Dark Night of the Soul

dark-night-of-the-soulFor many in today’s ever-intensifying world, with its fear of economic meltdown, so-called “terrorism” and an absence of spiritual succor, a sense of darkness has fallen over their lives. Military suicides are at an all-time high. The world is being shocked and awed by events beyond individual control, leading to a collective experience of disempowerment and helplessness.

Given this state of affairs, I thought I would connect the above-mentioned collective angst with the concept of a spiritual Dark Night, acknowledging that they are already connected whether we know it or not. As I am an advocate for spiritual practice that leads to and sustains meditative absorption, my discussion will use the Buddha’s definition of meditative absorption (jhana/samadhi) in order to place the Dark Night within a natural progression along the road to advanced stages of practice.

As we will see, the Dark Night is an unavoidable aspect of the spiritual journey, so we may as well approach it from a position of empowerment.

According to the Buddha’s teachings on meditative absorption (jhana/samadhi), preserved in the Nikaya section of the Pali Canon, there are four material (rupa) jhana states, four non-material (arupa) jhana states, and Nibanna. While the Buddha mastered and taught all nine, he maintained that the four material jhanas were essential in leading to final liberation.

The Samadhi Sutta (AN IV.41) gives a quick overview of the four material (rupa) jhanas.

And what is the development of absorption (samadhi) that, when developed and pursued, leads to the joyful home of the way (Di.t.thadhammasukhavihaaraa)? There is the case where a monk — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful qualities — enters and remains in the first absorption (jhana): bliss (piti) and joy (sukha) born from withdrawal, accompanied by applied and sustained attention (vitakka and vicára). With the stilling of applied and sustained attention (vitakka and vicára), he enters and remains in the second absorption (jhana): bliss (piti) and joy (sukha) born of composure, unification of awareness free and — internal assurance. With the fading of joy (sukha) he remains in equanimity, mindful and alert, and physically sensitive to bliss (piiti). He enters and remains in the third absorption (jhana), of which the Noble Ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, he has a pleasurable abiding.’ With the abandoning of pleasure and pain (sukha & dukkha) — as with the earlier disappearance of elation and anxiety — he enters and remains in the fourth absorption (jhana): purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain (no sukha nor dukkha). This is the development of absorption (samadhi) that, when developed and pursued, leads to the joyful home of the way (Di.t.thadhammasukhavihaaraa).

When engaging the four material jhanas, many hurdles must be negotiated. Emotional hurdles, psychological hurdles, physical hurdles, spiritual hurdles. Hurdles having to do with entrenched beliefs. Hurdles having to do with cultural conditioning. Hurdles having to do with relationships

The biggest hurdle for most contemplatives occurs at the boundary between second and third jhana.

Symbolically, this boundary depicts a “lull” after some initial spiritual epiphany, a “coming down from the mountain” that leads to deflation and disappointment, not to mention a pining for getting back to the sublime states hinted at during the spiritual high.

This boundary is known as the Dark Night of the Soul, a term made famous by the great Christian mystic, St. John of the Cross.

The Mahaasaccaka Sutta (MN 36) is where we turn for a description of the Dark Night,  Buddhist style:

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me, what if I practiced stopping the in-breaths and the out-breaths, entering through the nose and mouth? When I practiced stopping in-breaths and out-breaths entering through the nose and mouth, air entering through the ears made much noise. It was like the sound that came from the bellows of the smithy. In the same manner when I stopped in-breaths and out breaths, entering through the nose and mouth, air entering through the ears made much noise. My effort was aroused repeatedly, my mindfulness was established, the body was not appeased owing to the difficult exertion. Aggivessana, even these arisen unpleasant feelings did not take hold of my mind and settle.

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me what if I practiced stopping the in-breaths and the out-breaths further. I stopped the air, entering through the nose and mouth and ears. When I practiced stopping in-breaths and out-breaths entering through the nose, mouth and the ears, a lot of air disturbed the top of my head. Like a strong man was carving the top of my head with a sharp blade. In the same manner when I stopped in-breaths and out breaths, entering through the nose and mouth, and ears, a lot of air disturbed the top of my head. My effort was aroused repeatedly, my mindfulness was established, and the body was not appeased owing to the difficult exertion. Aggivessana, even these arisen unpleasant feelings did not take hold of my mind and settle.

