Dark Night of the Soul

 

The “dark night of the soul” as a distinct phase in spiritual life was first described John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic Carmelite monk. Saint John wrote the “Dark Night of the Soul” when he was imprisoned for eight months by his own community for his unconventional religious beliefs. Through the trials of his imprisonment, he came to respect the majesty of the consuming disorientation of spiritual darkness. To John, the dark night was identical to the Christian concept of purgatory but happening now in this life, a passage that revealed painful truths, but was full of hope and promise of light. In stanzas of soaring poetic beauty, he praised and adored the hidden gifts of the darkness through which he believed God’s grace could best reach us to transform the heart.

Fear and Resistance

Most of the time we live in a firmly egoic state, and struggle with resistance and fear before we can accept, much less adore, the gifts of darkness. It seems the worst that could happen. We push it away, blame, protest, struggle, deny – anything to not have to accept such enormous loss and defeat. Typically, we avoid going to these extremes of bliss and suffering, pulling back into our comfort zone when such intensity threatens to transcend ego boundaries.

The ego’s furthest edges are beyond the reach of most of us. When circumstances, such as betrayal, loss of a job or ill health, bring the opportunity to explore the outermost positive and negative swings of the ego, we encounter a wall of fear that tells us “do not go past this point at all costs.” Through fear, the small self reasserts its boundary, maintaining its grip.

The Comfort Zone and Edges

We each have a comfort zone in which we tend to live to support our self-image. Keeping within this comfort zone involves subliminal worry, keeping a constant grip on ourselves, holding on to opinions, moods, beliefs that support “me”, remaining on guard, not letting anything that threatens this fragile self-image touch us. Tibetan teacher, Sakyong Mipham, describes the comfort zone:

“There’s a place between Earth and Mars that scientists call the Goldilocks zone. It’s a place that’s not too hot, not too cold, but just right –a place where life could conceivably be supported. Many of us live from the motivation to keep ourselves in such a zone. We spend our lives constructing a personal Goldilocks zone where our solid sense of self feels comfortable and protected. Everything’s just how we like it, and we work to keep it that way.”

Staying within our comfort zone begins to dominate life as a first priority, we perhaps even tell ourselves how happy we are, without realizing we reinforcing entrenched patterns of separateness and isolation, becoming more and more dull to our lives. The comfort zone defines the range of our experience. Our capacity for bearing terror and pain relates directly to our capacity for experiencing delight and joy. We can only tolerate so much pleasure, love and success before our ego boundary begins to stir with discomfort, setting us on a spiral down into the opposite negative, constricting experience.
Once we have hit whatever our version of bottom is in depression, anxiety, anger or craving, the boundary will again be triggered, and we find ourselves spiraling upward into a positive experience. Since we live in a world of ego opposites – one side naturally brings on the other in time—we stave off despair only as much as we are willing to cut off our capacity for joy at the other end of the spectrum.

Another Way to Live

When we are in the deep waters of the dark night, we are living on the edges of our normal reality, where instinctively we shy away. This is why it is so important to learn to recognize an edge, and to stay with it. To do so requires close attention: once we are there, edges engage us. The edge can be exciting or scary, but never dull. Learning to play the edge is an art form.

In yoga, we move just enough into the posture that we feel a strong sensation of wanting to stop. Here we direct the breath and soften deeper into the sensation. If the constricting sensation will not soften with the breath, then we have gone beyond our edge. We need to back off – to find the actual edge – until the sensation softens, and we feel ourselves expanding into a more spacious world.

Finding a physical edge is good practice for dealing with more intense psychic pains and pleasures. Gradually, as we allow ourselves to breathe and open into sensations that habitually limit our experience, our sense of self becomes more porous, more open to both extremes of joy and pain. The more we learn to play the edge, the more we harness our intensity to touch into a world of formless wonder, wherein we taste our connectedness with the deep mystery of life, if only for a few seconds or moments, we expand our world.

The Threshold & Dying Before We Die

Without a commitment to wake up to the truth about ourselves, “there is no dark night of the soul – just a depression,” that most of us can’t handle without Prozac. We may linger for a long while at the threshold of the dark passage, paralyzed by fear of dying in one of its many disguises. Awakening to the deeper heart requires that we move beyond these boundaries of fear into the unknown, a journey that does not happen until we are ready and willing to endure it. A true dark night descent gradually lessens the grip of ego, liberating spiritual awareness; while a depression mires us more deeply in believing we are these states of misery.

Having our life shatter, left with nowhere to stand, brings us face to face with our own death, as well as the little deaths of pieces of our personality. With life broken in pieces, we have the chance to practice ‘dying before you die’. This was just what I imagined I had been trying to do all along in my inner work. But now, again, I saw how easy it is, when life is flowing by smoothly, and our ego self is getting what it wants, to imagine we are engaged in deep work. When frustration and pain hit, then we can see where we really stand.

