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PETER HOLLERAN

The Deeper Meaning of

the Dark Night of the Soul:

Spiritual Crises and Breakthroughs
in Western and Eastern Traditions

 

Prelude

"The sugar cane yields its sweet juice only after it has been crushed relentlessly in a mill. The human entity yields its noblest traits and truest wisdom only after it has been crushed repeatedly in the mill of anguish."

"The Holy Land, flowing with milk and honey, is within us but the wilderness that we have to cross before reaching it is within us too."
~ Paul Brunton (1) (2)

"The swete kernel can only be eaten bot if thou crack first the hard shelle and bite of the bitter bark."
~ The Cloud of Unknowing

“No one has been united to his Beloved through mirth. Whoever has attained communion with him has done so after shedding many tears. If it were possible to meet the beloved while laughing and in a state of comfort, why should one suffer the anguish of separation? The people of the world are happy. They eat and sleep. Kabir alone is unhappy. He is awake and is crying.”
~ Kabir

"We are people of little faith and fail to recognize and appreciate the hand which guides and which sustains. Hazur (Baba Sawan Singh Ji) used to say that once a saint has taken a soul under his wing, he is keen to compress the progress of twenty births into a single one. And if we desire to pack the accomplishments of twenty lives into a single one, we must pay for it."
~Sant Darshan Singh

"I realize that no contemplative path wants to advertise the cross or the suffering entailed in the crossing over. On the other hand we must not be naive about this or in any way mislead others. The truth is that getting to the other shore will stretch the human limits to the breaking point, and not once, but again and again. Who can take it? It is not for nothing that the cross is the central Christian symbol."
~ Bernadette Roberts

"If you want the rainbow, you must have the rain."
~ from the American Songbook

 

Part One

St. John of the Cross was described by Thomas Merton as “the greatest of all mystical theologians", and his writing stands at the pinnacle of the Christian esoteric tradition. The Dark Night of the Soul, his best known work, is considered a peerless account of spiritual blindness and its eradication by divine grace, and his astute analysis and advice have meaning and usefulness for many who find themselves in an apparent impasse or quandary on the path. To examine in detail the lesser known aspects and inner significance of this phenomenon is the purpose of this article. All mistakes are those of the author, whose only claim is that of writer, researcher, and fellow seeker after truth. As the subject matter is rather obscure and goes beyond that of conventional religious understanding some background in philosophy and mysticism, both theoretical and practical, is assumed on the part of the reader. Also, the hyperlinks in this piece are very important and add much to the discussion. However, since many are substantial entries themselves they might best be more fully studied on a second reading in order to better maintain the flow of argument the first time through. Note: this is a long and exhaustion consideration.

In essence, the famed "dark night" is considered by some to be a transitional phase between a long novitiate of self-effort to a more direct path of self-transcendence, from a time of reliance on the ego to one of reliance on and transformation by the divine, from belief in a personal self to knowledge of its unreality, from identification with the ego to identification with the higher Self, and the very Self of conscious-being that you are, and from the feeling of the soul being somehow inside the body to that of the body also being inside of the greater Soul. It brings a thorough purgation where the personal will passes through existential hopelessness, and increasingly becomes sacrificed to the divine will. It produces a complete metamorphosis wherein ones conception of self and world are literally turned inside out. While it has been written about and experienced on many levels, and may perhaps be considered a metaphor for much of the spiritual path itself, St. John, while somewhat confined to the world-view of his time, specifically states:

"Into this dark night souls begin to enter when God draws them forth from the state of beginners — which is the state of those that meditate on the spiritual road — and begins to set them in the state of the progressives — which is that of those who are already contemplatives — to the end that, after passing through it, they may arrive at the state of the perfect, which is that of the Divine union of the soul with God." (2a)

The authentic dark night is thus nothing less than a compassionate and beneficent gift of God. It is 'the wound that only God can heal'. As Prophet Muhammed spaketh:

"If Allah touch thee with affliction, none can remove it but He."
~ Qur'an 6:17

A deep understanding of the 'dark night of the soul' requires a mature understanding of what the Soul actually is. For it means different things in different traditions of thought. Most commonly it is thought of as a 'spark of the divine', an individual spirit that, through this process, becomes 'purified' of all worldly dross and fitted to enjoy heavenly bliss, or even a felt 'union' with a God initially at least conceived of as separate from it. This is the most frequent mystical view. However, as will be made plain in Part Two, it really goes far beyond that, and is a death of the whole being conceived as an ego-soul or separate individual, that is, an individual separated from infinite consciousness or reality. Through it — and one cannot will this to happen, in fact, the individual will is what is fundamentally transmuted in this process — one undergoes a metamorphosis not unlike a caterpillar dissolving in its cocoon and becoming a new species, a new birth. It may be equated with what the islamic Sufis call fana and baqa, or annihilation and resurrection in God. As the word God, however, has so many dualistic, theistic connotations, one may prefer to call this 'rebirth as consciousness', with the body and personality also reborn and not annihilated. They are in fact more real than before, as they are known in a non-dualistic, non-separate manner. One really is a new creature, an evolutionary 'mutation', if you will, seeing things from a totally different perspective. If carried to its proper depth, the dark night process transcends while including such conventional 'soul' consciousness (including that expressed by traditional yoga and mysticism) leaving one alive and embodied as consciousness itself, and awakened to its divine implications.

Much depends on what one considers to be the soul, as we said. The ancient Greeks, in our opinion, were in advance of later developments of yoga and mysticism in their conception of the soul. I am thinking especially of Plotinus, for whom the soul was a transcendental verity, pure consciousness, but still itself an emanation from three eternal principles or hypostases: one with Absolute Soul or the 'mother Soul' (soul being considered as a 'one and many'), a ray of the 'Intellectual Principle, Nous or Divine Mind (considered as a one in many, the divinity within each soul), and a point in the One itself. The soul is transcendent to and immanent in manifestation (the full realization of the soul's nature as such being a non-dual one), which 'divine cosmic idea' is projected through the soul by the Intellectual Principle or Divine Mind (that which 'knows the soul' and by which the soul 'knows' itself), and which Divine Intellect is inseparable from the One. Thus soul is also ultimately rooted in the One. All of these higher Principles are of the nature of Void-Mind, as is the soul; hence, the realization of the soul, and many non-dual realizations, are often mistaken for even higher, or deeper, realizations. When the aspirant knows the Soul and is united with it — the fruit of the three traditional stages of medieval mysticism [the purgative, illuminative, and unitive ways] — it can then know something of its Higher Principles. It can then know that God Is and know something about it. This higher knowing was generally not attained in traditional mysticism, East or West. Soul will not unite with God, but it can know its oneness and non-separation from God.

We are getting ahead of ourselves here, for this is a much larger discussion, reserved for several other articles on this site. This article is of much more of a practical nature. The chief point to get across right now is that for the ancient great philosopher-sages, the soul wasn't only a 'spark' or piece of God that simply got inserted in a body, but meant much more. It is of the nature of universal being, consciousness, void, and also inseparably linked with manifestation. In modern times, Sri Aurobindo also spoke of three eternal principles: soul, universal Spirit, and absolute Spirit. Cypriote mystic Daskalos taught that the true nature of the soul, itself eternal and beyond time and space, was the 'God within', called Pneuma in Greek, eternally at one with Absolute Beingness. The Indian sage of the last century, Ramana Maharshi, of course, championed a view of consciousness that transcended anything associated with individuated consciousness. To realize that ground of Being, however, the first stage towards a true divine life, requires a 'death', a death of egoism that only a ripe, i.e., mature, person can make. Paradoxically, the person or ego must mature and 'ripen', before it is capable of the sacrifice of itself which enlightenment entails. Fools don't get enlightened. And even more paradoxically, this eventual realization is often preceded or accompanied by a definitive failure of willful efforts to transcend, avoid, negate, abstract oneself from, detach, eliminate, or escape the world, the body, the ego, or whatever one conceives of as the source of one's bondage as a separate being! This, in some form unique to the individual, requires a passage through a black hole of existential pain. No one really wants that, which is why the dark night of the soul comes only to those who are ready for it, for whom the alternatives, worldly and spiritual, have failed in some fundamental way. And, to repeat, this often requires that one has in this or some other lifetime fulfilled or seriously applied oneself to the use of the heart, mind and intentionality in order to 'better' oneself, even though such efforts, while partially successful, will not really succeed. Why? Because of what St. John calls 'spiritual blindness', that is, the blindness that comes with seeing oneself as a separate being in a world of others and objects. It fundamentally comes down to the intransigence of self-will, or the will to be separate.

Such a conception of the dark night is, certainly, not the traditional one. I am not even sure if St. John himself was aware of these depths. He was far in advance of his time, but also bound to allegiance to the Church. But I suspect that he knew more than what he wrote, but lacked the language to express it fully. In any case, this will hopefully become clear as we proceed in this paper. If what has been discussed briefly so far is too complex, have no fear, relax and proceed, the rest will be easier and speak to the heart more directly. The essence of the matter at hand is really quite simple.

According to St. John, the true Divine Light (not mystically perceived light) is dark to the soul (ego), so when its influence is most potent one often feels as if he is losing ground. Thus, even with the help of those who have gone before, the aspirant finds himself on a necessarily secret path. St. John uses the words, "in darkness and secure...in secret, when none saw me...without light or guide," to highlight the sense of unknowing and bewilderment confronting the soul at this stage. A great undoing is necessary, he says, to prepare the soul for union or identity with the divine or higher Self, since it is so thoroughly identified with the “Old Man”. This undoing he describes in terms of two “nights”, the night of sense and the night of spirit. The first is “bitter and terrible”, and makes performance of spiritual exercises useless and futile, for varying periods of time, while the second night is “horrible and awful”, undermining the individual at his roots. The dark night, therefore, presents itself at the outset as a reward/punishment. Many may enter the first night, but few the second, says St. John, according to the grace of God, which essentially comes to prepared souls for the purpose of producing the purified disposition capable of perceiving and receiving the sublime self-transcending touches of divine grace and realization, which, essentially, produce a non-separate person. This, to say the least, is a big thing.

During the course of ones initial approach to spiritual practice, grace or the apparent fruit of ones effort often manifests in the beginning with the gift of visions, positive emotions, interiorization of attention, and experiences of subtle energies. These are a glimpse of things to come and a form of incentive for the seeker to persevere in spiritual work. For St. John, the dark night generally only comes to those souls who have completed this initial stage and enjoyed many such "sweets," which were gifts to wean them from complete attachment to the world, or from a materialistic viewpoint. This is the traditional mystical portrayal of the dark night. It may no longer be necessary or even appropriate for one to achieve such success or even pursue it for the dark night experience to settle into one's bones, as it were. It may take many forms. For St. John, however, in order to progress further, these experiences must fade, and true tests of will, determination, patience, discrimination, and understanding will come to the aspirant, who may then feel as if he has been abandoned, whereas, in truth, this is not so. He is actually being brought to a new stage in which he is humbled, purified, emptied of self-satisfaction, and prepared for a more permanent realization of his essential Self or Soul, wherein he will also be able to perceive things in a divine or universal manner, rather than a personal or egoic one, which he could not do otherwise as a beginner, due to his inherent ignorance. In this third and final stage, even the world, as well as the personal self, are no longer negated, or even avoided, but are spiritualized or seen as existing in and as God or, in more philosophic traditions, Mind or Consciousness. Here one is reminded of Ramakrishna's famous reply to Vivekananda, when the latter said that he wished to experience nirvikalpa samadhi for days on end: "You fool! Mystic trance is a trifling thing for you. There is a state much higher than that."

In other words, since the aspirant, crystalized, contracted, and misidentified as an ego, cannot help but unconsciously conceive of his goal in the form of a personal attainment, it is inevitable at some point that there will be a spiritual impasse. Much of this will depend on the individual karmas and/or relationship one has with an enlightened Teacher, and the form of practice that he engages. One contemporary mystic has suggested that perhaps no more than one in four will undergo a dark night similar to that which St. John has described. In its most precise details, my guess is that it is far fewer than that. However, since first drafting this article some years ago, I have come to feel that everyone will and must pass through a similar process, sooner or later. In any case it is not something one 'willfully' chooses, nor is it to be casually entertained. Anthony Damiani, a teacher of mine, who confessed to experiencing jnana samadhi at age forty-five and later having a stable realization of the witness self, spoke to his students once about this kind of "soul death". He said: "The mystics say to God, "more pain, more pain." — No! I don't want it. I know what I am. We're not strong enough. Don't ask for such a thing." Nevertheless Anthony said that one must really come to see how powerless he is to change himself. And, generally (always generally, for nothing is the same for each and all), the only way for that to happen is for one to try to do so! He states:

"You're going to go out and seek that? Who are you, Saint Francis?! We're talking about an ego-crushing experience! You are not going to come out better for it, you're going to come out a little humble. That's called eating crow. If you didn't eat crow, that's not the ego-crushing experience..Once that happens there is something made available. You are opened up a little bit, but usually it takes the whole cosmos to do it...for most of us it really has to be delivered. We're put through it...But as long as the ego has that persistent arrogance and a whole network of defense mechanisms to block out anything from coming in, it's not going to get that Grace; so the world has to come and crush it so that a little Grace might come in. But no one willingly goes out to seek it, take my word for it." (3)

Of this experience Paul Brunton (PB), whose extensive writings will be referred to frequently in this article, tells us:

“In that state there is also a work being done for him by Grace, but it is deep in the subconscious mind far beyond his sight and beyond his control....In that terrible darkness he will find himself absolutely alone, able to depend on nothing else than what he finds within his own innermost being. Without anyone to guide him and with none to companion him, he will have to learn an utter self-reliance..It is useless to complain of the terror of this experience for, from the first moment that he gave his allegiance to this quest, he unconsciously invited its onset. It had to come even though the day of its coming was yet far off....During this period the mystic will feel forsaken, emotionally fatigued and intellectually bored to such a degree that he may become a sick soul. Meditation exercises will be impossible and fruitless, aspirations dead and uninviting. A sense of terrible loneliness will envelop him...He feels lost, becomes fearful, reproaches himself with sins fancied or real, and thinks he is now permanently estranged from God as a punishment. Such is the "Dark Night"....The raptures, the aspirations, the devotions may be repeated many times, but in the end they are seen as part of the ever-changing picture which life itself is seen to be. Moreover in "the dark night of the soul" they die off altogether....How real is his experience of the Overself [Soul], or how near he is to it, must not always be measured by his emotional feeling of it. The deep inward calm is a better scale to use. But even this vanishes in the "dark night"....It is not enough to recognize the Real in its own homeland alone; he must be trained to recognize it under all conditions, even when it is hidden under dark illusion, even in the lowest ebb of the soul's dark night." (4)


Madame Guyon states:

"He gives us some token of His immediate presence, as if to assure the soul for a moment, that He was with it in its tribulation. I say for a moment, for it is of no service subsequently as a support, but is rather intended to point out the way and invite the soul to further loss of self."

