MCTB 5. Dissolution, Entrance to the Dark Night

Thus begins what are called the “Knowledges of Suffering” or “The Dark Night of the Soul” (to use St. John of the Cross’ terminology). I consider this the entrance to the third vipassana jhana, though U Pandita considers this the entrance to the fourth vipassana jhana. I'll give my arguments for this later, in the chapter that deals more directly with the vipassana jhanas.

The Dark Night spans stages five through ten in this map, namely: Dissolution, Fear, Misery, Disgust, Desire for Deliverance, and Re-observation. Stages five through nine tend to “come as a package,” with one leading fairly quickly and naturally to the others. Stage ten, Re-observation, tends to stand out as its own distinct and often formidable entity. It should be noted that some pass through the Dark Night quickly and some slowly. Some barely notice it, and for some it is a huge deal, regardless of the speed at which one moves through these stages. Some may get run over by it on one retreat, fall back, and then pass through it with no great difficulties some time later. Others may struggle for years to learn its lessons.

I am going to describe the Dark Night largely in extreme terms, but realize that this is just to give a heads up to what is possible, not what is necessary or guaranteed. As before, on retreat these things are likely to be more intense and clear, though those on retreat who are able to keep practicing are likely to make much faster progress as well. On the other hand, practice in “daily life” can be powerful and sometimes very speedy. These things are strangely unpredictable. Enough disclaimers!

Once someone has crossed the Arising and Passing Event, one will enter the Dark Night regardless of whether one wants to or not. It doesn’t matter if you practice from this point on; once you cross the A&P you are in the Dark Night to some degree (i.e. are a Dark Night Yogi) until you figure out how to get through it, and if you do get through it without getting to the first stage of enlightenment, you will have to go through it again and again until you do. I mean this in the most absolute terms.

The Dark Night typically begins with just about all of the profound clarity, mindfulness, concentration, focus, equanimity and bliss of the previous stage dropping away. So also ends the cause-and-effect-like phenomena of the breath or walking shaking or jerking up and down in a way related to attention and noting, as well as all of the fine vibrations and vortex-like raptures. Early on, the frequency of vibrations disconnects from the cycle of the breath, remaining largely stable at whatever frequency is going on at that stage once they can be perceived again (in late Dissolution or Fear).

Whereas one might have felt that one’s attention had finally attained the one-pointed focus that is so highly valued in most ideals of meditation during the Arising and Passing Away, during the Dark Night one will have to deal with the fact that one’s attention is actually quite wide and its contents unstable. Further, the center of one’s attention becomes the very least clear area of experience, and the periphery becomes predominant. This is normal and even expected by those who know this territory. However, most meditators are not expecting this at all and so get blindsided and wage a futile battle to make their attention do something that, in this part of the path, it simply won’t do.

If one has ever been meditating in a place with lots of mosquitoes buzzing in one’s ears in a way that made it very hard to concentrate on the primary object, one can get a sense of what one’s attention will be like in the Dark Night. Rather than fighting against this and ignoring the metaphorical mosquitoes, one should try to understand what it feels like to have one’s attention be however it is. Just like listening to discordant, chromatic jazz with lots of jarring harmonies and instruments playing more at odds with each other than together takes some getting used to, the quality of attention in the Dark Night is an acquired taste, and the sensations that arise tend to be very rich, complex, broad and unsettling. Those that fixate on staying one-pointed will suffer more than those who learn to stay with what is going on regardless of whether or not it feels like “good meditation.”

In that same vein, those who are using some other object as a focus will notice the same phenomena of the width of attention being wider and the basic sense that attention seems to sort of be out of phase with phenomena. Those doing visualizations may notice that they see a black spot in the center of their attention with some sort of patterns or visions around the edge of it spreading wider and wider out into the periphery. Those using a mantra may feel that the mantra is out of phase with attention, wide and complex and yet hard to stay with, and may acquire more complex harmonics and harmonies if it is in any way musical, like listening to a large, ghost chorus that is off to the sides of you, whereas before the mantra may have felt centered in the stereo field of attention. There will be individual variation in some aspects of these things, depending on object, focus, ability, and each person's particular proclivities, but some basic aspects will be universal, and I will talk more about these aspects in the later chapter on the Vipassana Jhanas.

