In the below book excerpt, Robert Augustus Masters, PhD, discusses the concept of 'Spiritual Bypassing' in relation to pain avoidance. This got me to thinking about 'the dark night of the soul' and our Western culture's seeming intolerance and avoidance of raw, pure mental and/or emotional pain, and so I decided to make this a topic here on our forums. I'd love to hear from you all on this subject - A private, pass-word protected group can be made available for those with more sensitive issues to share. Also, feel free to post poems, songs, film clips, etc, addressing 'the dark night of the soul' as viewed through other people's eyes; just be sure to add citations so that the work is properly credited. Looking forward to hearing from you. - RebeccaWhat Generates Spiritual Bypassing?by Robert Augustus Masters, PhD
Pain comes with life, closely accompanied by our “solutions” to it, most of which are all about getting away from it, whether through alcoholic, narcotic, erotic, intellectual, material, egoistical, or spiritual means. The fact that these “solutions,” despite their analgesic/anesthetic capacity, only end up catalyzing more pain usually does little to stop us from pursuing them.
Our resistance to our pain amplifies it. The more we try to avoid it, the darker and more tenaciously rooted it becomes. But when we stop avoiding our pain, when we cease judging or fighting it, its presence starts serving rather than hindering us. In turning toward and becoming intimate with our pain, we cut through our suffering—and by suffering, I mean the dramatization of pain—realizing not only that if we really want the treasure we will have to face the dragon, but also that our encounter with the dragon ensures we will be ready or sufficiently mature to truly appreciate and make good use of the treasure. As such, the dragon is not blocking our path; it is an essential part of our path.
When we are in the grip of spiritual bypassing we want nothing to do with the dragon, viewing it as a lower-brain roadblock, a vestigial negativity that is but a projection of old fears, while at the same time portraying the treasure, whatever it is, as ours as soon as we believe it to be—and so the treasure and the conceptualization of the treasure become conflated.
In spiritual bypassing’s domain we are mostly marooned from the raw reality of our pain, numbing ourselves both to our deeper feelings and to the pain of others, disengaging to such a degree that our heart responds mostly only superficially to even the worst sorts of pain. This is detachment, but not healthy detachment! In healthy detachment, we stand apart from what we are experiencing without disconnecting from it. But when we anesthetize ourselves to our pain, whether fully or in part, we are not in a position to really embody compassion, which leaves us with a primarily intellectual sense of compassion. However eloquently we may speak of compassion, universal love, equanimity, and other spiritual virtues, these tend to remain abstractions rather than fully embodied principles. At such times we are removed from the rawness of our pain, but not in a way that permits us to focus more clearly on what is actually occurring.
When we are caught up in bypassing, we want the spiritual treasure without having to face the dragon, believing that any negative thoughts or emotions require no more than waving our magic wand of positive thoughts and intentions to be conquered. The dragon, however, cannot be so easily pushed aside! It is so easy to get negative about negativity, turning away from our pain and whatever else reminds us that all is not well, regardless of our beliefs to the contrary.
Turning toward our pain is an act of radical caring—and not just caring for ourselves—because in doing so we cease to fuel our avoidance and those addictive behaviors we have used to keep ourselves removed from pain. In turning toward our pain, we also, however indirectly, turn toward others’ pain, both on the personal and collective level, (in both personal and collective contexts), and so our compassion for others deepens and widens. Turning toward our pain is about bringing into our heart all that we have rejected, ostracized, disowned, neglected, bypassed, shunned, excommunicated, or otherwise deemed as unworthy in ourselves. Our heart has room for it all. We are all faced with considerable challenges, not the least of which is our personal and collective conditioning. To be able to relate to our conditioning rather than simply identify with it is much more than just an intellectual undertaking, requiring that we turn toward and enter the very pain out of which much of our conditioning arose.
And that turning toward, that courageous choice to become intimate with our pain and its roots, asks for much, much more than just a mere belief in or parroting of what we’ve been taught or read about our true nature. To emerge from our pain, we have to enter it.
The greater our fear of pain, the more extreme our spiritual bypassing “solutions” tend to be. We may, for example, present ourselves as having special spiritual status, on a continuum between grandiosity (inflated somebody-ness) and faux humility (inflated nobody-ness). This is akin to the excessive control often craved by those who grew up having far too little control. We may find ourselves very uncomfortable with the presence of other’s pain, especially emotional pain, because it resonates, however quietly, with our own submerged pain, pulling it closer to the surface. When we are caught up in spiritual bypassing, our reluctance to acknowledge and feel our own pain keeps us standing apart from the pain of others, perhaps offering such spiritual bon mots as, “Tell me what you’re getting out of creating this for yourself” or “It’s perfect that this is happening” or “Stop living in the past” or, perhaps most commonly, “It’s your karma.” Anything to keep distance—plenty of distance.
