In the first post of this series (WTF is going on?!), we explored various reasons for our current predicament, one of which is that we’re having a bit of a spiritual crisis. Ready or not, we’re being plunged into a dark night of the soul. This isn’t easy for people who have never considered spiritual questions before and haven’t experienced an awakening.
Technically speaking, the dark night is something that happens AFTER awakening on the spiritual path. However, like the word ‘awakening’, the idea of the dark night of the soul has been hijacked and applied to situations that perhaps qualify more as breakdowns or mental health crises.
Having said that, it is accurate to describe the current situation as a spiritual crisis because it’s a crisis of the soul. And that applies even to hardcore atheists and nihilists who don’t believe in the existence of the soul!
To see how this works, we can explore Andrew Harvey’s description of the mystical life – that is, every human life in potential – and how it unfolds in four stages. You can probably break it down more than that, but as a simple guide it gives you somewhere to start.
In The Way of Passion he describes the first stage as childhood, specifically the experience of union with reality before you become aware of yourself as a separate being. This may be a sense of divine grace or the feeling of life being magical, for example:
“…an experience of clear ecstasy, a sustained, often luminous, and sometimes directly disturbing experience of union with reality.”
You may have to go back a long way to remember experiences like this, and mostly we tend to forget them for various reasons. This might be because childhood also includes traumas, wounds, humiliation and feelings of loss and abandonment. And that leads to the second stage of life.
Stage two is the creation of the false self which is constructed around your wounds and fears – in other words, the ego and its shadow. Most people live their whole lives from this false self,
“…as victims of this creation of their own panic and the communal hallucination that we call society. If you are very lucky or desperate, you will be driven in stage two to search, to quest, to long for something other than the anxiety, panic, despair, and unsatisfactory joys that seem to fulfil the life and expectations of the false self.”
He says our culture is at stage two and is designed to keep you at this level. But if you can see the culture for what it is, you can break free. The tricky part is seeing things clearly. It’s worse if you think you’re happy and everything is fine because then you don’t begin to search. You’ll only be motivated to free yourself if you’re uncomfortable enough.
Many get lost in addictions and escapism, or end up having breakdowns. This sounds like a bad thing, but it’s actually part of the process. He goes on:
“If you’re lucky, that breakdown will happen early because the pain of childhood or the painful contrast between your inner self and the outer world will become so great that you’ll be haunted by fears of suicide or driven to look at all the facts of your life.”
For many this doesn’t happen until midlife and he says that’s too late to be of any use, but I disagree. It doesn’t matter when it happens, so long as it happens. However, the earlier you breakdown the better because then you’ve got less shit to clear up.
The breakdown represents the collapse of the false self along with its narratives and illusions. This is happening on a collective level right now because the craziness of the world is causing such massive cognitive dissonance that it’s forcing people to react. Some respond by waking up and seeing through the illusion, while others double down and reinforce the walls of their rickety ego.
There’s often a lot of resistance to awakening because it means the death of the false self. Even if you think you want to awaken, you may not be ready for what it means and the consequences of being awake, so you resist.
There’s a part of you that actually wants to stay asleep because it’s easier. You want to be fooled and that’s why you fall for the spell – for the lies of the false self. You follow the crowd and conform because it allows you to avoid the anxiety and uncertainty of being free.
Short aside: the awakening we’re talking about here is spiritual, not political, although they’re connected. Spiritual awakening is about seeing through the illusions of the false self to the truth about Reality, not just the reality of the corruption of the world. It’s much bigger than that – hence the tendency to resist on a deeper level.
But if you’re lucky and willing to feel uncomfortable, your breakdown will lead to the third stage of life.
Stage three is an initial awakening to the nature of reality. It might start with visions or dreams that you can’t deny, or perhaps a meeting with a spiritual teacher who changes your life. This may feel wonderful to begin with, but it will soon get serious as the false self is burnt away – he says it’s burnt alive – by the shattering insights of joy and grief that you receive.
All the games and bullshit that keep the false self going stop working and that has profound consequences in your life.
“The exposure is total. In this stage everything is taken away from the false self so that it dies. All its hiding places are unnervingly opened up and dissolved.”
This isn’t fun! However, at the same time, the Divine moves into the spaces that are opened up and the light starts to grow in your life. You begin to move into greater awareness, bliss and peace.
This is a gradual process for most people and it happens in cycles or spirals as you circle around. Often the same issues will keep popping up until you deal with them. There are more trials, temptations, breakdowns and losses that are unique to your path. And you may never reach the end – at least, not in this lifetime.
Few people get to the end of this stage because it requires a total surrender – you need faith in the Divine, or take refuge in the Buddha.
“…nothing can get you through the ordeals of stage three but that faith. You are in a completely new field about which you know nothing.”
Without faith and humility you can run into serious problems, such as madness, inflation of the ego and spiritual narcissism. Or you think you’re enlightened already and at the end of the path when in fact, you’re only at the beginning.
Stage three ends with a “direct vision of the divine nature of Reality and the divine nature of the Self.” You see that it’s all light. There’s no more separation between you and others and the world. However, this isn’t enlightenment. It’s an illumination that has to be integrated into your body and life, and that’s the work of the final stage.
