Reading the spiritual literature in most traditions, you’re sure to run into some references to an emotionally difficult patch or spiritual crisis. Recently, St. John’s term “Dark Night of the Soul” has come to be used for a broad range of such trials. However, unlike how it is often described, there isn’t one “dark night” but rather various places on the journey where we might have to break down our resistance. We may have a mildly unpleasant discovery we quickly work through or a real “dark night“. Or we may just putter through a slow dissolution. It depends on our practice, tendencies, past self-work, and karma. Having a well established detached witness or observer helps a lot with this.
While there is some danger in giving people the idea that such experiences are typical, we’re also less likely to get as caught by them if we understand what is taking place and disengage from the drama. This is why I raise the subject and explain.
Awhile back, I explored the subject, mentioning places where we might experience a dark period. Adyashanti has a talk on this subject I finally had a chance to listen to. He uses a similar but more precise list, based on more people. In this post, I blend his comments with my own observations.
He mentions that St. John himself described 4 kinds of dark night:
a – dark night of the senses, active and passive
b – dark night of spirit, active and passive
Adyashanti observes that dark nights are not necessary to have but that most people go through a dark night or 2. Also that these are not just negative experiences but are profoundly healing and progressive. He bases his list on current day observations rather than St. Johns. He also mentions we should avoid any concept that we “should” or will have such experiences.
First, he spent some time differentiating a dark night from depression. For example, depression can be related to external factors like diet or circumstance. Spiritual crisis will be related to internal changes and is often punctuated by moments of grace or relief. There can also be an underlying sense of OKness, especially in later stages when more spirit is present.
1) The dark night of the Will
This occurs when we commit to a specific path and something beyond ego starts to come alive. Oftentimes, people have some great experiences, then settle into a more mundane clearing cycle. We may then try to get “results” but bump into the wills inability to do anything to progress. We just get a headache. He said in Zen, they call this discovery of inability the Great Doubt. Zen teachers may try to induce this by pressuring the student to answer an irrational question.
At its worst, we fall more deeply into suffering until we give up. Then we can have a breakthrough the hard way. Eckhart Tolle went through such a crisis prior to awakening. This understanding can help you avoid such a trial.
Adyashanti observes that many here may abandon their teaching or give up the path entirely. This period is as difficult as our resistance is to seeing we’re not in control of the spiritual journey. Adyashanti joked he had a PhD in spiritual struggle.
As we get closer to waking, a deeper value of this may arise – the ego itself. Ego does not want to be seen. It knows that if it’s seen, it will end (or rather its hold will end), so it kicks up a fuss. It spreads doubt about anything that might threaten it. We discover the impersonator and it’s tricks, like using memories of spiritual experiences to pretend to be spirit. Then we can really doubt how we’ll ever overcome the trickster ego.
But if we persist, we can pierce through the veil of the ego and have a breakthrough. When we realize we’re not defined by the ego, it can be a great relief. We let go of a massive illusory weight, one we hadn’t even recognized until it’s lifted.
He observes this glimpse may be brief, remain for a time, or be permanent. (abiding) But once seen, it will not be forever lost. And he reminds us that how big it feels or the associated experiences mean nothing. They are the experiential byproduct. Yet once you pierce it, you know. Some call this Self Realization but I tend to associate realization with being, when the shift is permanent. Experiencing is not being but it can be a lovely taste.
In this sense, the discovery of who you really are can be in 2 stages. The clear experience of who you are beyond the ego, then becoming That. Oftentimes, all stages are like that – experience, then become.
2) The dark night of Loosing
Similar to the first, this occurs when we’ve had a profound experience and want it to stay but cannot. It comes and goes, out of our control. Our tricks no longer seem to work and we start to think we’ve done something wrong. Some will make a mental construct of it and get caught in the memory of the experience of it, a dream 2 stages removed from being. This can happen even if we know better. We’re getting weaned off of the spiritual graces we’ve received and deeper unconscious identifications with will.
At this point, some will abandon all teachers, books, talks, etc. It becomes unbearable, even repellent. Adyashanti suggests this a good time for more silence even if we don’t want that either. A good time to go into the quiet desert. We can also note those occasional moments of grace, reminding us it’s still underway. The dissolving of ego continues, mostly under our conscious awareness.
As always, to move to the next stage, we have to let go of what we’ve become and what goes with that. If we’re unwilling, if we’re stuck on the flowery experiences, we may not get past this stage.
Less a dark night but a sometimes difficult phase in here is when we become aware of our dark or shadow side and/or the story we’ve been playing and living by. This might be one discovery or a progression of revealing. For a more religious person, it can be discovering their faith is just a story. For an intellectual, that their world-view is an illusion. If we’ve been clearing house along the way, this can be a smoother simple discovery.
3) The dark night of Unknowing
With the shift, we find ourselves having to relearn how to be. Even who we are has changed. This may not be emotionally difficult but can be discombobulating. For some, we may at first find ourselves emptiness and unknowingness. And for some, it can be a flat dry spell, before the heart values unfold. Freedom and peace but dry. I found it a curious adventure. What is still true? All experiences of life are reexamined.
He also reminds us that even some time after awakening, a hunk of unconscious crud can break off and rise into our awareness, out of context from our usual experience of life. He observes that although the dark recoils from the light, it also seeks the light for its resolution.
What develops from this process is seeing the divine in everything. As Adyashanti says everything is beloved, and it doesn’t matter if we believe in God. You find you become the flow, the sound of silence. What we need to know or have shows up when it’s needed. There is no independent will. It can take years to get the hang of this due to the ingrained habits of many lifetimes.
4) The dark night of Loves Longing
He was uncertain what to call this one. The ego tendencies still come up here and there, from its broad and “subtle tentacles.” Then the last bit of that ego’s centre collapses along with its driving energy. I call this the end of the core identity, the third of the three “Am-Egos”. This ends the division of inside and outside. Genpo Roshi seems to describe this as his Falling from Grace.
This can complete with a pre-purification Loch Kelly described as the BBQ.
5) Falling away of the Divine
This one he said he’d continue in the evening on a recording I don’t have but I can note it’s necessary to let go of even the divine to move forward. Of course, it comes back but from a completely new perspective. The title for #4 also sounds suitable for this stage as they’re related. For the Unity switch, first there is the identity collapse (#4), then the letting go of the divine (#5) and all knowledge of reality; everything about our reality to this point. This is much like in the first shift but even more through. Then the Unity shift can happen. We gain a new perspective of everything.
Overall, we can see “dark nights” as purifications during the approach to a stage of awakening. A breaking of our resistance to letting go of our current reality to let the next stage in. If we tread lightly and don’t hold much, then there will be no “dark night“. But in those places where we have more holding, there may be some seeing to do, some willingness to let go needed. A more devotional person may experience a few of these stages as being deserted by God.
As he closes the talk he suggests: “Feel what you’re being called to let go of and feel what you’re being called into.”
Receive and release. Experience is not here to hold.