Brunton goes on to say that, in general, while most aspirants are tested to some degree in this way, the dark night occurs in its truest form to those who have already achieved what he terms the second degree of contemplation, or rapt inward absorption and advanced mysticism, and serves to prepare them for the third stage, or union with the Soul or Overself. He therefore concurs with the supposition that the dark night is a profound purification and not for beginners, who have yet to proceed very far on the spiritual path nor have had a true spiritual glimpse, and who would therefore not be able to endure or profit from this extreme purgation:

"The Overself demands a sacrifice upon its altar so utter, so complete that even the innocent natural longing for personal happiness must be offered up. As no novice and few intermediates could bear this dark night of the soul, and as even proficients cannot bear it without murmuring, it is reserved for the last group alone — which means it happens at an advanced stage along the path, between a period of great illumination, and another of sublime union."

"When the dark night comes, its effect stuns him. His eager aspirations fade away into despondency and his spiritual exercises fall into disuse. Nothing that happens around him seems to matter, and everything seems so aimless, futile, or trivial. He has to force himself to go on living outwardly as usual. His will is listless and his emotion leaden. He feels inwardly dead, hardly aware of anything except his own state...The inner nature becomes stiff, muscle-bound, unresponsive to the joyous evidences and serene intimations of the Overself. What is even worse, bringing a dark hopelessness with it, is the fear that this will become a permanent state...When this drying up of all aspirations comes upon him without any traceable cause, the beauty and warmth of past intuitive feeling or mystical experience will seem unreal." (Notebooks, Vol. 15, Part I, 3.1, 3.8, 3.10, 3.19)

Again, we repeat that it may not be necessary for the aspirant to pursue an extended course of mysticism or yoga to penetrate to the root of consciousness. Ramana Maharshi seems to have suggested this. It might be noted, further, in reflecting upon this particular observation of Brunton that one must take the long view. There is the possibility, for instance, that in some cases a person may have already achieved an advanced degree of meditation in a prior incarnation and then spend much of his present life in a dark night ordeal, without appearing to have consciously passed through every classic stage prior to it. Or he may have simply deeply seen and felt the futility of a life lived in separation, no matter how apparently successful, in either worldly or 'spiritual' terms. Thus one should not necessarily expect to see all of these stages occur in a linear fashion in any one lifetime in order for the dark night experience to be genuine. This reasoning applies equally to those rare beings who seems to awaken suddenly without any apparent effort or spiritual discipline. It must be assumed that much was accomplished in prior lifetimes. Nor can we say that the classic dark night itself and all of the various stages are required experiences. It is just that they occur, and must be accounted for. However, all must pass through a dreaded black vortex, an abyss, to be born again from the ground up.
"Is insight achieved gradually or suddenly, as the Zen Buddhists claim? Here again both claims are correct, if taken together as parts of a larger and fuller view. We have to begin by cultivating intuitive feelings. These come to us infrequently at first and so the process is a gradual and long one. Eventually, we reach a point, a very advanced point, where the ego sees its own limitation, perceives its helplessness and dependence, realizes that it cannot lift itself up into the final illuminations. It should then surrender itself wholly to the Overself and cast its further development on the mercy and Grace of the power beyond it. It will then have to go through a waiting period of seeming inactivity, spiritual stagnation, and inability to feel the fervour of devotion which it formally felt. This is a kind of dark night of the soul. Then, slowly, it begins to come out of this phase, which is often accompanied by mental depression and emotional frustration into a higher phase where it feels utterly resigned to the will of God or destiny, calm and peaceful in the sense of accepting that higher will and not in any joyous sense, patiently waiting for the time when the infinite wisdom will bring it what it once sought so ardently but what it is now as detached from as it is detached from worldly ambitions. After this phase there will come suddenly unexpectedly and in the dead of night, as it were, a tremendous Realization of the egoless state, a tremendous feeling of liberation from itself as it has known itself, a tremendous awareness of the infinitude, universality, and intelligence of life. With that, new perceptions into the Laws of the cosmos will suddenly unfold themselves. The seeker must thus pass from intuition into insight." (Notebooks, Vol. 16, Part 1, 2.55)
 [For the complete explanation of PB's views on the Dark Night of the Soul see The Notebooks of Paul Brunton: Vol. 15, Part 1, Chapter Three. PB lucidly portrays it as a relatively inevitable transition between a 'Long Path' of self-effort, discipline, and meditation, and a 'Short Path' of surrender, grace, and infused contemplation.]

To summarize, St. John proposes that there are two nights: of sense and of spirit. He says that much had been written of the first, but not of the second — and unfortunately he died before explaining more than the first three stanzas of his eight-stanza poem on the complete enfoldment of the transforming divine union as he envisioned it. The night of sense, according to St. John, can be 'bitter and terrible', but it ebbs and flows. It has two phases: active and passive. The soul still does practices, but the divine or Overself or God starts to take a hand in the work of weaning the soul from spiritual consolation, as its consolation had earlier begun to wean the soul away from gross pursuits. Some, he says, may never pass through either night; others, what he calls the more 'recollected' types (which means the more self-introspective and/or more meditative/concentrated souls), will pass directly into at least the night of sense very soon after actively starting on their spiritual way. Of course one has to consider karma, too, in regards to what one will or needs to go through. We generally are said to pick up where we left off in a previous incarnation, with different lessons to be learnt.

There is still much active work or effort of will and understanding and endurance in this first night, which is more or less of a correction of desires, cleaning up the act, getting more respectful and humble before the divine, and so on. For some traditional religious persons he says that this is as far as they can go without falling off the path. They can tolerate some aridity and ebbing of their spiritual experiences, but only to a point, and God accommodates them.

The 'night of spirit', on the other hand, while a continuation of the first night of the sense, is entirely a passive infusion of grace, what he calls infused contemplation (no longer active meditation as such), and the action of grace is largely behind the scenes and imperceptible much of the time to the personality. He speaks of the 'object' of our devotion and aspiration 'retreating' from in front of us, so to speak, to take up a rear guard as our principle support. It is also characterized as a deep purification to the very roots of the 'old man', often seeming like a 'cruel spiritual death', including in general stripping away of all supports or anything the ego can rely on for certainty — or even for breath! The descriptions he gives go so far as to be 'horrible and awful' with extremes of deep pain in body, mind, and soul. The quotes are fairly harrowing and hair-raising. One can easily see this night is much more than just a period of despair and depression, although those are certainly there. But this also is said to only comes to souls strong enough to handle it, who have the requisite faith and/or background — or who have 'signed on for the trip'.  One spiritual master, Sant Darshan Singh, to repeat one of the opening quotes, said "when a saint takes a soul under his wings, he is anxious to compress twenty lifetimes into one; but if we want to pack twenty lives into one we must pay for it."  That is, the Master, the Overself, God, whatever, hears our prayers, takes us at our word, and assumes a much more apparently active hand in the work, doing what we can not do for ourself in so short a time. Even here there are periods of respite; it is not a constant 'darkness or 'down' period, for most. The soul has periods, albeit short, when it feels more liberated than ever before, with more confidence in God even as it has less confidence in itself.

The revelations of the dark night are essentially the "self-knowledge that precedes God-knowledge." We see what we are really made of, in all our human misery, emptiness, and insufficiency, in order to be prepared to see the awesome grandeur and mercy of God,who is more the life of the soul than the soul is the life of the body" (de Caussade).

St. John is constrained to use dualistic language, i.e., soul and God, and so on; we could attempt to explain this process more non-dualistically, but with some effort and even then not entirely successfully. In part what this essay tries to do, however, is to interpret this phenomena in a traditional as well as a more modern way. For we must not be constrained to various preconceptions derived from a theological model that may not in all case suit us today. Much of it is of a perennial nature, but the stages as depicted hundreds of years ago may not enfold literally or linearly as described.

While for some, then, this night serves to break down what has been termed "wrong crystallization", wherein the ego has become spiritualized yet remains intact, its greater purpose, as we have tried to explain, goes beyond classic purgation to prepare an aspirant to advance beyond mystical experience itself (up to and including even nirvikalpa samadhi or the Void, the highest or deepest interior trance state) to that of sahaj, or a lasting non-dual enlightenment, in which one not only feels himself as Soul, or, in more modern terms, Consciousness-Being, but knows its true nature under all conditions, both within and without, and sees the world and others as both distinct and non-distinct from one's own self. It is true, of course, the entire affair is paradoxical, since realization has been described as the awakening to the fact that there is 'no one' (no exclusively empirical conditioned being) to be realized, and such in fact is considered a distinguishing characteristic of every true spiritual glimpse. Even if one understands this, however, and has had many such glimpses, to become stable in this condition involves an ordeal, as the vasanas or tendencies of egoity are not so easily dismissed. Truly awakening as conscious-being through the portal of the broken-heart makes one more in touch with his humanity — his divine humanity — and all his parts come back to be embraced and known as 'non-other'. Thus, a confrontation with 'shadow' material may continue long after one's initial true awakening. [And, although it is beyond the scope of this article, the conclusion that there is 'no one' to be realized is only the case empirically or phenomenally, for it is the true soul, in fact, that is realized, beyond all thought and conception. To say that there is only the one, Absolute, non-dual Self that becomes known once the realm of thought or mind has been transcended, is a conclusion and assumption of ancient Vedanta and Buddhism, in which only an impersonal expression of realization was made, but which has not gone unchallenged. This, it might be said, is an outdated 'static' vision of realization, for each such realizer is still alive in a world where there are other such realizers who also know themselves as the 'Absolute', yet interacting on a human, personal level in a dynamic fashion! What is being suggested is that the languaging of realization needs upgrading. For more on this thought see Dual Non-Dualism on this website].

The German mystic Tauler, in one of his Sunday sermons, said:

“Think not that God will always be caressing his children, or shine upon their head, or kindle their hearts as He does at the first. He does so only to lure us to Himself, as the falconer lures the falcon with its gay hood...We must stir up and rouse ourselves and be content to leave off learning, and no more enjoy strong feeling and warmth, and must now serve the Lord with strenuous industry and at our own cost.” (5)

Evelyn Underhill, in the classic work Mysticism , offers an in-depth consideration of the process of the dark night. In one passage she writes:

“In Illumination, the soul, basking in the Uncreated Light, identified the Divine Nature with the divine light and sweetness which it enjoyed. Its consciousness of the transcendent was chiefly felt as an increase of personal vision and personal joy. Thus, in that apparently selfless state, the “I, the Me, and the Mine”, though spiritualized, still remains intact. The mortification of the senses was more than repaid by the rich and happy life which this mortification conferred upon the soul. But before the whole self can learn to love on those high levels where — its being utterly surrendered to the Infinite Will — it can be wholly transmuted in God, merged in the great life of the All, this dependence on personal joys must be done away. The spark of the soul must so invade every corner of character that the self can only say with St. Catherine of Genoa, “my me is God: nor do I know my selfhood except in God.”(6)

Brunton wrote that the ego may in fact welcome a "large attrition of its scope" (Notebooks, Vol 6, 8:4.167), through religious, yogic and mystical disciplines, without being serious about its final undoing. That is, while the ego is positive in that it is part of the intelligence of the soul and when so aligned is a help in getting started and navigating the quest, at some point it becomes apparent that it will agree to cooperate with the seeker so long as it can preserve itself. Its deviousness and cunning become more subtle. The problem forced towards a conclusion by the dark night is the very unraveling of egoism at its core. For even in the higher reaches of mystical experience, the thought, feeling, tendency or activity of I-ness (ego or ahamkara), remains, and may actually, in fact, be perceived as or identified with the infinite expanse of light, incorrectly understood to be the divine, as implied by Underhill above. Thus the penultimate mystic experience, the ocean of light, is, in a sense, the highest illusion, according to sages, while saints and mystics see it is the first creative expression of God, if not the final goal. Abu Hasan Al Shadhili said, "The desire to enjoy ecstatic union with God is one of the things which most effectively separate us from God." Sant Kirpal Singh gave me a hint of such a point of view when I was with him in 1973. While sitting in a dejected mood at his feet he once asked me, "Do you want something, my friend?...do you want to leave the body?" In a response opposite to that of Vivekananda, but more out of resignation to my pitiful state than from any supreme insight, I simply said, "No, nothing." He became animated, leaned forward and excitedly said, "Nothing?! You're an emperor! I'll kiss your feet! God is nothing!" The 17th century Hindu saint, Sri Samartha Ramadas, in his treatise on gnana yoga, Atmaram, said, "The Bliss-Attainment of a yogi is Maya." In the Buddhist text known as The Transmission of the Lamp Shih-tou is even more emphatic in saying that one must not be attached to such experience, and suggests that one can remain for countless kalpas (eons) in such a state without gaining direct insight into Reality [df: Kalpa: (as a period of time) A Maha Yuga is 4.32 million years. Twenty seven Maha Yugas is one Pralaya. Seven Pralayas is one Manvantara. Finally, six Manvantaras is a Kalpa. That is, one Kalpa is 27x7x6 = 1,134 Maha Yugas. This works out to 1134 x 4.3 million = 4.876 billion years] :

"The Sravaka is enlightened but going astray; the ordinary man is out of the right path and yet in a way enlightened. The Sravaka fails to perceive that Mind as it is in itself knows no stages, no causation, no imagination. Disciplining himself in the cause he has attained the result and abides in the Samadhi of Emptiness itself for ever so many kalpas. However enlightened in his way, the Sravaka is not at all on the right track. From the point of view of the Bodhisattva, this is like suffering the torture of hell. The Sravaka has buried himself in Emptiness and does not know how to get out of his quiet contemplation for he has no insight into the Buddha-nature itself."

The Iso Upanishad says:

"They enter the region of the dark who are occupied solely with the finite. But they fall into a region of still greater darkness who are occupied solely with the Infinite."

Nagarjuna, the great Mahayana Buddhist, put it even more bluntly:

"Believers in emptiness are incurable."

Or perhaps, as Guru Nanak proclaims in the Adi Granth, the Sikh scripture:

"Truth is above all, but higher still is true living."