Stage four is the process of integration. In some ways it’s a continuation of the previous stage and things can still be difficult, with trials and challenges. But you have a larger perspective and the gift of a sense of humour. Now that you know the self is illusory, you don’t take things so personally.
“Stage four is the integration of the divine Self with the human self, of the absolute with the relative, and that work of integration has to go down eventually into each cell of the body. So it is a work of bringing the entire human experience up to the level of the divine light…”
You also bring the light down into the body, heart and mind which can involve a lot of healing work and adjustments. This work can take lifetimes.
The dark night of the soul is triggered by the collapse of the false self and occurs in stage three of the process. But it continues into stage four on a subtler level because you now have to deal with the collective shadow, as well as your own personal shadow. This is incredibly disturbing because it disrupts your perception of yourself and the world, and you become more conscious of the personal and collective forces of evil and destructiveness.
So before you even think about trying to embody the light, you need to have made direct contact with the divine, or Buddha nature, or whatever you want to call it. Without that faith and grace, you may not be able to endure what you encounter in the darkness. Plenty have been driven mad by this process.
In The Hope, Andrew Harvey recounts a conversion with Father Bede Griffiths who told him humanity has to choose between playing God – or trying to – and surrender to God, or being one with God. It’s a dangerous moment and if we make the wrong choice, we’ll destroy ourselves.
Bede said it was unlikely we’d see the error of our ways and repent and have a miraculous transformation because people change slowly and resist every step of the way. It’s more likely that we’ll destroy ourselves. But the question then is whether God would allow that.
If God is love and merciful, then he’s likely to come to the rescue – as he tends to when you’re at your lowest during the dark night of the soul. Because of this, Bede thought the crisis would bring about a transformation and healing that will help us to align with God.
God only comes to your rescue when you’re at your lowest because that’s when you surrender. That implies that the crisis will have to get worse before people will be transformed enough to wake up. There are also plenty of examples of people destroying themselves and God not coming to the rescue. So I’m not sure – there are no guarantees.
I’m also not sure it’s correct to say that God ‘comes to your rescue’. There’s no coming or going, as the Buddhists say. God is there. Most of the time you don’t notice because you’re too busy feeling sorry for yourself or distracting yourself or whatever. When you finally stop doing those things, the false self and its games falls away, and God is there. Where he always was and is.
What comes next is the hard part: the work to understand and integrate that into the way you live your life. And that’s what the dark night of the soul is trying to accomplish – the embodiment of the divine in human form, what Andrew Harvey calls the birth of the divine human.
This may be the real meaning of the second coming of Christ – the awakening and embodiment of Christ consciousness in everyone. This isn’t the same as an ‘outer’ rescue by God because it comes from within. It’s an alchemical transformation, a kind of death/rebirth that triggers a healing and new beginning. And it starts with a crisis or series of crises.
For Bede this crisis started as a stroke that knocked him out, and he said that this experience will:
“manifest in human history and do to all previous human agendas what it did to [his] – plunge them into a cauldron of chaos.”
Sounds familiar. He goes on:
“This is not punishment, but rescue; not ‘damnation’ or the ‘Last Judgement’ or what the fundamentalists mean by the apocalypse, but the fiercest and most merciful grace.”
The divine works through paradox: the opposites are brought together to create an alchemical transformation. You have to go through a death while living – the living resurrection – the death of the false self and the tyranny of the ego and its shadow. Harvey says the dark night is:
“an extreme marriage of opposites. On the one hand, the process burns down, destroys, and undoes the false self. On the other, it opens up the real Self to wholly new levels of sacred passion and intimate knowledge of the Divine.”
Knowing this is part of a process helps you to deal with the death but it’s still devastating. False optimism or empty hope won’t help. You need patience and wisdom and a strong spiritual practice and willingness to surrender. He gives this warning:
“We would do well to remember…how fragile the human psyche in ordeal is, and what disgraceful things it will do or permit to be done when it feels threatened. This should serve as a permanent wake-up call.”
You’ve only got to look at what’s happening in the world now to see how easy it is to control people through fear and impose authoritarian rules and even have people begging for more. The danger is that people will lose their faith, if they haven’t already, and give their power up to governments or anyone who offers a ‘solution’.
We need to be spiritual adults and take responsibility, and not run away from fear of death only to walk into an even worse situation – soul death. In The Way of Passion, Harvey says:
“Our world is where it is because we have defined ourselves as dying, desperate creatures. What could dying, desperate creatures do but destroy their environment, because they are depressed? This is the modern calamity: we’re depressed because…many people…believe that they are dying, that their life is meaningless, that there is no God, no love, no hope. People are desperate because this information is, literally unbearable. Worse, it is untrue!”
The collective dark night of the soul has arrived to bring us back to the truth.
More on the Dark Night:
- Evolution of Consciousness: Spiritual Crisis
- Love’s Ordeal: The Dark Night of the Soul
- How to Survive a Dark Night of the Soul
- The Handless Maiden: Healing a Dark Night of the Soul