15. On the Dark Night of the Soul
We hope you enjoy this transcript of the “On the Dark Night of the Soul” podcast. You’ll note a few moments in the transcript which telescope things Dave talks about in more detail on the podcast--a story or a summary of some facts of interest. We signify those moments by enclosing them in [brackets]. We hope you’ll get the spirit of things nonetheless. And, of course, if you’d like to hear more on those notes, by all means enjoy the podcast.
Hello there! And welcome to Journey On! It’s great to have you. I’m Dave Schmelzer
I’m excited about the profound topic we’ll be looking at today, one that has gotten a whole lot of attention from some great spiritual teachers over centuries and throughout the world. As if there is particular gold to be mined from this topic.
But before I let you know what to expect there, let me say a few words about the crisis of the moment, the coronavirus and the many implications we might be facing with it. By the time you hear this, there will be more news, so you visitor from the future already know more than I do as I record this. And if you’re listening from quite a ways in the future, maybe this will apply by analogy to something in your future-world.
But I’ll offer a few words on how the great spiritual teachers we look at here might encourage us on this front end--or so it appears--to this challenge. First, to say the obvious, they’d encourage us to live in the present moment through diligent mindfulness and spiritual practice. Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount to “let today’s troubles be sufficient for today as we let tomorrow’s troubles take care of themselves.” And that seems sane, helpful and in the spirit of the teachers who followed him. The classic meditative scripture is Psalm 46:10, “Be still and know that I am God.” Which would tell us--well, to do that! Take time for meditative stillness and be still with God in it.
Of course, preparation is not against the spirit of this. Plenty of Proverbs celebrate the virtues of preparation, so prepare away. But as a part of living in this moment--in this case, what you need to do this moment is to prepare as you see best--and not as, in Jesus’s words, living in tomorrow’s troubles emotionally. This is the day the Lord has made, so let’s rejoice and be glad in it. Whatever threats might loom tomorrow. As we be still and know that God is God.
On today’s podcast, we’ll take a brief tour through the life’s message of one of the most famous Christians--I guess ever, but certainly from Shakespeare’s time, named John of the Cross who was a major spiritual guide for Mother Teresa, just to say--as he counsels us about what he calls “the Dark Night of the Soul.”
We’ll talk about one of the most controversial teachings in contemplative spirituality that might also be among the most helpful teachings.
I’ll tell a brief story about how this applied to a scary experience I recently had.
We’ll look at some surprising Bible passages that turn out to be unexpectedly helpful.
And we’ll look at ways that biggie teachers from other traditions have jumped on these teachings as being crucial.
Let me mention a couple of things before we launch in. We now have, yes, doubled our number of our popular online community groups around this spirituality. We have one on Wednesday nights at 9pm Eastern time and now another one on Sunday nights at 6:30pm Eastern. If you’d like information about them or how to join, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
As always, if you have a moment to do us a solid by reviewing us or giving Journey On a 5-star rating on iTunes, we’d so appreciate it.
Okay! Kick us off, Ryanhood, for On the Dark Night of the Soul.
[Ryanhood theme song.]
As we touch on each time on Journey On, I lead a few online and in-person groups that focus on this sort of journeying, contemplative spirituality. And we take time each session to practice a bit. And one of the central bits of advice as we get still for meditation or centering prayer is that, when thoughts inevitably pull us away, once we notice this is going on, we should, in a friendly way, gently return to our breath.
An early book I read on this--really a wonderful book called Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics, by Dan Harris and Jeff Warren--suggested even welcoming these thoughts or emotions. So, if you notice you’re feeling some anxiety, you might say, “Welcome mild anxiety!” Or if you start menu planning for that night’s dinner, you might say, “Welcome planning!”
I just really took to that advice as a way to stay friendly to my distractions and also as a way to notice and give attention to emotions that I otherwise was either trying to shove down or just hadn’t picked up on as I was, in fact shoving them down.
The theory is that shining attention on charged emotions like anxiety or distracting thoughts like menu planning actually helps dissipate them. While, when we just shove them down, we actually inflame them. And, having been welcomed and then dissipated, we often get insight into the emotion or thought itself, into what’s going on with it. The theory is that it’s trying to tell us something important--if threatening--before the welcome.
