Buddhist Meditation and the Dark Night

What Is the Dark Night of the Soul?

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Buddhist meditation, mindfulness meditation in particular, is widely practiced in the West. Mindfulness is being widely applied by psychologists and therapists to treat all manner of conditions, from ADHD to depression. There is also a trend in business to encourage mindfulness meditation in employees, to reduce stress and be more productive.

But now stories of disturbing experiences and psychological damage from meditation are coming to light. Borrowing a phrase from the Christian mystic Saint John of the Cross, these experiences are being called "a dark night of the soul." In this article, I want to address the "dark night" phenomenon and discuss what is happening from a Buddhist perspective.

The Power of Meditation

Although meditation has been marketed in the West as a kind of relaxation technique, that is actually not what it is in a spiritual context. Buddhists meditate to wake up (see enlightenment). The traditional Buddhist meditation practices are powerful techniques developed over millennia that can reveal to us who we really are and how we are connected to the rest of the cosmos throughout space and time. Stress reduction is just a side effect.

Indeed, as a spiritual practice meditation is sometimes anything but relaxing. The traditional practices have a way of reaching deep into the psyche and bringing dark and painful things about ourselves into awareness. For a person seeking enlightenment this is considered necessary; for someone just trying to de-stress, maybe not.

These deep psychological effects have been well documented for centuries, although the old commentaries may not describe them in terms a western psychologist would recognize. A skilled dharma teacher knows how to guide students through these experiences. Unfortunately, there's still a shortage of skilled dharma teachers in the West.

The Dark Night Project

You can find many articles on the Web about the Dark Night Project, run by a psychology professor named Dr. Willoughby Britton (see, for example, an article on The Atlantic website by Tomas Rocha, "The Dark Knight of the Soul"). Britton runs a kind of refuge for people recovering from bad meditation experiences and is also working to "document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices," the article says.

As a long-time Zen student, there is nothing in this or other articles about the Dark Night Project that particularly surprises me. Indeed, many of the experiences described are common ones Zen teachers explicitly warn about and which in a monastic setting would be recognized and worked through. But through a combination of improper preparation and incompetent or no guidance, people's lives actually were wrecked.

What Can Go Wrong?

First, let's be clear that in a spiritual practice, an unpleasant experience is not necessarily bad, and a blissful one is not necessarily good. My first Zen teacher used to refer to meditative bliss as "the cave of hell," for example because people want to stay there forever and feel let down when the bliss fades. All passing mental states, including bliss, are dukkha.

At the same time, mystics of many religious traditions have described the not-at-all blissful "dark night of the soul" experience and recognized it was a necessary phase of their particular spiritual journey, not something to be avoided.

But sometimes painful meditation experiences are harmful. A lot of damage can be done when people are pushed into deep states of meditative absorption before they are ready for example. In a proper monastic setting, students get one-on-one time with a teacher who knows them and their particular spiritual challenges personally. Meditation practices may be prescribed for the student, like medicine, that is appropriate for his or her stage of development.

Unfortunately, in a lot of western retreat experiences, everyone gets the same instruction with little or no individual guidance. And if everyone is being pushed into having some satori-palooza, ready or not, this is dangerous. Whatever is clanking about in your id needs to be properly processed, and this can take time.

Visions, Pits of Emptiness and Dukkha Nanas

It's also common for meditation to cause hallucinations of all sorts, especially during retreats. In Japanese Zen hallucinations are called makyo, or "devil's cave" -- even if the hallucinations are pretty -- and students are forewarned to not attach importance to them. A student plagued by visions and other sensory misfirings may be making an effort but not focusing correctly.

The "pit of emptiness" is something Zen students fall into occasionally. This is hard to explain, but it is usually described as a one-sided experience of sunyata in which there is just nothing, and the student remains stuck there. Such an experience is considered to be a serious spiritual sickness that must be worked through with great care. This is not something likely to happen to a casual mediator or a beginner student.

A nana is a mental phenomenon. It is also used to mean something like "insight knowledge." The early Pali scriptures describe many "nanas" or insights, pleasant and unpleasant, one passes through on the way to enlightenment. The several "dukkha nanas" are insights into misery, but we can't stop being miserable until we thoroughly understand misery. Passing through a dukkha nana stage is a kind of dark night of the soul.

Particularly if you are recovering from a recent severe trauma or a deep clinical depression, for example, meditation may feel too raw and intense, like rubbing sandpaper on a wound. If that's the case, stop, and take it up again when you're feeling better. Don't push it just because someone else says it's good for you.

I hope this discussion does not deter you from meditating but rather helps you make more sensible meditation choices. I think it's important to maintain a distinction between mindfulness therapy and mindfulness or other meditations as spiritual practice. I don't recommend intensive retreats unless you are prepared to commit to a spiritual practice, for example. Be clear which one you are doing. And if you are working with a teacher or therapist, which is highly recommended, make sure that person is clear which one you are doing also.