A Dark Night Exit Strategy
Wed, Oct 1, 2008
St. John of the Cross used the term Dark Night to signify a period of spiritual dryness and difficulty, and the dark night is a very real phenomena, experience among spiritual practitioners of every ilk and tradition. When one has built up enough momentum in their spiritual practice (and often times this can even happen outside a spiritual tradition or formal spiritual practice) then it’s common to enter a phase of practice called the Dark Night of the Senses.(1) This is a period of intense purification, of (potential) insight, and a necessary step toward deeper insight in the fundamental nature of things.
It’s also a death, a dying to that which is old so that the new can emerge. As such it can be incredibly difficult, so difficult in fact that many people get stuck here (for days, months, years, or even their entire lifetime). Part of the reason they get stuck is because it’s so difficult, but I think more importantly they don’t know what’s happening (have no good model for explaining their current situation) and thus no motivation for learning the lessons that the dark night presents and moving on to new territory. Their ignorance of the situation traps them there.
How to Know You’re In the Dark Night
The great thing about spiritual practice is that there seems to be a predictable series of events that happens as one investigates their mind and experiences. It doesn’t seem to matter what techniques or method one uses, as these same general patterns appear to emerge across different traditions and for various people throughout time. What one finds is that there is almost always a period, prior to entering the dark night, in which one’s investigation becomes extremely clear, joyful, and bright. In fact it’s not uncommon at this point to see bright lights, experience sensations come and go very rapidly, or to even feel that you are communing with the Divine. Oftentimes people feel like they have gotten enlightened during this period, but soon after the experience, clarity, etc. fades and they are left having to deal with the very real territory of the dark night.
At this point, it’s quite common that people will want to drop spiritual practice altogether. Where before they were extremely engaged in practice, now they are completely fed up with it. They may still hang around spiritual circles and be into spiritual practice, but their overall attitude has fundamentally changed. They have started the process of peeling away the idealism of enlightenment, and if they had a lot invested in those ideals it can a period of intense anger and resentment. That is why it’s not uncommon for those in the dark night to change their relationship to spiritual practice, be less interested (on one level) in the practice, but also having had a profound encounter with some pretty deep truths about reality can never quite be the same. For them, the suffering of duality is real. But oftentimes it’s not clear how to move forward from there.
These “chronic dark nighters”, if they don’t re-engage with investigation will find themselves haunted by what they’ve seen, unable to move forward, and also unable to go back. But it’s exactly the thing that got them into the dark night (usually a period of intense investigation) that has the power to move them forward. The trick then is in recognizing one’s situation and then creating, what in the Business world, one might call an Exit Strategy.
Finding a Way Out
An exit strategy, is a used in the business world when during a difficult period one has to have a plan in order to minimize the difficulties of that period. For that reason exit strategies aren’t particularly fun, but they are extremely practical. My own strategy for making it through the Dark Night was to practice well, to practice enough, and to practice with good guidance and models. To practice well means to engage in a type of investigation or inquiry that reveals something about reality we had not known before. In Buddhist practice there are particular marks of reality that one begins to notice through meditation. These include Impermanence, Suffering, and Selflessness. In short, one begins to notice that phenomenal reality is always changing and fluxing, that the process by which a reference point is constructed, is a process (there isn’t a real underlying reference point there) and that the effort to try and make reality different than it is, is exactly what brings about dissatisfaction.2 These are things that are realized through practicing well.
Practicing enough means that it often takes a certain momentum in this direction to lead to results. Just as it often takes hundreds or thousands of hours to begin to master a normal discipline, so too with spiritual investigation it often takes a certain amount of time, with proper investigation, to make it through some of the initial obstacles. Retreat practice, which you see in pretty much every wisdom tradition, has this very thing as its focus. On retreat people are diving deep into their practice, so that they can build up enough momentum in a particular direction to attain “escape velocity,” though ironically it’s not an escape from anything per say but some core mistaken assumptions about identity.
Having good guidance and maps means that in order to be successful in traversing the dark night, and making further progress on the contemplative path, it is eminently useful to gain some guidance from people who have made that journey before. It’s also helpful to have access to the maps that others have left us. In short, we need all the help we can get to make a difficult journey, but it is possible, and the benefits of doing so have been known directly to the many people who have made this journey before us.
When we have found a technique or mode of investigation that suits us, have made time to really let the investigation gain it’s own momentum, have good guides and good models to help us along the way, then we have constructed a fantastic exit strategy for moving through the difficulties that the dark night presents. Then it’s up to us to put what we know into practice, face the darkness of the path (because in the end the path includes everything—both light and dark), and come out the other end. By doing so, we join the ranks of the enlightened, and we take our first major step toward awakening.
So, if you suspect you are in the dark night, please find out more about your situation. Create an exit strategy. Follow it with as much sincerity as you can, and trust the process of awakening. It will not let you down.
1. It’s important to note that there are a few major dark nights recognized in the wisdom traditions. Each one represents a fundamental dis-identification with a particular stratum of reality (ex. The gross, subtle and very subtle). As such they are a passage-way or death from one type of identity to a more subtle one. It’s also important to keep in mind that not every difficult period is a bona-fide dark night. Just because one is having a difficult time, or in a dark mood, doesn’t necessarily mean they are passing through a dark night. For more information on the other dimensions of the dark night, I would recommend reading this. [↩]
2. Here I’m talking about fundamental suffering (or dissatisfaction) not all kinds of suffering. I am of strong opinion enlightenment only solves the suffering related to the misperception of Duality, not all the cultural, (inter)personal, and biologically conditioned suffering that exists as part of the human condition. This part of the human condition cannot be escaped. It’s part of being human, and in that sense coming to understand and accept that (at the deepest levels) are what the spiritual path is all about. [↩]
This post was written by:
Vince Horn – who has written 812 posts on Numinous Nonsense.
Vince Horn lives as a modern monk. He spends part of his year in silence, meditating, introspecting, and developing spiritually. The rest of the time he spends engaged in the world, where he produces and hosts the popular show, Buddhist Geeks, works in the production department of the spiritual publishing company Sounds True, and writes for various publications—including on his personal blog Numinous Nonsense—and enjoys living in Boulder, Colorado with his wife Emily. Read his full bio here.
4 October 2008
A Dark Night Exit Strategy
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