The Dark Night of the Soul
Updated: Jan 7
On Christmas Eve, I called my big sister from the airport in Houston on my way to Cozumel. I could hear a deep sadness in her voice. I changed my plans and rerouted to Las Vegas, just as she had done for me when I was at my lowest. I'm her soul brother.
What she was experiencing was familiar to me. The Christian mystic Saint John of the Cross called this experience "the dark night of the soul." In this blog post, I want to address the "dark night" experience.
In the West, meditation has been marketed as a form of stress relief. Experienced practitioners, by contrast, meditate to wake up. As the mind settles, we begin to see the machinations of ego clearly. The games of self-deception cease and our self-delusions come to the fore. We see how we co-create our reality and come face-to-face with the meaninglessness and vanity that was our life. We encounter a void, the nothingness of the ego, the emptiness of the little self, and the terrifying fear of self-extinction.
As a practice, meditation can sometimes be anything but relaxing. "The traditional practices have a way of reaching deep into the psyche and bringing dark and painful things about ourselves into awareness. For a person seeking enlightenment this is considered necessary; for someone just trying to de-stress, maybe not," writes Barbara O'Brien. "If you are recovering from a recent severe trauma or a deep clinical depression, for example, meditation may feel too raw and intense, like rubbing sandpaper on a wound."
A skilled teacher knows how to guide students through these seemingly adverse experiences. Indeed, these dark nights are often necessary. The pain is to be seen, fully felt, and embraced- not avoided, suppressed, exiled, drugged, distracted, or empathized away. We must go directly into the fire of fear, into the void of nothingness. Resting in stillness, the mind becomes aware of its own self-radiant luminosity. We recognize its inherent goodness and our interconnectedness with All-That-Is. But you may have to limp through the Valley of Death on blistered feet to get there. And along the way, everything may be taken from you: your illusions, your dreams, your comfort blanket, your very identity. No wonder most choose never to begin the journey. The ego offers the illusion of comfort, safety, and predictability.
There are many "dark night" experiences. Hallucinations, visions, disassociation, out-of-body experiences, and other sensory misfirings are common. What my sister was experiencing went deeper. She was gaining insights into misery, into emptiness, into meaninglessness. Passing through these waypoints is a kind of dark night of the soul.
My sister explained her experience more beautifully. She referred me back to a Bible story we learned as children. "Remember when Jesus was at Bethesda and asked the crippled man if he wanted to be healed? 'Do you want to be healed?' I used to think this verse was stupid and made no sense. It seemed obvious that a crippled man would want to be healed, but Jesus knew from experience that most people didn't want that. 'Do you want to be healed? 'Some might answer yes, but most are attached to their suffering. 'Do you want to be healed?' Some like the attention and prefer to complain. 'Do you want to be healed?' It's comforting to blame others for our misery. 'Do you want to be healed?' The crippled man's life was predictable; there was a tacit agreement between him and the people who pitied him. He assumed his role as helpless victim and his benefactors played their roles as saviors. To be healed would introduce uncertainty and a new degree of personal responsibility he might not be ready to assume.
"'Do you really really really want to be healed?' I wasn't sure I could answer yes."
My sister said she prayed repeatedly for healing... and the healing came when she indexed her prayer to sincerity.
"It's like if you had food poisoning. To eliminate the poison, the body trembles and convulses violently. You vomit. You have diarrhea, chills, fever. Your body aches. You writhe in pain. You must suffer before you heal." And the cure felt so much worse than the comforting delusions of self-deception.
She felt like she had made progress. "But now I see how much cleaning I have to do. It's like there's vomit and feces everywhere." She made mistakes; we all have our share of them. She sees that she was responsible for her mistakes and assumes the consequences. She sees how she co-created her own reality. She realizes that she needed to make profound changes at the subtlest levels of thought.
She faced her suffering directly and with courage, but that doesn't take the edge off of it. She faced her fears and beliefs. Now what? There was work to do. She plans on quitting her job to pursue her passions. That's risky and scary. Walking away from the known and the comfortable and the predictable is scary. Putting away the mask is scary. Saying goodbye to the little self and to the world it created is scary. Confronting the dark nothingness and meaninglessness of ego is scary.
When I shared the draft of this essay with my sister, she suggested one correction. "It's a dark night for the ego, not for the soul. The soul remains secure, whole and untouched. It's the ego that is broken and separate and confused."
When the dark night comes, many choose to return to sleep. The poet Rumi writes:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you. Don't go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want. Don't go back to sleep.
Do you really want to be healed?
Most want a balm to feel better, when amputation may be necessary.
Do you really want to be healed?
No one embarks on a journey without knowing the final destination. And many who walk the path of meditation have only the vaguest idea where it goes. We may have our own dark nights. Is the journey worth the effort?
I came across an interesting study years ago by Dr. Jeffrey Martin on persistent non-symbolic experiences. It provides one of the clearer descriptions on the topography of inner landscapes. He doesn't map how to get there, but the path is marked, yet it is not well traveled.
Martin conducted an international study on persistent non-symbolic experience (PNSE), more commonly known as: enlightenment, nonduality, the peace that passeth understanding, unitive experience, and hundreds of other terms. The term persistent denotes a consistent, ongoing experience versus a transient one- however powerful, mystical or ecstatic. His research resulted in a classification system for these types of experiences. It also led to the discovery that these were psychological states that were not inherently spiritual, religious, or limited to any given culture or population.
