Insight: The Dark Night of the Soul
Meditation experience is like turnip soup. The first sip is sweet and delicious, but later, all you have is a bad taste in your mouth.
Meditators (and the insight-inclined in general) sometimes experience stable-ish periods of suffering that are measured in months or years. In pragmatic dharma and adjacent circles, these periods are commonly referred to as "dark nights of the soul", after Daniel Ingram popularized such usage in his book, Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha. This definition most closely matches my own experience and is the meaning used in this article.
Be aware that some practitioners prefer narrower or broader definitions, which often causes confusion. Shinzen Young, for example, takes it to refer to a sort of bad trip, a meditation-induced dissociative state.1 Thankfully, this is rare enough to occur in only, say, one in a thousand meditators.2
What, exactly, does the dark night entail?
This journey is comparable to a tree that has suddenly been felled but is not yet dead because the sap (the self) still runs in its veins and only gradually, slowly, comes to a complete halt. At first the tree merely experiences the ebbing and dwindling of its own life-giving energies, and is continually astonished to realize that while it is being emptied, it somehow continues to remain. In this way it discovers that what it once thought necessary for life—the sap—is actually not necessary at all, for even when the sap is totally gone, it does not die. But the process of dying to its ordinary way of life lends an uneasiness to the journey because the tree never knows when, or if, it is dead, since it never experiences the in-flow of new life as the old life flows out.
—Bernadette Roberts, The Experience of No-Self
The dark night can present in a variety of ways. Given that even relatively well-defined and studied psychiatric conditions like panic disorder present very differently depending on an individual's history and genetic disposition, this is unsurprising.
That said, like panic disorder, we can point out some broad diagnostic criteria. In fact, St. John of the Cross sets out to do just that in his treatise and poem, the origin of the phrase "the dark night of the soul." He writes:
For the making of this distinction I find that there are three principal signs.
The first is whether, when a soul finds no pleasure or consolation in the things of God, it also fails to find it in any thing created; for, as God sets the soul in this dark night to the end that He may quench and purge its sensual desire, He allows it not to find attraction or sweetness in anything whatsoever. […]
[I]t is God Who is now working in the soul; He binds its interior faculties, and allows it not to cling to the understanding, nor to have delight in the will, nor to reason with the memory. […]
The third sign whereby this purgation of sense may be recognized is that the soul can no longer meditate or reflect in the imaginative sphere of sense as it was wont, however much it may of itself endeavor to do so. […] From this time forward, therefore, imagination and fancy can find no support in any meditation, and can gain no foothold by means thereof.
In more modern language, we might say that a dark night may include:
- Inability to find pleasure in material things.
- Inability to find pleasure in a sense of control and agency.
- The subjective sense that memory and thought are somehow impaired—perhaps less vivid, complex, reliable, or frequent.
- Inability to day dream and a general reduction in mind-wandering.
…and these conditions, described by a Spanish mystic more than 400 years ago, are delightfully echoed in Jefferey Martin's recent investigations of some 50+ awakenings.
On the early end, while participants placed much less importance on their personal memories, changes in encoding were generally not reported. However, they stated that memories seemed to arise much less than previously. The number of memories that seemed to spontaneously arise were increasingly reduced the further a participant was along the continuum, similar to the reduction that occurred in self-related thought. […]
On the far end of the continuum, participants reported no sense of agency. They reported that they did not feel they could take any action of their own, nor make any decisions.
Nowadays, the phrase is most popular not with Catholic mystics but dry insight practitioners who use it in association with the dukkha nanas, also known as "the knowledges of suffering," part of the progress of insight map. These nanas are well documented elsewhere. For diagnosing the dark night, it is sufficient to add that:
- Closely examining one's experience in the moment tends to make the meditator feel worse.
How is this different from clinical depression?
