Wake Up to the Dark

Wake Up to the Dark

Gyrfalcon by Diana Sudyka/

Clark Strand walks the path toward a new appreciation of the night.

In the early 1990s, a researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, took a group of ordinary subjects off all forms of electrical lighting for one month in order to determine if modern humans still carried within them the traces of a prehistoric mode of sleep.

At week three, the subjects in Dr. Thomas Wehr’s study all began waking after four hours of sleep to a two-hour period of quiet rest before falling asleep again for another four. During the gap between those two sleep segments, the subjects experienced a condition of profound peace. Wehr could find no precedent for this in the scientific literature. It was a state having “an endocrinology all its own.”

Eventually, Wehr discovered that prolactin was involved. Prolactin is the hormone that keeps mammals still and at rest when they are asleep. Its levels also rise in nursing mothers when their milk lets down, keeping them calm and attentive to their babies’ needs. Nowadays it is called “the attachment hormone” because of its role in the bonding of infants with their mothers.

The prolactin levels in Wehr’s subjects should have fallen when they woke in the middle of the night. But they didn’t. They remained stable throughout that two-hour period of wakeful, quiet rest.

The only thing Wehr could find that was comparable to those two hours was the state experienced by advanced meditators. But there hadn’t been any meditators in his study. The participants were simply ordinary people who had agreed to go off artificial lighting for one month.

Wehr speculated, “Perhaps what those who meditate today are seeking is a state that our ancestors would have considered their birthright.” He might have added that this was probably what all religions are seeking to preserve—a state of wellbeing that is probably the closest we’ve ever come as a species to the experience of oneness with the divine, a nightly meditation retreat for all Homo sapiens on earth.

For me, Wehr’s study marked the beginning of a ten-year odyssey through the world’s religions to find traces of what I had come to think of as the “Hour of God.” I found it everywhere I looked. The oldest meditative practices in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim traditions involve some version of that hour. The same is true in Buddhism and Hinduism. I filled entire notebooks with nothing but references to the Hour of God. Six hours after sunset (in summer or winter) people across the world once rose after four hours of sleep to pray, to chant, to meditate, or even to wander in the dark.

It was in this last practice, still extant in Hassidic Judaism, that I found the answer to a question that had puzzled me for decades.

I began waking up to the dark for an hour each night when I was six or seven years old. At first, I lay in bed until I fell back to sleep again. But I quickly grew bored with that. When I was eight, I began venturing onto the fairways of a golf course adjacent to our home in northern Alabama. By the time I attended college in rural Tennessee, I was walking for two hours every night.

In my early 30s, I became a monk at a Zen Buddhist monastery in the Catskill Mountains. The only lights after dark were candles. I would rise for a stroll around the lake when the other monks were asleep, eventually reaching the monastery graveyard. There I would talk to the stars, the dead, the mountains, or whatever animals happened to be nearby. Sometimes I talked to the wind as if it were a person. Always I talked to the dark. I couldn’t tell you how I arrived at that practice. I just did.

The oldest word for meditation in the Western canon is the Hebrew verb suwach, a word that appears only once in the Bible: “And Isaac went out to meditate in the field at the eventide” (Genesis 24:63). Because the word is so old and so rare, its precise meaning is now uncertain—as if it were the artifact of a much older practice that, even then, was already disappearing from the world. It may, for instance, have meant not only to meditate, but to pray, chat, mutter, complain, meander, or simply walk.

In the effort to reclaim that practice, and the lost state of mind associated with it, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov (1772–1810) advised his disciples to rise for an hour of hitbodedut (solitude) each night, the object of which was talking alone with God in a completely unscripted way:

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.

As I explored the prehistoric roots of Jewish prayer, I wondered if Wehr’s “segmented sleepers” hadn’t accessed a 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. Our paleolithic ancestors 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 cycles 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 the Divine. Paradise was never lost to them, because paradise was never a place to begin with. Eden was portable. Eden was a state of mind.

I don’t remember when I first had that thought. It must have been shortly after Our Lady of Woodstock appeared to me in June of 2011. I wrote about her messages in Waking Up to the Dark and The Way of the Rose. That was when I discovered that the first human sculptures portray the same figure the world over—the Great Mother, sometimes also called the Dark Mother, or simply Mother Earth. The figurines lack pedestals or flat bottoms. They were never meant to rest on any altar. And although they come in all shapes and sizes, all are small. And portable. All are meant to be held.

I knew from the beginning that the girl I had encountered was older than the Virgin Mary, whose form she nevertheless so closely resembled. She spoke of human civilization as a recent development, a detour from the long, dark path of evolutionary history we had traveled on through deep time. As dire as our current predicament was, it was temporary. The collapse of modern civilization was a solution, not a problem.

The Black Madonna had so little use for religion that she couldn’t be bothered even to critique it. The plants and animals were our teachers, not the philosophers or sages. Give her two hours in the middle of the night and she would cure you of patriarchy forever. Her teaching was simple:

My body is the body of the world.
Your body is one with that body.
What cause could there be for fear?

It was the same lesson as the goddess figurines. Hold one of them in your hand and the message was plain to the point of wordless. “Just as you hold me, I hold you. The world is your Mother. Wherever you go you belong.”

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Gyrfalcon credit Diana Sudyka

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