“Geez, I thought I signed up for peace. And now this!” I cried as I observed waves of uncomfortable emotions running through me. Layer after layer of anger, sadness, and guilt showed up. Some feelings I didn’t even know a name for. In an intensity I didn’t know I could endure.
Welcome to the Dark Night of the Soul.
In order to understand what is happening here, we have to zoom out a bit and look at some important milestones of the spiritual path.
We usually start out by assuming that we are a body-mind. We end at our skin. Our life ends with the death of the body. And consciousness is just a by-product of the activity in the brain.
- On the way
We turn within to open-space awareness and encounter the ‘void’, which is our Source.
Those who have travelled the path quite far, reach a permanent stage where they report that they are one with their surroundings. Adyashanti felt himself merging with the dresser drawer. Suzanne Segal drove in a car and said that she felt she was driving through herself as she was the surroundings. Bernadette Roberts wrote that seer, seeing, and seen are one. In short, eventually the separate self falls away and with it the subject-object relationship. We realize that we are consciousness which is beyond the 3D world and at the same time is the substratum of the visible world.
The spiritual path may start out as a path of self-improvement. Becoming a happier, more loving and caring, more peaceful version of ‘me’. But it is not about that.
Rather, the identity shift is what it’s all about.The rest is a by-product.
And that identity shift necessarily involves a letting go of the former self-image we have been so used to.
If we look at the path, there are (at least) three stages where it can become uncomfortable:
A) Pain of letting go of the former self-image
B) Fear of the void
C) Welling up of formerly unconscious emotions when we rest in awareness.
I’ll cover each one below with examples and possible remedies.
A) The pain of letting go of the former self-image
Inherent in that identity shift of the spiritual path is a letting go of the former self-image. Letting go of the screen character of the computer game. Finding out that we have been sitting on the chair in front of the screen all the time.
How is that letting go accomplished?
We can either sit down with pen and paper and do a Spiritual Autolysis as described by Jed McKenna. Write down something that we think is true and then question it from every angle. Try again, until we find something that is absolutely true. This eventually boils down to answering the question ‘Who am I?’
For folks like me who prefer a less brainy approach, the universe has some wonderful methods of helping us to find those unconscious areas of the former self-image that we have to let go of. That is really the point: bringing the formerly unconscious attachments into consciousness. (And then letting them go.)
The universe’s ingenious approach:
tailor-made disturbances to the former self-image
We will be disturbed. Intentionally. Purposefully. For a good cause.
But the ego doesn’t like it. And then we experience the Dark Night (of the ego).
So, all these uncomfortable emotions like anger and grief are a by-product of the letting go of the former self-image. They are the ego’s temper tantrums when its toys are taken away.
Adyashanti was a competitive biker and was proud of being a super athlete. That was part of his self-definition.
How did the universe wean him from this self-image? By putting him to bed twice for several months with various illnesses.
After that, he finally got the message and said that it is hard to define yourself as a super athlete if you are as weak as a puppy.
Margot Ridler was a self-employed professional doing constellation work. After a spiritual flash insight about the emptiness of the self, she quit her constellation work practice and experienced a breakdown where she was about to be homeless and penniless. What followed was a surrender into the guiding arms of Source. Then, she experienced a period of traveling for several years where – one by one – all her former beliefs were stripped away and she learned to be guided by Source only. The experience was frightening but liberating.
(Here is a (20min) video of Margot Ridler where she compares her breakdown process with Adyashanti’s.)
My experience: A large part of my self-image was being a high achiever. I was studious and bookish. Good grades and prestigious scholarships all over my résumé, and with it much striving, perfectionism, and pride.
And what did the universe do to deconstruct this?
Well, today I find myself working in the corporate world with not a single promotion after more than 17 years. I’m being weaned from the need for appreciation and from the need to define myself as an achiever.
