Expanding and Dissolving the Self: Dark Night and Rebirth

The Dark Night can arise as a stage in a particular spiritual practice or as a result of life circumstances that challenge one’s sense of identity, self-image or status. These might include illness, death of a loved one, divorce or separation, loss of job or financial status, mid-life crisis, or an existential crisis triggered by the growing discrepancy between one’s inner spiritual needs and the prevailing materialistic emphasis of our society.

These lines from D.H. Lawrence’s Phoenix reflect this devastating but transformational process:

Are you willing to be sponged out, erased, cancelled, made nothing? Are you willing to be made nothing? Dipped into oblivion? If not, you will never really change.​

Extracts from “A Path with Heart” by Jack Kornfield:

“One of the most comprehensive maps of Buddhist meditation is the Theravada (the Elders) map of

higher consciousness… The Elders’ map divides the mystical realms into two broad areas: those

attained by expanding the self and those attained by dissolving the self…

“For expanding the self, the Elders outlined eight refined levels of consciousness, called the Realms of Absorption (also called the Higher Samadhis). The realms bring us to states of celestial lights and expansion where we experience extraordinary feelings, visionary illuminations, and states of rarefied stillness. Beyond these states, the map of the Elders describes another whole set of mystical realms called the Realms of the Dissolution of Self…

“In Insight Meditation, once we have abandoned the luminous state of arising and passing, we open to a profound cycle of dissolution, death, and rebirth … In this stage, nothing around us seems solid or trustworthy. On all levels, our consciousness becomes attuned to endings and death. We notice the end of conversations, of music, of encounters, of days, of sensations in the body on a powerful cellular level. We senses the dissolution of life moment to moment. Now the dark night deepens. As our outer and inner worlds dissolve, we lose our sense of reference. There arises a great sense of unease and fear, leading students into a realm of fear and terror. “Where is there any security?” “Wherever I look, things are dissolving.” In these stages we can experience this dissolution and dying within our own body. We may look down and see pieces of our own body seeming to melt away and decay, as if we were a corpse. As the realm of terror deepens, periods of paranoia may arise. In this stage, wherever we look, we become fearful of danger…

“People experience these feelings in many different ways: as pressure, claustrophobia, oppression, tightness, restlessness, or struggle, or as the unbearable endless repetition of experience, one after another, dying all the time. We can feel as if we are stuck in meaningless cycles of life. Existence can seem flat, arid, and lifeless. It is as if there is no exit. As we learn to acknowledge each state, name each state, and meet it with mindfulness, we discover that we are dying over and over again … In traversing these painful stages, there next arises a deep and profound desire for freedom… Even though we wish for freedom, there often arises a sense of impossibility, that we cannot go any further, that we cannot let go any more. We enter the stage of great doubt; we want to stop; we become restless… Here the world becomes too difficult; our spiritual practice asks too much of us; we wish we could quit and go home to our bed or our mother.

“Because the powerful stages of fear and dissolution touch such painful chords in us, it is easy to get stuck in them or lose our way among them. In this process, it is important to have a teacher, otherwise, we will get lost or overwhelmed by these states and quit…

“To bring things to resolution means we must go right into them. We must be able to look them straight in the eye and say, “Yes, I can open to this too,” meeting them with an open heart that neither grasps nor resists them…

“When we can finally look at the horrors and joys, our birth and our death, the gain and loss of all things, with an equal heart and open mind, there arises the state of the most beautiful and profound equanimity… From this perspective we can see that we are nothing and that we are everything. At these deep levels of practice, profound satoris and mystical awakenings continue to unfold.”

“The description of death and rebirth as a “dark night” comes from the writings of the great mystic St. John of the Cross. In an eloquent way, he describes the dark night as a long period of unknowing, loss, and despair that must be traversed by spiritual seekers in order to empty and humble themselves enough to receive divine inspiration… Traditionally the dark night arises only after we have had some initial spiritual opening.”

