Daniel Ingram on the Dark Night

There are two basic things that happen during the Dark Night, one emotional, the other perceptual. Our dark stuff tends to come bubbling up to the surface with a volume and intensity that we may never have known before. Remembering what is good in our life can be difficult in the face of this, and our reactivity in the face of our dark stuff can cause us staggering amounts of needless suffering. On top of this, we also begin to experience directly the fundamental suffering of duality, a suffering that has always been with us but which we have never known with this level of intensity or ever clearly understood. We face a profound and fundamental crisis of identity as our insight into the Three Characteristics begins to demolish part of the basic illusion of there being a separate or permanent us. This suffering is a kind of suffering that has nothing to do with what happens in our life and everything to do with a basic misunderstanding of all of it. 

Dealing with either of these two issues, i.e. our dark stuff and our fundamental crisis of identity, would be a difficult undertaking, but trying to deal with them both at the same time is at least twice as difficult and can sometimes be overwhelming. It goes without saying that we tend not to be at our best when we are overwhelmed in this way.

The knee-jerk response often is to try to make our minds and our world change so as to try to stop the suffering we experience. However, when we are deeply into the Dark Night, we could be living in paradise and not be able to appreciate this at all, and so this solution is guaranteed to fail. Thus, my strong advice is to work on finishing up this cycle of insight and then work on your stuff from a place of insight and balance, rather than trying to do it in the reactive and disorienting stages of the Dark Night! I cannot make this point strongly enough. 

As a close friend of mine with a ton of experience in insight practices and a gift for precise language and teaching so aptly put it, “The Dark Night can really fuck up your life.” However, I will give you two hard-won pieces of advice that I have found have made the difference in the face of these stages. First, make the time to do basic insight practices. Do your very best to get sufficient insight into the Three Characteristics so as to get past this stage! Make time for retreats or alone time and don’t get stuck in the Dark Night. You and everyone around you will be happy that you did so. 

The second piece of advice is to have a “no-bleedthrough” policy when you suspect you are in the Dark Night. Simply refuse to let your negativity bleed out onto everyone and everything around you. Failure to do so can be disastrous, as your profound lack of perspective, fixation on negativity and the suffering from your fundamental crisis of identity can easily get projected out onto things and people that simply did not cause that suffering! No one appreciates this at all and it does no good whatsoever.

– Daniel Ingram from Chapter 5 in Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha, Dissolution, Entrance Into the Dark Night.

Again, this fits my experience. There is a lot of emotional things surfacing in the dark night, and also an invitation to see through it all and our most basic identity. And the way through it is to focus on seeing through it all, through inquiry. It’s a simple prescription, but, in reality, it can often look more messy.

Some useful pointers from his book: (a) Continue a regular meditation practice, if at all possible. (b) Focus on seeing through what’s surfacing and the confusion around one’s identity, through inquiry and insight. Take care of the emotional stuff as needed, although emphasize seeing through it. (c) Don’t worry if the laser focus that may have been there in meditation prior to the dark night now is gone, and attention is more wide and unstable. That’s typical of this phase. Don’t let this discourage you from continuing your meditation practice. (d) Stay with the sensations, instead of getting caught up in stories. [Inquiry can help release images and words “glued” to these sensations, making it easier to feel the sensations as sensations.] (e) Learn a bit about the typical characteristics of the dark night phase, and the subphases within it. That will give some peace of mind. (f) Avoid blaming others and the world for the pain. That’s not where it comes from.

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