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me what if I practiced stopping the in-breaths and the out-breaths still more. I stopped the air, entering through the nose, mouth and ear lobes, further. When I practiced stopping in-breaths and out-breaths entering through the nose, mouth and the ears further, I felt a lot of pain in the head…Like a strong man giving a head wrap with a strong turban. In the same manner when I stopped in-breaths and out breaths, entering through the nose, mouth, and ears further, I felt a lot of pain in the head. My effort was aroused repeatedly, unconfused mindfulness established, the body was not appeased owing to the difficult exertion. Aggivessana, even then these arisen unpleasant feelings did not take hold of my mind and settle

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me what if I practiced stopping the in-breaths and the out-breaths, for a longer time. I stopped the air, entering through the nose mouth and ears, for a longer time. When I practiced stopping in-breaths and out-breaths entering through the nose, mouth and the ears for a longer time, I felt a lot of pain in the stomach .As though a clever butcher or his apprentice was carving the stomach with a butcher’s knife. In the same manner when I stopped in-breaths and out breaths, entering through the nose and mouth, and ears for a longer time I felt a lot of pain in the stomach. My effort was aroused repeatedly, unconfused mindfulness established. My body was not appeased owing to the difficult exertion. Aggivessana, even then these arisen unpleasant feelings did not take hold of my mind and settle.

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me what if I practiced stopping the in-breaths and the out-breaths, for a longer time. I stopped the air, entering through the nose mouth and ears, for a longer time. When I practiced stopping in-breaths and out-breaths entering through the nose, mouth and the ears for a longer time, I felt a lot of burning in the body. Like a strong man taking a weaker one, by his hands and feet was burning and scorching him in a pit of burning charcoal. In the same manner when I stopped in-breaths and out breaths, entering through my nose and mouth, and ears for a longer time I felt a lot of burning in the body. My effort was aroused repeatedly, unconfused mindfulness established, the body was not appeased owing to the difficult exertion. Aggivessana, even then these arisen unpleasant feelings did not take hold of my mind and settle. Then the gods seeing me thus said, the recluse Gotama is dead. A certain deity said thus: The recluse Gotama is not dead. Will not die. He will become perfect like this.

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me, what if I give up partaking all food. The gods approached me and said, good sir, do not fall to that method, if you do we will inject heavenly essence through the pores of the skin and will support you Then it occurred to me: When I abstain from all food if these gods inject, heavenly essence, that action of mine would be a deception. So I dismissed those gods.

Aggivessana, then it occurred to me, what if I partake food in trifling amounts, drop by drop, the essence of, green grams, peas, chickpeas or pea soup. I partook food in trifling amounts, the essence of, green grams, peas, chickpeas, or pea soup. Partaking food in this manner my body emaciated much. I looked as though I had reached my eightieth year or had come to the end of life. Thus were my limbs large and small. My back was like a camel’s foot, the backbone was like a threaded string of beads when bending and stretching, My rib bones were like the beams of the roof of a decaying hall, that were about to fall apart. My eyes, deeply set in the sockets were like two stars set in a deep well. The skin of my head was like a bitter- goad plucked young and dried in the sun and hot air. Thus were my limbs large and small owing to taking trifling amounts of food. When I touched the skin of the stomach, I got hold of the backbone. When excreting or urinating, I fell face downwards. If I touched the body to appease it, the hairs of the body decayed at the roots fell off. Thus was my body owing to taking trifling amounts of food. People seeing me said, the recluse Gotama is dark. One said he is not dark but tan. Another said the recluse Gotama is neither dark nor tan but of golden hue. Aggivessana, my pure skin complexion was destroyed owing to partaking trifling amounts of food.

