Clark in the Dark

Waking up to the Dark: Ancient Wisdom for a Sleepless Age by Clark Strand.  Spiegel & Grau.  140 pp. $26.00.

I seem to be reading a lot of Clark Strand.  One book has led to another.  And though I’ve made light of his tendency to try every spiritual practice known to man, I’ve genuinely enjoyed his books, and read nearly all of them.  He’s a sincere intelligent man; he’s genuinely explored spiritual life, and he writes well.  But with Waking up to the Dark, Strand has undergone a sea change.  Some of his readers may abandon him as a lunatic, but he may pick up a whole new group.  Though he’s written all along of personal experience, in this book he writes about a religious vision, and that vision is the authority for what he has to say.

He begins innocently enough.  He says that he has never been afraid of the dark—his wife claims that his spiritual authority lies in that fact—and for years has awakened in the middle of the night and wandered off in the dark, finding sustenance there.  He talks about the fact that, before the invention of artificial light, human beings spent substantial amounts of time in the dark, and grew accustomed to it.  He says that the pattern he had fallen into, sleeping for a while, waking for a time to do something else, then going back to sleep, was a common pattern for humankind.  The idea that humans should lie down and sleep eight hours is fairly new.  He claims that the human failure to spend long period of time in the dark is the reason for our addictions (I’m reading a major work of art on addiction), and that the invention of the lightbulb led humans in a bad direction.  When you think back on the long range of human history, and how we’ve lived for most of it, the man has a point.

Strand himself just took long walks in the middle of the pitch black night (increasingly hard to find in our lit-up world), but he researched traditions that engaged in religious rituals.  Catholic monastics had a service in the middle of the night; Buddhist monks woke up for meditation (the Dalai Lama apparently awakens at 3:00, though he has had his full night’s sleep by that time).  But the most interesting practice is one that Strand began to engage in, advocated by the 18th century rabbi Rebbe Nachmann, of awakening in the night and taking a period of time to go off in the dark and pray, speaking to God in perfectly ordinary language, as if talking to an old valued friend.  Strand prayed as he walked.  He found that an ideal time for prayer, and saw it—as various traditions had—as the Hour of God.

So far so good.  We seem to be dealing with the old Clark Strand, advocating a new spiritual practice.  But just 35 pages in, the book takes a turn.  “For much of my life I doubted the existence of an afterlife,” he goes on.  “There was no world beyond this world, I reasoned. . . .  Then one night as I was walking alone in the falling leaves, I knew suddenly that heaven was real.  It was one of those moments when the veil is very thin.

That world.  And this world.”

“That world and this world are not the same,” he says later, “but they are connected.  The difficulty that most people have with the idea of an afterlife (and most modern people have a problem with it, even those who “believe”) is that they no longer have any reliable access to the nonphysical realm.  And that has everything to do with electrical lighting and our modern habit of staying up so late that our bodies have no choice but to sleep straight through the night.”

His claim is that, not only have we made a fundamental change in the way human beings live, we’ve lost a spiritual connection by doing so.  But he doesn’t stop there.  Different thinkers have varying ideas about where human beings “went wrong” in their evolution; I’ve heard the theory that the discovery of agriculture led to our woes, but Strand cites the discovery of fire.  All of our problems began there, with our ability to use artificial light to escape darkness, which is actually nourishing.  That led on an inexorable course to the discovery of the lightbulb and all of our modern technology, which keeps us in light 24/7 if we want it to.  These changes have paralleled vast increases in the population and the climate change that may soon bring about disaster.  Strand moves quickly through this argument, but cites works that go into more detail.  He not only wants us to stop using lights, he wants us to turn off our TVs and our computers and our cell phones.  Be in the dark when it’s dark.  Don’t keep seeking light.

What he’s saying makes sense, and he’s not the first person to say it, though regarding the discovery of fire as a problem seems a stretch.  But after his change of heart regarding the afterlife, he begins to hear voices.  The first said, “If you rise to say the rosary tonight, a column of saints will support your prayer.”  Strand was not Catholic, though he’d probably tried it somewhere along the way; asking this man to do a religious practice was like asking someone else to scratch an itch.  But one night the voice said, “Don’t go out tonight.  Remain calm—and very, very still.”  That was the night when he had his first vision.  It wasn’t that he imagined something in the mind.  He was in the presence of a being, a young woman with an X of tape over her mouth.  He removed the tape (though he couldn’t find it later).  Fourteen days passed when she did not appear, but when she did, she spoke, and identified herself as “The Hour of God.”

At this point you probably think I’m the one who’s gone off the deep end, reading this book and taking it seriously.  But when Strand identifies the dark with the female side that has been left out of almost every religious tradition, he sparked my interest.  Even Catholicism, for example, identifies only the Trinity as Divine, and though Mary is seen as the Mother of God, she herself is not a part of Divinity.  Many people—especially those of Latin America, in my experience—see the essential falseness of this, and worship Mary as if she were divine, pray to her more than to Jesus.  The Yin—the feminine—part of the Yin Yang symbol is black, and the symbol itself portrays an ideal harmony, with both sides equal.  And the Black Madonna has been an important image throughout religious history.  She has just been suppressed, as women’s voices have been.

Strand attributes nearly every modern ill, including overpopulation and global warming, to this neglect of the dark, the intuitive and irrational, what might be called the feminine perspective on religion.  The problem isn’t just Catholicism with the Virgin Mary.  Every religion I know of has been seriously patriarchal, including my beloved Buddhism; the Buddha resisted including women in the sangha, and there was a longtime belief in Buddhism that only a man could be enlightened; if a woman was on the verge, she would have to be reborn as a man.  I believe that perspective is changing, especially in modern American Buddhism.  I am of the opinion, in fact, that with the towering exception of Mel Weitsman, the most interesting teachers in the Suzuki Roshi lineage have been women, including Blanche Hartman, Darlene Cohen, Katherine Thanas, and my own teacher Josho Pat Phelan (who has herself ordained four women priests).  Something about the rigor of Zen and the wisdom of women produces an interesting combination.

I’ve always been a person who doesn’t question someone else’s religious experience.  That doesn’t mean I swallow it hook line and sinker, or that I become a follower, but I don’t question the experience.  I found some of Strand’s narrative hokey and hard to swallow (the tape on the woman’s mouth was especially weird.  I’m definitely glad he didn’t subsequently find it).  I won’t say I don’t believe it; I just winced as I read it.  But his description of the missing feminine in world religion seems right on to me, and if it hasn’t caused every problem known to 21st century man, it has nevertheless left us bereft.  Strand has, characteristically, started a new religious practice to go along with the book, an organization of people from any religious tradition who get together to chant the Rosary.  The group seems loosely based on the methods of Soka Gakkai, which Strand had praised as a modern kind of religion for a new age.  I’m not ready to sign up, but I admire the man for coming out of the closet with this, and for—essentially—risking everything.  He’s no longer just a guy who’s tried a lot of spiritual practices and written some books.  He’s comes out in this book as a visionary and speaks as a prophet.  I don’t see how he can go back.