The Dark Night

Extinction (The Dark Night)

5.     Dissolution

6.     Fear

7.     Misery

8.    Disgust

9.    Desire for Deliverance

10.  Re-Observation

As the meditator moves along the path and has already experienced their attention syncing up with the arising of phenomena, then the peak of phenomena, it then moves to the passing away of phenomena. I call the next section of the path the “Dark Night” and in the commentaries it is also called “the knowledge of suffering.”

As you can gather from the name, this is a pretty difficult part of the path. It is so difficult in fact, this is where most meditators get into trouble, and can become stuck. The sheer discomfort and negativity of this part of the path may lead the meditator to conclude that they are no longer “doing it right,” and they may decide to just quit meditating. After all, why keep at it when it pretty much hurts to meditate? In the Zen tradition, this part of the path is called the “rolling up of the mat” for just that reason – the meditator just wants to throw in the towel and stop.

This actually makes a lot of sense if you do not know the map. The memory of the rapturous A&P is still fresh in the mind of a meditator who initially steps into the Dark Night. Compared to the joy and wonder that was only just experienced, the Dark Night is a horrible let down. But it is important to know that the difficulty being experienced is a sign of progress – it means that you are doing the meditation correctly. Another important thing to know is that even though this section of the path is not pleasant, it is very important for insight into the nature of reality (which is not always very pleasant!).

What follows is a description of the stages that make up the Dark Night. These are not comprehensive and will not match everyone’s experiences. Some people have very strong and painful experiences while others have a very mild experience that they hardly notice at all. These descriptions capture some of the experiences that an average, moderate experience would encompass.

If you believe that you may be experiencing any of these, I strongly advise you to discuss it with a teacher. Experienced Dharma teachers know this territory very well and the best ones know how to guide people through it with care and understanding. Up to this point it has been pretty safe to be a bit of loner in meditation, but when it comes to the Dark Night, you should seek advice from someone more experienced.

Dissolution

As the meditator moves through the A&P they notice that the excitement and joy gradually diminish, and what takes the place of those emotions is a feeling of slowing down or sinking. For those who are very mindful and aware, they will notice that the mind is now having trouble noticing anything but the endings of things. The way that this is sometimes experienced is that the meditator feels like they can no longer do noting correctly, that they can only note something once it has already passed away. Many people describe feeling lethargy and cool sensations on the skin while on the cushion, and difficulty keeping up with conversations or remembering things off the cushion.

The ways in which dissolution can be experienced vary a lot, in that for some it is a negative experience while for others it is quite pleasant. Some meditators describe a sinking feeling that accompanies an almost fatalistic awareness of the eventual aging, decay and death of all things. My own experience was more typical in that it was mild and pleasant. I can be a fairly hyperactive and over-committed person in general, and during this stage it was as if I was given a mild tranquilizer. I slowed down physically and mentally and took my time about everything. I found that I had trouble keeping up with things that normally were not a problem. There was a vague sense of the impermanence of things, and I wanted to savor life.

Fear 

At some point when the meditator is in the midst of the sinking, slow and cool feelings of dissolution they will suddenly experience the stage of fear. Unlike dissolution, which feels like a gradual shift away from the thrill of A&P, fear does not come on gradually, but suddenly. One second you are feeling chilled out in dissolution and the next you are suddenly experiencing alarm and anxiety. For some this can seem like a panic attack, but for others it feels as if they are suddenly on edge and much more worried than usual.

It often comes out of the blue, but occasionally the shift from dissolution to fear can be triggered by something in the environment. I first experienced fear when meditating in a park and hearing a dog bark in the distance. When the dog barked, a warm tingling ran up the front of my body, my heart beat faster, and I became convinced that the dog was after me. It was a striking experience because it was so out of the blue – it sprang up in the midst of being so calm and chilled-out in dissolution. I realize now that the barking was merely a trigger that started the next stage, which would have started on its own anyway. I say all this to point out that you can easily confuse yourself and become a bit paranoid during this stage if you keep looking outside yourself for the source of fear. The fear was caused by the meditation and not the dog. When I opened my eyes to take a look, the dog was chasing a squirrel.

