Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 23 : Advanced Contemplation > Chapter 3 : The Dark Night of The Soul

The Dark Night of The Soul

The upward flights of the aspirant's novitiate are bought at the cost of downward falls. It is as much a part of his experience of this quest to be deprived at times of all feeling that the divine exists and is real, as it is to have the sunny assurance of it.

At first the experience of reality comes only in flashes. Actually it is not the higher self which tantalizingly appears and disappears before the aspirant's gaze in this way, causing him alternating conditions of happy fruition and miserable sterility, but the higher self's loving Grace. Each time this is shed, the aspirant's first reaction is a strong sense of spiritual lack, dryness, darkness, and longing. This brings much unhappiness, self-discontent, and frustration. But it also brings both increased and intensified aspiration for the unearthly and distaste for the earthly. This phase passes away, however, and is followed by one as illuminative as the other was dark, as joyous as the other was unhappy, as productive as the other was barren, and as close to reality as the other seemed far from it. In that sacred presence a purifying process takes place. The old familiar and faulty self drops away like leaves from a tree in autumn. He makes the radiant discovery in his heart of its original goodness. But alas, when the presence departs, the lower self returns and resumes sovereignty. The period of illumination is often followed by a period of darkness. A spiritual advance which comes unexpectedly is usually succeeded by a period of recoil. Jubilation is followed by depression.

A greater trial still awaits him. The Overself demands a sacrifice upon its altar so utter, so complete that even the innocent natural longing for personal happiness must be offered up. As no novice and few intermediates could bear this dark night of the soul, and as even proficients cannot bear it without murmuring, it is reserved for the last group alone--which means that it happens at an advanced stage along the path, between a period of great illumination, and another of sublime union.

During this period the mystic will feel forsaken, emotionally fatigued and intellectually bored to such a degree that he may become a sick soul. Meditation exercises will be impossible and fruitless, aspirations dead and uninviting. A sense of terrible loneliness will envelop him. Interest in the subject may fall away or the feeling that further progress is paralysed may become dominant. Yet in spite of contrary appearances, this is all part of his development, which has taken a turn that will round it out and make it fuller. Most often the student is plunged into new types of experience during the dark period. The Overself sends him forth to endure tests and achieve balance.

The most dangerous feature of the "dark night" is a weakening of the will occurring at the same time as a reappearance of old forgotten evil tendencies. This is the point where the aspirant is really being tested, and where a proportion of those who have reached this high grade fail in the test and fall for several years into a lower one.

Even Muhammed had to undergo this experience of the dark night of the soul. It lasted three years and not a single illumination or revelation came to brighten his depressed heart. Indeed he even considered the idea of killing himself to put an end to it; and yet his supreme realization and world-shaking task were still ahead of him.

He who has passed through this deepest and longest of the "dark nights" which precedes mature attainment can never again feel excessive emotional jubilation. The experience has been like a surgical operation in cutting him off from such enjoyments. Moreover, although his character will be serene always, it will be also a little touched by that melancholy which must come to one who not only has plumbed the depths of life's anguish himself, but also has been the constant recipient of other people's tales of sorrow.

The aspirant can rest in the passive self-absorbed state for a short time only, for a few hours at most. The relentless dictates of Nature compel him to return to his suppressed ordinary state of active life.

This intermittent swinging to and fro between rapt self-absorption and the return to ordinary consciousness will tantalize him until he realizes what is the final goal. It will end only when his egoism has ended. Up to now he has succeeded in overcoming it fully in the contemplative state only. He must now overcome it in his ordinary active state. But the ego will not leave him here unless the purpose of its own evolution has been fulfilled. Therefore he must complete its all-round development, bring it to poise and balance, and then renounce it utterly. With the ego's complete abnegation, perfect, unbroken, and permanent oneness with the Overself ensues.

After a deeply felt Glimpse or Rapture or Spirit in Development there may be a reaction. This takes the form of a temporary and minor Dark Night of the Soul. But this phenomenon is more certain to appear, and in its most dramatic form, after the second stage of meditation has been achieved but before the third (contemplation) is practised.

