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MICHAEL HAWKINS February 21, 2009

Dark Night of the Soul

For many in today’s ever-intensifying world, with its fear of economic meltdown, so-called “terrorism” and an absence of spiritual succor, a sense of darkness has fallen over their lives. Military suicides are at an all-time high. The world is being shocked and awed by events beyond individual control, leading to a collective experience of disempowerment and helplessness.

Given this state of affairs, I thought I would connect the above-mentioned collective angst with the concept of a spiritual Dark Night, acknowledging that they are already connected whether we know it or not. As I am an advocate for spiritual practice that leads to and sustains meditative absorption, my discussion will use the Buddha’s definition of meditative absorption (jhana/samadhi) in order to place the Dark Night within a natural progression along the road to advanced stages of practice.

As we will see, the Dark Night is an unavoidable aspect of the spiritual journey, so we may as well approach it from a position of empowerment.

According to the Buddha’s teachings on meditative absorption (jhana/samadhi), preserved in the Nikaya section of the Pali Canon, there are four material (rupa) jhana states, four non-material (arupa) jhana states, and Nibanna. While the Buddha mastered and taught all nine, he maintained that the four material jhanas were essential in leading to final liberation.

The Samadhi Sutta (AN IV.41) gives a quick overview of the four material (rupa) jhanas.

And what is the development of absorption (samadhi) that, when developed and pursued, leads to the joyful home of the way (Di.t.thadhammasukhavihaaraa)? There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities — enters and remains in the first absorption (jhana): bliss (piti) and joy (sukha) born from withdrawal, accompanied by applied and sustained attention (vitakka and vicára). With the stilling of applied and sustained attention (vitakka and vicára), he enters and remains in the second absorption (jhana): bliss (piti) and joy (sukha) born of composure, unification of awareness free and — internal assurance. With the fading of joy (sukha) he remains in equanimity, mindful and alert, and physically sensitive to bliss (piiti). He enters and remains in the third absorption (jhana), of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, he has a pleasurable abiding.’ With the abandoning of pleasure and pain (sukha & dukkha) — as with the earlier disappearance of elation and anxiety — he enters and remains in the fourth absorption (jhana): purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain (no sukha nor dukkha). This is the development of absorption (samadhi) that, when developed and pursued, leads to the joyful home of the way (Di.t.thadhammasukhavihaaraa).

When engaging the four material jhanas, many hurdles must be negotiated. Emotional hurdles, psychological hurdles, physical hurdles, spiritual hurdles. Hurdles having to do with entrenched beliefs. Hurdles having to do with cultural conditioning. Hurdles having to do with relationships.

The biggest hurdle for most contemplatives occurs at the boundary between second and third jhana.

Symbolically, this boundary depicts a “lull” after some initial spiritual epiphany, a “coming down from the mountain” that leads to deflation and disappointment, not to mention a pining for getting back to the sublime states hinted at during the spiritual high.

This boundary is known as the Dark Night of the Soul, a term made famous by the great Christian mystic, St. John of the Cross.

The Mahaasaccaka Sutta (MN 36) is where we turn for a description of the Dark Night,  Buddhist style:

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me, what if I practiced stopping the in-breaths and the out-breaths, entering through the nose and mouth? When I practiced stopping in-breaths and out-breaths entering through the nose and mouth, air entering through the ears made much noise. It was like the sound that came from the bellows of the smithy. In the same manner when I stopped in-breaths and out breaths, entering through the nose and mouth, air entering through the ears made much noise. My effort was aroused repeatedly, my mindfulness was established, the body was not appeased owing to the difficult exertion. Aggivessana, even these arisen unpleasant feelings did not take hold of my mind and settle.

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me what if I practiced stopping the in-breaths and the out-breaths further. I stopped the air, entering through the nose and mouth and ears. When I practiced stopping in-breaths and out-breaths entering through the nose, mouth and the ears, a lot of air disturbed the top of my head. Like a strong man was carving the top of my head with a sharp blade. In the same manner when I stopped in-breaths and out breaths, entering through the nose and mouth, and ears, a lot of air disturbed the top of my head. My effort was aroused repeatedly, my mindfulness was established, and the body was not appeased owing to the difficult exertion. Aggivessana, even these arisen unpleasant feelings did not take hold of my mind and settle.

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me what if I practiced stopping the in-breaths and the out-breaths still more. I stopped the air, entering through the nose, mouth and ear lobes, further. When I practiced stopping in-breaths and out-breaths entering through the nose, mouth and the ears further, I felt a lot of pain in the head…Like a strong man giving a head wrap with a strong turban. In the same manner when I stopped in-breaths and out breaths, entering through the nose, mouth, and ears further, I felt a lot of pain in the head. My effort was aroused repeatedly, unconfused mindfulness established, the body was not appeased owing to the difficult exertion. Aggivessana, even then these arisen unpleasant feelings did not take hold of my mind and settle.

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me what if I practiced stopping the in-breaths and the out-breaths, for a longer time. I stopped the air, entering through the nose mouth and ears, for a longer time. When I practiced stopping in-breaths and out-breaths entering through the nose, mouth and the ears for a longer time, I felt a lot of pain in the stomach .As though a clever butcher or his apprentice was carving the stomach with a butcher’s knife. In the same manner when I stopped in-breaths and out breaths, entering through the nose and mouth, and ears for a longer time I felt a lot of pain in the stomach. My effort was aroused repeatedly, unconfused mindfulness established. My body was not appeased owing to the difficult exertion. Aggivessana, even then these arisen unpleasant feelings did not take hold of my mind and settle.

