By Suma Varughese
The dark night of the soul is a term popularised by the Christian mystic, St John of the Cross, a 16th century Carmelite monk. It has, over time, become the operative phrase to describe the anguish and suffering that besiege most seekers on their journey to liberation, happiness and immortality.
The paradox, of course, is inescapable. Why should the seeker after happiness be subject to so much agony? Why should the search for liberation bring sorrow in its wake? Further, is the dark night a necessary passage for all pilgrims? Or are some insulated from its searing anguish?
It seems logical to assume that some people are immune to the dark night. After all, there are two paths of growth, the path of joy and the path of pain. While the more obdurate among us are heedless to the gentle tutelage of joy and can only bend to the stern strictures of pain, there must be many who have been attuned to life from the beginning and sensitively used every step to unfold further. The Upanishads write of a young man, educated, gifted, blessed with all the joys of life, who, having outgrown the material round, looks for something bigger to take its place. His is a natural movement from one level to another.
Eknath Easwaran, the copious writer and spiritual teacher based in the US, often compares his own awakening to the Upanishadic young man. He had all that he could ask for and thoroughly enjoyed his job as a lecturer of English literature at a well-known university in India. Yet, dissatisfaction gnawed at his entrails and would give him no peace until he searched through the annals of Western literature, psychology, philosophy and finally came to our own Upanishads where he understood what it was that was calling out to him.
Such people may not face raw agony, but the dissatisfaction and disaffection that seizes them when they outgrow the material satisfactions of life, is no small matter. For one thing, they cannot understand why the life that so pleased them yesterday appears so pallid today. For another, they have no idea what to do about it. It’s as if they are at sea and the continent they look for, is not only unsighted, they don’t even know if it exists. William James’ book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, is full of the poignant accounts of such men who find that what they most valued, such as relationships or life, are empty without a new context to put them in. Once the new context reveals itself, their progress is, I would say, relatively fast and smooth, for they are not hindered by too much conditioning, or riven by too many contradiction between their thought, word and conduct.
Some sorrow, then, is the lot of even the fortunate few. As for the rest of us, the sources of our pain and grief on the path are numerous.
One of the most prevalent sources is the growing awareness with which we now view ourselves and the world. Awareness highlights the flaws and imperfections that we have carefully concealed from ourselves.
Our greed, envy, uncharitable conduct, hypocrisy, judgementalism, etc., stand out under spotlight. It is no longer possible to blame the rest of the world for the way we are. We are obliged to take responsibility for ourselves. In the same way, we are obliged to see the suffering of the world, the derelicts who throng railway stations and whose poverty and misery seems to be nobody’s problem, the lonely, the sick, the abandoned and the exploited. We can no longer turn away our gaze. The condition of the world demands acknowledgement and as and when possible, restitution.
This awareness of unwelcome knowledge is inescapable, for liberation is nothing more or less than the limpid acceptance of reality-all reality. Our progress is tabulated only by our ability to accept and to stay with the reality of the moment.
This is far from easy-in fact, it is excruciating. We have to surrender our comfort with ourselves and the world. We have to be willing to hate ourselves, to shun ourselves, to hate the cruel and unjust world. We have to be willing to endure enormous gusts of anger and resistance and helplessness at our own inability to change the system.
Even more agonising are the contradictions that come to light within ourselves.
We want one thing, we do another. This happens in its most intense form soon after we gain an insight into the truth. For a moment the veil parts and we experience that bliss, that perfect freedom from conflict that sages talk about. We understand that life is to be lived in harmony with the larger whole. And so we watch with horror as we continue to pollute the environment with plastic bags and auto fumes, rage at our fellow human beings, and get obsessed with money and sex. The chasm between our ideals and reality seems impossible to breach. We feel torn within ourselves, as if different parts of us existed in different zones.
Another source of severe unease is that seeking is an ongoing journey into the unknown. The seeker must give up the safe, if static, identity of his earlier life to discover a self that seems to continually change and shift and expand. Who is he? He has no idea. What is his creed, his doctrine? No idea. Like himself, even the truth he discerns seem to change so that yesterday’s truths become today’s half-truths. So how can he hold on to anything? There is nothing in his universe that seems to be stationary or still, no centre he can hold on to. The seeker is essentially on a journey of negation, (neti, neti) and it is not without pain.
Even as he reels on, his guards down and unprotected, he must contend with a world that is programmed to take advantage of the vulnerable and to despise what it cannot understand. The seeker must be willing to be scoffed at and dismissed, to be misunderstood and reviled. He must prepare to struggle on even as everyone around him questions his motivations and his quest, and advises him to become as they are.
What are the other sources of suffering? A particularly poignant one is the yearning to reach the end, to unite with the Divine. The more you long, the further away does the Grail recede until you feel you can take it no longer. Indeed, Ramakrishna Paramahansa was so inflamed by longing to see the Divine Goddess that he could bear the agony no longer and took up the sword to put an end to his miserable life. Just as he was about to swing into action, the Goddess revealed herself.
The path to liberation calls for the sacrifice of everything within us. We must learn the lessons of surrender and let go, of humility and generosity, of faith and determination. Lessons wrought only in the furnace of our lives. To purify ourselves and be freed from what is not divine, we must go through the fire. And that is what the dark night is all about. Through the process of awareness and acceptance, we recondition ourselves and slowly rid ourselves of all the rubbish that comes between ourselves and our essential divine self. The day we can accept the full reality of ourselves and our world, will also be the day that we leave the dark night of the soul and enter the radiance of Godhead.
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