For many years I would use the wordconfusion confusion to describe the state of mind I was frequently in.  Then I began using the Twelve Steps as a blueprint for dealing with things that arose in my life and I realized the state that I called confusion was really me being in resistance to what I already knew.  Since then I have stopped using the word confusion.  When I am tempted to think I am “confused”, I ask myself, “What do I know that I am denying I know?”

A lot of times what I think is me being confused about a situation or what action to take is actually me struggling against time.  I may not yet have the information I need;  more may need to be revealed.  Alternatively, something may be in the process of shifting, either internally or externally, that will provide clarity about the situation or what “right” action is.  I am confused simply because I am fighting with the clear message of “wait”.  This recognition releases my mind from continuing to loop and loop as it tries to figure out the situation and come to a conclusion.  Sometimes the mind just needs to be given a explanation in order to stop looping.  Telling it, “It is not time to know yet” can be quite liberating.

For example, I live in Phoenix, yet, I prefer the Bay Area.  I could be “confused” about this predicament or I could be “confused” about why I am here and why I am not actively trying to move back home.  Instead, I am aware that my desire to be in the Bay Area is “action” enough to create that possibility.  Right now nothing else is required of me.

Less frequently I am confused because I know what action to take and do not want to.  Perhaps I am “confused” about a relationship.  It could mean that the relationship really doesn’t work for me and I am trying to pretend it does in order to avoid what I have concluded will occur if I take appropriate action.  I say, “I am confused about what to do.”  Which is a lie.  It is more like I am procrastinating or avoiding taking “right” action because of my judgments of what that action is or represents.

About twenty-five years ago I was in a relationship that was confusing.  I was confused about whether to go or stay.  Everyday I would debate the pros and cons and try to figure it out.  Finally I decided I would stay.  I decided I would put the energy into making it work.  I wanted a relationship with this person (who was the father of my daughter) and I committed myself to it.  Interestingly, within six months I was filing for divorce.  It wasn’t a “decision” I came to.  I just woke up one morning and it was simply the next right thing to do.  How freeing!

Freedom from confusion requires me to be aware of what is going on and move beyond judgment.  The above example shows that making a choice, even it if turns out to create a completely different outcome than expected, breaks the energy drain of looping.  The key point to realize is that a choice is only good for one moment.  You can always choose something different in the next moment.  Choice creates possibilities.

Useful questions:

  • What is this?
  • Can I change this?
  • Can I change this now?
  • What is really possible here?
  • Does this work for me?
  • What can I choose that would change all of this?
  • What am I denying or pretending not to know?
  • What is beyond this?
  • Have you confused choice with commitment?


St. John of the Cross

Juan de Yepes y Alvarez, later to be St John of the Crossknow as Juan de la Cruz (John of the Cross) was born to an impoverished, but love-rich couple in the small town of Fontiveros, Spain on June 24, 1542.  Juan became an attendant at a smallpox hospital, whose director, impressed by the boy’s compassion, offered to pay for his religious education.  Juan studied with the Jesuits and then entered the Carmelite order.  He was ordained at twenty-five.

Soon after his ordination, he met with Teresa of Avila, a great mystic who took a liking to the young priest and enlisted him in her attempts to reform the Carmelite order.  They formed the Discalced sect of the Carmelite order.

In 1575, the traditional Carmelites outlawed the Discalced sect and two years later seized Juan.  He was imprisoned and tortured.  His persecution ended in 1578.  However, after the death of Teresa (1582) he was stripped of his offices, which allowed him to return to a contemplative life.

He died on December 14th, 1591 in Spain, was beautified in 1675, canonized in 1726, and named a doctor of the church in 1926.

Given the spiritual and non-party-line nature of his writing, I am surprised he has official church sanction.  However, like any organization there appears to be substantial diversity in beliefs within the Catholic Church.

Dark Night of the Soul

This biographical excerpt is based on the front notes of The Dark Night of the Soul, Dover Thrift Edition© 2003 page v.  It has been edited.