The Buddha is not suggesting that we stop breathing or eating, nor is he promoting suffering as a practice strategy.  In fact, once he completed his flirtation with physical austerity, he renounced such an approach as ineffective and unskillful… at which point he emerged on the far shore of the Dark Night, into third and fourth jhanas, under the Bodhi Tree, ready to receive the entirety of the BhuddaDhamma.

The point is, even the Buddha had to negotiate a Dark Night, so we cannot expect to get around this universal initiation.  It is part of the deal when we sign up as spiritual aspirants.

At the boundary between second and third jhana, it is common for a contemplative to experience despair over a slowing of his or her spiritual progress.  What seemed like spectacular attainments have given way to boredom, sloth and torpor.  The original inspiration has dissipated.  As the days, weeks and possibly months roll by with little or no “progress” to show for it, the contemplative is especially vulnerable to two reactions:  1) abandoning her or his practice, thus casting adrift into the Dark Night without a skillful means for negotiating it; or 2) adopting ever more extreme techniques, such as the austerities described by the Buddha, which seem to have the capacity to deepen and intensify the Dark Night, but which are fraught with the potential for disaster, and which are ultimately seen as ineffective.

In the records left by mystics down through the ages, descriptions like the Buddha’s abound. There is something about reaching a point of no return, a moment where the contemplative realizes that she or he has transcended the normal bounds of human experience, such that from that moment onward this person exists in an exclusive “club” that is alien and threatening to most humans.

As the contemplative enters into the “no man’s land” between second and third jhana, a set of challenges unique to her or him awaits. For some contemplatives this period is relatively short, depending on karma and the ability to surrender.  For most, however, it takes years and years — possibly lifetimes — to get from one side to the other.

This is the time when one wishes she or he had never sat for that first meditation, never opened the Bhagavad Gita, never looked into the eyes of a powerful teacher. This is the time when one curses God for the pain and suffering, and for the sense that there is no pulling back from this threshold of insanity.

What is the best way to negotiate the Dark Night?

The best way — or, perhaps, the only way — is to keep moving forward, knowing that this, too, shall pass. One must have faith in the principle of impermanence, which leads to letting go of clinging. Though it may be counter-intuitive for a person to plunge headlong into the mouth of her or his most frightening demons, this is exactly what is required of the skillful and rigorous contemplative. Attack, attack, attack, as if each meditation is the last one. Open, open, open to whatever the Dark Night is throwing at us this time. Release, release, release from our resistance, letting go of our attachment to that resistance. One foot in front of the other, forward, forward, forward into the Dark Night… until a moment arises when that feeling of aloneness and helplessness is replaced by a knowingness that we were never truly alone, that some agency of transformation has been assisting, guiding and arranging our journey in an orderly manner, propelling us toward the other shore.

Keep meditating, keep accessing levels of absorption, become saturated throughout each day and night… and let the process work itself out through an Intelligence greater than our own.

Once we come to this realization of being propelled, third jhana is quickly established and we are able to engage the advanced stages of sadhana that seemed so enticing before we ever heard of the Dark Night of the Soul.

Only then are we ready for the real work, the true purpose for our existence.

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17 responses to “Dark Night of the Soul

  1. Hello Michael, and thank-you for addressing the dark night of the soul. After several decades of leading a contemplative life and speaking to many contemplatives I have found that it is only the rigorous dedicated contemplatives that experience the dark night of the soul; and it is only they who successfully traverse it.

    In the histories of the major mystics we find evidence that they too encountered a dark night of the soul, or descent into hell, and successfully traversed it just prior to their enlightenment. You provided us with a quote of the Buddha’s dark night. On Jesus’ 40-day fast it is said he was tempted by the “devil.” And, of course you referenced Saint John of the Cross.

    Back some years ago I wrote an essay on the significance of the dark night of the soul in my local dharma centers newsletter. It created such a row that three meditation teachers demanded that I step down as a board member of my sangha. We will also note that none of the respected meditation teachers have made any reference to the dark night of the soul, or spiritual crisis. I believe we can conclude that Western contemplative community is not particularly mature.

