When you feel something uncomfortable, like loneliness, or sadness, or despair, the urge is to cover it up, to buffer it, to numb it, or to soothe it. That urge comes from a conditioned sense that it's bad or at least undesirable to feel emotions that our society has labelled as ‘negative’. For most people, sadness is not seen as a gift, at least not without effort.
But it is. That sadness, or loneliness, is one way that your deepest awareness signals you that your experience of reality is not yet complete. You can feel sad or lonely or empty or experience profound existential angst even when everything’s ‘fine’, and it's actually for a very good reason. There is always suffering in experiencing yourself as somehow separate from the whole, and that suffering is the engine that drives the spiritual life. For many people that suffering is muted, underlying things, pricking at the corners of awareness, rather than front and center. So spiritually speaking, it's absolutely necessary to let yourself feel the acute pain of separation so that you can directly know how much your soul wants union. And only when you've realized that union will you know how deeply that suffering actually infected everything.
Note: the word ‘union’ is of course metaphorical, because in truth you already are one with everything—but you have not truly recognized that seamless unity, because you haven't recognized yourself as you really are.*
Now here I'm talking about existential suffering, the pain of existing as a separate self—but in truth, much of the suffering that we attribute to external causes is actually this basic existential pain being projected outwards. You only have to meet a liberated being to realize that, since such a one can exist in circumstances that others would perceive as dire, yet they are free of circumstantial sorrow. (Of course, there is also a measure of 'natural pain' in life that does not derive from one's misperception of reality. To a liberated being, this pain is intrinsically part of life's beauty.)
In Yoga-sūtra 1.31, we find a list of ‘symptoms’ of the presence of the obstacles to yoga: mental-emotional pain, depression, fidgeting or shakiness, sighing, and irregular breathing. One can treat these symptoms as diagnostic: if you don’t have them, then your path is relatively free of obstacles. However, the presence or absence of these symptoms cannot be properly assessed without doing a couple of experiments. For example, can you sit for meditation and be completely still (literally not moving a muscle, yet relaxed) for 10 full minutes? If not, that indicates you have the symptom of ‘fidgeting’ that indicates a scattered or unfocused heart-mind (citta).
Secondly, and much more importantly, you don’t know to what extent suffering, sadness, or depression is present in your system until you run the experiment of removing self-soothing and mood-modifying behaviors, such as drinking alcohol, smoking cannabis, watching TV, scrolling Facebook or Instagram, eating sugary foods, and so on. These behaviors, especially in the evening and nighttime, are usually covering up mental-emotional pain or loneliness or angst. Try being truly sober (in every sense of the word) for even just 10 days, and you’ll soon get in touch with your real situation. If sadness, loneliness, or angst surface, this is a wonderful outcome, because it shows you how strong your longing to experience yoga (integration and connection to your deepest nature) really is. And now the path can really begin in earnest.
As it is said in the tradition, all longing is really longing to experience the truth, and by the same token, existential loneliness and emptiness is a feedback mechanism by which you see the real pain of your self-imposed state of separation from the whole.
So by not self-soothing, by not covering up the loneliness etc. with ‘buffering behaviors’, you are sharpening your sense of spiritual longing, which naturally results in a stronger dedication to the awakening process and therefore an acceleration of that process. Therefore discontent, sadness, loneliness and angst these are your allies and best friends on the spiritual path, because only they tell you the truth: that nothing will satisfy, nothing will ever truly satisfy, except the profound inner fulfillment, the ineffable joy, the peace that passeth all understanding, that can only come from knowing yourself as you really are, and feeling your limitless nature as it really is—perfectly woven into the fabric of everything in this universe.
Since nothing else will satisfy, isn't better to find that out sooner rather than later? And when you know that, when you really know it, you are finally willing to go into the heart of darkness, face the loneliness, be with the sadness and emptiness, because at the very center of that seeming black hole is a singularity that connects to everything and contains everything. This is the most shocking and most beautiful revelation of the spiritual life, symbolized by the frightening black Goddess Kālī.
The point here is perfectly summed up by the spiritual poet Daniel Ladinsky (if you interpret the penultimate line in a nondual way as I do):
Don't surrender your loneliness too quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you as few human or even divine ingredients can.
For something missing in my heart tonight
Has made my eyes so soft
My voice so tender
My need of God
One of the best ways to encounter the Heart of Darkness is to go on extended silent retreat. But you can actually create your own retreat in the midst of your everyday life, by taking 5, 10, 30, or 40 days and eliminating all self-soothing and buffering behaviors, and encountering all the feelings that arise. A friend of mine named Īśvarī, an extremely brave woman, did this for three months, and was wracked by sobs nearly every night for much of that time. But at the end of it, a huge amount of pain and sorrow, perhaps lifetimes of accumulated pain and sorrow, had released itself through her system, making way for the much greater happiness and joy that she experiences today.
