I am being reassembled. The process is unmistakeable. It’s not over yet, but I feel myself entering a final phase, or at least what I hope will be a final phase, because the process has been unutterably excruciating, the sort of deep suffering that no one, and I mean no one, in my life can fathom without knowing the full context, including my past (the past of this life, the past of all my lives, if that has any meaning). The process has been one of facing the deep down, burning human fear of being completely alienated, completely rejected, completely broken, of failing totally. I often say that hell is to think oneself too broken for love. The fear is primal, and to enter it feels like you are coming apart into a million pieces.
But in this passage through wrongness, there is an intrinsic thread of goodness and rightness. A full, blossoming wholeness, an unparalleled intimacy with the unseen, an opening that cannot be compelled with words, hope without specifics, inexplicable currents of tranquility, wisdom that paralyzes the tongue, bliss, magic, and love.
Some call this the “dark night of the soul.” I want to tell you what this whole experience has been like, because if you taste it at all, you’ll want to know that you’re not alone. It requires something of a bird’s eye view.
How did it begin? With one wrong turn. Believing that it was possible to be separated from the Divine. Putting a label on my connection with love and thinking it was some thing I had successfully acquired and possessed, which immediately made it something to be lost.
The twist is that moving into apparent separation, or appearing to lose what you appeared to have acquired, paradoxically, enables the perception of union, of being what you think you merely owned. I hate to use the word “union,” because it’s so overused, and if you’re feeling it, the word pales in comparison, and if you’re not feeling it, the word is just a tease. The other thing I hate is talking about separation and ego death as if there is something noble and spiritual about extreme suffering. That can motivate an unconscious drive towards suffering that does no one any real good. Of course, there are multiple levels there. An unhealthy drive towards suffering could be just what the soul intends as a tool for awakening.
Back to the story. How did it begin? With the apparent loss of my best friend, my closest confidant and companion, my love, someone with whom I practiced spiritually and shared a mutual psychic connection. With a sharp intellect, a love of dharma, and a beautiful, open heart, he became exceedingly precious to me. Except, and I know there is a term for this somewhere, he had certain proclivities that exactly intersected with my trauma triggers.
Phase one. Approaching the nexus.
All my past traumas and conditioning rise from the sediment. I am a mine field. The Divine is preparing to run across me and set them all off at once. As though it were an Olympic event. I am to be shocked and awed.
I know what is coming. I sense it on the horizon. Numerous hints of breakdown and transformation pass into my world. Dreams, overheard comments, flashes of images during meditation, fortuitously caught movie scenes, songs on the radio, intuitions. Shortly before the explosions begin, I have my first full blown panic attack in more than a decade. I am meditating with my sangha, sitting on my cushion on an otherwise ordinary evening, and panic overtakes me like a tsunami. What? What in the world is this? I look at my dear friend. “Something is not right! Something feels very wrong. I don’t understand it,” I say. In the middle of the meditation, suddenly a shock hits the base of my spine and shoots so hard through my body that I fly off my cushion. Later, my friend says that the moment before I jumped, he felt an intense electric shivver snake up his spine. We thought it was a good sign due to the powerful empathic connection between us. Things were not at all black and white.
Phase two. The bombing begins.
The ground beneath me, already in rubble after the end of a twelve year marriage, is completely swept out from under me. Every area of my life that matters to me is hit hard, and the one person I would turn to in such a crisis has become a source of intense pain.
“Am I going to lose you?” I asked my friend, a bodhisattva of the “crazy wisdom” variety, as they say in Tibet. He takes my hand and replies with an emphatic yet serenely assured, “No,” adding, “And even if you lose me, you won’t really lose me.”
I sit on a pine covered bluff overlooking a lake and ask for one thing, and one thing only: awakening. Things soon get worse. A word of advice: Don’t ever make the mistake of asking the universe for something you already have. It will mess you up. (Of course, that is sure to be part of the process, and when you’re all done getting messed up, you’ll realize that you were always awake. Prayer answered. The universe really is something else! Tathata.)
Phase three. Shock and awe.
