JESSICA DAVIDSON December 6, 2013
The Dark Night of the Soul
A Dark Night of the Soul always arrives uninvited, yet it could be the best thing to ever happen. It’s a sacred initiation into the underbelly of the soul that will make you feel cursed and blessed at the same time. Dark Nights of the Soul are all the rage these days. Our civilisation is self-destructing and we seem powerless to stop it. Some say we have brought ourselves to this dangerous precipice through our collective blindness, arrogance and selfishness, and that may be true. But we may also be on the brink of a breakthrough.
I don’t want to get into a forensic examination of our nihilistic culture. It does no good to pick at your wounds. I want to find a way through the darkness to the light at the end of the tunnel – if it exists.
The best we can say of these dark times is that we have entered a Global Spiritual Crisis designed to release us from our bad habits into a revelation of the true nature of Reality. Whether or not we succeed is yet to be seen. Many are now being plunged into their own personal spiritual crises as old structures disintegrate and certainties are challenged.
So what is this process called the Dark Night and how can we find our way through it?
Not a Dark Night
Most people experience periods of sadness and darkness in their lives at some point, and the phrase ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ is often used to describe them. But this may not be entirely accurate. ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ may be one of the most misused phrases in English, along with words like Love, Mysticism, and God.
A Dark Night of the Soul is not just a normal depression (although that can be hard enough to live with). It isn’t about having a difficult time because things aren’t going your way and you’re not getting what you want out of life. Many people struggle with the negative emotions and confusion that can arise due to big life changes like losing a job, getting a divorce, or suffering with failing health, but that does not equal a Dark Night.
Those with a spiritual practice also encounter problems as the subconscious is stirred up, giving rise to heightened sensitivity, confusion, fear and negativity. But these disturbances can usually be handled by continuing to practise.
A Dark Night goes deeper.
What is the Dark Night of the Soul?
The Dark Night of the Soul most often occurs as part of the spiritual path. It is a crisis of meaning and identity that rips the ground out from under your feet. Once you reach a certain point of the spiritual journey the Dark Night becomes inevitable and can come as quite a shock.
“Say he knows you are ready to receive him and to be annihilated in love. Can you say YES to that?”
It begins when everything seems to be going so well. Many people take up meditation or spiritual practise with the intention of improving themselves. You want to be happier, calmer, healthier, more in control, and so on. There is nothing wrong in this, and for a little while it even works. But there is another side to meditation and spiritual practise which is rarely understood, at least not by beginners.
There is an inherent paradox at the heart of this approach which ultimately undermines itself: the ego is attempting to improve itself, but the ego is part of the problem.
Meditation is designed to undermine your sense of self. It gradually shifts the focus of identification away from your small personal perspective onto the unlimited ground of your experience – awareness. In time, this deconstructs the ego and all its attachments. A regular and consistent meditation practise will break up your mental habits, disrupt your value system and force you confront the shadow side of your consciousness.
Of course, the ego will only cooperate with this process as long as things are going well and you appear to be making progress. As soon as the ego gets wind of its imminent destruction, all hell breaks loose and you enter the Dark Night of the Soul.
So the Dark Night of the Soul is a process of transformation which takes you from identification with the ego to transcendence and identification with the higher Self. To put it another way, it takes you from reliance on the self to reliance on the divine. You move from believing you are in control of your life and your choices, to an acceptance that this is impossible and you are not, and never have been, in control.
It is an act of sacred destruction involving the purgation of the personal will and a confrontation with existential despair, sometimes called the Death of the Ego. In the Dark Night of the Soul, you consciously live through your own death.
When does the Dark Night begin?
Technically, the Dark Night begins after awakening and represents a point of no return. It tends to happen after an encounter with the truth of No Self or non-being. Through an act of grace, you attain insight into the true nature of the self, or a state of mystical union with God, and the true work of spiritual practice begins.
This work involves the self learning that it is not separate from life. Everything that happens from this point on is designed to undermine that sense of separation until you can surrender totally and unconditionally. It sounds a simple thing, but the ego can put up quite a fight.
The depth and subtlety of your attachments will slowly be revealed as the Dark Night unfolds. I’ve lost count of the number of times I believed I was following the higher Self’s will, only to discover my ego had slipped in the back door and taken over.