How much low-grade misery are you willing to endure for years or decades rather than face and encounter the Heart of Darkness? That Heart is redemptive. Another brave human, St. John of the Cross, experienced and taught that the moment of our most complete alienation and separation from all that is good and holy—from everything we think we know and trust—is none other than the moment of our redemption. Because only when we are willing to walk through the fires of hell does hell have no power over us.
So the 'dark night of the soul' is not a hard time in your life that you just need to get through; it is your liberation beckoning. Of course, this passage through the Heart of Darkness, this embrace of Mother Kālī, is not to be undertaken by the beginner, because it only works if you pass through that Heart. Coming close then backing off usually leaves you worse off, because the practitioner then fears to ever approach again. In truth, the Heart of Darkness is what’s called a “gateless gate”—forbidding and terrifying from this side of the threshold, and humble, simple, and ‘no big deal’ when looking back from the far side.
What’s the benefit of passing through the Heart of Darkness? Every single person I know who’s done it, whether on the small scale or The Big One, becomes humbler, softer, kinder, more compassionate, and more open.
Here’s what I realized on my penultimate journey through that Heart, in retreat, separated from all my dependencies and self-soothing mechanisms for 28 days (one lunar cycle, full moon to full moon). To paraphrase my realizations at the end of that time:
“There is simply no real benefit to anyone, least of all myself, in staying hard or closed, in defending my ego or my opinion, or in being acknowledged as ‘right’—or any other behavior that reinforces the sense of separation from anyone else. My immature heart-mind craves that acknowledgment, sees relationships as competitions for stronger power positions, and wants to ‘win’ that never-ending battle, to gain the upper hand emotionally and/or intellectually. My frightened and immature heart-mind believes that erecting barriers and defenses (usually justified as ‘boundaries’) is an effective and intelligent way to protect itself.
Finally, now, after years or lifetimes, this immaturity is slowly ripening into maturity, in which it is obvious, increasingly plain as day, that a protected or defended heart is a closed heart, that closing down equals separation, and that separation equals pain and untruth. In my ripening heart-mind, the realization has dawned—‘there's nothing for me in that direction; it's a dead end.’ Simple, plain, sometimes painfully laid open, I encounter the truth that I alone have been the author of all my deepest sorrow.
Now I disarm myself of all my strategies of self-protection, I disarm myself of my subtle techniques of coercion or manipulation, and I see the pointlessness of defending my self-image. So disarmed, I feel helpless, as shaky as a baby deer, and just as tender, just as heart-rendingly beautiful. What painful joy, what raw sweetness in that vulnerability! The glorious feeling of at last entering into the Real! I at last know that the only true fulfillment is immersing in that Ocean, and drowning in it everything I thought I knew or had to do to feel safe.
I realize now there’s only one path to fulfillment—becoming soft, open, and intimate with reality, surrendered to reality, which means surrendered to uncertainty, to the terrifying aliveness of not-knowing. But—being open means feeling the all the pain of painful experiences past and present, and how can I endure that? It's unbearable! Oh yes, I remember—that’s why there are way-stations on this path, whereby I receive the blessed practices that nourish me and strengthen my emotional body until it can withstand the pain that moves through an open heart—and withstand the almost unbearable joy as well. Thank God, thank Goddess for the unfailing support of lineage, those great and supremely compassionate beings that came before us, and who offer us their words and their practices to lean on and draw immeasurable strength from. Could any of us open and stay open without their support? It doesn't have to be lonely grieving of my pain, it can be—and is—more like holding each other and weeping until we're laughing.”
So, dear reader, if you want to be open, soft, surrendered and intimate with the true beauty of life, let your sorrow and joy in so deeply that it breaks you open. If you can't access those feelings, start the conversations with others that bring them up—start the exploration in yourself that brings them up, and stop numbing your feelings with distractions, addictions, and dependencies. If you want to be soft, surrendered, open, pray every day to see the truth that vulnerability is strength and openness is love. Deprive yourself for a time of what you think you need and let your heart start to get what it so deeply longs for—to freely grieve others’ sorrow and your own, to freely celebrate others’ joy and your own, and to throw the doors open and give your blessings to all beings to be exactly as they are, while still upholding what you most value.
~ ~ ~
*To clarify further, that which you really are, not that which you think you are, is already one with everything. Your ego is not one with everything for the simple reason that it doesn’t exist, except as a belief; the belief in separate self which by definition cannot be one because it separates itself.
This post was inspired by conversations on the Forum of my 40-day Awareness Challenge. Registration is now closed, but I hope you join us next year!