With global warming constantly in the news, we've become uncomfortably aware that our ordinary daily habits of consumption and all the comforts of modern civilization we take for granted are inexorably throwing Planet Earth permanently out of whack. Actually, at this point, it makes more sense to acknowledge that we're the ones out of whack—our much- vaunted technology and can-do Zeitgeist disastrously out of synch with the rhythms of nature that make our lives possible. But if global warming is the macrocosm of our growing disjunction with the natural world, the microcosm may be represented by our fraught relationship with sleep.
In "Nightmind" in this issue, Rubin Naiman reports that 76 percent of American adults have trouble sleeping at least a few nights every week, and that chronic insomnia afflicts from 15 to 20 percent of the population. Why is it becoming so hard for us to get some shut-eye? Naiman argues that the primary culprit is our disjunction from the circadian rhythms of life as we grow increasingly immersed in our constantly illuminated, 24/7 lifestyles. In a relentlessly stimulating culture of producers and consumers, we're all expected to be bright eyed and bushy tailed all the time. We treat the fact that our retrograde bodies still require a certain number of hours for sleeping and dreaming—for just lying there doing nothing—as a kind of biological design flaw to be overcome.
There is, of course, a weird irony to all this. As a people, we're extraordinarily health conscious, spending billions on diets and weight-loss pills, vitamins and herbal supplements, exercise equipment and spas, not to mention cosmetic surgery and sexual rejuvenation potions—all presumably to keep our bodies in perpetually vigorous shape. Yet for all our flashy technological know-how—our arrogant attempt to control every facet of our environment, even nature itself—we're reminded every single night of just how little actual control we have over our own bodies. Our inescapable need for sleep and the sheer impossibility of making ourselves go to sleep on command is yet another lesson in humility and the limits of human will in a culture that prides itself on its dominion over all the earth.
Like darkness itself, sleep seems like a rebuke to our fabulous "progress." But in that very sense, it's perhaps our salvation. Once we step out of our electronic cocoon, we're forced
to recognize our deep, gloriously primitive connection to nature, apart from which we wouldn't be human at all.
Whenever John O'Donohue, Irish poet, philosopher, former priest, Celtic wizard, and all-round phenomenon, presented at the Networker Symposium, he was a sensation. Even when you didn't exactly understand what he was saying, he brought you into the magical circle of his electrifying presence, awakened in you some inchoate spiritual yearning, and then offered the numinous possibility of its fulfillment. A bold, funny, brilliant, charismatic spellbinder, but also a powerfully moral force in the best sense of the word, he died peacefully in his sleep on January 3, 2008. He was 53. This poem is taken from his latest book, Benedictus:
May there be some beautiful surprise
Waiting for you inside death
Something you never knew or felt,
Which with one simple touch
Absolves you of all loneliness and loss,
As you quicken within the embrace
For which your soul was eternally made.