Rediscovering an ancient hour alone, at night, with God
For a full decade, starting in 1998, I woke for an hour or two every night around two o’clock in the morning. By 4 a.m. I could usually get back to sleep, but the cost was profound. My health deteriorated. My income suffered. And eventually I became depressed. My physician explained it as a case of “sleep fragmentation,” an infirmity that often surfaces in middle age, especially in men. But he was at a loss to explain why my sleep had fragmented so precisely, like a diamond sheared off with a jeweler’s mallet in exactly the same place every night.
The gap that opened as a result of that fragmentation was a puzzle. Should I learn to live with it? Should I take Lunesta? Should I use that time to work my way through the 47 novels of the Victorian author Anthony Trollope, as my father had done when he began having the same problem so many years before?
In popular idiom, the period between dark and daybreak is referred to as the “hour of the wolf,” an image evoking the eerie, predatory fatalism that tends to come calling. In 1968, the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman released a psychological horror film by that title, starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann. The text for the movie poster explained:
“The hour of the wolf” is the hour between night and dawn. It is the hour when most people die, when sleep is deepest, when nightmares are most real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by their deepest fear, when ghosts and demons are most powerful. “The hour of the wolf” is also the hour when most children are born.
A little statistical research reveals that the claims for births and deaths are exaggerated. Nevertheless, for anyone who lies awake, it’s believable. Birth, death, psychic trauma—those all seem right on point. There is something dire about the hour between dark and dawn. It’s the time when human beings are at their most vulnerable—when Special Forces soldiers are taught to attack, and when the Secret Police under Hitler and Stalin knew they were least likely to meet with resistance when they came to take “undesirables” away.
It is also the very best time to engage in spiritual work. That was what I discovered in the end. From prehistoric times onward, those hours have always been a time for visions, meditation, and prayer. We don’t wake at that hour as we get older because there is something wrong with us—we wake because we are supposed to. We wake because our appointment with the wolf is as old as humanity itself.
The Paleobiology of Sleep
During the mid-1990s, a lead researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) began what he later called an exercise in “archaeology, or human paleobiology.” Dr. Thomas Wehr wanted to find out if modern humans still carried within them the circadian rhythms for a prehistoric mode of winter sleep. The underlying logic of Wehr’s study was simple: Aided by the stimulating effects of all kinds of artificial lighting (everything from a laptop screen to the bright lights of big cities), modern human beings had compressed their sleep nights, like their work days, into convenient eight-hour blocks. And yet, given that light-assisted wakefulness was a relatively new invention, wasn’t it possible that human beings still carried in their DNA the remnants of a more primordial pattern of sleep? Did prehistoric humans sleep more? Did they sleep differently — or perhaps better? These were the questions Wehr wanted to answer.
The results were staggering. For one month, 15 subjects were placed on a regimen of unilluminated nights, consistent with a 14-hour span of midwinter darkness. During the first three weeks, they slept as usual, only for about one hour longer—doubtless making up for the chronic sleep deficit that afflicts so many Americans, Wehr mused. But at week four, a dramatic change occurred in all subjects. They slept the same number of hours as before, but now their sleep was divided in half. They began each night with approximately four hours of deep sleep, woke for two hours of what Wehr termed “quiet rest,” and then slept for another four. And at the end of the study they revealed to Wehr that in all their lives, they had “never felt so awake.”
The difference was a matter of endocrinology. Wehr reported that the hormone prolactin (which keeps birds still while they are sitting on their eggs and mammals at rest while they are sleeping) reached elevated levels in his subjects shortly after dusk, remaining at twice the normal “waking” level for the full 14 hours of the night. Even during the hours of “quiet rest,” prolactin levels remained steady, leading Wehr to compare the quietly alert sense of well-being experienced by his subjects to forms of advanced meditation. “I sleep, but my heart is awake,” says the Song of Solomon, a sacred love poem written at a time when that quiet nightly waking must still have been a common occurrence. It isn’t a teaching or a spiritual metaphor. It’s an actual state of mind.
“This is a state not terribly familiar to modern sleepers,” Wehr laments. “Perhaps what those who meditate today are seeking is a state that our ancestors would have considered their birthright, a nightly occurrence.” He might have added that this is probably what all religions are seeking to preserve — a state of well-being that is probably the closest we’ve ever come, as a species, to the experience of oneness with God, a nightly meditation retreat for all Homo sapiens on earth.
