Turn Out the Lights

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

Clark Strand

Jon Shireman/Getty

I 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.

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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:
http://www.spiritualityhealth.com/spirit/archives/appointment-wolf

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.