Not all spiritual bypassing so blatantly avoids pain; the dance of avoidance can be done with great subtlety. Consider, for example, spiritual practices that advocate observing whatever arises with mindful attentiveness: these are not in and of themselves indicative of spiritual bypassing, but in the teaching to simply be an impartial witness to whatever is arising, there is a danger of becoming an overly passive or impersonal observer, thereby generating an excessive kind of detachment.
We might find a sense of reassuring comfort in doing such practices, which make a spiritual virtue out of standing apart from what is occurring, safely removed from any significantly close contact. Of course, this is not the fault of the practice but of how it is being employed and perhaps taught. As meditators, we may assume we are sitting with our pain—observing it moment-to-moment—when we in fact may just be sitting on it, using our witnessing capacity to keep it at a distance rather than becoming more intimate with it.
If a meditative technique is primarily used to avoid pain, spiritual bypassing is occurring. However, using meditation to ease pain or reduce its intensity does not necessarily signal spiritual bypassing but rather a kind of relaxation that allows us to enter more deeply into our life. Expanding our boundaries and softening around our area of pain gives it more room to breathe and stretch, more space to show itself in its various dimensions. Once our pain is a little less sharp, we can direct our attention into it, getting to know it from deep inside. The healing of pain is found in pain itself.
Contrary to what we tend to believe, the more intimate we are with our pain, the less we suffer. Often when we say we are in pain, we are not really in our pain, but only closer to it than we would like. We are then in fact still outside it, still removed from it, still keeping our distance. By consciously and compassionately entering into our pain and cultivating intimacy with it, we begin to find some real freedom from our suffering. Our hurt may remain, but our relationship to it will have changed to the point where it’s no longer such a problem to us, and in fact may even become a doorway into What Really Matters.
The point is not to romanticize the awakening power of pain any more than it is to bewail the presence of pain. Real freedom does not mean the absence of pain but rather fully embracing our pain without getting lost in its dramatics. This means, fully facing whatever dragons are guarding the treasure we seek. And what are dragons but the archetypal presence of that which scares or appears to threaten us, not just from outside but from within? To reach the treasure we must face and encounter whatever dragons are guarding it.
In the beginning we may view our dragons—whatever shape they may take—as hindrances, problems, or inconveniences. Later on, however, we will come to view them not as obstructions on the path but rather as an essential part of the path. The path to what? To that for which we most deeply long. Establishing ourselves on this path means letting go of our suffering until there’s nothing between us and our pain. This journey is ours to take. And if we choose to take it, we take it not just for our sake but for everyone’s, as the more deeply we heal, the more of a life-giving force we become for others.
May we face our dragons and through our encounters with them find the healing, awakening, and freedom that is our birthright, realizing that our work is not to be freed from our pain but to be freed through our pain.Book available Dr. Master's website at: http://robertmasters.com/book/spiritual-bypassing/
Theodore Roethke, "In a Dark Time" from Collected Poems of Theodore Roethke. Copyright © 1963 by Beatrice Roethke, Administratrix of the Estate of Theodore Roethke. Used by permission of Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved.
I reserve the expression ‘dark night of the soul’ for a dark mood that is truly life-shaking and touches the foundations of experience, the soul itself. But sometimes a seemingly insignificant event can give rise to a dark night: You may miss a train and not attend a reunion that meant much to you. Often a dark night has a strong symbolic quality in that it points to a deeper level of emotion and perhaps a deeper memory that gives it extra meaning. With dark nights you always have to be alert for the invisible memories, narratives, and concerns that may not be apparent on the surface.
Faced with a dark night, many people treat it like an illness, like depression. They may take medication or go into counseling looking for a cause. It can be useful to search for the roots of a dark night, but in my experience the best way to deal with it is to find the concrete action or decision that it is asking for.
A dark night of the soul is a kind of initiation, taking you from one phase of life into another. You may have several dark nights in the course of your life because you are always becoming more of a person and entering life more fully. At least, that is the hope.
One simple rule is that a truly deep dark night requires an extraordinary development in life. One outstanding example is Abraham Lincoln. With his early life surrounded by death and loneliness and his adult life weighed down by a war in which thousands of young men died, he was a seriously melancholic man who, in spite of or through his dark night, became an icon of wisdom and leadership. One theory is that he escaped his melancholy in his efforts for his country, but another possibility is that the very darkness of his life—he once said, “If there’s a worse place than hell, I’m in it.”—was the ground out of which his leadership grew.
As a therapist, I have worked with people profoundly sad and discouraged, and I join with them in looking for ways to transform that heavy mood into a weighty life. Contemporary people often don’t take their lives seriously enough. This tendency might be an aspect of the cult of celebrity, where we lose sight of our own importance by making too much of it in others.
