Sunday, 4 May 2014

The Dark Night

I've recently come across the concept of "the dark night of the soul", which originates from a poem written by Saint John of the cross in the 16th century. His life story is worth a read, also fascinating is how a drawing of his inspired Dali some 400 years later to create one of his most famous paintings. The poem describes the spiritual crisis that a person must go through to find god, essentially enduring a period of spiritual dryness where there is a sense of detachment and lack of spiritual connection. Saint John of the cross describes two phases in this dark night, first the purification of the senses and second the purification of the spirit. The concept of the dark night has since been adopted outside Christian practice, and has been used metaphorically as a pivotal stage that people go through during their journey to self-discovery.

This idea immediately jumped out to me as it relates to what I have been going through for the last twelve years. After a series of traumatic events, shock and loss, my belief systems and worldview were completely shattered - I was having what one may call an extended existential crisis. (Blog entries written back in the beginning of this journey best illustrate my state back then - links at the bottom.) At some point I came to the realisation that I was not fully conscious, and this led me to Timothy Leary and Gurdjieff and their teachings that humans live in a state of “waking sleep,” like robots. I adopted Gurdjieff's mindfulness technique of self-remembering as well as Steiner’s exercises (in particular the review of the day in reverse). I kept a log of my reactions to these exercises, and I was eventually led to a realisation of the many layers of conditioning that shaped my understanding, my consciousness, my behaviour and my being. The levels of determinism I had discovered was an influx of personal narratives and metanarratives, and a supervenience of cultural, social, memetic, linguistic, neural, sensory, cellular, genetic, chemical, quantum conditioning. I became intensely aware of causality in the form of deterministic chaos, which can be compared to the Buddhist contemplation of dependent origination. What I experienced in the beginning was intense disillusionment and emptiness, but as I progressed this stopped being a negative feeling and became an active, continuous process of dis-illusion, a shedding of illusions or maya. Deconstructing the narratives that defined me, I started seeing patterns within them and discovered their smallest units, the archetypes, which naturally led me to Jung. I related my experience to what he called individuation, the process of finding the self through the integration and awareness of the unconscious parts of the psyche.

In light of the dark night of the soul, I believe that what Saint John of the Cross experienced and many spiritual people thereafter is a form of individuation. Spirituality is the search for the sacred, existentialism is the search for meaning, for Jung it's the search for the self. In effect, being spiritual, looking for god or that higher power is the same as trying to finding your self. People might also refer to finding the god within, or the higher self. Whatever you may call it, it is just label, a linguistic metaphor used to describe a yearning that cannot be put into words. So in order to know your self, is to forget everything you think you know, including your Self. It's spiritual negation, Buddhist self-obliteration, Jungian psychoanalysis, existential crisis.

The way I understand Saint John's clearing of the senses and clearing of the spirit, is the awareness and cleansing from external and internal conditioning. By conditioning I mean the forces that shape our understanding of the world and our self, the ones that determine our identity, personality, behaviour, body and the way we interact with each other in both small and large scales. In Buddhism there is the conditioning of the 6 senses, the 5 skandhas and the 12 nidanas. In Jung's path to individuation there is the persona, the archetype that we externalise and the shadow, the archetype that we internalise. In postmodernism there is the external metanarratives that we are all subject to, and the internal personal narratives that define us. And of course Wittgenstein's language-games and Derrida's deconstruction come to mind. (side note: Madhyamaka Buddhism that extensively deals with these matters has been compared to postmodern philosophy and postmodern science, but more interestingly it shares a common history with Greek philosophy, sharing concepts with stoicism, scepticism and cynicism, as these two philosophies overlapped during the Indo-Greek era). Going back to Jung, there is also the personal and the collective unconscious. In materialist terms there's the human-made external conditioning (culture, technology, language) and the a priori internal conditioning (biology, genetics, physics). What all these different disciplines have in common is a yearning to overcome these forms of conditioning for a greater cause: self-actualization, liberation, nirvana, God, freedom, meaning, truth. And they all lead to the same conclusion: there is no self, no absolute truth, nothing permanent.