The concentration of mind gained through yoga and mysticism and their purificatory requirements are sometimes considered prerequisites for the higher teaching and ultimate path, but the fulfillment of yoga, according to the Buddha in the Potthapala Sutra, does not in itself produce insight or Nirvana. Damiani reminds us, however, that one should be lucky to be a mystic who can be criticized liked that. Yet if truth be our goal we must listen to the warnings of those such as Brunton who writes: 

   "When the mystic comes to the end of this phase of his career but believes he has come to the end of his career itself, he falls under an illusion from which it is hard to recover....Hence, one of the texts belonging to this teaching, the Lankavatara Sutra, says of those who have perfected themselves in yoga: "When they have reached the eighth degree they become so drunk with the bliss of inner peace that they do not grasp that they are still in the sphere of separateness and that the insight into reality is not yet perfect"....There is a fourfold evolution in humanity and it unfolds successively — physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Hence the mystic has to return to rebirth to complete his evolution despite his "union" which is consequently temporary...The attainment of this deep state of oneness in meditation by an ordinary mystic may seem to be the end of the quest. Nevertheless the cycle of reincarnation will not end for him until he has become a philosophical mystic. For even though all earthly desires have been given a quietus, there will remain a latent desire to know, to understand his own experience and the world experience. To satisfy this desire, which will slowly come to the surface under the compulsion of Nature, he will have to develop intelligence to the proper degree...For nature is shepherding the human race not only along the road of spiritual evolution but also of intellectual evolution....Giving up the world does not lead to reality, but it leads to peace of mind. Men who lack intelligence...must take to mysticism and yoga, but only the mature and developed mind can enter the quest of enquiry into truth. This means therefore that pupils are not generally initiated into this enquiry by gurus prematurely. They must first have developed their egos and their minds to a high degree, and only after that should they be taught to renounce what has been fostered with so much pain. This is evolution: although truth is ideally attainable here and now, technically it is attainable only at the end of the pageant of evolution, when the whole man has been highly developed and is ripe to receive the greatest of all gifts." (7)

An important aspect of the dark night, according to Brunton, is that it serves as a time when the undeveloped aspects of the character, notably the faculties of feeling, knowing, and willing, are allowed or forced to catch up to the aspirant's successes at meditation, so that a complete and enduring enlightenment may be accomplished. Through the unconsoling, humbling processes of a true dark night, the "bubble" of egoism is popped once and for all, and one reaches what Zen calls the "asylum of rest", from which he can "fall" no further. The consequences are profound and a revolutionary transformation in consciousness and understanding. Mystic experience thereafter, when present, becomes not so much negated but rather grounded and resurrected in reality. In Zen and Taoism one is said to become the 'Universal Man'. But it is none other than one's real, authentic self.

"So important is this virtue of humility," says Brunton, "that it may be labelled both first and last...That is why upon those who really do aspire to the very highest there descends the dread phenomenon of the dark night of the soul. When later they emerge from this awful experience, they emerge with all vanity ground down to powder and all pride burnt down to ash.." (8)

One may, therefore, read the words of gyanis like Ramana Maharshi, "In truth you have no birth and no death," and Shree Atmananda (Krishna Menon),

"Liberation is not going beyond birth and death, but going beyond the illusion of birth and death", and great Zen Master Bankei, “In the place of the Unborn, the whole question of being born or not being born is irrelevant,” and they are well worth our contemplation, but it must not be forgotten that this is a stage-specific realization usually accomplished in a lasting way and not as just a glimpse by fulfillment of a multi-disciplinary quest in which the entire being is matured. So while Brunton agrees, "Perhaps the most wonderful thing which the illuminate discovers is that his independence from the infinite life power never really existed and was only illusory, that his separation from the Overself was only an idea of the imagination and not a fact of being. Even the desire to unite with the Overself was only a dream, and consequently all lesser desires of the ego were merely dreams within a dream," (9) he also adds, "That initial realization has henceforth to be established and made his own under all kinds of diverse conditions and in all kinds of places. Hence his life may be broken up for years by a wide range of vicissitudes, pains, pleasures, tests, temptations, and tribulations." (10)

The following dialogue of Chan master Hsi Yun, as a preview to the second part of this article, should lay to rest any idea that a condition of utter humility is somehow not required for a true non-dual realization:

“Q: Illusion can hide from us our own mind, but up to now you have not taught us how to get rid of illusion.
A: The arising and the elimination of illusion are both illusory. Illusion is not something rooted in Reality; it exists because of your dualistic thinking. If you will only cease to indulge in opposed concepts such as “ordinary” and “Enlightened,” illusion will cease of itself. And then if you still want to destroy it wherever it may be, you will find that there is not a hairsbreadth left of anything on which to lay hold. This is the meaning of: “I will let go with both hands, for then I shall certainly discover the Buddha in my mind.”

Q: If there is nothing on which to lay hold, how is the Dharma to be transmitted

  A: It is a transmission of Mind with Mind.
Q: If Mind is used for transmission, why do you say that Mind too does not exist?
A: Obtaining no Dharma whatever is called Mind transmission. The understanding of this implies no Mind and no Dharma.

 Q: If there is no Mind and no Dharma, what is meant by transmission?
A: You hear people speak of Mind transmission and then you talk of something to be received. So Bodhidharma said: The nature of the Mind when understood, No human speech can compass or disclose. Enlightenment is naught to be attained, And he that gains it does not say he knows. If I were to make this clear to you, I doubt if you could stand up to this knowledge.”
(from E. A. Burtt, ed., The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha (New York: Mentor, 1955), p. 205-206)

Notice that basically he did not say merely that he doubted if the questioner could grasp it, or understand it, but whether, in his present condition, he could stand it.

Sri Nisargadatta concurs on the need for preparation before revelation:

M: It is only when you are satiated with the changeable and long for the unchangeable, that you are ready for the turning round and stepping into what can be described, when seen from the level of the mind, as emptiness and darkness. For the mind craves for content and variety, while reality is, to the mind, contentless and invariable.
Q: It looks like death to me.
M: It is. It is also all-pervading, all-conquering, intense beyond words. No ordinary brain can stand it without being shattered; hence the absolute need for sadhana. Purity of body and clarity of mind, non-violence and selflessness in life are essential for survival as an intelligent and spiritual entity." (I AM THAT, Durham, North Carolina: The Acorn Press, 2009), p. 436)

Amazingly, however, after such a profound passage one finds that his ego still lives, and is not really annihilated. It is not a mistake, or something wrong, but a functional part of reality. Oh, dear one, know that there are many such paradoxes to be lovingly held in one's heart on the path.

Madame Guyon continues:

“The life of the believer is like a torrent making its way out of the high mountains down into the canyons and chasms of life, passing through many experiences until finally coming to the spiritual experience of death. From there, the torrent experiences resurrection and a life lived in concert with the will of God while still going through many stages of refinement. At last the torrent finds its way into the vast, unlimited sea. Even here the torrent does not totally come to be one with the vast ocean until it has once more passed through final dealings by the Lord....

The soul, after many a redoubled death, expires at last in the arms of Love; but she is unable to perceive these arms...Then, reduced to Nought, there is found in her ashes a seed of immortality, which is preserved in these ashes and will germinate in its season. But she knows not this; and does not expect ever to see herself living again....and the soul which is reduced to the Nothing, ought to dwell therein; without wishing, since she is now but dust, to issue from this state, nor, as before, desiring to live again. She must remain as something which no longer exists: and this, in order that the Torrent may drown itself and lose itself in the Sea, never to find itself in its selfhood again; and that it may become one and the same thing with the Sea.” (11)

If Madame Guyon were alive today she would probably change her mode of expression. The fact is that the soul is never not one with the Sea, does not become lost in the Sea (except as a temporary experience), yet it does go through a process of molting, like a moth in its chrysalis, only to emerge 'subsiding' in the presence of one's own Being, itself eternally in the bosom of the Divine.

Augustine Baker tells us:

"For first He not only withdraws all comfortable observable infusions of light and grace, but also deprives her of a power to exercise any perceivable operations of her superior spirit, and of all comfortable reflections upon His love, plunging her into the depths of her inferior powers. Here, consequently, her former calmness of passions is quite lost, neither can she introvert herself [note: a particularly bitter and profound trial for the mystic who by long effort has found peace thereby] ; sinful motions and suggestions do violently assault her, and she finds great difficulty (if not greater) to surmount them as at the beginning of a spiritual course...If she would elevate her spirit, she sees nothing but clouds and darkness. She seeks God, and cannot find the least marks or footsteps of His Presence; something there is that hinders her from executing the sinful suggestions within her, but what that is she knows not, for to her thinking she has no spirit at all, and indeed, she is now in a region of all other most distant from spirit and spiritual operations — I mean, such as are perceptible." (12)

Underhill summarizes this process:

"The self, then, has got to learn to cease to be its "own center and circumference": to make that final surrender which is the price of final peace. In the Dark Night the starved and tortured spirit learns through an anguish which is "itself an orison" to accept lovelessness for the sake of Love, Nothingness for the sake of the All; dies without any sure promise of life, loses when it hardly hopes to find. It sees with amazement the most sure foundations of its transcendental life crumble beneath it, dwells in a darkness which seems to hold no promise of a dawn. This is what the German mystics call the "upper school of true resignation" or of "suffering love"; the last test of heroic detachment, of manliness, of spiritual courage." (13)

"Show us your wounds," is the question asked of the aspirant at the door of spiritual knowledge. St. John is critical of those who wish to linger in a passive state of grace, enjoying visions and other spiritual consolations; he asks readers to abandon the disposition of mere “babes” and to become grown men, capable of receptivity to and acceptance of and as the divine ego-less light which transcends and is the ground of all experiential phenomena, high or low.

One interpretation of the dark night is given by Satyam Nadeen:

"If you live long enough everyone eventually experiences enough disasters in their personal lives to qualify for what Zorba the Greek calls "the full catastrophe" that leads to a terrible depression. But there is a huge difference between a clinical depression and the dark night of the soul. It is the function of the latter to soften one up for the total change of perspective that is to follow all the fruitless years of weary searching for one's absolute truth."

"There is only one way that I know of for Life to teach us its one absolute truth. First it has to totally destroy every other so-called truth that we think we already know. Add to that the realization that I call all of the truths we have ever learned before the Shift as mere concepts in the face of this one absolute truth."

"How does Life erase these countless concepts? It starts by destroying the foundation upon which all these concepts are based, namely the ego personality that thinks it is a special somebody somehow separate from the Source of all Consciousness and from all others. This separated persona is a direct result of an identity with the mind. Anything that the mind can perceive in this physical manifestation I have named the "3rd dimension."

"So what occurs with a shift from the third dimensional perspective to the 4th dimension? This is where the Stranger who has always waited for us at the door of our perception welcomes us into the Presence of the Witness. There is a switch of identity here from how the mind perceives reality to how our Witness understands that very same reality in such a different way."

"And so began my own transition via the despair, hopelessness and depression that characterizes a good dark night of the soul. For it is only here that the concepts of the mind that have guided us so brilliantly through life up to this point seem to completely break down now and fail as to a possible solution out of this hellish nightmare."

"This process crushes our whole self-image of who we think we are. It calls into question all of our "shoulds" and "should-nots" that make up the minefield of our concepts. It is the mind which has created these concepts and because this mind is a Divine instrument created by Infinite Intelligence, it is not about to just commit voluntary suicide so its role can be assumed by a more powerful unified force field that the Witness brings to the table."

"Enough time spent in the dark night of the soul and the seeker quits seeking. The whole quest seems so hopeless now that it is given up. Futile seems the seeking of anything that is outside of us. We finally disintegrate into a big pile of nothingness inhabited by a little nobody."

 

The aspirant must then simmer in this nothingness for an indeterminate amount of time until he is drawn out of it by a higher power. Actually, he is not drawn out of it, but he becomes conscious within it. That is being drawn out of it.


The so-called dark night can perhaps then be viewed as a somewhat inevitable ordeal that aspirants pass through in one form or another, due to the very nature of spiritual blindness, or egoic adaptation and consolation in all of its dimensions. No matter what the teacher says about the necessity of self-surrender and self-transcendence, or, let's say — since that is rather problematic and dualistic language, i.e., 'who' surrenders? — no matter what the person hears about this essential, graceful and inherent, natural process, the Way is still felt, unconsciously, as a “path" or “road” or “ladder” that the ego-self moves or progresses along. Real help is required to accomplish the true spiritual work which undermines this conception of a self-existing separate self. The guidance of a competent spiritual director is essential for this passage, according to St. John, although the real work is done by God, with the aspirant's fidelity and helpless cooperation.

Thus one finds Job, faithful servant of the Lord, thrown into a condition of confusion, despair and anguish, where everything he did turned against him. His ordeal is masterfully detailed in the book Ego and Archetype by Jungian psychologist Edward Edinger. Job's struggles ended when he felt the limits of the personality or ego and surrendered its sovereignty. The Koran refers to this as the “state of self-accusing”. Thomas Merton wrote of this phenomenon, and in one of his later journal entries went so far as to remark that he felt his entire life was a charade and that he had been a failure as a writer, a monk, a priest, and a contemplative. At this point Tibetans who knew him said he was "very close" to enlightenment [which in this case might more accurately be considered a "glimpse"].

A Zen equivalent for the dark night is referred to as “descending into the cave of the blue dragon.” (14)


Master Hakuin said:

“I felt as if I were sitting in an ice cave ten thousand miles thick. I myself shall never forget the spiritual struggle I had in sheer darkness for years.” (15)

“The greater the doubt, the greater the awakening; the smaller the doubt, the smaller the awakening; no doubt, no awakening.” (16)

This means that the greater the existential confusion about one's real being, the greater the felt sense of separation and the anguish that brings, the greater and richer the eventual realization potentially is.

The Buddha describes his pre-enlightenment experience likewise in harrowing terms:

“Then Sariputta, I plunged into a fearsome forest thicket and dwelt therein. Such was the fearsome horror of that dread forest thicket that anyone whose passions were not stilled and entered there, the very hairs of his body would stand on end.” (17)

In The Conference of the Birds the Persian mystic Attar speaks of this as the “valley of detachment”. One must endure this process completely and allow oneself to be put to the test. Once one has been given hope and strength by an initial spiritual glimpse, he is then further shown who the enemy is: his essentially arrogant — yet an evolutionary developedment, and therefore not wrong — self-will. And from that point on there is no way out but through. Half-hearted efforts will not create the inner alchemy, nor invoke the divine grace, that brings him to a liberating crisis, where his efforts are seen to be of no avail. Paradoxically, then, over time as the ego matures and "ripens" its sense of "rotting" increases. Thus is derived the term "old soul". Paul Brunton explains that through a series of incarnations, the ego or personality, and all of its faculties becomes more balanced, refined, and evolved, until at some point a sense of inner "revulsion" arises and it is finally moved to let itself be 'done in', which can of course only finally be achieved by Grace.

On the subjective nature of the purgation in the dark night he writes:

"It is the paradoxical irony of this situation that the joys of the beginner make him believe that he is very near to God whereas the desolations of the proficient make him despise himself." (18)

This quote carries much meaning, but there is a potential drawback that we face in having access to such profound teachings, which is that of creating a self-image through them; nevertheless, it is something that apparently can't be helped. There is no need of dwelling on the misery, but when the process starts in earnest one can do nothing to avoid it from having its way.

Eventually the process completes itself and the pilgrim, a new man or woman, emerges from his 'journey through the wilderness'. St. John reminds us that this entire ordeal of the dark night is of a divine design:

“O spiritual soul, when thou seest thy desire obscured, thy will arid and constrained, and thy faculties incapable of any interior act, be not grieved by this, but look upon it rather as a great good, for God is delivering thee from thyself.” (19)

Note he says 'Oh spiritual soul'; this to me suggests that he was aware of something more than 'ego-soul' or separative being.

