Home' Nova National : June 2010 Contents 14
FEATURE SUN & MOON
© NOVA JUNE 2010
We evolved on very close terms with darkness, says
Eric Harrison, and we've forgotten its soft and nurturing
It is natural for us to think dualistically
by using pairs of opposites such as good
and bad, light and dark, body and mind,
male and female, growth and decay.
These have an appealing symmetry and
typically feel both profound and true. Some
dualities are less than accurate -- communism
is not really the opposite of capitalism -- but
they help us define something by what it
is not. Certain dualities, such as black and
white, are genuine opposites. Others, such
as night and day, can't be separated at all,
since they are the opposing poles of a single,
Our most familiar duality, operating
every second of our day, is good and bad.
The Buddha said that it is a prerequisite for
clear thought to notice the pervasiveness of
our judging faculty. Everything we actually
notice, be it a thought, sensation or emotion,
comes wrapped up with a feeling and an
evaluation. We either like it or dislike it,
we find it pleasant or unpleasant to some
degree. We can consciously modify these
automatic judgements, but we have no
chance of ever seeing anything "just as it is"
with the enlightened eye of a disinterested
observer. Perfect objectivity or "pure
consciousness" free of value judgement is a
myth from the past.
We judge literally everything, however
trivial. Researchers have demonstrated
that if you show people a list of nonsense
words, they will automatically prefer some
over others. Nor is this an inconsequential
act. A nonsense word they find unpleasant
will create measurable changes in their
physiology. Too many unpleasant words will
stimulate emotional circuits in the brain and
start to disturb cognitive functions such as
short term memory.
Psychologists call this "approach or
withdrawal" behaviour. We instinctively pull
away from what we see as a potential threat,
and move towards what we see as a potential
reward. Each day, thousands of mostly
unconscious value judgements are steering
us this way and that. It is why we choose to
walk on the pavement rather than the road
without ever considering the matter.
We are non-stop judging machines, and
deciding good or bad is an integral part of
any perception. You can test the truth of
this right now if you go back to the pairs
of opposites in the first sentence of this
article. Even though they seem to be nicely
balanced intellectual concepts, you will
probably find you "like" one side of the pair
better than the other. It feels "better" for you
than the other, and more deserving of your
Our unthinking assumption that light
is "better" than dark, for example, or that
day is "better" than night, can lead us astray
when both sides of the equation need to be
in balance as part of a single dynamic system.
Yet we "naturally" prefer the excitement of
the day to the unconscious torpor of sleep.
We prefer eating to not eating, activity to non-
activity, stimulation to boredom, although
nothing is automatically good in itself. Any
substance, even water, is potentially lethal if
taken in excess; it all depends on the dosage.
Yet it goes against the grain to realise that too
much of any good thing can be toxic.
Some pairs of opposites have a lot of
leeway. We can say that every human being
has male and female characteristics, but
this doesn't mean that the ideal is to be
perfectly balanced. We don't really admire
the metrosexual or the sensitive new age
guy all that much. Our societies profit from
the evolutionary gamble of having hyper-
masculine men and ultra-feminine women,
plus women who are more masculine than
the average man, and vice versa.
Our biology is a different matter. Our
bodies are always working to maintain an
ideal homeostatic balance between a whole
range of opposites: the sleep-wake cycle,
then tension-relaxation of muscles, the
acidity-alkalinity of the blood. Some polarities
demand almost perfect balance, and your
body will grab your attention immediately
if they are just slightly out of whack. Just a
few minutes of dangerously low blood
pressure or inadequate blood supply to the
brain causes death. Other polarities have
more wiggle room. Stress is bad for us but it
may take years before it strikes us down. This
makes it difficult to know how out of balance
we can afford to be, or for how long we can
postpone paying the bill.
So how much do we need the night?
We've beaten it into abject submission in
the last century. Night and day no longer
balance each other at all in our over-
bright, non-stop, over-stimulated societies.
Thomas Edison, the inventor of the electric
light and patron saint of the 24/7 society,
was a compulsively active man and he
expected his employees to be the same. He
regarded sleep as a dreadful waste of time,
and slept very little himself. I once spent
three or four years without electricity and
I would never, ever want to go back to that
lifestyle. Edison was a great benefactor to
mankind, and to me, but I know that electricity
is not a blessing without a cost
In the Victorian era before Edison, night
lighting came from candles and lamps. Its
fuel (beeswax, animal fat or whale oil) was
always expensive, so it was used sparingly.
As a result, most people couldn't see or do a
great deal without sunlight. In fact, until the
mastery of fire only a few thousands of years
ago, our ancestors had no light at night apart
from the moon. We evolved on very familiar
terms with the darkness.
As a result, the Victorians probably spent
10 or 12 hours in bed each night for much of
the year. Sleep researchers estimate that we
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