Imagine you awoke one day to find yourself in a strange land. You remember who you were and what you have done, where you used to live, even your dreams and longings, but now it seems so far away. So out of reach it all seems in this strange land. Here it is as if nothing that once was familiar matters any longer, all that matters is that you find yourself where you are right now. You cannot return to what once was, neither do you know where to go from here. Now there are no distractions. You have to look closely at what has been revealed.
Before I continue I want to plant a seed of imagination, which is for me central in navigating a Dark Night of the Soul. In the second stage of the dark night, you find yourself isolated within a Hermetic Vessel of transformation. Whatever situation has caused the onset of the dark night, you find yourself in a paradoxical situation – you are no longer what you were, neither are you what you are becoming – held between the two poles of masculine and feminine. Yet the vessel itself that holds the paradox is feminine – the womb and the tomb. The feminine can hold paradox, but the masculine needs to discriminate, between black and white. Thus during this stage, you have to surrender your desire to decide. When we find ourselves in a situation where we feel torn between two desires, you can either use the masculine energy; the sword of discrimination, and decide to go for one or the other, or use the feminine energy to contain paradox. This is what a dark night of the soul is; to abide within the paradox until the false – thus that which is not true to your soul’s individual nature gets stripped from the tree, by autumn’s winds of change, and it is ready to bring forth new leaves. The very situation that causes your conflict becomes the container for your transformation.
The following quote by James Hillman illustrates the psychological approach with which one has to face this part of the Dark Night;
That word “entertain” means to hold in between. What you do with an idea is hold it between–between your two hands. On the other hand, acting or applying it in the world and on the other hand, forgetting it, judging it, ignoring it, etc. So when these crazy things come in on you unannounced the best you can do for them is think them, holding them, turning them over, wondering awhile. Not rushing into practice. Not rushing into associations. This reminds of that: this is just like that. Off we go, away from the strange ideas to things we already know. Not judging. Rather than judging them as good and bad, true or false, we might first spend a little time with them.
We tend to want to engineer a solution for every problem, not willing to let the situation unfold organically. Within that container of paradox, your soul’s desires will rise to the surface, so that you can know what you authentically desire. There are however many layers of that desire and by just letting them surface, feeling them, experiencing them in depth, you will eventually get to the basis of those desires, and then even beyond them – to the mother core. By surrender in this situation, I mean to allow yourself to feel what you feel, let the full fantasy unfold, without judging it, as good or bad, or acting on the impulses. While one is in the storm, it is not a good time to make any choices, for really it is only when you have gone right through the emotion to its core that a real imaginative solution can present itself. The tension of the paradox one has to live in can feel unbearable at times, but it is often more of the resistance to the surrender that is unbearable.
In the vessel you entertain the many possibilities of being. It is a realm of pure possibility where novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise. It is the realm of the creative womb, as well as the tomb of staid ideas and concepts. One of the most basic characteristics of creativity is be able to hold conflicting ideas until a a creative solution presents itself. Any creative person can describe what is like to be possessed by their daemon. Where it is as if for a while as if the outside world cease to exist until you finally give birth to whatever creation, You may even forget to eat or sleep so driven you feel within that container, that womb of creation. You may not necessarily feel depressed in a dark night, but during this stage you do find yourself within the vessel of transformation, the womb and the tomb.
It is in this stage that we encounter most resistance. It is ironic that most hover on the outside, or beginning of this phase and do not realize that by trying to avoid the pain, they will remain in an empty, defensive, and fallow period, because they think that going deeper will be even more painful. By not fully understanding the process, most continue to hold on, and in so doing, retain the old, no longer appropriate, emotional patterns, thus also continue to hold on to the pain that these patterns have created. The overriding experience becomes one of anguish and delusion, set in the denial of what is. Basically it is the ego trying to hold onto an identity that no longer is appropriate for your renewal. Better the devil you know than the one you don’t.
Essentially, passage beyond the dark nights comes through a complete acceptance and surrender to the dark nights – a complete surrender to the Divine Mother, to Reality as It Is, to God.
We do not come to such surrender without the full realization of the necessity for surrender, and the only way we come to this realization is through the experiential level – through actual experience; the experience of the dark nights leads to this, and they are an integral part of an organic and holistic process, the depths into which we seem to fall being integral to the heights into which we seem to ascend.