    Perhaps you have read these essays on the spiritual crisis:

    Commitment as a Refuge, Dark Night of the Soul in Buddhism (January 1, 2003)
    http://www.greatwesternvehicle.org/commitment.htm

    Understanding the Unwholesome States, The Darkness of the Dark Night
    http://www.greatwesternvehicle.org/unwholesome.htm

    Jhana and the Houses of God, Flooding the Dark Night of the Soul with Wholesome States
    http://www.greatwesternvehicle.org/jhana&brhamaviharas.htm

    Love to all, Jhananda

  2. Thank you, dear friend Jeffrey, for drawing a distinction between the Dark Night that a rigorous contemplative experiences, and perhaps other negative experiences that arise through other means.

    I wonder, however, if the Dark Night is exclusively a phenomenon of dedicated contemplatives. I say this with respect, because I do believe that some people become involved with meditation (or some other ecstatic practice), and that when they encounter the threshold between second and third jhana, they frequently abondon their practice and are cast into a lifetime of difficulty, having let go of the one thing that would allow them to negotiate the Dark Night. I am thinking of someone very close to us (especially me, but you know her well) — someone with an especially heightened gift for attaining meditative absorption, but who remains frightened of “what comes up,” and who avoids the mat for all she’s worth. I believe that she is “stuck” in the Dark Night, and that only through committing to a skillful and rigorous practice will she ever be able to emerge on the far shore.

    My sense is that, in this world of instant gratification, there are many who went through a “meditation phase” — who perhaps did a few retreats, experienced fourth jhana on the fifth day, then came down the mountain to a much less glamorous life, and dropped the whole thing in favor of this diversion and that. Oh, sure, they still show up for sangha meetings once in a while — they still read spiritual books, hang out at coffee shops with other spiritually-inclined souls — but when it comes right down to it, they have slacked-off on the level of commitment required to master the Dark Night, and are therefore living with the consequences.

    If I am truly wrong on this, then please correct me, as what I am describing is certainly valid, but perhaps I am using the wrong terminology.

    Thanks, especially, for providing links to your essays on the subject.

    Peace and ease,
    Michael

  3. Michael,

    Thanks a lot for this article, hope I will never be in this state, (dark night of the soul) does it have to happen to all of us ?
    I mean I have many years in meditation, and I have never felt this way, maybe its my strong bhakti, but its good to know that it can happens to any of us, at any time.

    Jeff, I can’t access to FaceBook, don’t know what happen with my computer. Hope I can do it soon.

    Thanks a lot.
    In Shakti
    Neli

  4. Hello Neli, and thanks for commenting here.

    As mentioned, the Dark Night appears to be a feature of the dedicated contemplative’s path when he or she enters the divide between second and third jhana. This is not a linear measurement, however, as the process takes place within a very rigorous (i.e., three hours or more a day) practice — a practice that is skillful in the sense that it does not get diverted into a bunch of useless “techniques” pushed by teachers who have not attained the absorption states.

    The idea is to follow the breath (or whatever object you’re used to) until things calm down enough so that you begin to notice one or more of the jhana nimittas. These nimittas manifest differently for everyone, and they typically come in different combinations. For me it involves the “charismatic sound,” which is always available 24/7; a blissful “halo” in and around my head; and a persistent kundalini glow in the lower extremities, which tends to “erupt” when I get to fourth jhana. There are many other nimittas, so I’d suggest reading Jeffrey’s material on the subject at the GWV archives.

    Anyway, once the nimittas arise, you want to shift your focus from the breath to the nimittas. This may take some getting used to, if you haven’t already incorporated it into your meditation. As time goes on, however, and you manage to establish a rigorous three-hour-minimum daily meditation practice, the nimittas lead to full-blown jhana states, which then lead to a saturation state between sits. When this goes on for a period of time, one finds that first jhana is easily accessed… then second jhana comes very naturally… then, perhaps, a plateau is reached where not a lot of change occurs… and the next thing you know, you’re in the Dark Night.

    The whole thing hinges on one’s willingness to build her entire life around her meditation practice, such that the practice — when saturated — continues throughout the day and night. This level of practice, if it reflects something of the jhana activity described above, will certainly bring the contemplative into the Dark Night, which is a “must” for her to get to third and fourth jhana, where the real work takes place.