That said, the advice is sometimes controversial with my groups. I’ve had people quit over my wide-eyed suggestion of that kind of welcoming. Because it can feel really scary to welcome threatening emotions or thoughts. It can feel hard to give credit to the idea that ignoring or pushing down such threatening thoughts actually gives them more power than just welcoming them in.
But, just to give you still more of a feel for why this seemingly cheerful suggestion might feel threatening--if you’re not already sold--let me talk about monks for a minute. Monks being the living petri dishes for contemplative/ meditative spirituality. And, to flag, I’m going to delve pretty deeply into the thinking of one famous monk before we’re done today, a Spanish monk called John of the Cross.
But, to touch on another monk or two before that, Saint Anthony was a so-called desert father--I’ve mentioned them on other Journey On episodes--who moved into the desert to meditate after Emperor Constantine nationalized Chirstianity as the state religion. So he was sort of part of a protest movement. In any case, he often encountered his temptations as either figurative or literal demons--and, what do you know, he welcomed them. Which, as he describes it, diminished them and empowered him to move forward with equanimity and joy.
Pema Chodron--I may well be mispronouncing her name--writes: “When the resistance is gone, the demons are gone.” Which both is a provocative thing to say, and an explanation of my experience with this welcome stuff.
So I’ll apply this to this big, challenging thing that John of the Cross called the “dark night of the soul” in a minute, but I have a small-scale anecdote that’s at least related to this to start off with.
Not long ago, I was driving back from a delightful writing retreat I took--it was among my wife Grace’s Christmas presents to me--in the high desert East of Los Angeles, by Joshua Tree National Park. It was terrific in every respect, and as I was driving back last night--even the traffic was moving well--I had one of the most harrowing encounters with another driver that I’ve ever had. [On the podcast, Dave describes a frightening encounter with another driver on the way home.]
When it was clear it was over, I thanked God that nothing terrible had happened. And then I said I felt traumatized by the experience. And I felt God say something surprising back: “No you’re not. It’s already in the past. You’re living in the present moment. Don’t cling to it.” [Dave elaborates on the podcast.]
God, in Isaiah 43:18-19, says:
“Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.”
Paul, in Philippians 3:13, seems to be alluding to this when he says: There’s one thing I do: I forget the past and strain forward to what lies ahead.
By, as it were, getting still and welcoming the--admittedly mild, localized--trauma, I discover it’s actually not that hard to let it go and live in the moment that’s actually here. But my interaction with God and holding it with God changed what would have happened otherwise, which is I would have nursed it. But there’s a vulnerability to that sort of choice, isn’t there?
Maybe the most famous spiritual insight from the Middle Ages is about this sort of vulnerability that talks to us about how to spiritually process trauma and disappointment.
It, again, is usually talked about as “the Dark Night of the Soul,” a phrase that came from John of the Cross, who lived in Toledo, Spain, in the mid-1500s, Shakespeare’s time. Spain was at a weird time in history, that directly led to the Inquisition.
[Spain viz. Moors.
Tolerance of Muslims, Christians, Jews leading to a golden age until Ferdinand and Isabella cracked down.
Jews and Muslims needed to persuasively convert or flee or face the Inquisition.
John had a “converso” dad--a Jewish dad who outwardly said he’d convert--and a Muslim mom.
How he suffered as a Carmelite both under and over Teresa of Avila.
Nightly whippings! Etc.
A kinder monk gives him pen and paper and he starts to write…]
He became the patron saint of Mother Teresa, among others, and has lasted--and been sainted!--because of these insights.
Here’s a provocative passage from a chapter on John of the Cross--in a book called Journey to the Heart-- about the dark night that I find really provocative.
This moment of the spiritual life, what John refers to as the “Dark Night,” is a place of the deepest existential anxiety and trauma. It is the place where we encounter our own nothingness and insecurity. Yet it is also the noche dichosa--the blessed, warm Mediterannean night--when God reveals God’s self. It is a place of paradox. All security and comfort is removed, but is is also the noche amable mas que el alborada, the “night more lovely than the dawn”, the “guiding night”--the gentle warm, loving night.