It is the dark night of the soul--that terrible and desolate period when the Divine seems as far away as the stars, when emotional listlessness and intellectual lassitude fall on a man, when he finds no help within himself and none outside himself. It is a melancholic experience undergone and lamented by Job and Jeremiah in ancient Israel, by John of Avila in seventeenth-century Spain, by Swami Ram Tirtha in modern India. "Oh, my dryness and my deadness!" is a typical cry of this period, found in Lancelot Andrewes' devotional diary, Private Devotions.

He who comes to the limit of his endurance is likely to utter his critical cry. The night is darkest just before dawn. He is almost ripe for that revelation which can open a new, hopeful cycle for him.

When "I am not," the Overself is. When the universe is, God is not. If the Overself did not hide itself, the ego could not come forth. If God were everywhere apparent, there would be no universe. In that deep underground mining operation which is the dark night of the soul, the saint's spirituality is utterly lost from sight, feeling, and consciousness. He is left for a while bereft of all that he has gained, while what remains of his ego is relentlessly crushed. Yet this is followed by a true and lasting enlightenment!

Even during the longest dark night of the soul, the Overself is not a whit less close to him than it was when it revealed its presence amid ecstasy and joy.

Dark Night of the Soul: The owl is blinded by light, which is therefore darkness to it.

When the dark night comes, its effect stuns him. His eager aspirations fade away into despondency and his spiritual exercises fall into disuse. Nothing that happens around him seems to matter, and everything seems so aimless, futile, or trivial. He has to force himself to go on living outwardly as usual. His will is listless and his emotion leaden. He feels inwardly dead, hardly aware of anything except his own state. The experiences and surroundings that each day brings him are passed through as in a dream.

We hear that William Blake was one of England's great mystics and we take it for granted that his mystical perception was easily put to work. Yet there was a time when Blake lamented that the light which was with him had gone out. How long this dark night of the soul lasted has not been recorded.

The inner nature becomes stiff, muscle-bound, unresponsive to the joyous evidences and serene intimations of the Overself. What is even worse, bringing a dark hopelessness with it, is the fear that this will become a permanent state. This is the famed Dark Night.

Both Spanish Saint John of the Cross and Hebrew Job of the Bible experienced and wrote of the darkness of the soul that falls on God's good earnest devotee.

When the fruits of the glimpse are seemingly withdrawn--and especially so when this happens if the glimpse has been brought on by the work of meditation--a deadness will seem to close in on the feeling and a dullness on the mind. If this condition goes deep enough, it becomes depressive and is more or less what the saints have called the Dark Night of the Soul. This is not permanent. The seeker should not despair, but his patience will be stretched and he must accept its happening. If he sees no cause for which he is to blame, then the acceptance becomes an act of faith and it will not be in vain.

So lofty is the goal to be reached but so low is his present position, that it would be unnatural for him not to feel at times shaken by despair or oppressed by futility. Such moods, when humanity's life seems pointless and his own purposeless, when labour becomes tedious and pleasure depressing, will come over him from time to time. These dry periods, when mystical life seems boring and unreal, dull and dreary, are to be expected. They are normal experiences in every aspirant's career and their remedy is in God's hands in His good time. He is being tantalized so as to make him prize the divine visitation all the more. Most of the seekers are tried in this way. Then it also shows how helpless he is. For the last word lies with divine Grace. Yet all this is no excuse for ceasing self-effort, and so he will have to go on with his meditations and prayers and studies. For it is their activity which induces the Grace to descend.

Henry Suso: "Hitherto thou hast been a squire; now God wills thee to be a knight. And thou shalt have fighting enough." Suso cried: "Alas, my God! What art thou about to do unto me? I thought that I had had enough by this time. Show me how much suffering I have before me." The Lord said, "It is better for thee not to know. Nevertheless I will tell thee of three things. Hitherto thou hast stricken thyself. Now I will strike thee, and thou shalt suffer publicly the loss of thy good name. Secondly, where thou shalt look for love and faithfulness, there shalt thou find treachery and suffering. Thirdly, hitherto thou hast floated in Divine sweetness, like a fish in the sea; this will I now withdraw from thee, and thou shalt starve and wither. Thou shalt be forsaken both by God and the world, and whatever thou shalt take in hand to comfort thee shall come to nought." The servitor threw himself on the ground, with arms outstretched to form a cross, and prayed in agony that this great misery might not fall upon him. Then a voice said to him, "Be of good cheer, I will be with thee and aid thee to overcome."

