INTRO by Phil Cousineau: Overhead glides the moon. The earth rumbles below. The question for lovers of the night, as the band Mumford & Sons call them, is: “To bed, perhaps to sleep? To sleep, perchance to dream? To dream, possibly to wake, to rest and maybe finish our work tomorrow?”
The desire for sleep is strong, as the Roman writer Martial wrote, because it “makes darkness brief,” as is the desire to make it last as long as possible, which Irish storytellers call “eating the darkness,” as if digesting it replenishes us in some strange way.
The oneiric state of the long night’s journey is full of ambiguity. It might be amorous, rife with longing, as Homer knew when he described the “sweet sleep” that lured Odysseus home into the arms of Penelope after their twenty-year travail—sleep “that loosens the limbs of men… loosening the cares of the soul.” But it is also anxiety-ridden, giving rise to such thoughts as the Elizabethan description of going to sleep as being “buried in bed,” a sepulchral thought embodied by Shakespeare’s Macbeth, who speaks of sleep as the death of each day’s life, or Keats as the “soft closer of our eyes,” or Anthony Burgess as the “gentle rocking travel along the river of the dark.”
How timeless the connection between night, sleep, and love, as we go further on down the road of night. The sixth-century Greek philosopher Pythagoras could have been writing yesterday when he described our tentative moments of dozing as the time for “daily action to be scanned.” The indefatigable Leonardo believed in the advantage of “finding oneself in bed the dark to go over again in the imagination’s eye the ideas of the day.” An extract from Thomas De Quincey’s book about the last days of Immanuel Kant, the nightly ritual of the “self-involved” philosopher who swathed himself in quilts “like a mummy” so he might be inspired. “Looking at Them Asleep,” by Sharon Olds, is an exquisitely observed poem that gently captures the held-breath silence that hovers when we watch our children slumber.
The midnight riders here have found ways to hold fast during those fractious hours just before dawn. The Old Man of the Mountain, Lao Tzu, recommended contemplating the stars; the Benedictine monk Brother David Steindhl-Rast encourages practicing gratefulness.
It is there when we have the eyes to read the black ink on the dark paper of night, the time when “darkness is visible,” as William Styron described his struggle with depression. For Styron there was a dark luster to the consolation he felt in reading the ending of The Divine Comedy. Only after Dante had forged his way through the dark wood and harrowed hell with his mentor, Virgil, could he write: E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle.
And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.
“The Night of the Diaphanous Dream”
American photographer and artist
My diaphanous white skirts swirled around me and flowed like liquid, undulating rhythmically as I danced ecstatically in the silky blackness of the diamond-studded night sky. I was vast, immortal, and extraordinarily joyous. I was Home.
As my eyes slowly opened I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming awake again. After three months of sleeping under this magnificent skyblanket in Big Sur, I began to merge and become one with the billions of stars, the planets and galaxies, and the exquisite moon caressing my face as I slept.
For hours I would lie quietly on my back staring into the vastness before dozing off. Each night my “dream eyes” were perceiving more of this majesty moving throughout the darkness. Both dreaming and awake, I watched as the earth turned in her steady rotation and the Universe ever changing in his. Both were reveling in their Sufi dance as they whirled passionately with one another.
On my night of the diaphanous dream I saw a stunning display of the Milky Way shimmering and swimming above me. She was just as I had seen her, just as I had danced her. I had become her. I was One with the vast silence of the cosmos, no longer anchored to my earthly form. I was one with our mother galaxy, the Milky Way in her stunning 120,000 light-years across. How rapturously she expends her milky gasses and dust to create this extraordinarily beautiful home for us. We are all stars embedded on the rim of her great flowing skirt. We are, after all, made of stardust.
My DNA was permanently recalibrated during those astoundingly beautiful months of sleeping in the Ventana Wilderness under the vast and glorious dome of our Universe. Dark matter became a soothing comfort, and the stars and moonlight, my “soul vitamins.” I would walk the trail up to my tree house in the moonlight to memorize the feel of the path so I could traverse it comfortably again with no moon. The steep ravine that dropped off the trail held no fear for me, as I was One with the earth beneath my feet and was connected to the pull of the stars above which guided me — even with my eyes closed.
I long for the dark, safe womb of the Universe, the purity and freedom from form. I long for the primordial blackness from where the spark of life was ignited, and for the infinite potential of Source.
Without this infinite darkness there is no light. Without the night we could not see the stars and revel in the mystery of it all.
British author and composer, 1917–1993
There are some bizarre studies about sleepwalking. I think we have all heard of the lady guest in a great house who woke in the small hours to hear the breathing and moving of a male presence. On the coverlet she could feel objects being placed in order and with deliberation. She did not dare stir. Wisely she fainted. She came to at dawn to find that the butler had walked in his sleep and laid the table for fourteen on her bed. Lawrence Wright, the bed expert, tells of the baronet in Hampshire who went to bed every night in a shirt and every morning woke stark naked. There was no trace of the garment anywhere. After hundreds of shirts had disappeared in this way, he asked a friend to watch over his sleep. The friend did so and, as the clock struck one, observed the baronet got out bed, light a candle, and walk out of the room. The friend followed him a fair distance to the stable-yard, where the baronet took off his shirt and, using a pitch-fork, burned it in a dungheap. He then returned, still fast asleep, to his naked bed.
One morning I got up to find the following verses scrawled in lipstick on my dining room wall:
Let his carbon gnoses be up right
And wak all followers to his light
The writing was my own and lipstick my wife’s. Some people talk of the inspiration of sleep and assert that there is great wisdom to be tapped in the unconscious mind. If this couplet is a specimen of this wisdom let me stay conscious. I knew a man who woke up in the night to find he had discovered in sleep the key to the universe. He scrawled on a pad kept on his bedside table the mystical unlocking words. Waking he read them: “All a matter of demisemiquavers. Make much of this.”
July 19, 2016