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.


Since November 2014, when I was introduced to Padmasambhva, I have been studying Dzogchen.  Dzogchen (aka Atiyoga) is a central teaching of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism.  The focus of this branch of Buddhism is on attaining and maintaining the natural, primordial state.  This state or condition is also referred to as “ground” or base (Tibetan gzhi).  Having knowledge of this state (meaning direct experience) is called rigpa.

The essential practices of Dzogchen are not unlike the practices and goals of Christian Contemplatives.  Having followed a Christian Contemplative path for the past couple years it is not surprising that I would awaken within me what is referred to as guruyoga.  The essential practice of Christian Contemplation is to rest in God.  I would define God, in this instance, as the natural primordial state or base.  Hence, to me the systems are the essentially the same.

I am writing today, because I am noticing some personal internal conflict related to the Dzogchen teachings.  I studied for a solid two years the Gelug school of TIbetan Buddhism (the branch of Buddhism that the Dalai Lama belongs to) as part of the Asian Classics Institute and Diamond Mountain University and graduated after a successful public debate with the title of Maroke.  I then went on to write a summary of the teachings as The Twelve Steps as a Path to Enlightenment – How the Buddha Works the Steps.  While, certainly not an expert, I am quite familiar with the open teachings of the Gelug school that was originally founded by Je Tsongkhapa in the fifteenth century.

Now, my Dzogchen teacher is Chogyal Namkhai Norbu and he admits in his book Guruyoga that at one time he was convinced that Tsongkhapa was definitely mistaken.  Yes, the Gelug definition of ultimate reality is in conflict with the Nyingma definition.  Indeed, I was taught that the idea that there was some “self-existent” primordial state was hogwash.  Ultimate reality consisted of emptiness and emptiness alone.

I have been aware of this different perspective for several years.  It didn’t really bother me too much.  The practices for becoming realized are essentially the same.  I figured all I needed to do was keep practicing and eventually I’d be able to experience for myself ultimate reality.  I think the realized Christian Contemplative Bernadette Roberts sums it up the best:

“Whatever we care to call the ultimate reality, we cannot define or qualify it because the brain is incapable of processing this kind of data. ”

However, now I am in a position to start talking about what I am learning and it is hard for me to use the terms:  primordial state, buddha nature, ground, or base, because they naturally bring up an idea that their is something that is self-existent that is part of us. I know that regardless of what we call it, the primordial state is not a state, not a condition, and not a thing.  It is beyond our concepts.  Yet, somehow in Dzogchen we are asked to rest in that state.

If I am in a dualistic world, how can I rest in ground?  It even seems presumptuous for me to say I am resting in ground.  Perhaps, this is because I am not really capable of this yet.  Or perhaps I just think it is beyond my capability.  Further, whatever I think I am doing when I am resting in the “ground”, or being space, or resting in God, is merely an approximation of the true state of being in that ground 100% of the time.  Yet this approximation is just what we need to do to progress.

CLEARINGS:  What would it take for me to let go of my ideas about what ground is and what it means to rest in ground or what it is to rest in ground?  What would it take to accept that I am capable of resting in ground and it may not look like I think it should?  And everywhere I’ve taken on other people’s points of views and feel the need to give them significance, defend them, align with them or resist them- I would like to destroy and uncreate all that.   Let’s clear all obstacles now!  RWGBPODPOCA9SBB


Whenever something is lacking, I know that it either wasn’t

prayed for or it wasn’t prayed for enough.

Ushpizin is one of my favorite movies about prayer and devotion. I’ve been waiting for the right season to write about this movie and decided now was correct, but this illustrates my ignorance regarding Jewish tradition.  I thought the movie took place during the Passover celebration, but the festival in the movie is Sukkot.  Sukkot, or Feast of Tabernacles, is celebrated in the fall.  Alas, this movie still is a great inspiration for those living a spirit driven life and depicts not only the incredible power of prayer, but the quandary of dealing with difficult situations. 

I love the richness of tradition depicted in the movie.  Keywords for this movie would be transformation (from anger to peace, from crime to ethical behavior), intention, and the power of preservation.

Borrow my copy or get your own on Amazon.  Hebrew with English subtitles.