There are two basic patterns of vibrations in the Dark Night, and they are actually the Dark Night’s defining characteristics. One may get overwhelmed by the descriptions of emotional difficulties, but keep these patterns in mind and try to stay on that level. One is fairly slow, somewhat regular and chunky, at perhaps 5-7 Hz, with not much else going on. It’s an early Dark Night thing and it tends to feel like a shamanic drum beat. The later pattern is fairly fast, perhaps 10-18+ Hz, a bit more irregular, and has faster and slower harmonics in the background and around the periphery of our attention. It tends to make us feel very buzzy and edgy. The fact that the background is beginning to shake is a good sign of progress, as this needs to happen for the cycle to be completed. On the other hand, it is exactly the fact that the background has begun to shake and crumble that can cause people to freak out.

Things were all fun and games when the primary object was shaking, but when the sense of the observer starts to shake, that can be creepy. Simply pay careful attention to exactly what is happening, staying with each pulse of each vibration as clearly as you can, trying to see each from its beginning to its end. Chances are you will be just fine.

There are two basic things that happen during the Dark Night, one emotional, the other perceptual. Our dark stuff tends to come bubbling up to the surface with a volume and intensity that we may never have known before. Remembering what is good in our life can be difficult in the face of this, and our reactivity in the face of our dark stuff can cause us staggering amounts of needless suffering. On top of this, we also begin to experience directly the fundamental suffering of duality, a suffering that has always been with us but which we have never known with this level of intensity or ever clearly understood. We face a profound and fundamental crisis of identity as our insight into the Three Characteristics begins to demolish part of the basic illusion of there being a separate or permanent us. This suffering is a kind of suffering that has nothing to do with what happens in our life and everything to do with a basic misunderstanding of all of it.

Dealing with either of these two issues, i.e. our dark stuff and our fundamental crisis of identity, would be a difficult undertaking, but trying to deal with them both at the same time is at least twice as difficult and can sometimes be overwhelming. It goes without saying that we tend not to be at our best when we are overwhelmed in this way.

The knee-jerk response often is to try to make our minds and our world change so as to try to stop the suffering we experience. However, when we are deeply into the Dark Night, we could be living in paradise and not be able to appreciate this at all, and so this solution is guaranteed to fail. Thus, my strong advice is to work on finishing up this cycle of insight and then work on your stuff from a place of insight and balance, rather than trying to do it in the reactive and disorienting stages of the Dark Night! I cannot make this point strongly enough.

As a close friend of mine with a ton of experience in insight practices and a gift for precise language and teaching so aptly put it, “The Dark Night can really fuck up your life.” However, I will give you two hard-won pieces of advice that I have found have made the difference in the face of these stages. First, make the time to do basic insight practices. Do your very best to get sufficient insight into the Three Characteristics so as to get past this stage! Make time for retreats or alone time and don’t get stuck in the Dark Night. You and everyone around you will be happy that you did so.

The second piece of advice is to have a “no-bleedthrough” policy when you suspect you are in the Dark Night. Simply refuse to let your negativity bleed out onto everyone and everything around you. Failure to do so can be disastrous, as your profound lack of perspective, fixation on negativity and the suffering from your fundamental crisis of identity can easily get projected out onto things and people that simply did not cause that suffering! No one appreciates this at all and it does no good whatsoever.

Combining these two pieces of important advice, resolve thus, “I have recently crossed the A&P Event and I know this by the many obvious signs of that stage. Now I am feeling strangely reactive and negative about things that ordinarily I am able to handle with more balance and clarity, and I know that a good part of this is due to the inevitable Dark Night that follows the A&P. I realize that I am in a less than ideal position to skillfully deal with the personal issues that are driving me crazy, as I am likely to project the suffering from the illusion of duality and the odd side effects of the Dark Night onto these issues.

“I have been warned that this is an extremely bad idea from those who have successfully navigated in this territory, and I have faith that they know what they are talking about. Even if these issues are real and valid, I am likely to blow them way out of proportion and not be able to bring balance and kindness to them. By contracting into my own reactive darkness and confusion, I could easily hurt others and myself. Thus, I resolve to keep my darkness to myself, tell only those who are skilled in navigating in dark territory, or at least share it with others in a way that does not project it out on my world and them, and so will spare those around me needless suffering which they do not deserve. In short, I will use the meditation map theory to keep the reins on my dark stuff and to deal with it in ways that are known to help rather than harm.

