“Oh, night that guided me,
Oh, night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh, night that joined Beloved with lover,
Lover transformed in the Beloved!”
–St. John of the CrossBefore the first taste of awakening, human life is driven by constant, underground fear. Most of our actions are aimed at goals that would lighten the burden of that fear. Ambitions, career, relationships, and property give us the feeling of control and create an illusion of security. This illusion persists until the moment we experience a painful loss, when our life falls apart and we are confronted with the terrible loneliness of human existence. With shaky fingers, we try to collect the broken pieces of our reality and start the hard work of reconstructing our identity. Until the next loss…
The Dance between Fear and Grace
When we enter the spiritual path, we become more aware that nothing external can give us true security. We start to feel the Reality beyond the body, mind, and emotions. We receive gifts of love, beauty, and gratitude. Grace flows, showing us the reflections of Eternity. Compassion cuddles us in its most delicate arms. We realize that the mysterious Treasure we have always been seeking really exists.
But, the ego is underneath, waiting to emerge. What is the ego? A wounded child hidden in the closet. For a moment, it saw a fairyland, opened its eyes with wonderment, and forgot itself. Until the next collision with the matrix. Until somebody touches its deepest wound.
So the fear is there. Again. Rigid reality comes back… stony faces… painful voices. Muddy masks grow around the lotus flower. We play our old game… as old as the world itself.
But, the memory of the Treasure is not lost. We know it is there, and we know it is real. We practice yoga, we meditate, we blow upon the embers of the heart, we ask the question “Who am I?”… And we connect with the Heart again… or not.
Entering the Dark Night of the Soul
A time might come when our meditation becomes dry. The mind, desperate to recover its power, comes back, armed with new resources. No matter how much we try, we can’t get through the darkness. And there is fear… so much fear… more than we have ever felt.
Christian mystics, like St. John of the Cross and Thomas Merton, describe this time as the “dark night of the soul.”
It is the stage when the ego deeply realizes that all its struggles to build identity, meaning, and self-worth are useless. And, we understand that the elements of reality that bring us value and comfort are impermanent. We know that all the structures that serve as our inner foundation are an illusion. We realize that we are living inside of the matrix… and this realization is terrifying.
We perceive the scent of the Unknown, but this New Reality is formless, it doesn’t provide a support for our feet. It feels like falling into an endless night.
The New Meaning of Love and Faith
“This is love: to fly toward a secret sky, to cause a hundred veils to fall each moment. First to let go of life. Finally, to take a step without feet.” –Rumi
During the dark night, the soul doesn’t experience love as sweet and tender emotion. Love is a response to an inner calling to step into the darkness. It is a courageous decision to witness fear, loneliness, and anxiety emerging from our subconscious mind.
According to Thomas Merton, “If we set out into this darkness, we have to meet these inexorable forces. We will have to face fears and doubts. We will have to call into question the whole structure of our spiritual life. We will have to make a new evaluation of our motives for belief, for love, for self-commitment to the invisible God. And at this moment, precisely, all spiritual light is darkened, all values lose their shape and reality, and we remain, so to speak, suspended in the void.”
We move in this void by faith alone. But, there comes a moment when we feel like losing everything—including faith.
Merton says, “The most crucial aspect of this experience is precisely the temptation to doubt God himself. We must not minimize the fact that this is a genuine risk. For here we are advancing beyond the stage where God made himself accessible to our mind in simple and primitive images. We are entering the night in which he is present without any image, invisible, inscrutable, and beyond any satisfactory mental representation.”
Merton believes that the terrifying experience of losing faith guides us toward the discovery of true faith, born in the depths of our being, “For it is this testing, this fire of purgation, that burns out the human and accidental elements of faith in order to liberate the deep spiritual power in the center of our being. This gift of God is, of itself, unattainable, but is given to us moment by moment, beyond our comprehension, by his inscrutable mercy.”
A Call to Surrender
The dark night of the soul is a period of transition between the ego and the Heart. It is a time of losing control, seeing without eyes, hearing without ears, and walking without feet. The question “Who am I?” opens the Reality that scares our little human soul. The individual being may perceive the Unknown as a terrifying vastness.
During this difficult time, it is helpful to remember that the essence of the spiritual path is surrender to the Heart. And, the dark night of the soul is a call to this surrender. We let go of our life and offer ourselves to God within—the eternal “I Am”—beyond any image, any concept, any thought, or any religion.
This process of transition is a call to accept everything that appears in the soul: fear, doubts, loneliness, anxiety, and all of our struggles—falling down and rising again. When our humanity responds to the silent call of the Heart, our hidden subconscious world comes up, and witnessing it can be scary. The ego, that little child afraid of the dark, wants to hide under a blanket. It is trying to take its first steps into the Unknown and its fear is totally justified. Having compassion means to comfort this child, to love them and embrace them, and to accept the timely nature of this timeless call. Human life unfolds in space and time, as does spiritual adventure. Surrender cannot be forced or accelerated. It will arise from the depths of our being when the right time comes. All we can do is live this process with compassion: to hold our ego in a loving embrace while witnessing its struggles.
The Blessing of Fear
Fear is probably the greatest challenge during the dark night of the soul. It can be overwhelming, paralyzing, and extremely difficult to witness. It brings comfort to remember that we are not alone; so many beautiful teachers walked this path before us and experienced what we now do. I was surprised to discover that Thomas Merton perceived fear not as a curse, but a blessing. He believed that it is impossible to reach spiritual maturity without the experience of fear, torment, and anxiety accompanying the inner crisis of “spiritual death” in which we surrender our ego to God. Fear, when unwitnessed and blindly followed, guides us to separation and violence. But, when it is observed from the Heart as a struggle of a lonely soul that feels unworthy of love, it can become a force that liberates us from a false self-image, breaking through the prison of self-protection and awakening true courage in the depths of our being. It gives us the courage to let go of life and take our first step without feet… the step toward the infinite sky of the Heart.
The Inner Guide Home
The first glimpses of this secret sky—vastness, nothingness, void—might seem so scary. And yet, it is the Source of everything we have ever considered worthy in life… everything that has ever given meaning to human existence… every true value… every perception of authenticity, love, and beauty. During Hridaya Silent Meditation Retreats, Sahajananda speaks about spanda, the Sacred Tremor of the Heart—the bridge between Infinity and our humanity. In deep meditation we can feel this tremor in the middle of the chest, and sometimes in our whole body. It is a tangible expression of the Source in the human body… Eternity shining through time, space, and matter. The mysterious Unknown is so close to us, vibrating inside of us, dancing in the core of our Being. So scary and so seducing… so strange and so intimate… so terrifying and so beautiful!
And here we are, scared of what we are. Somehow we forgot our True Nature, but deep inside, we feel that our task is to find the way back Home. For many of us, this path goes through the valley of darkness, and we walk there with no other light than the invisible one burning within, in silence. No matter how weak, frightened, and lonely we feel, this sacred light is there. When the time comes, it will give us the courage to fly without wings, completely naked, into Union with our Beloved in the innermost space of the Heart.
Thomas Merton, “Contemplative Prayer”