What is actually happening, down deep, is that as your attention is syncing up with the dissolution of phenomena you are finding that there is nothing in experience that the sense of “me” can hold onto as stable and permanent. It just can’t get any footing. You do not realize it at a cognitive level, but you are getting a deep insight into the impermanence of all phenomena, and along with that, into the impermanence of the self. This is something that is terrifying to one’s very roots. Needles to say this initial stage can be a great source of distress and people can become stuck here for some time if they do not have good guidance.

Misery

Following the panicky, anxiety-inducing stage of fear, the meditator begins to move into the stage of misery, which is aptly named. The stage of misery feels awful both physically and psychologically. Aches, itches, weird pains and difficult thoughts arise and fly through body and mind so quickly that the meditator has little time to note or really notice them. There is only a strong sense of being in anguish, and it is common for meditators to grimace while sitting in meditation when they are in the midst of this stage. In my experience the stage of misery was a bit like having a bad case of flu, but without the sneezing or stuffiness. Mostly, there was the inescapable feeling that something was simply not right with me, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was, and nothing seemed to help.

At a deeper level, the mind at the stage of misery has already got insight into the impermanence of self and this stage can best be conceived of as a terrible sense of grief that follows on the heels of that insight. Again, you may not “know” that this is happening at a cognitive level, but deep down there is a growing awareness that everything is impermanent, including the self and this is profoundly disturbing.

Disgust

Following on the heels of misery is disgust. When disgust arises in meditation for the first time the grimace of misery is replaced by a scrunching around the eyes and nose – a face that clearly says “I’m grossed out.” In meditation the bodily sensations go from being irritating in the stage of misery, to feeling unbearably nasty in disgust. The mind can be flooded with images of filth and foulness that are revolting. Off the cushion the meditator can find themselves disliking things that they would normally crave. In many cases the thought of sex seems gross, food, and the whole act of feeding seems to have a surreal nastiness to it, and even entertainment and art that you normally love may seems empty and pointless. At this stage I personally felt mild nausea and had an overwhelming sense that my skin was filthy. Disgust typically does not last that long compared to misery, and it quickly resolves into desire for deliverance, however, do not discount the importance of this stage. Disgust is a clear insight into the unsatisfactoriness of the body and mind.

At this point, the difference between cognitive “insight” and contemplative insight should really be sinking in: the insights on the path do not just change how you think about things, they change how you are in the world. The insights of the Dark Night are experienced more than they are thought through. They seem to arise and happen on their own, and they seem to be altering your experience of life in ways you could not have anticipated when you began this journey.

Desire for Deliverance

You have felt terrible panic, and you’ve felt like you’ve been through a miserable flu. You are feeling disgusted with all of existence. What is the next logical thing to follow? A strong desire for it to just be over with already. Desire for deliverance is the next stage on the path following disgust, and it is the most pitiful of the insight stages. At this point you really just wish the insights and the path would just stop and that things would go back to the way they were at A&P. In some cases you might wish that you’d never started to meditate at all, and might feel resentful that all this negativity is part of the path. It is not uncommon for meditators to unconsciously make little whining or grunting noises during meditation when going through this stage. There is a vague sense that all of this is just unfair and too terrible for words. Like disgust, this stage typically does not last very long, and many people can fly through it without realizing that it happened. It could be as fleeting as a single thought wondering when this will end, or as strong and lasting a strong bought of crying. Each person’s experience will be different.

Re-Observation

With a nerdy name like “re-observation,” how bad can the next stage be? As it turns out, really bad. My teacher warned me ahead of time that re-observation is “the king-daddy of the dukkha nanas” and I’m glad he let me know. This stage is called re-observation because the meditator experiences all of the previous stages, one on top of the other, in quick succession. In other words, it is a stage in which all the previous dukkha nanas are wrapped up in one. When it starts you know something has changed because the whole field of awareness, body sensations, mental activity, everything, suddenly seems to be cycling through dissolution, fear, misery, disgust, and desire for deliverance over and over again. In the space of a few moments you can experience panic, aches, itches, nausea, disgusting mental images, crawling sensations on the skin, and an irritating sense that you can’t keep up with it all. At this stage in my meditation I described the experience as feeling like I was tumbling around in a clothes dryer full of negative mind-states.

It may seem cruel, but there is a very important insight to be gained through the experience of re-observation. You would not have reached this stage in the path if you were not strong enough to be here, and what you get out of all of this misery is a very very critical ingredient for your eventual liberation – equanimity.

At some point there is a shift in perspective, and the meditator feels like they are no longer tumbling around with the negative mind-states, but are simply watching them, and this is their first taste of equanimity. Moving through the dark night and into equanimity successfully requires a few things, but chief among them is the will to stick with it and not give up. Keep going and watch the experience evolve and change with as much mindfulness as you can muster. Along with this quality of sticking to it, which we might call resolve, determination, or stubbornness, we need a balancing quality that softens us and allows us to be open to the experience, as negative as it is. What is needed is acceptance. A lot of misunderstandings exist about the role of acceptance in meditation, and I hesitate to include it at all because it can be misconstrued to mean a vague sense that “everything is OK.” This is not at all what acceptance means in this instance. Rather, in this case, acceptance means a whole-hearted willingness to be with things just as they are, even if they are awful. The determination to carry on the meditation, along with the willingness to accept what it reveals, are valuable tools for skillfully moving through the Dark Night.

Remember that technical point about meditation that you discovered back at the A&P? That you seem to cycle through the path to your cutting edge throughout your day? This is the stage where that little detail has huge implications for your life. This is because if you are moving along the path and cycling up to a really nasty experience a few times or more each day, it can seriously wreck your mood. If you do not understand why this is happening to you, then you may end up constructing a lot of elaborate stories about why you feel so rotten all the time, and could end up engaging in some pretty unskillful behavior. People who are going through this and do not understand why might blame their jobs, their relationships, or some other facet of their life for how they are feeling. The result could be some poor decisions. At this point in the path it is very important to keep the practice and the rest of your life separate.

This is one of the most important reasons why I feel sharing the map is helpful for people who are starting to meditate. If you meditate according to the instructions and make progress you will inevitably head into this very negative experience. If you do not know it is coming and do not understand what is happening to you when it begins, it can be much worse than it needs to be. Sharing with students that this is a natural part of the path and giving them an informed choice about whether to proceed or not is what sharing the map is all about.

The fact that the Dark Night exist has, to my mind, serious ethical implications. Doctors are obliged to discuss the potential negative side effects of any medication that they recommend to their patients. Researchers must ensure that research participants are aware of the potential negative effects of their research. Yet meditation teachers often do not tell students up front about the negative effects of meditation. This is understandable in that teachers do not want to drive students away or scare them before they have any insight, and they also do not want to create any expectations that having a negative experience is part of what being a “good” meditator is about. But choosing not to tell beginning students about the Dark Night also raises the question of whether the student was given the information they needed to make an clear choice about whether this path was right for them. This is particularly important for students who have a history of depression or anxiety. There are many awakened practitioners that I know personally who made it through these stages just fine while they were also coping with depression or anxiety, but there is the potential that these stages could exacerbate those conditions. And that is just dangerous. This is simply a lengthy way for me to say that everyone deserves to know about the Dark Night up front. No one should find out about it when they are in the midst of going through it.

If you have crossed the A&P, then you are headed for the Dark Night. For meditators going through this I highly recommend having a teacher that understands this stuff. A good teacher will help you to move through these stages with greater ease and will also help you to get a clear understanding of the insights inherent in the experience. Navigating the Dark Night without a teacher is possible, but it is not recommended.

The next part of the path is the stage of Equanimity.

About Ron

To learn meditation, no matter where you are in the world, just send an email to: alohadharma@gmail.com

Posted on June 12, 2011, in buddhism, Dark Night, Dharma, Enlightenment, Meditation, Mindfulness, no-self, vipassana, Wisdom and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 26 Comments.

  1. Ron, thanks for this. I’m right in the middle of this myself(on the way to 2nd path), and your description is very accurate. It’s bloody unpleasant, but it was worth the struggle last time and sure it will be again.

    • Going through it the second time seemed far easier to me – so take heart! There is some learning that takes place in the mind post stream-entry that helps it to make its way more smoothly the 2nd go round. You’re on your way!

  2. Ron,

    great post.you’re doing a good service by warning people about this stage of practice. if you don’t mind me asking, how long did you stay in Dark Night territory? did it only manifest during practice or did you experience it out of the mat? how did you deal with it? I imagine that it takes skill and a certain amount of psycholigical health to get through this especially if you have a family and a day job.

    in my case, I had a glimpse of this during one of my mediation session a couple of years back. while in meditation I suddenly plunge into a state wherein all I could see is a white void. no physical body, just my awareness in white expanse. then I felt terror, i panicked and sensed a fear of annihilation. then I came out of my meditation breathing hard and I realized how afraid I was of dying even if I don’t fear death at the conceptual level. at that point I had an insight that the fear of death is not only psychological but deeply physiological.I haven’t experienced that white void since, but next time it happens I’ll do my best to chill and embrace the void with equanimity. easier said than done of course, but knowing the territory makes it more bearable.

    ~C

    • I believe that it took me a little more than half a year the first time around, however, please keep in mind that everyone is different in terms of pacing. Two meditators could be doing the exact same technique exactly the same and they would progress through the DN at different rates, so I wouldn’t take my example as the definitive timeline. Some people whip through it in no time while others take years. Why? I don’t know. Maybe it’s karma.

      As far as whether it effected me off the mat, the answer is absolutely. I was so cranky and irritable that there were times when my poor wife would just roll her eyes and tell me to snap out of it. Luckily, we both knew what was going on, and that made things a lot easier. Without the map and a good teacher, I’m not sure how this would have turned out. Oddly, I was working on my dissertation at the time and there was something about the DN that got me working faster on it. I am not sure how or why that was the case but it was. I started making progress on my PhD like never before.

      It is very important to do things that help maintain your wellbeing through all of this. Go to the gym, get enough sleep, take it easy on the cocktails, and be nice to yourself. Give yourself credit, you are going through a lot and learning a lot, so don’t get too frustrated with yourself when you go all grumpy on everyone.

      As for your own experience, I’d have to know a lot more before we could say that was a taste of DN, but whatever it was, it sounds very similar to the stage of fear. As you said, the next time it happens it is best to accept it. I found that the best attitude to take when things got very difficult was that of a scientist. For each difficult experience, my stance was to simply observe, report (through noting) and remain distant and neutral.

      Remember to talk with your teacher periodically as you are going through this. I was checking in once a week at the time and that made a huge difference.

      • thanks for sharing your experience.

        i’m lucky to have a teacher who i can check with if i need to. but at this time, i find that the Progress of Insight map is useful to check with my experience. at the conceptual level i don’t give too much attention on the stages. but experientially, it could be a very big deal because the physiological responses to such states can be instinctive. for example, just the other day, i was meditating in bed before going to sleep. noting on the breath until the breath is barely noticeable. at that point the body/mind was focused and relax. then wham! i sensed a presence on the left side of the bed, as if a creature was gnawing on my left foot. my immediate reaction was that of surprise and panic so i got up immediately. as soon as i got up, i told myself. “dang, must’ve been the ‘fear’ state.” then i went to bed and doze off to sleep. my point is: knowing the stages of insight enabled me to have a healthier interpretation of the that experience. if i don’t know the stages, then i could’ve interpreted that as an incubus out to get me and then get all paranoid and lose sleep. knowing the stages, just brused off the experience, didn’t make a big deal out of it, and head right back to sleep.

        anyway, that said, as much as i find the progress of insight model to be useful, i still have some concerns about the risk of self-fulfilling (e.g. scripting) prophesy when following any model. for example, maybe i just experience this in my practice because i was expecting it.

        so i wonder, based on your experience and knowledge in your profession, in your opinion, how much of what we experience are due to the actual stages and how much of it are due to suggestion. does it even matter to make this distinction? or is it also valid to have a “fake it, till you make it” attitude? for example, who cares if it’s a case of “leading the witness” as long as we achieve the goal of stream-entry?

        ~C

      • Hey,

        The jury has been out on whether this is scripted or not for a long long time. It boils down to the mind-only or realist arguements that have run through Buddhism for hundreds of years.

        My take on it is this – if it is scripted, then why is it that people who have never even heard of the maps are having these experience? Why is it that people are slipping into these experiences no matter what contemplative practice they pursue, be it christian prayer, buddhist meditation, shamanic chanting – it all seems to have a very similar progression. There are important differences in the descriptions, but the similarities are really astounding to me. Given this, the odds that we are all scripting this experience seems slim to me.

        That having been said, I can tell you this: no one really knows for sure. Arahats debate this stuff and have a range of opinions. We simply do not know.

        Wish I could be more help.

  3. Ron,

    yep, my experience validates the model and not the other way around. that’s why i keep up with the practice. i’ve had experiences in dreams and lucid dreams which fit the descriptions of A&P even before i become aware of the progress of insight. that’s why when i read Daniel Ingram’s book and listened to Shinzen Young something just clicked. (“you mean this is the same experience i’ve been having in lucid dreams? e.g. vibrations, undulations, vortex-like sensations, etc.”) so i’m now more informed on what to expect (and hopefully avoid).

    that said, i raised the question since that’s one of the common reasons for objecting to paying attention to the model, which i think is also a valid concern since there are people who are highly susceptible to suggestions.

    in any case, all the more reason to study this phenomena from both the subjective and objective perspective (e.g. by taking the reports of meditators seriously instead of just reifying the physiological correlates of these experiences.) it’s worth studying the physiological signatures of the No-self so that, maybe in the future, we can close the Arahats debates the same way Galileo’s telescope closed the debates on the Aristotelian geocentric view.

    ~C

    • “…maybe in the future, we can close the Arahats debates the same way Galileo’s telescope closed the debates on the Aristotelian geocentric view”

      Said perfectly! Let’s all hope for that.

  4. Ron,

    btw, my teacher’s (Shinzen Young) term for the Dark Night (at least during actual practice) is “relaxation pain”. see – http://www.shinzen.org/Articles/artIcky.htm – let me know what you think whether this lines up with the Dark Night stage.

    ~C

    • I want to thank you for sharing it with me. The more I learn about SY’s work the happier it makes me. His explanation of the DN is focused mostly on one aspect of the DN that I do not go into much here, something that I’ve heard people call it “the cosmic yuck”, however, it is clear we are describing a similar thing.

      What strikes me so much about his description is the last few paragraphs where he visits a hospital and explains this to a group of ladies in an inpatient program. Their reaction was to pounce on him wanting more details, as many of them were going through this and knew exactly what he was talking about. They complained that the doctors and therapists in the program had no idea what this was and were not helpful.

      This is exactly the kind of thing that I am most concerned about as mindfulness and meditation become ever more incorporated into treatments for just about every emotional and behavioral problem. My own experience has been similar in the work that I do, and what I am finding is that doctors react with just as much hunger for an explanation as patients – which is a very hopeful sign.

      I hope that one day the DN will be a well acknowledged issue with meditation in health settings, and that every person who meditates, whether it is part of a treatment or not, will know about the DN.

  5. thankyou thankyou for this motivation… i so need this right now.

  6. you are experiencing dissolution fear misery disgust desire for deliverance etc because you are doing serious damage to your nervous system.Please stop. Please Please stop.The people who are advising you to continue are deluded.There are no enlightened people although there are some normal kind sensible people. Anyone who would have you go through these experiences with the promise of gold at the end of the rainbow is dangerously deluded.I wish you well.I worry for you.

    • Bill,

      I have guided many people through these stages and they have been far better for it (so have I). Why do you think this is damaging the nervous system? Also, please refrain from flaming here. Calling meditation teachers like myself “dangerously deluded” borders on insulting and will not be tolerated here. This site welcomes open, but respectful, disagreement and discussion.