Consider the story of Christ after the crucifixion, according to the tradition, first he descends into Hades and hell realms, and then he is raised up from the dead and ascends to the heavens; there is the suffering of death and the suffering of hell, and then the joy of the resurrection and ascension. Now we may speak of the love and mercy of Christ in his descent, seeking to extend the Divine Light into all realms, descending into the depths for the salvation of souls; yet we may also speak of a simple truth in the self-realization process: You will ascend into the heights only to the extend that you are willing to descend into the depths; to ascend, first we must descend, and our ascent in consciousness will be equal to our descent – they are integral to one another. There is no way around this, now way of avoiding this – it is the nature of Reality as It Is.
When we hear provisional teachings on the enlightenment and liberation of the soul it can only sound to us as though it is some fixed or static state, as though at some point we “arrive” and that’s it, it is all well and wonderful, no more sorrow, no more suffering – that’s what the egoistic self wants to hear. We want the rewards of heaven, not the suffering of hell; but this is the cause of our bondage to the heavens and hells of the demiurge, this play of attachment and aversion – until it is brought into cessation the soul remains in its bondage. – Tau Malachi
The Dark Night is basically a process of dying for the ego. The ego reflecting what we think we are, thus the fear and aversion felt by most for the dark night reflects our fear of death, since we attach a lot of value and identity with name and form, and with the material world and possessions. If we think that death is the end of all that we identify with, we will attach a lot of fear to it. Just like dreams reflect our lives, so death reflects our lives, in that it will assume an appearance relative to the observer, or the one experiencing it, relative to our state of consciousness. According to some esoteric traditions the process of death begins the moment the cause of death is contacted. So one may well say that our process of death, the death of what we think we are, begins the moment we are born. So where does life begin and where does it end; are life and death really separate? If we think that life only has meaning when we attain our successes, or are in our youthful peak, or in our joyful moments, dark nights will be very hard, as we cannot see that we are always in transition from one state of consciousness to another. Nothing is static or fixed in creation. So in truth we are always in a bardo state.
The Bardo Thodel, or “Book of the Intermediate State” (popularly but known in the West as “The Tibetan Book of the Dead”) Thodol means “liberation through understanding,” or “Great Liberation Through Hearing”
“ Bardo means a “between state,” an interval or transition between two mental states, whether experienced in life or after death. Hence the work’s Tibetan title (which might be translated more literally as Liberation through Understanding the Between) alludes to bardo states that may be experienced at any point over the cycle of life, death and rebirth, yet the work itself overtly discusses only the bardo states experienced during death, offering explicit instruction on how to navigate them. In Sanskrit the concept has the name antarabhāva.
A single life span is itself a bardo state, a transitional zone in a larger cycle of rebirths. Dreams are bardo states that occur within the daily round, in the interval between falling asleep and waking; feelings of uncertainty, paranoia, and delusion are sometimes grouped with dreams on a looser interpretation of this second bardo state. A meditative trance is a third type of bardo state, an intermediate zone between ordinary consciousness and enlightened awareness. These are the main bardo states of life.
Although the Bardo Thodol is a guide to the bardo states experienced after death, it can only be read by the living. It may be read in preparation for one’s own death, or at the deathbed of another. Because the weaknesses attributed to the dead are all experienced by the living as well, a person learning to traverse the bardo states of death will learn to navigate better the bardo experiences of life as well. In this sense the book is a guide to liberation across the entire cycle of human existence as conceived in Tibetan Buddhism.
Could it be said any clearer, what possibilities the Dark Night of the Soul contain? That which we try and avoid with all our strength contains our very Liberation, our deepest desire. So many see the Dark Night of the Soul as a curse, something to be feared, just as much as we fear death, yet it is indeed a great blessing when we find ourselves in a Dark Night of the Soul, or indeed experiencing the trials of life. If we can in the midst of our trials, see beyond our attachments and aversion, we can indeed be liberated from our suffering.
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (St. Paul, 1 Corinthians 13:12).
I find the three states of Bardo as described in Bardo Thodol in itself illuminating as relating to the process of the stages of transformation of the Dark Night.
- The Chikai Bardo (or hChi-kha Bar-do ) or Intermediate period of the moment of death. This includes the process of dying; and the dissolution of the elements; earth – form, water – feeling, fire – perception, and air – intellect, that make up the physical body. According to the Gnostic tradition earth dissolves into water, water into fire, fire into air, and air dissolves into spirit space. Then spirit-space dissolves into itself, into its inmost nature. During this period one experiences the “Clear Light”, one’s own innate Buddha-nature. This is therefore a very favourable moment for the attainment of Enlightenment and liberation from the wheel of rebirth.
The experience of the death point, the moment at which the soul loses consciousness of objects and becomes aware only of itself. The experience is described as a vivid formless light emanating from all sides. At this moment, enlightenment lies close at hand, although one’s capacity to attain it depends on the extent to which one has achieved lucidity and detachment in one’s previous existence. For most individuals the vision of light can only be sustained for a brief interval, after which the soul, caught in desire and delusion, regresses toward lower levels of existence
The Tibetan account of the Chikai Bardo shows striking parallels with the so-called “Near Death Experience” of people who have died, experienced themselves floating out of their bodies, and so on, and then been revived.
The process of dying, breaking down into the elements, relates to the alchemical process of purification. During this stage you are within the vessel of transformation, in alchemy it is called the process of nigredo or the ‘darkening.’ The Dark Night is itself is a vessel of transformation that allows our putrefaction, the breaking apart of a life that once made sense but needed reviving.
As operations allied to death, dissolution and putrefaction produce images of weakness and sickness for the sake of psychic movement and soul-making. Such images were of major concern to the alchemist who believed that the Gods force themselves symptomatically into awareness, and that pathologizing was a divine process working in the human soul. Therefore, by reverting the pathology to the God, they recognised the divinity of pathology. Furthermore, pathologizing is a way of seeing, of gaining ‘psychological insight,’ which may explain why alchemists, like many great artists and writers, often suffered for their art
The initial nigredo or ‘blackening’ stage of alchemy tells us that it starts with a ‘mess’, the prima materia being the symptom that may drive one to seek therapeutic help. It is the crisis, issue, wound and failure that forces one to begin to question one’s nature, examine life, and explore deeper meanings. ‘Washing out’ the immersed ‘shadow’ matter can therefore be read as a metaphor for breaking down old habits, attitudes and beliefs that obscure psychic insight, and have lost psychic significance. Withdrawal of psychologically naive projections and the loosening of resistances is also the decay (putrefaction) of idealisations that have moulded our reality. By dissolving rigid ego boundaries, we can begin to challenge the ideas we carry about ourselves and the world, questioning the ‘truths’ we unequivocally take to be reality.
The alchemical vessel was seen as both womb and tomb, a place for birth and a place for decay, but also a place for containment. In us the retort is the vessel of memory and imagination, holding events and fantasies where they can be subjected to the heat of passion and feeling or to the simmering of thought and reflection. In this retort, events of life decay, losing their literal form; but they also ferment, acquiring taste, bite, and body – a good cook of the psyche knowing the best combinations of temperature and time, when to let things simmer and when to bring them to the boil.
The experience of the “Clear Light” also relates for me to the peak experiences of live – the so-called Summer periods, which precedes the onset of a Dark Night; such as the bliss of early youth, completion of studies, the successful career, the first stage of being in love, and in the spiritual life, the attainments.
This finding, or course, could lead to a self-intoxication, a self-deception as it were; many radical spiritual and mystical experiences might unfold, and even psychic and magic-powers, and these may be mistaken for the fruition of realization. Following a long dark night of seeking, finding can be extremely blissful; however, if we are open and honest with ourselves, when the initial bliss fades, regardless of how lofty the peaks to which we have arisen, we will notice how far away from actual enlightenment we are, or how far removed from the Divine we are, and we will look and see that, in truth, not all that much has actually changed …
– Tau Malachi
A friend of mine, who are finding herself in a Dark Night of the Soul described to me what she felt the onset of her Dark Night was; “ I was standing in the passage of my home, and suddenly I realized the vastness of all, and in that moment, I felt I knew nothing. After more than 20 years of a being a practicing healer, I felt I knew nothing. In that moment I surrendered and it felt as if suddenly dark walls fell down around me. Since then I felt as if I lost all my powers and I can no longer be a healer.”
