Co-Authors: Dillon Shelton and Ronya Banks
Spiritual seekers, beware! The path to enlightenment can be both rewarding and treacherous. Many great spiritual seekers throughout time have described how their spiritual practices underwent a period 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 literature.
“In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” – F. Scott Fitzgerald
What Is the Dark Night of the Soul?
The Dark Night of the Soul refers to a stage of one’s spiritual journey wherein all familiar spiritual feelings and concepts of a higher power or purpose drop away into obscurity, leaving the seeker in a state of profound emptiness and confusion. Yet this stage can be the true beginning of the path to union with the Divine and the release of the ego’s grip.
According to St. John of the Cross, the Dark Night of the Soul “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 And over this hangs a dense and burdensome cloud, which afflicts the soul, and keeps it withdrawn from the good.”
The Purpose of Meditation Isn’t Stress Reduction
If you practice meditation and contemplation, it’s important to understand this dark stage. Ignorance is not bliss and can even be detrimental to your mental health. Willoughby 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. She collects empirical evidence of many practitioners and 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 actually the potential side effects of meditation rather than its purpose.
Says Willoughby, “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 this: “It really sucked. I thought I was severely depressed, or losing my mind, or needing antidepressants. 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.”
The Stages of the Soul’s Dark Night
Daniel Ingram, author of Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha: An Unusually Hardcore Dharma Book, stresses the importance for Insight Meditation practitioners of familiarizing themselves with the Dark Night of the Soul’s stages (also described in Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw’s The Progress of Insight):
- Dissolution: Meditating gets harder. Concentration wanes. Stories and fantasies hijack you. Posture may worsen. Physical pain while sitting may increase. Ingram calls this the “couch potato stage” due to a general lack of motivation.
- Fear: Clarity and intensity begin to return. Emotional disturbances, such as unease, paranoia, and fear may be experienced on the cushion. Unsettling visions may arise.
- Misery: Unshakable sadness and loss arise. The ultimate truth of the Three Characteristics (dissatisfaction, impermanence and no-self) tears down preconceived notions of self and the world. Intense grief may be experienced.
- Disgust: A belief that it’s impossible to focus the attention. Increasingly caught up in our “stories.” General feelings of disappointment, torment, and frustration with our repetitive minds and with the unsatisfactory, impermanent world.
- Desire for Deliverance: Longing for release. A tendency to look for solutions in our ordinary lives to no avail. Hypersensitivity to an incessantly noisy mind. Even more intense frustration. Powerful urges to renounce or go on a spiritual quest. Throughout it all, a determination to move along the path.
- 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 may be experienced and can seem overwhelming. Rare but possible: manifestations of seeming mental illness, such as psychotic breakdowns, delusions of grandeur, clinical depression, etc.
Lessons Learned from the Dark Night
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 agitation 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 contemplative meditation, when it begins, it isn’t easy. And as the essence of no-self becomes clearer, we often mourn the loss of the familiar “Self.”
“Underlying great doubt there is great satori, where there is thorough questioning there will be a thorough-going experience of awakening.” – Hakuin
My Own Dark Night and How I Handled It
I, Ronya, was stuck in this Dark Night territory for nearly two years after a Vipassana meditation retreat. Here are some pointers I learned along the way that greatly supported me in getting through this difficult period:
- Recognize that the feeling that you’re losing your mind is only a stage in the progress of your spiritual path.
- Resolve to cultivate patience and self-compassion for yourself in this time of struggle.
- Keep on meditating even when all you want to do is stop. In fact, especially when the urge to give up is strong. You will learn much from this.
- Give yourself the gift of a meditation retreat in which you can fully explore the dark night.
- Open yourself to each stage of the experience, allowing yourself to be vulnerable and receptive.
- When feeling overwhelmed, mentally name and note each state and sensation. Note, note, note!
- Don’t take it personally – all spiritual warriors undergo the dark night.
- Remind yourself that everything – including this stage – is impermanent and will not last forever.
- Talk to your spiritual friends about your experience.
- Get guidance and support from a skilled teacher who can help you navigate this dark time.
On the Other Side of 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 seemingly neverending tunnel. Do not fear this stage. Instead, rejoice! Entering the Dark Night is a sign that you are making progress in your spiritual practice. And once you make your way through it, you will most likely be rewarded with a positive personal transformation, as well as the ability to handle life’s future difficulties with much more grace and ease.
- The Progress of Insight (Visuddhiñana-katha) by the Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw
- Daniel Ingram’s website. A ton of useful info here on the dark night 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 of Buddhist Geeks:
- The Dark Night of the Soul by St John of the Cross.
- Beyond Karma’s Dark Night of the Soul article. One man’s eperience.
- First Things’ touching account of The Dark Night of Mother Theresa