Photo from Wikipedia – public domain

Dark Night of the Soul

Although the “dark night of the soul” depressed_manhas fallen into common usage, I would like to credit St. John of the Cross for his treatise by that title written in the 16th century.  Since we have been discussing the possibility of alternate views on “depression” his work seems quite relevant.

St. John of the Cross describes the “dark night” and extols its purpose and benefits to spiritual growth.  Notice the similarity of his descriptions to depression.

“The dark night puts the sensory and spiritual appetites to sleep, deadens them, and deprives them of the ability to find pleasure in anything.  It binds the imagination and impedes it from doing any good discursive work.”  (The Dark Night, Book 2, Chapter 16)

“…although it may seem to them that they are doing nothing and are wasting their time, and although it may appear to them that it is because of their weakness that they have no desire in that state to think of anything.  The truth is that what they will be doing is quite sufficient…”  (The Dark Night, Book 1, Chapter 11)

“Spiritual person’s suffer great trials, by reason not so much of the aridities which they suffer, as of the fear which they have of being lost on the road, thinking that all spiritual blessing is over for them and that they have been abandoned* since they find no help or pleasure  in good things.”  (The Dark Night, Book 1, Chapter 10)

For someone on a spiritual path that thinks themselves “depressed” I highly recommend, The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross.This work includes The Dark Night of the Soul and The Ascent of Mount Carmel where he begins his discussion of the dark night.  He divides the dark night into three phases:  the active night of the senses, the passive night of the senses and the passive night of the spirit.

The active night is where we are actively turning from things that provided us with “empty calories”.  It is where we decide that twelve hours of television a day may be entertaining, but it doesn’t really satisfy us.  Or perhaps we decide that while certain foods taste good, they ultimately make us sluggish or contribute to ill health.  In this way we “actively” enter a dark night of our senses.  We are turning from simple sensual pleasures and looking for more inner meaning.

“We are using the expression “night” to signify a deprival of the gratification of the soul’s appetites in all things.” (The Ascent of Mount Carmel, Book 1, Chapter 3)

Here he refers to “things” meaning “worldly” things in contrast to ultimate reality.  He further explains that it is a dark night because turning from worldly things is a dark night for our senses, relying on faith is a dark night for our intellect, and reaching enlightenment is a dark night to the soul in this life.

However, we can only get so far with that process.  To get to enlightenment, St John says we need to enter a passive process by which unseen forces (God) begins to change us. The passive process is best described as depression.  Before we were actively turning from superficial pleasures and now we inherently find no pleasure in anything.  This includes not only worldly things, but our spiritual practice as well.

“The soul suffers great pain and grief, since there is added to all this the fact that it finds no consolation or support in any instruction or spiritual master.” (The Dark Night, Book 2, Chapter 7)

The Buddhist parallel is “purification”.  Purification is the process by which our “shit” arises, we watch it without reacting, and that is the end of it.  This process is facilitated by mindfulness based meditation.  St John advises:

“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 it 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.” (The Dark Night, Book 1, Chapter 9)

The dark night is completely individual and unpredictable.  It can be short, severe and brutal.  It can also last years and years.  Usually the longer courses of dark night are intermingled with times of illumination.  Hmmm… sounds a little bipolar.

So perhaps when you are thinking you might just be cursed with mental illness you can consider other possibilities:

“It will happen to individuals that while they are being conducted along a sublime path of dark contemplation and aridity, in which they feel lost and filled with darknesses, trials, conflicts, and temptations they will meet someone who will proclaim that all of this is due to melancholia, depression, temperament, or some hidden wickedness.” (The Ascent to Mount Carmel, Prologue, Section 4)

On that note, I will slip back into my night.  The effort that I applied to complete this post has been great and I am spent.  I now relax into the infinite repose that is the nature of ultimate reality and I can breath again.  Being is enough.

Want to read more St. John of the Cross?  Here is a post on contemplation.

* I replaced “God has abandoned them” with “they have been abandoned” for a more universal appeal.