Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Dark Night of the Soul (2)

The "passive night of the spirit" in my terminology represents the negation of supra-rational type understanding.

This entails a strong cleansing directly of the spiritual faculties relating to the deeper universal conceptual framework (both affective and cognitive) underlying customary conscious experience and also (to a lesser degree) of the conative aspect of will which represents the most fundamental and central part of the psyche.

And as the more superficial concrete structures of sense have their deeper roots in these spiritual faculties, it also entails a renewed cleansing of (conscious) sense attachment.

Though it does not represent the most advanced of the contemplative stages it certainly proved - at least from personal experience - by far the most prolonged and difficult.

As I have said before, every stage on the psychological journey in its own way is unique with intense revelations that are never quite replicated at other stages.

However in an important sense this is easily the most unique stage, with a kind of internal anguish and suffering - though so keenly felt at the time - that becomes impossible to recall when the stage has passed.

This is due to the fact that - in relative terms - an exceptionally marked acceleration in contemplative type development takes place, which creates huge pressures on the personality (which is not yet sufficiently mature to properly cope with such acute transformation).

So one can very quickly get plunged into an extremely dark and oppressive underworld, where all sorts of weird unconscious happenings occur, and where no relief may be experienced for many years.

For one who has not directly experienced this night, it is truly impossible to properly imagine for nothing in customary experience can prepare one for what is involved.

In many ways from a psychological perspective, it is like being committed to a tiny underground prison cell with no light visible and then gagged and bound hand and foot. As St. John puts it, one  feels as if suspended in mid-air unable to breathe. In fact, one's normal breathing pattern does slow down so much during this time that it sometimes appears as if one is not breathing at all!


As I stated in a previous blog entry, during the previous (positive) illuminative phase the deeper cognitive (and affective) faculties become plentifully imbued with a pure intuitive light.

However though this initially powerfully restores one's conviction of progressing on the spiritual path with a new found meaning and role in life, it gradually leads to increasing conflict, as the old ego based self cannot properly coexist with the pure light of spirit.

So one may build up over a lengthy period of time to making another major surrender, where one willingly foregoes even the passive use of the intellect and affections.

Now this surrender does indeed represent a new conversion. However instead of leading to an outpouring (into external conscious experience) rather it leads to a dramatic inpouring of light into the - as yet immaturely developed - unconscious regions of personality.

And as St. John describes so well, the intense anguish and suffering that is then endured is due to the clash of this pure spiritual light with ego based desires and imperfections.

Now to a degree one enters this stage expecting things to be difficult. After all, one will have already endured a previous "passive night of the senses".

However if we can look on this earlier experience as a quick dress rehearsal for the main event, this later experience truly represents the "real thing" which goes well beyond in severity what one could possibly have expected.

The very reason I confidently can assert for example that mathematical reality - when appropriately understood - is really nothing like we presently imagine, is that for many years, my own life resembled nothing that could be envisaged from customary experience.

Indeed in this threatening underworld where unseen dangers lurk at every turn, one quickly has to learn new survival techniques. And as the cognitive and faculties are now so tightly bound both with respect to their active (analytic) and passive (holistic) use, one must operate largely in faith whereby one takes decisions in a blind manner (though still guided in an unseen manner though faintly received intuitive signals).


The earliest period of this dark night - which in its totality can last unrelieved for many years - is likely to be the most dramatic, where intensive purgation followed by moments of  great spiritual tranquillity, intermingle with regular frequency.

When one reads the famous "dark night" poem by St. John of the Cross it paints a very attractive and positive picture. However when one reads his stark commentaries, the accompanying trials seem almost unbearable in their difficulty.

And this indeed represents a key paradox about this stage.

Because it does represent a stage of rapid contemplative development, despite all the suffering endurance, it conveys true authentic meaning to the self. So one keeps desiring for an intensification of this contemplative experience.

Also though still remaining in darkness, there are times when the night is very tranquil and one can feel at peace in a loving communion (without words). Occasionally, pure mystical touches may be conveyed to the will or the intellect (in my case less to the affections) that are received in a deeply intimate passive manner (without exciting ego desire).

