Warning: meditation in high enough doses has severe side effects and most of them are unpleasant. These side effects are unavoidable.
Meditation in sufficient doses is a serious business. Contrary to the promises of peace, love, and stress relief, serious meditators will inevitably encounter a phase of practice called ‘the dark night’. Speaking from experience, the dark night is not fun!
In ‘Theravada Buddhist speak’ the dark night phase is an encounter with the Dukka Nana, the knowledge of suffering. ‘The dark night’ is a term borrowed from Christianity’s Saint John of the Cross in his book Dark Night of the Soul. ‘The dark night’ nicely evokes the challenges found in this phase of practice.
Meditation diary, excerpt May 2015:
Fear, misery, disgust, desire for deliverance. I can’t believe they are all happening in exactly in that order. The fear is visceral. It screams through my whole body. I’ve realised I am playing around with my own self-annihilation. It dawns on me that I am trapped in this body and worse; I was foolish enough to start meditation.
I am stuck. Meditation – this miserable, horrible meditation – is the only way out.
A wave of revulsion washes over me. This body is disgusting. My mouth involuntarily forms a grimace. This horrible body thing with all its orifices and fluids, yuck. I can barely swallow my own saliva.
My mind is insane and the noise in my body/mind is relentless and chaotic.
Can someone get me out of here? Make it stop?
Ah, peace at last.
What a joke! I am struck by the inadequacy of the word ‘acceptance’. Acceptance implies choice, but I am at meditation’s mercy.
It dawns on me in a very real and visceral way that surrender is not something you do but what happens when there is no other way out.
My meditation practice is a one to two hours per day ‘insight’ or Vipassana meditation. The goal of this practice is not happiness, relaxation, or stress relief. The goal of insight meditation is to awaken from the illusion of separation.
Contrary to many meditators though, I know what I am getting myself into. I have a map of the path and an advisor (see references, below). Despite the horror I am experiencing, I recognise it as ‘the dark night’. Although hugely confronting, challenging, and just plain awful, I was expecting this phase and see it as a sign of progress. I also know (hope) that I will make it out the other side where immensely good things are waiting.
Despite my promises to keep the dark night stuff to myself, this phase affects all areas of my daily life. I am exhausted, miserable, cranky and fuzzy-headed. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I am getting depressed. I also know stopping meditation won’t help. The only way out is through.
Meditation diary, excerpt July 2015:
So easy. Easy, effortless spontaneously observing. Moments of exquisite bliss. Simply awareness observing itself.
I am out of the dark night and into the next stage called ‘equanimity’. Equanimity is such a huge relief. I feel at ease but cautious. Equanimity, although very pleasant, requires an extreme lightness of touch. I know that I am no longer doing meditation; meditation is now doing me.
However, I am not out of the woods yet. In equanimity, any ‘efforting’ will spin me right back into the worst and last of the dark night stages called ‘re-observation’. ‘Re-observation’ is the stage just after ‘desire for deliverance’, where I was begging for relief. Re-observation feels like I am in a tumble dryer with nothing to hold onto, and is full of misery, fear, and disgust for company.
It takes me months to really stop ‘doing’. I bounce from equanimity to re-observation and back again over and over and over again. Finally something lets go.
Meditation diary, excerpt Nov 2015:
Click. I have what I call a ‘drop out’. Something pulled the life plug out of my body/mind. My whole body collapses for a split second, like a telephone gone dead.
Something has shifted. I feel incredible joy. Everything is so obvious. All is abundantly clear. Life – this dear, beautiful, precious, wonderful life – is still happening, but not to anybody.
Facing the dark night
While it is true that the dark night phase can take many forms, for serious meditators it is not optional. Many experiencing the dark night make the classic mistake of stopping meditation. But if you stop now, you run the risk of becoming a chronic dark night yogi.
There are so many meditators (and some non-meditators) stuck in the dark night that this is now a serious worldwide problem. Sadly, many meditation teachers don’t know how to assist. Fortunately, Associate Professor Willoughby Britton of Brown University is addressing this problem. Dr Britton is currently engaged in a research project examining the dark night experiences. She anticipates her research will develop methods to provide yogis the relief they need.
As one who has endured and successfully traversed the dark night many times over, please heed this advice. First, get a map of the territory so you know what to expect and, more importantly, what you are getting yourself into. Second, find an experienced meditation teacher/adviser who has successfully surfed this territory. With the right methods and guidance, the dark night does indeed end and the rewards are infinite.
“Better not to begin. Once you begin better to finish.” [Chögyam Trungpa]
Dr Jeannet Weijers is a minor mystic, registered psychologist, hypnotherapist, meditation and spiritual advisor. See www.jwpsychology.com.
Mastering the Core Teachings of the Buddha by Daniel Ingram. See http://integrateddaniel.info
Kenneth Folk – www.kennethfolkdharma.com
Vincent and Emily Horn – www.meditate.io
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