So John was one of the great Christian meditation and mindfulness teachers, all the way back in the 16th century. We’ve talked on previous Journey On’s about how mature spirituality is an interplay between faith and spirituality. Faith being about getting stuff we want from God and spirituality being about letting things go so you can live in the present moment and encounter God there rather than always waiting for some other time when the good stuff will happen. So that was part of the insight for me after my crazy experience on the freeway.
In John’s case, his faith crashed in the face of all the terribleness he experienced. But he ended up realizing spirituality could address the dark night and turn it into the gentle, warm, loving night. [Getting behind the waterfall as a diligent practice right on through the dark night.] And so Mother Teresa, who allegedly had a decades-long dark night, required an hour of morning meditation from all the nuns she was leading. And what her biographers say is often missing from peoples’s understanding of her dark night is that, for her, it also had the “warm, Mediterannean night” quality to it.
Some scriptures seem to point us this direction.
Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the word of his servant?
Let the one who walks in the dark,
who has no light,
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on their God.
But now, all you who light fires
and provide yourselves with flaming torches,
go, walk in the light of your fires
and of the torches you have set ablaze.
This is what you shall receive from my hand:
You will lie down in torment.
That’s kind of gloomy, isn’t it?
Yet I wonder if it’s on target with what John of the Cross talked about. [Etc.]
Talking about this with one of our online groups, we realized that some of us had Dark Nights--capital D, capital N--while the rest of us had small d and small n dark nights, which seems like a pretty big distinction. And I can wonder if some percentage of Dark Nights come from expectations that don’t work out. Our lives will be in x place by y age. Or our relationships will be of x quality. Or whatever.
A couple podcasts back, thinking about success, we talked about how some of the great spiritual teachers talk about the value of “flowing like water,” of trusting that even when we hit obstacles that take us off guard, if we continue to flow with God, we may well discover other possibilities that hadn’t crossed our minds. But that the cost of a “flow like water” approach to life might be needing to let go of parts of our identity that seemed really important to us.
So I talked about how I’d seen myself as an artist and was pursuing that when I got drafted to help start a church, and it seemed worth doing, so suddenly I was no longer a playwright, but was now a pastor, which I hadn’t aspired to.
I wonder if Isaiah 50 is touching on that with dark nights of the soul. We’re in darkness.
We don’t know why things haven’t worked out the way we thought they would. But “lighting our own torch” might boil down to crafting our own solution as best we can, rather than flowing like water, with God, while still in darkness.
Some other contemplatives push this direction as they talk about what John of the Cross taught.
Jack Kornfield writes:
Traditionally the Dark Night arises only after we have had some initial spiritual opening. In the first flush of practice, joy, clarity, love, and a sense of the sacred can arise, and with them we experience a great excitement at our own spiritual progress. However these states will inevitably pass away. We fall back into separateness, despair or unconsciousness. This may happen many times. Yet it is this very process of death and rebirth that leads us to freedom.
It is hard to meditate through the Dark Night. But any other reaction will keep us stuck. As we learn to acknowledge and name what we are experiencing and meet it with mindfulness, we discover that we are helpfully dying over and over again. We say “Yes, I can be open to this too” with an open heart that neither grasps nor resists. When we can finally look at the horrors and joys, the gain and loss of all things, with an equal heart and open mind, we get profound equanimity, what some masters call high equanimity. And then we discover an unquenchable joy as we taste freedom at last. We move past all the temptations and demons, through the whole process of death and rebirth.
The New Testament continues to comment on Isaiah 50’s insights, starting with one of the great passages about knowing God’s Holy Spirit.
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.
Let me go back to the idea of “welcoming” hard emotions or distracting thoughts or whatever as a spiritual act. Clearly this would be a high bar of the type of challenge I started off talking about.
Welcoming bleakness or perplexity or whatever.
