Dark Nights of the Soul – or Enlightened Pain

Question: Could you tell us something about suffering on the path to enlightenment? I mean, what really goes on during the two dark nights of the soul?

Jan: Sure! What do you want to know?

Q: Is it unavoidable, or is it just something, that a few experience? And if it is unavoidable, how long will it last?

J: He, he! What you are worried about is really if you will experience it or not! But OK. To answer the crux of your question: yes, it is unavoidable, and no: it is not something that just a few will experience. Everyone will have to go through both the dark night of the mind and the dark night of the soul. The first night is more of a crisis, while the second night is more of a regular depression.

Q: So how do you distinguish between the two?

J: First night happens while your identification mechanism is still intact and is caused by your realization that all identities are invalid. Second night happens after the identification mechanism has broken down and vanished and its suffering is caused by the disintegration of remaining identities in the mind and soul. Second night is far more severe and long lasting than the first.

Q: So how do I know if I am in the first or the second?

J: If you ask this question, you are probably in the first. Believe me, if your identification mechanism has broken down and vanished, you know, because you are absolutely nobody what so ever, – that is: you are pure being.

Q: I feel I am not my mind and I have realized the relativity of all identifications. Isn’t that a sign of Self-realization and of being in the second night?

J: No. What you describe is exactly the situation in the first night. We say Self-realization, but in reality there is no realization, because that implies a duality between a realizer and the realized. There is none to realize the Self when Self-realization happens. Self-realization is the end of duality between Self and subject in that un-manifest being becomes Self aware and also all identification ends.

Q: What goes on during the first dark night?

J: In the first dark night, you undergo a destruction of your fundamental beliefs about who you are, about the nature of the mind-ego-soul complex, and so forth. This implies, as you described, a questioning of the validity of any identity what so ever. But since the identification mechanism is still in operation, you are basically trying to replace one set of identifications with another. The problem in this night is, that as soon as you have adopted a new set of identifications, you realize they are just as bad as the old set. So a crisis sets in which has no proper solution. This is not depression as such, it is merely a perpetual frustration. It is a state of unrest. It is a state where your habit of having a ego-foundation is being challenged by every new foundation proving itself to be invalid.

Q: Yes, I recognize that. In fact I think this is what most sincere western seekers are going through.

J: Yes exactly. But sadly most seekers try to solve it by replacing one identification structure with another in fairly rapid succession in the big illusion that this is spiritual progress and evolutionary growth. Hence they never make it to Self-realization nor into the second night. There is another trap, and that is the Zen-trap: that of replacing identification-with-something with identification-with-void. This is the no-mind trap. Just because your mind is fairly empty, it does not mean you in any way have ended identification with it. Duality remains even though the mind may have receded. If no-mind was the crux of enlightenment, then enlightenment and ignorance would be mind things, and they are not.

Q: What’s the quickest way through the first dark night of the mind?

J: Ha, ha! I wish I knew! And isn’t that just the question, we all have asked: How does one get Self realized as fast as possible? Well, of initiations, I strongly recommend gnan vidhi since this special initiation is designed to separate your pure absolute being from the relative mind and give Self-realization. In other words, gnan vidhi is intended to take you swiftly through the first dark night. And shaktipat is always recommended. But regarding what you can do yourself, you should do radical self enquiry in the manner of Ramana Maharishi. Question any identification, you discover in yourself, and let go. Talking about letting go, you should of course meditate and remember proper meditation is a matter of sensing the absolute, then letting go and falling into it. Please see the meditation page on this website.

Q: So if that’s the essence of the first dark night, what’s the essence of the second dark night?

J: The second night is the real dark night of the soul, – it is akin to a depression. Here the integrity of the soul-mind-body complex has broken down and this for some reason produces anxiety and depression which has its counterpart in the dysfunction of the synapses of the brain. You have realized that you are not the soul, nor the mind, nor the body, but pure, un-manifest being. As the integrity of this soul-mind-body complex breaks down, the neurotransmitters misbehave and you become depressed and/or tormented with anxiety. It is, sadly, unavoidable. How long it lasts is another matter; I have no idea if there are any rules here. St. John of the Cross wrote about the Dark Night of the Soul that its duration and intensity was proportionate to the level of enlightenment God is working to elevate you to. In addition Suzanne Segal’s autobiography “Collision with the Infinite” illustrates the anxiety and confusion that follows after Self-realization. She suffered much depression and anxiety following her Self-realization.

Q: Would taking antidepressants harm the process going on in the dark nights?

J: They will do no harm, for sure. But you will find that they are not a full and satisfying solution. In other words they will alleviate the suffering, but not put an end to the spiritual dimension of it, that is, the purgation will still go on. If the suffering becomes too great, then you can take medication; it will do no harm. The process is not driven by the depression or anxiety – depression and anxiety is a symptom of the process; so do what you can to alleviate the suffering. The suffering is just the mind-body reacting to being emptied of its usual content. In truth, during this suffering, it is only the body-mind that suffers; you are free of it and witness it. Remember, at this point you are absolutely nothing, so how can you be said to suffer from disharmony in the relative? Never the less, you have a body and mind and they suffer.

