Aspects of the dark night of the soul

 

All these forms of the Dark Night—the “Absence of God,” the sense of sin, the dark ecstasy, the loss of the self’s old passion, peace, and joy, and its apparent relapse to lower spiritual and mental levels [….]

– Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, Chapter 9

In Mysticism, Evelyn Underhill identified these forms of the dark night of the soul. To me, they seem more like aspects, perhaps since all of them at different times have been quite prominent in my experience.

Sense of sin. Yes, in many different ways.

Early on, visions of evil and evil figures from many cultures and traditions, and of being each of them. (Which is true for all of us. They represent aspects of us.)

Impulses to do things I previously pushed aside or saw as “too low” for me. Sometimes even acting on this, at least to some extent. (I am not very proud of it, and find it difficult to give examples here, although what I experienced and did is quite common in many people’s lives. To me, they felt like big things since they were so out of the ordinary for me.)

Dark ecstasy. Yes, pain and suffering, or a “dark desolation”.

Earlier in my process, I used to experience the “dark desolation” as a swing back after going into bliss, ecstasy, and love for everything. Now, since the dark night of the soul set in, it’s been a permanent companion. Sometimes stronger, sometimes more in the background.

Loss of self’s old passion, peace and joy. Yes, again in many different ways.

I lost just about all of my old passions, for painting and drawing (which I used to do every day and thought I couldn’t live without), loss of ability to meditate (which I also did every day, and thought I couldn’t live without), and much else. (Sustainability, sustainable design, community organizing, hiking, backpacking, concerts, theater etc.)

Relapse to lower spiritual and mental levels. Yes, both in terms of “regression” and “stupidity”.

I have regressed back in time, to infancy, childhood, and even before birth. Partly, this has taken the form of images and emotions from those times surfacing. Partly, it’s taken the form of experiencing myself as very young, and to some extent acting and appearing that way. Partly, it’s taken the form of interests from childhood resurfacing, including in comic books, animations, and games.

I feel I have also regressed intellectually. I am unable to read much, while I used to read several books a week. I am unable to write as I used to. In conversations, I often feel utterly stupid and unable to say much, even on topics I used to be very familiar with and could speak eloquently about.

Synchronicity: As I wrote “dark desolation” (dark ecstasy section) the song they played at the cafe I am at said “it’s always darkest before the dawn”.

Synchronicity 2: As I wrote “I am not very proud of it” (sense of sin section) the lyrics of the current song were “I still do things that I shouldn’t do”.

Here is the full paragraph from Mysticism:

All these forms of the Dark Night—the “Absence of God,” the sense of sin, the dark ecstasy, the loss of the self’s old passion, peace, and joy, and its apparent relapse to lower spiritual and mental levels—are considered by the mystics themselves to constitute aspects or parts of one and the same process: the final purification of the will or stronghold of personality, that it may be merged without any reserve “in God where it was first.”

The function of this episode of the Mystic Way is to cure the soul of the innate tendency to seek and rest in spiritual joys; to confuse Reality with the joy given by the contemplation of Reality. It is the completion of that ordering of disordered loves, that trans-valuation of values, which the Way of Purgation began.

The ascending self must leave these childish satisfactions; make its love absolutely disinterested, strong, and courageous, abolish all taint of spiritual gluttony. A total abandonment of the individualistic standpoint, of that trivial and egotistic quest of personal satisfaction which thwarts the great movement of the Flowing Light, is the supreme condition of man’s participation in Reality.

Thus is true not only of the complete participation which is possible to the great mystic, but of those unselfish labours in which the initiates of science or of art become to the Eternal Goodness “what his own hand is to a man.”

“Think not,” says Tauler, “that God will be always 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 feeling and warmth, and must now serve the Lord with strenuous industry and at our own cost.”

– Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism, Chapter 9

All of this very much fits my experience. It does seem like a weaning off, a transition from “spiritual childhood” to more maturity and adulthood. I don’t consider myself there at all, but see that that’s the invitation.

Manipulation and the dark night of the soul

 

What’s a dark night of the soul?

I tend to use the term the way Evelyn Underhill describes it in her book Mysticism. It’s what typically follows an initial awakening or set of awakenings, and an initial honeymoon phase. It seems to be a phase of life squeezing the bulk of what’s left out of us, so it can be seen, felt, and loved. Unexamined identifications come up to be examined. Unloved parts of us surface to be loved. Unfelt emotions come to be felt. It can be experienced as a very dark phase, depending on the duration and intensity of what’s showing up.