Though it may seem that nothing good can ever come from the midst of such an impasse, the aspirant is in the center of the oldest, most sacred struggle. The ego must inquire into its origins and lay itself on the altar, in order for man to become identified with his Soul. The anguish at this stage comes from the ego seeing that this is the one thing it can never successfully do by itself, even while it still continues to try.

Brunton explains:

“When he finds that he has been following his own will even at those times when he believed he was following the higher self's will, he begins to realize the extent of the ego's power, the length of the period required for its subdual, and what he will have to suffer before this is achieved...The ego does not give itself up without undergoing extreme pain and extreme suffering. It is placed upon a cross whence it can never be resurrected again, if it is truly to be merged in the Overself. Inner crucifixion is therefore a terrible and tremendous actuality in the life of every attained mystic. His destiny may not call for outer martyrdom but it cannot prevent his inner martyrdom. Hence the Christ-self speaking through Jesus told his disciples, “If any man will come after me let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” (20)

In graphic language St. John speaks of the lowest possible dregs of such experiences, in the second night, the night of the spirit, which, it must again be said, may only occur to a few, for their unique karmic reasons and higher purpose. This is one which takes one out of identification with the lower soul into identification as unbounded while still human consciousness. He gives quite a frightening description, in which the reader can see why such an ordeal is not for beginning aspirants. Brunton described it in terms of a mystic witnessing the loss of everything he had previously attained, while what is left is relentlessly crushed. As we have said, one doesn't have to be a mystic for this to occur. As the years go by, I and many others predict the time-frame for this transition to be economized and compressed. How long that may take is anyone's guess.

Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote, "Before there was so much love and real tenderness for the Sisters and the people — now I feel my heart is made of stone." Sant Darshan Singh echoed with one of his mystic verses, “My heart — now concrete pain — once laughed” (Love’s Last Madness, p. 120). As St. John confirms, " 'the living flame of love' makes the soul feel its hardness and aridity". This means literally that one may feel his sense of 'insane' separation even viscerally, perhaps as a tight band constricting his chest, or a feeling of being crushed, and so on. Or maybe not. Again, it is an individual thing. He continues:

“The Divine assails the soul in order to renew it and thus make it Divine; and, stripping it of the habitual affections and attachments of the old man, to which it is very closely united, knit together and conformed, destroys and consumes its spiritual substance, and absorbs it in deep and profound darkness. As a result of this, the soul feels itself to be perishing and melting away, in the presence and sight of its miseries, in a cruel spiritual death.” (21)

"The soul must needs be in all its parts reduced to a state of emptiness, poverty and abandonment and must be left dry and empty and in darkness. For the sensible part is purified in aridity, the faculties are purified in the emptiness of their perceptions, and the spirit is purified in thick darkness.....All of this God brings to pass by means of this dark contemplation; wherein the soul not only suffers this emptiness and the suspension of these natural supports and perceptions, which is a most afflictive suffering (as if a man were suspended or held in air so that he could not breath), but likewise He is purging the soul, annihilating it, emptying it or consuming in it (even as fire consumes the mouldiness and the rust of metal) all the affections and imperfect habits which it has contracted in its whole life. Since these are deeply rooted in the substance of the soul, it is wont to suffer great undoing and inward torment, besides the said poverty and emptiness, natural and spiritual...Here God greatly humbles the soul in order that he may afterwards greatly exalt it; and if he ordained not that, when these feelings arise within the soul, they should speedily be fulfilled, it would die in a very short space; but there are only occasional periods when it is conscious of their greatest intensity. At times, however, they are so keen that the soul seems to be seeing hell and perdition opened." (22)

"It is well for the soul to perform no operation touching spiritual things at this time and to have no pleasure in such things, because its faculties and desires are base, impure, and wholly natural; and thus, although these faculties be given the desire and interest in things supernatural and Divine, they could not receive them save after a base and natural manner, exactly in their own fashion...All these faculties and desires of the soul..come to be prepared and tempered in such a way as to be able to receive, feel and taste that which is Divine and supernatural after a sublime and lofty manner, which is impossible if the old man not die first of all." (23)

"And when the soul suffers the direct assault of this Divine Light, its pain, which results from its impurity, is immense; because, when this pure light assails the soul, in order to expel its impurity, the soul feels itself to be so impure and miserable that it believes God to be against it, and thinks that it has set itself up against God. This causes it sore grief and pain, because it now believes that God has cast it away...the soul now sees its impurities clearly (although darkly), and knows it is unworthy of God or of any creature. And what gives it the most pain is that it thinks that it will never be worthy and that its good things are all over for it. This is caused by the profound immersion of its spirit in the knowledge and realization of its evils and miseries, for this Divine and dark light now reveals them all to the eye, that it may see clearly how in its own strength it can never have aught else...When this Divine contemplation assails the soul with a certain force, in order to strengthen it and subdue it, it suffers such pain in its weakness that it nearly swoons away..for sense and spirit, as if beneath some immense and dark load, are in such great pain and agony that the soul would find advantage and relief in death." (24)


"It is clear that God grants the soul in this state the favor of purging it and healing it with this strong lye of bitter purgation, according to its spiritual and sensual part, of all the imperfect habits and affections which it had within itself with respect to temporal things and to natural, sensual and spiritual things, its inward faculties being darkened, and voided of all these, its spiritual and sensual affections being constrained and dried up, and its natural energies being attenuated and weakened with respect to all this (a condition which it could never attain of itself, as we shall shortly say). In this way God makes it to die to all that is not naturally God, so that, once it is stripped and denuded of its former self, he may clothe it anew. And thus its youth is renewed like the eagle's and it is clothed with the new man, which, as the Apostle says, is created according to God." (25)


In remarkably similar fashion Babuji Maharaj of the Radha Soami Satsang, Agra, offers the following, somewhat unique in the literature of the Sant Mat tradition, where such inner secrets are usually revealed only in private:

“It is usual that the awakened Saint or Gurumukh (beloved disciple of the Guru) must go through a period of great physical depression and weakness. This is because the entire constitution of the body has to be transformed in order that it may be in harmony with the spirit in its awakened condition and be fitted to perform the work before it. This period of depression may continue over a number of years, but it is usually followed by a high degree of bodily health.”

“This physical change is absolutely essential for making appreciable spiritual progress. The capacity of the body to undergo it constitutes the limit of usefulness of the body. There have been exceptional jivas (souls) endowed with bodies capable of enduring in one life the whole requisite transformation without breaking. But in (such) cases the immediate physical effect of the transformation was a low and depleted bodily condition which continued for quite a number of years. After the changes have been effected, complete physical vigour usually comes back, though with a body very different in its constitution. One of its acquired characteristics is its softness and freshness like that of a babe.” (26)

It is interesting that many of these descriptions of what may occur in the most extreme versions of the dark night sound much like the inner process of bodily dissolution described in the Tibetan Buddhist writings:

"Our complexion pales as the energy drains from the body. We might feel we are falling or sinking, and that the ground under us has given way...We feel as if we are under a pressure of a heavy weight....Tears fall and then dry up...We might feel very thirsty [i.e., 'arid' or ''parched']... suffocated and irritated...We struggle to breathe.." (26a)

As everyone does not go through this process at the time of death, we assume that there is a purpose in the dark night provoking such a similar passage. The above quote from Babuji provides one clue. Rumi similarly states:

"The spiritual way ruins the body and, after having ruined it, restores it to prosperity."

The Rig Veda declares:

"He tastes not that delight (of the twice-born) who is unripe and whose body has not suffered in the heat of this fire; they alone are able to bear that and enjoy it who have been prepared by the flame."

Perhaps this is why the Christian mystics often speak of those who undergo such a trial are free of the need to experience hell and purgatory, because they have already experienced here what they might have needed to experience there. The inviolable non-dual nature of Reality makes it so.

In light of the Babuji quote above, we must not fail to mention a third form of the night of the spirit — what the Church sometimes calls the 'reparatory night'. This is said to be no longer personal purification in preparation for divine union, but suffering endured by the friends of God, or those called to service, who may undergo much more suffering than other souls. It is a continuation of the night of the spirit, but for souls called to a special mission of service who suffer for others. Of course, such beings will never say or even feel that they are special, and are likely to consider themselves the worst of human beings and still suffering the rigours of divine justice and personal purification. Such is the characteristic of many saints. "I am worse than all others; those who see that way are my friends," said Kabir:

Father Garrigou-Lagrange, O.P., using the example of the founder of the Passionist order, St. Paul of the Cross, asserts: "The reading of the works of St. John of the Cross leads one to consider the night of the spirit chiefly as a personal passive purification, which prepares the soul for the perfect union with God, called the transforming union. This purification, which in its passive aspect is a mystical state and implies infused contemplation, appears thus as necessary to remove the defects of proficients of whom the author speaks in The Dark Night (Bk II, chap.10)...The lives of some great servants of God especially dedicated to reparation, to immolation for the salvation of souls or to the apostolate by interior suffering, make one think, however, of a prolongation of the night of the spirit even after their entrance into the transforming union. In such cases, this trial would no longer be chiefly purificatory; it would be above all reparative...The common opinion is that the servants of God are more particularly tried, whether it be that they need a more profound purification, or whether, following the example of our Lord, they must work by the same means as he used for a great spiritual cause, such as the foundation of a religious order or the salvation of many other souls." The long duration of this trial is one of the striking common traits between the night of St. Paul of the Cross and that of Mother Teresa." (26b)

As the quote indirectly makes reference to, contrary to outward appearances Mother Teresa privately confessed to having a feeling of extreme abandonment by God for fifty years during her active mission, feeling that her heart was like a stone with her beloved Jesus absent and as if non-existent. This in spite of her being a continuing influence for others to feel God's love. Similarly, in one of Sant Darshan Singh's verses, he wrote, "my heart, now concrete pain, once laughed." Many of the mystics use this very metaphor of their heart being like a stone, despite their great submission and love for God. It certainly makes one wonder about one's own humble state.

In regard to the above notion of a reparatory night, one devotee asked Sant Kirpal Singh a question, "Master, is it true that Jesus died for the sins of the world?", to which Kirpal replied, "all Masters have died for the sake of the world." The implication is that to be an active agent of grace may necessitate a depth of trial more severe than that required of more ordinary souls. At another time one disciple, seeing his Master in severe pain, asked if He would please let him share it by taking some of it on himself. Kirpal, whose body in this moment was said to be burning-hot to the touch, said, "Look here, if you have a son, would you give him poison?" One gets an appreciation for the sacrifice involved. "You can't handle the Truth" takes on another meaning altogether. Perhaps this is something to ponder in a day of 'instant enlightenment and the new paradigm' where the guru function is cavalierly dismissed as obsolete.

Sri Aurobindo offers a yogic explanation for what appears to be a phenomenon similar to the fierce externalization or embodiment of the dark night experience; for him it is a natural progression, and not just a corrective remedy for a wrong or ignorant approach. The end result is not only ascent of consciousness to the Light, freeing the soul, but the descent of Light transforming the lower nature. This is in line with various emerging teachings:

"Most sadhaks of the old type are satisfied with rising into the spiritual or psychic realms and leave this part to itself — but by that it remains unchanged, even if mostly quiescent, and no complete transformation is possible.”

“Hitherto your soul has expressed itself through the mind and its ideals and admirations or through the vital and its higher joys and aspirations; but that it not sufficient to conquer the physical difficulty and enlighten and transform Matter. It is your soul in itself, your psychic being that must come in front, awaken entirely and make the fundamental change.”

“These are things which come about almost inevitably in one degree or another at a certain critical stage through which almost everyone has to pass and which usually lasts for an uncomfortably long time, but which need not be at all conclusive or definitive. Usually, if one persists, it is a period of darkest night before the dawn which comes to every or almost every spiritual aspirant. It is due to a plunge one has to take into the sheer physical consciousness unsupported by any true mental light or by any vital joy in life, for these usually withdraw behind the veil, though they are not, as they seem to be, permanently lost. it is a period when doubt, denial, dryness, greyness and all kindred things come up with a great force and often reign completely for a time. It is after this stage has been successfully crossed that the true light begins to come, the light which is not of the mind but of the spirit. The spiritual light, no doubt, comes to some to a certain extent and to a few to a considerable extent, in the earlier stages, though that is not the case with all — for some have to wait till they can clear out the obstructing stuff in the mind, vital, and physical consciousness, and until then get only a touch here and there. But even at best this earlier spiritual light is never complete until the darkness of the physical consciousness has been faced and overcome. It is not by one’s own fault that one has fallen into this state, it can come when one is trying one’s best to advance. It does not really indicate any radical disability in the nature but certainly it is a hard ordeal and one has to stick very firmly to pass through it. It is difficult to explain these things because the psychological necessity is difficult for the ordinary human reason to understand or to accept.”

“It is always the effect of the physical consciousness being uppermost (so long as it is not entirely changed) that one feels like this — like an ordinary man or worse, altogether in the outer consciousness, the inner consciousness veiled, the action of the yoga power apparently suspended. This happens in the earlier stages also, but it is not quite complete usually then because something of the mind and vital is active in the physical still, or even if the interruption of sadhana is complete, it does not last long and so one does not so much notice it. But when from the mental and vital stage of the yoga one comes down into the physical, this condition which is native to the physical consciousness fully manifests and is persistent for long periods. It happens because one has to come down and deal with this part directly by entering it, — for if that is not done, there can be no complete change in the nature. What has to be done is to understand that it is a stage and to persist in the faith that it will be overcome. If this is done, then it will be easier for the Force, working behind the veil at first, then in front to bring out the yoga consciousness into this outer physical shell and make it luminous and responsive.” (26c)


Brunton explains why such a process must necessarily take time:

"The depth to be penetrated from the surface to the deepest layers of the human psyche is too great to be reached quickly without acute sacrifice and intense anguish." (27)

The ego or individuality is not so much annihilated, however, being itself the product of a long evolution, rather the egoism and false identification dies out and the personal self, which is illusory only in the sense that it has no inherent self-existence, becomes objective to the higher or true Self. Even this sounds too dualistic, as in reality the two become fused as no-separation. According to Ramana Maharshi,

"The 'I' casts off the illusion of 'I' and yet remains as 'I'. Such is the paradox of Self-Realization. The realized do not see any contradiction in it." (Talks)

In the Forty Verses, he says:

"Get at the Heart within by search. The ego bows its head and falls. Then flashes forth another “I”, Not the ego that, but the Self, Supreme, Perfect."

Sastri comments:

"Does this mean that the ego-self is lost for ever? No, the ego is lost, but only to make way for its original, the real Self, to come up to the surface by either using the regenerate ego-self as an instrument or by transforming it to a true reflection so as to make its presence felt on the surface, the effect of which is an experience, a feeling in the ego-self that it is one with its deeper and real Self and that it is this deeper being that has assumed the form of the apparent self in the phenomenal existence." (Sastri, Coll. Works III, 355, cited Nandakumar 20).