Q: So what’s the solution? The end point?

J: Total breakdown and disappearance of all remaining identification-structures of the soul-mind-body complex.

Q: How can we aid that process?

J: Awaken kundalini. The shaktipat initiation is perfect for taking you through the second dark night. Practice radical Self-enquiry and question any habitual sense of identification that pops up in the mind. Realize that everybody are Pure Being, just as you have realized yourself to be. See Pure Being in everyone and everything and remember that ignorance is just an illusion. Practice compassion and forgiveness.

Q: This sounds a bit like the first dark night. What’s the difference?

J: The first dark night ends when the identification mechanism breaks down and vanishes and you have no identification with anything anymore. You can’t say you identify with Pure Being, because that would imply a duality and there is no longer any duality. You ARE Pure Being and that is of course unmanifest … so you are unmanifest and no longer a somebody. Yet many of the old identity-structures still hang around, so your personality, mind and ego may not grasp what has really happened to you, when you get Self realized, because the mind, etc. can of course not grasp the unmanifest. This residual ignorance is basically what gets cleared in the second night. So in the first night you have to get out of identification all together, and in the second night, you have to clear away old residual identifications and practice seeing Pure being in everything.

Q: Would you recommend reading St. John of the Cross’s book: The Dark Night of the Soul?

J: Well, yes and no. Remember he wrote under the threat of the inquisition, so he had to talk about enlightenment in terms that the church could accept. You could also read The Cloud of Unknowing.

Q: What part does karma play in all this?

J: A huge part. Clearing away residual identification complexes is just a contemporary way of saying you are clearing away residual karma. Identities are the product of karma, nothing else, they have no reality in themselves. Karma creates impressions in the mind which act as self perpetuating structures that channel energy and consciousness. These structures add up and form an identity complex.

Q: Could we alleviate the second dark night by breaking down identity structures as a kind of sadhana? So that when the second night comes, it will be less severe and of shorter duration?

J: No. What you are describing is the first dark night. For the second dark night to come, you have to stop identifying with the identity structures, and then they begin breaking down by themselves. The second dark night is this automatic breakdown and falling- off of identities. If you try willingly to break down identities before you have become liberated from identification, then you will just be replacing one identity with an other. True, the new identity will probably appear to be more spiritual, since it is an identity which encompasses fighting identities, but you will be identified with the fighter. So it is, with regard to Self-realization, of no more value than any other identity.

Q: So can’t we do anything to get through the second night?

J: Get kundalini awakened and into the brain. Shaktipat will help here.

Q: If all identities are equally valueless, then we are all equal with respect to Self-realization?

J: Exactly.

Q: But some personalities are more conducive to spirituality than others. I mean some people meditate and strive, others don’t. And very few get Self realized. Surely the speed of your progress has something to do with who you were before you got Self realized.

J: No, not at all. Realize the enormous humility this insight generates in you if you ponder it.

Q: Yes.

J: You see, spirituality is not a matter of who you are, it is a matter of unbecoming – and eventually total freedom from being anything but pure being. This is what the two dark nights are about and why they are unavoidable. The are both processes of unbecoming and that is why they are dark and painful.

Q: But what is the process of unbecoming after Self-realization? I mean, isn’t the Self un-manifest pure being?

J: Yes, un-manifest pure being. And with that realization, Self-realization, of your own nature as un-manifest, the mind is now without its habitual influx of identification, so it is in a sense empty of essence, and this is what causes the “building” to crack and crumble. There is nothing to uphold it anymore. It is automatic and painful to the mind-body complex.

Q: The mind fights back.

J: No, not really, there is no fight involved.

Q: But there is resistance to letting go certain things.

J: That is in the first night, yes. In the second night there is nothing to let go of since you are not holding on to anything anymore. In reality, in both nights, the pain is there because identity-integrity breaks down and that in and of itself is painful. In the first night you have not grasped your Self as un-manifest, so you are under the illusion that Self-realization is finding a truer You-identity. But since this is just replacing one identity structure with another, it will never end. You will think about what is is like to be un-manifest pure being, but as that is trying to understand the un-manifest in terms of the manifest, your enquiries into the nature of Self will be frustrating.

Q: Can the suffering be useful in some way, or is it just unavoidable, senseless pain?

J: When the identification structures break down, suffering arises, but in this situation the illusory nature of identity becomes more easy to see than when you are happy. The cracks become apparent and the cracks are voids where beingness can be perceived, where the unmanifest can relate to itself as separate from manifest structures of identity. And so if one understands the nature of what is going on in the dark nights, then the suffering itself can be a sadhana.

Q: One last question: Can the bliss or lovebliss coexist with the suffering of the dark nights? If so how can that be? I thought bliss was the absence of suffering and vice versa.

J: Oh, yes, they can coexist and usually do. The two are not opposite poles. In fact they are not related at all so one does not exclude the other. There can be tremendous suffering and tremendous bliss at the same time.

~ Teachings — Satsangs, Q & A sessions, Writings, etc.by Jan Esmann

For more on Jan’s spiritual background view here

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