“I will make time for insight practices and retreats during which time I will simply see the true nature of the sensations of whatever arises, however horrible or compelling, and not indulge in the content of my stuff for one skinny instant if this is within the limits of my strength and power. In this way, I will be able to navigate this territory skillfully and not damage my daily life. Should I fail, I will actively seek help from those who are skilled in helping people keep a healthy perspective in the face of dark issues until such time as I can face the Dark Night as recommended.

“When I have attained to the first stage of awakening, that will be a great time to see how much of my negativity was really valid and how much was just due to my own lack of clarity and the side effects of the Dark Night. From that place of clarity, I will be much more likely to fix those things in my life that really need fixing and attention and be able to dismiss easily those paper tigers that I have created for myself. By not trying to take on all of this at once, that is, by gaining deep insights before tackling the personal issues, I am more likely to lead the happy and wise life I wish for myself. I will attain to both liberating insights and insights into my issues, and this will be of great benefit to myself and all beings.”

One of the primary reasons that I wrote this book was to write this important resolution. I have suffered needlessly and sometimes profoundly from the failure of myself and those I love to follow this resolution. They have suffered also. Were you hearing me say these things to you rather than simply reading them, you would see tears in my eyes and hear my voice cracking with sorrow as I recall those past events and even reflect on what is happening around me as I write this. I beg you, for the sake of all that is good in this world, do not fail to heed this advice.

Unfortunately, not everyone seems to be able to do this. In fact, not everyone is even willing to attempt to follow this advice, particularly those who buy into the dangerous paradigm that “whatever I feel right now is real” in the sense that their feelings at that moment must be the only possible valid perspective on their current situation and are thus completely justified along with their reactions to those feelings. There are those who simply don’t believe that such a wondrous and holy thing as insight practices could produce such profound difficulties. There are also those who do not believe in the maps or that the maps could possibly apply to their own very special and unique life. Lastly, there are a few whose pride and insecurity issues will not allow them to admit that they might be affected by the Dark Night in this way.

I would warn such people to STAY OUT OF THE DARK NIGHT until they come to a place where they might be able to approximate at least some aspects of the above-mentioned resolution or apply the basics of the theory behind it. That means that if you are not willing to at least try to make and live by some version of my recommended resolution, you should not do insight practices and should not cross the A&P Event.

I am a big fan of fast sports cars, but I wouldn’t give one to a six-year-old kid. Just so, I am a big fan of insight practices, obviously, but I have come to the conclusion that those who are not willing to use them responsibly and intelligently should not use them, as it is too dangerous. They cause too much trouble in the world to be of little if any benefit. This is not likely to be a popular view, but I have experienced too much of what can go wrong when people fail to try to live up to such a resolution to come to any other conclusion.

The problem is that many people cross into the Dark Night without doing formal insight practices. Surprisingly, it is fairly common. I did when I was about fifteen and had no idea what was going on. I have no idea how to reach these people, but they tend to come wandering into spiritual communities soon enough. I hope they find people there who help them sort out what has happened to them and can give them the above advice. In my naive dreams I imagine that one day there will be training on the maps and basic spiritual development in some generic, non-sectarian way in elementary school, just as we learn about biology and mathematics, and so this would become just another ordinary, accepted, standard part of human education, and so everyone would know about these things as if they were the ordinary, natural things they are. Until then, hopefully the few who run into this technology will help spread it around and help people who have crossed the A&P Event to recognize it and handle it properly.

This resolution and the spirit implied by it are an aspect of training in morality, and this sort of morality is one of our best friends in the Dark Night. When we adopt the spirit of this resolution, we do our conscious best to craft our way of being so as to be kind and compassionate. Many people have commented that insight training is a “monastic practice.” If we are able to build our own virtual monastery through skillful speech and skillful action, then we do not need a monastery to protect us and the world from the potential side effects of our practices. We can live skillfully in the ordinary world and still make progress in insight.

However, there are those who are willing to buy the theory and spirit inherent in the above resolution but are so swamped by their personal issues that they simply cannot follow the above advice after they get into the Dark Night despite their kind and skillful intention to do so. My advice to them is to diligently and quickly seek professional help in the form of psychotherapists and their ilk until such time as they are able to follow something like the above-mentioned resolution.