There’s a popular parable which I was reminded of in Tara Brach’s book Radical Acceptance which talks about a man being chased by a tiger who jumps off a cliff to get away. Happily, he’s able to grab onto a tree growing out of the side of the cliff, but he looks down and sees jutting rocks hundreds of feet below him even as the tiger is pacing above him. So he cries out asking if there’s anyone out there who can help him, only to hear God respond that he’s there. So the man says, “God, I’ll do anything, just help me!” And God responds, “Okay then, just let go,” To which the man replies after a moment: “Is there anyone else out there?”
In a dark night, welcoming in whatever’s out there can be really intimidating. And, to be sure, we might be advised to work with a therapist if our pain is extreme. Yet, as Brach points out from this story, because fear is an intrinsic part of being alive, resisting it means resisting living. As Saint Anthony discovered as well.
I find that, when I do this along these lines, I often find there’s something positive sort of hiding under the loud voice of the hard thing. So I might say, “Welcome vulnerability” and immediately I’ll find myself praying “welcome hope,” which, it turns out, was right there underneath the vulnerability, but that, as vulnerable as I felt, I hadn’t noticed until I invited both in.
One friend, talking about this, talks about a session along these lines that she was in with some friends. And one friend had an intense but helpful story to tell along these lines. She said that what she realized she was feeling in the prayer and meditation time was self-hatred. So that’s intense! And what she said in prayer was, “Welcome self-hatred. Why don’t you have a seat across the room and we can talk in a minute” or some such thing. I love that image!
And her report was that, as is promised, the self-hatred dissipated to a great degree to the point that she could further explore with God what was going on with that. “When the resistance is gone, the demons are gone.” Or, as Kornfield writes, we discover, “Yes, I can be open to this too.”
The sitcom creator from the seventies, Norman Lear, wrote his memoir in his 90s and called it--referring, among other things, to the prospect of his own death-- “Even This I Get to Experience,” which I thought was profound and seems along these lines.
So should you face a Dark Night of the Soul--or, as we all do along the way--suffering and painful emotions you’d rather not have to experience, What do the great spiritual teachers suggest that you do?
First, sit with it.
As opposed to shoving it down and trying to think about anything but it. Again, avoiding it tends to inflame it, we’re told.
Second, be attentive and welcoming.
As you sit with it, what are you noticing? Maybe in the spirit of my friend’s friend, consider welcoming whatever it is in and invite it to have a seat at the other side of the room. Now what do you notice?
Third, don’t forget to be attentive to the good stuff too.
Maybe you’ll have my experience that the second you welcome something you’ve noticed that’s hard and threatening, you very shortly thereafter realize that it was blocking out some good thing like hope or actual faith or encouragement. Notice and welcome that stuff too.
Fourth, follow the flow.
As you sit with and welcome whatever, notice the flow that perhaps God has you on, a flow that you might have missed because of your disappointment that your preferred plan hasn’t happened. This seems to me a good part of the Isaiah 50 advice about being with God in darkness rather than lighting our own torch. Perhaps if we don’t fight the dark night, we’ll notice unexpected and quite possibly good things that are happening. Follow the flow.
Finally, be vulnerable with trusted, prayerful friends.
And perhaps with a therapist. Don’t walk through your trials any more alone than you have to.
A historic bit of counsel on dark nights, in contemplative traditions around the world, is to “take refuge” in warm, like-minded community. I don’t think a week goes by in which at least one member of the online groups I’m in doesn’t say that the group is the best part of their week--which I think flows from this point. So--here’s the time for my commercial plug--if you’d like to check out a warm-hearted group along those lines--currently on Wednesday nights and Sunday late afternoons/ early evenings--email email@example.com for information.
It can feel like a blow that Dark Nights of the Soul exist at all. If there’s a good and powerful God who loves us, why would there be such things?
But maybe we can take comfort from wisdom from across the world that spans centuries that our experience, whenever we feel that we’re in such a thing, isn’t out of the ordinary and has great hope--that what looks like a dark night is also a warm, Meditteranean night. And that there are tested ways forward to move into some very good things.
That’s it for today’s Journey On.
Thanks so much for being here, and we’ll connect again soon.