Category Archives: Dark Night
The takeaway: I thought this book would be amazing, but I had a lot of mixed feelings about it. James comes away saying one thing about religion throughout the book and then reached an incongruent conclusion at the end. He repairs this with a postscript at the prompting of what must have been a lot of questions from befuddled readers. Despite this problem, the book is a goldmine of quotes and raw information about mystical experiences. Worth the time to read. A free copy is available here.
First a confession: I actually listened to the audiobook version of this, rather than reading the written version. This was a good decision, and I encourage everyone to try it. The Varieties of Religious Experience (VRE) was originally not a book but a series talks, like turn-of-the-century TED talks, and even more interesting. Instead of jumbo screens, microphones, and spotlights, imagine a gaslit auditorium and a large chalkboard. Instead of geek glasses and smartphones, imagine people in bowler hats with handlebar mustaches taking notes with a pad and paper. The “chapters” in this book are the written copies of these talks, twenty in all, and are intended to be performed as much as read. There is a musical quality to them, an attentiveness to the sound and cadence of the language that is hidden in a silent reading. If you haven’t, check out the audio version and listen for yourself.
This book is such a classic, and has touched so many lives, that it is hard to review it, much less critique it, without feeling a twinge of unworthiness. It was published to rave reviews in 1902, has been in print for over a hundred years, and is one of those books that people describe as changing their lives, so it is hard to set aside the halo of reverence and simply take it as it actually is with a critical eye.
After listening for a while I began to realize something that helped me break it free from its gilded cage, and it is this: what James is doing is exactly the same thing prominent thinkers on religion are doing today.
In his talks James mentions vocal atheists, pop religious figures, and public philosophers all in the midst of heated debates over whether religion is simply harmful superstition leftover from the childhood of our species, or the only way to truth and prosperity. While listening, my mind kept leaping into the present, to images of Daniel Dennet, Christopher Hitchens, William Lane Craig, Joel Olsteen, John Lennox, Stephen Pinker, Sam Harris, Reza Aslan, and all the others having the very same debate today, but instead of pamphlets and booklets, it is now done with tweets and blogs. It is the same show, with a slightly different cast of characters, and seeing it that way made the book all the more fascinating. I suddenly had a context in which it all made sense – and oddly enough it is the context we still live in!
Here is the gist of what he claims in the book: religious experiences are all of the same category of experience because they come from a part of the unconscious mind that we cannot know rationally. They have different qualities and can even be classified into different types or families, but they are all the same sort of thing – the unconscious mind bursting into consciousness in a special way.
This claim has a lot of merit. I think he may be right. And if he is it has huge implications for the commonality between all religious traditions. But here is the strange thing: this idea is explained in lecture twenty, and it doesn’t match how he describes religious experiences in the rest of the book. What is weird is that up until that final lecture he goes on and on about the reality of mystical experiences, and strongly hints (through his choice of quotes and his own descriptions) that these experiences refer to a real transcendent cosmic reality. He adds a postscript in which he attempts to explain his views further, so guess I wasn’t the only one who noticed the discrepancy between how he talks about religion and how he explains it. In the post script he states plainly that (despite his conclusion in lecture twenty) he does believe in the supernatural and that mystical experiences refer to a real transcendent reality. I’m glad the point became clear, but really, why put it in a post script?
Another issue with the VRE is that, while James purports to investigate religious experiences in all their variety, he really only looks at what we would consider mystical experiences in the most positive sense. He essentially ignores those kinds of religious experiences that make religion appear awful, and one can’t help sensing a strong bias in what he chooses to provide as examples of religious experience. Today we are swimming in a sea of religious violence and the people committing these acts appear to be ecstatic about what they are doing – and this is nothing new. In fact, it is not as bad today as it was during James’s time if Steven Pinker is to be believed.We could dismiss these as inauthentically religious actions, not true feelings of devotion and union with something larger with oneself. But are they really?
There are many stories of samurais working diligently on their enlightenment and whistling while they went about the work of war. There are crimes against humanity occurring in Burma right now sanctioned by Buddhist monks, one of whom has earned the nickname “the Bin Laden of Buddhism.” The Gita reads like a mutant mixture of military training manual and nondual guide to awakening. The violence in the Abrahamic religions hardly needs mentioning. It is hard to admit, but hybridized into even the most profound and mystical expressions of religion throughout history are violent acts which on the surface we instinctively wish to push aside or explain away with a metaphor. I have strongly felt the pull to do this in the past as I was looking for something true in these traditions, and I believe James felt this as well when writing the VRE. He mentions the crusades in passing, almost apologetically, but quickly moves on to more positive examples.
I feel like I’ve been too harsh on one of my heros, and despite my criticism let me be clear that James is a hero of mine. So let me point out why this is also an awesome book worth reading (or hearing). First, James has one of the best, most complete, and well sourced descriptions of the dark night. He focuses primarily on Christianity, but acknowledges that these experiences happen to people everywhere. In lectures 6 and 7 he calls this issue “The Sick Soul,” and gives a rich description of what a dark night is like. He proposes an interesting idea as to why it seems to happen so often to mystics: personality. James believes that the dark night is one of two basic experiences (healthy-minded or sick) that mystics can have based on their personal disposition. I found this idea utterly fascinating. I think there is some truth to it in that while everyone (in my experience) does indeed experience a dark night, some experience it as a mild sense of dissatisfaction while others find it overwhelming. Could it be the technique, or the particular path, doesn’t really matter when it comes to this, but that the personality of the person is what leads to these differences?
Secondly, he makes some brilliant points about why mystical experiences should be taken seriously by philosophers and scientists, and why they should become (and did become) a legitimate object of interest to rational people everywhere. In the process he does an amazing job of humanizing the lives of mystics, making their experience less alien to people who don’t understand what it is like to have such experiences first hand. Additionally, he openly endorsed the notion that certain kinds of drugs could usher in mystical experiences, a notion that was not common in academic circles at the time and likely cost him, but no doubt encouraged future generations to take the idea seriously. Finally, William James is an icon of academic rigor for a reason and it really shows in this book. He thoroughly researched his topic, and the book is a goldmine of quotes about mystical experiences from people in throes of them. He organizes them and brings them to life in a brilliant way that is really something to admire.
Overall, I can say that VRE was not what I expected. Once I was able to look at what James is claiming without becoming too star-struck I found myself having a lot of mixed feelings. This was unexpected, because the VRE has been on my reading list for so long, has been recommended by so many smart people, and is referenced in so many works I love, that I honestly expected that I would find myself nodding along, feeling inspired throughout. That wasn’t the case. Sometimes I found myself taken aback by the leaps of logic and the mental gymnastics he uses to argue his case, and often he makes predictions that simply haven’t come true (one advantage of reading it in the future). At other times, I thought he discussed and described aspects of mystical experience so well that it hasn’t been topped since. I came away not loving the work, and certainly seeing its flaws, but respecting it and glad I gave it my time.
The dark night is a series of insights in meditation also known as the “dukkha nanas” or “knowledges of dissatisfaction” in classical Buddhism. They are a series of stages where the meditator gets a good hard long look at suffering.
It is not fun.
There is an aspect of the dark night that I want to highlight because it is very important. It happens to everyone and is not discussed often. And it is this: once you see dukkha in yourself you begin to see it everywhere.
You can hear the sadness and anxiety in other’s voices. Feel the anger and cynicism in humor and sarcasm. See the ceaseless restlessness in body language. Read the guarded disappointment in the set of faces passing on the street. See the constant craving for escape in just about every behavior.
The deep dissatisfaction and restlessness that is embedded in everyone’s lives jumps out in sharp clarity. It is not just in the people you encounter either. You can hear it in music, see it in art, feel it in the layout of offices, and recognize it as part of normal life, from the highest expression of humanity to the lowest depths of depravity. Dukkha is there. You can’t avoid it. It is not just something you see in your meditation, it is something you see in the world.
There is a scene in the latest Cosmos series that really stood out to me, because it captures what this is like. It portrays the experience of Clair Paterson, the scientist who, while trying to determine the true age of the earth, accidentally discovered that lead from gasoline is everywhere, and it is poising people. *Click the picture above to see the video.*
Imagine what it must have been like to be him. You analyze the data, crunch the numbers, and come to a shocking realization that literally no one else on the planet knows – there is a toxin covering every surface. It fills the air, and is probably in all the food. What would it be like to make such a discovery?
Even though it is not fun to discover dukkha, it is important. In fact, I’d say that unless you really soak up the truth to be found in this insight, then real wisdom – reality-based, non-superficial, knowledge about the actual state of affairs – is not possible. Additionally, developing deep compassion is difficult without seeing dukkha up close and personal.
Like Paterson, you will feel the urge to do something about it. Not just for yourself, but for others. This is how compassion, a deep and universal form of compassion, can arise. You realize that everyone is struggling with the same problem in different ways.
You see that dukkha is everywhere, and for this reason, seeking for happiness in things soaked in dukkha just won’t help. This is how wisdom arises. Why obsess over the small stuff? Why spend time in distraction? Once the meditator sees the truth about dukkha, then a clear sense of what is and is not important arises.
The bright side of the dark night is the development of compassion and wisdom. These are impossible to imagine without a deep insight into dukkha. So while the dark night is not fun, it is worth it for the transformation that it can bring.
If you think that you may be in the dark night, please contact a teacher. For more information, you can contact the author directly. Don’t be shy. If you are in the Dark Night, reach out.
Ron answers questions on a whole range of meditation and psychology related topics, from the online BG community.
The times they are a changin’. Well, at least the New York Times.
The national paper of record recently posted an op-ed piece by Jeff Warren describing an intense pragmatic dharma retreat that he took with Daniel Ingram. During the retreat he was shooting for stream entry and describes in detail how the stages of insight unfolded for him, and Dr. Ingram’s advice along the way. Well worth a read:
The article can be read here.
Shinzen Young gives one of the best analyses of the use of dharma maps I’ve yet heard. Maps are good, but there are downsides worth considering.
What do people mean when they say they are “on the path?” In this talk the 16 stages of insight are described in a clear and down to earth way.
9. Desire for Deliverance
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.