Waking Up to the Dark

Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age

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In the tradition of Thomas Merton’s spiritual classic The Seven Storey Mountain or Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul, Waking Up to the Dark is a deeply resonant and personal project—a modern gospel that is an investigation of the relationship between darkness and the soul. The darkness Clark Strand is talking about here is literal: the darkness of the nighttime, of a world before electricity, when there was a rhythm to life that followed the sun’s rising and setting.
Strand here offers penetrating insight into the spiritual enrichment that can be found when we pull the plug on our billion-watt culture. He argues that the insomnia so many of us experience as “the Hour of the Wolf” is really “the Hour of God”—a wellspring of rest and renewal, and an ancient reservoir of ancestral wisdom and inspiration. And in a powerful yet surprising turn, he shares with us an urgent message for the world, received through a mysterious young woman, about the changes we all know are coming.
Waking Up to the Dark is a book for those of us who awaken in the night and don’t know why we can’t get back to sleep, and a book for those of us who have grown uncomfortable in real darkness—which we so rarely experience these days, since our first impulse is always to turn on the light. Most of all, it is a book for those of us who wonder about our souls: When the lights are always on, when there is always noise around us, do our souls have the nourishment they need in which to grow?
Praise for Waking Up to the Dark
“A celebration of the life-enriching—indeed, indispensable—properties of the night . . . Strand delivers a significant amount of experiential melding to existential thoughtfulness in this book about the sublime and elemental powers of the dark. . . . An exigent, affecting summons to rediscover the night.”Kirkus Reviews

“This book is small in size and mighty in spirit. It is at once a clarion call and a meditation. Sonorous, deep, soul-stirring, and profoundly comforting, Waking Up to the Dark is a rare book that will be pressed from one hand to the next with the urgent, whispered words: You must read this.”—Dani Shapiro, author of Devotion
“In a modern world flooded with artificial light, Clark Strand reminds us what we have left behind in the dark. This beautiful, haunting meditation is filled with surprises and lost knowledge. Read it by candlelight—you will never forget it.”—Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America and One Simple Idea
“In this exhilaratingly original work, Clark Strand shows us that the key to enlightenment lies where we don’t want to look. It is hidden in plain sight, but we have to turn the lights off to find it.”—Mark Epstein, M.D., author of Going to Pieces Without Falling Apart and The Trauma of Everyday Life
“Breathtaking and revolutionary, a small masterpiece for a world that has grown uncomfortable with the darkness and a poignant plea to take back the dark as the Hour of God, as the great friend of faith, awakening, and soul nourishment.”—Gail Straub, co-founder of Empowerment Institute and author of Returning to My Mother’s House
“Wonder, solitude, quiet, intimacy, the holy—darkness holds these treasures and more. If we want to connect with God, argues Strand in this wise and compassionate book, we will ‘awaken to the dark.’ ”—Paul Bogard, author of The End of Night

Under the Cover

An excerpt from Waking Up to the Dark

I am not afraid of the dark.

My wife insists that this is the reason people listen when I speak on spiritual matters. I spent years studying Zen Buddhism. After that, I immersed myself in spiritual practices from all over the world. But none of that made me wiser or more enlightened than anyone else. It isn’t the reason people listen.

From childhood on I have woken up in the middle of the night and sought out the darkness. Not only am I not afraid of it, I love it more than anything. That’s what people are drawn to without knowing it. It’s important to them for reasons they find difficult to explain. It’s as if I’ve reminded them of something they once knew, but can now no longer recall.

As a young child in Alabama, I began slipping out into the night whenever I could. We lived in a small town in a house only one block from the golf course. I loved the big heady silence of the starry fairways and the pockets of darkness in the trees between the links that almost seemed absolute.

Once, when I was caught coming home, my mother demanded to know what I had been doing, and I pretended I had been sleepwalking. I wasn’t a noticeably eccentric child, but I knew there was something strange about my nighttime wanderings. My mother believed the lie, or probably she just chose to believe. After all, I was wearing shoes. But it was just as well. What drove me on these midnight rambles? I would have been at a loss to explain, even if she had asked.

By the time I was a teenager, I was often walking five miles or more in the middle of the night. I strolled through backyards and graveyards, found my way through fences and fields. I felt profoundly at home in the dark. We moved so often when I was a child that it was hard for me to find the kind of comfortable footing with friends and teachers that most children take for granted. So my inner home, my dream home, became the darkness itself.