The dread phenomenon of the dark night of the soul makes its appearance in a mystic's life only a few times at most, sometimes only once. The devotions lose their fervour, the emotions become cold, and worship seems a futile exercise. There is no longer any pleasure to be got from the inner life, and experiences of mystical satisfaction are either rare or absent altogether. Meditation becomes dry, barren, and ineffective; often the very taste for it departs. Aspiration seems dead. Where there was once spiritual light in the mind and spiritual heat in the heart, there is now only darkness and ashes. A torpor of sheer fatalism settles over the will. Life becomes marked by emptiness, aimlessness, lack of inspiration, and drifts with the tide of events.

With the coming-in of the dark night there is a going-out of confidence in himself, an uncomfortable sense of failure, a pessimistic feeling that he will never again find peace, joy, or happiness.

The dark night of the soul has been known to last for several years. On the other hand, it has also been known to pass away in a single year. It is a trying time when the power to meditate, the desire to worship, the urge to pray, the hope of spiritual attainment, and even the feeling of God's benevolence desert the pilgrim.

He who suffers the dark night finds himself poised unhappily between the two worlds--the lower not wanted, the higher not wanting him.

When this drying up of all aspiration and devotion comes upon him without any traceable cause, the beauty and warmth of past intuitive feeling or mystical experience will seem unreal.

With the dark night there is a wish to withdraw from active life, from social responsibilities, and from personal duties. A feeling of their futility accompanies the wish, a vaguely pessimistic outlook surrounds it.

During the Dark Night he is neither spiritually alive nor spiritually dead. For though feeling deserts him, memory refuses to do so.

The Dark Night is not the result of any physical suffering or personal misfortune: it comes from a subtler cause. It induces a depression of enormous weight.

The sombre loneliness experienced during the Dark Night of the Soul is unique. No other kind of loneliness duplicates it either in nature or acuteness, although some may approach it. It creates the feeling of absolute rejection, of being an outcast.

A terrible inner numbness, an unbearable emptiness, is a prominent feature of the spiritual dark night.

The dark night is a tragic period. Hardly anyone emerges from it without bitter murmuring and rebellious complaint against the Divinity he earlier professed to adore. Wherever the man turns he can find no relief for his suffering. His conduct, under the suggestion of helplessness, becomes aimless and meaningless.

That paralysing emotional dryness and intellectual deadness is the Dark Night. He has lost the world and the flesh but he has not received heaven and the Spirit in return for them. Like a statue he wants nothing, expects nothing. He pretends to be alive but is really a mere spectator of a meaningless life.

With the dark night, a condition of mental dullness sets in. Real sustained thinking becomes a strain. This is because the mind loses its interest in things, being apathetic.

He is oppressed by the feeling of his own nothingness, by the realization that he is completely in God's hand.

His aspiration becomes tepid, his determination to find truth becomes lukewarm.

Hope withers in the heart and joy is put away during this dark night of the soul. The man once eager, passionate, and ardent in his aspiration, becomes dried and sapless.

He feels lost, becomes fearful, reproaches himself with sins fancied or real, and thinks that he is now permanently estranged from God as a punishment. Such is the "Dark Night."

He seems to walk absolutely alone in a condition of mental gloom and spiritual barrenness. No friend, no book, and no teacher can help because they have only words to offer and he wants to feel the divine, and not merely to hear words about it. It is, however, a phase which will adjust itself in the course of time. There is nothing he can do except to hold on to the sure faith that he will emerge from it at the time set by the wisdom of his higher Self. So he needs to be patient. It will not do him any harm but on the contrary will benefit him. It is certainly very unpleasant for the emotions. But it is necessary because the higher Self wants to train him to rise above them--even above religious emotions--and to live in intuitive calm. He is faced with the hard lesson of learning detachment from personal feelings but it is necessary to master it if he is ever to reach inner peace.

