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.
“In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning.” –F. Scott Fitzgerald
“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And over this hangs a dense and burdensome cloud, which afflicts the sou, and keeps it withdrawn from the good.” –St. John of the Cross
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.
“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.
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.
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”.
These stages and their experiential descriptions follow:
- Desire for Deliverance:
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.
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”.
“Underlying great doubt there is great satori, where there is thorough questioning there will be a thorough-going experience of awakening.” –Hakuin
- 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!
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:
An interesting article on one man’s interpretation of the DNoS:
A very touching account of Mother Teresa’s DN: