told us that we had long been on the verge of recovering that deeper color of mind, and along with it a much longer path through time than we had ever imagined for ourselves before. Hadn’t the Mahayana sutras spoken of kalpas [endless eons] and other vast wildernesses of deep, green time? Did we really suppose that we were on a journey of only a few thousand years in duration, or a few hundred thousand? Green Meditation had been passed down not just from person to person on that journey, but from species to species. Our task now is to recover it again. That teaching is the price of admission to our future as a species—provided we want that future to be a deep one. The good news is that, according to “The Lotus,” at many other times and places throughout the vast darkness of the cosmos, that teaching has been lost and found before.

Clark Strand is a former Zen Buddhist monk. The author of “How To Believe in God: Whether You Believe in Religion or Not,” he is the founder of the environmental blog WholeEarthGod.com.


Finding a Shallow Cave

by Clark Strand

Elijah, Muhammad, Milarepa, Francis of Assisi–all dwelled in the twilight of mountain caves. These didn’t have to be very deep. In fact, it was better if they weren’t. Such caves were selected because they were private, and a bit out of the way. But that was only the smallest part of it. What they really offered was a balance of darkness and light. It was there, in the space that opened out of that place of balance, that our ancestors learned Green Meditation.

Anywhere that offers twilight is a good place to begin. You can witness the coming darkness under a tree, in a yard or field, or on a patio, a deck, or a porch. You can even turn off the lights and sit by a window, watching as the daylight gradually loosens its grip upon the world.

Even if you live in the city, you can still abide in twilight. An urban apartment is nothing but a shallow cave. The only difference is electricity and a lock. Turn the lights off at dusk, and a city apartment immediately returns to its true nature—a simple shelter, with a roof and walls. There is nothing in such a shelter to burden or distract the mind. Even a high-rise apartment will revert to its deep green color if allowed to be what it is.

This will happen regardless of whether you recycle, install energy-saving appliances, or use natural cleaning supplies. The market loves to put the cart before the horse where the environment is concerned, creating legions of products in place of inner change. Once your house or apartment becomes a shallow cave—once it has recovered the shadows that are the true nature of all such dwellings—you will know how best to reduce unnecessary consumption from your life.

You will know other things as well. For instance, how to listen so that others will speak; how to speak so that they will listen. Intimacy is a principal benefit of reclaiming the twilight hours of each day: intimacy with nature, intimacy with others, intimacy with ourselves. Darkness is good therapy. It unwinds the springs that daylight tightens and opens doorways onto eternity that are made invisible by light.


A Green Meditation Retreat

by Clark Strand

Check out Clark Strand's Green Meditation online retreat here.

At a press conference in April 2009, the White House science czar John Holdren described the impending catastrophe of global warming with an ominous metaphor: “We’re driving in a car with bad brakes in a fog and headed for a cliff. We know for sure that cliff is out there. We just don’t know exactly where it is.” In Holdren’s scenario, the “fog” is our uncertainty about climate change and where we stand in relationship to it—whether it’s here already or still to come. The “cliff” is the tipping point beyond which all efforts to forestall disaster are probably pointless. And the “bad brakes” are inadequate controls and regulations on greenhouse-gas emissions. The “car,” presumably, is us—America, specifically, and humanity in general—about to go over the edge. The only problem with this metaphor is that nowhere does it mention the road.

How is it that we find ourselves on a road leading to a cliff? The only reasonable answer is that we have taken a wrong turn somewhere along the way. The good news is, that would mean that an alternate road exists.

Green Meditation recognizes the existence of another path for humanity on its journey through deep time—a path which connects us not only with our deep past as a species but also with our deep future. Although that path is often hidden by modern life, it can still be found in our Buddhist texts and teachings—as well as in our sleep.

• Begin your Green Meditation retreat a week ahead of time by turning off the lights in your apartment, house, or training center a little earlier each night. The night before you begin your retreat, turn the lights off shortly before dusk. Use the time which becomes available for walking in nature, meditation, or quiet rest.

• During the retreat, keep artificial light to a minimum during the daytime and eliminate it altogether at night. Eat moderately and avoid caffeine or other stimulants. Work or practice outdoors as weather allows, leaving time for physical exercise each day.

• Retire sometime between dusk and dark, before you are physically tired. If you wake during the night, meditate quietly while lying down, or by reciting a mantra or prayer. Weather and safety permitting, you may also meditate simply by stepping outside into the dark.

• As you continue these practices, you may find the darkness “listening” to your meditation. If this happens, speak to it in the way that ancient people might have spoken to nature, to the spirits of their ancestors, or to the Buddha or the gods. Speak to the darkness about whatever is on your mind. If this makes you feel self-conscious, speak to the dark about that. During this time, there is nothing whatsoever that you are forbidden to say or think or feel.

• Make no effort to remain alert or mindful during your nightly meditations, but rather allow for the possibility of drifting in and out of sleep. During the daylight hours, follow the practice model established by your teacher or your tradition, giving it your full attention—understanding all the while that darkness is the natural counterweight of waking human consciousness. Like the Tao, the mind of a buddha is revealed by nature, perfectly realized in the balance of darkness and light.

1. Photograph Getty Images by Jon Shireman
2. Photograph Getty Images by Jon Shireman
3. Photograph by Hiroshi Sugimoto “In Praise of Shadows,” 1998; black-and-white 8x10 inch transparencies, glass bases, glass rods, ruling pen tip, and wax candles
4. Photograph by Andrea Fella

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ClarkStrand's picture

Thanks. I'm glad. You can find a lot more info by joining the Facebook group Green Meditation Society, where there are tons of links, articles, and videos. We're converting it to a public access "page" later this month, so stay tuned if you're not on FB yet.

The main appeal of this approach from my point of view, apart from the fact that it is grounded in the the natural cycles of Nature, is that it tends to emphasize biology over ideology.

jay7z's picture

This tells us how we can attain peace I like this article.

aims's picture

Your article is indeed very significant to me. In the world with which the advancement of technology has been the very core of almost humans, who may at times, as if, it is the essentiality of their lives rather than to commune with nature. 

I have to further read on your other articles as soon as I get back here. Thanks for this wonderful messages. 

ClarkStrand's picture

Glad you liked the article AIMS. Another article on the same subject, told from a slightly different angle, can be found here, at the Spirituality & Health Magazine site:

see-doubleyou's picture

Much like David above, I too just read, enjoyed, and was inspired by this article from the glow of my cozy laptop computer.

As a tech geek of over 15 years and a practicing Buddhist of almost five, I have found myself amongst this conundrum many times, wishing to 'live simply so that others may simply live.'  Regardless of my geekness, I seem to be the one in my household more prone to kill my television(metaphorically) or enjoy a quiet moment at night under the stars walking the dogs.  At the same time, it is my job to be perpetually on the bleeding edge of tech to ensure my family is fed.  Therefore, until an opportunity arises for me to 'unplug' more easily and to find a greener means to 'keep the lights on and food on the table,' I maintain what I deem to be the best balance of both. 

My opinion is that in this century, it is important to maintain the middle way, to know when to put the gadgets away, to turn off the lights, and to simply be one with the present.  When practicing this way, I always find that the 'lit world' doesn't miss me, hardly knows I was gone, and welcomes me to do it again.

ClarkStrand's picture

You wrote about "wishing to 'live simply so that others may simply live." That's as clear a bodhisattva vow for this era as I've seen. On its surface it seems less grand than vowing to save all beings, but if there's a better place to start that project than here, I'd like to know where it is. Thanks for your inspiritation. And, for what it's worth, I think you're right about the lit world not missing us when we opt out of it for awhile.

RosemaryGould's picture

I wonder if the author would be interested in leading retreats like this. I would like more information, if so! Very important essay. One of the best I've ever seen in Tricycle, but it only scratches the surface, of course.

ClarkStrand's picture

In fact I plan to do pretty much nothing but write and lead retreats on this for the foreseeable future. Thanks so much for your encouragement. Feel free to contact me at clarkstrand@aol.com if you're interested in learning more.

davidhersom's picture

This article really resonates with me.

I've often wondered if the light bulb is our imposition of will to break the natural cycle of night and day.  How many other bits of "progress" are simply unconstrained ego forcing our fears and desires on our environment?  The irony, of course, is that I'm using a high tech device such as a computer to bemoan the advances of technology.  Rueful sigh...


katherinemasis's picture

Excellent article! Now we have to figure out a way to recapture natural silence. The din of the marketplace in the days of yore--or even the roar of a Roman colosseum--was nothing compared to today's car alarms, boomboxes and TV's blaring everywhere. Our neurons would much rather spend their energy being mindful than constantly tuning out the constant background muzak that is rapidly becoming foreground noise. Milan Kundera once said that in the past, sound stood out from silence and that today, silence stands out from noise. Once we recapture dark nights, 8-hour sleep cycles and background silence, the green meditation project will be complete.