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The Dark Night of the Soul in Buddhism
March 25, 2005
By the contemplative recluse monk Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)
(copyright 2005 all rights reserved)
I was recently reminded of one of the essential principles of the path of awakening, which I believe is too often overlooked. That is commitment. Commitment, in a Buddhist context, is the taking of refuge, which we often take at the beginning of each retreat, because it is an ancient tradition that began, in Buddhism, with then taken refuge in the historic Buddha as a teacher of an authentic way (dhamma/dharma/Tao) to freedom from suffering and enlightenment.
In Sidharta Gotama's day it was the renunciation of all of one's worldly possessions and relationships, and a giving of the whole of one's self over to the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha for the purpose of enlightenment. Today, we often take the Refuge at the beginning of a retreat, then we sit the retreat, perhaps without reflecting upon the Refuge. When the retreat is over we go about our lives, as if nothing has changed, but I am sure we all reflect back on those 10 days. How often, however, do we consider that the Refuge is a commitment to our enlightenment and the enlightenment of all others in the shortest possible time?
Commitment to the path (dhamma/dharma/Tao) has become second nature to me, because I made an early life-long commitment to "God," when I was 17 years old. Committing myself to something grand like "God" as a teenager was a consequence of some adolescent foolishness, as a serious commitment like this often is, at an early age. At that time I bowed my head, when the weight of the consequences of my actions sat firmly upon my shoulders, and I prayed, "God I am not ready for this burden. If you take it away, I will dedicate my life to You." Early on in our spiritual life, prayer often takes on the form of bargaining with the Infinite, and this time the bargain was struck immediately. Before I even opened my eyes, the person upon whom this situation hinged came to me, and as I opened my eyes that person said, "The situation has been resolved."
At the time, I could only say to myself, "Now what have I done?" I had no idea what a life-long commitment to "God" would be like, but I knew there was no way I could go back on a bargain with the Infinite, especially when it was so quickly responded to. As I contemplated the "deal" that I struck with "God" I quickly realized I had no idea how to commit myself to "God."
Over the decades I have often contemplated that commitment and renewed it each time, however that "commitment" has become the refuge and a commitment to enlightenment in this very lifetime. Since I have spent many years contemplating what it means to commit one's life to the Infinite, I have taken to renewing this commitment every year as a means of reevaluating what it means to be committed to the path (dhamma/dharma/Tao) of enlightenment.
By the time I was 20, commitment became for me regular and consistent meditation practice. Then, I began and ended each day with sitting meditation practice. It has thus directed my daily life toward a moment-by-moment mindfulness of being in the presence of the Infinite.
Being in the presence of the Infinite has become something much like what I believe was meant in Genesis where the biblical patriarchs are said to have "walked with the Lord all of their days." Being in the presence with the Infinite I find is much like the Buddhist practice of moment-to-moment mindfulness.
Over the years my relationship with the Infinite has evolved beyond the theist-centered-punitive-deity stage, to annihilation in Infinity, to union and subsequently identification with the Infinite. My commitment has transformed over the years as well, and has become a dedication of every mindful moment, as well as every thought, word, deed and resource to the relief of the suffering of all beings, and service to the Triple Gem (Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha), which is what the Refuge is often called.
The Refuge in Buddhism certainly takes the form of taking cover or protection, but protection also requires a commitment of some sort by the refuge taker. I believe in Buddhism Refuge takes the form of submitting ourselves to the protection of the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha.
Refuge also has a quality of service to it as well. We commit ourselves to the service of the Buddhas of the past as well as the present, and commitment to the dharma, or the teachings of the enlightened ones, as well as to our own path to enlightenment. And, we commit ourselves in service to the sangha, or community of those seeking enlightenment.
My commitment to practice has evolved as well. It has become intensity. In the beginning I sat in meditation perhaps only 5 or 10 minutes twice a day, but it has become 3 times a day, for an hour to 2 hours each sit; and instead of sitting a meditation retreat once every year, or so, it has become sitting as many retreats as I can, which is often 5 or 6 meditation retreats each year.
This intensity has produced a number of changes in my life. My sleep state has become lucid, so lucid that I often find myself flying across the landscape or into space, or backwards and forwards through time, which involves the reliving of whole lifetimes from birth until death with all of the visceral details in between. I have also found myself traveling through domains of existence, and encountering beings of all kinds.
One of the aspects of Sidharta's teaching of Dependent Origination involves the recovery of memories of past lifetimes for what has been translated as understanding our "past lifetime linking," or the reasons that propel us onto our next lifetime. It was his belief that if we were able to understand the reasons why we form a new lifetime, we would, through relinquishing our grasp on those links, be released from continuing to form new lifetimes.
