I am still reading Bernadette Robert’s Path to No Self. She writes about the path better than almost anyone I can think of, especially in a Christian context.
At the same time, although what she writes about are elements in many paths to awakening, the sequence is clearly a reflection of her own. As they say, if there are 7 billion awakenings, then there are 7 billion different awakenings. Not everyone go through each phase, and not in the same sequence, and there are elements in other paths to awakening that is outside what she describes. When she writes, she gives the impression that there is one main pattern in the awakening process, and she does not seem to fully acknowledge the variability in her writings. Which is fine. Something has to be left to the reader to wrestle with and clarify for themselves, beyond what the writer explicitly mentions.
I can also see that my initial take on the dark nights was, as I suspected, a little off in terms of the Christian tradition.
In general, a dark night is any time beliefs and identifications wear off. It is a letting go of who we thought we were. And this can be gentle and easy if we didn’t quite believe it in the first place, or we use a process that is effective and gentle such as The Work. Or it can be a struggle if the attachment is stronger, and we resist the wearing off. As usual, resistance=suffering (resistance to experience, that is).
Then there are the specific dark nights of the senses and the soul, as St. John of the Cross writes about.
As I understand it, the dark night of the senses puts us on the path. It is a disillusionment with the world as being able to provide us with what we are looking for (essentially, lasting happiness, and freedom from suffering). We realize that being dependent on circumstances for our happiness is a precarious situation, and look for something else. It is a wearing off of beliefs of the world being able to provide lasting happiness, and identities related to that. (Not a full wearing off, just enough to put us on the path, and the wearing off continues on the path.)
The dark night of the soul leads us into the unitive life. It is a wearing off of beliefs and identities of being separate. There is still a sense of a separate self here, an I with an Other, but now an I that is one with the larger whole and God. It is an awakening at the soul level, to the alive presence, to all as God and consciousness. It is a relatively stable awakening.
For Bernadette Roberts, the transition into realized selflessness from here was more of a slipping into it. She didn’t need another (dramatic) dark night for it to happen.
As she points out, it is the torments inherent in the unitive life that wears off the last beliefs in and identification as a separate self. In the unitive life, there can be a great deal of bliss and joy, yet also torments in terms of (a) not being able to fully share it with anyone, (b) others not being interested in it, and (c) seeing how every experience and insight is still filtered through, and tainted by, this sense of a separate self.
These torments are, in a sense, a dark night happening within the unitive life.
In my unitive life phase, which lasted several years, I certainly experienced my share of each of those torments, and some more, mainly the intensity of it. It was similar to very high voltage being run through ordinary housing wires, and a lot of reorganization happening. And the experience of intensity in this way also, obviously, came from it being filtered through a sense of separate self, of someone this is happening to. No matter how apparently subtle and in the background this sense of a separate self is.
At the time, I could clearly see this happening, but there was nothing “I” could do about it apart from the seeing. And somewhere, somehow, I knew that this too had to be worn off, probably through a dark night of some sort. Which is exactly what happened.
For me, it seems that the initial dark night propelled me into the unitive life in a relatively stable way (actually, into realized selflessness first, and then back into the unitive life). And then, a second dark night to wear off remaining beliefs, including of a separate self (however apparently subtle), and also of awakening itself as desirable.
As Roberts describes, in the unitive life there is often a joy in challenges. For me, it took the form of feeling that anything life could throw at me would be fine, because there was such a clear seeing and living of all as God. The only thing that was not OK was for this connection with God to go away, so that was, of course, what happened.
There was still a sense of an I with an Other there. An I this happened to, which gave rise to a certain pride. And an I that didn’t want this to go away. In short, although there was very much a recognition of this, there was also an attachment to these stories, to content of awareness, which prevented the Ground to come into the foreground in a more full and clear way.