    I hope this makes sense!

    The Dark Night, by the way, ought not to be pathologized. It’s nothing to fear, but rather something to be embraced. Our internal guidance, fueled by samadhi/jhana, will propel us through the process in an efficient manner. We just need to stick with our practice as though it’s all that keeps us alive in the world… and I can say from experience that the anxieties, neuroses, fears and trepidations that bubble up during the Dark Night… they get sanded down to nothing, and we are suddenly made ready for the more profound energies that are waiting to do their thing.

    Many blessings,
    Michael

  5. Hello dear friend Michael, it is excellent to continue this dialog with you, because I have found so few skillful contemplatives these days. Most contemplatives are just caught up in endless mental gymnastics of one meditation exercise or another. Too few have found the charisms, which the Buddha called jhana-nimtta, other than you and the few other members of the JSG.

    In some ways I would agree with you in “drawing a distinction between the Dark Night that a rigorous contemplative experiences, and perhaps other negative experiences that arise through other means,” because unskillful contemplatives rarely learn to let go of the technique, so they ultimately become hampered by the technique and amateur guidance.

    However, we have to admit that the spiritual crisis is the same from one person to the next, although it has its personal manifestations. The only real difference between the skillful contemplative and those who have amateur guidance, as you pointed out, is that the skillful contemplative has arrived at absorption (jhana) and its associated charisms (nimittas). Whereas the contemplative who follows the amateur is too often left in the limbo of a perpetual dark night. Please do see the quote from the (SN 8) (8) “The Competent Cook,” below.

    On the importance of paying attention to the signs of absorption
    Satipatthana Samyutta (SN 8) (8) “The Competent Cook,”
    “Suppose, contemplatives, a wise, competent (and) skillful cook were to present a king or royal minister with various kinds of curries…that wise…cook observes the sign of his master’s preferences.”

    “So too, monks, here some wise, competent, skillful monk dwells contemplating the physical body, ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed covetousness and displeasure in regard to the world. While he (or she) dwells contemplating the physical body, his (her) mind becomes absorbed (jhana), his (her) corruptions (nivarana) are abandoned, he (she) picks up the sign (nimitta). He (she) dwells contemplating the (5 Skhandas) body (rupa)… sensations (vedana)… perception (sañña)… mental states (sañkhara)… cognition (viññana)… ardent, clearly comprehending, mindful, having removed covetousness and displeasure in regard to the world. While he dwells contemplating phenomena, his (her) mind becomes absorbed (jhana), his (her) corruptions (nivarana) are abandoned he (she) picks up the sign (nimitta)” of absorption (jhana).
    http://www.greatwesternvehicle.org/pali/Phala_Nikaya/competentcook.htm

    Neli, I look forward to your presence on FaceBook.

    Love to all, Jhananda

  6. Hello dear friend Jeffrey,

    This is an excellent and informative comment thread. My thanks to you for putting the time and energy into the discussion.

    Your encyclopedic grasp of the Phala Nikaya is something to behold, and what a powerful tool it is! The Buddha really did lay it all out there for those with eyes to see. It took 25 centuries, however, for someone like you to come along — someone whose meditative attainment is masterful, with the added benefit of being a scholar of the ancient dialogues, having patience enough to study them in such a way as to draw out a practical “unpacking” of the original teachings and apply them to your experiences with absorption. When one browses through the GWV website, one gets a sense of the incredible gift you’ve left to the world — a set of “secrets” right there in plain site, free to anyone with Internet access and a willingness to sacrifice EVERYTHING in order to avail oneself of the required practice.

    It is truly a boon to be able to stand with you in this work.

    With love,
    Michael

  7. Hello Michael,

    Thanks a lot for your advice. I really appreciate being aware of the Dark Night of the Soul.

    I have read that this state can last days, months or years, is it possible to know the time it will remain on us ?

    I mean I don’t know if I have been yet through this state, or if I will be on the future, how can one be sure if one is getting through this state ?

