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.

Pharmacology of Addiction

School just started up again and I’ve been busy with my Pharmacology of Addiction class.  The ideas presented in class have been bringing up a lot of thoughts regarding the biochemical changes that could be occurring during the dark night of the senses (St. John the Cross – Catholic) and the releasing of the fetters of craving that is part of second path (Stages of Enlightenment – Theravada Buddhism).  Needless to say, I’ve been having a lot of thoughts trying to put the pieces together in away that I can talk/write about them.

In the class we are being taught how substance use changes the brain in fundamental and long-lasting ways.  Some of the researchers are suggesting the changes may be permanent, but we know this cannot possibly be true.  Healing techniques like ThetaHealing and the testimony of enlightened beings demonstrate that everything can be healed and changed.  Very few things are permanent and unchanging.  And all changing things only last a moment before most of them are recreated again.

What changes in the brain with drug use?

First, the substance being used becomes a salient focus.  This is because the substance is such a good activator of the pleasure and reward system (or mesolimbic dopamine system) in the brain.   After we start using a drug it changes our brain.  In any environment we find ourselves, we notice our drug of choice and associated things effortlessly and they will begin to occupy more and more of our attention.  This is what I mean by the substance becoming a salient focus.  This change isn’t because of a conscious shift.  It is a biological shift.  The biochemical and neurological changes the substance creates in the brain result in compulsive and uncontrollable drug seeking behavior.  Interesting and scary!

Increased dopamine leads to pleasure, and normally we release dopamine when we do normal activities that are pleasurable:  being with people we love, eating good food, and doing enjoyable activities.  However, drugs are such powerful stimulators of the pleasure circuit that they decrease our endogenously produced dopamine. This means that they exhaust our dopamine stores and our ability to produce more dopamine.

This reduction in dopamine results in two things.  First using the drug no longer gets us “high”.  Long term we become dependent of the drug just to keep us feeling normal.  We have to hit that pleasure center hard in order to get any pleasure feelings once we’ve adapted to using.  The second problem is that if we stop using the drug it may take over a year to reestablish normal dopamine.  This means we will not get pleasure out of activities that gave us pleasure before we started using our drug of choice.  We have to recalibrate.  During the recalibration period we will feel depressed and if we are not aware of the “detox” process we are going through we may become quite hopeless.

The other intriguing part of the addiction and craving process is the development of condition responses and memory.  An example of a condition response would be getting cravings when driving though a neighborhood where you used to use or obtain the substance you used. A condition response includes not just flashbacks, but also biochemical changes in the body.

I remember the first time I had non-alcoholic wine when I was abstaining from alcohol.  I was shocked when my body reacted by having some of the same feelings as if I was buzzed.  Now, some people think this is because the label claims that there may be 0.5% alcohol in the bottle.  These people claim I really am having alcohol.  This is not true.  I was a wine chemist at the time and I personally knew that that bottle didn’t have any appreciable alcohol.  I was experiencing a conditioned response.  Further, I’ve always used alcoholic tinctures which were made of high proof alcohol without any noticeable effects.

Here is another interesting point made in the class in regards to conditioning to drug use.  An addict that always shoots up in a certain environment may overdose if they shoot up in a novel environment.  This is because the body “knows” that in the first environment the drug is coming and before it enters the veins the body has ramped up to detoxify it.  In the new environment the body is not prepared to handle the dose and that may result in death.

What is especially relevant is that the drug addiction process is really just a dramatization of the problems that most people take as normal.  Most people’s predicament is that they crave and seek out things that are pleasurable and crave that things that are unpleasant will end.  The drug addict will lie, cheat, steal, and harm others to get what they want.  However, that is the same list that the “average” person is dealing with.  The drug addict may do this list in a more dramatic fashion, but I know “average” people that will tell a “white” lie to get a job, will not tell the teller at check-out when she forgets to ring up a purchase and will call people names when they are feeling uncomfortable.

It seems to me that addictive and “non-addictive” cravings control most human behavior.  The problem is just on a continuum.   It would seem the solution could be similar as well.  And if the pharmacologists are right, it is going to require some major rewiring.