Into the dark

Above, Author Clark Strand. Below, drawing by Will Lytle from the book Waking Up to the Dark.

Sientists, politicians, and philosophers are working on solutions for the environmental catastrophe we have created, but Woodstock spiritual teacher Clark Strand may be the first to propose that we simply turn off our electric lights. The author of Waking the Buddha and How to Believe in God, Strand has written a new book, Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age, due out from Random House on April 28.

wolf-by-will-SQHe will sign copies at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts in Woodstock on Saturday, May 2, at 7 p.m., in a reading sponsored by the Golden Notebook Bookstore. The book’s illustrator, Will Lytle, whose “Thorneater” comics appear in the Woodstock Times, will be on hand to discuss his darkness-inspired drawings.

Since Strand’s teenage years, he has had the habit of waking at two or three in the morning to go out for a walk — without a flashlight — and then returning to sleep. His research revealed that this pattern of nightly awakening was the norm for humans until electric lighting was invented. His blissful experiences of the dark have convinced him that the type of consciousness elicited in those two hours or so of night wakefulness are essential to the health of the human species. The light bulb, he says, is at the root of an unnatural hyperactivity that has led our planet to the brink of environmental collapse.

I read the whole book in one day and immediately wanted to try to shift myself into the pattern of “two sleeps.” But habits die hard. I discussed the concept with Strand on a rainy afternoon, sitting in his living room, barely able to see his face in the light filtering through the windows.


There was a period when I often woke up for an hour or two at 4 a.m., and I would enjoy lying there and thinking over the previous day. It seemed to happen after days when I hadn’t had time to stop and think and process.

There’s a physiological reason for that sense of peace and clarity — the hormone prolactin, which keeps mammals at rest while sleeping, keeps birds roosting on the nest, lets the milk down in mothers nursing children. If we’re light-saturated and sleep-deprived, and we wake in the night, prolactin levels fall, and we feel restless and anxious, the opposite of what should be feeling. If give yourself enough darkness and time to sleep, you reach the state of mind the “Song of Songs” expresses as “I sleep, but my heart is awake.” People report spiritual and professional breakthroughs, insights about their relationships and their lives. Light hides solutions to modern problems because most of them are created by light and the desire for clarity and control, problems that have their genesis in the anthropocentric approach to the world. All the great religions of the world have performed their deepest prayers and meditations for two hours in the middle of the night.


The night after I read your book, I tried to go to bed at 8:30, so I’d have time to wake up at two, and I got so restless, I just had to get up.

You have to start with a slightly earlier bedtime and work your way back. If you can turn in an hour earlier every night, you’ll eventually begin naturally waking up in middle of the night. In reality, insomnia is not a sleep disturbance, it’s a culture-wide reversion to an earlier pattern of sleep. It takes a lot of will power to override the imperative to wake after four hours of sleep. Compressing sleep into eight-hour blocks is meant to aid commerce and industry. It’s also the ultimate capitalist dream, more hours of the day to consume information, products, services, gasoline. Before the modern age, the world shut down at dusk.


Having had a kid 23 years ago, I only recently started to sleep through the night again. Getting out of bed to go for a walk seems like a tremendous effort in the middle of the night.

Walking is my peculiarity, but sometimes I sit in bed and say the rosary. This year I didn’t walk all through the winter. As I get older, I won’t go out if it’s raining reasonably hard. I used to be like the nocturnal U.S. Post Office — I walked in every possible weather.


This morning I woke up — not on purpose — at 4 a.m., and eventually got myself out of bed to take a walk. But I live on a street that’s lit by streetlights. Walking there at night seems to defeat the purpose of spending more time in the dark.

There was a famous Trappist abbot who said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.” You start from where you are and work with what you have. Many of us are aware that our life, our culture, our species needs to change, but the level required seems so dramatic and vast, people are stunned into paralysis. The only important thing is to make a start. I would start by overcoming your dependence on electric lighting. You can start with as dark as sleeping space as you can get. Turn off more lights after dusk. Over the years, a lot of our light fixtures have broken, and we’ve never fixed them. Our guests have to put up with eating dinner by candlelight.


Is two hours the optimal amount of time to be awake?

In Thomas Wehr’s studies at the National Institutes of Health, he took subjects off electric lighting for one month, and their sleep patterns changed automatically. They typically lay in bed for two hours in the dark before falling asleep. After about four hours, they’d wake up for two hours. They’d sleep another four hours and spend time lying in bed before getting up. That’s a lot of time spent in those in-between places, the numinous spaces between light and dark. They described a state Wehr later compared to the deep meditative state of an advanced spiritual practitioner.


In your book, you say that electric lights provoked our present problems and that the invention of agriculture and the ability to make fire also caused shifts that led to these problems. But how do you know that life before these changes was really better?

We have forebears who lived successfully on the planet for a million years at a time and passed their genes down to next generation. Modern Homo sapiens has been around since the dawn of agriculture. See where we’ve come today as a species, and ask yourself if we have a million years ahead of us or not. We are quickly outgrowing the planet. How should we live so we can continue to survive, so other plant and animal life can live along with us? I believe that darkness hits the reset button on the consciousness of our species. It’s the only thing that can reboot ancestral knowledge so we remember who we are and understand how to go forward in a way that doesn’t kill us.


Epilogue: I returned home from interviewing Strand, exhausted from my early morning waking, and conked out at 8 p.m. In the wee hours, as I drifted pleasantly in and out of sleep, I did have an insight — I saw the irony of Strand’s thesis. It may well have been the dark hours that elicited the inspiration for the light bulb and other inventions that have guided us on our self-destructive path. (I wonder about Edison’s sleep patterns.) Perhaps we can take what we have learned from history and bring it along into the dark to seek solutions.


Clark Strand will read from Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age on Saturday, May 2, at 7 p.m. at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, 34 Tinker Street, Woodstock. Illustrator Will Lytle will also speak and display his work. The event is sponsored by the Golden Notebook Bookstore.

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