A lot of internet blood has been spilled over whether or not any given individual's dark night is "actually clinical depression and they ought to seek out professional help." Discussion participants often make two mistakes here:
- Reifying clinical depression into "a thing" rather than a fuzzily defined cluster of symptoms, perhaps thanks to the popular pharmacological myth of a "chemical imbalance"3
- Imagining therapy and psychiatry as the equivalent to "calling in the cavalry"
In my view, there is no clear dichotomy between dark nights and clinical depression. If you squint a little, dark nights look an awful lot like insight-induced depressive episodes. I'm unable to come up with any criteria that cleanly distinguishes the two:
- Dark nights are resolved with more meditation. Depression can also be resolved with meditation. It's literally the path to the end of suffering!
- Dark nights will not be resolved by external change, but depression often stubbornly resists such changes, too.
- Dark nights are concerned with insights into the true nature of things. What depressive doesn't consider himself a realist?
- Memory deficits like I list above? Depression is already associated with such cognitive wonkiness.
- Depression sometimes responds to medication. So will a dark night so far as SSRIs reduce the intensity of the emotional stuff and make progress easier.
Why do dark nights happen?
Adverse conditions are spiritual friends.
Devils and demons are emanations of the buddhas.
Illness sweeps away evil and obscurations.
Suffering is the dance of what is.
The Divine assails the soul in order to renew it and thus to make it Divine; and, stripping it of the habitual affections and attachments of the old man, to which it is very closely united, knit together and conformed, destroys and consumes its spiritual substance, and absorbs it in deep and profound darkness. As a result of this, the soul feels itself to be perishing and melting away, in the presence and sight of its miseries, in a cruel spiritual death, even as if it had been swallowed by a beast and felt itself being devoured in the darkness of its belly, suffering such anguish as was endured by Jonas in the belly of that beast of the sea.
All this God brings to pass by means of this dark contemplation; wherein the soul not only suffers this emptiness and the suspension of these natural supports and perceptions, which is a most afflictive suffering (as if a man were suspended or held in the air so that he could not breathe), but likewise He is purging the soul, annihilating it, emptying it or consuming in it (even as fire consumes the mouldiness and the rust of metal) all the affections and imperfect habits which it has contracted in its whole life. Since these are deeply rooted in the substance of the soul, it is wont to suffer great undoings and inward torment, besides the said poverty and emptiness, natural and spiritual, so that there may here be fulfilled that passage from Ezechiel which says: 'Heap together the bones and I will burn them in the fire; the flesh shall be consumed and the whole composition shall be burned and the bones shall be destroyed.'
The reason for this is that the affections, feelings and apprehensions of the perfect spirit, being Divine, are of another kind and of a very different order from those that are natural. They are pre-eminent, so that, in order both actually and habitually to possess the one, it is needful to expel and annihilate the other, as with two contrary things, which cannot exist together in one person.
—St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul
Broadly, meditation is a process by which the mind comes to know its own nature. This is achieved via a series of insight experiences. An insight experience here is any experience that violates one's currently held model of mind. The accumulation of such experiences force one to update one's intuitive self-model. This is a bit like performing neurosurgery on yourself and can be a deeply uncomfortable process. (For a more detailed explanation of this process, read this.)
For dry insight practitioners especially, the most difficult initial insights to integrate deal with two of the three characteristics, impermanence and unsatisfactoriness. With impermanence, one is forced to grapple with the realization that solidity is an illusion, that experience itself is made of dust, happiness passes as it's noticed, and there really is no safe, solid place to plant this flag of "me" or "mine."
With unsatisfactoriness, one notices that desire is never sated, that the satisfaction promised by want never manifests, and that wanting simply begets more wanting. One realizes, too, that even could desire be meaningfully fulfilled, such an object would be impermanent and empty, as would the satisfaction gained. Even during the experience of satisfaction itself, the mind is looking to jump to the next thing.
With these insights, a deep sense of disgust wells up from the subconscious. One feels fed up with everything. Truly, there is nothing worthwhile. Truly, renunciation is all one can do. Truly, it is best to turn away from the world. Like Eeyore cruelly led onward by an impossible dangling carrot, one vows to cut the string and abandon it all.
