The Dark Side of Spiritual Awakening: Facing the Dark Night of the Soul
As I explored in my last post on enlightenment, many folks today are following the path of spiritual awakening, yet are often troubled when they encounter the dark side of spiritual awakening.
And while religion is too dogmatic and doctrinal to speak to the modern individual, with atheism increasingly militant and spawning off movements just as puritanical as that which it seeks to oppose, many are turning to enlightenment-based spiritual teachings.
The hook that tends to draw people into these teachings is the promised land of ultimate inner contentment, with the journey beginning with a sense of awe, excitement and relief at finally finding something that makes sense.
However, it’s not uncommon for many folks who sincerely embrace this path to hit up against a very deep and powerful wall of fear after a prolonged practice.
The Dark Side of Spiritual Awakening
This can be a surprise for many, as what was once a gentle practice in opening the mind, heart and soul, has fast become a challenging practice, breeding immense inner confusion, and even intense bouts of anxiety.
Worse still, engaging in more meditation and/or spiritual work can lead to even more anxiety and confusion.
Here, many people back off, feeling dejected and disappointed and that they have somehow failed.
Alternatively, some folks start blaming the teaching, yet a teaching that makes you face what is inside is an authentic teaching, and the image of one’s spiritual growth as simple, always blissful and ecstatic is a fallacy on marketing and advertising.
In reality, there is no failure or success, just the blocks that live within us that must be countenanced and accepted before we can progress.
The Spiritual Ego
Just as we engage in spiritual work to transcend ugly elements of the ego, so too can we build a ‘spiritual ego’ in which we define ourselves as peaceful spiritual seekers, subtly removing our stillness onto another image/persona.
In other instances, the ego has commandeered a spiritual teaching and re-engaged it into a role you play in the world – the “I’m a spiritual person” or the “I’m right and you’re wrong mentality”.
However, reality is always neutral, what is simply is, so whatever creations we make are irrelevant to the deeper truth within.
It is that deeper truth within that is actually showing us the inner fear and pain, especially because as humans we have a tendency to build identities either out of pain, or in and around pain to avoid it.
Further still, the ego that is founded on such identities feels the threat of the enlightenment teaching that states it is illusory, and hence sees spiritual work as akin to its death.
Dealing with Strange Feelings after Meditation
This whole experience can be a traumatising, especially if you’ve made an ego-association from enlightenment teachings and told yourself a story that it’d be all rest and relaxation.
In some cases, this situation can be exacerbated by the ego belief that one more spiritual reading or video online will knock you out of the funk.
Yet at this point, one requires some deep inner work of their own, time to inculcate the wisdom learnt and the inner transformation occurring before venturing on that bit deeper.
Incidentally, this over-indulgence in spiritual material without taking the time to process and rest in the fruits of teaching is reminiscent of Carl Jung’s fateful warning to the burgeoning community of psychedelic drug users in the 1960s.
While psychedelic drugs are famously very powerful and capable of giving you deep spiritual insights, Jung warned psychedelic drug users to “beware of unearned wisdom”, acknowledging that all too often you can go too deep, too quickly, leading to intensely frightening experiences, deep confusion and even long-lasting mental health consequences.
Now, while spiritual work isn’t as an intensive practice psychedelic drug use, the analogy is a useful one in helping us stay mindful that enlightenment teachings can be overwhelming without patience and care.
The Road to Inner Peace
While the promise of true love and peace is at our core, part of many journeys on the road towards self-discovery involve a very real, powerful and at times, a very challenging time in the dark side of spiritual awakening.
However, in experiencing this darkness, we do lose somethings that have been holding us back – our naivety for one and our illusions for another.
Interestingly, many enlightened teachers have also reported that the processing of inner pain goes on even after an awakening experience, with Zen-based teacher Adyashanti stating that this phenomenon is even present in the story of Jesus.
When we look at the gospel accounts of Jesus, before he becomes a teacher he faces the devil in the desert, during which he experiences the fullness of human temptation, i.e. the world of the ego, and he renounces this for the world of God, i.e. pure enlightened being.
So, if you are facing darkness on your journey, be mindful that this is completely normal, necessary and evidence of real progress.
Yet it is also a sign that it is time to process what you have learned, to let yourself grow and find to your own answers deep within that you can rely on.
Such an approach will allow you to move forward without falling into excessive fear or confusion, thereby feeling you have to pack it all in and pull back down the blinds of illusion.
Instead, may you open up further, all the way to the root of your pure being.
If you’d like to talk about any of the issues mentioned in this piece, you can do that here
Alternatively, if you’d like to check out the Awakened Man Online Meditation Course, you can do that here