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.
-- Notebooks Category 23: Advanced Contemplation > Chapter 3: The Dark Night of The Soul > # 1