December 13, 2013
As the dark nights come early and the sun rises late, it’s tempting to feel the urge to hibernate. The natural world goes dormant in the dark months. Perhaps human beings should also indulge our winter lethargy.
Sleep is necessary for mental, physical and moral health. Research shows that sleep deprivation undermines moral judgment. One recent book — Penelope Lewis’s “The Secret World of Sleep” — argues that sleep deprivation distorts our emotions, leaving us “frustrated, intolerant, unforgiving, uncaring, and self-absorbed.”
And yet, our tradition is not fond of sleep. We celebrate early-risers for their ambition. Benjamin Franklin maintained that wealth, health and wisdom come from rising early. Moralists like Franklin tend to scold the lazy, indolent and slothful.
Criticism of sleepiness has deep roots. Aristotle held that wakefulness and knowledge were the highest goods. Sleep leaves us senseless and unaware — more vegetable than human. Aristotle seems to view sleep as an inconvenient necessity of the animal body.
Aristotle also suggests that we are only happy when we are awake. It makes no sense, for Aristotle, to say that sleeping people or plants are happy. The Greeks understood happiness as an activity enjoyed while conscious, not something to be experienced passively.
Aristotle even suggests that God does not sleep. The deity is constantly active, engaged in eternal contemplation. Human enlightenment is modeled on this sort of alert and attentive contemplation.
Given this background, it is no wonder that our scientific and technological culture tends in the direction of 24/7 wakefulness fueled by coffee and electricity. Some even want to hack their brains to reduce the need for sleep. We light the night and fill our eyes with glowing screens, craving stimulation, experience and knowledge.
But wisdom may require us to shut our eyes. The natural world has obvious cycles of wakefulness and sleep, including long hibernal periods of dormancy. Nature and health seem to require that we power-down and become unconsciousness.
This may explain so-called seasonal affective disorder. The winter blues might reflect a biological need for sleep in the dark and cold months. Imagine our ancestors dozing through long winter nights in their dark caves. Maybe it’s natural to snooze away the winter.
Furthermore, there are things to be learned from darkness, silence and sleep. There is more to human life than wakeful happiness. We are not gods, after all — we are mortal animals. Life ends in the long sleep we call death, when we finally might rest in peace, as the saying goes. Learning to accept the dark, sleepy and silent parts of life may be part of the process of finding peace and accepting death.
Author Peter Kingsley explains this in the book “In the Dark Places of Wisdom.” Kingsley describes an ancient practice — called incubation — through which people sought mystical dreams and healing by sleeping in dark caves and holy places. Mystical insight supposedly arises in prolonged incubation and experience of sleeping, dreaming and darkness.
The insight that Kingsley thinks we find in the dark is that “all is one.” He thinks that dark silence helps us understand the unity of the world, the illusory nature of consciousness, and the dreamlike quality of the world of appearances.
This is provocative. But it runs counter to the sort of enlightenment we associate with science and morality. Moral judgment appears to require clarity and discernment — shown in the light of reason. While the capacity for moral judgment may be improved by a good night’s sleep — we want our judges to be awake, not dreaming.
Nonetheless, the mystical insight that “all is one” may have moral importance. It points toward the brotherhood of man and goodwill to all. After all, in the dark we are all the same.
As the winter solstice approaches, we might find some wisdom in letting ourselves join the rest of the natural world in sleeping long and sleeping late. If someone like Benjamin Franklin were to criticize you for spending a few extra moments in bed these days, tell them you’re recharging your moral batteries, seeking wisdom and exploring solidarity with all things. You might even ask them to join you under the covers, to incubate a bit before the alarm clock rings again.