Joan Borysenko On the Dark Night of the Soul

Joan Borysenko (author of Minding the Body, Minding the Mind) writes about her own experiences of plodding through the dark night of the soul. She writes, refreshingly, about how the psycho-therapeutic model discounts this kind of “mystical” transformational journey or therapy, because it lacks qualitative & scientific analysis & verification, thus, is not a variable in human change processes. However, there are many ways of viewing these internalized changes.

And again she writes,

This mythological approach to our stories of pain provides a larger context to personal growth then do traditional medical-psychological understandings. Dark nights of the soul-fear, depression, madness, trauma-are too often seen through the limiting lens of fear. In fear, we wish only to rid ourselves of apparent negativity rather than searching our souls for its gifts. Fear demands that the problem be fixed indirectly by drugs or therapy so that the person can be restored to his original ‘”normal”‘ state (p. 54).

The term dark night of the soul has its origins in the mystical writings of St. John of the Cross (he lived during the 1500s); St. John refers to it as “nakedness of spirit” [p. 118. The Collected Works of St. John of the Cross. (1991). Translated by Kieran Kavanaugh & Otilo Rodriguez. Washington: ICS Publications)].

In this volume, St. John states a conclusion very similar to Borysenko’s:

The darkness and trials, spiritual and temporal, that fortunate souls ordinarily undergo on their way to the high state of perfection are so numerous and profound that human science cannot understand them adequately. Nor does experience of them equip one to explain them. Only those who suffer them will know what this experience is like, but they won’t be able to describe it (emphasis added). In discussing this dark night, therefore, I will not rely on experience or science, for these can fail and deceive us (P. 115, Ibid.).

Here’s another important distinction that ought to be made clear: the paradoxical contrast of religion and spirituality. As a rule, many religious systems have replaced/exchanged religion for spirituality. Here’s the significant difference, however: religion consists of systemic rules, creeds, practices, norms, ideologies, and structures; spirituality is comprised of a deep-seated, human desire to belong, to be connected to something much larger and more transcendental than any humanly-devised set of maxims-a connection to our True Selves in our inner persons.

This goes beyond intellectual or pragmatic factors encountered on our spiritual journeys. You might say, it’s very similar to Buddhism’s Nirvana or Enlightenment, and their notion of emptiness.

Therefore, spirituality is of necessity more fluid, free, open, continually-changing with contexts and personal transformations-along with a more aligned sense of directness and affection in our hearts & minds. And, a sense of congruency with the structure of reality of biological & spiritual life.

It seems to me, that there is a missing, eliminated ingredient to understanding the dark night of the soul.. Christian theological-ideologies appear to have removed many of the practices of contemplation and mystical realization from their domain of influence. Instead, their focus seems to be more about action, creeds, activities, and discursive agendas!

In Christian, theological-ideologies, the Higher Power of Absence, is akin to the “dark night.” If we think the HP is absent, our minds are often deluged with confusion, stress, contradiction, aloneness, uncertainty, and groundlessness; learning to “be in the process of listening” even when our HP appears to be gone on a vacation. It is a silent waiting period, anticipating the felt sensation of our HP being fully present, mindful to us, and friendly with our desires to become one with our Higher Power.

She writes in her book, Fire in the Soul: A New Psychology of Spiritual Optimism (1993). New York: Warner Books, Inc., about the nature of “dark nights”:

“Dark nights of the soul are extended periods of dwelling at the threshold when it seems as if we can no longer trust the very ground we stand on even though there is nothing familiar left to hold onto that can give us comfort” (p. 62).

During dark nights our belief system is challenged and we are thrust into mortal combat with the forces of our own and the collective unconscious. For a variety of different reasons-loss, guilt, trauma, shame, war, shock-the world as we know it ceases to be and we are left with no familiar ground to stand on. A period of inner chaos characterized by fear, doubt, terror, depression or madness may follow (p. 65).

This “dark night” crisis usually resolves itself in one of these three ways:
1).¬† After the crisis, we slowly put ourselves back together, but we may have some of the same, vague feelings of anxiety or dissatisfaction (Buddhists use the word “dukkah” for this type of discontentment).

2). This may also lead to success or the choice to stay in the “mud wrestling” match with Mental Illness, or

3). We come out of the crisis feeling a renewal of integrated strength, wisdom & vision.

Describing this “dark night” process, she writes, “Even when our old self is dying, the immortal Self at our core is untouched by the pain. In fact, because our old perceptions no longer filter reality in the same way, communication from the wisdom Self sometimes comes through more clearly in dreams, poems, and insights” (p. 66).

Here, Borysenko apparently agrees with the notion that spiritual insights may be learned best and most completely by an intuitional method, not necessarily an intellectual method of inner work.

Abraham H. Maslow, the Psychologist & Creative who described “peak experiences & self-actualization” as partners at work in a kind of “dark night” journey:

We may define it (the peak experience-my conclusion) as an episode or a spirit in which the powers of the person come together in a perfectly efficient and intensely enjoyable way, and in which he is more integrated and less split, more open for experience, more idiosyncratic, more perfectly expressive or spontaneous or fully functioning (p. 69).

Darkness has many degrees of lightlessness: in one, it’s so dark, a person may feel blind and naked, unable to make out anything. The feeling or cognition of “groundlessness” is a part of the internal fabric of “dark nights.” For more insight on “groundlessness” check out some of the writings of well-known Buddhist writer, Pema Chodron, through Shambhala Magazine.

On the other hand, the darkness just prior to sunrise is both dark and light. At this point, one can see the light (of union with a Higher Power) perhaps more than the darkness. As St. John notes, the darkness allows us to envision, actualize & envision the process of deadening the cravings & affections of our empirical body-minds. The arising light helps to unburden the blindness and see what the day brings.

It’s in this way that we may be able to see the emptiness of society’s false values, to deflect our attention to them; it’s in this way that we’re able to perceive our own, human emptiness, and that the only way we can make it to the light is to recognize that we aren’t able to get their on our own human power & steam. Yet, as in Buddhism, emptiness isn’t about “nothingness” or “non-existence.” As we label it, “space” is empty of some things, but filled with others.

Summarizing the “dark night” of the soul, Borysenko suggests that the purpose of the dark night is to invite ourselves (all of us-ego, shadow-side, cognitive faculties, affective faculties, visions, near-death-experiences, & spiritualities, etc.) to join & connect with the inner Self; this is the triggering of a “threshold” for our True Selves to extinguish our False Selves, and to grow & develop.

In this author’s opinion, Joan Borysenko has expanded the notion of alternative therapies that many fear, for the reason of ‘how do we know if this really works and is really genuine?’ In another way, using the “dark night” therapeutically may be effective for many who wouldn’t necessarily seek the Medical Model for help with their therapeutic & spiritual needs and/or what they might term as “survival tactics.”

As a reader, you may want to do a kind of life review, and recollect times in your life that might possibly have been “dark nights of the soul.” There may be a difference between this entire “dark night” process, and apparent thresholds where you experienced a crossing-over into a higher consciousness.

Copy: CBB November 17, 2017


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