I went to a college situated atop a large plateau and surrounded by thousands of acres of wilderness. I hiked at night, discovering caves and cliffs. I climbed water towers and visited abandoned barns. I felt protected, not just by the bounds of the university, but by nature itself. Out in the fields under the stars alone, I had no one to please but myself.

I never carried a flashlight. The nights were rarely so dark, even in the country, that you couldn’t feel your way along a path or road. I once hiked up a mountain in complete darkness on a summer night with a thick canopy of leaves blocking out the sky. There was no moon. I listened to the sounds my feet made on the pebbles of the path. If I stepped on leaves, I corrected myself and found the trail again. After two hours I arrived at the summit and finally saw the stars.

It was a wonder my health didn’t suffer from lack of sleep, but it never did. Even then I was on the verge of knowing something about darkness and the human body, and about consciousness and our relationship to the divine and how they all depended on each other. But I had no framework then for that understanding. It was entirely experiential. Even later, in the midst of my Zen training, I would not connect my nighttime rambles through the monastery graveyard with the concerted training I was undergoing in the meditation hall. It never occurred to me that out in the inky blackness of the mountains I was on the trail of a deeper, more ancient practice all but forgotten to the world.

Many of us wake up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep.

We worry about our money and our health. About our kids and our marriages. About how little sleep we are getting and how tired we will be the following day. We often turn on the lights to get through those sleepless hours. Or we surf the Internet or watch TV. My father read scores of tedious, half-forgotten Victorian novels to span the midnight hours. Sometimes we take a pill our doctor has prescribed to manage insomnia, rather than risk waking up in the dark.

In the darkness there are no distractions from the worries of ordinary life. In the light we can organize them, or compartmentalize them, or hide them where we won’t see them--as if shoving them into the dark. But inside of the dark? Inside the dark we are unprotected, and our troubles always come close. So close we can hear them breathing. So close we sometimes feel paralyzed with fear, unable to flee or even move. So close they could open their mouths and swallow us . . . or settle down for a long leisurely gnaw.

No wonder we dread waking up in the dark. We’d rather stay up late and fall exhausted into a dreamless sleep that leaves us hollowed out in the morning, remembering nothing--feeling not so much like we’ve slept as been anesthetized. Which, if we’ve taken sleep medication on top of everything else, we have been.

In popular idiom, that waking period between dark and daybreak is called the “Hour of the Wolf,” an image evoking the eerie, predatory fatalism that tends to come calling in the small hours of the night. It is believed to be the hour when most people die and when the nightmares we wake from are likeliest to seem real. It is the hour when the sleepless are haunted by secret fears--when the ghosts and demons they scarecely believe in by daylight suddenly come to life. Supposedly, it is also the hour when most babies are born.

A little research reveals that the claims for births and deaths are exaggerated. Nevertheless, for those who lie awake in the hours after midnight, the mythology surrounding the Hour of the Wolf is entirely believable. Birth, death, psychic trauma--those all seem right on point.

There is something dire about the hour between dark and dawn. It is 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 the hour of shifting tides, when the darkness swells and surges, when its waters rise above our heads.

On my nighttime rambles, I have never run into trouble, even when I was inexperienced and young. As a teenager I walked the hills north of Atlanta in the small hours of the night. Admittedly, it was a gentler city then. Still, no one ever bothered me.

I certainly don’t like the contrived darkness of cellars and closets and alleyways. Outdoors, at night, however, I have never felt afraid.

Am I made differently from most people? Surely there are others who feel this way about the night, others who love its monochrome wonders, its velvety silences and distant muffled sounds. Yet in my rural town I almost never run into anyone on my nightly walks--except for one eccentric, a man everyone calls Jogger John.

Once or twice a year our paths cross, always in summer. John rides his bike on moonless nights, singing joyously to himself as he goes. On such occasions, he seems as surprised to see me as I am him. But neither of us is frightened. He zips by in what appears to be utter blackness. His eyes must be even better than mine. Or maybe he is only joyously reckless on those nights when he dares a downhill ride in the dark.

I’ve asked myself what we have in common, John and I. There isn’t much on the surface. But there is one thing, I suppose. When the wolf arrives, he doesn’t find us fretting in our beds. We’re up before him and out in the darkness, where the night and the wolf are one.