Extracts from “The Dark Night of the Soul” by St. John of the Cross of the Order of Mount Carmel:

“The dark night is a certain inflowing of God into the soul which cleanses it of its ignorances and imperfections, habitual, natural and spiritual…

“O spiritual soul, when thou seest thy desire obscured, thy Will arid and constrained, and thy faculties incapable of any interior act, be not grieved at this but look upon it rather as a great good, for God is delivering thee from thyself, taking the matter out of thy hands; for however strenuously thou mayest exert thyself, thou will never do anything so faultlessly, perfectly, and secure as now — because of the impurity and torpor of thy faculties — when God, taking thee by the hand, is guiding thee in the dark as one that is blind, along a road … and to an end thou knowest not, and whither thou couldst never travel by the help of thine own eyes and thine own feet, however strong thou mayest be…

“These trials are measured by the divine Will, and are proportioned to the imperfections, many or few, to be purged away; and also to the degree of union in love to which God intends to raise the soul; that is the measure of its humiliations both in their intensity and duration…

“… Together with the aridity and emptiness which it causes in the senses, it gives the soul an inclination and desire to be alone and in quietness, without being able to think of any particular thing or having the desire to do so.

“If those souls to whom this comes to pass knew how to be quiet at this time, and troubled not about performing any kind of action, whether inward or outward, neither had any anxiety about doing anything, then they would delicately experience this inward refreshment in that ease and freedom from care.

“So delicate is this refreshment that ordinarily, if a man have desire or care to experience it, he experience it not, for as I say, it does its work when the soul is most at ease and freest from care; it is like the air which, if one would close one’s hand upon it, escapes…

“… All that we have here described comes to pass in the soul passively, without its doing or undoing anything of itself with respect to it. But in this connection it must be known that, when the good angel permits the devil to gain this advantage of assailing the soul with this spiritual horror, he does it to purify the soul and to prepare it by means of this spiritual vigil for some great spiritual favour and festival which he desires to grant it, for he never mortifies save to give life, nor humbles save to exalt, which comes to pass shortly afterwards. Then, according as was the dark and horrible purgation which the soul suffered, so is the fruition now granted it of a wondrous and delectable spiritual contemplation, sometimes so lofty that there is no language to describe it.”

Extracts from “The Stormy Search for the Self” by C. Grof and S. Grof:

“During the existential crisis, one feels cut off from the deeper self, higher power, or God — whatever one depends on beyond personal resources to provide strength and inspiration. The result is a most devastating kind of loneliness, a total and complete existential alienation that penetrates one’s entire being … This deep sense of isolation appears to be available to many human beings, regardless of their history, and is often a central ingredient of spiritual transformation. Irina Tweedy, a Russian woman who studied with a Sufi master in India, wrote in The Chasm of Fire:

“The Great Separation was here … a peculiar, special feeling of utter loneliness … it cannot be compared to any feeling of loneliness we all experience sometimes in our lives. All seems dark and lifeless. There is no purpose anywhere or in anything. No God to pray to. No hope. Nothing at all…

“This sense of extreme isolation is reflected in the desolate prayer of Jesus on the cross: “My God, my God. Why hast Thou forsaken me?” People who are lost in this place frequently cite the example of Christ’s darkest hour in an attempt to explain the extent of this monumental feeling…

“The description of death and rebirth as a “dark night” comes from the writings of the great mystic St. John of the Cross. In an eloquent way, he describes the dark night as a long period of unknowing, loss, and despair that must be traversed by spiritual seekers in order to empty and humble themselves enough to receive divine inspiration… Traditionally the dark night arises only after we have had some initial spiritual opening.”

“When a person descends into the abyss of existential alienation, no amount of human warmth can change it…

“It is only natural that someone facing this aspect of the psyche would feel a great reluctance to confront it. Going deeper into this experience seems like accepting eternal damnation. However, this state of darkness and abysmal despair is known from the spiritual literature as a stage of spiritual opening that can have an immensely purging and liberating effect. Usually, one cannot yet see that waiting on the other side of what feels like total destruction of the ego is a broader, more encompassing sense of self.

Extracts from “Spiritual Emergency” by C. Grof and S. Grof:

“The opening of the channel between the conscious and the superconscious levels, between the “I” and the Self, and the flood of light, energy, and joy that follows, often produce a wonderful release.

“The preceding conflicts and sufferings, with the psychological and physical symptoms which they generated, vanish sometimes with amazing suddenness, thus confirming the fact that they were not due to any physical cause but were the direct outcome of the inner strife. In such cases the spiritual awakening amounts to a real resolution.

“But in other cases, not infrequent, the personality is unable to rightly assimilate the inflow of light and energy. This happens, for instance, when the intellect is not well coordinated and developed; when the nervous system is too sensitive; or when the inrush of spiritual energy is overwhelming in its suddenness and intensity. In extreme cases, the reaction can be so intense as to become pathological, producing a state of depression and even despair, with suicidal impulses. This state bears a close resemblance to psychotic depression — once called “melancholia” — characterized by an acute sense of unworthiness, a systematic self-depreciation and self-accusation, which may become so vivid as to produce the delusion that one is in hell, irretrievably damned. There is also an acute and painful sense of intellectual incompetence; a paralysis of the will-power accompanied by indecision and inability to act.