Back in high school, there was a boy in my class who was always pulling pranks and messing about. One day, the English teacher, a rotund man with an enormous ginger beard, sent this boy to stand outside the door in punishment for being disruptive. But the boy (I can’t remember his name) managed to slip back into the room unnoticed. He crawled between the desks and slid into his seat while the teacher’s back was turned. The entire class remained silent until the teacher turned around, saw the boy and erupted in anger, sending the rest of us into fits of laughter.
This is what the ego does. It distracts, entertains, misdirects, and generates drama, all in an attempt to avoid the inevitable. In a very real sense, the Dark Night of the Soul is just one long ego tantrum.
“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!”
Different Versions of the Dark Night
The phrase ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ was first used by Christian mystic St John of the Cross in his classic text of the same name. He describes two different spiritual crises: the Night of Sense, and the Night of the Spirit. The first acts as preparation for the second, and while both are tough, the Dark Night of the Spirit is excruciating.
In the Night of Sense your attachments to worldly pleasures fall away as the senses are purified. Then in the Night of the Spirit your mind empties and your will is broken. Everything falls away and you are powerless to act. Even meditation and prayer stops working at this point. You may feel lost and abandoned by God, or as if you are falling into madness.
There is another Dark Night which goes beyond even the Night of the Spirit, but this happens rarely and seems to be reserved for saints. In this, the soul suffers on behalf of others as an act of service.
Some of the descriptions of the Dark Night of the Spirit are truly terrifying. The soul is pulled into an existential abyss and torn apart. It is a spiritual rite of passage, like Jonah slowly dissolving in the belly of the whale until he is ready to fulfill his divine destiny. You may believe you are in darkness, but that is an illusion. As St John of the Cross explains:
“Darkened and emptied, the soul is purified and illumined by divine light. Like the ray of light that
remains invisible even in the middle of a room as long as it has nothing to bump up against, so this divine
light is invisible to the purified soul and she thinks she is in darkness.”
All seems lost, but you only suffer at this stage of the process because you still believe you are separate. If you can let go and allow the apparent darkness to do its work, the light will return and you will see with new eyes.
The Dark Night in Other Traditions
In Buddhism the Dark Night of the Soul is called Falling into the Pit of the Void. It can happen after you gain insight into the emptiness of all phenomena and see the reality of No Self.
In Vipassana the Dark Night is experienced as part of the dukkha nanas which arise following the realisation of Arising and Passing Away (A & P, for short). In this tradition, these stages of the path have lovely names, such as Dissolution, Fear, Misery, Disgust, and Desire for Deliverance. These are seen as challenging stages of the process and are considered a sign of progress. The aim is to continue practising until you gain Equanimity.
It’s interesting to compare the experience of the Dark Night between traditions as each has its own characteristic approach. Reading descriptions of the suffering of the Christian mystics is a hair-raising experience; there seems to be an awful lot of wailing and misery and ‘woe is me’ type stuff. David says, “You have put far from me my friends and acquaintances; they consider me an abomination.” And this from Ezechiel: “I shall gather up the bones and light them on fire. The flesh shall be consumed and the whole composition burned, and the bones shall be destroyed.”
And Jeremiah has this rather spectacular rant:
“I am the man who sees my poverty in the rod of his indignation. He has roused me from slumber and led me into darkness and not into light. He has turned and turned his hand against me all the day. My skin and my flesh he has made old. He has broken my bones. He has built a fence around me and encircled me with bitterness and labour. He has set me in a dark place, as those who are forever dead… He has thwarted my footsteps. He has become as a lion, hiding in secret places. He has twisted my steps and broken me in pieces… One by one he has broken my teeth. He has fed me on ashes. My soul is a stranger to peace…”
It goes on…
Although I can relate to some of the sentiments expressed, there is another part of me that thinks (perhaps uncharitably) “get over yourself.” Maybe the emphasis on suffering that characterises Christianity affects the way these experiences are described. In contrast, Buddhism emphasises equanimity and selflessness, and so the experience of the Dark Night is seen as a stage to move through without getting attached. Perhaps there’s no real difference in the experience, just in the cultural conditioning and language used. (Also, it’s unfair to quote out of context. When you’re in the middle of it, the death throes of the ego feel very real, even if they are ultimately illusory.)