And this is where you can get stuck. By turning away from everything, practice included, progress halts. The flood of Insight slows to a trickle and traps the mind in a miserable-but-pretty-stable place.
Help! How do I get out of the dark night ASAP?
Therefore I think and judge it for thy best
Thou follow me, and I will be thy guide
And lead thee hence through the eternal place
Where thou shalt hear the desperate lamentations
Shalt see the ancient spirits disconsolate
Who cry out each one for the second death;
There are several factors that combine to stabilize the dark night period before first path:
- Everything is impermanent and unsatisfactory so it seems hopeless & pointless to exert any effort doing anything, including meditation.
- Continued practice tends to deepen insights into impermanence and unsatisfactoriness, producing more anguish.
- At this stage, meditation advances the attention wave in a way that inclines the mind toward painful sensory fluxing.
It is the realization of no-self that ultimately provides the solution to the impasse created by impermanence and unsatisfactoriness. In order to acquire this insight, you need to learn to turn down the amount of selfing happening—in the dark night, this knob is stuck at 11. You feel strongly like the controller of your mind and, given your prior insights, this is a terrible burden. It is not good to be a self in an impermanent and unsatisfactory universe.
More broadly, imagine awakening as a caterpillar's metamorphosis into a butterfly. If you stop accumulating insight midway through the process, you stagnate in the unpleasant purgatory between an untrained mind and an awakened mind: without the comfort of ignorance, but not strong enough to skillfully use insight to cut the chains of suffering. You are like a caterpillar stuck as a cocoon.
This idea is captured by the common dharma refrain, "Better not to have begun. Once begun, better to finish."
What Needs To Be Done
Since the dark night is a result of partial insight, the solution is more insight. The simplest, most straightforward method for producing insight is close attention to your own experience. Notice what is happening here, now.
Mechanically, getting out of the dark night is not complicated. Here is all that you need to do.
Label whatever you are experiencing in this moment. When you are thinking, note "thinking, thinking." When you feel a physical sensation, note "body, body". When you are frustrated, note "frustrated, frustrated." When you are intending to stop, note "intending to stop." Aim to do this fluidly, about once per second.
If you have never done this before, it may take a few hours of practice before it feels natural. Once you are able to note without much effort, you should give yourself the goal of noting for an entire day, from when you wake up to until you fall asleep.
It is just fine to fall short of this at first. Your attitude should be like a game. Ask yourself with curiosity and sincerity, "How long can I note without stopping?" No one knows the answer. There is only one way to find out.
When you first start doing this from inside the dark night, it's going to be miserable. Many of your notes will be of painful sensations. This is normal and a sign that things are going well.
As long as you do not stop, this will subside and you will start to feel very peaceful. You will not understand why your problems seemed so important hours before. In fact, you will no longer seem to have any problems at all. This is a huge relief after the dark night. Notice this contrast and use it to inspire more practice.
The formula for more progress is the same: keep noting. The peace will deepen and you will have very few thoughts. Perception is strong and there is very little self here. Once you are able to reach this state, go do something physically complicated like driving a car. You will watch your body move all on its own, with no 'you' involved. Repeat this a few times and your dark night will be solved.
As long as you keep noting, eventually something important will happen. I'm not going to spoil it. Go find out.
This will never work.
I don't believe that the method works.
You don't need to believe in the method. In fact, skepticism is a good thing to have. It protects you from nonsense.
I propose an experiment. Try the method. Prove to yourself that it doesn't work. Otherwise, how will you know that your belief "this will never work" isn't nonsense? Turn your skepticism onto itself. Find out what is really so.
My suffering is unique and special because reasons x, y, and z.
The stories you have about your suffering are just stories. Stop indulging in them so much. It's like being obsessed with a daytime soap opera. It's unseemly.
The method will work for you just fine.
I'm afraid to give up my suffering.
Sometimes we grow very attached to our suffering. We imagine that it defines us and are afraid that, should the method work, we will have been fools that suffered for nothing.
That is not so. Your suffering was important and the more of it you have had, the easier it will be for you to make progress now. Your suffering will have been like fertilizer for your future growth.