Most people assume that waking up in the middle of the night is unnatural. Even our doctors assume as much. When we were young parents, my wife and I initially believed what the baby books told us about teaching our daughter to sleep through the night. Eventually, however, her distress was too much for us and we brought her into our bed. There she would happily nurse from my wife, who now didn’t have to get out of bed or even fully awaken. Often when I woke in the middle of the night, I would find her sitting up between us, serene and smiling, happily gazing at the moon.

During the mid-1990s, about the same time our daughter was born, a lead researcher at the National Institute of Mental Health conducted an experiment 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 rhythms for a prehistoric mode of sleep.

The logic of Wehr’s study 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 workdays, 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, beginning at dusk and ending at dawn, Wehr’s subjects were removed from every possible form of artificial lighting--even the gentle glow of a luminescent clock. 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 approximately four hours of deep sleep, woke for two hours of what Wehr termed “quiet rest,” and 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 at the deepest levels of meditation. But there weren’t any such practitioners in his study. They were simply ordinary people who, removed for one month from artificial lighting, found their nights broken in half--or maybe broken open. Because there was something hidden inside.

While trying to account for the peace and serenity that his subjects reported feeling during their hours of “quiet rest,” Wehr discovered that the hormone prolactin reached elevated levels in their bodies shortly after dusk, remaining at twice its normal waking level throughout the full length of the night. Even during the hours of quiet rest, their prolactin levels 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 the Hour of the Wolf you might as well call it the Hour of God.

Prolactin is the hormone that keeps birds still while they are sitting on their eggs and mammals quietly at rest while they are sleeping. Its levels also rise in nursing mothers when their milk lets down, keeping them calm and attentive to their babies’ needs. In recent years, it has been called the “attachment hormone” because of its role in early bonding between mothers and infants. Prolactin creates a feeling of security, quietness, and peace. And it is intimately, and biologically, tied to the dark. Enter the darkness, and stay there--without checking your cell phone or turning on the lights--and the darkness, like a mother or a lover, will take you in her embrace.

“I sleep, but my heart is awake,” says the Song of Songs, 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 describes an actual state of mind. It’s the state sometimes experienced by lovers after their lovemaking, awake and still touching, in the stillness and silence of the night. Or the state of mind of a child rising, for reasons he cannot comprehend and his culture has forgotten, to walk alone on a golf course in the middle of the night.

Two thousand years ago the sage who wrote the shortest and most mysterious of Hindu texts, the Mandukya Upanishad, described this state of consciousness as the last of four such states. The first was waking, the second was dreaming, the third was a dreamless sleep. To the last he gave no name except Turiya, “the Fourth”--a state beyond all of the others, but which somehow also contained them. It was a transcendent state--neither conscious nor unconscious, known or unknown. It was indestructible, inconceivable, indescribable, but still filled to brimming with Itself. It was Atman, the soul, the point of human life. But it had to be experienced. It could not be captured in words.

And yet, once upon a time everyone did experience that fourth state of consciousness, because they woke to it in the middle of the night.

“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.” He might have added that this was probably what all religions were 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 the divine, a nightly meditation retreat for all Homo sapiens on Earth.

Recently, as a result of Wehr’s study and others like it, some sleep specialists have reported that the best treatment for the Hour of the Wolf is to tell patients that nightly waking is natural and, consequently, that they shouldn’t struggle against it. A doctor told me that once he explained this to them, many of his patients simply went to bed earlier each night and never asked him for sleep medications again. Had he conducted a follow-up study of those patients, I’m sure he’d have discovered that they were more spiritually content as well.

- About the author -

Clark Strand, a former senior editor at Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, has been studying the world’s spiritual traditions for more than thirty years. The author of Waking up the Dark, Waking the Buddha, Meditation Without Gurus, How to Believe in God, and Seeds from a Birch Tree, Strand has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and the Washington Post/Newsweek “On Faith” blog. He is the founder of Way of the Rose, a growing nonsectarian rosary fellowship open to people of any spiritual background, with members around the world. He lives on a dark road with no streetlights in the southern Catskill Mountains.

More from Clark Strand

Waking Up to the Dark

Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age


Waking Up to the Dark

— Published by Random House —