And that was not the only part of my self-image which I had to let go of. There was more. Each part got its own tailor-made demolition squad. For each part, I went through the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) according to the model by Kübler-Ross.
That’s how it works. Whenever we have an attachment with the attitude “I bet that I must have this in order to be happy”, God says,
“Wanna bet? I’ll take it away from you, and then you are invited to turn within and seek true happiness there.”
What helps during this phase is knowing that this is part of the path. And then allowing it to happen. The more we resist the ripping away of the former self-image, the more painful it is going to be.
B) The fear of the void
Falling into the pit of the void can also become uncomfortable. By psychologists, this is pathologized as depersonalization/derealization disorder (DP/DR).
Suzanne Segal lost her former sense of self and spent ten years trying to understand the nature of her confusion and fear about this. None of the psychologists had any clue. Eventually, an Advaita teacher pointed out to her that she was just waking up to her true nature. That was a turning point.
Hans Burgschmidt lost his sense of self suddenly and was terrified by it. Pilates, weight training, and yoga helped him feel grounded in his body again.
My experience: I was hanging out in ‘transcendence land’ for three months early in 2014. This felt peaceful, but unreal, lethargic, listless, and emotionally flat. What helped me was that the universe forced me back unto the stage of this play called ‘life’. I had to take care of a sick pet. And my inner voice urged me to invite a bunch of friends over.
What helps during this phase is very different for each seeker. Therefore, it would be best if everyone relies on his/her own inner guidance.
C) Welling up of formerly unconscious emotions
If we abide as the peaceful witness, as open-space awareness, then that is an invitation for formerly suppressed emotions (of this life or even of past-lives) to rise to the surface and enter our consciousness. As fellow blogger and spiritual seeker Susan once so aptly put it,
“Everything comes by to say ‘Hello’.”
Dr.Willoughby Britton, a clinical psychologist and neuroscience researcher, went on a meditation retreat. She reports,
“I thought that I had gone crazy. I thought I was having a nervous breakdown. I mean I really had no idea why I was suddenly having all these, like terror was big symptom of mine. And I found out much later that these were actually classic stages of meditation and I was woefully uninformed.”
After this experience, she became the most prominent researcher of the Dark Night phenomenon. She has found an amazing range of disturbing experiences due to meditation practices. These include headaches, nausea, muscle twitching, seeing light, concentration difficulties, anxiety, depression, an inability to socialize or to have a job or to take care of children, in severe cases lasting for years.
Dr. Britton is courageously speaking up about the Dark Night even though critics have attempted to silence her (after all, mindfulness practices are popular in business nowadays; but the focus is on how to be a better version of one’s former self , and not about how to lose one’s self and find the truth of one’s real being.) Her website with more helpful resources is http://cheetahhouse.org/.
What about help in this phase?
Many people feel already comfortable if they are reassured by a teacher that these experiences are normal and will subside over time.
For me, the most valuable advice was to let the emotions come up and to witness them. That is, don’t judge them, don’t suppress them, feel them fully, but don’t get engaged too much in them. Afterwards, direct attention 180 degrees backwards to awareness itself – to our real being.
The fine line between feeling emotions fully and drowning in them too much was tricky for me (I had to rely on inner guidance, like dreams, that would tell me when I was off track). When this process was done, often layers of emotion were revealed, like in an onion. They came up, were felt fully, and then released.
It is important not to pathologize these experiences. I like to think of them as the healing of an infected wound with a splinter in it. Concealing it with a band-aid won’t heal it. Rather, there will be an immune reaction with inflammation and pus in order to remove the splinter and the dirt. This phase doesn’t look pretty. But that’s the nature of the healing process.
So, that’s the paradox of this journey. In order to find peace beyond understanding we must give up our illusions, our belief in separation, our attachment to our mistaken identity. And usually, this process entails some emotional turmoil.
Let me end with an ACIM quote:
Nothing real can be threatened.
Nothing unreal exists.
Herein lies the peace of God.