Co-Authors: Dillon Shelton & Ronya Banks
Spiritual seekers, beware! The path to enlightenment can be both rewarding and treacherous. Many great spiritual seekers throughout time described how their spiritual practices underwent a time period(s) laden with darkness, despair, fear, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness. This concept was originally coined the “Dark Night of the Soul” by St John of the Cross, a Spanish poet and priest in the 1500’s. References to the Dark Night can also be found in Buddhist, Kundalini, Pagan/Occult, Christian, Jewish, and Islamic literatures.
In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning. – F. Scott Fitzgerald
So, what is it? Will I experience it? Is there any way to avoid it? And, if I find myself in this stage, how can I traverse it with the least amount of suffering possible? The answers to these questions follow…..
The Dark Night of the Soul alludes to a stage of one’s spiritual journey wherein all familiar spiritual feelings and concepts of God, and/or stable conceptual constructs drop away into obscurity, leaving the seeker in a state of profound emptiness and confusion. This is purported to be the true beginning of the path to union in love with the Divine, and/or relinquishing the ego’s grasp.
Puts the sensory spiritual appetites to sleep, deadens them, and deprives them of the ability to find pleasure in anything. It binds the imagination, and impedes it from doing any good discursive work. It makes the memory cease, the intellect become dark and unable to understand anything, and hence it causes the will to become arid and constrained, and all the faculties empty and useless. And over this hangs a dense and burdensome cloud, which afflicts the soul, and keeps it withdrawn from the good. -St. John of the Cross
If you have a daily meditation practice or other complementary contemplative practice, you need to educate yourself on the Dark Night stage. In this case, ignorance is not bliss, and can even be detrimental to your mental health. Britton, a researcher from Brown University’s Department of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, is presently studying the difficulties that frequently arise for practitioners of Buddhist meditation. As she collects empirical evidence of many practitioners, she is appalled at how meditation practice is being marketed to the public in America: as little more than a stress-reduction or relaxation technique. But Britton argues that stress reduction and relaxation are more like side effects than what meditation actually was designed for:
“Meditation comes out of contemplative religious contexts where the goal is — however you want to call it — liberation, awakening, enlightenment; some kind of radical transformation of consciousness. So I don’t think that it would be surprising to hypothesize that if you practice meditation, it will actually produce some of the consequences that it was designed to produce: a radical transformation of consciousness. But a lot of people are very surprised when their consciousness starts to change, because that’s not what they signed up for. They signed up for stress reduction“.
Many who have traversed the dark night of the soul stage will most likely tell you something like: “It really sucked. I thought I was severely depressed, or losing my mind, or needing anti-anxiety meds. But, when I got through it, the fog lifted, and I’ve had a clarity of mind and a deep presence of unshakeable peace and joy that have now become my birthright”.
Daniel Ingram, an outspoken Vipassana Meditation aficionado and Hardcore Dharma teacher has become vocal about equipping Insight Meditation practitioners with knowledge about The Dark Night of the Soul’s stages (also described in Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw’s description of the Progress of Insight). These stages and their experiential descriptions follow:
Dissolution: Meditating gets harder; concentration wanes; easy to get lost in stories and fantasies; posture can worsen; physical pain during sitting can be prevalent; Ingram calls this the ‘couch potato stage’ due to a general lack of motivation.
Fear: Clarity and intensity begin to return; physical distortions can be experienced on the cushion – characterized by general feelings of unease, paranoia, fear, anxiety, etc.; may experience unsettling visions.
Misery: Unshakable sadness and loss; the ultimate truth of the Three Characteristics (un-satisfactoriness, impermanence and no-self) is tearing down our preconceived notions of self and world; this can cause intense grief; attention continually grows more panoramic;
Disgust: Seemingly impossible to focus attention; easier and easier to get caught up in our ‘stories’; general feeling of disappointment, torment, and frustration with our repetitive minds and an unsatisfactory, impermanent world.
Desire for Deliverance: Longing for release; tendency to look for solutions in our ordinary lives to no avail; experience of hypersensitivity to an incessantly noisy mind; even more intense frustration with it all; powerful urges to renounce or go on a spiritual quest; through it all, determination to move along the path arises.
Re-Observation: “The Wall”; all previous stages manifest together; intense aversion to sitting; high levels of restlessness and confusion; feelings that progress is impossible; non-stop chatter in the mind; disenchantment with life, sex, money, relationships, morality, etc.; more subtle levels of emotion are experienced and can be overwhelming; rare but possible-this stage can manifest in ways very similar to mental illness; ie. Psychotic breakdowns, delusions of grandeur, clinical depression, etc….
The lessons we have to learn during the Dark Night are crucially intertwined with directly experiencing and embodying the three characteristics of existence: un-satisfactoriness, impermanence, and no-self.
The grief and sadness one may feel during the Dark Night is directly correlated to the death of the ego. Even though Ego-death is part of what we are trying to achieve through investigative meditation, when it begins, it isn’t that easy. And as the characteristic of no-self becomes clearer, we often mourn the loss of the “Self”.
Fortunately, not everyone has a hard time with the Dark Night. Some go through it without any troubles at all. But, no matter the difficulty of the territory, the Dark Night stage must simply be experienced.
“Underlying great doubt there is great satori, where there is thorough questioning there will be a thorough-going experience of awakening.”- Hakuin
Given that I, Ronya, was stuck in this Dark Night Territory for nearly two years after a Vipassana Meditation retreat, here are some tips I learned that greatly supported me and continue to help others get through this difficult period:
- Realize that you are NOT losing your mind.
- Do not run and go on anti-depressants or anti-anxiety meds unless you are dangerous to yourself or others…. try to meditate your way through this stage.
- Do NOT stop meditating!!!!!! No matter how hard it gets (rolling up of the mat period)!! In fact, practice more.
- Go on an intensive meditation retreat.
- Open yourself to each stage and experience everything as fully as possible.
- Mentally name & note each state/sensation…note, note, note!
- Don’t take it personally.
- Remember, everything – including this stage is impermanent and will not last forever.
- Get the support of your sangha, or spiritual group.
- Get the guidance and support from a skilled teacher in your lineage who can help you navigate the dark night.
Oftentimes in life, the greatest rewards follow our most difficult challenges. There is a beautiful light to be experienced at the end of this tunnel. Do not fear or expect this stage. But, if you do find yourself in it, rejoice! Entering the Dark Night is a sign that you are making progress in your spiritual practice. Plus, as soon as you come through it, you will most likely be rewarded with a positive personal transformation, as well as the skills to deal with life’s future difficulties with much more ease and grace.
“The Progress of Insight” (Visuddhiñana-katha) by The Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw
Daniel Ingram’s website; a ton of useful info here on the territory and skillfull ways to traverse it:
Ingram’s book “Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha”, an invaluable resource for anyone on the path:
Two wonderful interviews conducted by Vince Horn for the ‘Buddhist Geeks’ podcast:
‘The Dark Night of the Soul’ by St John of the Cross:
An interesting article on one man’s interpretation of the DNoS:
A very touching account of Mother Teresa’s DN: