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.

  1. Ron, I really like that you took the time to clarify just what “acceptance” means in the context of the path of insight. I agree with your definition: “a whole-hearted willingness to be with things just as they are, even if they are awful.” The way I see it (which is just one way among many) is that as long as we are fighting with our experience we are unable to see it more deeply. Acceptance releases the struggle, allowing for a balanced investigation of whatever is occurring in the moment. It’s almost as if acceptance is like holding an object gently in open hands, so that it can be brought in close and examined right before your eyes. While acceptance alone brings a certain degree of relief/release from suffering (the release of not fighting with experience), further investigation leads to deeper experiential wisdom, which leads to a relief/release that is even more profound. And I think that’s where you’re headed next… 😀

    • Thanks Jackson. Acceptance is becoming a bit of a buzz-word these days, and there are a lot of misperceptions about it, so it I thought it was worth it to spend a little time on it. I really like your explanation of it here, because it shows how important it is in overall practice. Acceptance is probably a critical ingredient in earlier parts of the path, but at the DN the necessity of it really comes out front, where that tendency to fight that you talk about is so strong. It is as if we finally get to see that in action and when we stop we see how it is holding us back.

      Stay tuned for equanimity!

  2. Hi Ron,

    I’m starting to think that I might’ve crossed the A&P a couple of years back, but if so I should be kicking around the dark night. Now, some people get it really bad but I wouldn’t say that I’ve had anything that I would say is very bad at all (maybe a panic attack and some anxiety, but I had those back before I think I might’ve hit the A&P anyway). So I’m wondering what being stuck in the dark night entails? Do we float around through all the dukkha nanas whether or not we’re practicing or do we only go as far as our highest nana we’ve reached through practice? I’m just trying to get a sense for where I am on the maps.

    Thanks,
    James

    • Hi James,

      It could be that you are kicking around in DN and not really aware of it because it is subtle for you. Different people appear to experience it with different levels of intensity. So while some have a really difficult time with it, others hardly notice it at all. Everyone seems to be different in this respect and as far as I can tell there is no way to tell how intense the experience will be for you.

      The best way to sort out where you are on the maps is to track it with an insight teacher over time. Unfortunately, it can’t really be done well by reading the descriptions alone (though a few people have done that). However, not all teachers will be forthcoming about where you are on the maps. Working with a teacher can help you learn how to sort out the nanas and watch them unfold each sit, track where your cutting edge is and resolve some of the confusion.

      Hope that helps,

      Ron

      • That is helpful, Ron, thanks. Just throwing questions out there wherever there are dharma practitioners around (I was referred here from KFD, in fact). I’ve floated the same questions over there and am getting some interesting feedback.

        • KFD is a great place to get solid advice. There are some seriously advanced practitioners there, and I drop in once in a while and post. I’ll see you there!

  3. Hi Ron,

    Long story short, I freaked out, I googled my concern and read your article on self vs no self and all became well again :o) So, basically, thanks!

    To give you a little bit of background, I’m pretty early on in my meditation journey, and I think that i wasn’t ready to completely give up my ego. I had spent a week of fairly intense meditation and experienced a sudden lack of understanding for who I was, in effect a loss of any sense of ‘me-ness’. To be honest it freaked me out and I had a sense of lack of motivation for a few days afterwards. I think my ego was struggling with the idea that without self, how could (or why would) I do anything.

    A combination of the experience and reading your article gave me a fantastic insight / shock and now the notion that ‘I’ is not a thing that gets built upon, but that here is a new ‘I’ continually arising in awareness gives me something to hang both my notion of oneness and my notion of being an individual. Without the ability to accept both of these, I feel that I would either be lost in my ego or unable to motivate myself to learn, have fun, perform except in a purely spontaneous way.

    Your article was referenced by Buddhist Geeks, which is what i found when I googled – http://www.buddhistgeeks.com/2011/05/psychological-self-vs-no-self/.

    I do have a question for you. Perhaps you could be kind enough to answer or point me in the right direction. I’ve taken a look at you descriptions of the path, which are extremely interesting and insightful. I will avoid reading them too much in depth for the time being as I would like to experience insight rather than turn it into a though process through rationalisation. However, I am intrigued how long each of these stages took for you, especially the darker ones. Did you spend days, weeks, months or years in the rather dark areas of suffering?

    Kind regards,
    Tom

    • Hi Tom,

      Glad you are finding value in this. To answer your question, I spent about a month to two months in each insight stage, but that was while I was practicing A LOT. Most people who have a moderate daily practice can spend three months or more per stage, as long as they are sticking to vipassana and not drifting off into other techniques or stopping and restarting the practice.
      Of course, everyone’s pace is different. Some people take years and others takes days. Literally. I’ve taught people with differences that large. But I’d say that on average you are looking at months per stage, and years for the path overall.

      Hope that helps! Don’t hesitate to follow up with more questions.
      Ron

  4. Thank you so much for this write up. I’ve been meditating and doing kriya yoga for about a year and a half. I had an ‘awareness explosion’ happen one day which shot me directly into this ‘dark night.’

    Since then everything in my life has lost meaning. I didn’t write this but it nearly perfectly explains my experience: http://www.experienceproject.com/stories/Have-Depersonalization-Disorder/2391516

    How do I find a good local teacher? I’ve been listening to Sadhguru and Osho on youtube and learned the kriya practice from Sadhguru.

    • Thanks for sharing Sam. Finding a good local teacher can be pretty hard because most of them are in big urban areas. If you live in a remote area then the best bet is to find one who is willing to meet with you online. Try going on to places like the dharma overground and ask that question. People there have a lot of knowledge to share.

  5. Hey Ron,
    I believe myself to be in the Re-Ob stage and I have this funny cognition that says that I shouldn’t get help from loved ones and friends as it is “cheating” – as if i’m only strengthening my attachment to them and that I should get over it myself and do it alone etc,.
    It is silly thinking right?! there’s no problem with receiving genuine love from loved ones right?
    thanks

    • Yes get love and support from your loved ones! They are your sangha in a way, even if they don’t meditate, even if they could care less about Buddhism or awakening or dharma or any of that stuff – they care about you – and that means that even if they don’t get why you are suffering they do get that you are having a hard time and will be there for you.
      The kind of love and compassion you get from, and feel toward, family is identical to the kind of compassion needed in the dark night. When all those itches, aches, and other weird dissonant sensation arise greet them just like you would a loved uncle who is hard to be around. With that kind of care and understanding insight can deepen and wisdom arises.
      Getting and giving help from loved ones is not cheating – it is exactly the right thing to do.

  1. Pingback: Discernment on Demand « The Wandering On

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