“But in the case of those who have had an inner awakening or a measure of spiritual realization, the disturbances should not be considered as a mere pathological condition, they have different, far deeper causes, as has been indicated by both Plato and St. John of the Cross with similar analogies.”

In “What is Enlightenment?” Andrew Cohen says:

“… The most challenging matter for the seeker of enlightenment is learning what it means to be nobody. Many think they want to be enlightened but actually without realizing it they only aspire to be better people. Better means powerful, wise, compassionate, fearless.

“To be enlightened means that the very centre falls away and we find ourselves standing nowhere in the middle of everything with nothing to hold on to — including power, wisdom, compassion and courage.

“How many women have I seen who claimed they wanted to be free while at the same time tenaciously holding on to the idea of being a saint or a good person, deeply terrified of being nobody?

“How many men have I seen who thought they wanted to be enlightened, but who so obviously had infinitely more interest in power and knowledge than in emptiness?

“It’s not possible to be nobody as long as we insist on being somebody.”

A quote from Karlfried Graf Von Dürkheim’s “The Way of Transformation”:

“Only to the extent that man exposes himself over and over again to annihilation, can that which is indestructible arise within him. In this lies the dignity of daring… Only if we venture repeatedly through zones of annihilation can our contact with Divine Being, which is beyond annihilation, become firm and stable. The more a man learns wholeheartedly to confront the world which threatens him with isolation, the more are the depths of the Ground of Being revealed and the possibilities of new life and Becoming opened.”

“St John of the Cross and the Dark Night of the Soul” by Marie Gundersen

I am writing this article to help clarify the difference between depression and the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. I am also attempting to give readers a brief introduction to the stages of spiritual transformation described by St John of the Cross in his writings. St John of the Cross (Juan de Yepes) was a sixteenth century Spanish mystic, poet and Doctor of the Church.

I have noticed that the expression the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ is often used incorrectly to describe an emotional/mental experience of depression. However, the term the ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ originated from St John of the Cross’ poem “The Dark Night” and depicts the soul’s spiritual journey through a process of purification to union with God. The stanzas of this poem are expounded on and include commentaries in the book “The Dark Night of the Soul”.

Generally speaking, a person who suffers from depression is often excessively self-concerned and introspective, lacking hope and interest in life. Various therapies and lifestyle changes can lift the person’s mood and sometimes medication will be necessary. Usually they can then reengage in worldly pursuits and social interaction with enthusiasm. The Dark Night of the Soul, however, cannot be addressed psychologically or medically.

Depression and deep suffering through loss can accompany the Dark Night of the Soul. St John acknowledges this overlap. Nevertheless depression and the Dark Night differ both in their cause and in the way that they affect the individual. The cause of the Dark Night is spiritual and in and of itself it produces love, humility, patience and other virtues.

A person entering the Dark Night would have had an experience of Divine Love followed by the loss of this connection. It is this loss that creates a deep feeling of aloneness and a longing for that which is beyond what gives temporary satisfaction. St John of the Cross says: …nothing worldly satisfies one who has tasted the Divine.* This is not a psychological need but a spiritual need. The only resolution to the Dark Night of the Soul is to have faith and to accept that it is a transformative process necessary for union with the Beloved.

The purpose of the Dark Night is to empty the soul of its worldly desires and attachments so that the light of God (the Holy Spirit) can illuminate it. St John of the Cross insists, along with scriptures, that any attachment to finite things is an impurity that prevents the complete union with God who is infinite love – for union with God can only be a union in likeness. To understand the nature of this union, one should first know that God sustains every soul and dwells in it substantially. … Consequently, in discussing union with God we are not discussing the substantial union that always exists, but the soul’s union with and transformation in God that does not always exist, except when there is likeness of love.

St John of the Cross also writes: …the favour of the world will leave her, and she will lose friends, credit, reputation and even property…she must be able to bear the renunciation forever of the satisfactions and delights of the world, and of all worldly comforts. …the tongues of men will rise up against her and will mock her…and will set her at nought. Such God sends to those who He will raise to high perfection by proving and refining them as gold in the fire.

