Hear the loud alarum bells—
Brazen 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.

It seems that only in the West do people have difficulty recalling their dreams. Only in the West is there such a thick wall between our dream consciousness and waking consciousness. Part of this is due to the way we, unlike other cultures, undervalue the importance of dream consciousness other than in the psychotherapeutic context. The other reason is that the alarm shocks us out of the dream state and into our rational minds. Our dreams simply don’t have a chance to catch up.
There are, of course, historical reasons for this morning dream death. There is a context to the alarm clock.

When the steel and textile mills of the early Industrial Revolution drew in the farmers of the countryside, the clock was the ruler. Time was money. No longer was work driven by the seasons. Instead it was divided into measurable units of time, and the clock became the final arbiter. It was the factory whistle, not the rising of the sun, which moved the people to work. And the alarm clock replaced the rooster.

Our lives today are still dictated by the clock. We don’t even think about it. Train and plane schedules, television and movie programs, restaurant reservations, school, doctor and dentist appointments are all clock-driven. 

But what about dream time—that delicate different reality? Dream consciousness is a shy consciousness. It won’t stand being shaken or abused. It simply vanishes.

Alarms are connected with danger and for good reason. They are used in all kinds of disaster situations: burglary, fire, air raid. In their small but significant way, alarm clocks may well have contributed their part to our culture of fear.

Waking Me Softly
There are, however, small islands of hope. Natural and gentle ways of awakening are available and gaining popularity. Intention is the most important ingredient in waking up peacefully. The less we want to get up, the more difficult it will be. But clanging sirens are not the answer. Below are some less alarming possibilities.

Chime Clocks: These quiet, old-fashioned clocks move the sleeper into wakefulness with a softer sound than an alarm buzzer.

Zen Clocks: Gentle Tibetan bell-like chimes strike once, then again 3-1/2 minutes later. The chimes become more frequent over 10 minutes, eventually striking every 5 seconds until you shut it off. They also come in a digital style and in a brass-bowl version with a series of subtle gongs.

Light, Sound, and Scents: This cutting-edge Peaceful Progression clock combines a gradual increase in ambient light, stimulating aromas, and sounds from nature to awaken sleepers. Thirty minutes before wake-up, the clock's light begins to glow softly, subtly brightening over the next half hour. As the light increases, the warmth from the lamp releases faint aromatherapy scents into the air to stimulate the olfactory senses. Fifteen minutes before wake-up time, the clock's speaker generates the sleeper’s choice of nature sounds.

Good Morning, Sunshine: Studies by the National Institutes of Health show that waking to light can help people with Seasonal Affective Disorder, certain forms of depression, and sleep disorders. This clock has a built-in light that fades in from zero to full intensity over selected time intervals.

Kids and Pets: For those of us fortunate to have young children or pets in the household, there is a ready-made wake-up service. The hugs of a toddler or nuzzling of a dog are preferable to electronic buzzing. Starting around age three, you might even enlist the child in the service of waking you. You can tell her to shake you gently or speak to you softly or even just to stand there looking at you. If you approach it as a game, the kids are in.

Morning Sounds: In the city or the country, the sounds of the morning world are those that you can anticipate and can help you to awaken softly. Consciously tune in to these. In the country, the birds are the first to welcome the day. And of course, if you live near a rooster, you have a built-in waker-upper. If you live in the city, the sounds of morning are legion—cars and buses rev up, neighbors slam doors, or someone upstairs starts the shower. Learn what these morning sounds are. Select those that are regular and expect them. These are the ones that can serve you daily.

Your Stereo:  Most stereo systems can act as timers. Use the CD changer and pick a piece of music that is soothing. Picking a frantic percussion riff or heavy metal cut definitely defeats the purpose. Set the system for the time you want to wake up. Radios aren’t so great for this. We have no idea what’s going to be played. And waking to talk is disconcerting.

Your Inner Clock: Most of us are so conditioned to the clock that we don’t even need alarm clocks to wake up at a specific time. Here’s how to wean yourself from reliance on the clock.
  • Tell yourself that you will wake up before the alarm. You can set your clock, but at bedtime, instruct yourself to wake up before it goes off.
  • On a non-working day, try waking without an alarm at all. Just tell yourself that you are going to wake up at a certain time.
  • Alternate days. Use an alarm clock every other day. Use your own inner alarm on the other day.
  • Keep a record of how you feel on the alarm clock days vs. non-alarm clock days. Any connection between the alarm and getting up on the wrong or right side of the bed?
  • Compare how well you remember your dreams on the alarm vs. no-alarm  days. Is there any difference at all?
There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of non-alarming ways to awaken. Perhaps we may someday all move gently from that good night into the world of waking consciousness.

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