    I meditate 3 hours per day, feel a lot of ecstasies, but have learnt to tune them cause I want to reach the Samadhi states.

    I have also the “charismatic sound” and more nimittas, and I really enjoy them a lot, but am not focused on that, even if I love it, it caughts a lot my attention, but I have to divert my attention from the nimittas to head on to the non material jhanas.

    I feel so great, but sometimes certain circumstances of life makes me feel uneasy, but mostly I feel like in a sort of ecstasy that remains 24/7 on myself.

    I don’t know if others problems or circumstances can drag us into the Dark Night of the Soul.

    Thanks a lot
    in Shakti
    Neli

  8. Hello again dear Neli,

    It’s wonderful to know that you have such a rigorous and dedicated practice. Rare, indeed, is the person who manages to overcome the world’s magnetic pull enough to establish a peaceful, blissful and ecstatic base from which to operate.

    I’m afraid that there’s no way to know how long the Dark Night lasts for a particular individual. What we assert, however, is that a skillful meditation practice — as outlined in the original post and my first response to you — not only speeds the process, but transforms it into a valuable training for working in the higher rupa jhanas — and jhanas three and four are where we want to reside most of the time, even when not in formal meditation.

    As for the practice of “tuning” or diverting away the jhana nimittas in order to attain “samadhi states” — well, this goes against our meditation recommendations, as we (like the Buddha) encourage contemplatives to maintain focus and attention on the nimittas, because this leads directly to a smooth unfolding of the jhana states. Jhana = Samadhi, in fact. One must master first jhana, second jhana, third jhana, fourth jhana… and then maintain the ability to go into the arupas at will. Seeking to skip over the four rupa jhanas is not what we recommend. The Buddha was initiated into the arupa jhanas, but he realized that the arupas, while valuable within a certain context along the way, are not “it.” When he stepped back to look at things, the entire buddhadhamma came to him, and he taught that one must traverse all eight (or nine) jhanas in order to establish the base for whatever needs to happen before Nibbana can emerge.

    I must leave for work, but I hope this addresses some of your concerns.

    Be well,
    Michael

  9. Hello Michael,

    Thanks a lot for your information. I’ll try from now on, not to control what it comes while in meditation, (this is a bad habitude I got used to while I was in Kundalini meditation) . I’m going to re-start again the Jhana meditation. Thanks.

    in Shakti
    Neli
    Neli

  10. Hello Neli,

    That’s one of the things that I love about this approach to meditation: the flow knows where to go. All we have to do is put our attention on the signs of absorption, and absorption takes care of itself. I just got up from my morning sit to find this sweet comment from you, and I’m feeling the bliss, joy and ecstasy that is my birthright — as it is yours!

    Do keep up the good work, my dear friend.

    Blessings,
    Michael

  11. Hello Michael,

    Thanks a lot for your advice. You are very right, the flow knows where to go. It’s a terrible mistake of some yoga or Kundalini teachers to teach the neophyte to control the Shakti’s energy.

    Thanks for your kind comment.

    In Shakti
    Neli

  12. I am recently emerging from my own dark night of the soul, and upon searching for images to depict my experience, I was struck by the one that you posted.

    Can you tell me where you found this image and how I might get a copy of it?

    Thank you so much.

  13. Articles like this are very important and thank you for writing it. A few years back I meditated intensively for just over six months. After four months of intense meditation I began experiencing difficulties that I wasn’t able to make sense of and no one else was able to understand. Having since found articles on the dark night I at least now understand why the difficulties came about.

    I couldn’t agree more on your point regarding only serious meditators encountering this hurdle. There are endless websites promoting meditation and its benefits, workplaces promoting mental health and the benefits of meditation, retreat centres all over the world offering weekend retreats and instruction however just about nowhere is there anyone discussing or raising the warning signs regarding the hurdle of the dark night inevitable in practicing serious meditation. The unfortunate outcome is that meditators like myself coming up against the dark night instantly believe they are doing something wrong and back off, or quit altogether.