In the archetypal psychotherapy that I practice, we always say: Go with the symptom. I don’t look for quick escapes from the pain or good distracting alternatives. I try to imagine how a symptom, like a long-standing dark night, might be re-imagined and even lived out in a way that is not literally depressive. As far back as the Middle Ages at least, dark moods were considered to be the work of Saturn, a spirit symbolized by a planet far out in the solar system. He was cold, lonely, and heavy, but he was also the source of wisdom and artistic genius. Look through history and you will find a great number of creative men and women who have struggled with the Saturnine humor.
This ancient idea that a dark night may be connected with genius and inspiration could help us today as we try to be constructive with a Saturnine disposition, like Lincoln’s, or a period of smoky moodiness. We might imagine it as the root and basis of an engagement with life that could give meaning and purpose. This doesn’t necessarily mean that eventually the dark spirit will go away, but it may have a counterweight—some extraordinary creative activity and involvement in life—that will make it more than bearable and may diminish it.
With our contemporary view of anything that looks like depression, we think: I’ll never be happy, never have a good relationship, never accomplish anything. But with the medieval image of Saturn, we might instead tell ourselves: A dark night is the sign of a high calling. My pain and loneliness will prepare me for my destiny.
There are many examples of men and women who endured unimaginable ordeals and yet contributed in a striking way to humanity’s progress. Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years under harsh conditions, yet he never lost his vision and sense of destiny. One of his younger fellow prisoners said of him: “The point about Nelson, of course, is that he has a tremendous presence, apart from his bearing, his deportment and so on. He’s a person who’s got real control over his behavior. He is also quite conscious of the kind of seriousness he radiates.” This is dark night talk—presence and seriousness, the key gifts of Saturn—as a long tradition holds. Mandela’s dark night was an actual imprisonment, not a mood. Still, he teaches how to deal with a dark night. Don’t waste time in illusions and wishes. Take it on. Keep your sense of worth and power. Keep your vision intact. Let your darkness speak and give its tone to your bearing and expression.
The regenerative power of nature grows more beautiful after a devastating forest fire at Yellowstone Park in 1988. photography | Wikimedia Commons, Jim Peaco
As strange as it may sound, there is a temptation in a dark night to slip into enjoyment of the pain and to identify with your emotions and moods. “I’m a lonely person. I’m depressed. Help me.” One striking quality we see in men and women who are dealing with their dark nights effectively is a lack of masochistic surrender to the mood, which can be forceful and dominating.
Mandela had “control over his behavior.” He didn’t succumb. It’s important to live through the dark night, acknowledge it, notice its qualities, and be affected by it. At the same time, it is not useful to be too attached to it or to let it dominate. You don’t want to be the hero who slays dragons and tries to obliterate the darkness, but you do need all the strength of heart you can muster.
While giving a dark night its due, you can also cultivate a love of life and joy in living that doesn’t contradict the darkness. You can be dedicated to your work and your vision for humanity and also feel overwhelmed by the suffering in the world. To do this it helps to have a philosophy of life that understands the creative coming together of conflicting moods. The rule is simple: Human beings can do more than one thing at a time. You can acknowledge your darkness and still find some joy.
An example of the dark night leading to a transformative presence in the world is Maya Angelou, who went from not speaking for five or six years as a child out of guilt and the wounds of abuse to reciting the inaugural poem for Bill Clinton and inspiring millions to make something of their own dark nights. In all her public appearances, Angelou showed both the pain and the joy that shaped her mission in life. She carried her pain throughout her life and yet her joy seemed to increase with her impact on men and especially women around the world.
Angelou’s experience demonstrates in an intriguing way how a dark night might take away your ‘voice’ and then give it back with added power. The question is, how do you go from a dark night to having a positive impact on the world, thus giving your own life purpose?
The first step is to embrace the darkness, take it to heart, winnow out any subtle innuendos of resistance. Then find any images that are trapped in the thick dark mood or situation. Those images may hold the clue to your release and future service. Angelou lost her voice, a fascinating symptom and a strong image, and then became known worldwide for her voice. The cure lies in the illness, the hint at future activity within the symptom. If you tone down the dark elements because they are painful and discouraging, you may also hide the gifts that are there for you.
By definition, visionary people imagine utopia, a word that means both ‘no-place’ and ‘good-place.’ It is an imagined state of the world in which people are free of their struggle, where at least the basic insecurities and inequalities have been dealt with. But oddly, it takes the pain and despair of a dark night to envision utopia.