When the dark night of the soul falls he may find himself entering a desolate apathy, a loss of interest in things and matters for which before he had a keen appetite. Nought is the consolation to be found in surroundings and persons who formerly raised his enthusiasm.

During the Dark Night he lets go of the will in a fatalistic way, doing nothing to achieve any aim and expecting nothing to help him. He seems to have no freedom of choice, so remains forlorn.

The raptures, the aspirations, the devotions may be repeated many times but in the end they are seen as part of the ever-changing picture which life itself is seen to be. Moreover in "the dark night of the Soul" they die off altogether.

Few are willing to make this change so Nature often forces it upon them by plunging them into "the dark night of the Soul."

The dark night is a prolonged stupor, a period of dull interminable waiting for some change to happen.

During these dark hours life seems to be lived for nothing, its desires a mockery, its figures a shadow, its events pointless, and the whole world illusory.

How real is his experience of the Overself, or how near he is to it, must not always be measured by his emotional feeling of it. The deep inward calm is a better scale to use. But even this vanishes in the "dark night."

When he enters the dark night of the soul, life becomes unreal and hollow. He is playing a role in a stage play, but it is all acting, it is not real. He has lost the basic interest in life and he performs what he has to do like a mechanical robot.

Its significance

To the informed quester, the dark night of the soul inside him is simply another phase of his growth. It is no more to be feared than the coming of dark night of the world outside him is to be feared.

It comes to this, that a man who is brought down by adverse events or by inward failure, who loses confidence in himself and hope for his future, who is stricken down by what John of the Cross called "the dark night of the soul"--such a man is unknowingly at a possible turning-point of his life. Let him surrender this poor crushed ego of his, this broken belief that he can successfully manage his life, and pray to the Overself to take it all over.

Accept the long night patiently, quietly, humbly, and resignedly as intended for your true good. It is not a punishment for sin committed but an instrument of annihilating egoism.

In this terrible experience of the dark night, the divine seems to have withdrawn itself, and left him desolate, alone, bereft, and comfortless. Yet if he is to become more godlike he must become less attached and less desirous. The stage when he was intensely attached to the divine and ardently desirous of it belongs to the past. The time has come for him to come out of it. Just as he had to forsake the desire of earthly things in order to enter it, so he must now forsake even this last and noblest desire of all, even his godward aspiration. In doing this he will follow the Bible's injunction to "Be Still!" He will be himself and not yearn to be something other than what he is. He will be at peace.

They must even bring themselves to accept the Overself's apparent indifference and their own very real dryness with full submission.

If he is to be truly resigned to the divine will, he will fully accept the darkness and give his faithful consent to the hidden imperceptible work of the Overself in him.

The Dark Night is much less a dark night when he believes, understands, or possibly knows that it is a work of the Overself, a movement of Its grace.

(On the Dark Night) It is not generally known that a master not only can give illumination but also can remove the obstacles to it, that he may be used by the disciple's higher self for both these purposes. ------ was set free from a ten-year dark night of the soul by Eckhart. Nevertheless, no master is free to exercise this power with arbitrariness or with favouritism but only in obedience to the laws governing it.

It all seems so utterly futile, so bleak, so useless during the dark night of the soul. But wait--patience and more patience has positive results.

I have always preached the gospel of hope, because if it does nothing more, it encourages effort, gives a tonic to one's spirit, and helps one through the darkest moments. As the Comte de Saint Germain said: "Every tunnel has its end."

It was Miguel de Molinos who warned aspirants that the fulfilment of their aspiration could come only after the establishment of calm in their hearts. This held true, he further explained, even if the inner obstacles to such calm were of a spiritual kind, such as lack of enthusiasm for the quest, loss of interest in spiritual techniques, and depressed moods induced by failure, no less than for those of a worldly kind.

Modern aspirants should remember these words during the dark night when there is a loss of savour and interest in work, art, literature, self-improvement, and character-building.

The same thought may be put in a more poetic form, when the feelings are more likely to be touched and a stronger effect produced. To make use of some of the Latin poet Catullus' lines, written though they were in another connection: "My studies dead, my joy in everything is fled. Why speak, why call out? I am not heard."

He will need patience, for long dreary stretches of empty months will come to him.

He seems, in this desolate "night," to be up against a blank wall. But with patience he may find a way out. It is well to remember Abraham Lincoln's "This too will pass."

If the Overself did not lead him into and through the final dark night, where he becomes as helpless as an infant, as bereft of interior personal possessions as a destitute pauper, how else would he learn that it is not by his own powers and capacities that he can rise at last into enduring illumination?

Entry into the soul's dark night is an unpleasant affair, marked by a loss of the capacity to practise meditation upon spiritual themes, an inability to enter into the mood of spiritual ecstasy, and yet a repulsion toward giving his mind over to anything else. Although he does not know it, although he feels bereft and forlorn, this is actually a result of the Overself's working within the subconscious regions of his being. It is intended to carry his development to a further stage which can appear only when the dark night comes to an end. And although it may seem useless in his own view to impose such seemingly unprofitable suffering upon him, it is bringing him more and more out of the clutches of his ego. Quite often, he fears that this is some punishment fallen upon him for his own errors or omissions, but he is wrong.

During the "dark night of the soul," as it is called by Spanish mystics, the abrupt yet brief joy of the first awakening to existence of a diviner life is succeeded and thrown into vivid contrast by the long melancholy years of its loss. There will come to him terrible periods when the quest will seem to have been lost, when his personal shortcomings will magnify themselves formidably before his eyes, and when meditation will be dry sterile and even distasteful. Not only will it seem that the Divine is saddeningly remote, but also that it is impossible of access. Let him know this and be forewarned, know that even its seeming loss is actually a part of the quest's usual course. Hope must sustain him during such dark periods, and time will show it to be neither a groundless nor an unfulfilled feeling. Those years may be bitter indeed for the ego, may even seem wasted ones, but they have their meaning. First, they bring up to the surface and into kinetic activity all hidden faults, all potential weaknesses, all latent evil, so that they may be exposed for what they are and got rid of--often after their resultant sufferings.

All the aspirant's latent wickedness (as well as virtue) is actualized by degrees; all of his dormant tempting passions are aroused in turn; all of his animal propensities are brought into play against his worthier ideals; all his insincerities and greeds, untruthfulnesses and vanities sprout quickly from the seed stage into full-grown plants. The good qualities show themselves too at the same time, so that there is a terrible struggle within him, a struggle which the laws of the quest ordain he shall endure and complete alone. He becomes a dual personality. No master and no God may interfere with this momentous testing of a human soul at this critical stage of its evolution when the relation between the lower and higher selves is sought to be entirely changed. For it may not pass over into the new and higher life forever unless and until it is really ready for such life. All this happens through events and circumstances both ordinary and extraordinary by a natural law which governs all efforts to rend the mystic veil.

By freeing himself largely of attachments--and especially the subtlest yet largest of all, attachment to the ego--his heart is emptied. Into the void thus created, Grace can flow. Mystics who complain of the soul's dark night are led to know that it is a process whereby this space in the heart is being increased, a crushing of self into dust, to make room for Grace. If they are thus led to nothingness, let them remember that the Overself is no-thing.

Spiritual raptures, which are such a help and encouragement for the beginner, become a hindrance and stumbling block to the advanced disciple. The latter must learn to give them up without complaint, and to no longer expect or depend on them. The most effectual way to teach him that lesson is unfortunately for him also the most desolating. It is through the dark night of the soul. The absence of the higher self or God or grace in this condition is only a seeming one. Each is still there underneath the darkness. The situation is really paradoxical and beyond correct appraisal by the conscious mind, certainly by the suffering ego. He is being made to learn, by the severest experience, that the divine reality must not be confused with his conscious reactions to it, nor with his mental reactions to it, nor even with his emotional reactions to it, that it belongs to an unknown and unknowable realm that transcends human faculties and defies human perceptions.