How We Lost Our Myths
Given the startling results of his NIMH study — since replicated with the same results — it is perhaps understandable that Dr. Wehr reached a conclusion that, on its surface, seems more appropriate to a Jungian analyst than a psycho-biologist. “It is tempting to speculate 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.”
Fortunately, “losing touch” is not the same thing as losing something altogether. The NIMH study showed that state of mind still existed—in our biology, if not in our modern lifestyles. But then it also raised a profound question: What turned meditation into insomnia? What caused the “hour of God” to become the “hour of the wolf”? Our nights were being tapped by the same jeweler’s mallet — that ancient genetic imperative to split our nights in two — but while one tap produced a quietly luminous spiritual beauty, the other revealed a predatory monster lurking in the dark. What was the difference? And more important, was there any path leading back to that earlier, more wholesome state of mind?
My 10-year search for that path led me on a nightly journey through the writings of a dozen different spiritual traditions in the effort to pick up the trail. While my father had used his sheared-off hours of wakefulness to catch up on the Victorian novel, I used mine to explore the Bible, the Torah, the Bhagavad Gita, the Buddhist sutras, and the Tao Te Ching. I read the Wishing Bone Cycle of the Swampy Cree Indians and delved as deeply into Kabala as I dared without professional assistance. I mastered a dozen different spiritual practices as well — everything from the Jesus Prayer of Orthodox Christianity (recited in time with the heartbeat) to chanting the Lotus Sutra to the Hasidic practice of meditating in a field in the middle of the night.
The Rebbe’s Revelation
It was this last practice that opened my eyes in the end, restoring the hour of the wolf to its former luminous glory. The Hasidic master Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772 – 1810) taught a form of solitary meditation that involved spending one hour talking aloud to God in the middle of the night, preferably in nature. As a spiritual practice, think of it as the midpoint between the prehistoric and the modern mind. The rebbe taught:
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…. When a man goes out to the meadows to pray, every blade of grass, every plant and flower all enter his prayers and help him, putting power and strength into his words.
It occurred to me that the subjects in Wehr’s studies probably accessed this state of mind that had evolved in human beings long before they had religion. Absent the demands of urban living — and the massive agricultural efforts necessary to sustain it — they didn’t require anything like an organized system of religious ritual, practice, and belief. They lived lightly on the earth in comparison with modern human beings, moving in small bands from place to place without ever accumulating the kinds of property — real or intellectual — that would require maintenance or protection. They lived in harmony with the shifting cycle of the seasons, ruled by a consciousness that was itself rooted in the daily ebb and flow of light. Their experience of life was anchored in those primal rhythms and so was their experience of God. Paradise was never lost to them, because paradise was never a place to begin with. Eden was portable, because Eden was a state of mind.
Rebbe Nachman’s advice to his disciples reflects an intuitive understanding of all this. Had he lived another half century to see it, the good rebbe would doubtless have rejected the theory of evolution, just as he rejected most other intellectual fruits of the Enlightenment. And yet, he seemed to understand two things about human beings that have been true from the very start: To connect with God we first have to connect with Nature, and to connect with Nature, we have to awaken to the dark. That is why he advised his disciples to follow a solitary path into the darkness outside the city, and to enlist the aid of plants and flowers once they got there. To follow Nature and return to Nature — that itself was the path to God.
Pouring Out Dreams until Empty
Before I started doing the Breslover practice, I visited with three young Breslover Hasidic rabbis. They accepted my presence cheerfully in their small book-lined schul in Monsey, New York, despite the fact that I had arrived unannounced, wearing shorts, sandals, sunglasses, and a red Hawaiian shirt. But they had a difficult time understanding why I wanted to learn hitbodedut (solitary meditation), given that I wasn’t Jewish and had no desire to become so.
“The rebbe’s teachings on meditation show us how to be good Jews,” one of them explained. “That’s what they are for.”
“That may be,” I replied, “but I want to use them to become a healthier, more spiritually peaceful human being. Do you think that will work, even if I have no desire to be a Jew?”
I could see him undergoing some kind of inner ideological struggle, but in the end a cool head prevailed. He wasn’t sure, he confessed. He and his friends were still young and had only recently completed their training.
“You’d better write to an older, wiser rabbi in Jerusalem,” he advised finally.
But instead of writing, I found myself one summer night standing in a grassy field a quarter-mile from my house, sheltered by a vast dome of stars, talking to God. I wasn’t sure in the beginning what I was supposed to say or, at times, even to whom I was talking. But I talked nevertheless, pouring out all of my dreams and hopes, fears and anxieties, one after another until, at some elusive point each night during the process, I knew that I was done — because I was silent, and God was silent, and a comforting, softly glowing silence that was not quite sleep and not quite waking was all that remained.
By the time I finally got around to writing the rabbi in Jerusalem — a man who had been doing hitbodedut every night for over 50 years — I had spent three years doing the practice on my own. He asked how I had come upon the teachings of Rebbe Nachman, and I explained my sleepless nights and my theory that “Green Meditation,” as I’d come to think of it, was as old as humanity itself. He listened patiently and confirmed everything I had experienced. But at the end, he asked a question that has stayed with me ever since: “Wouldn’t it be wiser to say that this ‘hour of the wolf’ you speak of — this luminous reality — well, isn’t it really as old as God? After all, it’s too old and too big to belong to human beings, isn’t it? Maybe it belongs to the wolf.”
The Flashlight by My Bed
These days, in warmer weather, I keep a flashlight by the bed to guide me on my night wanderings. When the weather turns colder, there’s a wool blanket to wrap around me while I sit on the porch. If the weather is really cold, it’s enough to sit by a window, gazing out into the dark. I find myself cherishing the unlit hours before bed. When lamps break, I seldom fix them right away, mostly because I don’t notice them. I go to bed an hour earlier in the summertime, and two in winter. I lie in bed with the light off before I get sleepy, and I have stopped worrying altogether about waking up in the middle of the night.
The wolf still comes at his appointed hour, only now I’m always glad to see him. I stroke his fur, I talk to him, and more often than not, I spend a good while listening to what he has to say about my life, because apparently he knows me better than I know myself — all this because at last I have remembered what my ancestors knew without ever being told: that the wolf is Nature. The wolf is Buddha. And the wolf is God. The hour between dark and dawn is simply the time he comes.
Making the Wolf Your Ally
The Practice of Green Meditation
Although an increasing number of people today report suffering from chronic insomnia, you don’t have to be sleepless to practice Green Meditation. A flood of light has swept the world since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, making sleepwalkers of us all. The end result is that we now have limited contact with a state of awareness that in ancient times was viewed as the one indispensable ingredient for a healthy spiritual life. Here’s how to get it back.
RECOVER THE DARK BY SCALING BACK THE LIGHTING IN YOUR HOME.
In winter, when the days are shorter, this will mean turning on fewer lights at dusk and going to bed at least one hour earlier than usual, preferably two. Your body wants to experience more darkness in winter, so be careful to retire before you are actually ready to sleep.
In summer, remember that shorter nights mean longer days of work and entertainment. Be sure not to miss the experience of dusk. Remember, as a bio-spiritual being, you are on the earth’s clock; the earth is not on yours.
In general, use lights judiciously, knowing that your body is genetically programmed for fire or candlelight. Artificial lighting is a stimulant, as surely as caffeine. Be careful how much of it you “consume.”
HAVE A QUESTION READY FOR THE WOLF BEFORE HE ACTUALLY APPEARS.
Too many of us experience ourselves as his “victims.” Whether he appears in the nighttime, raising uncomfortable thoughts, feelings, or issues, or he appears unexpectedly in the middle of the day, manifesting as depression, unhappiness, or feelings of dissatisfaction, you can always ask him, “Why?” Why have you appeared, and what message do you have for me?”
If you know your question, the wolf will have your answer. As modern people, what we experience as dissatisfaction is nearly always a reflection on how we live. The wolf will guide us toward happiness and contentment but only if we invite a conversation. If we say nothing, he will only sit there, staring at us menacingly in the dark. That look is not a reproach but an invitation. When we are ready for conversation, the wolf will hasten us on our path.
LEARN TO TALK TO GOD (in whatever way you understand God).
The essential wisdom of the entire 12-step recovery movement is compressed into its idea of God, which is left a matter of personal conscience. Even atheists can recover if they can find someone (or something) to talk to. For modern living, the analogy is perfect. We are addicted to light and all that it symbolizes — certainty, the supremacy of our own power and our own knowledge, even the belief that all things can be “made clear.”
In Green Meditation, we learn to trust the dark and to talk into the dark, letting our consciousness grow supple and dreamlike, so that we can tap into our deepest feelings and yearnings and fears. The darkness “listens.” In fact, the dark night, so full of stars and other bright silences, was probably humanity’s original experience of God. You can recover that experience now, entirely for yourself. Call the wolf by a name that makes sense to you alone.
For further information on Green Meditation, plus videos, newsletters, and phone conferences, join the group Green Meditation Society on Facebook or contact [email protected].