Explaining Mysticism’s Dark Night of the Soul

In their book, Buddhism and Jungian Psychology, analysts J. Marvin Spiegelman and Mokusen Miyuki (who is also a Buddhist priest), mention the danger of “stagnation” following the integration of unconscious contents. This sounds a lot like the stage on the journey to enlightenment the mystics have famously called “the dark night of the soul.” It is the point where a seeker has seen the light, so to speak, but cannot quite believe it yet. This period of deeply troubling doubt and hesitation lasts for an indeterminate length of time until a sufficient level of acceptance has been reached to allow the final enlightenment to dawn, whereupon the ability to feel confident and to act is restored.

Saint John of the Cross

The dark night of the soul is a lengthy period of deeply troubling doubt and hesitation. It ends when a sufficient level of acceptance has been reached to allow the final enlightenment to dawn. (Image: public domain)

We can further develop the link between psychology’s “stagnation” and mysticism’s “dark night of the soul” by bringing in some ideas from creativity research, specifically the five-stage model of the creative process developed by the English social psychologist Graham Wallas.

In addition, an illuminating parallel can be drawn between those who pursue the personal enlightenment of individuation and those who seek mystical (as opposed to dogmatic) spiritual enlightenment. They are all trying to recreate themselves as individuals by establishing a conscious communion, either with their authentic selves or with some ultimate reality or Supreme Being (actually a projection or externalization of the authentic self).

A person working towards spiritual illumination does a lot of thinking, investigating, and soul-searching. A person in the throes of individuation does the same. The process is all about self-discovery and stage one of the creative process – preparation. Stagnation, along with the dark night of the soul is akin to both self-acceptance and stage two of the creative process – incubation. In this stage, all is known, but not all is accepted. Doubt and reluctance to live with the unexpected or undesirable aspects of what they have found paralyzes seekers of both kinds. Individuation means not just recognizing, but also fully accepting, the darker less-desirable aspects of the personality. The initial stages of mystical spiritual enlightenment bring a daunting awareness of the need to obey God and acceptance of a new kind of morality. In other words, what has been discovered in stage one is not yet properly implemented and operating. Enlightenment is at hand, but what is now known is not yet driving thought and behaviour, which remain confused and thoroughly handicapped by a lack of commitment.

Stagnation, lack of self-acceptance, and the dark night of the soul, all imply a lack of will, the lack of a firm sustaining sense of self. Where unconscious contents are properly integrated or enlightenment has been attained, there should be a strong sense of self and clear knowledge of what is genuinely willed. However, this is only true if seekers accept the truth of what they have discovered. Until then, they are holding back. Again, we are talking about a lack of conscious commitment.

Moreover, my own experience of individuation has revealed there is a period of deep depression after the ego realizes it is not the sole decision-maker in the psyche and must align itself with the will emanating from the authentic self. Similarly, spiritual seekers find they must humbly place themselves at the disposal of God. Ego’s realization that being the boss is an illusion produces a sudden loss of any former sense of direction and the onset of negative moods. False persona striving (futile anyway) has ended, but true self-steering has not yet begun.

Stagnation and the dark night of the soul end when the incubation period has run its course. In time, those in the process of individuation come to terms with their new psychological reality. Realizing the will of the authentic self is really their own will, they consciously tune themselves to their newly emerged genuine values and goals. Mystical spiritual seekers surrender to the will of God (again, an externalization of the authentic self) and adopt a morality quite different from that of their former false personas. Both types have moved to stage four of the creative process – illumination or insight. There remains only stage five – verification – ensuring by experience that they have it right and learning the fine art of being who they truly are.

Author: Thomas Cotterill

I am a manic-depressive made philosophical by my long struggle with the disruptive mood disorder, during which I spent sixteen years living as a forest hermit. I write philosophical essays, fantasy, and science fiction. My attempt to integrate creativity, psychology, philosophy, and spirituality imbues everything I write. You will find hundreds of related essays and articles on my blog. I live quietly in British Columbia's scenic Fraser Valley, a beautiful place in which to wax philosophical.

6 thoughts on “Explaining Mysticism’s Dark Night of the Soul”

  1. Catholic Mysticism and Eastern Mysticism are complete opposites. Comparing Buddhist Enlightenment with St. John of the Cross’ Dark Knight of the Soul is a serious error and shows a serious lack of Catholic spirituality.

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