Whatever the attainments, they will have to be sacrificed if we are to enter into full enlightenment or full union with God; we will have to let go of it all to bring our self-realization to fruition – the intensity of the pain and grief of this apparent “distance” and the release of the apparent “attainments” cannot be described, but perhaps the image of the Christ-bearer on the cross might reflect something of it, understanding the spiritual and mental-emotional anguish as far more sever than that of the physical; hence the words of the Lord on the cross, “Father, why have you forsaken me?” – Tau Malachi
Harley Lever – Haunted Moon
One of the major symptoms that is described in this part of the dark night is that of feeling very alone. Contained within this vessel you are alone.
You begin to enter the dark night in earnest when you feel completely stranded. In the fullness of the dark night you don’t know where you are spiritually. You’re separate from God and man. You do not know where to turn. Your friends love you and wish you well but your condition does not improve.
The dark night is a very private matter. The person in the dark night is generally able to function quite well despite inner suffering. Often your acquaintances never suspect that you are going through the dark night — they probably do not even know what it is. Only people close to you — especially friends along the path — can recognize your pain.
You feel like a hollow person doing the activities of life with no motivation except expediency. Your eyes seem deeper in your head. You are profoundly aware of the suffering of humanity and the cruelty of one person to another. You feel that cruelty and negativity far outweigh love and constructive action.
Alone, and not wishing to be, unable even to express yourself to others, you enter midnight and the greatest intensity of the dark night. Here you have finally come to the time of sovereign solitude. In this precious time, which has no apparent prospects of love or happiness, you clearly perceive that nothing in the outer world has proven adequate to heal your condition.
Nobody, not even your dearest friends and loved ones, can make you whole. Even if they have tried, and love you enough to try loving you forever, they can’t give you peace. In your loneliness, you next — in a seemingly random process — notice that none of your thoughts have proven adequate to your suffering. Not one — even repeated fifty thousand times — breaks the inner storm and lets in light. God and higher consciousness seem so far away that perhaps they are unreal. Neither one has, despite your protracted exposure of yourself, done anything to ease or remove your agony. Nothing appears efficacious. Nothing works. – Anonymous
As for the help that we might receive or offer – we can speak of the divine assistance we receive, and we can speak of the encouragement and support we may receive, but nevertheless, on a certain level we experience and pass through the dark nights alone, and it is this recognition of the truth of our aloneness that is part and parcel of these dark nights. It is just as with the time of death – even in a room full of loving people offering us their encouragement and support, and even with the presence of holy and shinning ones offering their assistance in our crossing; still, no one else is dying, and no one can die for us or remove from us the pain and grief innate in the process of dying and death. In a room full of people we will die alone – in a world full of people we will pass through the cycles of mystical death alone; this aloneness is a simple truth of our experience, whether we like it or not. – Tau Malachi
(2) The Chonyid Bardo (or Chos-nidd Bar-do) or Intermediate period of visions of deities. This refers to the state where one experiences visions of deities, Heaven and Hell, Judgment, and so on. Modern writers have been struck by the parallels with the psychedelic and psychotic states, and experiences of “astral travelling” and the “astral plane” The soul has visions involving a succession of deities: a series of beatific Buddhas in the first seven days, a series of terrifying deities in the next seven. The text describes these visions as projections of the mind’s own consciousness, often involving a tension within the mind itself. For example, the dazzling visions of the beatific deities are accompanied by duller visions of other beings that distract from the splendor of the former. To be thus distracted is to give in to anger, terror, pride, egotism, jealousy, and other weaknesses. In contrast, to ignore the minor visions and to embrace the more awe-inspiring deities is to attain spiritual salvation through the very act.
A mind that fails to overcome these weaknesses encounters the darker, more horrific deities of the latter seven days. Many of these visions are merely aspects of the Buddhas encountered in the first seven days, now made terrifying by the mind’s own weakness. Liberation is still possible here simply by recognizing these beings for who they are. Yet the act is also more difficult now because terror forces the mind to flee rather than to examine its experiences.
In the alchemical process this is reflected in the poisonous gasses that rises during the stage of nigredo.