Brunton agrees:

"He enters into a state which is certainly not a disappearance of the ego, but rather a kind of divine fellowship of the ego with its source....He loses his ego in the calm serenity of the Overself, yet at the same time it is, mysteriously, still with him....It [the Overself] is a kind of impersonal being but it is not utterly devoid of all individuality....The dictionary defines individuality as separate and distinct existence. Both the ego and the Overself have such an existence. But whereas the ego has this and nothing more, the Overself has this consciousness within the universal existence. That is why we have called it the higher individuality....He as he was vanishes, not into complete annihilation and certainly not into the heaven of a perpetuated ego, but into a higher kind of life shrouded in mystery....The actual experience alone can settle this argument. This is what I found: The ego vanished; the everyday "I" which the world knew and which knew the world was no longer there. But a new and diviner individuality appeared in its place, a consciousness which could say "I AM" and which I recognized to have been my real self all along. It was not lost, merged, or dissolved: it was fully and vividly conscious that it was a point in the universal Mind and so was not apart from that Mind itself." (28)

[For those unfamiliar with PB's unique terminology (Mind, World-Mind, World-Idea, Overself) , please click here for a precise explanation].

Sri Nisargadatta similarly refers to realization of the source of the I AM as a "point in Consciousness."

Whether in ultimate realization there is only One Self, as the Upanishads declare, or distinct Souls, is a matter of ongoing debate. In either case it is a paradoxical realization, i.e., a 'not-two', or the whole of the One Self present as each individual Soul [the "ocean merging into the drop"]. Plotinus prefers to settle this discussion by referring to Soul as a "One-in-Many."

Medieval sage Ibn 'al 'Arabi concurs that the experience is veritably non-dual, without a radical naughting of the individuality required:

"If you know yourself as nothing, then you truly know your Lord. Otherwise, you know him not. [But] you cannot know your Lord by making yourself nothing. Many a wise man claims that in order to know one's Lord one must denude oneself of the signs of one's existence, efface one's identity, finally rid oneself of one's self. This is a mistake. How could a thing that does not exist try to get rid of its existence? ...If you think that to know Allah depends on your ridding yourself of yourself, then you are guilty of attributing partners to Him - the only unforgivable sin — because you are claiming that there is another existence besides Him, the All-Existent: that there is a you and He." (29)

The following quote by Shaikh Mawlay Al Arabi ad Darqawa confirms Ibn 'al' Arabi's insight:

"Extinction also is one of thine attributes. Thou art already extinct, my brother, before thou art extinguished and naught before thou art annihilated. Thou art an illusion in an illusion and a nothingness in a nothingness. When hadst thou Existence that thou mightest be extinguished?" (Martin Lings,A Moslem Saint, p. 137)

But we are getting ahead of ourselves, speaking of the fruit of a true dark night, being yet in the midst of describing it. St. John continues:

"Wherefore the soul that God sets in this tempestuous and horrible night is deserving of great compassion...by reason of the dreadful pain which the soul is suffering, and of the great uncertainty which it has concerning the remedy for it, since it believes..that its evil will never end... It suffers great pain and grief, since there is added to all this (because of the solitude and abandonment caused in it by this dark night) the fact that it finds no consolation or support in any instruction nor in a spiritual master. For, although in many ways the director may show it good reason for being comforted because of the blessings which are contained in these afflictions, it cannot believe him. For it is so greatly absorbed and immersed in the realization of those evils wherein it sees its own miseries so clearly, that it thinks, as its director observes not that which it sees and feels, he is speaking in this manner because he understands it not; and so, instead of comfort, it rather receives fresh affliction, since it believes that its director's advice contains no remedy for its troubles. And, in truth, this is so; for, until the Lord shall have completely purged it after the manner that He wills, no means or remedy is of any service or profit for the relief of its affliction; the more so because the soul is as powerless in this case as one who has been imprisoned in a dark dungeon, and is bound hand and foot, and can neither move nor see, nor feel any favour whether from above or from below, until the spirit is humbled, softened, and purified, and grows so keen and delicate and pure that it can become one with the Spirit of God, according to the degree of union of love which His mercy is pleased to grant it." (30)

Such a process may go on a long time in some cases; there is no way of pre-figuring it. In the alchemical work, Sophic Hydrolith (A Brief Exposition of the Water Stone of the Wise, Commonly Called the Philosopher's Stone), published in English in 1678, we read:

"The old nature is destroyed, dissolved, decomposed, and, in a longer or shorter period of time, transmuting into something else. Such a man is so well digested and melted in the fire of affliction that the despairs of his own strength and looks for help and comfort to the mercy of God alone. In this furnace of the cross, a man, like earthly gold, attains to the true Raven's Head, i.e., loses all beauty and reputation in the eyes of the world; and that not only during forty days and nights, or forty years, but often during his whole life, which is thus often more full of service and suffering than of comfort and joy."

One contemporary writer, in an anonymous post to the internet entitled "Secrets of the Night", highlighted some of these problems facing the soul in the dark night:

"St. John refers frequently to this inner congestion, as like being bound hand and foot and unable to breathe. He uses the Biblical reference of Jonah being swallowed in the belly of the beast to illustrate his point. This psychological congestion has a marked effect physiologically on one's breathing pattern. Breath control is often advocated as an aid to contemplation. Here we have the reverse process whereby the spontaneous contemplative process that is unleashed during the "Dark Night" itself dramatically alters one's breathing process until it is almost fully suspended. One still gradually breathes in but the corresponding breathing out is greatly suspended. So the psychological congestion one feels has a striking physiological counterpart....... One can feel as if drowning or being caught up in an internal earthquake. At other times one feels greatly parched as if one's insides had received a severe overdose of sunburn. The sense of being confined like a hostage in a dark confined space with little freedom for maneuver is often very strong. When these recede one begins to surface a little to restore some kind of normality. However over time one's customary framework of experience is greatly eroded........ It is like a chain reaction. One has to exercise faith to literally survive in the darkness. But this growing inner light only highlights ego restrictions further forcing one into a greater exercise of faith. So the process steadily intensifies......... What is clinically diagnosed as "endogenous depression" is very likely and is associated with the loss of a general sense of meaning in one's life. As the very purpose of the "Dark Night" is to erode one's conceptual frameworks of understanding it is not surprising that this type of depression should occur. Endogenous depression is often diagnosed by the psychiatric profession in purely physiological terms as a chemical imbalance. This is very reductionist. Certainly a chemical imbalance can be associated with the illness. However this is inseparable from changing psychological factors which tend to activate the physiological process. Other psychotic symptoms associated with manic-depression or schizophrenia may well surface at this time. However this raises a key dilemma. To diagnose an authentic "Dark Night" experience in simply pathological terms (though such elements may well be present) is to very much misunderstand the nature of the problem. So people dealing with [those having] the genuine "Dark Night" experience are not likely to see ..and only notice these secondary characteristics. So they are likely to confirm the aspirant's own growing fears that the whole experience has been a tragic mistake."

The breathing problems and other extreme psychic episodes (such as literally going through the experience of Hell, which she later remarked had been very useful for her spiritual growth) are also very evident in the life and writings of St. Teresa of Avila. Other mystics have left similar reports. Their spiritual significance and similarity to perinatal near-death experiences are discussed in two illuminating articles by Christopher Bache. A number of these great trials have definite parallels with primal-type psycho-therapeutic processes, and, as mentioned, pre and peri-natal experiences, yet, while these are often profound, it is my feeling that St. John describes a passage that extends beyond, or confirms a growing redefinition of, the limits of experiential psychology. [To Basche, the peri-natal realm is the borderline between the personal and transpersonal dimensions. For him, the emergence of peri-natal symptomology (pain, suffocation, feelings of annihilation and death) in mystics and spiritual aspirants represents the growing pains of expanded consciousness, the psycho-physical system's throwing off its poisons as it moves to more wholistic stages of consciousness; the work of Stanislov Grof also lies in this area].

The dark night, then, is far more than just an occasional dry patch or depression for the seeker after Truth, but a major and lengthy transformational crisis. Because the beginner who comes upon these writings may mistake his mere backsliding or lukewarmness for entry into such a process, St. John issues several criteria to distinguish between the two.[ Again, these pertain to those who have undergone spiritual practice. It is entirely possible for the dark night to proceed without such prior preparation, and in years to come will undoubtedly do so]. First, the soul finds he can no longer engage in meditation as before. The power he had to do so using his natural faculties has been taken away. Second, in spite of this, he has no inclination towards the worldly pursuits he formerly enjoyed. He feels caught between two worlds, the one no longer wanted, and the other (apparently) not wanting him, as Brunton once described. Third, he finds his only delight in a loving repose in the divine will, and the secret contemplation that he begins to experience, even though all outward signs may suggest he is lost and doing nothing of spiritual value. The fruit of this first dark night, the night of sense (which he calls "bitter and terrible"), and to which relatively many may be called, according to St. John in Bk. 2, Ch. 1, is that "the soul goes about the things of God with much greater freedom and satisfaction of the soul than before it entered the dark night of sense. It now very readily finds in its spirit the most serene and loving contemplation and spiritual sweetness without the labor of meditation." The soul is more respectful, humble, and circumspect regarding the things of God and spiritual life. Much of its natural conceit in such matters is diminished. However, there remain many deep and hidden impurities in the soul, including the root imperfection of egoity itself, that must now be eliminated in the second night, the night of the spirit (which he calls "horrible and awful"), and which, according to the saint, comparatively few will pass through.

At times the suffering may appear so great, and always seemingly greater than before, that ones faith is repeatedly tried to the breaking point, and it cannot prevent the arising feeling that something is terribly wrong, and that one is being destroyed for no reason. This is, however, really par for the course. It is to happen. Brunton also reminds us that such a perception is wrong, that the dark night is not a time of capricious and meaningless suffering, but a grace for removing egoism and rebirthing oneself:

"The "dark night" does more to detach a man from his ego, his interests, and his desires than the rapturous joys and emotional ecstasies. The awful feeling of being separated from and even lost forever to the higher power, works as a hidden training and secret discipline of all personal feelings." (31)

Sant Darshan Singh also speaks of this secret process of grace:

"Even if the Lord seems to withdraw himself from us, we can not give Him up; we have no choice. We are afflicted with a disease and we cannot rest until we are reunited with Him...It is by withdrawing Himself from us, by moving away, that he compels us to follow Him. As we recognize that nothing compares with the joy of his presence, we disengage from our worldly attachments one by one. The suffering and anguish of separation are processes by which we are purified of all worldly desires. Love burns up everything except the Beloved. And as we restlessly wait for the faintest sounds of His coming footsteps, we are being cleansed and recreated from within." (32)

I chose these quotes because of their inherent power, but it must be remembered that in the new, non-dual life that is the result of the dark night the personality remains, along with bodily desires and preferences and the like, and in this there is nothing wrong. Progressively over time (and given enough time), even divine archetypal qualities may manifest. But the important thing is that the whole world-view has done a radical three-sixty.

Brunton concurs with Darshan Singh that the soul has indeed reached the point of no return:

"The long hard search for the soul [by 'soul' Brunton means not 'ego-soul' or 'personal soul', but infinite consciousness-being] asks too much endurance of self-discipline from its pursuers ever to be more than it has been in the past — an undertaking for the few driven by an inner urge. Hence it is not so much a voluntary undertaking as an involuntary one. The questers cannot help themselves. It is not that they necessarily have the strength to endure so much as they have no choice except to endure." (33)

In the midst of such an experience Henry Suso was led to exclaim, "You ask where is my resignation? But tell me first, where is the infinite pity of God for His friends?...Alas my God! What art thou about to do unto me, I thought that I had had enough by that time. Show me how much suffering I have before me." The Lord said, "It is better for thee not to know."

St. John further describes this bitter period of purification with the following metaphor:

"This purgative and loving knowledge or Divine light whereof we here speak acts upon the soul which it is purging and preparing for perfect union with it in the same way as fire acts upon a log of wood in order to transform it into itself; for maternal fire, acting upon wood, first of all begins to dry it, by driving out its moisture and causing it to shed the water which it contains within itself. Then it begins to make it black, dark and unsightly, and even to give forth a bad odor, and, as it dries it little by little, it brings out and drives away all the dark and unsightly accidents which are contrary to the nature of fire. And, finally, it begins to kindle it externally and give it heat, and at last transforms it into itself and makes it as beautiful as fire....It drives out its unsightliness, and makes itself black and dark, so that it seems worse than before and more unsightly and abominable than it was wont to be. For this Divine purgation is removing all the evil and vicious humours which the soul has never perceived because they have been so deeply rooted and grounded in it; it has never realized, in fact, that it has had so much evil within itself....This enkindling of love, however, is not always felt by the soul, but only at times when contemplation assails it less vehemently, for then it has occasion to see, and even to enjoy, the work which is being wrought in it, and which is then revealed to it. For it seems that the worker takes his hand from the work, and draws the iron out of the furnace, in order that something of the work which is being done may be seen; and then there is occasion for the soul to observe in itself the good which it saw not while the work was going on. In the same way, when the flame ceases to attack the wood, it is possible to see how much of it has been enkindled." (34)

Fenelon says, "One does not begin to know and to feel one’s spiritual miseries until they begin to be cured."

St. John is saying that this entire process is not one of unbroken suffering, but that there will be brief periods when the person is restored to a more freer state of communion with the spirit than before, in which it is then almost convinced that its troubles are over, and it sees the value of what it has gone through, but these periods will not last, if it is to be a true dark night. Still, from time to time the maturing practitioner may be graced with spiritual glimpses such that, utterly poverty-stricken though his soul may be, he realizes in a very real sense it is like a dream and has little to do with his true Self, leading him to confess with Santideva:

"The thought of Enlightenment has arisen within me I know not how even as a gem might be gotten by a blind man from a dunghill."

and with the author of the Rubaiyat:

"Though pearls in praise of God I never strung, though dust of sin lies clotted on my brow, yet I will not despair of mercy. When did Omar argue that the One was two?"

