Last week I wrote about the “Dark Night of the Soul”, a common experience of confusion and “spiritual depression” during the awakening process. Brenda suggested a much more appropriate title, and here it is!
The dark night is about transformation.
When we are seeking higher consciousness, we are seeking to end the tyranny of the ego so we can abide in our true nature, instead of false beliefs. And so, these show-downs of emotional turmoil are inevitable. The ego, the limiting and conflicting beliefs you have about you are seen through. Your old sense of self is no longer adequate. You were used to long-held beliefs about yourself, based on previous reactions to experiences, and the releasing of these beliefs can be disconcerting. It feels rather empty.
Then, it happens. Perhaps at first just a small understanding–the understanding that this too is just conceptual clinging. There is no reality to this. Who is suffering? Who is experiencing this dark night? This emptiness, which felt so empty, begins to feel peaceful. It happens slowly, like winter turning into spring.
Is there anything we can do about these periods of turmoil?
The usual myths
Positive thinking and positive affirmations and the like are something we often turn to. It sounds pretty good, right? Who could possibly say anything against being positive?
It’s not hard to see that whatever we put our attention on, will expand. If our attention is on the positive, the positive will expand.
The thing is that whatever we ignore, doesn’t just go away. It festers.
In my experience, it’s been much more effective to face up to whatever we consider negative in us, and release it, rather than create a veneer of forced positive thinking. In the process of releasing, we can see that this whole thing about positive and negative is just another dualistic delusion.
Making demands of the universe
The Law of attraction and similar theories is another myth. The hypothesis is that our thoughts and beliefs create our experience of reality. And so, the theory goes, if you create positive thoughts and positive visualization, the universe will express-deliver a positive reality. As a hypothesis, this is as valid as anything else is, and well-worth testing out. To test it out fairly though, it seems to me, we must first release all our limiting and negative beliefs and patterns. It hardly seems likely that the law of attraction will selectively honor our surface positive thoughts, and ignore the deeper limiting gunk that we are so full of. Most of us are a complex of conflicted and limiting beliefs and patterns—this is the entire problem with the human condition—and if the law of attraction works, it can only give us a reality which is a reflection of confused and conflicted gunk.
Some of us turn to spirituality. This is fine—clearly, spirituality has helped many get started. In the end, formal systems of spirituality are about accumulating more concepts. I don’t lean towards formal systems of spirituality, and if you do, watch out for a spiritualized ego. A spiritual identity is highly validating and a tough nut to crack.
At the other end of spectrum, are the nihilistic non-dualists. This too is a trap. It’s heavily ironic that the feverish opposition to dogma is often in itself rather dogmatic.
The passion thing again
It’s a little strange that there’s so much written about finding purpose. Shouldn’t purpose just jump out at us?
It’s probably more instructive to understand why we seek an external purpose in the first place. We seek purpose because we know that if we have a sense of purpose, we will be energized. We will get up in the morning and go and we will know what to say and think and feel at each moment, and we will have approval and validation. Of course all this is good. But can purpose be cultivated?
In my experience, it is clear to me now that every being has the inner purpose to awaken. When we realize this, we can be still, and allow, and in this allowing, outer purpose sometimes manifests.
I often struggle with the question of self-discipline. I see the value of self-discipline, and I’ve used it often in my life, but I’m at a point now where I don’t want any temporary or unsustainable solutions. Self-discipline is only needed when the mind is full of conflicting beliefs.
It’s actually very difficult not to use self-discipline to power through the emotional turmoil of awakening. We are highly conditioned to achieve through effort and struggle, and we have built all sorts of nonsense in ourselves about the meaning of success and mediocrity. In the way I had lived my life, with the concepts of achievement and effort that I had created, it is actually very difficult to remain still, and simply be aware, to see what is really going on. It sometimes feels very self-indulgent and lazy—old beliefs keep nudging, saying are you sure about this? Wouldn’t it be just easier to take up the trumpet of conventions and play up the virtues of success and effort and struggle and discipline?
You must be serious
Another myth that comes up often around awakening and that we must be very serious about it. There is some Zen parable about wanting enlightenment more than a drowning man wants air. Years ago, I was scuba diving in the Bahamas. It was my very first time. I had had about fifteen minutes of training in a swimming pool, and then we went off to a James Bond movie wreck, and then another site. Hey it’s the Bahamas, where all the training you need to dive is a credit card. Anyway, at the second site, my air-tank gauge was stuck on full, but the tank was completely empty. In sixty feet of ocean, I wanted air far more than I have ever wanted enlightenment!
There’s another Zen story about how Hui chopped off his left hand before Boddhi was convinced he was a serious student and various other tales of sacrifice and courage. These Zen guys were a dour bunch.
People will variously say that you have to be serious and dedicated and courageous, or you can’t handle awakening, and this is a myth I would like to dispel with personal example.
I’m a very regular person, with no special talents. I actually had a very happy childhood. Other than depression and anxiety, I haven’t had any great obstacles in life. I’m not particularly courageous. Before shifts in awakening, I was like most men, I had a range of only two emotions—something either felt good or it felt bad. I’m not spiritually minded. I am not disciplined. I do have a high intellect, but it doesn’t take long to understand that intellect is irrelevant, and often even an obstacle to awakening.
The point is, there are no special pre-requisites for awakening. It is just being natural again. There is no place to go, nothing we need give up, nothing we need do, no special concepts or theories to accumulate. All that’s needed is to rest in Awareness. It just takes a willingness, an openness, a readiness. Whatever is needed, shows up at the right time. When courage is needed, it shows up.
If we can be still and look at all these movements of spirituality and personal development, they all really amount to the accumulation and re-arranging beliefs. It’s really what most of us do most of our lives. We create and re-arrange beliefs, hoping that this new thing will now make us feel purposeful and resonant, and give us an energetic life, and tell us what to think and feel and do at each moment. We’re constantly trying to shake off the feeling that something is wrong with life.
What’s the solution?
“In maintaining awareness, we discover the lack of separation between happiness and suffering. What that means in a practical way is that whether there’s happiness or whether there’s suffering, we can be totally at ease and serene.” – Candice O’Denver
So what can we do about the emotional turmoil of awakening?
I think it has to do with self-acceptance and patience. Continue with Awareness and Release, or whatever practices resonate with you, and be patient. Know that you are not alone, know that turmoil is an indication of progress, know that turmoil is the resistance of concepts. Know that it always comes down to acceptance, which is not something we do, but something we stop doing. We stop resisting. When there is no more resistance, this is surrender.
The answer is unsatisfying, isn’t it?
It’s unsatisfying because the ego wants more. The answer comes when we realize there is no problem at all, there never was—it is all simply resistance. Go deep within, be still, be passively watchful. Be patient, be self-loving.
Following this theme, the next articles will be on why we don’t do the things which we know are good for us , and then a Handbook of Awakening, a fanciful title for some simple things which have helped me along.
Your turn: what do you do when you feel that life is not working?