Don't Be Alarmed
The alarm clock violently assaults us when we're helpless. But there are more gentle ways to go from dream-time to waking.
Hear the loud alarum bells—
—Edgar Allen Poe, “The Bells”
How would you feel about waking every day to a siren sounding in your bedroom? Or how about the crashing of cymbals right next to your head? This is the stuff of nightmares. Yet it is not that far removed from most folks’ actual morning experience.
Take alarm clocks. Please. Their very name indicates their primary quality. They frighten, startle, warn, or shock us into wakefulness. And they take several forms. I once had an old-fashioned alarm clock, the kind with two brass bells and a hammer that struck both bells with infuriating speed, creating a metallic cacophony that could wake the dead. There are electric alarms that buzz with ever-increasing loudness. There are radio alarms that blare out early morning news, commercials, or random music
. And on and on.
The alarm clock is a form of violence. It jars us at the time when we are most vulnerable and helpless. Sometimes we respond in kind. My childhood friend, Guy, had a collection of guns. When his clanging alarm clock went off one morning, he threw it out the window and shot it with his rifle.
We in the West have been shocking ourselves into wakefulness for a long time. It has not always been like this, however. For thousands of years people have paid more attention to how they awaken and are awakened.
In many cultures, it is believed that the soul travels when we are asleep. Thus, it is very important that the sleeper is brought gently to wakefulness so that his or her soul might find its way back. For traditional peoples around the world, this is a matter of life and death.
The Havasupai of the American southwest felt that there was a delicate thread between the night-traveling soul and the body of the dreamer and that any sudden awakening might cut the thread and prevent the soul from returning to the body. The Xingu people of central Brazil similarly aver that sudden waking prevents the soul from returning to the body. In Africa, the Azande and Masai peoples both caution against waking a person suddenly--an aggressive awakening may lead to death. In Japan, too, the Ainu call for waking people slowly to allow the soul and body to reunite, as do the Bororo Indians of Brazil, the Toradja of Sulawesi in Indonesia, and the Andaman Islanders of the Pacific.
Since the method of awakening is so important, many cultures have developed etiquette around it. The Maori of New Zealand consider it a breach of manners to awaken a guest. If, however, it becomes necessary, the host will begin in soft, low tones and increase gradually in volume until the visitor is awake. This gives the spirit time to return to the body. The Kol people of central India and Murngin people Australia follow a similar waking routine.
Of course, we know that people awaken suddenly every day and do not die. But to dismiss the experiences of innumerable other civilizations out of hand would be to miss the point. It is clear that something gets lost when we are awakened sharply and suddenly. It is our dream consciousness that loses its way back to the waking state.