While intermittently enjoying such graces, however, he continues to endure the plight of a lover, feeling the Lord toying with him while drawing him ever closer. As a sword, however, is tempered by repeatedly being placed into the fire and then cooled, so, too, says St. John, will the soul be repeatedly returned to even worse states of poverty and purgation, where it will be filled with

"spiritual pain and anguish in all its deep affections and energies, to an extant surpassing all possibility of exaggeration...The spirit experiences pain and sighing so deep that they cause it vehement spiritual groans and cries, to which at times it gives vocal expression; when it has the necessary strength and power it dissolves into tears, although this relief comes but seldom." (35)

"And to this is added the remembrance of times of prosperity now past; for as a rule souls that enter this night have had many consolations from God, and have rendered Him many services, and it causes them the greater grief to see that they are far removed from that happiness, and unable to enter into it."(36)

Brunton states:

"The Dark Night is not the result of any physical suffering or personal misfortune: it comes from a subtler cause. It induces a depression of enormous weight...The sombre loneliness experienced during the Dark Night of the Soul is unique. No other kind of loneliness duplicates it either in nature or acuteness... It creates the feeling of absolute rejection, of being an outcast...A terrible inner numbness, an unbearable emptiness, is a prominent feature of the spiritual dark night...The situation is really paradoxical and beyond correct appraisal by the conscious mind, certainly by the suffering ego. He is being made to learn, by the severest experience, that the divine reality must not be confused with his conscious reactions to it, nor with his mental reactions to it, nor even with his emotional reactions to it, that it belongs to an unknown and unknowable realm that transcends human faculties and defies human perceptions" (37)

"The life of faith is nothing but the continual pursuit of God through everything that disguises, disfigures, destroys, and, so to say, annihilates him," says Jean-Pierre de Caussade, in Abandonment to Divine Providence. He continues, agreeing with Brunton on the transcendent nature of the divine:

"This complete deprivation which reduces us to acts of bare faith and of pure love alone, is the final disposition necessary for perfect union. It is a true death to self; a death very inward, very crucifying, very difficult to bear, but it is soon rewarded by a resurrection, after which one lives only for God and of God...After the soul has mounted the first steps in the ladder of perfection, it can scarcely make any progress except by the way of privation and nudity of spirit, of annihilation and death of all created things, even of those that are spiritual. Only on this condition can it be perfectly united to God Who can neither be felt, known, or seen....." (Book Six, Letter VII)

It is a curious thing, however, that after experiencing the 'heavy hand of the Lord' for some time, one actually feels cast adrift when it is absent. St. John continues:

"But in the midst of these dark and loving afflictions the soul feels within itself a certain companionship and strength, which bears it company and so greatly strengthens it that, if this burden of grievous darkness be taken away, it often feels itself to be alone, empty, and weak. The cause of this is that, as the strength and efficacy of the soul were derived and communicated passively from the dark fire of love which assailed it, it follows that, when that fire ceases to assail it, the darkness and power and heat of love cease in the soul." (38)

Once again, St. John offers this hope and consolation:

"Therefore, O spiritual soul, when thy seest thy desire obscured, thy affections arid and constrained, and thy faculties bereft of their capacity for any interior exercise, be not afflicted by this, but rather consider it a great happiness, since God is freeing thee from thyself and taking the matter from thy hands. For with those hands, however well they may serve thee, thou wouldst never labour so effectively, so perfectly, and so securely..as now, when God takes thy hand and guides thee in the darkness, as though thou wert blind, to an end and by a way which thou knowest not." (39)

Brunton likewise explains:

"If the Overself did not lead him into and through the final dark night, where he becomes as helpless as an infant, as bereft of interior personal possessions as a destitute pauper, how else would he learn that it is not by his own powers and capacities that he can rise at last into enduring illumination?" (40)

The Vissudhimagga, a Buddhist manual of meditation practice, calls the difficult purifications that spiritual aspirants go through as the core of their being is slowly undone the "Higher Realizations."

An episode in the life of Dodrupchen Jigme Thrinle Ozer, an advanced Tibetan Tulku, illustrates this phenomenon from another angle. On a three-year meditation retreat he experienced a terrible ordeal:

 

"After a month or so, a great shaking up (Lhong Ch'a) arose in him. It became hard for him to stop the turbulent waves of thoughts, emotions, and illusions. He now started having disturbances of the life-force energy (Srog rLung), symptoms that brought him to the brink of insanity. All appearances arose as enemies. He even saw fearful animals in his teapot. He felt he was involved in fighting with weapons. One night in a dream he heard a frightening shout, and he felt that it almost split his heart. Even after he awoke, he kept hearing the same cry and then saw a pillar like dark light linking the ground and the sky. His body was trembling violently. He felt an unbearable terror and feared that the sky and earth were being turned upside down. But then in an instant, all the disturbing appearances dissolved into himself, the 'I', which was merely projecting and experiencing all those appearances. Then the concept of 'I' was also gone beyond any elaboration. The fearful mind and the objects of fear all had merged into one taste, the taste of ultimate nature, the total openness."

 

The author of the book from which this biographical account was taken explains:

"Just before reaching a high realization, it is normal for many meditators to experience the final mental, emotional, and habitual struggles in various forms or degrees of temptations, fearful illusions, threatening sounds, or painful feelings. Many great masters have had the same kinds of experiences just before they entered high states of realization. If you do not succumb to these kinds of last-minute disturbances created by hidden subtle habits and get beyond all those final encounters by remaining in the realized nature, like shaking the dust from a rug for good, you will attain total freedom from mental and emotional obscurations with their traces. A person having a so-called smooth meditative experience might think, 'I am doing so well that I have no shaking-up experiences,' but the truth could be that he has not yet destroyed his mental and emotional defilements and their habits from the root." (40a)

De Caussade, in Abandonment to Divine Providence, wrote insightfully on inward destitution , death of self-love and mystical death:

 

"The loss of hope causes you more grief than any other trial. I can well understand this, for, as during your life you find yourself deprived of everything that could give you the least help, so you imagine that at the hour of your death you will be in a state of fearful destitution. Ah! this is indeed a misery, and for this I pity you far more than for your other sufferings. Allow me, with the help of God’s grace, to endeavour to set this trouble in its true light and so to cure you. What you want, my dear Sister, is to find support and comfort in yourself and your good works. Well, this is precisely what God does not wish, and what He cannot endure in souls aspiring after perfection. What! lean upon yourself? count on your works? Could self-love, pride, and perversity have a more miserable fruit? It is to deliver them from this that God makes all chosen souls pass through a fearful time of poverty, misery and nothingness. He desires to destroy in them gradually all the help and confidence they derive from themselves, to take away every expedient so that He may be their sole support, their confidence, their hope, their only resource."

 

"I know how much suffering this operation entails. The poor soul feels as if it would become utterly annihilated, but for all that, it is only nearer the true life. In fact the more we realize our nothingness the nearer we are to truth, since we were made from nothing, and drawn out of it by the pure goodness of our Lord. We ought therefore to remember this continually, in order to render by our voluntary annihilation a continual homage to the greatness and infinity of our Creator. Nothing is more pleasing to God than this homage, nothing could make us more certain of His friendship, while at the same time nothing so much wounds our self-love. It is a holocaust in which it is completely consumed by the fire of divine love. You must not then be surprised at the violent resistance it offers, especially when the soul experiences mortal anguish in receiving the death-blow to this self-love. The suffering one feels then is like that of a person in agony, and it is only through this painful agony and by the spiritual death which follows it that one can arrive at the fullness of divine life and an intimate union with God."

 

"God may possibly allow you to think that this painful state is going to last you your life-time, in order to give you an opportunity of making Him a more complete sacrifice. Do not waver, do not hesitate for a single moment, sacrifice all! Abandon yourself without reserve, without limitation to Him, by Whom you imagine yourself abandoned."

 

"Remember that God sees in the depths of your heart all your most secret desires. This assurance should be sufficient for you; a cry hidden is of the same value as a cry uttered, says the Bishop of Meaux. Leave off these reflexions and continual self-examinations about what you do, or leave undone; you have abandoned yourself entirely to God, and given yourself to Him over and over again; you must not take back your offering. Leave the care of everything to Him. The comparison you make is very just; God ties your hands and feet to be able to carry on His work without interference; and you do nothing but struggle, and make every effort, but in vain, to break these sacred bonds, and to work yourself according to your own inclination. What infidelity! God requires no other work of you but to remain peacefully in your chains and weakness."(Book Seven, Letters I,IX,XII)

Maulana Rumi, in his Mathnawi, wrote:

Your anguish is seeking a way to attain to Me; yesterday evening I heard your deep sighs. And I am able, without any delay, to give you access, to show you a way of passage, to deliver you from this whirlpool of time, that you might set your foot upon the treasure of union with Me; but the sweetness and delights of the resting place are in proportion to the pain of the journey. Only then will you enjoy your native town and your kinsfolk, when you have suffered the anguish of exile." (The Pocket Rumi, ed. Kabir Helminski, p. 160)

Ramana Maharshi similarly advised:

"The Higher Power knows what to do and how to do it. Trust it." (41)

Further elegantly portraying the helplessness and bewilderment of the soul at this stage, de Caussade continues:

"God hidden in his veils gives himself with his grace in an altogether unknown way, for the soul feels nothing but feebleness under its crosses, disgust with its obligations, while its attractions are only to very commonplace exercises. The idea which it has formed of sanctity reproaches it internally with these low and contemptible dispositions. All the saints lives condemn it. It knows nothing with which to defend itself; it has light to see a sanctity which, however, brings it desolation, for it has no strength to rise to it, and does not recognize its weakness as divine order, but as its own cowardice....Experience shows us that nothing so much as this apparent loss inflames the desire of the soul for union with the divine will. What profound sorrow for the soul!...no consolation is possible....To ravish God from a heart longing for nothing but God, what a secret of love!

[Sant Darshan Singh referred to this apparent spurning by the Beloved in the following verse, “What an irony, Darshan! In the tavern master’s presence, those parched with thirst gain no entrance.” Love’s Last Madness, p. 89]

"It is indeed a great secret, for by this way and by this way only are pure faith and pure hope established in the soul...Everything one does seems the fruit of chance and natural inclination. Everything that happens humiliates the soul...Others are always admired, but we feel miles below them and put to confusion by their every action....The divine action seems to keep us far from virtue only to plunge the soul into a profound humility. But this humility does not seem to be such to the soul, it thinks it is suffering from the rigours of pure justice."

"The most remarkable thing about this is that in the eyes of those whom God does not enlighten concerning its path, the soul seems animated by quite contrary feelings such as obstinacy, disobedience, contempt and indignation that cannot be cured, and the more the soul tries to reform these disorders, the worse they become, for they are the most proper means to detach it from itself and fit it for divine union. From this painful trial comes the principal merit of self-abandonment. In the duty of the present moment everything is of a nature to draw the soul away from its path of love and simple obedience. It needs heroic courage and love to stand firm in its simple, active fidelity and sing its part with assurance, while grace sings its own with different melodies and in different keys which do nothing but convince the soul that it is deceived and lost." (42)

If the 'soul' can rest in this state, without struggling to get out (which, once fully in this state, it really cannot do), something great will happen.

De Caussade then sums up the Divine purpose in all of this as the mortification of the personal will, or self-love in all its disguises, and how His “chosen spouses” seemingly receive the harshest treatment:

“It is the usual way by which God conducts His chosen spouses to the perfection He destines them to attain; and I have known very few whom He has not judged it necessary to guide along this path when they give themselves up entirely to Him. Why then are there such painful states? Why this heaviness of heart which takes the pleasure out of everything? and this depression which makes life insupportable? Why? It is to destroy, in those souls destined to a perfect union with God, a certain base of hidden presumption; to attack pride in its last retreat; to overwhelm with bitterness that cursed self-love which is only content with what gives it pleasure; until at last, not knowing where to turn, it dies for want of food and attention, as a fire goes out for want of fuel to feed it. This death, however, is not the work of a moment; a great quantity of water is required to extinguish a great conflagration. Self-love is like a many-headed hydra, and its heads have to be cut off successively. It has many lives that have to be destroyed one after the other if one wishes to be completely delivered. You have, doubtless, obtained a great advantage by making it die to nature and the senses; but do not dream that you are entirely set free from its obsessions. It recovers from this first defeat and renews its attacks on another ground. More subtle in future, it begins again on that which is sensible in devotion; and it is to be feared that this second attempt, apparently much less crude, and more justifiable than its predecessor, is also much more powerful. Nevertheless, pure love cannot put up with the one any more than with the other. God cannot suffer sensible consolations to share a heart that belongs to Him. What then will happen? If less privileged souls are in question, for whom God has not such a jealous love, He allows them a peaceful enjoyment of these holy pleasures, and contents Himself with the sacrifice they have made of the pleasures of sense. This is, in fact, the ordinary course with devout persons, whose piety is somewhat mixed with a certain amount of self-seeking. Assuredly God does not approve of their defects; but, as they have received fewer graces, He is less exacting in the matter of perfection. These are the ordinary spouses of an inferior rank, whose beauty needs not to be so irreproachable, for they have not the power to wound His divine heart so keenly; but He has far other requirements, as He has quite other designs with regard to His chosen spouses. The jealousy of His love equals its tenderness. Desiring to give Himself entirely to them, He wishes also to possess their whole heart without division. Therefore He would not be satisfied with the exterior crosses and pains which detach from creatures but desires to detach them from themselves, and to destroy in them to the last fibre that self-love which is rooted in feelings of devotion, is supported and nourished by them, and finds its satisfaction in them. To effect this second death He withdraws all consolation, all pleasure, all interior help, insomuch that the poor soul finds itself as though suspended between Heaven and earth, without the consolations of the one, nor the comforts of the other. For a human being who cannot exist without pleasure and without love, this seems a sort of annihilation. Nothing then remains for him but to attach himself — not with the heart which no longer feels anything, but with the essence of the soul — to God alone, whom he knows and perceives by bare faith in an obscure manner. Oh! it is then that the soul, perfectly purified by this two-fold death, enters into a spiritual alliance with God, and possesses Him in the pure delights of purified love; which never could have been the case if its spiritual taste had not been doubly purified. (Book Seven, Letter XIV)

"God, felt, enjoyed, and giving pleasure, is truly God; but He bestows gifts for which the soul flatters itself; but God in darkness, in privations, in destitution, in unconsciousness, is God alone, and as it were, naked. This, however, is a little hard on self-love, that enemy of God, of our own souls, and of all good; and it is by the force of these blows that it is finally put to death in us. (Book Seven, Letter XV)

"One must never take the extreme expressions made use of by orthodox writers quite rigidly, but enter into the meaning and thought of the authors. One ought, without doubt, to prevent good souls from making use of expressions, coolly and with premeditation, which seem to savour of despair; but it would be unjust to condemn those who, driven almost out of their senses by the violence of their trials, speak and act as if they had no hope of eternal happiness. It does not do to feel scandalized at their language, nor to imagine it actuated by a real despair. It is really rather a feeling of confidence hidden in the depths of the soul which makes them speak thus; just as criminals have been sometimes known to present themselves before their sovereign with a rope round their neck saying that they gave themselves up to all the severity of his justice. Do you imagine that it was despair that made them speak in this way? or was it not rather an excess of confidence in the prince’s goodness? And, as a rule, they obtain their pardon by the excess of their sorrow, repentance, and confidence. Will God then be less good with regard to souls who abandon themselves to Him for time and for eternity? Will He take literally expressions which, in the main, only signify transports of abandonment and confidence?” (Book Seven, Letter XVI)