Realize that this is not an optimal way to go, as the inherent lack of perspective of the Dark Night makes aspects of the therapeutic process more difficult, but for some there will be no other option and this solution is better than simply floundering. On the other hand, at least such people have tons of stuff bubbling loudly up for them to deal with, making some aspects of the therapeutic process easier. However, I would try to do just enough healing so that you can push on to the first stage of awakening with minimal bleed through and then finish whatever therapeutic process you began in the Dark Night after you are out of it.

There another seemingly positive way of looking at the Dark Night, or the Knowledges of Suffering, one that doesn't really fit well with our mainstream ideals of how life should be. It is the view of the renunciate, which basically says, “Ah, now you see the pain of your materialistic life, of your cravings that will never bring you happiness, of your worldly attachments, and that house of cards you call a life. Far better to give it all up and take up the way of the dharma.” While I have generally advised doing completely otherwise, I can completely understand why one would do this. However, the problem comes when we have things like debt, children, aging parents and the like, and sorting out the ethics of these conflicts is complex. Regardless, the Dark Night does teach important lessons, and learning them is essential to moving to what comes next. These lessons do not require specific lifestyle choices for mastery. Instead, it is a question of clear perception of, you guessed it, the Three Characteristics of the sensations that occur during those stages. As I mentioned in Part I, each training has a specific kind of renunciation associated with it, and they couldn't be more different.

It is time to get back to describing Dissolution. As the stage of the Arising and Passing Away ends, the meditator may be left feeling raw and incompetent despite the fact that they are continuing to make valuable progress into deeper and deeper levels of profound insight. This feeling that something is wrong when things are actually getting better and better can cause all sorts of problems during the Dark Night, especially to those not familiar with the standard maps.

On the other hand, having come through the A&P territory can be quite a relief, and so sometimes Dissolution can seem quite welcome. Some will stop practicing here, as they feel they have “released the Kundalini” and so are done for the time being. Dissolution feels like a very natural place to stop practicing, the only problem being that the later stages (Fear and the rest) tend to follow it soon enough even if one stops, though less intense practice leads to a less intense, if often prolonged, Dark Night.

However, those who wish to keep doing formal practice may find Dissolution frustrating. Whereas just one stage ago they could sit for hours and perceive the finest vibrations of reality in exquisite detail, now reality appears to be slipping away, vague, and hard to get a handle on. Whereas we may have had stellar posture in the previous stage, now we go back to being ordinary mortals. Images of the body may even seem to completely disappear, similar to that which happens in formless realms but without the clarity.

Practice is likely to be more difficult, and we may experience pain from sitting that was completely absent during the previous stage. This can be extremely frustrating for those who don’t know that this is normal, and the desire to re-attain a fading past can greatly interfere with being present. In the face of these difficulties, I highly recommend noting practice. It may seem like a step back to some who abandoned it during the glory of the A&P, but the spiritual path is not a linear one. In the face of Dissolution and the stages that follow, noting practice can be very useful and powerful.

In short, if the meditator is able to keep practicing (familiar theme yet?) and adjust to having to actually work to perceive things clearly again, they will begin to make further progress. This time the effort will have to be with a lighter and wider touch. Note well, if they give up in the stages of the Dark Night (or any time after the A&P Event), the qualities of the Dark Night will almost certainly continue to haunt them in their daily life, sapping their energy and motivation, and perhaps even causing feelings of unease, perhaps depression and even paranoia. Thus, the wise meditator is very, very highly encouraged to try to maintain their practice despite the potential difficulties so as to avoid getting stuck in these stages!

I think of Dissolution as the couch potato stage, though it can also have a sense of sensual languor to it. A hallmark of Dissolution is that it is suddenly hard to avoid getting lost in thought and fantasy when meditating. We may feel somehow disconnected from our life. Another effect that can be very noticeable at this stage is that actions just don’t happen easily. For instance, you might be going to lift your hand to turn off your alarm clock, but your hand just doesn’t move. You could move your hand, but somehow things just tend to stop with the intention and get nowhere. Eventually you move your hand, but it might have been just a bit tiring to do so. That’s what Dissolution can feel like. Meditation can be the same way, and until one breaks out of this, things can get a bit mired down in the overstuffed cushions of Dissolution. However, when the perception of things ending becomes clearer again, there arises...

MCTB 6. Fear