As Jeanne Zandi says, any form of manipulation tends to backfire in this period. It just makes things worse. The dark night of the soul seems to be similar to a gestation and birthing process that needs nurturing and support. (And not a problem or illness to be fixed, although there may be things happening during this phase that can benefit from such a approach.)

I notice that if I go as a client to someone who’s trying to “fix me”, it tends to not work. It’s painful, and it often makes things worse for me. It’s happened with spiritual teachers, a therapist, energy work, well-meaning friends, breath work, and more. It feels much too harsh, and it seems to come from a basic misunderstanding of what the dark night of the soul is about.

In the beginning of this phase, I got burnt several times, and now seem to fortunately have wised up a bit.

What does work is allowing and love, and also gentle inquiry to see what’s already here. And that – along with nature, understanding friends, a good diet, some herbal support, rest, and a few other very simple and nurturing things – seems enough.

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Reasons for the dark night

 

I have written about this before, but wanted to revisit it for my own sake.

There are a few possible reasons for a dark night of the soul:

It’s a common stage in an awakening/embodiment process. It seems to be part of the process, for many or most.

It’s a part of natural swings. After a “high” there is a “down”, and the dark night of the soul sometimes comes after a honeymoon phase, an initial “high”.

With these swings, the invitation is to see, feel and love it all as awareness (Spirit, love), and to find ourselves as that which already is and allows it all.

It helps us see what’s left in terms of unloved and unexamined wounds, trauma, fears, beliefs, and identifications. It’s an invitation to find a new wholeness as a human being, and for identifications to (continue) to wear off.

It seems the dark night happened because I left my guidance. I went against my knowing and my guidance on a major life decision, and didn’t leave the situation even if it continued to not feel right. This led to a sense of being deeply off track, and eventually fatigue and collapse at many levels.

All of these may be part of the picture. It’s a natural phase, it’s an expression of natural swings, it’s an invitation to see/feel/love all as what I already am, it shows me what’s left, and it happened the way it did because I left my guidance on a significant life decision.

What are some possible reasons for an especially long and/or intense dark night of the soul? And, in particular, what may be some reasons in my case? (I am thinking of DNs that last 10-15+ years.)

It followed a long and intense initial awakening phase. The unusually high high was followed by an unusually low low. (Respectively 10+ years, followed by a transition, and then 10+ years.)

I may have special difficulties in finding love for what’s here, and examine it thoroughly. Perhaps due to trauma? In my case, it seems that it’s been difficult for me to allow it – the love, trust, understanding, insights – to deeply sink in and work on me at a deep(ish) level.

I continued to go against my guidance for several years, which deepened the sense of being off track, brought fatigue, and led to eventual collapse. I stayed in a situation that didn’t feel right, at a deep level.

On the topic of stages, here are some as described by Evelyn Underhill and Adyashanti.

Evelyn Underhill’s stages: Initial interest, dark night of the senses, illumination, dark night of the soul, unitive life.

Adyashanti’s stages: Calling, awakening, trails and tribulations, abiding tranquility, transfiguration, relinquishment, transmutation.

To me, it makes sense that a dark night of the senses leads to a more abiding tranquility. It seems that the only (?) way through it is to find a deep love for what’s here, including the deepest pain, and recognize it too – including at a felt level – as awareness and love. And it makes sense if this leads to a deeper sense of ease with what’s here, whether it’s easy or difficult, pleasant or painful, “light” or “dark”. It’s a deeper level of “one taste”, one that’s not only seen or loved, but also felt.

Update:

I am adding these points which came to mind:

A year or two before the dark night of the soul happened, I prayed for full awakening no matter what it would cost (for days, in front of the main altar in Bodh Gaya of all places). This is a type of “dangerous prayer” which may give us what we ask for, but not in the way we expect or (think we) want.

About six months before the darkest phase of the dark night, I received diksha (energy transfer) which led to about half a year in a (simple, easy, unremarkable) nondual state. This was followed by sudden fatigue and collapse at almost all levels. It’s possible that this was a response to the diksha. It may have tried to push or force a natural development that is better left to unfold in its own time. (Of course, this became part of my process and how it all unfolded.)

A couple of weeks before the absolutely darkest phase of the dark night (two years after the diksha event), I said another dangerous prayer. I asked to be shown what’s left, and was plunged into about nine months of primal and immense dread and terror.