So the search for the self and the discovery of its non-existence seems to be a universal concept that appears in very different disciplines and different times. It's the archetypal hero journey, a journey of discovering what was already there, a discovery of what the hero already knew all along. Yet this journey is nothing but futile. The dark night of non-belief, the face off with one's own archetypal shadow, the cleansing from conditioning and narratives; however painful these experiences are, they are necessary for deeper understanding. Reading that there is no self might be appreciated intellectually but it can never be understood until experienced. It is very frightening to even get a glimpse of anatta, yet so incredibly powerful and liberating.

How do you continue living once the never ending process of individuation or the dark night begins? For me the Buddhist idea of the middle way sums it up, it's about finding the middle ground between extremes, between eternalism and nihilism, finite and infinite, existence and non-existence. Perhaps this ‘oscillation’ between extremes could be the new cultural paradigm as postulated in the Metamodernist manifesto. From this aspect, postmodernism could be be thought as the collective or cultural equivalent of the dark night. This oscillation in meaning ensures that there is not one absolute meaning, but a continuous change. This continuous state of in-between can be thought of as the electricity between polarities, constantly being (re)created.

A fantastic article about the dark night offered another important insight: the dark night is a source of immense creativity. I definitely can relate to that, I've never been so creative in my life. It's like the purging of narratives has led to their outpouring, they are flowing out of me expressing themselves through creative outlets. The artist is the archetype of the individuate, an entity that consumes, breathes, deconstructs and reconstructs narratives creating new conceptual and mental connections. And as always, the message is the medium, it's not about which objects have been connected but about the connection itself. Just like the artist creates or facilitates new connections, modes of experience and understanding, so does the philosopher, the thinker, the meditator, the scientist and the mystic.

If creativity is really about this reshuffling and restructuring of reality and knowledge, then a conscious deconstruction, a spiritual or existential crisis, a dark night of the soul, are absolutely necessary for true creativity to occur. Since the yearning for self-discovery and the subsequent journey of the dark night are universal experiences, then the resultant creativity becomes an end in itself. Maybe it's all really an evolutionary process that results in paradigm shifts that drive the evolution of the species towards higher strata of experience, understanding and cultural complexity. Personal and collective paradigm shifts may appear to happen spontaneously, yet the process of self-discovery enables us to become conscious creators of paradigm shifts which can be likened to moments of enlightenment.

Where would we be without the truly seismic insights of Plato, Buddha, Jung, and the many other artist-thinker-gurus that delved into the depths of their own psyche, deconstructing reality itself to enrich and transform the collective consciousness? From the viewpoint of causality and dependent origination, the insights these people offered were part of the deterministic chain, dependent on what came before them. Plato wouldn't have been able to reach his enlightenment hadn't it been for Pythagoras' legacy, and Pythagoras wouldn't have developed his philosophy without the legacy of his ancestors and so on. Yet, it took a conscious effort from their part to deconstruct their beliefs and make their own connections. And here is where the middle way comes into play again, these paradigm shifts occur somewhere between deterministic chaos and free will. Maybe free will is dependent on causality which would negate its free aspect, but since deterministic chaos creates unpredictable outcomes, that makes free will unique to each person, and thus each person is capable of reaching enlightenment. I once thought of enlightenment as a telos, as something absolute that once reached you simply bask under its eternal light. Now I understand that just like individuation, enlightenment is an ever changing process, a constant shift in meaning and discovery, and we as humans both individually and collectively can be its agents. Never standing still, always changing, individuating.

Some key records of my dark night over the last 5 years (it all started in 2002 or arguably since I was born but 2009 marked the beginning of a more conscious period):

2009 Shock - Trauma
Metaphor - Crisis - Ignorance

2010 Qualia - Release - Ontologies
Deconstruction - No-self - Mindfulness - Self-remembering

2011 Causality - Suffering - Detachment

2012 Metanarratives - Big Story - Continuum -
Lifecycles - List of topics

2013 Darkness - No-self