St John also refers to the light of God as the ‘Divine Flame of Love’ which he says burns away (purges) faults and produces virtues such as humility and compassion. He reminds us that: he that humbles himself is exalted and he that exalts himself is humbled. (To be humbled is not the same as experiencing low self-esteem, when it is necessary to restore a healthier self image.)

St John uses the metaphor of the dark night to signify the ending of satisfaction and gratification in worldly things – this is like a deprivation or ‘night’ to the senses and the emotions. In some mysterious way the affective mechanism is ‘put to sleep’ leaving the person ‘in darkness’, not knowing what is happening. Without the usual emotional feedback the person is left feeling empty and in a void, where all seems dry and lifeless. Closer to union with God the process of purification intensifies, just as in relation to night it is always darkest before dawn. St John also uses the metaphor of darkness to imply that the infusion of spiritual light cannot be perceived by the senses or the intellect. (The Spanish word for dark is oscura and means obscure).

The pathway taken for the journey through the Dark Night of the Soul is portrayed as a secret staircase (secret because it is unknown to the intellect). St John writes about ten steps that are necessary for the soul to ascend in order to reach union with God. The final step can only be perfected in the after-life. The soul is elevated step by step gradually relinquishing egocentric ways and surrendering to God. The metaphor of the staircase is also used to show how the soul does not remain in one state for long, but continuously ascends and descends this ladder of love. There will be a fluctuation of highs and lows until the soul reaches a state of tranquillity and peace, united in Love with the Beloved. Union with God is not a fixed state, but it continues to deepen.​

In his writings St John of the Cross describes two different nights (stages): the ‘Dark Night of Sense’ followed by the ‘Dark Night of Spirit’. During the Night of Sense we are purged of the desires and attachments experienced through the senses. The intellect too will be purged (made empty) of its conditioning (concepts and opinions) in order to receive the illumination of God’s wisdom; for God exceeds all understanding and knowledge. And the personal will needs to be renounced to God’s eternal will: “Not my will, but Thy will”.

In the Night of Spirit there are further purifications more on a mental and spiritual level as the inflow of light intensifies. Impurities not seen as clearly before are highlighted and purged. Attitudes and presumptions, old habits and patterns of behaviour are now exposed because they are in contrast to the presence of divine light. All that is impure and unholy is purged by this divine flame of love. This is a time to surrender and let the Holy Spirit do the work.

There is also an increasing yearning for a permanent union with God: It is observed that the absence of the Beloved is a continual sighing in the heart of the lover because apart from Him she loves nought, rests in nought and finds relief in nought. During this process of transformation there is an inclination for solitude. This is not the same as anti-social isolation caused by an emotional problem but a natural response to seek solace in the Beloved. Each night can last many years and many years may pass between the first and second night.​

There are two aspects to each Night: an ‘active night’ and a ‘passive night’. These do not operate separately, they are both part of the process and one is dependent on the other.

The active night refers to what we can do, such as work on ourselves (make conscious our shadow side), live virtuously, practise meditation, and pray. St John of the Cross writes: An act of virtue produces and fosters in the soul: mildness, peace, comfort, light, purity and strength.​

St John’s use of the word meditation implies: to reflect on by using one’s intellect or imagination. Meditation leads to contemplation which is the term he uses for being present to what is (open awareness). Being attentive to every moment of life will lead to greater awareness, observing one’s thoughts, feelings and actions increases self-knowledge. St John makes it clear that self-knowledge is essential for transformation.

When the mind is silent (in contemplative prayer), free of images and chatter, we will be more receptive to the Divine Presence: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46).​

During the ‘passive night’ it is the Light of God (Holy Spirit) rather than one’s own efforts that accomplishes the purification. The Holy Spirit elevates the soul from time to time during the purgation and refreshes the soul by relieving it of the agony of annihilation (ego death).

The completion of this purification (the Night of Spirit) is not abrupt rather there is a gradual dissolution of the feeling of aloneness which is being extinguished by the inflow of divine light and love. St John of the Cross writes: The heart that is wounded with the pain of Thy absence will be healed with the delight and glory of Thy sweet presence.​

In union with God the person abides in a sublime state of peace and tranquillity. This is how St John of the Cross expressed it in the last stanza of his poem “The Dark Night”:​

I abandoned and forgot myself,laying my face on my Beloved

all things ceased

I went out from myself,leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.​

* All quotes come from The Collected Works of St John of the Cross (814pp) translated by Kieran Kavanaugh and Otilio Rodriguez, ICS Publications, Institute of Carmelite Studies, Washington D.C., 1991.