Last time we looked at the crises that are caused by spiritual awakening on the path towards Self-realisation. In this post we explore the difficulties of maintaining the awakened state and the tendency to fall back to ‘lower’ levels, which can include an experience of the dark night of the soul. The following notes are taken from Psychosynthesis by Roberto Assagioli:
“The reactions accompanying this phase are manifold and often occur a certain time after awakening. As has been said, a harmonious inner awakening is characterised by a sense of joy and mental illumination that brings with it an insight into the meaning and purpose of life; it dispels many doubts, offers the solution of many problems, and gives a sense of security. At the same time there wells up a realisation that life is one, and an outpouring of love flows through the awakening individual towards his fellow beings and the whole of creation.” …
“Such an exalted state lasts for varying periods, but it is bound to cease. The personal self was only temporarily overpowered but not permanently transformed. The inflow of light and love is rhythmical as is everything in the universe. After a while it diminishes or ceases and the flood is followed by the ebb.
“Necessarily this is a very painful experience and is apt in some cases to produce strong reactions and cause serious troubles. The personal ego reawakens and asserts itself with renewed force. All the rocks and rubbish, which had been covered and concealed at high tide, emerge again. The man [or woman!], whose moral conscience has now become more refined and exacting, whose thirst for perfection has become more intense, judges with greater severity and condemns his personality with a new vehemence; he is apt to harbour the false belief of having fallen lower than he was before.
“Sometimes it even happens that lower propensities and drives, hitherto lying dormant in the unconscious, are vitalised by the inrush of higher energies, or stirred into a fury of opposition by the consecration of the awakening man – a fact which constitutes a challenge and a menace to their uncontrolled expression. At times the reaction becomes intensified to the extent of causing the individual even to deny the value and reality of his recent experience. Doubts and criticism enter his mind and he is tempted to regard the whole thing as an illusion, a fantasy or an emotional intoxication. He becomes bitter and sarcastic, ridicules himself and others, and even turns his back on his higher ideals and aspirations. Yet, try as he may, he cannot return to his old state; he has seen the vision, and its beauty and power to attract remain with him in spite of his efforts to suppress it. He cannot accept everyday life as before, or be satisfied with it. A ‘divine homesickness’ haunts him and leaves him no peace.
“Sometimes the reaction presents a more pathological aspect and produces a state of depression and even despair, with suicidal impulses. This state bears a close resemblance to psychotic depression or ‘melancholia’ which is characterised by an acute sense of unworthiness, a systematic self-depreciation, and self-accusation; the impression of going through hell, which may become so vivid as to produce the delusion that one is irretrievably damned; a keen and painful sense of intellectual incompetence; a loss of will power and self-control, indecision and an incapacity and distaste for action.
“But in the case of those who have had an inner awakening or a measure of spiritual realisation the troubles should not be considered as a mere pathological condition; they have specific psychological causes. One of these has been indicated by both Plato and St John of the Cross with the same analogy. Plato, in the famous allegory contained in the Seventh Book of his Republic, compares unenlightened men to prisoners in a dark cave or den, and says:
‘At first, when any of them is liberated and compelled suddenly to stand up and turn his neck around and walk towards the light, he will suffer sharp pains; the glare will distress him, and he will be unable to see the realities of which, in his former state, he had seen the shadows.’
“St John of the Cross uses words curiously similar in speaking of the condition called ‘the dark night of the soul’:
‘The self is in the dark because it is blinded by a light greater than it can bear. The more clear the light, the more does it blind the eyes of the owl, and the stronger the sun’s rays, the more it blinds the visual organs, overcoming them by reason of their weakness, depriving them of the power of seeing… As eyes weakened and clouded suffer pain when the clear light beats upon them, so the soul, by reason of its impurity, suffers exceedingly when the Divine Light really shines upon it. And when the rays of this pure Light shine upon the soul in order to expel impurities, the soul perceives itself to be so unclean and miserable that it seems as if God has set Himself against it and itself were set against God.’
“The proper treatment in this type of crisis consists in conveying to the sufferer an understanding of its true nature and in explaining the only effective way of overcoming it. It should be made clear to him that the exalted state he has experienced could not, by its very nature, last forever and that reaction was inevitable.
“It is as though he had made a superb flight to the sunlit mountain top, realised its glory and the beauty of the panorama spread below, but had been brought back reluctantly to his starting point with the rueful recognition that the steep path leading to the heights must be climbed step by step. The recognition that this descent or ‘fall’ is a natural happening affords emotional and mental relief and encourages the subject to undertake the arduous task confronting him on the path to Self-realisation.”
More on the symptoms of the Dark Night of the Soul here