The explosions are deafening. Structures I believed were indestructible, structures I took for granted, even those structures that formed my very self, fall to the ground. My weaknesses become everything. All my fears manifest, my demons coming to collect. The greatest fear of a Buddhist psychologist is to lose the capacity to subjugate one’s thoughts and emotions. Mine refuse to be put in their place.
I run for shelter, and I’m turned away, discovering that cherished friends were not friends at all.
I lose my trust in the presence of love, in the nature of all things as love. It is a game that my soul is playing, a temporary amnesia that seems eternal, a circumscribed isolation that seems infinite.
I move to end it all. However, my auto-destruct sequence is unexpectedly aborted by an understanding new friend appearing on the scene like a far-fetched plot device.
I break down and, facing one of my worst fears, place myself in the hands of “professional help.” The response of psychiatry to my “dark night of the soul” can be summarized as follows: “You wanna cry? I’ll give you something to cry about!” All of the stigma I once encountered, I relive in full color (which, incidentally, proves to be just the refresher course I need to complete my dissertation on social disgust). Psychotherapy is hopelessly premised on the belief that all human suffering is an individual defect. To be diagnosed with a disorder is often about the same as being quoted out of context. Even for those suffering from acute trauma, such as rape, the defect is that the suffering lasts longer than they think it should (a matter of weeks). Individual resilience is worshipped over community change. God forbid the day psychiatry can cure the pain of social isolation with a pill. The most human of all suffering, feeling alienated, would become a sign of disease. What could be more alienating?
Phase four. The dust settles.
I waved the white flag and let the destruction unfold. Kali left no stone unshattered. Now, among the powdery grains of dust lying quietly on the ground, my own bits and pieces. Having found peace with my losses, I begin my slow recovery from psychotherapy.
Being turned to dust is not so bad though. Just recently, I rented a movie, “The Dust Factory,” about a boy who nearly drowns. He has a near-death experience in which he joins a host of other comatose souls in another dream reality, one of perpetual summer (although his companion is stuck in perpetual winter). They can only free themselves by leaping from a circus platform. If they catch the hands of their fellow acrobat, they fly into the sky and move on. If they fall, they hit the ground and turn into a pile of dust and return to their Earthly life.
It does not matter whether they move on or return to Earth. As long as they take the leap, they have succeeded. How many of us linger in this interrim zone between life and death hoping we can avoid facing our fears or facing our own potential destruction? In this zone, where modern psychiatry would keep all the sad and lonely people, we are safe but not alive. Fears are pacified while we miss the opportunity to learn that, in fact, we are always safe.
Phase five. Reassembly.
And now, the final phase. The pieces gather together, and a new form takes shape. Forces enter the scene, fortuitously appearing to assist in rebirth.
It just so happens that the roommate of my new friend is an acupuncturist who treats emotional suffering. He offers his services, and I begin a course that absolutely astounds me.
I arrive scattered, in so much emotional pain that I can barely have a conversation. Before the hour is over, I feel like myself again. But everything is different than before. Pieces that flew out in a million directions coalesce and settle into a new arrangement, one in which all of the energy that was stuck for ages now flows frictionless.
The needles relieve deep, intense pain that I have carried with me for more than five years. My body heaves, and I can’t help but sob as the suffering drains away like dirty bathwater. The weight on my chest disappears.
One of the things he repeatedly focuses on, coincidentally, is returning heat to my body (see Warmth in the Cold). I am healed not only by the acupuncture but by the presence of loving friends in my life. They warm more heart more than any campfire or acupuncture treatment possible can.
Perhaps the most healing aspect of all is the different world view from which the healing proceeds. There is an assumption of intrinsic health and wholeness, joy and strength waiting to be released. I am allowed to believe in myself again without feeling patronized, and that is all I needed.
I have episodes of senseless joy and vast stretches of time in which I feel no pain at all. On the horizon, hints of dawn.
The Rebirth of Venus
As sage burns in the abalone shell,
Venus rises this time not from the sea but from fire
copyright 2009 Waking Heart
Talk by Adyashanti
on facing the dark night of the soul
(audio recording only)
“All is well. Just remember that. Especially when it’s not.”