A dark night of the soul can be a tough experience to deal with, especially when you don’t know what’s happening to you.
Anyone who meditates, practices magick, or follows a path of energy work sooner or later finds themselves having a Dark Night of the Soul. The term comes from Saint John of the Cross’s 16th century poem of the same name, describing a Christian’s spiritual crisis during their journey towards union with God. The name is something of a misnomer, as that state of bleak depression can last for years. While Saint John was describing it from a Christian standpoint, the notion of finding oneself in a place where none of your previous experience is of any use to you is common to all spiritual paths.
It can be particularly disconcerting to those of a Zen persuasion. Often, those who take up Zen meditation will discover to their delight that after a relatively short period of time they’ve become more peaceful, focused, and relaxed. They will, with the annoyingly tireless enthusiasm of the recently converted, begin to extol the virtues of meditation to everyone they come into contact with. However, after a while, the peace begins to wear off and new emotions start to emerge: feelings of sadness, anger, and frustration. Sitting down to meditate may stir up anxiety, making it difficult to sit. Most give up the practice at this point and begin telling everyone how Zen doesn’t really work or is just a short-term solution or that they didn’t have it in them to stay with it, it’s dangerous, blah, blah, blah.
What really happened is they achieved the next level on their journey and weren’t prepared to handle it. The late Dr. Glenn Morris liked to say that what we consider the ego, or socially learned self, is really just a collection of masks that we present to the world. Peel off one mask and there’s another, then another, and another. The goal is get past all those masks and achieve a relationship with the greater reality. Call it God, the Divine Will, the Holy Guardian Angel, Enlightenment, the Higher Self, or the Collective Unconscious, the name is irrelevant. All paths are designed to get us to the same state of mind, once you strip away the local flavors and political agendas. Beginning meditators usually do find it a tremendous relief to finally strip away the first few layers of their ego. The sensation can be very refreshing as trapped energy gets released and reintegrated. Eventually, however, they pull away enough of the smiling, I’m-A-Good-Person-Just-Trying-To-Get-Along masks and uncover all the hidden negative emotions they’ve been trying not to think about: buried childhood resentments and frustrations, anger, hate, fears we thought we’d outgrown.
Pandora’s Box gets thrown open and all that repressed negativity comes flying to the surface. The practitioner has just come face-to-face with what Carl Jung referred to as The Shadow and most folks find it overwhelming. If the person begins projecting their personal Shadow on the world around them, things can get damned scary. This is usually the time when the religious devotee starts examining the world and wondering why so many horrible things happen under the guidance of a supposed loving God. (Note: I differentiate The Dark Night of the Soul from getting tossed into what Robert Anton Wilson called Chapel Perilous. The Dark Night is precipitated by an internal shift that brings us in direct contact with our own Shadow self. Chapel Perilous is a bizarre frame of mind kicked off by contact with something perceived to be external to the self. Occultists often find themselves in Chapel Perilous after coming to the rather startling reality that magick actually works and can have very visible effects on one’s life).
So, how does one deal with the waking up one day in the throes of a Dark Night?
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