As I understand it, the “dark night of the soul” is a period of blankness, stagnation and suffering that follows upon the mystics’ initial illumination and which, through creating a state of impotency and despair in those who experience it, ultimately paves the way for a more lasting and secure unitive experience. Founded, in part, upon the mystics’ own awareness of his unworthiness and imperfection, the dark night is a period in his or her experience during which the light of illumination is in complete eclipse. EvelynUnderhill refers to it as the “complementary negative consciousness” to the positive pole of mystical enlightenment, an experience that is necessary for the completed transformation of the mystic’s character. The “dark night” is a sort of gloom and depression, yet one that is experienced as having a peculiar philosophical and theological moment. In contrast to those positive religious experiences in which one feels at one with a cosmos filled with meaning, the dark night is a negative mystical experience in which one feels isolated and alienated in a meaningless world. Perhaps one feels doomed by a malevolent power, or experiences a horror at the mere thought of having to bear yet another moment of one’s, and this world’s existence. In such a state, one loses faith, and believes, if one is honest with oneself, that the ideas that there is a God, an objective meaning to existence, or anything of enduring value, are absurd fantasies that one had fooled oneself into accepting as a bulwark against the harsh, naked truth. St. John of the Cross experienced the dark night as an utter abandonment by God, as a withering away of the spiritual world and life, and a consciousness of a profound emptiness. Others have spoken of a spiritual and emotional aridity or indifference, a dulling of the intellect and an utter lack of passion for anything whatsoever.
Some who enter the “dark night” apparently emerge with an even greater conviction of the world’s meaningfulness, of divine beneficence and providence; others are swallowed up by it and (if they emerge at all) emerge as thoroughgoing skeptics and atheists, who comprehend that all meaning is self-created and therefore relative and transitory; while still others come to a recognition that the “All” encompasses both light and darkness, faith and unbelief, mystical ecstasy and unimaginable suffering. Indeed, the “dark night of the soul” can lead to an appreciation of what the 13th century Kabbalist, Azriel, spoke about as the union of all contradictions, including “faith and unbelief” which is the infinite, Ein-sof. Underhill tells us “destruction and construction here go together: the exhaustion and ruin of the illuminated consciousness is the signal for the onward movement of the self towards other centres; the feeling of deprivation and inadequacy which comes from the loss of that consciousness is an indirect stimulus to new growth” (Mysticism, p. 386). She continues by offering that the “dark night…is really a deeply human process, in which the self which thought itself so spiritual, so firmly established upon the supersensual plane, is forced to turn back, to leave the heightd and pick up those qualities which it left behind. Only thus, by the transmutation of the whole man, not by a careful departmental cultivation of that which we like to call his ‘spiritual’ side can Divine Humanity be formed” (Mysticism, p. 388).
In Jewish mystical literature we do not, as far as I can tell, many “confessions” of experiences of the dark night of the soul. However, the notion of darkness as part of the soul’s journey to the absolute is clearly present in (1) the basic symbols of Kabbalistic theology, for example, Ayin—nothingness, Tzimtzum—divine concealment, Shevirah—shattering of all fixed values, experiences and ideas, and Kellipot—the imprisonment of divine soul sparks in the dark world of the “shells”), (2) midrashic and later Chassidic tales (e.g. those of Rabbi Nachman) which symbolically recount the excruciating struggle of the human soul to maintain its faith in divine providence, and (3) rituals (e. afillatapayim—falling on the face) that symbolize the soul’s journey into death as a mean’s of attaining devekut or attachment to God.
The entire Lurianic cosmology suggests that humanity and the finite world in general is distant and alienated from God as the very condition of its existence (Tzimtzum); further humanity’s freedom necessitates a condition in which humankind is fallen into a dark realm in which divine light is further dimmed and even completely obscured (Kellipot). Given these cosmological conditions it is a wonder that the dark night of the soul isn’t a common and even natural spiritual state.
I am aware of a description of the dark night of the soul in Hasidic literature which is discomfiting inasmuch as it has no obvious ‘happy’ resolution. Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Kotzk (1789-1859), the famous “Kotzker rebbe” was said to be completely uncompromising in his quest for faith, honesty and truth. He abhorred indifference and rote piety, and taught his followers that they must renew their quest for faith, self-knowledge and truth on a daily, if not minute to minute basis. For the Kotzker it was the passionate process of reaching for these ideals which is important, and one is deluded if he or she believes in a “final attainment.”
Nineteen years before the Kotzker’s death, on a now infamous Shabbat evening which the Hasidim refer to simply as “that Friday night”, the rebbe experienced something which transformed his own life and those of each of his followers. It seems that the Kotzker had been suffering from intractable headaches and had traveled to Lvov in search of a medical specialist who might afford him some relief. Many different stories have been passed down regarding what occurred that Friday night in Lvov; that the Kotzker blew out the Shabbat candles, that he cast his Kiddush cup to the ground, that he removed his yarmulke and smoked a pipe on Shabbat, and that he declared “there is neither justice nor judge” (Aryeh Kaplan, Chasidic Masters, p. 173). When he returned to Kotzk, Rabbi Menahem Mendel remained secluded for the next nineteen years; leaving his room only once a year for bedikah Chametz (the mandatory search for unleavened bread) on the morning of the eve of Passover.
It would certainly seem that the Kotzker had some sort of mental breakdown; yet Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his account of the Kotzker’s “dark night” says that we simply do not know why the Kotzker had to go to such extreme lengths in his quest for truth. Perhaps there can be no clear boundary between a nervous breakdown and the religious experience of the dark night of the soul.
One possible explanation of, or factor in why the “dark night” is rarely described in Jewish mystical literature may derive from the Jewish admonition to remain joyous in the face of what was indeed centuries of dark nights for the Jewish people. For example, Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1810) who himself suffered immensely obver the loss of his son and wife said “You may fall to the lowest depths, heaven forbid, but no matter how low you have fallen, it is still forbidden to give up hope. Repentance is higher even than the Torah, and there is therefore no place for despair” (Quoted in Kapla, Chassidic masters, p. 110).
Lawrence Fine, in his book on Isaac Luria and his mystical fellowship, points out that the spiritual adept becomes involved in an act of ‘mystical death’ when reciting the prayer “Tachanun” which follows the Shemoneh Esrei (Eighteen Benedictions) in the prayer service. According to the Zohar, when reciting this supllicatory prayer the individual must regard himself “as if he has departed this world, and has separated himself from the Tree of Life and died near the Tree of Death” (Zohar 3: 120b-121a, Fine, p. 240). Fine points out that at this “vulnerable moment” the petitioner is ready to accept the consequences of his sin in death itself. It was customary amongst the mystics to prostrate themselves and appears as if dead when reciting this prayer. Luria interpreted the Zohar’s prescription here as a call for the adept to descend to the lowest depths of the lowest world of Assiyah, the realm of the Sitra Achra(the “Other Side), the Kellipot and evil. Fine also points out that there is an erotic, almost orgasmic, aspect to to this ritual that results in a spiritual depletion akin to death, as once the mystic descends he is enjoined to concentrate upon gathering the “female waters” and divine sparks concealed in this lower realm, facilitating their liberation and ascent by attaching them to his own soul (and thereby aiding in the cosmic reunification of the male and female aspects of God). The adept’s descent into the world of the Kellipot, his sojourn into the realm of death is an act of self-sacrifice that is made in order to rescue and liberate sparks of holiness from evil’s grip (p. 243). Fine points out, however, that in making this descent the adept must be careful to avoid becoming permanently enmeshed in the realm of death and evil. Only the truly righteous should risk engaging in this dangerous ritual. However, according to Moses Yonah, one of Luria’s disciples and expositors, one who successfully completes this ritual is as one who has been created anew after having died and left this world. He achieves a new level of spirituality from which he can resist the temptations of sin and penetrate the mysteries of the Torah. At the same time this ritual facilitates the healing of the cosmos by liberating the divine sparks from their imprisonment in the realm of the Kellipot.
The Hasidim had held that one should not attempt to suppress one’s “strange thoughts” (for example thoughts that one should abandon faith and Torah or engage in illicit sexual relations) but rather should to focus upon them and mentally attach them to their sefirotic point of origin (for example, illicit passion, like all love, originates in the Sefirah Chesed). Some Hasidic masters even held that one should intentionally explore the strange thoughts associated with each sefirah, and find them within oneself in order that they might be sublimated and elevated into the spiritual realm. These early Hasidim, held the world, even its so-called negative aspects, is sacred a, and that all things and all experiences, even those that might induce a “dark night of the soul” are an opportunity for an encounter with God.
Interestingly, David Bakan, in his book, Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition, argues that Freud, by delving into the depths of the unconscious, continued this Kabbalistic/Hasidic tradition of “descent for the purpose of ascent.”
I am in the process of exploring the idea (and experience) that psychoanalysis–broadly conceived-- is (paradoxically) a secular vehicle for achieving the sort of spiritual depths that were available to pre-modern adepts only through piety, meditation, confession and prayer; a vehicle that amongst other things allows one the freedom of unencumbered, even infinite speech and dialog, that assists one in liberating the “sparks” from one’s own psyche, and permits a full, open and meaningful exploration of one’s personal “dark night of the soul,” but I will leave my comments on this theme for another day.