Alchemy’s operations were principally designed to liberate the soul from material entrapment. As Heraclitus of Ephesos (535-475 BCE) long ago observed, “it is death to become earth,” where literal fixations in earthbound problems stop the soul’s movement. What kills the flow and buries the soul needs dissolving in order to loosen and allow to rise into awareness our congealed fantasies, images and feelings. Alchemy’s dissolution, like a baptism, involved a purification, a washing away of debris, allowing a clearer perception of essentials. This is similar to cathartic release of emotions, where tears give way to fresh insights
The boy during his initiation is told that neither his mother nor father are his real parents, and he can do nothing but accept the situation as is. He has to let go of all that was and await rebirth. In the process he also learns what his strengths and weaknesses are.
As above so below. Even in the most basic level of experience of a dark night the same process is reflected.
The second stage of the transformative process calls us to surrender, heal, and transcend the boundaries of finite form in order to merge with a larger whole. The onset of this stage may be marked by panic settling into a stage of despair and feelings of helplessness. We have a sense that our identity and security from the past are gone and there nothing to replace them. There is nothing stable, certain, or dependable that we can count upon for assurance. The purpose of this second stage is to dissolve and wash away the remains of our past. To the extend that we are able to surrender to and accept what is, our experience can be one of transcendence and merging. In the first stage we are challenged to let go of our concepts; in this second stage our challenge is to purify our emotions and to release our pain…
We feel unconnected to others and increasingly lonely in our isolation. We may feel as if our neediness is greater than ever and that we are not receiving the love and support from others whom we feel should be there for us. In our victimization we take on the role of the sacrificial goat or the martyr. We may loose the companionship or try the patience of friends, who become tired of hearing us complain about our misery, especially if we ignore or reject their advice; we may feel as if they are spurning us.
As we become lost in the darkness and confusion of non-knowing, we may feel melancholy, morbid and pessimistic. There seems to be no hope, no vision, nothing that feels good. Mentally we are foggy, nothing is clear. Sometimes frightening, distorted shape-shifting images take over our mind by day, and similarly bizarre images may invade our dreams at night. We may become paranoid and develop a variety of phobias, feelings as if others are out to deceive or take advantage of us. We evade those who try to pin us down or get final decisions. – Demetra George
Then they started to throw houses and buildings around like it was mere toys but with absolutely disastrous consequences to the Earth’s population. I then found myself with many refugees of all population groups men, women and children. Every now and then we had to run for cover as houses came flying through the air. It was like finding myself in an exodus all trying to make their way to new beginnings. Among these people were also shape-shifters who appear like an animal and turn into humans. There were a horse-, dog-, eagle- and lion shape shifters. I specifically remember an old woman who were a crow-shape shifter pushing a load of belonging on a cart, others came to help her, while all just moved to what appeared an unknown destination, through the decimation of an Armageddon.
Armageddon itself in popular culture reflects our perception of death, and transformation. The Apocalypse actually means “revelation.”
Apocalypse is an apt term for dying and death, as the process of dying and death is a progressive revelation of our inmost being when the gross and subtle levels of consciousness dissolve, which are akin to veils that conceal our true nature. – Tau Malachi
This is also reflected in what Bill Plotkin calls ‘soul initiation’;
Soul initiation transforms our lives by the power of the truth at the center of our soul image. Embracing that truth results in a radical simplification of our lives. Activities and relationships not supportive of our soul purpose begin to fall away. Our former agendas are discarded, half-completed projects abandoned. Many old problems are not solved but outgrown. Old ways of presenting and defending ourselves become less appealing, and less necessary. … our lives are changed forever, irreversibly.
The anthropologist Victor Turner gave a special importance to the middle phase of liminality. He said, “It is like death; like being in the womb; like invisibility, darkness, bisexuality, the wilderness, and an eclipse of the sun or moon.” Any of these qualities may make your dark night seem unusual, even uncanny. Your external life may not have changed, but suddenly you find yourself in a twilight zone. Turner describes how, in traditional societies, where rites of passage are carried out in graphic form, the initiate may be naked or dressed in simple, skimpy clothes … These ancient rituals have echoes in common experiences of passage today. People in transition often disregard their appearance. They may let their hair go and not wash or shower … A dark night may take you away from the cultivation and persona you have developed in your education and from family learning. You may slip back into a degree of wildness that allows you to start over, perhaps at a new level. Teenagers sometimes make a lifestyle out of personal disregard. They are going through one of the most prolonged and serious rites of passage they may ever experience. It may not feel like a dark night of the soul to them, but their families see it for what it is. – Thomas Moore
During this stage just like in dying, or the caterpillar entering the cocoon, the outside world shrinks in importance compared to intensity of the inward dissolving. If we look at the mental, physical, and psychological conditions experienced typically during this phase, as described by Demetra George, we can also clearly see the reflection of what is said occurs during the process of dying.