    I’m not sure that I agree the dark night reveals itself ONLY at the point between the second and third Jhana. I have encountered difficult hurdles prior to reaching this point that shook me up quite seriously. Kundalini flows randomly occurring during work were perhaps the only real enjoyable aspect of things. I know for certain that encountering the first insight into anatta (no self) was a major issue that I grappled with and for me personally brought about serious discomfort. I went through a tough period at 15 years of age that I now know was also to do with encountering anatta, which occurred naturally and was encountered without practicing any meditation. The breakdown of your sense of self is both beneficial for advancing meditation, but I also found personally as unsettling in day to day life. I amusingly recall a number of occasions where instead of ‘me’ being at a particular social occasion, it felt more like ‘baron consciousness’ being at a social occasion. More in tune with reality, but an eerie experience nonetheless. I reached a point where my loss of a sense of self had brought about a serious sense of insecurity and vulnerability – like I was breaking up with myself and was completely lost as to how to continue on in life. I will note though that this was more so an issue in daily life than in meditation; mindfulness seems to assist greatly with managing thoughts and emotions.

    I also recall a sense of breaking away mentally from where everyone else seems to reside; while everyone else was involved in intellectual issues I can remember simply being mindful of the energy in the room. This would also at times bring with it a sense of loneliness in that you know you are heading in a different direction and away from everyone else, and presented a dilemma in terms of priorities; social life versus practice.

    The other hurdles were irritability and aversion. I found that spending hours in still peaceful states seemed to lower my tolerance levels for noise and daily irritations. This may have been a combination of struggling also with anatta, but was quite evident. And for reasons I still don’t understand I began to struggle with aversion with regard to a lot of mental activity.

    The psychological adjustments and shifts that meditation will bring about with serious practice break up your usual mental habitual tendencies and patterns that you have been used to over many years. For some this all may be relatively pain free and a lot of people cope well with change, for others like myself, I find some experiences and adjustments extremely uncomfortable and unsettling and have to find methods to be able to manage and progress through them. It may be a case of how severely you cling and attach to things; in that the more severely you cling and attach the more difficult the adjusting. Depression during the dark night may simply be as a result of the subtle realisation of the impermanence of everything; where you finally begin to let go of your unrealistic expectations. This letting go of long term expectations and hard held beliefs is a death in itself.

    The dark night, I believe, if you practice seriously, can present itself at more than one point along the path rather than at a specific stage. Just in the same way that defilements can appear at all times throughout the day. I am aware though that you are speaking of a specific hurdle in reaching the third Jhana and perhaps not the dark night in a general sense.

  14. Excellent points all the way through your comment, Vic — thanks for your thoughtfulness, and for sharing.

    For what it’s worth, the notion that the Dark Night happens between 2nd and 3rd jhana is just symbolic — these things are not linear, as you well know from experience. There is, however, a “gulf” between 2nd and 3rd jhana that is well-described by the Dark Night of the Soul. Difficulties and shadow material are liable to arise at any time along the Way….

  15. Hi Michael,

    I found your blog through the Fruit of The Contemplative life forum. I realize this article is old but I wanted to leave a thank you note as I greatly enjoyed reading it.

    It has never occurred to me that the description in Mahaasaccaka Sutta (MN 36) was in reference to the Dark Night of the Soul. I always simply assumed it was the Buddha realizing macho BS was just BS and rejecting it. I never connected the dots before as it were.

    By the way, the Buddha mentions that the reason he had to go through that six year period of austerity (Dark Night perhaps) was because in a past life he had insulted a Buddha eons ago. And normally it takes Buddhas just a day of meditation or so to wake up. (However, I can’t remember the source to this….) Anyway, the point being that some people go through it and some don’t.

    The stories of Mara’s army attacking the Buddha before his enlightenment in the Jataka always resonated with me as a description of the Dark Night. Although I do not take the Jataka seriously as the events or teachings of the Buddha, some of the stories are inspiring none the less.

    Best, Luke

  16. Thanks for these kind and informative words, Luke — and welcome. I’m working on a list of topics to write about on this blog, and an end to an unexpected hiatus. It’s good to meet you!

  17. Pingback: My Notion of Prayer | Enlightenment or Salvation?

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