"To begin with you must know that these trials, which are more grievous than any others, are those which God usually makes those souls whom He most loves undergo. At this time I have under my direction some who, in this respect, are in an indescribable state, the mere account of which would horrify you. The entire interior nature is encompassed with darkness, and buried in mud. God retains and upholds the free will, that higher faculty of the soul, without affording it the slightest feeling of support. He enlightens it with the entirely spiritual light of pure faith in which the senses have no part; and the poor soul, abandoned, as it appears, to its misery, delivered over as a prey to the malice of devils, is reduced to a most frightful desolation, and endures a real martyrdom." (Book Seven, Letter VIII)

Steven Harrison speaks to the overall confusion one inevitably faces:

"We have misunderstood our confusion when we think there is an answer to it. The confusion is not a result of questions that are too hard, but rather a questioner who is disintegrating. Confusion is the introduction to true intelligence." (43)

St. Francis de Sales, in Book IX, Chapter 3, of Treatise on the Love of God, speaks with subtle sophistication on union with God through spiritual afflictions and resignation of the soul to the divine will:

"Now of all the efforts of perfect love, that which is made by acquiescence of spirit in spiritual tribulations, is doubtless the purest and noblest. The Blessed (S.) Angela of Foligno makes an admirable description of the interior pangs which she sometimes felt, saying that her soul was tortured like to a man who being tied hand and foot, should be hung by the neck without being strangled, and should hang in this state betwixt life and death, without hope of help, and unable to support himself by his feet or assist himself with his hands, or to cry out, or even to sigh or moan. It is thus, Theotimus: the soul is sometimes so overcharged with interior afflictions, that all her faculties and powers are oppressed by the privation of all that might relieve her, and by the apprehension and feeling of all that can be grievous to her. So that in imitation of her Saviour she begins to be troubled, to fear, and to be dismayed, and at length to sadden with a sadness like to that of the dying. Whence she may rightly say: My soul is sorrowful even unto death; and with the consent of her whole interior, she desires, petitions, supplicates, that, if it be possible, this chalice may pass, having nothing left her save the very supreme point of her spirit, which cleaving hard to the divine will and good-pleasure, says in a most sincere submission: O eternal Father, Ah! not mine but thy will be done. And the main point is that the soul makes this resignation amidst such a world of troubles, contradictions, repugnances that she hardly even perceives that she makes it; at least it seems done so coldly as not to be done from her heart nor properly, since what then goes on for the divine good-pleasure is not only done without delight and contentment, but even against the pleasure and liking of all the rest of the heart, which is permitted by love to bemoan itself... and to sigh out all the lamentations of Job and Jeremias, yet with the condition that a sacred peace be still preserved in the depths of the heart, in the highest and most delicate point of the spirit. But this submissive peace is not tender or sweet, it is scarcely sensible, though sincere, strong, unchangeable and full of love, and it seems to have betaken itself to the very end of the spirit as into the donjon-keep of the fort, where it remains in its high courage, though all the rest be taken and oppressed with sorrow: and in this case, the more love is deprived of all helps, and cut off from the aid of the powers and faculties of the soul, the more it is to be esteemed for preserving its fidelity so constantly."

Michael Molinos, whose Spiritual Guide came so close to the truth that it provoked a Papal Decree in 1687 proclaiming, "Anyone found in possession of this book will be excommunicated," also wrote on this time of trial:

"When God crucifies in the inmost part of the Soul, no creature is able to comfort it; nay, comforts are but grievous and bitter crosses to it. And if it be well-instructed in the laws and discipline of the ways of pure love, in the time of great desolation and inward troubles, it ought not to seek abroad among the creatures for comfort, nor lament itself with them, nor will it be able to read spiritual books: because this is a secret way of getting at a distance from suffering."(44)

Teutonic mystic and visionary Jacob Boehme (1575-1624), who wrote much extolling the glory of communing with the Eternal Word or Music and Spirit of God through inner meditation, practicing "holy abstraction and ceasing from self-thinking and self-willing" [see "Jacob Boehme and His Teachings," in Sat Sandesh, July, 1976], nevertheless, in The Way to Christ, Treatise Eight, in a way guaranteed to raise the hair on the back of ones neck, wrote of pain, fear and desolation on this path. As St. John lived in Spain from 1542-1591, it is not likely that Boehme would not have had access to his books, so it seems that he came to this experience on his own, either before or after his initial illumination:

"The soul's will groaned for God but the outgoing senses that were to press into God were scattered and were not able to reach the power of God. This frightened the poor soul still more in that it could not bring its desire to God, so it began to pray more strongly. But the devil in his desire...awakened the evil characteristics so that false inclinations rose up and went in where they had earlier found happiness."

"The poor soul wished to go to God with its will, and was in much anguish, but its thoughts all fled from God to earthly things, and did not want to go to God. The soul groaned and cried to God, but it appeared to it that it had been completely cast out from before God's face, as if it could not gain one glance of grace, and stood in vain anguish as well as great fear and dread."
"The soul, yearned only for the first fatherland from which it originally came, yet it found itself far away from it, in great rejection and misery, and it did not know what to do. It thought it would enter into itself to pray more fervently, but the devil came into it and held it so that it might not enter greater inclination and repentance."
"The devil awoke earthly lust in its heart so that these inclinations upheld their false natural rights and defended themselves against the soul's will and desires because they did not wish to die to their own will and lust but to keep their temporal pleasure and they held the poor soul captive in their false desire so that it could not awaken itself no matter how much it groaned and sighed for God's grace."
"Your ability is completely gone, even as a dry twig cannot gain sap and sprout by its own ability so that it might enjoy itself again among the trees, likewise you cannot reach God by your own abilities; you cannot change yourself into your first angelic form, for you are dry and dead to God as a twig without life or sap. You are only an anxious and dry hunger."
"And as it stood in such groans and tears it was drawn to the abyss of horror as if it stood before hell's gate and was to perish immediately...in such concern it began to sigh inwardly and to cry to the mercy of God. And then it began to sink itself into the purest mercy of God..."

"[But] the divine light..grew faint and only glimmered in the internal ground as a mould-fire so that reason saw itself as foolish and abandoned. It did not know how this happened, or if it was really true that it had tasted of the divine light of grace; yet it could not stop from thinking this...
   The reason of its will was broken and the evil inherited inclinations were more and more killed and this caused much pain to the nature of the body making it weak and sick, yet this was not a natural illness but a melancholy of the earthly nature of the body. Thus the false lusts were broken."

In comparison to Boehme speaking of the soul's plaintive yearning for its "first fatherland", St. Therese of Lisieux, in acute trial in the last year of her life, which she described as a black hole, darkness, and a thick wall separating her from God, spoke of giving up hope for the glorious "fatherland" of light, and abandoning oneself to "nothingness":

"You believe that one day you will walk out of this fog which surrounds you! Advance, advance; rejoice in death which will give you not what you hope for but a night still more profound, the night of nothingness.....My smile is a great mantle, which covers a multitude of sufferings. The sisters and people think that my faith, my hope and my love are profoundly fulfilling me, and that intimacy with God and union with His will, live in my heart. If they only knew...only blind faith moves me along, because the truth is that all is darkness for me. Sometimes the agony of desolation is so great and at the same time the living hope for The Absent so profound that the only prayer I am able to recite is 'Sacred Heart of Jesus I place all my trust in You. I will quench your thirst for souls.'" (Last Conversations)

Lest we think that these saints are exaggerating, or suffered unnecessarily due to starting spiritual life with a wrong foundation of understanding, which might have been avoided had he been trained in an “awareness” school such as Vipassana Buddhism, or perhaps Advaita Vedanta, let us think again. Perhaps the specifics of the dark night in its fullest extent as described by St. John are unique and rare, and to some extent old school medieval, but stripping away the cultural and religious limitations of his tradition, it remains highly likely that the process he describes, in one form or another, is unavoidable at some point on the path, if one has truly petitioned the higher power for its help, or is simply ripened to the point where it is time. This is partly because our ignorance is generally so thick that we cannot but conceive of the goal as some “thing” that will be “personally” attained. We confuse the personality with the ego and the ego (subtler and spiritualized) with the Soul. This identification will generally not go down without a struggle — even if we realize this fact, and try not to struggle — although the ordeal can be quickened considerably by association with a true adept or sage, if one is fortunate enough to find one. Then much of the drama associated with mental and imaginative preconceptions, based on wrong understanding, may sometimes be seen through or bypassed. But then again, it may not be a matter of choice, and de Caussade reminds us:

"An angel from heaven himself could not succeed in giving you either light or consolation. There is no intelligence nor power in the world capable of wresting from the hand of God a soul He has seized in the rigour of His mercy to purify it by suffering."

And:

"The heart is so full that it cannot be emptied all at once. It is a work of time, and as the space is enlarged God fills it gradually; but we shall not experience what St. Paul calls the plenitude of God until we are completely empty of all else. This will take a long time, and will require many trials to accomplish the work. Be patient and faithful. Have confidence and you will see the gift of God, and will experience His mercy....You are convinced that you do nothing, that you merit nothing; and thus you are sunk in your nothingness. Oh! How well off you are! Because the moment you are convinced of your own nothingness you become united to God Who is all in all. Oh! What a treasure you have found in your nothingness! It is a state you must necessarily pass through before God can fill your soul; for our souls must be emptied of all created things before they can be filled with the Holy Spirit of God." (Spiritual Counsels, Book Six, Letter V; Book Seven, Letter XXIII)

Some may object, 'how can what is 'empty' and unreal be filled with anything? It is indeed a paradox: the Divine 'Nothingness' or Emptiness within ourselves is not revealed in fullness until we have first seen the nothingness and emptiness of ourselves. We will save this discussion for a later time [see "Kenosis and Metanoia" on this website]; for now suffice it to say that even the great Nagarjuna, seminal influence for the 'emptiness' doctrine of Buddhism, had this to say relating to this matter:

"That which hurts, but is profitable, is drunk by the wise like medicine; for the result, afterwards obtained, becomes incomparable."

The goal is great, and so is the sacred ordeal, especially if one has asked for truth, and not just inner peace. (44a)

It is might also be likely that there will be specific forms of 'dark night' experience corresponding to archetypal stages on the path. These may be such as the four stages (stream-enterer, once-returner, non-returner, and arhat) suggested by the Buddha and leading subsequently to non-dual buddhahood. These stages are loosely related to esoteric initiations relating to transcendence or eradication of physical, emotional, mental, and then intuitional ('buddhic')/spiritual egoic karma. Thus, the dark night at stage two — emotional/psychic purification — will be often intense, but different in quality and character from a dark night — the 'great death' — of stage four. This is a major issue and may be dealt with in a sequel to this article [For now, more on this in "The Depths of This Thing", and "Not a One-Shot" on this website].

Non-dualist Douglas Harding wrote of going through a period of the dark night many years after having taught others about his awakening to what he called "headlessness." He expressed that having spiritual glimpses was easy, but surrender of the personal will most difficult.

This correlates to what non-dual teacher Adyashanti in The End of Your World says about awakening proceeding from the head to the heart to the gut. An initial awakening at the level of the understanding, while profound and important, must proceed to enlighten all aspects of the being, including the emotions (heart) and the personal will (the "gut," the basic survival instinct or "existential grip"). This was also discussed in the Lankavatara Sutra, where it speaks of a 'fundamental turnabout in the deep-seat of understanding', as well as an 'inconceivable transformation death of the Bodhisattva's individualized will-control'. Bob Ferguson (TAT, from "Why We Don't Get It?”) wrote:

"Only through the simple process of self-observation can this thing called the "self" be seen. We may need years of looking at it, seeing why it does what it does, thinks what it thinks, until we know it well enough to cease to believe in it. All of our energy, for all of our life, has been poured into this thing: our personality, the little self, the ego. A few moments of seeing, while of monumental importance, will not cause its complete demise. This demise is what we fear most; for it is seen by the thought-pattern we call "us" as death. At some point, the initial joy of seeing will turn to the pain of ego-death, as the Truth becomes known. It will not be pleasant. In fact, the pain and horror felt by the ego as it faces its own death, will be felt as yours."

These profound developments, in my opinion, are the fundamental province of the dark night of the soul, call it by whatever name you like. Because soul has many connotations, and we are not talking about simply (or not so simply) purifying the dross of the personality so one can get to a heavenly place, but the undermining of all of that, simply the 'dark night', 'dark night of the person,' or 'dark night of the being', may be more useful terms for our time. If one can hold on, without leaping out of the fire, and allowing any and all drama to arise, without blame, even if one feels extremely blameworthy, he will get through, so to speak. Actually he will and he won't. To say, however, like some modern teachers do, that all problems come from 'a simple misunderstanding,' or because of the existence of 'thoughts, beliefs, or personal stories', is seriously underestimating the depth of the quest. While seeing through some of that may be enough to produce an 'awakening', the true alchemical process known to the ancients as 'coagulation' goes much farther, and relieves even the awakened being — who now has more strength to deal with it — of deep cellular imprinting and what might be called 'primal insanity', even while the true light penetrates and comes alive in and through the being more and more. Brunton elaborates further on why such a process of descent is important, and some of its ramifications:

"The need of predetermining at the beginning of the path whether to be a philosopher (i.e., sage) or a mystic arises only for the particular reincarnation where attainment is made. Thereafter, whether on this earth or another, the need of fulfilling the philosophic evolution will be impressed upon him by Nature." (45)

"Beware what you pray for. Do not ask for the truth unless you know what it means and all that it implies and nevertheless are still willing to accept it. For if it is granted to you, it will not only purge the evil out of you but later purify the egoism from your mind. Will you be able to endure this loss, which is unlikely to be a painless one?" (46)
"Whoever invokes the Overself's Grace ought to be informed that he is also invoking a long period of self-improving toil and self-purifying affliction necessary to fit him to receive that Grace....If he offers himself to the divine, the divine will take him at his word, provided the word is sincerely meant. The response to this offer when it comes is what is called Grace...Many who ask for Grace would be shocked to hear that the troubles which may have followed their request were actually the very form in which the higher power granted the Grace to them." (47)
"There is.. an unpredictable element in the pattern of human life, which increases rather than decreases as the quality of that life rises above average. We see it markedly in the case of a maturing aspirant who has to undergo tests and endure ordeals which have no karmic origin but which are put across his path by his own higher self for the purpose of a swifter forward movement. They are intended to promote and not delay his growth, to accelerate and not impede his development. But they will achieve this purpose only if he recognizes their true aim." (48)

 

Sant Darshan Singh writes:

"We are people of little faith and fail to recognize and appreciate the hand which guides and which sustains. Hazur (Baba Sawan Singh Ji) used to say that once a saint has taken a soul under his wing, he is keen to compress the progress of twenty births into a single one. And if we desire to pack the accomplishments of twenty lives into a single one, we must pay for it." (49)

 

PB similar writes:

"If his evolutionary need should require it, he will be harassed by troubles to make him less attached to the world, or by sickness to make him less attached to the body. It is then not so much a matter of receiving self-earned destiny as of satisfying that need. Both coincide usually but not always and not necessarily. Nor does this happen with the ordinary man so much as it does with the questing man, for the latter has asked or prayed for speedier development." (49a)

Santideva reminds us in his Bodhicharyavatara, that the price for such a rich reward is actually less than that of its alternative:

”For myriads of ages, measureless, uncounted,
Your body has been cut, impaled,
Burned, flayed — for times past numbering!