Instead of levels or stages, Martin proposed 4 locations- where further is not necessarily better. At a particular stage in life, for example, location 1 may be preferable to 3 for some. Locations are clusters of experience that emerged from the data.
Location 1 participants experienced a dramatic reduction in or seeming loss of an individualized sense of self. Their minds seemed much quieter because of a reduction in the quantity and/or emotional strength of self-related thoughts, but there were still some emotionally charged thoughts that could pull them back into more active thought streams. They experienced a range of positive and negative emotions, but these emotions were much more transient and did not have the power over them that they once did. Conditioning could still trigger thought streams and stronger emotions, but even these passed in a matter of seconds. The overall change in their thoughts and emotions left them with a deep sense of peace and beingness. This beingness felt more real than anything previously experienced and made the external world and their former experience of an individualized sense of self seem less real by comparison. This deep peace could be suppressed by external psychological triggers, but would recover once the stimulus was removed. Their sense of self seemed larger and to expand beyond the physical body. There was a new sense of connectedness between what was formerly perceived as the internal and external worlds.
Location 2 participants experienced an increased loss of self-related thoughts as well as a continued reduction in the ability of the thoughts that did remain to draw them in, when compared to Location 1. As they progressed through this location the range of emotions they experienced became increasingly positive. Participants in Location 2 were more likely to feel that there was a correct decision or path to take when presented with choices. Participants who progressed to this location from the previous one reported an increased sense of well-being.
By Location 3, participants had shed their negative emotions, and now experienced one dominant emotion. This single emotion felt like a mixture of various positive emotions such as impersonal/universal compassion, joy, and love. Parts of negative emotions, which one participant called proto-emotions, were sometimes still felt but did not form into full emotions. The single remaining positive emotion was a constant experience and companion for Location 3 participants. The remaining traces of self-referential thought had continued to fall away. In Location 3, participants’ experience of inner peace and beingness continued to deepen. So too had their feelings of connectedness and union/unity. Participants at Location 3 often saw the world as unable to be any other way than it already is in the moment. While all participants expressed this to some degree it seemed to have grown very deep roots by this point. These participants generally did not place importance on choosing the correct decision or path like Location 2 participants.
Location 4. All remaining vestiges of self-related thoughts are gone by this point, as are experiences of emotion. Feelings of deep interconnectedness and union with God, an all pervasive consciousness, and so forth also disappeared. These participants reported having no sense of agency or any ability to make a decision. It felt as if life was simply unfolding and they were watching the process happen. Severe memory deficits were common in these participants, including the inability to recall scheduled events that were not regular and ongoing. Participants who progressed to this location from one or more previous ones reported the highest level of well-being. Often this amazed them as they did not imagine anything could have been better than Location 3.
Virtually all of the participants discussed a pronounced shift in the nature and quantity of thoughts. The nature and degree of the change related to a participant’s location on the continuum. On the early part of the continuum, nearly all participants reported a significant reduction in, or even complete absence of, thoughts. Around 5% reported that their thoughts actually increased. Those who reported thoughts, including increased thoughts, stated that they were far less influenced by them. Participants reported that for the most part thoughts just came and went, and were generally either devoid of or contained greatly reduced emotional content. Almost immediately it became clear that participants were not referring to the disappearance of all thoughts. They remained fully able to use thought for problem solving and living what appeared outwardly to be a ‘normal’ life. The reduction seemed limited to self related thoughts.
There do not appear to be negative cognitive consequences to this reduction in thought.
When asked, none said they wanted their self-referential thoughts to return to previous levels or to have the emotional charge returned to them. Participants generally reported that their problem solving abilities, mental capacity, and mental capability in general had increased because it was not being crowded out or influenced by the missing thoughts. They would often express the notion that thinking was now a much more finely tuned tool that had taken its appropriate place within their psychological architecture.
The amount of self-related thoughts as well as the percentage with emotional content
continued to decrease as participants moved along the continuum. During the earlier parts of the continuum participants could still be ‘grabbed’ by thoughts and have their mind pulled into thought sequences similar to what other research has shown in mind wandering (Smallwood & Schooler, 2006). They reported noticing this process occurring relatively rapidly and stated that this noticing led back to the experience of reduced thoughts. This ‘grabbing’ process also reduced as participants moved along the continuum. At the farthest extreme, participants reported no self-referential thoughts at all.
With PNSE, in a matter of seconds (reported as 2 to 90 depending on the severity of the incident involved, and usually on the extreme low end of the range if not life-threatening) their emotional state would return to a baseline of high wellbeing, and they were no longer reactive or bothered by the incident. They stated that prior to PNSE they would have remained upset much longer in similar situations. Commenting on the difference, they typically speculated that the lack of an individualized sense of self seemed to affect whether or not, and how long, they held onto the perceived injuries from these events.
All participants reported a significant increase in their experience of and focus on what was happening in the present moment along with a dramatic reduction in thoughts about the past and future.
As they moved deeper into the continuum, participants were increasingly able to control their reactivity to external events. As this progression continued this active control faded and became increasingly less necessary. Participants reported simply having fewer and fewer internal experiences arise in reaction to external events.
Do you really want to embark on this journey? Do you really want to be healed?