This Too Shall Pass

As the dark night descends, we feel severely discouraged and isolated, not only from our previous life, but also from God, spirit, and even our own soul. We must enter this darkness with no guarantee it will end. In fact, a good part of the trial of the dark includes the sense that it may not end. “This too shall pass,” became my essential mantra, even though my state of mind when I felt so bad I resisted acknowledging it could be true. “This is it and this is how it will always be” – the mind says when we are locked into pain. The length of time it takes for the heart to heal, for the soul to mend, can vary from months to years. No one knows how long such a transcendent, dissolving, passage will take for us. Sometimes we pass into and out of it in stages for weeks or months at a time, gradually becoming accustomed to bearing with what has formerly seemed unbearable.

In our culture that is so prejudiced against unhappiness, we badly need the mentoring that will teach us how to weather these periods of darkness. Most of us have never heard of such an experience, we are not prepared, and are shocked to find ourselves in such difficulty. With no context of support or understanding, it is too easy to label oneself as a hopeless case and give in to the despair that beckons during the time of breaking down. Too many teenagers, in one of life’s major transitional stages succumb to suicide, when the dying that is announcing itself is only of a part of the personality, more like egocide. Because we have not learned to value rites of passage, and the suffering they entail, when the darkness descends, we treat it as a weakness or illness, and are consumed with fear and self doubt: “What have I done to deserve this?” “What is wrong with me?”

If only we could learn that, not only is it okay to be confused and in despair when our old way of being in the world is challenged, but that we are passing through a sacred time. In the heart of such a crisis, we cannot imagine we are undergoing transformation, much less, transcendence. I know I could remind myself of this only in the gaps, after periods of hurt or despair had held me under. There was no avoiding the suffering in the midst of it.
When Spirit is entering more deeply into our being, the iron grip of our separate selves, though shattered, hangs on and fights to regain control. The disorientation, confusion, sense of not knowing what is happening to us, or why, as taxing as it is, is a necessary ingredient in ‘going down’’ where “I” am not in charge anymore. Gerald May speaks of the infusion of mystery that enters to take its place. “The dark night is not primarily something but a someone, a presence that leaves an indelible imprint on the human spirit, on one’s life.” We need all the support we can get not to short-circuit this transitional passage and to realize its preciousness in the life of the soul.

From Activity to Receptivity

Gradually, the darkness itself instills a trust in this absence of any former sense of God, or ourselves as a spiritual person. We begin to see ourselves as hopeless beginners who have no true relationship to the divine, but only to our ideas and images. We enter a disorienting unknowing, a silence, nothingness, emptiness. It breaks our hearts all over again, as we realize that we don’t know who we are, we also have no idea who or what God could possibly be. Our concepts have formed another veil over the aching heart. Tentatively, but with growing trust, we let this sadness speak its truth. In this way, secretly, the darkness is busy awakening the wisdom heart, building a renewed, living faith, as well as a deepened acknowledgment of our dependence on grace.

One of the signs of new type of trust breaking through appears as a transition from active to receptive meditation, from directed activity to increasing receptivity. During my sitting times, realizing I no longer knew what to do or who I was, active meditation began to fall away, and gave way to ‘contemplation.’ My meditation and prayer practices normally required my direction, concentration, and efforts. As contemplative states of ‘just being’ in not knowing began to emerge more often, my active practices began to fall away, as some mystery seemed to be at work to bring a new level of receptivity. Staying with this groundless unknowing, I noticed a growing need simply to be. What was that!?

In the dark night, after being told so long by ourselves and others to ‘get a life,’ small lights begin to dawn. Please do not be concerned if this does not seem to be happening for you. Just skip this part and find something that resonates with where you are! Little lights do dawn, tiny rays of promise peek through the endless gray days. After the turmoil stripped enough away, I suppose, at times I began to entertain an indwelling quickening, as if I was receiving a guest, for more than a flash here and there. Sometimes this grew to a welcoming as if to a dearly loved one, and a swirling, dancing, quiet joy spun golden circles in my heart at this presence.

In the barrenness of feeling forsaken by God, when the darkness seemed to be leading me only to despair, a seed had been planted of greater receptivity, acceptance, and welcoming this quickened wonder of life. The wicker chairs in the kitchen kept me company, some mornings, the salt and pepper shakers on the table smiled at me, I was in a field where everything exuded aliveness. I noticed how my goals, and incessant self-directions were diminishing, sometimes even disappearing. What a relief! ‘Let go and let God’ was growing as a way of being, not just a good idea. I could not believe it, but it was an undeniable shift.

But I am sounding like the dark night is a happy pill in itself. In case I have not been clear, this is not so. Because we survive these trials, it does not mean we are suddenly carefree, evolved beings. Each dark night leaves a mark on the soul. But the more consciously we pass through them, the more seriousness—the kind of seriousness that births laughter in not taking ourselves so seriously—about the wonder of existing at all enters our way of being in the world.