 Yet none of this has brought you to buddhahood.
The hardships suffered on the path to buddhahood
  Are different, for their span is limited,

 And likened to the pain of an incision
Made to cure the harm of hidden ailments.” (50)

How does the "union with God" spoken of by these mystics compare with the "no-self" realization espoused in Advaita and Buddhism?

This is a complex question, and attempts to examine it in detail are given in the articles, "Non-Duality and the Soul," "The Primordial Ground," "Dual Non-Dualism," and others in this website. For instance, Paul Brunton felt that the union with God that mystics talk about is often "only" ("only" in quotes because even this is a lofty realization) union with their divine Soul, but not the Absolute, the latter being beyond any categorization of union. Others have advanced the argument that the transformation described by St. John does not in itself produce the non-dual enlightenment or self-realization such as described in the highest forms of Buddhism or by an advaitic sage like Ramana Maharshi, but, as mentioned, a state of mystic union, even if it is of the highest type, such as nirvikalpa samadhi or its Christian equivalent (if there is one). While such an experience is an evolutionary advance which under no circumstances should be minimized, this may not be an insignificant point. It is true that St. John did not have access to the non-dual texts found in eastern teachings. However, this much we do know. St. John himself writes of four nights. The Ascent of Mt Carmel is about the active nights of sense and spirit (mostly the former), while the Dark Night of the Soul is about the passive ones, where a higher power takes the major role. It is probably not possible for any of us to say what level St. John had access to, because (1) the first  book of the Dark Night book is devoted to only the first of eight stanzas in his summary poem (which stanza he says pertains to the passive night of sense), and book number two covers only stanza number two which is devoted to the much deeper passive night of the spirit — where the book then breaks off unfinished, after him saying there is much more to say about the unfoldment of this divine union. He also had said that he would devote the majority of his writing to this deepest stage, as 'very little of it has been written or experienced so far', while the night of sense (which can get extreme and difficult also, but not near as much as the former) 'there has been much written'. So perhaps if St. John were here today he might not only complete his work but also speak to us in more modern language and resolve our doubts. Indeed, the saint confessed to limiting his reading to four or five books, of which one was Contra Haereses, and confined his writing by his proclaimed intention "not to depart from the sound sense and doctrine of our Holy Mother the Catholic Church." (51) It is quite possible, however, that he circumscribed his exposition of more esoteric teachings in order not to further arouse the hostility of the established church hierarchy, for which he had been thrown into prison. Many true mystics throughout history have unfortunately faced the same problem. (One is reminded of historian Will Durant's remark, "the Church has persecuted only two groups of people: those who did not follow the teachings of Jesus, and those who did").

St. John certainly did seem to be intimately familiar with and write about a realization beyond ego and even the exclusive pursuit of soul interiorization. Evelyn Underhill in her classic work, Mysticism, wrote:

"The self which comes forth from the night is no separated self, conscious of the illumination of the Uncreated Light, but the New Man, the transmuted humanity, whose life is one with the Absolute Life of God." (52)

Hubert Benoit also feels this way:

“When St. John of the Cross passes beyond his mystical compensation, when he detaches himself from the image of ‘God’ after this image has been as far as possible rendered impersonal, he does not feel attached to the image ‘Ego’ from which the image ‘God’ drew its apparent Reality; he does not feel attached to anything. He no longer feels anything; it is the ‘Night’ in which nothing exists any longer in connexion with what can be felt or thought. But there is still an ultimate attachment to the Ego which links together all the powers of the being, an ultimate and invisible compensation. It is passing-beyond this invisible compensation which is the veritable detachment, total and instantaneous. To the Night succeeds what St. John of the Cross calls the theopathic state, that which Zen calls Satori.” (Zen and the Psychology of Transformation: The Supreme Doctrine (Rochester, VT: Inner Traditions International, 1990), p. 220)

The following passages from St. John do read more like a satori description given by a Zen Buddhist, where one stands outside of the ego, than the report of an ordinary yogi or mystic, who, still identified with his ego, stands outside of the body:

"For this night is gradually drawing the spirit away from its ordinary and common experience of things and bringing it nearer the Divine sense, which is a stranger and an alien to all human ways. It seems now to the soul that it is going forth from its very self, with much affliction. At other times it wonders if it is under a charm or spell, and it goes about marveling at the things it sees and hears, which seem to it very strange and rare, though they are the same that it was accustomed to experience aforetime. The reason of this is that the soul is now becoming alien and remote from common sense and knowledge of things, in order that, being annihilated in this respect, it may be informed with the Divine." (53)

 

St. John makes a big deal of the fact that this deeper night of the spirit is passively infused, and a mystery even to the understanding that receives it:

"This dark contemplation is secret, since, it is mystical theology, which theologians call secret wisdom, and which, as Saint Thomas says, is communicated and infused into the soul through love. This happens secretly and in darkness, so as to be hidden from the work of the understanding and of other faculties...And in truth, not only does not the soul understand it, but there is none that does so, not even the devil, inasmuch as the Master Who teaches the soul is within it in its substance, to which the devil may not attain, neither may natural sense nor understanding. And it is not for this reason alone that it might be called secret, but likewise because of the effects which it produces in the soul. For it is secret not only in the darkness and afflictions of purgation, when this type of love purges the soul, and the soul is unable to speak of it, but equally so afterwards in illumination, when this wisdom is communicated to it most clearly. Even then it is still so secret that the soul cannot speak of it and give it a name whereby it may be called; for, apart from the fact that the soul has no desire to speak of it, it can find no suitable way or manner or similitude by which it may be able to describe such lofty understanding and such delicate spiritual feeling...This property of secrecy and superiority over natural capacity which belongs to this Divine contemplation, belongs to it, not only because it is supernatural, but also inasmuch as it is a road that guides and leads the soul to the perfections of union with God, which, as they are things unknown after a human manner, must be approached, after a human manner, by unknowing and divine ignorance." (54)

 

These passages in themselves do not guarantee us non-duality, true, but do suggest at the least an understanding beyond that limited to the three lower bodies of man, i.e., of an initiation to the formless, intuitional 'soul' or causal/buddhic level — which to many mystics seems like God-union, and which is in fact a great step towards such unity. It is the beginning of the end of duality, so to speak. We have no way of knowing for sure if this was the case for St. John, as he left his writing incomplete and unfinished. Other mystics of the church, however, such as Meister Eckhart, have hinted at a higher realization. The latter spoke of a 'primordial ground where distinction never peeped', and also how seeing a difference between God and the world was 'a common delusion'. Also several centuries before St. John, a lesser-known mystic named Margaret Porete, who was executed for heresy, wrote "about seeing Nothing, about immersion in the Abyss, about an identity with the divine in a nothingness which is at the same time the All. "Now this soul has fallen from love into nothingness, and without such nothingness she cannot be All."

It may very well be, then, that the end result of passage through the dark night, as well as the experience of true spiritual glimpses, will vary depending on the metaphysical preparation of the individual and their stage of development from previous lifetimes. And not just a bloodless, quiet contemplation, this high state has been described in a real sense as a merger of one's self with the world, or absorption of the world into one's self. Does one dare think this will be reached without a tussle, an inner revolution in fact?

From another angle, much of this confusion may be due to semantics. That is, some of the mystics speak of purification not of the self, but from the self, with the self being that which contaminates the soul. Thus, the purgation and purification that takes place is not that of an "ego-soul" so that it may abide in a divine domain as a separate entity, but rather more in the nature of the purgation and purification of the bundle of tendencies that create that sense of self. An initial realization of "no-self", then, could in fact be the beginning of the realization of the Soul. No need to jump the gun and confuse it with the Absolute. Madame Guyon writes

"There is something in this universe which is the very opposite of God; it is the self. The activity of the self is the source of all the evil nature as well as all the evil deeds of man. On the other hand, the loss of the selfhood in the soul increases the purity of the soul! In fact, the soul's purity is increased in exact proportion to the loss of self!"

Then she gives what for a Christian seems to be a very unique and astute philosophic interpretation of the "fall":

"It was the entrance of the self, which came into the soul as a result of the fall, that established a difference between the soul and God."
"What is the name of this impurity? Self."

And she goes on to further clarify the situation:

"But there is more than the self that prevents union. This thing called activity is, in itself, opposed to union. Why? because God is an infinite stillness. Your soul, if it is to be united with the Lord, must partake of His stillness...It is for this reason we can never arrive at divine union except by putting the human will to rest. You can never become one with God, in experience, until you become as restful and pure as when you were first created."

Here she speaks unlike the advaitins and more like the Sufis, or anadi, or Daskalos, wherein the soul is a created but eternal reality. Plotinus also spoke of man's "audacious self-will" as standing between him and the Truth.

"His Wisdom burns away all the impurities of a man...Man must pass through the fire to be purged from self."
"Oh, how many times the gold is plunged back into the fire — far, far more times than seem necessary. Yet you can be sure the Forger sees impurities no one else can see. The gold must return to the fire again and again until positive proof has been established that it can be no further purified." (all quotes from Jeanne Guyon, Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ)

For Brunton, man attains union with his soul or Overself, and the Overself is "no-self". Yet there is yet a (paradoxical) relationship between the Overself and the Absolute. Irena Tweedie's guru, Bhai Sahib, said, "If you say there is nothing but One, you insult Him and you insult yourself."

We have but explored some common themes in the literature, without claiming any special or definitive knowledge. Please feel free to ponder what is said here, but do not torture your mind trying to figure it out. The mind will never understand it! Rather, take what is of use to you and leave the rest for another day.


(1) Paul Brunton, The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett, N.Y.: Larson Publications, 1988), Vol. 12, “The Reverential Life,” 5.238
(2) Ibid, Vol. 2, 5.56
(2a) E. Allison Peers, trans. The Dark Night of the Soul (Garden City, New York: Image/Doubleday, 1959), p.37
(3) Anthony Damiani, Standing In Your Own Way (Burdett, New York, 1993), p. 199
(4) Brunton, op. cit., Vol 15, 3.70, 3.1, 3.31, 3.35, 3.39, 3.59
(5) Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Lent (Winkworth’s translation, p. 280) Cited in: Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism (New York: New American Library, 1974)
(6) Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism (New York: New American Library, 1974), p. 396.
(7) Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 11, 2.222,238,241,250,124
(8) Ibid, Vol. 11, 5.100
(9) Ibid, Vol. 14, 3.35
(10) Ibid, 8.64
(11) 1st paragraph, source unknown; 2nd from Les Torrents, pt. i. cap. viii. Cited in: Underhill, op. cit.
(12) Ibid
(13) Ibid, p. 397
(14) John Daido Loori, Mountain Records of Zen Talks (Boston: Shambhala, 1988), p. 21
(15) Ibid
(16) Chang Chen-Chi, The Practise of Zen (London: Rider & Co., 1960), p. 78
(17) Majjhima Nikaya, I, 166
(18) Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 15, 3.71
(19) The Dark Night of the Soul, in Mystic Doctrine, an abridgment by C.H. (London: Sheed & Ward, 1948), p. 83-106
(20) Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 6, Part 1, 4.356; Vol. 12, 4.5
(21) E. Allison Peers, op. cit., p. 104
(22) Ibid, p. 106-107
(23) Ibid, p. 152
(24) Ibid, p. 102-103
(25) Ibid, p. 145-146
(26) Babuji Maharaj , Notes of Discourses, Radha Soami Satsang, Agra, 1947), p. 80, 117
(26a) Tulku Thondup, Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth (Boston: Shambhala, 2005), p. 48
(26b) Mother Teresa, Come be My Light: The Private Writings of the "Saint of Calcutta", edited and with commentary by Brian Kolodiejchul, M.C., footnote chapter nine, # 59
(26c) Sri Aurobindo, Letters on Yoga, Volume II (Pondicherry: Sri Aurobindo Ashram, 1983), p. 1423-1427
(27) Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 9, 1.277
(28) Ibid, Vol. 14, 6,265,27; 3.401, 394; Vol. 16, Part 1, 2.194; Part 2, 2.142 2.142
(29) Jerry Katz, ed., Essential Writings on Nonduality (Boulder, Colorado: Sentient Publications, 2007), p. 59
(30) E. Allison Peers, op. cit., p.110-111
(31) Ibid, Vol. 15, 3.64
(32) Darshan Singh, Streams of Nectar (Naperville, Illinois, 1993), p. 172
(33) Brunton, op. cit.,Vol. 2, 2.262
(34) E. Allison Peers, op. cit., p. 127
(35) Ibid, p. 125
(36) Ibid, p. 108
(37)Brunton, op. cit.,Vol. 15, 3.22-24, 3.58
(38) E. Allison Peers, op. cit.,p. 135-136
(39) Ibid, p. 153-154
(40) Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 15, 3.54
(40a) Tulku Thondup, Masters of Meditation and Miracles: Lives of the Great Buddhist Masters of India and Tibet (Boston: Shambhala, 1999), p. 140-141
(41) Talks with Ramana Maharshi (Carlsbad, California: Inner Traditions Publishing, 2001), pp.182
(42) Jean-Pierre deCaussade, Self-Abandonment to Divine Providence (Glascow, England: Collins, 1974), pp. 126-128
(43) Steven Harrison, Doing Nothing: Coming to the End of the Spiritual Search (New York, N.Y.: Jeremy Tarcher/Putnam, 1997), p. 29
(44) Michael Molinos, The Spiritual Guide (Christian Books Publishing House, 1982), p.
(44a) Note that it may be more accurate to speak of this classic mystical 'dark night of the soul' as a purifying 'dark night of the psyche' (through the agency of the Holy Spirit), the result being union with the Divine Soul and not God per se, with a further recognition, revelation, merger or identification by the Soul with God as an even higher stage. For thoughts on this please see "PB and Plotinus: The Fallacy of Divine Identity", and "The Grandeur of a Sage", on this website.
(45) Brunton, op. cit.,Vol. 13, Part 2, 4.191
(46) Ibid, Vol. 12, Part 2, 2.143
(47) Ibid, 5.189, 5.33, 5.262
(48) Paul Brunton, Essays on the Quest (York Beach, Maine:Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1985), p. 197
(49) Darshan Singh, op. cit., p. 407-408
(49a) The Notebooks of Paul Brunton, op. cit., Vol. 6, Part 2, 3.347
(50) Shantideva, The Way of the Boddhisattva (Boston, Massachusetts: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 1997), p. 101
(51) , op. cit.,Vol. 12, 3.114
(52) Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, op. cit., p.
(53) E. Allison Peers, op. cit., p. 123
(54) Ibid, p. 158-159, 162


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