Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Dark Night of the Soul (4)

As I have stated, initially I derived great support on the “dark night” journey from the accounts of St. John of the Cross (which in so many ways intimately described my own experience).

In the early days, there was a fairly consistent pattern where contemplative calm would reign on one day each week. So I would use this day to read over again his writings. These reassured me of the spiritual value of what was happening, while bracing me for the inevitable difficulties ahead.

However I gradually became aware that this great bond in itself amounted to an important spiritual attachment, that would eventually have to be surrendered.

And this eventual surrender came about through a growing disillusionment with his strong transcendent stance (which I began to see as potentially unhealthy and unbalanced).


Indeed I would be now strongly of the opinion that an unduly transcendent emphasis characterises not only Western but also Eastern accounts of the mystical journey.

And this transcendent focus itself reflects the dominance in these cultures of the masculine principle.

For example, reason and logic is customarily associated with the masculine and the senses and emotion with the feminine principle respectively.

In Western spirituality, a very definite hierarchy is preserved whereby the senses are considered as the “lower” and reason as the “higher” superior part of the human psyche.

Therefore from a religious perspective, the goal is to use the “higher” aspect of reason (guided of course by spirit) to effectively control the “lower” aspect of the senses in the mystical journey towards unity.

However there is an equally important immanent aspect to spirituality, which requires the reversal of the transcendent approach.

Therefore from this perspective, we need for example to be able to freely tune in to sexual feelings and fantasies to understand clearly what these are telling us about our hidden unconscious desires.

The upshot of this is that despite the best will in the world, an unduly transcendent approach, through its attempt to control instinctive impulses, will inevitably lead to a degree of censorship and repression.

In other words underlying the traditional transcendent approach is the mistaken view that instinctive impulses are “lower” and thereby unworthy of the disciple seeking unity. And as I say this attitude inevitably will then lead to the censorship and repression of unconscious desire that ultimately can create a significant psychological problem.

Having said this I would maintain that the “dark night” will typically be heavily associated with the transcendent aspect of spirituality. Because the spiritual conscious (with its supra-rational appreciation) at this time is much more developed than the unconscious, it is therefore quite appropriate to use this refined form of reason to gradually negate all excessive attachment.
However from a more comprehensive perspective, one should be aware that this eventually creates a significant problem in the gradual repression of unconscious impulses (especially of a sexual nature).

To be honest during this time, I was never troubled with erotic fantasies or temptation and therefore misleadingly concluded that I had successfully overcome sexual desire. However it was only later I realised, that I had unknowingly repressed such instincts through a refined form of rational control.

Looking back I would now say that the deep depression that can occur after many years on the “dark night” journey can be due in large measure to the accumulation of repressed primitive instincts arising from an unduly transcendent approach to spirituality.

I have yet to come across a contemplative writer that properly addresses this important issue of psycho sexual dynamics!

The typical traditional approach - arising from this mistaken Christian hierarchical view - is though perhaps inevitable, that sexual temptation for example is a problem to be resisted. Usually it is only indirectly mentioned in terms of value laden terminology e.g. “assaults of the senses”, “instincts of the lower self”, “promptings of the devil” etc.

So quite clearly the spiritual disciple is expected to deal with such temptation when it occurs (through rational control guided by spirit).

However because the unconscious has not yet been able to speak for itself (on its own terms) at this stage it still will remain relatively immature.

This therefore entails that the “successful” resisting of temptation will inevitably entail a substantial degree of sexual repression.

And when this accumulates over time, the unconscious begins to protest at this unhealthy imbalance through growing problems of depression.


Now, I would be especially cautious of using St. John as a guide at an advanced stage of the “dark night” for his stated approach is uncompromisingly transcendent throughout and therefore if followed only too likely to lead to the problem that I have mentioned.

There is then a mistaken dichotomy maintained as between the normal spiritual depression that is an inherent aspect of the “dark night” journey and pathological depression (due for example to continual repression of unconscious dynamics).

The fact is that even in the case of an authentic “dark night” journey, pathological depression is likely to accompany the characteristic spiritual darkness of the stage.

Indeed this is even more likely to be the case for someone who has conscientiously modelled practice on the stark guidelines of St. John!

In fact I have noticed a significant discontinuity in his writings.

His formal treatise on the “dark night” is totally uncompromising with respect to its transcendent focus.

However when one then reads his more poetically inspired “Spiritual Canticle” it contains a much stronger immanent direction.

However St. John never formally addresses this important switch in direction i.e. from transcendent to immanent in his writings. 

And this is a truly central issue. For without such a switch in direction at the appropriate time, the “dark night” stage is likely to culminate in severe depressive illness.

I would imagine that this was true of his own case i.e. that there were ultimately significant pathological elements present in his own “dark night” experience.

I would also imagine that this led to a crisis whereby a decisive switch took place in a more immanent direction (where for example sexual fantasies would have been given much freer reign). From the refined erotic nature of the Spiritual Canticle, it is pretty obvious to me that this is in fact what happened!

However rather than openly address such issues in a formal manner, it seems as if St. John was compelled to simply hint at them in a somewhat veiled poetic fashion, due to the restrictive conventions of the time.

Therefore though perhaps understandable that he chose to act in this way, it is important that we now properly address the significant issues involved.

I started off the “dark night” as a massive fan of St. John’s writing. (I still am).

However as an overall guide to the contemplative life (and especially coming out of the “dark night”), in a very crucial sense, I would see it as unbalanced.

As I have said before, the ascent of a mountain peak represents just one part of the equation. One must equally give attention to its corresponding descent!

Though in transcendent spiritual terms, still on the ascent of our mountain, already a decisive switch in direction is necessary to prepare one ultimately for its successful descent.     

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