Dark Nights and Dukkha Nanas

Westerners have been playing with eastern mysticism, and now some of them have had “bad trips” being called “dark nights of the soul.” There’s an article on The Atlantic website by Tomas Rocha, titled “The Dark Knight of the Soul,” about a psychology professor investigating the dark side of meditation. The professor, Dr. Willoughby Britton, is working to “document, analyze, and publicize accounts of the adverse effects of contemplative practices,” the article says.

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However, there’s nothing discussed in the article that would be particularly surprising to any long-time practitioner of Zen, Vipassana or other traditional Buddhist meditation practice. It’s pretty much a catalog of the stuff teachers warn us about, actually. And it’s all been documented and analyzed in commentaries going back more than a couple of millennia now, albeit in language a western psychologist might not understand.

Here’s the trajectory, as I see it: First, people don’t take bhavana seriously. And then they say, hey, there’s something to this; and they rip it out of its religious context and turn it into a self-improvement project. And then it gets popular, which means somebody can make money from it, so people with only a half-assed idea what they are doing set themselves up as experts and instructors and open spiritual retreat centers. And then when people who are not being properly guided start to wash up on the crazy shore, some other westerner assumes nobody has noticed this before and investigates it. Brilliant.

Off the top of my head I can think of a couple of Zen dharma heirs with Ph.D.s in psychology and one, Barry Magid, who has an  M.D. in psychiatry, all of whom speak English and even live in the U.S. So it’s not like people with deep understanding of both the practice tradition and psychology can’t be consulted on this. Oh, well.

Most of the negative experiences seem to be related to people doing intensive meditation retreats being led by people not grounded in a Buddhist tradition, or in which participants receive little or no individual guidance and are being pushed into satori before they are ready.

For example, one of the people interviewed in the Atlantic article appears to have had a strong experience of self falling away on his first retreat — and it doesn’t say what sort of retreat this was — but he was unable to integrate the experience with his day-to-day life, and it tore him apart. This sort of integration is a lot of what traditional monastic life, with its quietness and many forms and rituals, is about. To experience something that intensive and then be dumped back into “normal world” with no follow-up guidance is asking for disaster, yes. This is not news.

This guy did more meditation retreats but apparently did not seek out a dharma teacher for personal, one-on-one guidance about what he was going through, at least for several years. And it’s not clear to me that the people he finally did consult were dharma teachers, either, but whatever. In a monastic setting, his issues would have been recognized and a teacher who knew him personally would have guided him through it.

This is exactly the reason Brad Warner has called out Dennis Merzel on his “big mind” retreats, btw. And I acknowledge it doesn’t help when someone like Merzel, who really was given dharma transmission awhile back, ditches the tradition and sells easy enlightenment to the masses for his own profit. Merzel is making a good living marketing satori-palooza blow-your-mind enlightenment but gives no individual guidance, except maybe to those willing to fork out enough money for it. One poor guy who wrote to Warner about Merzel had been pushed into talking about his spiritual and sexual issues in front of the entire assembly of 250 or so retreat participants instead of privately in dokusan, which is not how it’s supposed to be done.

Another person interviewed in the Atlantic article had hallucinations. This is common, especially on long retreats. Usually this doesn’t mean anything; it’s just your nervous system mis-firing. In a Zen setting if a student begins to hallucinate during meditation and tells the teacher about it, the teacher will most likely show the student how to adjust his practice so that the hallucinations stop. But the guy in the article got no help and just freaked out.

The traditional Buddhist meditation practices are not to be messed around with by amateurs. They are powerful means intended to, among other things, deconstruct the way we are conditioned to perceive and understand ourselves and reality. They are not primarily intended to help one de-stress or relax; releasing stress is more of a side effect. In a traditional setting, a student works with a teacher who knows him personally, and the teacher will prescribe to the student what he is to do in his meditation, based on that student’s individual development. Even within the same monastery or dharma center, students in different stages of their spiritual development usually will not all be meditating in the same way, although of course you wouldn’t know that by looking at them.

