I have been asked to write about the “Dark Night of the Soul”. The medieval mystic Saint John of the Cross coined the term and it describes the painful relapses of a spiritual seeker who has tasted (possibly repeatedly) freedom, joy and ecstasy only to rebound and to again enter the darkness of ignorance and conditioned existence. In this context I was asked whether the Dark Night is unavoidable, what exactly causes it and why it manifests so starkly different in individuals and whether there is anything that could mitigate it?
I have tasted the Dark Night myself repeatedly and have briefly described it in the 18th chapter of Yoga Meditation: Through Mantra, Chakras and Kundalini to Spiritual Freedom. There I pointed out that it is not enough to have ecstatically liberating experiences but the question is how will we integrate them into our daily life, to what extent do we manage to embody these episodes and even more to the point, in how far does the experience transubstantiate our entire being?
So that we understand the phenomenon from the bottom up let’s first look at what causes the Dark Night. Firstly, there is nothing random about it. We all experience it according to our karmic propensities. What we have in the past thought, felt, said and done has created who we are today. It has created our present conditioning. It is this conditioning that resists a mystical or “peak” experience. After the peak experience is over our conditioning “reboots” and this rebooting is experienced as painful. Although our conditioning is old this pain is now experienced as new. The reason why we experience the reboot of conditioning as painful is because in the previous peak experience we have tasted ego transcendence. Leaving the peak experience behind it is the ego that now seemingly contracts us. During the peak experience the ego is temporarily transcended and an incredible expansion and freedom of our being takes place. For the first time we consciously dis-identify with the limiting egoic body-mind. This state can be magnificently ecstatic or in some cases it can be seen from a more neutral, observer-like position. In either case it seems as if we become infinite, beyond the limitations of space and time and our psyche.
Usually these experiences are more or less short lived. If they were to become permanent it would be nigh but impossible to lead an active live in society, family, community and profession. For most people then it is appropriate to exit the experience gracefully. So the question is how do we exit the experience? In the case of the untrained person who is dabbling with these states exiting will take place through full reboot of ego and conditioning. Metaphorically this is as if we have become expelled from the Garden of Eden. Where we were lucid and seeing, suddenly we are all blind again. Where there was light, now there appears to be darkness. We had been in this darkness, in this fog, for most of our life but now we have something to compare it with, the blazing sun of pure consciousness or something just short of it. Against this peak experience most of our lives stack up short or at least limited. Exiting the mystical state it may feel as if you trying to compress the whole universe into a small human body. Because of this compression, this density, this seeming lack of expansion the ensuing state is commonly referred to as the Dark Night of the Soul.
So how do we make sense of it? How do we come to terms with it? A great viewpoint from which to look at the Dark Night is to simply look at it as a karmic purification process. You exit the peak experience because of karmic weight that you still carry. This new state that you are experiencing now, albeit less pleasant than the peak experience, gives you the opportunity to consume karma that otherwise would impinge on future spiritual peak experiences. That is comforting then in some way. The Dark Night is not some terrible obstacle that some gatekeeper has placed in our way but it is of our own making. That means that the Dark Night must be seen as a sadhana (spiritual discipline) in its own right. Also, do not be afraid of the term karma. Karma is something that we are generating any moment. It is not something that you are left with for eternity. It simply means that poor choices have been made in the past, which now result in contraction rather than expansion. Future expansion is simply achieved by making high-quality choices. Much more could be said about this but I have talked about karma at length in several of my textbooks for example Samadhi The Great Freedom.
Secondly, we need to look at the Dark Night simply as the re-solidifying of our ego after a series of mystical states or insights. In other words the Night in its varying intensities simply comes with the very fact of being an individual living in a material body. As an individual living in a material body you need an ego. As Sigmund Freud said ego is predominantly body ego. The ego gives you the ability to claim and own your body and care for its survival. That gives you miraculous abilities on one hand but when coming down from a mystical state it does present an obstacle, as there is the tendency for the ego to assume its previous function at the center of your personality. Let’s suppose now we have understood that ego is the cause of the Dark Night and that ego on the other hand gives us the opportunity to live in this world, have our experiences and contribute to the awakening of others. Given that, our approach would then be to transcend the ego whenever needed rather than to destroy, uproot or annihilate it. In other words the ego is not the enemy but we need to learn to go beyond it when and to what degree necessary. In my experience Kundalini meditation involving concentrating on the chakras, combined with breath, mantra and bandhas will do exactly that. I have described the process in great detail in my book Yoga Meditation.
In this book I have described the chakras as evolutionary brain circuitry. If we operate predominantly from reptilian, mammalian, and primate brain circuitry the Dark Night will exert a fierce grip on us. This is due to the fact that any peak experience propels us forward in our evolution, while our sense of ego may still be embedded in fear, competition, aversion, etc. Progressing to the level of the heart chakra gives us the choice to surrender to the Night rather than fighting it. The fighting arises from the ego wanting to achieve and claim for itself spiritual labels such as “enlightenment”. The heart does not want and does not need to be enlightened. The heart is the light and no Dark Night can reach it.
Another important fact to look at is that the intensity of the Night is determined by the density of our conditioning-reboot after a spiritual experience. Conditioning, however, has a physical, a respiratory (pranic) and a mental tier or layer. In order to target/reduce conditioning embedded in all of these layers yoga advises to practice a compound of postures, breathing exercises and meditation techniques, rather than relying on a single one of these methods. Yet another vital ingredient would be the ignition of agni (intelligence of the heart or spiritual intelligence), which is effected by methods such as Kapalabhati, Nauli and Bhastrika. I have described these in great detail in Pranayama The Breath of Yoga.
This then leads us to the other great method to avoid or curtail the Night and that is Bhakti. If we can live our life from deep surrender to the Divine then even the Night will cause us only to say, “Thank You for giving me the opportunity to recognize You even in this disguise.” The goal of Bhakti is to have a visceral experience that there is nothing but the Divine. If we can take this view the Night will literally evaporate as it is seen as nothing but yet another way of the Divine expressing itself. There is nothing dark about it then. We need to experience ourselves, all beings and the entire universe as an embodiment of Divine Love. This is first and foremost a mental act, called agape in Greek, or as Patanjali would call it ‘ishvara pranidhana’. It is really not something new but an admittance of something that is already there. It is only that so far we have refused to admit because we are absorbed in the grandeur of the ego. Through Bhakti that ego is surrendered by not seeing oneself as an isolated individual trying to survive in a hostile universe but handing oneself over to become a conduit for divine expression.
Truly thankful for this article, Gregor! Makes a great sense. Would love if you someday (when and if you want, of course) write in greater detail for Bhakti yoga. I feel there is a lot of misunderstanding of the method and what it really is about. Some confusion arises when speaking of Bhakti and then mixing it with Iskcon (at least for me) and so forth. I really admire the way you talk about all topics connected with Yoga as they give me greater understanding and make me see the bigger picture. Thank you and many blessings your way!
Thanks for your comment, Christine. Yes, there is a huge understanding about Bhakti and many movements take it as a license to become sectarian and supremacist. I have already published a volume on the subject called How To Find Your Life’s Divine Purpose – Brain Software for a New Civilization. You can find it here on this page in the shop or at your favourite online retailer. I do intend to write a separate volume on Bhakti but the major thoughts are already all in How To Find Your Life’s Divine Purpose. Greetings.