For more on Dependent Origination please read: "Understanding Dependent Origination (paticca samuppada)"
For me the intensity of my practice has produced a lucid sleep state, which has produced lucid reliving of whole lifetimes. It is this movement from one lucid time-space domain to another that has been very disjointing to the psyche. And, it is my commitment to the dharma that has served as an anchor for me while my concept of a lifetime crumbled to meet an expanding concept of time, from a single all important and cohesive structure to an infinity of passages and changes, that all seem now as dream-like as the waking state.
In addition to lucid dream states and the recovery of past lifetimes and acquiring an expanded sense of time, the intensity of my practice has also produced a number of other pleasant and unpleasant experiences such as odd spontaneous shaking and quivering, called "kriyas" in Sanskrit. There has also been intense shivers or shock waves, called "kundalini," which feel as though not only is my psyche being totally restructured, but my very biology is under some utter and complete transformation as well.
During these many lucid experiences the refuge has certainly been some comfort for which I am grateful. And, with the added layer of total commitment of the whole of myself to the Three Gems, I have felt tremendous support while passing through some very, very dark nights, which I believe are a product of this transformative process.
I found these dark nights and difficult days were not just a single night, but many, many nights and weeks and months and even years, of passing through, then returning again for another layer of release. If it wasn't for this commitment, I know I would not have endured the profound disjunction produced by the lucid recollections of whole lifetimes. It was the reliving of the many, many deaths that ended each of those lifetimes that was perhaps more difficult, than the disjunction of switching time-space domains, which in itself was difficult, very difficult to manage as well.
Another one of those difficulties, where my commitment to the Three Gems gave me the protection I needed, was in the sudden opening of the senses to full capacity, which is another product of an intense contemplative life, and I believe related to the kriyas. It typically occurred for me during longer retreats, but it also happened at random intervals, like while standing in line at the grocery story, or while driving the car in rush-hour traffic.
This abrupt opening of the senses was, in the early stages, often very difficult. It was difficult because the sudden flow of sensory input was often quite painful. It was literally like standing in the checkout line at the grocery store and suddenly having my skin ripped off. There were certainly many times I thought I would go quite mad from the intensity of the sensations. And, there were times, when I was left with nothing, nothing to continue but my commitment to enlightenment and to nonviolence to self and other that kept me taking the next breath.
In the past these meditation disciplines that we practice were reserved as secret initiations to be revealed by meditation masters to individual disciples only when the master felt the student was ready. And, these disciples were most often monastics under close supervision. Now we receive powerful meditation techniques via books and videotapes, or at 10-day meditation retreats, by itinerant lay or monastic teachers who do not claim mastership or even understand the phenomena of absorption.
So, when I received an email from a highly skilled practitioner who, by her description, was clearly entering into the stage best described by the medieval Saint, John of the Cross (a student of Teresa of Avila) as the dark night of the soul, I was reminded of this commitment, and how well it has stood by me through my own very dark nights.
Unfortunately I found little guidance and support while passing through the Dark Night of the soul and arriving at the various charismatic phenomena. Therefore a few years ago I started a Yahoo dialog group to function as a peer-level support group for people experiencing the various manifestations that arise due to an intense contemplative practice. That support group is called the Jhana Support Group. The group has expanded rather rapidly and now has more than 470 members. And, there are now 2 more related groups. You can find them at these URLs:
Jhana Support Group A dialog support group for ecstatic contemplatives in a Buddhist context
Kundaliniheat A dialog support group for the ecstatic experience in a Yoga and Shamanic context
Shiva_Shakti A dialog support group for the family of people going through the kundalini awakening
Through managing these support groups I have heard of other stories of difficult situations arising for people leading a contemplative life. Often these contemplatives encountered difficulties while engaged in intense practice at extended meditation retreats. Their difficulties are often so great that they are not now practicing meditation. And, several of these people are now in extended therapy, and some of them are even under medication.
While going through the most difficult phase of the dark night of the soul I spent 7 years in therapy. But, while therapists are no doubt very well prepared for dealing with a wide range of emotional trauma, I do not believe many of them are adequately prepared for dealing with the consequences of intense meditation practice. In my case I was very fortunate to have found a therapist who did not consider my contemplative life an aspect of my neurosis. It has been my experience that regional meditation centers are not often equipped with teachers or members who are skilled in these experiences. But, if they are, that center (sangha) is most fortunate.
While I am committed to full disclosure of all of the aspects of the path to enlightenment, even with the possible difficulties people may encounter, I still wonder sometimes at the wisdom of our somewhat cavalier approach of indiscriminately introducing lay practitioners to a contemplative life, and providing opportunities for intensive meditation practice at retreats without providing at least a referral list of therapists who are used to serving the needs of contemplatives.
Ever since TM and the relaxation movement of the 60s and 70s, meditation practice has been delivered in this country as something that will relieve one's stress and axiety. It is of course true to an extent, but there is so much more to meditation than stress management. While I believe we are all better off with a wider understanding of the contemplative life, I think we skilled contemplatives have the additional obligation that full disclosure presents, which is to openly discuss the consequences of deep contemplation and meditation as well.