I'm not making any progress.
During the knowledges of suffering, one often feels like there is something wrong with their practice even as it is improving. With this in mind, try putting aside your feelings for a moment and reflecting on your practice with questions like:
- Am I noticing things that I was unable to notice a week ago?
- Am I aware of how one thought or sensation led to another with greater frequency?
- Am I able to note more fluidly and for longer periods?
- Am I forgetting the technique and succumbing to mind wandering less often?
- Am I experiencing states that feel different than what came before?
- Am I really not making progress or am I simply experiencing strong dissatisfaction, in general?
Noting for an entire day is too hard.
Have you ever heard the joke about how to draw an owl? It goes like this:
- Draw a circle.
- Draw the rest of the fucking owl.
My advice for noting all day long sounds a lot like the instructions for drawing an owl, except it works. You see, noting all day long is actually easy. The trick is not stopping.
Now, how does stopping happen? Usually there will be a moment of frustration and then there will be the intention to stop. Most of the time this happens right after you start noting. All you need to do to keep going is to note "intending to stop, intending to stop" until it leaves you alone. This will not take long.
At first the intention to stop may feel very strong, like there is some other very important thing you could be doing. This is a delusion. You already know that everything is impermanent and unsatisfactory, so what could this very important thing be? There is no such thing. Reflect this way and it will leave you alone.
Each time you do this it will be easier than the last. Once you do it the first time, you know you are strong enough to do it all of the future times.
There is one other way that stopping happens, and that's when you become distracted and forget what you were doing. This is also not a problem. Once you realize that you have forgotten and stopped noting, just start again. You are still making progress and soon you will no longer forget.
I forget a lot and this is annoying.
If you find yourself forgetting so much that restarting all of the time is a hassle, switch to noting out loud. Whenever you fail to hear yourself speak, it will remind you that you have stopped noting.
Once you have practiced this for a while, you will be able to note silently for longer periods without forgetting.
My experience is overwhelming.
Imagine yourself like a man who comes across a poisonous snake in his path while hiking. At first, he flees from the snake, but each day he comes back a little braver, taking an extra step toward the snake. One day he gets close enough to see that there never was a snake, it was a vine all along.
Your experience is like that snake. At first you might flee from it but, as long as you pay a little attention, next time you will be braver and look closer. You will keep noting for a little longer. Once you have built up some courage this way, you should start breaking the experience down into the smallest pieces you can manage. Notice when there is a sensation in the body and when there is a thought. Pay attention to how the two feed into each other, supporting the whole thing. Try to break the bodily sensations into smaller pieces. Once you can break the experience into components, you should reflect on whether there is anything overwhelming about it. Is it a snake or a vine?
I don't know if I'm in the dark night. Maybe I'm just depressed.
Do the method anyway. It will also help with depression.
I'm worried that I'm not doing it right.
The method is very robust. It doesn't need to be perfect, just good enough to reach escape velocity.
If you insist on perfecting the technique, here is how: stop thinking about technique and actually practice.
I'm suffering too much to concentrate.
Pay attention to the sensations of the breath at the nose while allowing your suffering to hang out in the periphery. Don't shove it away. Do this for a while and your mind will settle down enough to practice.
If that is too difficult, try counting your breaths up to 10 and then back to 1. Repeat until your mind is settled.
If that is too difficult, try shifting your attention to your physical body. What do your clothes feel like, or your chair, or the wind on your skin?
I'm reminded of the phase Shinzen Young went through where he hallucinated giant insects. From his book, The Science of Enlightenment: "In my case, these image eruptions consisted of huge and very realistic-looking insects. They weren't like static photographs, they moved with the distinctive articulate quality that you would find in a living arthropod. They were extremely vivid and lifelike, and worse still, gigantic! They seemed to be five or six feet long, actually. These visions continued for a year while I was in graduate school. I'd be walking to classes, and there would be these monstrous vermin greeting me along the path. It was not a problem though. In fact, I functioned quite well."↩