However just as one begins to feel more secure, one then gets dragged down ever deeper into the unconscious, with even more desolation and anguish than before. So overall one inhabits a dynamically shifting psychological environment and must remain constantly vigilant.

St. John describes graphically the typical anguish and suffering. Much of the time it can feel like a bad case of sunburn where due to the intensity of inward contemplation, one's customary faculties feel completely dry, remaining parched of all supporting intuition.

Also - especially after a bout of intense contemplation - returning to normal duties can cause an extremely raw internal feeling akin to the flesh being torn from one's bones.

At other times it feels as if an inner earthquake has occurred, where one seems in danger of falling into the abyss. However, paradoxically one can then perhaps feel the strong support of an invisible spiritual presence.

Then when the crisis passes, one can feel a strange sense of anti-climax, as one realises that authentic spiritual meaning is most profoundly present when facing the greatest danger.


Also, sensitivity can become so acute that dealing with outward events can trigger what feels internally like electric shocks.

At other times one can undergo a feeling of intense desolation. And the just when one is tempted to believe that this is more than one can go on enduring, peace is mysteriously restored and all forgotten (with the desire for an intensification of inner contemplation increasing).


Indeed this is the very nature of spiritual trials in that the purer they are, the less trace they leave in memory. Thus though one may recall later that one had a certain trial, one can no longer relive the experience.

In fact from a practical point of view this represents a very important consequence of this stage.

Due to the continual erosion of conscious constructs and perceptions, one's memory can be deeply affected with many skills becoming (temporarily) eroded. Thus in work terms, one may be only capable of performing menial and simple tasks (where one's ability to perform is likely to be least affected).


Though one will be undergoing all this (and much more) on a daily basis, it will remain completely hidden from friends and colleagues. One quickly realises that it would be pointless to even try discussing what is now transpiring within, as customary experience does not provide a sufficient basis for true understanding or empathy. In any case, one is meant to cope with such situations as well as possible alone.

Though much is made in the contemplative traditions about the need for confiding in trusted spiritual guides, I always remained deeply sceptical of their practical value.

There might be some hope in a traditional monastic community (of like minded individuals) though even here, St. John has plenty to say regarding the damage done by inappropriate confessors.

To be truthful, my sole true support for several years came from the writing of St. John himself (which resonated with me in the most intimate manner). However for a lay person in the world it is less feasible to confide in anyone that can properly understand. And as I have said before, all persons are unique with their own special idiosyncrasies.. So no general template - even for those sharing the same experience - is ever likely to suit a particular individual.


The best way of coping, though unlikely to always remain sufficient, is to carry on dealing with all the inner change privately, while outwardly fitting in to society as normally as possible.

Over time in attempting to be true to my own experience, I began to distance myself more and more from St. John. I have already mentioned some of these problems in the last blog entry!

In particular I feel that he has far too little to say on the whole problem of how one, while enduring the "dark night" experience can best adjust to the world and its responsibilities.

Therefore though the night is a highly passive experience, I would maintain that the preservation of an active dimension remains extremely important in terms of maintaining overall personality balance.

Also, though I do not doubt his sincerity and integrity, I later came to see his spiritual worldview to be unbalanced to an extent (with an over-emphasis on spiritual transcendence).

This is encapsulated in the very title of his best known treatise "The Ascent of Mount Carmel".

As we know the ascent of a mountain like Mount Everest for a skilled mountaineer represents only half of the task.
It is equally important having reached the peak, to be also able to make the descent to firm ground once again. But where is "The Descent of Mount Carmel" in his formal writings?

So I have been spent a great deal of my life subsequently trying to deal with this - largely overlooked - aspect of contemplative development (i.e. making it properly compatible with active involvement in the world).

St. John himself became embroiled in disputes within his order leading to imprisonment (and ultimately premature death).

Though these conflicts may indeed have been inherently difficult to resolve, part of the problem probably relates to an unduly negative attitude to worldly affairs.

Thus, with a more balanced approach, I imagine that it may indeed have been possible for him to deal with at least some of these problems in a more diplomatic conciliatory manner (without loss of spiritual integrity).

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