*Update: This post gets a lot of traffic from people searching about the dark night in Buddhism and I’ve finally written another follow up post. The new post is more of candid sharing of my own experience with dark nights. You can read it here.
The dark night might be the most unacknowledged, unrecognized, and unappreciated phases on the path to the divine. Yet, if we are a serious practitioner, we really have no choice about it and one way or another, we will inevitably find ourselves in the dark night.
And you might be in it right now. Or someone you know.
But we need not worry or become frightened – in fact fear is something you become quite intimate and at peace with in the dark night.
The dark night isn’t discussed much in the Buddhist tradition. Mostly we hear only about the extremely blissful and shiny aspects and phases of the path. I think this is partly due to the models we hold about enlightenment, but it also has something to do with it just not being as exciting on the surface as talking about Dzogchen or Mahamudra, for example.
The problem here is that not knowing that you’re in the dark night can lead to confusion, stalling out in practice (I didn’t really sit for 2 years straight when I entered into it), and in some cases the self-sabatoging of your life, mistakenly seeing the causes of your dark night suffering as existing “out there”. Even more painful is the lack of appreciation for how far you’ve come on the path, that what you are experiencing right now is beautiful and is indeed progress, not a step back and not an inescapable spiritual abyss.
So, how do we know if we’re in the dark night? There are definitely signs that you can recognize. I highly recommend reading sections from Daniel Ingram’s book, “Mastering the Core Teachings of The Buddha“, available free online as a PDF. He goes into detail about the experiences in practice that lead to the dark night, and what sorts of things you experience while in it. One of the biggest signs is, as I mentioned, giving up practice altogether, which is why this phase is often called “the rolling up of the mat” – things get too ugly and difficult and we give up. There is so much more we could say about the dark night, but perhaps what I could say briefly based on my own experience is this:
You come face-to-face with deeper levels of suffering, primarily what the Buddhists call suffering of change and the suffering of duality (all-pervasive suffering). What does this mean? You’ve removed the anesthesia from life and are looking and experiencing openly these deeper sufferings that you’ve always carried around, but have avoided your entire life. Doesn’t sound like much fun, and really, it’s not. But, it is what makes you worthy of the spiritual path for the first time. As Joseph Campbell said:
The black moment is the moment when the real message of transformation is going to come. At the darkest moment comes the light.
How do we move through the dark night and come to the moment of light? We have no choice but to surrender, to sit in the divine fire and it seems, more than normal, that others cannot do much to help you through it, save sticking with you through out it and offering love, and…. you really have to find your own way, and that way may surprise you.
I could have never predicted what my path in the dark night looked like, which took the form of surrender, spontaneous meditation and writing poetry. I read a lot of Hafiz and his poems would pull me into contemplation, asking me a question that I had to resolve in my own awareness, and I would wrestle with paradox, a poem would be written through that struggle, and light, freedom being born from that poem.
Please share your own experiences of the dark night or your own wondering about your practice, if you’re in it or not. I hope others will join the discussion and we can all walk this amazing path of Love together.