Yes, meditation can occasionally be blissful, and it can occasionally be disturbing, but one is not “good” and the other “bad.” They are what they are; it’s what you do (or don’t do) with those experiences that matters, and that’s where working personally with a skilled teacher is essential.

The traditional meditation practices have a way of reaching into your psyche to find ugly and deeply buried stuff you didn’t know were there. This is a feature, not a bug; dealing with your personal negative baggage is part of the “process,” so to speak. I mention “dukkha nanas” in the title of the post. “Dukkha nana” roughly means “insight into what makes you miserable.” In advanced Vipassana, I am told, a student looks deeply into his own misery in order to gain insight, and this is not for the faint of heart. But a student would not do this without first building a strong foundation of practice and spiritual maturity.

Just taking something like mindfulness out of its context as part of the Eightfold Path is a bit problematic. I don’t doubt mindfulness by itself has therapeutic value, and I’m happy if mindfulness therapy helps people. But mindfulness without context, or with a self-centered context, could just as easily reinforce negative qualities as positive ones. It should be applied with some caution, and it isn’t always.

See also “Buddhist Meditation and the Dark Night” at About.com Buddhism.

5 thoughts on “Dark Nights and Dukkha Nanas

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  2. n. yeti

    One comment: it was St. John of the Cross who coined the phrase “dark night of the soul”. I’ve been hearing more of this phrase lately and at each retelling, it seems (to me at least) to get further away from its original context within (Christian) mysticism. In short I think people are getting it very mixed up; what I understand is meant, is that worldly despair can frequently lead to spiritual breakthroughs, which is an encouraging and uplifting perspective on perseverance.

    Somehow this seems to have gotten mixed up with the entanglements of Mara oft experienced during dhyana practice. The mystical import of the dark night, for me at least, is that at moments of despair the worldling has an opportunity to perceive the stream of phenomena which arise from ignorance. This might well happen in the context of meditation, but it does not seem that St. John of the Cross was pointing to meditation as the cause of the soul’s dark night, but rather (in Buddhist terms) the dukkha or insatisfaction of conditioned existence.

    Anecdotally, many have experienced breakthroughs at moments of crisis because, in my opinion, it is precisely in these moments it is easier to renounce. Again this is not to say this cannot happen in meditation, because of course it can and does, but merely an observation to not put the cart before the horse so to speak. At the very least I hope this interest appearing in the dark night lately might encourage people to actually study the writings of St. John of the Cross and determine for themselves what is meant, rather than relying on (secular) media or some bozo with guru chops to explain it for them.

    1. Barbara Post author

      I guess I forgot to mention Saint John of the Cross in this post, but I did bring it up in the companion article at About.com. There’s a lot of fascinating stuff in Christian mysticism that most Buddhists can relate to, which is something I brought up in my book, and I hope to encourage Christians to climb out of the “faith equals belief” rabbit hole and rediscover mysticism. I did point out that it’s a mistake to think of blissful experiences as “good” and disturbing ones “bad,” and I would say the opposite is true.

      1. n. yeti

        All true, and good on you for raising the issue in a thoughtful manner. For what it’s worth, Christianity has had an uneasy time with its mystics. I wonder too in this age of rational materialism if many Buddhists (especially ordained ones, such as one luminary mentioned above) have forgotten that Siddhartha was a mystic, and that he did not teach psychology or material phenomenology, nor did he ever couch his timeless dharma in such terms as “mere mythic symbols” or “literary license”; my point here being that the language of mysticism is by nature mythical, but it is a great and unfortunate leap to conclude Buddhism can be reduced to rational materialism. When Buddha said “Brahma” I think he was actually talking about Brahma, not a mythic catch phrase to be disregarded as silly nonsense, and his admonition for example in the Brahmajala sutra about beliefs is that certain topics are very difficult to understand. Thus if it is facile to go blindly believing in nagas, it is just as facile to blindly sweep such things away as mere “narrative myth”. Although the latter might ring true to the western materialist, Buddha was not a Western materialist.

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