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Reversals in the dark night of the soul

 

The most intense period of that great swing-back into darkness which usually divides the “first mystic life,” or Illuminative Way, from the “second mystic life,” or Unitive Way, is generally a period of utter blankness and stagnation, so far as mystical activity is concerned. The “Dark Night of the Soul,” once fully established, is seldom lit by visions or made homely by voices. It is of the essence of its miseries that the once-possessed power of orison or contemplation now seems wholly lost. The self is tossed back from its hard-won point of vantage. Impotence, blankness, solitude, are the epithets by which those immersed in this dark fire of purification describe their pains.

– Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism

Following an initial period of clarity and honeymoon, there is a shift where what’s left surfaces. There is a shift which makes it difficult to hold onto old identifications, and there is a shift so that what has been unloved surfaces with an invitation for it to be met, understood, loved.

For me, this happened in several areas of life. Where there used to be a clear and well functioning intellect, I had trouble reading or engaging in much mental activity at all. Where there used to be a great deal of energy and passion, there was fatigue and lassitude. Where there used to be a clear guidance, there was an absence of guidance. Where there used to be a clear experience of all as God, there was an apparent absence of this too. Where there used to be an abundance of inner and outer resources, there was an absence of inner and – to some extent – outer resources. Where there used to be inner strength, there was a sense of weakness. There used to be dignity and integrity, and it now went out the door.

All of these reversals bring remaining identifications to the surface so they can be seen, understood, loved. It brings whatever was outside of my previous conscious identity to the surface, so these can be met, felt, understood, loved and included.

Among the many things that surfaced for me was, sometimes, a thought that I and my process was misperceived. Some who knew me only during this phase identified me with what they saw there and then, which to me was so clearly about this process more than any inherent and lasting characteristic of me as a human in the world. And that too is a support in this process, although it can be painful at the time. That too helps me find in myself what was previously left out of my conscious identity. They see me in this way, and can I find it too? Can I feel it? Take it in? Own it? Find a welcome for it? Find love for it?

Evelyn Underhill: The Dark Night is a deeply human process

 

The Dark Night, then, is really a deeply human process, in which the self which thought itself so spiritual, so firmly established upon the supersensual plane, is forced to turn back, to leave the Light, and pick up those qualities which it had left behind.

Only thus, by the transmutation of the whole man, not by a careful and departmental cultivation of that which we like to call his “spiritual” side, can Divine Humanity be formed: and the formation of Divine Humanity—the remaking of man “according to the pattern showed him in the mount”—is the mystic’s only certain ladder to the Real.

“My humanity,” said the Eternal Wisdom to Suso, “is the road which all must tread who would come to that which thou seekest.” This “hard saying” might almost be used as a test by which to distinguish the genuine mystic life from its many and specious imitations.

The self in its first purgation has cleansed the mirror of perception; hence, in its illuminated life, has seen Reality. In so doing it has transcended the normal perceptive powers of “natural” man, immersed in the illusions of sense.

Now, it has got to be reality: a very different thing. For this a new and more drastic purgation is needed—not of the organs of perception, but of the very shrine of self: that “heart” which is the seat of personality, the source of its love and will.

In the stress and anguish of the Night, when it turns back from the vision of the Infinite to feel again the limitations of the finite the self loses the power to Do; and learns to surrender its will to the operation of a larger Life, that it may Be.

“At the end of such a long and cruel transition,” says Lucie Christine, “how much more supple the soul feels itself to be in the Hand of God, how much more detached from all that is not God! She sees clearly in herself the fruits of humility and patience, and feels her love ascending more purely and directly to God in proportion as she has realized the Nothingness of herself and all things.”

– Evelyn Underhill in Mysticism, Chapter 9, The Dark Night of the Soul

St. Catherine: Though she perceives that I have withdrawn Myself

 

“In order to raise the soul from imperfection,” said the Voice of God to St. Catherine in her Dialogue, “I withdraw Myself from her sentiment, depriving her of former consolations . . . Though she perceives that I have withdrawn Myself, she does not, on that account, look back; but perseveres with humility in her exercises, remaining barred in the house of self-knowledge, and, continuing to dwell therein, awaits with lively faith the coming of the Holy Spirit, that is of Me, who am the Fire of Love.

– St. Catherine in her Dialogue, quoted in the Dark Night of the Soul in Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill

St. Catherine writes about finding a sense of stability or trust through potentially shaky or tumultuous experiences, what English speaking Buddhists like to call equanimity. I rarely use that word myself, although I often write about what it refers to.

