In a loose sense, we experience a dark night any time there is a sense of loss, any time we believe that something should be here – either what was or what could be – but is not.
And in a more narrow sense, the dark night (of the soul) is a loss of God. Of an alive presence of the divine, of seeing/realizing all as God, of awake empty luminosity, or in whatever form it came up. It is of course not a real “loss”, just an experience of loss, or maybe the loss of an experience.
I seems to have gone through a quite typical dark night of the soul. And it may not be the only one. They seem to come at different times, at different levels of intensity, and with different flavors. (I didn’t realize how typical and ordinary my experience of it was until I read Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill, where the chapter on the dark night describes, often in detail, what I also went through.)
Some of the effects I notice, now more of the tail end of it, are…
A burning away of identities, or rather identification with identities (although there are certainly some left.) In the dark night, there is a loss not only of God, but often of lots of other things in our life. For me, anything that gave me comfort was lost, either externally or internally, and with this went any identities that gave me comfort. My experience of myself and my life was so completely at odds with these identities, so the identification with them (as a good Zen student, as someone awakened to all as God, as someone who could deal with difficult situations and experiences, as someone good at you name it) gradually wore off, although in my case with a lot of reluctance, resistance and kicking and screaming (which only made it more difficult for me). I should say that they are not really burnt away, just lessened in intensity and solidity.
A fearlessness. Again, not a 100% fearlessness, just more of it from a sense of transparency of fears. In the dark night, everything worthwhile and valuable seems lost, and it lasts for a while. There is plenty of time to get used to it. So what is there to fear? I am already used to loss, even of what was at the center of my life and gave my life meaning, so what more is there to fear? This is a reduction or loss of the existential fear, so there is still the more mundane fears here, but even those are more transparent, space.
A sense of it all, whatever happens, no matter how amazing or terrible, as unremarkable. We have gone through the highest ecstasies before the dark night, and the darkest loss and despair in the dark night, so anything that happens now have a sense of ordinariness and of being unremarkable, including the most unusual states and awakenings. Or more accurately, they may be experienced as remarkable and surprising for a little while, but somehow against the background of it all being unremarkable. As space, transparent to it as unremarkable.
A surrender. This is the thread that runs through any of the other outcomes of the dark night. Surrender… to what is, to whatever may come. The loss of identification with identities is a surrender of the identification, but also a surrender of wanting things to be a certain way. Now, whatever happens is more OK. Before, whatever happened was OK as long as I didn’t loose God (the apparently stable awakening to all as God.) Now, whatever happens is more OK, including exactly that.
For all of these – identities, fear, a sense of it being remarkable, resistance – there is not a complete burning through. They are still there, only lessened in intensity, not so substantial, more transparent, more as just space.
And finally Ground awakening. The dark night paves the way for a Ground awakening. An awakening independent of any content, any state, any experience, and allowing them all.