The parts of spiritual life we tend to like best are the moments of grace and illumination, the times when we see the love behind creation and realize that everything is happening as it should, and that the good of all is, in the long run, assured. We thrill at the taste of our essential nature with its infinite richness and possibility. We like feeling close to God and our fellow creatures.
But these are the high points; they are not the whole journey.
The path is also strewn with obstacles and difficulties. There are times when we are hostage to doubt or lost in despair, extended periods when we cannot feel the ground beneath us and don’t trust God’s safety net. Any description of spiritual life that neglects these aspects does not serve us in the larger task of transformation.
Transforming the Darkness Within
The process of transformation can be seen as one of illumination. It is an illumination that happens naturally as the darkness is dispelled. Each act of healing makes way for more light. For light is our very nature, and if not obscured by false ideas, we are fully lit.
Another way to say this is that the personality with its many fissures and fractures, its obscurations and dullness gradually becomes more and more clear and transparent to the light of one’s deeper nature, which in many traditions is called the Self.
One of the things we must do on our journey to wholeness is integrate the shadow—the disowned parts of the personality. It is everything we consider either too bad or too good to be part of us. As we embrace these rejected qualities and feelings, we “eat” the shadow. What this means is that we reduce the shadow by bringing it into consciousness where we can better understand it. If we do this conscientiously, the shadow drops off of its own accord.
Let’s take the example of greed. Greed is not considered a desirable trait, so most people stuff it into their unconscious. Yet this only perpetuates the greed, which can now operate without interference because it is safely outside of our awareness.
The first step in integrating the shadow is to have the courage to allow for the possibility that this quality that we judge and reject may be present inside of us.
When we encounter it, we must touch it with compassion so we can get closer to it and see what maintains it and where it comes from.
An exploration of greed may, for example, lead me to examine my fear that there won’t be enough for me, my lack of trust, the barriers that separate me from other people. With enough compassion, love for truth, and objectivity, I may see that my attempts to hoard and hold on to things are based on false assumptions. They are unnecessary. They hurt me. As I understand this, the greediness lets go, and what is left is generosity.
In some models, healing the personality (such as integrating the shadow) is seen as a prerequisite for entering the transpersonal or higher dimensions. In others, it is not sequential but simultaneous: healing the personality and discovering one’s truer being go hand-in-hand. We recover aspects of our essential nature as we heal the injuries to our character structure.
For many years, I worked with a spiritual teacher, examining the ever-changing array of difficulties that showed up in my life. These problems were valuable because they revealed restrictions in my personality, unfinished business from the past, and old sensitivities that were scabbed over but had not healed.
In the process of this exploration, I learned something invaluable: that rather than being only obstacles, these places of pain conceal a hidden doorway, a place where Essence is hiding.
I learned to go into the pain and to retrieve the part of my essential presence that had been lost.
This came only when I was able to feel the wound completely, without judgment or resistance.
It was like magic. Going into the wound took me to that which was the perfect resolution. I went into the feeling of being unloved and came out with the realization that I am love, went into the hole of feeling impotent and came out with a power that belongs to Being, let myself feel utterly insignificant and discovered the preciousness and true value of my inner nature. Searching out these dark places helped me find the light that had been cut off.
Dark Nights on the Spiritual Journey
Like any undertaking, the spiritual journey has its share of Dark Nights. These are times when we lose hope and have nothing to hold on to. Having lost our familiar structures and supports, we often feel as if we are about to fall through space. We have no ground, and it’s terribly disorienting. There are moments when we don’t want to go on—or don’t see how we can.
I was in a Dark Night recently where the prolonged absence of outer structures and supports accelerated the crumbling of inner structures and supports. Although this was difficult, I trusted that the crumbling of the inner structures would make room for something infinitely stronger. I suffered from a lack of confidence and hope, and yet I realized that here was an opportunity to find a truer confidence and a truer hope.
One of the things I learned in this Dark Night is about strength-in-surrender. It is easy to collapse and call that surrender, but true surrender is not falling into the patterns of the past or the fray of uncontrolled emotions. It’s not giving up. What we are surrendering is our preferences, our judgments, our need to control. We’re surrendering into the truth of the moment. It takes strength to meet uncertainty, objectivity to not be swallowed by despair. The path of surrender is not for sissies.
Dark Nights strengthen us by bringing up what still needs to be purified.
Doubts safely hidden during the good times now come out of the woodwork. Sometimes our whole perspective is challenged, our spiritual outlook suddenly appearing absurd. It is good for the doubts to come up, because then we can look at them. We can expose our fears and beliefs to the light of inquiry and can dissolve what is false in them.
Dark Nights also expose our attachments. We see the places in our lives where we are not willing to let go.
Although the term Dark Night of the Soul has been broadened in popular use to include many difficulties, its original meaning was more precise. It is the desolation that results when God seems to withdraw. Before this, the seeker has, through prayer or mystical union, enjoyed the presence of God, but this has now disappeared, as have all spiritual “consolations.” It is a time of spiritual aridity. What was full now is empty.
The traditional understanding is that God is preparing the seeker for a yet deeper communion by taking away the earlier ways in which God was known. Something lesser is taken away so that something more can replace it. Perhaps a spiritual practice that has served one for years now falls flat. This clears the space for something new. Of course, none of this is under our control; we cannot order up a replacement. It is a gift from Spirit, awaiting the right timing.
Just as the love between two people is tested by an imposed lack of contact, faith in God is tested when the Divine slips out of view. Either love (in the case of relationship) or faith (in the case of Spirit) must grow to take one over the gap, or what we thought was love or faith is exposed for the lesser motivations that informed them. Letting go of what looked like love or faith is a necessary step so that real love or real faith can be found.
The Luminous Night
When the personality has been harmonized and has surrendered itself, when our faith and trust have withstood great trials, we may encounter a third and holy darkness. It is called by different names: The Shining Void, The Dazzling Dark, The Luminous Night. It is the no-thing that is the home of everything. Those who have experienced it directly have described it as a blackness that is paradoxically bright and shining.
It is the beyond. Beyond mind, beyond self, beyond form. Although few have experienced this luminous darkness as such, it is our source and thus informs us all.
The route to this Dazzling Darkness is to let ourselves dissolve. We must let go of our boundaries, our definitions, the filters that limit our awareness. Only then can we hear the song that beckons us home.
Song of the Night
Once mind has grown silent
to keep me from falling into the night,
its silken blackness enfolding me.
It is a relief to let go,
no longer propping up
a cardboard form I thought was me.
I spread out, dispersing through the void,
feeling myself everywhere
in this Nowhere
that is home to only One.
From out of the silence, I hear sound—
a soft and subtle crooning.
It is the song of the cool, black space
the song of the Beloved
And I follow it
Copyright Jasmin Lee Cori. First published in Light of Consciousness, Spring/Summer, 1998. Adapted here for web.