The man who has seen reality during a temporary glimpse may later be subjected to its hidden operation without or within. In this way the higher power tests him, tries his faith, courage, patience, and, above all, sense of truth and capacity for discrimination. If the test reveals his weakness, then it is for him to provide the remedy: thus in the end he is strengthened. It is not enough to recognize the Real in its own homeland alone; he must be trained to recognize it under all conditions, even when it is hidden under thick illusion, even in the lowest ebb of the soul's dark night. These tests, which come both from within and without, help to give this training.

When he reaches this condition wherein his whole being seems emptied of hope and light, of certainty and reality, he learns the dread truth that nothing in himself can be relied on and that nobody outside himself can help him. This is the lesson of the "dark night of the soul."

If he is ever to learn and practise abnegation of the will, then this plumbing of the depths of the dark night is an essential experience. But it is essential only if he previously revelled emotionally in the ecstatic elation of the Glimpse.

He who has been through this "dark night" and absorbed its lessons thoroughly has lost all his pride.

When the aridity has half gone and the serenity has begun to come, life becomes a little more congenial, Nature a little more beautiful. It is time to bury the old negativities.

The "dark night" does more to detach a man from his ego, his interests, and his desires than the rapturous joys and emotional ecstasies. The awful feeling of being separated from or even lost forever to the higher power, works as a hidden training and secret discipline of all personal feelings.

He is forced into the seeming darkness by the processes of Nature. She wishes him to turn back and, on the one hand, to purify those parts of his character and, on the other hand, to develop those parts of his psyche which have remained undeveloped.

The dark nights which come to the inner man, when he feels deprived of peace and hope or especially when he feels utterly deserted by the Overself, are as necessary to educate him as the bright days when joy fills him because of the divine nearness.

Dark Night of the Soul: In passing through this, the greatest humiliation he has ever experienced, and passing through it resignedly, patiently, and without rebellion, he reduces the ego to a cipher, and destroys its power over him.

He has to regenerate his whole being--the intellect which thinks, the emotional nature which feels, and the practical will which acts. That is one meaning of the "dark night."

This second mystical crisis yields, as one of its fruits, a moral cleansing.

This is perhaps the greatest test of all, this phase of the aspirant's career which has been called "the dark night of the soul." Any one or all of several different causes may bring it on, any one or all of several different results may ensue. In that terrible darkness he will find himself absolutely alone, able to depend on nothing else than what he finds within his own innermost being. Without anyone to guide him and with none to companion him, he will have to learn an utter self-reliance if he is successfully to gain one of these results. It is useless to complain of the terror of this experience for, from the first moment that he gave his allegiance to this quest, he unconsciously invited its onset. It had to come even though the day of its coming was yet far off.

It is not only by the experience of feeling at times the presence of God that an aspirant may develop inwardly: it may also happen by the equivalent non-experience, by feeling quite deserted by God, quite left alone! This--the "dark night of the soul"--is just as essential.

The spiritual joys are intended to entice men--lethargic or reluctant as they are--onto the Quest, or to reward them when they have finished it. That is to say, they are for beginners and adepts. The spiritual drynesses are intended to purify the character, fortify the will, and detach men from the ego. That is to say, they are for sufficiently grown adults. It is the paradoxical irony of this situation that the joys of the beginner make him believe that he is very near to God whereas the desolations of the proficient make him despise himself.

(Dark Night:) When he realizes that even despair is egotistical, he will realize that it is not only the so-called evil passions that have to be curbed but also the depressive and melancholy emotions. He needs to remember that whenever he will again penetrate into the higher region of his being, any sadness, depression, or melancholy he may suffer from will diminish gradually and then, when he is stabilized in it, vanish entirely.

This period of crisis which may descend upon a Quester and which has been called the dark night of the soul is a period of spiritual stagnation, moral discouragement, and mental fatigue. Nothing and nobody seems able or even willing to help him and books themselves become useless, arid, and futile. Not only can he proceed no farther, but there seems no point in trying to do so. Yet, as I have often pointed out before, it is in this crisis when he seems most deserted that he is really being most guided, guided from a path, the Long Path, which has reached its end towards the Short Path, which he must now begin to travel.