A bird rests in a tree at dusk near the Beaverdam Creek Reservoir in Loudoun County, Va. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
What if you could meditate like a Tibetan lama with no instruction whatsoever — and without having to subscribe to any religious beliefs?
People hear a question like that and, unless they are particularly gullible, they assume they’re about to be scammed. But in this case there is nothing to buy — no tapes, no app, no religious agenda that gets sprung on you at the last moment when you’re feeling vulnerable and spiritually open. No hidden fees.
But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a catch. You have to be willing to revert to a Paleolithic pattern of sleep — and that means turning off your electric lights at dusk and leaving them off until dawn. Do that, and in about three week’s time, beginning around six hours after sunset each evening, you will find yourself experiencing a period of serene wakefulness that was once a nightly meditation retreat for all Homo sapiens on Earth. It’s a guarantee. It’s encoded in your genes.
During the mid-1990s, sleep researcher Thomas Wehr conducted a National Institutes of Health experiment that he later called an exercise in “archaeology, or human paleobiology.” Wehr wanted to find out if modern humans still carried within them the rhythms for a prehistoric mode of sleep. Did prehistoric humans sleep more? Did they sleep differently — or perhaps better?
Wehr’s logic was simple: Aided by the stimulating effects of all kinds of artificial lighting (everything from laptop screens to the bright lights of big cities), modern humans 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?
The results were staggering. For one month, beginning at dusk and ending at dawn, Wehr’s subjects were removed from every possible form of artificial light. During the first three weeks, they slept as usual, only for about an hour longer. (After all, he reasoned, like most Americans, they were probably sleep deprived.) But at week four a dramatic change occurred. The participants slept the same number of hours as before, but now their sleep was divided in two. They began each night with about four hours of deep sleep, woke for two hours of quiet rest, then slept for another four.
During the gap between their “first” and “second” sleep, Wehr’s subjects were neither awake nor fully asleep. Rather, they experienced a condition they had never known before — a state of consciousness all its own. Later Wehr would compare it to what advanced practitioners experience in meditation — what you might call “mindfulness” today. But there weren’t any mindfulness practitioners in his study. They were simply ordinary people who, removed for one month from artificial lighting, found their nights broken in two.
While trying to account for the peace and serenity that his subjects reported feeling during their hours of “quiet rest,” Wehr discovered that prolactin (the hormone that rises in nursing mothers when their milk lets down) reached elevated levels in their bodies shortly after dusk, remaining at twice its normal waking level throughout the full length of the night. Prolactin creates a feeling of security, quietness and peace. And it is intimately, and biologically, tied to the dark.
Even during their hours of quiet rest, the prolactin levels in Wehr’s subjects remained steady. Normally, if you wake in the night, those levels will go down — even if you don’t turn on the lights. But if you turn the lights off at dusk and keep them off, giving your body the full spectrum of the night to work from, that richer, deeper darkness will fashion an experience so different from your normal daylight consciousness it is almost a mystical state.
“This is a state not terribly familiar to modern sleepers,” Wehr lamented when the study was done and he had begun to wrap his mind around the enormity of a discovery that turned modern consciousness on its head. “Perhaps what those who meditate today are seeking is a state that our ancestors would have considered their birthright, a nightly occurrence.”
Discovering Wehr’s study in the late ’90s was a major revelation for me. Not only had I been waking up to the dark at 2 a.m. for most of my life, I had also been a Zen Buddhist monk and a meditation teacher. But I’d long since become impatient with Buddhism and had given up teaching it in the end. I always felt there was something more basic than religion at the bottom of it all. Something simpler. More universal. More rooted in the Earth and its primal rhythms — like the rising and setting of the sun.
Wehr’s study sent ripples through half-a-dozen different disciplines. Sleep specialists began to wonder if the modern insomnia epidemic was anything of the kind. Historians doubled down on forgotten journals and parish records to verify that prior to the industrial revolution “divided sleep” was not the exception but the rule. And I turned to ancient legends and scriptures to find that much, if not most, of what the world called myth and spiritual wisdom had been conceived of in the middle of the night.
David hung a harp above his bed so that when the night wind blew across its strings it would wake him to sing the Psalms. Jesus rose to pray on a hillside in the hours before dawn. Muhammad slept for half of the night, rose to pray for a third of the night, and then slept for the remaining sixth. Even the Buddha meditated at night. According to the sutras, he became an “Awakened One” between the hours of the ox and the tiger — in other words, between 2 and 4 a.m.
None of which tells me I ought to pray or meditate or “be religious,” but rather that once, long ago, before our billion-watt culture got the best of us, there was an hour in the middle of the night where peace was there for the having — not as the result of assiduous practice over many years of spiritual practice but as a nightly blessing that nobody had to work for. It’s still there. It always has been. Finding it again is as simple — or as difficult — as turning out the lights.
Clark Strand is the author of “Waking Up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age,” published in April by Spiegel & Grau. To learn more, visit www.clarkstrand.com.
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