In this case, St. Catherine experienced a removal of the presence of God, as I did some years back. When we tell ourselves we have lost something important to us, whatever it is, it shows us what’s left. It tends to trigger thoughts, with an invitation to question if these are true.

In the case of the dark night of the soul, following a period of illumination, some very specific thoughts are brought to the surface. These may be…. God’s presence was here, and now is gone. What’s here is not God / God’s will / God’s love / God’s presence. What happened wasn’t God’s will / God’s love. Something went wrong. I did something wrong. God has abandoned me. This is not God’s presence.

It seems that St. Catherine has enough trust or clarity to find a sense of stability through the apparent loss of God’s presence. She may have trusted what happened as God’s will or as God’s love. She may have recognized God’s presence even in it’s apparent absence, or even recognized what’s here – including what thoughts would label an absence of God’s presence – as God itself.

She may have trusted that even if she – at a psychological and human level – would prefer something else, what’s here doesn’t need to change. It’s already God’s will. It’s already God’s love. It’s already God’s presence. It’s already God.

Even if I (thought I) clearly saw all of this before my own “dark night of the soul”, when it happened, it was far more challenging than I could have imagined. All the very human parts of me that didn’t trust that all is God’s will came to the surface. Remaining wounds, all the thoughts about very specific things still taken as true – often at an emotional or physical level, surfaced and came up, often quite strongly. My capacity for equanimity seemed to go out the window, and challenging states and situations piled up, which made for a thoroughly humbling mix. And that’s one of the ways this process cleans out what’s left.

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The higher they climb without passing by my humanity

 

The higher they climb without passing by My humanity, the lower afterward shall be their fall. My humanity is the road which all must tread who would come to that which thou seekest.
– Suso, quoted in chapter IX, The Dark Night of the Soul, in Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill

This has been true in my experience. After some years where Big Mind/Heart noticed itself and lived through this life, more of me wanted to be included and align more closely with reality. Circumstances changed so the very human wounds, fears and primal beliefs surfaced. And since this is about the very human wounds, fears and beliefs surfacing to be seen, felt and loved, to align with reality, it is a very human and “unmystical” process.

A longer excerpt:

It is interesting to observe how completely human and apparently “unmystical” was the culminating trial by which Suso was “perfected in the school of true resignation.” “None can come to the sublime heights of the divinity,” said the Eternal Wisdom to him in one of his visions, “or taste its ineffable sweetness, if first they have not experienced the bitterness and lowliness of My humanity. The higher they climb without passing by My humanity, the lower afterward shall be their fall. My humanity is the road which all must tread who would come to that which thou seekest: My sufferings are the door by which all must come in.” It was by the path of humanity; by some of the darkest and most bitter trials of human experience, the hardest tests of its patience and love, that Suso “came in” to that sustained peace of heart and union with the divine will which marked his last state.

Not only see Reality but *be* real

 

“Thou hast been a child at the breast, a spoiled child,” said the Eternal Wisdom to Suso. “Now I will withdraw all this.” In the resulting darkness and confusion, when the old and known supports are thus withdrawn, the self can do little but surrender itself to the inevitable process of things: to the operation of that unresting Spirit of Life which is pressing it on towards a new and higher state, in which it shall not only see Reality but be real.
– Evelyn Underhill, from the Dark Night chapter in Mysticism.

Big Mind, what can you say about this?

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Evelyn Underhill on The Dark Night

 

As her consciousness of God was gradually extinguished, a mental and moral chaos seems to have invaded Madame Guyon and accompanied the more spiritual miseries of her state. “So soon as I perceived the happiness of any state, or its beauty, or the necessity of a virtue, it seemed to me that I fell incessantly into the contrary vice: as if this perception, which though very rapid was always accompanied by love, were only given to me that I might experience its opposite. I was given an intense perception of the purity of God; and so far as my feelings went, I myself became more and more impure: for in reality this state is very purifying, but I was far from understanding this. . . . My imagination was in a state of appalling confusion, and gave me no rest. I could not speak of Thee, oh my God, for I became utterly stupid. [….]

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From realization to being

 

Here is Adyashanti talking about the shift from insight to dissolution of identity, or from realization to being it.

It’s something that’s very much alive for me these days. I knew that realization and insights were just stepping stones, and now they seem to belong more to the past – at least in terms of interest. What it’s about now is being it, allowing and – as Adya says – aligning myself with the shift into being it.

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