*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.
I realized in June that I’ve been traversing the dark night since summer of 2005, at least. I’ve experienced most of the classic symptoms described by Dan in MCTB, including tearing my life and relationships apart, quitting practice, thought I was going crazy and struggled to focus. I was not on a Buddhist path but these experiences have led me to one. Dan’s book has actually been quite a godsend, it has given me more perspective in the last few months than I was able to glean in 4 years. I never knew anything about the stages and unfortunately that kind of awareness was nowhere to be seen in my previous school. This kind of breakdown was seen as a bad thing. It’s been nice to know that it’s normal, virtually unavoidable and a sign of progress. I’ve just been working on relaxing into it these last few months instead of trying to force anything like I was doing. Intense but amazing, ultimately.
Is this a good place for “You might be in the dark night if…” jokes?
You might be in the dark night if…
You quit your job, leave your girlfriend, give away your shit and move to Asia for 6 months.
Hmmm not a very funny joke is it 😛
All my friends thought I was joking about leaving it all to become a monastic if my fiancee and myself ever broke up. We almost did break up and even though I was torn apart by it I started looking for possible monasteries in Canada I could go to. My close friend got super pissed at me when I told him that I would be leaving after I gave my two weeks at work.
Anyway, to wrap it up, my fiancee and I are back together, I still work at the same place, and I know my friend wouldn’t support my spiritual decisions.
A perennially important topic. Thanks for writing about it. Indeed, I feel as if I have spent much of my life in dark night periods, for better or worse.
@Ashe I would love to hear more about your process as it unfolds. If you’re in the dark night, it really is so wonderful to discover that! I found it freed up so much contracted energy for me and I came out bigger than I ever experienced myself before, so much more space.
@Lee hahahaha, hey, jokes are definitely welcomed for all dark nighters:) we all have our stories:P we should do a joke post like that, huh?:)
@Duff for better or worse:) In some way, I take comfort in knowing that there’s not just “one” dark night that we go through. It just seems to be part of the ebb and flow of life.
After reading your post I went and found Ingram’s description of the dark night, and it reminded me of some other descriptions of what I’ve heard called “nyam” or “sankharas”. See:
I’m wondering if these terms are interchangeable, and if not – how might nyam/sanharas fit within the Ingram model.
Hey Bobby:) thanks for chiming in and I’m really interested in hearing more from you. One thing is confusing though. You referenced sankharas, or samskaras in Sanksrit. You noted that it is “nyam” in Tibetan, however the correct translation is ‘du byed, and this is very specific:) I studied this in depth in my time at Naropa in translating Tibetan. ‘du is the verb that means “to come together”, and byed means “to do/make”. So, this is the Tibetans way at creating there own word for “formations”, one of the five skandhas, which is what samskara or sankhara (sankara) means.
Now, I just wanted to get us on the same page with language. I’m curious where you got “nyam” from, because I think you’ve found something here. However, I think you found a phonetic rendering not the transliteration. Transliteration matches exactly the spelling of a word in another language so scholars can refer to it and everyone knows exactly which word is in question. Phonetic renderings only approximate the sound, and with Tibetan, that’s hopeless because they have so many homonyms.
Anyways, really want to hear more about what you’ve found because I’ve been looking for more literature in the Tibetan tradition on the dark night experiences, and it sounds like you’ve hit upon something:)
I have only heard of the terms I referenced from the two posts from Nick Seaver’s blog that I mentioned in my first comment.
He participated in the Shamatha Project, and in a couple of posts (at least two I referenced) he mentions these terms when describing the “gunk” that sort of bubbles up into awareness as part of the “dredging of the psyche” that can occur while meditating. He goes on to describe it like so:
“The nyam can get pretty intense, conjuring up all kinds of nasty demons anger, sadness, fear, resentment, low self-esteem, physical ailments, etc.”
He goes on the second post i mentioned to reference an excerpt from “The Vajra Essence” to describe the phenomena which I’ll take the liberty to paste here:
” The impression that all your thoughts are wreaking havoc in your body and mind, like boulders rolling down a steep mountain, crushing and destroying everything in their path;
· An ecstatic, pleasant feeling, as if your entire body has dissolved into microscopic bubbles and you experience everything with complete equanimity and clarity, as if you had been viewing the world through frosted glass previously, and now someone has pulled the frosted glass away;
· A sense of panic flowing through you as if from without, combined with dramatically increased heart rate and sweating and muscle twitching;
· The experience of visions, which you know to be hallucinations, but which are as vivid in the minds eye as if they were real. Often these visions take on frightening forms, such as skeletons, giant spiders or venomous snakes;
· The sensation of external sounds and voices of humans, dogs, birds, and so on all piercing your heart like thorns;
· Unbearable anger due to the paranoia of thinking that everyone around you is gossiping about you and putting you down;
· The perception of all phenomena as brilliant, colored particles;
· Such unbearable misery that you think your heart will burst.”
Check out the full posts for more. Anyways, perhaps these further elaborations will be helpful to you. Me – I’m just a casual if interested “lay observer” 🙂 I do find the similarities striking – and if they do describe different categories of experience, it would be great to have more clarity in how they differ exactly. But perhaps these terms all describe the same phenomena…
Your blog reminded me that “when it is dark enough, you can see the stars!”
Well, I have been researching something quite different..
Is it possible that the dark night for all of humanity is nothing but the gregorian calendar and watches? Look at how our entire civilization is pivoted around these two things!
Nice to see this being posted about more frequently. I’m about to embark on a month long meditation retreat, first intensive in over 30 years (waiting for the kids to grow up) though my wife is now an ordained Zen priest (She has been able to do many month long intensives over the decades). I am hoping Culadasa is correct in his teachings (as presented in his video entry for the Buddhist Geeks convention a few years back), in that balancing Insight work with a deep foundation in Shamatha bypasses the dark night aspect of the process. (Here is his recent, excellent book http://www.amazon.com/Mind-Illuminated-Complete-Meditation-Integrating/dp/0990847705/)
In my youth I spend hour and hours in Shamatha (even though I had no name for it) and believe it may have had a protective effect over my subsequent life of meditation practise,though I may not have noticed/ recognized the dark night from the purification processes of doing lots of explicit shadow work over the years as well as being married and raising 4 kids lol. Quite interested this conversation and appreciating the Canadian content.
Hey Doug 🙂 thanks for the link to that book, I’ll check it out. And yeah, I hear having kids is by far the best practice!