Think about it, you wouldn’t be compelled to imagine a perfected life unless you were steeped in its imperfection. The emptiness of the dark night transforms into the no-place of a wonderful world. If you don’t feel the hopelessness of a dark night, you will probably float through life identifying unconsciously with the values and expectations of the culture. You won’t know that there is something wrong, something that calls for a response from you. Personally, you may not feel your being. You may eventually decide that you’re a nobody, for you become a somebody by identifying with the world outside you. Self-realization is not a private psychological achievement managed by a strong will and a hygienic attitude. A strong sense of self emerges when you own and activate the awareness that you are your world. A mystical sensibility and social action go together. Through an essential shift in imagination you realize that you are not the one suffering; the world is.
The real stunner is that when you begin to serve the world, your darkness changes. It doesn’t go away completely; nor should it. It continues to feed your vision of utopia and your frustration at the imperfection of it all. But your personal darkness converts into anger at injustice and then into compassionate vision and effective action. The darkness and the vision are two parts of one flowing movement.
Maybe it isn’t that your darkness eases but that your ego investment in it diminishes. It feels as though it goes away because you’ve been grasping it. There may be a degree of love for the darkness and a disdain for hope. You don’t want the challenge of being alive and engaging the world. It may be easier to sink into the pit. Some people resist participating in the transformation of the world because they glimpse the challenge in it. They will have to give up a long-held philosophy of easy, comfortable pragmatism and, maybe for the first time in their lives, feel the world’s suffering.
You see this pattern of waking up from pleasant unconsciousness to awareness of suffering in the story of the Buddha, and one of the key words Jesus uses in his teaching, not often pointed out by his followers, is ‘wake up.’ But waking up is also entering your dark night instead of remaining in the oblivion of avoidance. You do wake up to a joyful message, the meaning of the word ‘Gospel,’ but the dark night is always part of the picture, the other side of the coin.
The best source in classical spiritual literature for describing the paradox of darkness and vision is the Tao Te Ching, where on every page you are invited to live without polarization. Chapter 14 is a good example: “Above, it is not bright. Below, it is not dark.” ‘It’ is everything. Below, where you might expect darkness, it’s bright. Above, where you think you’d find light, it’s dark. Keep this paradox in mind and you will be neither a sentimental idealist nor a cynical pessimist. You will be part of the transformation of it all because it is happening in you.
Thomas Moore published his classic Care of the Soul in 1992 and has since written twenty books on spirituality, sexuality, myth, religion and depth psychology. His books have been translated into thirty languages. He has taught religious studies and psychology and has been a psychotherapist for over 30 years.
By Eckhart Tolle
The ‘dark night of the soul’ is a term that goes back a long time. Yes, I have also experienced it. It is a term used to describe what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life… an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness. The inner state in some cases is very close to what is conventionally called depression. Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything. Sometimes it’s triggered by some external event—some disaster perhaps. The death of someone close to you could trigger it, especially premature death—for example, if your child dies. Or the meaning that you had given your life, your activities, your achievements, where you are going, what is considered important, and the meaning that you had given your life for some reason collapses.
It can happen if something happens that you can’t explain away anymore, some disaster, which seems to invalidate the meaning that your life had before. Really what has collapsed is the whole conceptual framework for your life. That results in a dark place.There is the possibility that you emerge out of it into a transformed state of consciousness. Life has meaning again, but it’s no longer a conceptual meaning that you can necessarily explain. Quite often it’s from there that people awaken out of their conceptual sense of reality, which has collapsed.
They awaken into something deeper. A deeper sense of purpose or connectedness with a greater life that is not dependent on explanations or anything conceptual. It’s a kind of re-birth. The dark night of the soul is a kind of death. What dies is the egoic sense of self. Of course, death is always painful, but nothing real has actually died—only an illusory identity. Now, it is probably the case that some people who’ve gone through this transformation realize that they had to go through that in order to bring about a spiritual awakening. Often it is part of the awakening process, the death of the old self and the birth of the true self.
You arrive at a place of conceptual meaninglessness. Or one could say a state of ignorance—where things lose the meaning that you had given them, which was all conditioned and cultural and so on.
Then you can look upon the world without imposing a mind-made framework of meaning. It looks, of course, as if you no longer understand anything. That’s why it’s so scary when it happens to you, instead of you actually consciously embracing it. It can bring about the dark night of the soul. You now go around the Universe without any longer interpreting it compulsively, as an innocent presence. You look upon events, people, and so on with a deep sense of aliveness. You sense the aliveness through your own sense of aliveness, but you are not trying to ﬁt your experience into a conceptual framework anymore.
Note: from Eckhart Tolle Newsletter, October 2011. Edited by Kosmos.http://www.eckharttolle.com
I divested myself of despairand fear when I came here.Now there is no more catchingone's own eye in the mirror,there are no bad books, no plastic,no insurance premiums, and of courseno illness. Contrition does not exist, nor gnashingof teeth. No one howls as the firstclod of earth hits the casket.The poor we no longer have with us. Our calm hearts strike only the hour,and God, as promised, provesto be mercy clothed in light.
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