I have found both approaches useful in their own way. The torment and suffering described by the Christian mystics puts my own pain into perspective, and the rationality of Buddhist equanimity helps me to let go of that pain and not take it personally.
Dark Night or Pathology?
Shinzen Young describes the Dark Night of the Soul as Enlightenment’s Evil Twin and says that in modern terms it would be described as Depersonalisation and De-realisation Disorder (as it is listed in the DSM). He also thinks it’s quite rare. The true Dark Night happens, he says, when you have trouble integrating the insight into selflessness and non-being.
Watch a fascinating video of Shinzen Young discussing Experiences of the Dissolution Process with a man who had a terrifying ordeal as part of his awakening. [see Jessica's website for this]
The breakdown of the self can be disorienting and makes it hard to deal with daily life, but there is a real danger in seeing this experience as pathological. As Shinzen indicates, it’s only a problem if you can’t let go of the self, and you’re much more likely to have that problem if you think the Dark Night is a bad thing. This experience is not a sign that something has gone wrong.
Perhaps we struggle with the dissolution of the self because our culture is so egotistical. To move away from the self towards selflessness could be seen as naïve, deluded or crazy, but that doesn’t mean it is.
Who Will Have a Dark Night?
Some say the Dark Night is an unavoidable part of spiritual awakening and will be experienced by everyone in some form or another. While others say it is rare. Perhaps this just reflects different definitions of the Dark Night, but it does seem to be the case that some people go through it relatively easily, while others have extreme problems and find the loss of self terrifying.
Willoughby Britton of Brown University has researched the Dark Night of the Soul, which she defines as “the inability of an adult to work or take care of children”, and says that serious complications requiring hospitalisation occur in less than 1% of cases.
That definition seems extreme to me. In my (admittedly limited) experience, I was able to hold down a full-time job during one of my Dark Nights, and graduate from college during the first, and in neither case was it easy. My third Dark Night is underway now and although I have bad days (and weeks), I am slowly learning to let go.
Perhaps the quality of your experience depends on other factors, such as the structure of your personality, the stability of your spiritual practice, access to a good teacher for guidance, and karma. If you find yourself mired in a Dark Night, the chances are you have been through it before, especially if your spiritual journey begins with a descent into darkness against your will.
Most people encountering the Dark Night will do so because they have chosen to work on themselves as part of a spiritual practice. But it is possible to have an insight into the nature of the self and non-being without having any kind of spiritual practice. This was how my spiritual journey began, and I can only assume my soul prepared for the experience in other lives (either that, or I am nuts!). This is particularly hard because you are plunged into a kind of hell without any sense of why or what is going on.
What is the Point of the Dark Night?
The Dark Night varies in length and intensity. You may burn through it fairly quickly, or it could take years or even lifetimes. Willoughby Britton’s research found it lasted from six months to 12 years, with an average duration of three years.
You may also experience more than one Dark Night. The deconstruction of your ego attachments happens over a long period of time so it may take many attempts to strip back the layers of your personality. The Dark Night is like a storm system circling round and round. It hits you for a little while, then moves away and life settles down, only for the storm to return. It will do this as many times as is necessary for you to let go of whatever no longer serves your spiritual growth.
In the end, the point of the Dark Night of the Soul is to bring you to enlightenment. Most people don’t achieve this in one hop, as it were. It takes time and discipline and practise. And compassion, patience, and humility.
And you must be ready for the experience. Paradoxically, you need to have a strong sense of self before you will be willing to sacrifice that self. That strength is required because the process of dissolution can be so punishing. Those who are too weak-minded or who lack courage, will not get far along this path.
For anyone who believes mystics are wishy-washy or that love is for fools, all I can say is: try it!
Ultimately, the Dark Night is about love. Can you say yes to life even if you are suffering? Can you keep your heart open even as it is breaking? Can you live up to your highest ideals in a less than perfect world that seems intent on self-destruction?
“If he could see his nothingness and his deadly, festering wound, pain would arise from looking within, and that pain would save him.”
This article has been reprinted here with permission from the author on her website.
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Photo by Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism, Creative Commons