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me what if I practiced stopping the in-breaths and the out-breaths, for a longer time. I stopped the air, entering through the nose mouth and ears, for a longer time. When I practiced stopping in-breaths and out-breaths entering through the nose, mouth and the ears for a longer time, I felt a lot of burning in the body. Like a strong man taking a weaker one, by his hands and feet was burning and scorching him in a pit of burning charcoal. In the same manner when I stopped in-breaths and out breaths, entering through my nose and mouth, and ears for a longer time I felt a lot of burning in the body. My effort was aroused repeatedly, unconfused mindfulness established, the body was not appeased owing to the difficult exertion. Aggivessana, even then these arisen unpleasant feelings did not take hold of my mind and settle. Then the gods seeing me thus said, the recluse Gotama is dead. A certain deity said thus: The recluse Gotama is not dead. Will not die. He will become perfect like this.

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me, what if I give up partaking all food. The gods approached me and said, good sir, do not fall to that method, if you do we will inject heavenly essence through the pores of the skin and will support you Then it occurred to me: When I abstain from all food if these gods inject, heavenly essence, that action of mine would be a deception. So I dismissed those gods.

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me, what if I partake food in trifling amounts, drop by drop, the essence of, green grams, peas, chickpeas or pea soup. I partook food in trifling amounts, the essence of, green grams, peas, chickpeas, or pea soup. Partaking food in this manner my body emaciated much. I looked as though I had reached my eightieth year or had come to the end of life. Thus were my limbs large and small. My back was like a camel’s foot, the backbone was like a threaded string of beads when bending and stretching, My rib bones were like the beams of the roof of a decaying hall, that were about to fall apart. My eyes, deeply set in the sockets were like two stars set in a deep well. The skin of my head was like a bitter- goad plucked young and dried in the sun and hot air. Thus were my limbs large and small owing to taking trifling amounts of food. When I touched the skin of the stomach, I got hold of the backbone. When excreting or urinating, I fell face downwards. If I touched the body to appease it, the hairs of the body decayed at the roots fell off. Thus was my body owing to taking trifling amounts of food. People seeing me said, the recluse Gotama is dark. One said he is not dark but tan. Another said the recluse Gotama is neither dark nor tan but of golden hue. Aggivessana, my pure skin complexion was destroyed owing to partaking trifling amounts of food.

The Buddha is not suggesting that we stop breathing or eating, nor is he promoting suffering as a practice strategy.  In fact, once he completed his flirtation with physical austerity, he renounced such an approach as ineffective and unskillful… at which point he emerged on the far shore of the Dark Night, into third and fourth jhanas, under the Bodhi Tree, ready to receive the entirety of the Bhudda Dhamma.

The point is, even the Buddha had to negotiate a Dark Night, so we cannot expect to get around this universal initiation.  It is part of the deal when we sign up as spiritual aspirants.

At the boundary between second and third jhana, it is common for a contemplative to experience despair over a slowing of his or her spiritual progress.  What seemed like spectacular attainments have given way to boredom, sloth and torpor.  The original inspiration has dissipated.  As the days, weeks and possibly months roll by with little or no “progress” to show for it, the contemplative is especially vulnerable to two reactions:  1) abandoning her or his practice, thus casting adrift into the Dark Night without a skillful means for negotiating it; or 2) adopting ever more extreme techniques, such as the austerities described by the Buddha, which seem to have the capacity to deepen and intensify the Dark Night, but which are fraught with the potential for disaster, and which are ultimately seen as ineffective.

In the records left by mystics down through the ages, descriptions like the Buddha’s abound. There is something about reaching a point of no return, a moment where the contemplative realizes that she or he has transcended the normal bounds of human experience, such that from that moment onward this person exists in an exclusive “club” that is alien and threatening to most humans.

As the contemplative enters into the “no man’s land” between second and third jhana, a set of challenges unique to her or him awaits. For some contemplatives this period is relatively short, depending on karma and the ability to surrender.  For most, however, it takes years and years — possibly lifetimes — to get from one side to the other.

This is the time when one wishes she or he had never sat for that first meditation, never opened the Bhagavad Gita, never looked into the eyes of a powerful teacher. This is the time when one curses God for the pain and suffering, and for the sense that there is no pulling back from this threshold of insanity.

What is the best way to negotiate the Dark Night?

The best way — or, perhaps, the only way — is to keep moving forward, knowing that this, too, shall pass. One must have faith in the principle of impermanence, which leads to letting go of clinging. Though it may be counter-intuitive for a person to plunge headlong into the mouth of her or his most frightening demons, this is exactly what is required of the skillful and rigorous contemplative. Attack, attack, attack, as if each meditation is the last one. Open, open, open to whatever the Dark Night is throwing at us this time. Release, release, release from our resistance, letting go of our attachment to that resistance. One foot in front of the other, forward, forward, forward into the Dark Night… until a moment arises when that feeling of aloneness and helplessness is replaced by a knowingness that we were never truly alone, that some agency of transformation has been assisting, guiding and arranging our journey in an orderly manner, propelling us toward the other shore.

Keep meditating, keep accessing levels of absorption, become saturated throughout each day and night… and let the process work itself out through an Intelligence greater than our own.

Once we come to this realization of being propelled, third jhana is quickly established and we are able to engage the advanced stages of sadhana that seemed so enticing before we ever heard of the Dark Night of the Soul.

Only then are we ready for the real work, the true purpose for our existence.


This article has been reprinted here with permission from the author.

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