Some organizations that teach meditation and provide retreat opportunities refuse to accept practitioners with a history of mental illness. And, some of these centers have even constructed a meditation practice strategy that specifically avoids the possible manifestation of absorption states (jhanas). I personally disagree with both decisions. While I can understand a center or teacher wanting to avoid difficulties, I believe they are often necessary aspects to the path of awakening. And, constructing a practice path that specifically avoids the absorption states seems too devious to even imagine. In fact in the Maha-satipatthana Sutta (DN 22) the Buddha defined skilful meditation (samma-samadhi) in terms of absorption (jhana).
Maha-satipatthana Sutta, DN 22"And what is right meditation (samma-samadhi)? There is the case where an aspirant -- quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful (mental) qualities -- enters & remains in the first absorption (jhana)"... (through fourth jhana).
I believe dedication to the path, as well as full disclosure, are simple solutions to the problems that can occur from intense meditation practice. I believe also meditation centers have an obligation to assure there are available skilled contemplatives and teachers, who are skilled in the absorption states (jhanas), who can provide adequate support for those who may enter a domain that they were not prepared for. I believe it is not only an essential responsibility of the meditation center (sangha), it is the very purpose of the meditation center.
On the Jhana Support Group people frequently report out-of-body experiences that included some very pleasant experiences, as well as some very unpleasant experiences. They also often report the symptoms of full opening of the senses. While many of these contemplatives often have these experiences off-and-on for many years, I understand that they can still be most difficult to pass through, and they often require the support of a skilled guide, or at least a community of practitioners who are familiar with these experiences. In fact I believe this is in part is why the historic Buddha felt so strongly about the importance of a community of contemplatives (sangha), to include it in the refuge, which is called the "Three Gems."
I recall the first time I experienced the full opening of my tactile senses at a 10-day meditation retreat around 1990. The sensations on the surface of my skin were so intense it was as though my body was on fire, and the searing sensations on the surface of my entire body remained that way for the duration of the retreat. These sensations were so intense that I thought I would go mad. Since then I have had the full opening of all of the senses at different intervals. At first it can be excruciatingly painful, and not unlike being born, but eventually the powerful forces of energy impinging on the senses becomes a most intensely pleasant sensation, and certainly well worth the often painful birth process of getting there.
I found having my senses fully open became ever so pleasant as I cultivated equanimity, which I found was a consequence of relinquishing grasping and aversion. In fact I found the unpleasantness (dukkha) I experienced was proportional to the amount of grasping, or aversion, or resistance that I was engaged in. I have thus found relinquishing emotional and psychological attachments at every moment is now the core of my practice, and consequently I have found equanimity emerging, increasing and pervading my life.
A few years ago one of our local advanced practitioners reported being contacted by "hungry ghosts" in her sleep state. I have had many of these experiences as well. I have found they are related to the out-of-body experience, and I know both how incredibly pleasant flying across the landscape without a body can be, and I also know how unimaginably terrifying an encounter with an angry god (asura) or hungry ghost can be. And, I have found again that maintaining my commitment to my religious convictions (Triple Gem), and cultivating equanimity, are an indispensable aid in this practice, as well as how valuable a qualified teacher, or a supportive community (sangha) with skilled senior contemplatives can be.
I now believe that the dark night of the soul and its various manifestations is a necessary consequence of a rigorous contemplative life. And I believe it is the very doorway through which we must pass if we wish to come to ineffable peace (nibbana). Thus, I do not believe we should gloss over these possible unpleasant experiences. I also believe we should not forget to cultivate equanimity, and to remind ourselves often of the concepts of "refuge," "salvation" and "submission" and what they mean to Buddhists, Christians and Muslims respectively.
I might be dealing with too heavy a subject matter, and that in my well-meaning honesty and self exposure, I might frighten away beginners. I do agree, that there is of course no sense in scaring people, but I also have to ask whether we are doing anyone service by introducing them to the contemplative life, and offering them opportunities to practice intensely in a retreat environment, without warning them of the possible consequences of intense practice and the pursuit of the cessation or annihilation of self.
I do not have an answer, except I believe we, the community of contemplatives (sangha), are better off with full disclosure. I know intense practice can produce lucid spiritual experiences that can be either very pleasant or very unpleasant. I have found these experiences are essential to making progress, and I know they ultimately lead to cessation (nibbana) or annihilation (fana) of the self and ineffable peace and fulfillment. And, it is our commitment to the greater good and our religious institutions (Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) that sets up the necessary conditions for equanimity, which supports further growth, and that it is essential to find a skilled contemplative or teacher as a guide, as well as finding a supportive community (sangha) to serve.
May you become enlightened in this very lifetime,
Sotapanna Jhanananda (Jeffrey S, Brooks)
First published in the Southwest Insight E'letter
Vol. 3.1 January 1, 2003
This article updated March 25, 2005 may be retrieved at this URL: