Dark Night of the Soul

Dark Night of the Soul

The dark night is an inflow of God into the Soul.
—John of Cross

O you guiding night!
Oh night more kindly
than the dawn!
Oh you night that united
Lover with beloved,
the beloved in the Lover

The “dark night of the soul” is known as a distinct phase in spiritual life. It was first described by John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century Spanish mystic, a Carmelite monk. Saint John wrote the spiritual masterpiece, “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 consummate disorientation of spiritual darkness. To John, the dark night was identical to the Christian concept of purgatory, but happening now in this life.  He described it as a passage that revealed painful truths, yet brought hope and the promise of light. In stanzas of soaring poetic beauty, he praised and adored the hidden gifts of the darkness. He believed after his experience that through such a difficult darkness God’s grace could best transform us, heart and soul.

Fear and Resistance

Before we can accept, much less adore, the gifts of darkness, however, our habitual egoic selves struggle with resistance and fear.  This fall into loss, betrayal and hardship seems the worst that could happen. We push away the disorientating pain.  We blame, protest, struggle, deny – anything to not have to accept such rejection, loss and defeat.

Typically, we spend our lives trying avoid going  outside our comfort zone, whether to the extreme of bliss or of suffering. 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.  However, almost certainly, 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. And we pull back into our favorite defenses when such intensity threatens to take us beyond our usual beliefs about ourselves.

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 may even try telling ourselves how happy we are!  Yet, unwittingly, we are reinforcing entrenched patterns of separateness and isolation. The comfort zone defines the range of our experience in two directions though. Our capacity for bearing terror and pain relates directly to our capacity for experiencing delight and joy. Watch how we tolerate only so much pleasure, love and success before we begin to stir with discomfort. A contraction sets in sending us on a spiral down into the opposite negative experience.

Then, just as surely, once we have hit whatever our bottom is through depression, anxiety, anger or craving, we find ourselves spiraling upward into a positive experience. Since we live in a world of opposites – in time, one side naturally brings on the other.  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. Hence, in spiritual traditions, one works to establish the capacity for equanimity, calm or balance in the face of whatever experience life brings.

Another Way to Live: on the Edge

When we are in the deep waters of the dark night, we are living on the edges of our normal reality. It is natural to shy away!  This is why it is so important to learn to recognize a comfort “edge”, and to stay with it for a bit if possible. To do so requires close attention. For once we are there, edges engage and distract us. The edge can be exciting or scary, but never dull. Learning to play the edge is a kind of art form.

Examples of playing the edge come in yoga practices.  We move just enough into a posture that we feel a strong sensation of wanting to stop. Then we direct the breath and soften deeper into the uncomfortable sensation. If the constricting sensation does not soften with the breath,  we likely have gone beyond our edge. We need to back off–to find the actual edge. At the edge, 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, we learn to 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. Here we taste our connectedness with the deep mystery of life. If only for a few seconds or moments, we have journeyed out of ourselves. Our world expanding.

The Threshold: Dying Before We Die

When life shatters, we are left with nowhere familiar to stand. Instead, we stand face to face with our own dying, as little of pieces of our personality daily fall away. This is what some spiritual traditions prescribe as‘dying before you die’. As a long-time spiritual practitioner, I imagined I had been encouraging this letting go all along in my inner work. But now, I saw how easy it was, when life was flowing by smoothly, and my self-willed, controlling “I” was getting what it wanted, to imagine I was engaged in deep work. When trauma and suffering hit, then I could see where I really stood.

Without a commitment to wake up to the truth about ourselves, there is no dark night of the soul. Normally, just a depression, that most of us can’t handle… without Prozac, major bingeing on food, tv, sex or other drugs. That’s okay, too. We need to be gentle with ourselves. We may linger for a long while at the threshold of a dark passage before we find the strength to turn inward. A true dark night descent will work gradually on us to lessen the grip of fear.  Slowly, bearing with what can feel like an endless, lifeless internal desert liberates us to expanded truth and light about ourselves and our lives.

This Too Shall Pass

First, however, as the dark night descends, we may feel severely discouraged and isolated, not only from our previous life, but also from God, and our own soul. We turn toward this darkness with no guarantee it will end. In fact, a good part of the trial of a true dark  night includes the sense that it will never end. The ancient wisdom of “This too shall pass,” became my essential mantra. Even though I felt so bad I didn’t really believe it could be true. “This is how it will always be,” says the mind when we are locked into such suffering.

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. Sometimes we pass into and out of it in stages for weeks or months or even years at a time, gradually becoming accustomed to bearing with what 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 difficulty. Most of us have never heard of such an experience. We are not prepared, and are shocked to find ourselves in such pain and confusion. 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.

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? In one tragic outcome, too many teenagers, during one of life’s major transitional stages succumb to suicide. When the sense of dying that is announcing itself is likely only of a part of the personality, more like egocide. But who will teach this emotional truth to our young when we barely acknowledge it ourselves.

If only we could learn that, not only is it okay to be in despair when our former way of being in the world is falling away, 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. When Spirit is entering more deeply into us, the iron grip of our egoic selves, though shattered, 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.’’ For this is how it feels when “I” am not in charge anymore.

From Activity to Receptivity

Gradually, the darkness itself instills more and more  refreshing truths in us. We enter a disorienting unknowing, a silence, nothingness, emptiness. This may break our hearts all over again. We realize that we don’t know who we are, we also have no idea who or what God could possibly be. Clearly now we see how our concepts had formed another veil over the 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. It is building a renewed, living faith, as well as a deep acknowledgment of our dependence on grace.

Gerald May, psychotherapist and mystic, speaks of this mysterious intelligence that reaches through the cracks in our usual armor.  “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.”

For a spiritual seeker, one of the signs of new type of trust breaking through may appears as a transition from active to receptive meditation. That is, from directed inward activity to increasingly passive receptivity. As I realized more deeply that 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 focus, direction, concentration, and effort. As contemplative states of just being began to emerge more often, my active practices began to fall away.  Some mystery seemed to be at work to bring this new level of receptivity. I noticed a growing hunger simply to be.

In the dark night, after being told so long by ourselves and others to “get a life,” small lights began to dawn. Little lights, tiny rays of promise peeking through the endless gray days. After the turmoil stripped away, at times I began to entertain an indwelling, as if I was receiving a guest, for a flash here and there. Sometimes this grew to a welcoming, as if to a dearly loved one. And, at times, a swirling, quiet joy spun golden circles in my heart at this surprising presence.

I surmised, that 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 to this quickening 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.

Perhaps I am sounding like the dark night is a happy pill in itself! Well, this is not so. Because we survive these trials, it does not mean we are suddenly carefree, evolved beings. Each dark night leaves a maturing mark on the soul. But the more consciously we pass through them, the more we embody a paradoxically serious lightness of being.  A serious lightness that births laughter about this play of life, the  poignant wonder of existing at all.