Unfortunately, sleep medicine—that branch of the health sciences devoted to treating sleep disorders—offers little relief from our nightblindness. Sleep specialists pay virtually no attention to the larger cultural and natural milieu of night. Having made its bed with the pharmaceutical industry, sleep medicine offers us little more than a seductive array of knockout pills. Rather than an honest encounter with night consciousness, it encourages anesthetized unconsciousness.
William Dement, director of Stanford University's Sleep Center, believes that, because of its historical neglect of night biology, virtually all medical science is seriously askew. I think the same holds true for psychotherapy. With the exception of dreamwork, which offers an important but limited focus on dream content, psychotherapists don't usually explore their clients' "nightminds" in a meaningful way. Even though symptoms of sleep disorders present daily in psychotherapy offices, most clinicians are ill-prepared to address them. Nevertheless, psychotherapists, with their focus on shifting states of consciousness, as well as behavior and lifestyle, are ideally positioned to help address today's sleep epidemic. However, we must rethink our approach to night, sleep, and dreams. Approaching sleep primarily from a waking-consciousness framework is much like trying to understand darkness by using a flashlight to illuminate it. To help our clients sleep better, we ourselves must become more "nightminded," and less "nightblinded."
In our culture, daylight is dominant, overvalued, and even deified, while darkness is dismissed, devalued, and often demonized. From divine light to light beer, things associated with the metaphor of light suggest goodness. We want to shed light, see the light, and lighten up. Our associations with metaphoric darkness, in contrast, are suggestive of confusion, struggle, immorality, despair, and outright evil. We want nothing more than to avoid dark times, dark nights of the soul, and, of course, the dreaded "prince of darkness." It would seem that, even as adults, we're afraid of the dark.
At the same time, night and darkness free us from the constraints of the waking world. It's as if night is a psychological duty-free zone. While the social expectations of day tell us how we should be, night reveals who we really are. We take our clothes off at night. In loosening social constraints, night allows our shadows to emerge. Darkness inhibits us because it disinhibits us.
In times past, human activity naturally downshifted as dusk signaled the approach of night. There was no push to get home, since most people were already there. As daylight gradually receded, the world quieted and the chirping of crickets and trilling of night birds began, as all things darkened, slowed, and cooled.
In modern times, however, as dusk approaches, night begins with "the rush hour"—a massive, noisy, grinding, smoky movement of people and machines. Automobiles, buses, trains, and planes shuttle hoards of people from places of work, school, and daily activity back to their homes. Lost in this bustle, we typically thwart the onset of night.