Physically we feel tired, weak, devoid of energy, and don’t feel like moving or doing anything. We may feel zombie-like, sleepwalking through a dreamlike phantasmal existence. We may sleep a lot; there does not seem to be any good reason for getting up. The emptiness of the outer life mirrors the confusion of our inner mind. In order to avoid the reality of our increasingly meaningless or painful existence, many of us are tempted to find solace in the numbing qualities of addictive substances – alcohol, drugs, sex, food, television. Self-defeated, we spiral into self-destructive activities.
The reason we experience the isolation, exhaustion, pain, and delusion during the second stage of the transformative process is that the guidance of this stage is to heal our emotions through retreat, rest, purification, and opening our hearts to others. In the lunation cycle, when the waning crescent dissolves into blackness, the movement of the lunar energy is withdrawal from the outer world of manifest activities. In the same way, we can voluntarily welcome this opportunity for retreat and rest as the work of healing optimally occurs in the darkness in the same way our bodies regenerate each night while we sleep. We must acknowledge our need for sleep and rest and not allow our own or other’s expectations to pressure us to decide, act, perform, achieve, and accomplish.
Ideally this is a time to allow the waters of dissolution to cleanse and wash away the past, both physically and emotionally. We can purify our bodies with cleansing diets and fast, drinking large amounts of water, taking saunas and mineral baths. We can cleanse our living environments by giving things away, especially those items that stimulate our memories and attachments that we are trying to release. On a mental level, we need to give up our hope that we can go back to what was and to give up our despair about the future.
And emotionally we need to understand how it is that our feelings of anger, hatred, pride, excessive desire, greed, jealousy, and envy continue to perpetuate our pain. When we are taken over by these negative emotional states, biochemical toxins are created in our bodies that contribute to our confused and deluded states of mind. … We can surrender to the reality of what is, accept the inevitability of our loss, and possibly even the idea that this may have been a necessary and ultimately beneficial loss. … However, if our fears and delusions have prevented us from integrating this process, and we are not able to let go of our old negative emotional patterns, another set of difficulties will arise in the third phase that force us, to confront our resistance.
Just as the masters says of the after-life expierence – bardo, this cycle of the death process can last for years until the soul lets go of the past life and is ready to move on. If we accept our loss, we are now able to enter into an even deeper state, in mythical terms what is described as the underworld. It must be remembered, however, as the masters points out, that at any point of the dying process, one can transform the dying process into a vehicle of self-realization. Most of us though are not sufficiently prepared, and must continue with the process.
James Berry says that when we arrive in the dark realm of the underworld, “One is, so to speak, deeper than one’s emotion. One is beneath the depression, the black mood, by having gone down through it to the point where it no longer is.” You discover that there is a place deeper than depression. (It can be helpful to distinguish between the feeling of depression and the sense of existential emptying.) You arrive at the point where your sadness or sense of loss no longer dominate. They don’t have the reality they used to have. You have finally fallen lower. You are now beneath all the emotion that has disturbed you for so long. Things are not better, but you are in a different state. – Thomas Moore
You are now truly in the bosom of the Dark Goddess. Beyond emotions and what appears to be reality; the invisible, unchanging core. It is Her purpose to keep the way to your depth clear of debris and to inspire you to renew yourself eternally in the emptiness of your being. You are now where the dark night has been trying to take you. Now you are almost ready for new life, and that is the purpose of Bardo both in life and death. You are ready to receive a vision of your deeper self, just as the caterpillar has died and chrysalis in its cocoon awaits the vision of the butterfly, thus to awaken to a greater reality.
…By the lake in the wood
in the shadows
whisper that truth
to the quiet reflection
you see in the water
Whatever you hear from
the water, remember,
it wants you to carry
the sound of its truth on your lips.
in this place
no one can hear you
and out of the silence
you can make a promise
it will kill you to break,
that way you’ll find
what is real and what is not …
– David Whyte