      • ron,
        when i say “dangerously deluded” i do not mean it as an insult and i apologise if it has offended you.Honestly.If i thought that you were not deluded then i really would think you were heartless to expose people to these dangers. I am sure you do what you do with the best of intentions but (i´m sorry) i think that what you do is dangerous.
        I say damaging to the nervous system because among other things there is research indicating that the subjective experiences of meditators is in great measure the correlate of provoked alterations to the nervous system.You yourself agree that many of the experiences are highly unpleasant.It is a logical step and one being taken by many researchers to postulate therefore that damage is being done to the nervous system

        best wishes, bill

        • Thanks for clarifying – I respect your right to disagree. However, I just plain disagree with what you’re saying. If something is unpleasant it doesn’t follow that it is damaging. Plenty of things we do are unpleasant but very good for us. And lots of things we do that are pleasant are terrible for us. What I’m advocating here is a mature understanding of the unpleasant experiences inherent in insight meditation. Ultimately, these practices do lead to far greater happiness for those that do them.

  7. ron,
    i´m glad we both agree that meditation does lead to unpleasant experiences and let´s remind ourselves of the level of unpleasant we have already both agreed we are talking about – levels sufficient to have led to suicides,attempted suicides leading to hospitalisation,people being hospitalised after leaving retreats,people being unable to work or care for children for periods of 1 month and upwards after leaving retreats etc.This is what we are talking about ron. best wishes, bill

    • I understand this very well – all too well, as I’m researching it and a meditation teacher. However, this is why it is important that sites like mine get the word out and help people understand the risks, while also providing them with an available teacher if they choose to pursue this. It is all about informed choice.

  8. actually that is true ron you are honest and upfront and in that you are better than most. best wishes bill

  9. Hi ron,i gone through dukka nanas about 1.5 years back ,and now i am passing through a stage of re-observation ,moods are changing so fast,i can sit in meditation for a prolonged time wth full happiness ,and in a matter of 2-3 days i am passing through fear,misery,disgust etc .Also this fear is triggered by external factor .If i go into detail ,if i have a headache i feel like i have brain tumour ,and start worrying about it ,but at the same time i know that death is nothing ,but a stage of growth,and body comes from the nature ,and it goes back to it .Bt still i am worried about,and as you said having symptoms of a flu,but physically nothing.

    I already know of the map,so it itself is a relief ,but re observation stage is a big monster,its even suppressing the knowledge of map,and saying that its nothing lol

    So i understand that this is learning ,be mindful ,just let go attitude towards everything ,is it?

    • Hi hkxd,

      The DN is indeed rough and that may be what is going on for you – or it could also be difficult times for other reasons too. In both cases, the approach needed from you is the same: acceptance. When you experience the difficult moments, watch them closely without attempting to push them away or change them. Just be with them with as much equanimity as possible.

      A great supplemental practice to engage in while in the DN is metta. I recommend it highly. There is a page on this website describes how to do metta in a couple of ways:
      https://alohadharma.wordpress.com/loving-kindness-meditation/

      Good luck,

      Ron

  10. Hello,

    I have gone through something like this more than once. I initially identified it with what my tradition called the three obstacles and 4 devils. Pretty much, I just persisted and my energy, along with an experience of bliss and perception of beauty would return. Later on, I identified the troubling experiences with the Five Hindrances or Veils, especially the 4th and 5th. I have been dealing with it by cultivating kindness (metta), tolerance (khanti), and equanimity. That has been useful, but there are unresolved issues; I feel like I tend to more or less go through a loop.

    This is the first I have heard about the stages of vipassana, So far, the information has resonated. I plan to keep reading

  11. Reblogged this on unclouding and commented:
    I went through a lot of this, so I wanted to repost. The more people are aware that anxiety and fear are part of the process, the less it is of a problem. I’ve been dealing with a lot of this today and find it reassuring and comforting to read about.

  1. Pingback: The Dark Night « The Wandering On

  2. Pingback: On Diving Deeper Into the Mind of Terence McKenna Beyond the Screaming Abyss < ~C4Chaos

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