November 13, 2011

The Dark Night

The Dark Night (difficulty integrating the experience of no self) is currently being widely discussed and debated within the Buddhist community. Here’s some thoughts on the issue prompted by a student’s question. All these postings are with the student’s permission. If you and I have had an email exchange that you would like to see posted here, let me know.

On Wed, Aug 17, 2011 at 6:03 PM, Andrew wrote:

Hey Shinzen,
Hope all is well! I hear you gave an awesome presentation at the Buddhist geeks conference so I'm looking forward to all the footage from that. I just had two questions to run by you. I have been spending some time over at dharma overground reading about their experiences and the four paths model of enlightenment but part of me is getting cautious regarding practice because they imply that dark night is an inevitability for any meditator. In your experience is this true and if so what exactly is dark night and does it make negative emotions etc worse? I can't seem to find any concrete definition that everyone uses. Since one of the primary drives for my practice is getting a handle on mind-body states and improving them I have been a bit confused and put off by the idea that practice could make them more out of control and difficult to deal with. I am obviously still practicing and staying disciplined but I just want to reassure that part of me that is afraid to dive in head first at the moment that this leads to a better place (even though I know it does haha). I want to kick start that enthusiasm again which was so strong a fortnight ago!

Also just a question about the interview you had with Buddhist geeks a few years ago. You mentioned that you are building intelligent software that basically simulates an intricate tailored meditation with you, very exciting! Any more on that project? How is that coming along?

Ok, thanks again for you.


 On Mon, Aug 22, 2011 at 10:20 AM, Shinzen Young wrote:

Hi Andrew,

Part of the problem, as you imply, lies in how one chooses to define a "Dark Night" experience. Although I like the term and believe it has some utility, I also sense that its current prevalence in Buddhist dialogue is a mixed blessing. Whenever one uses this term, one should be aware of two things: 

(1) Historically it is not a term from the Buddhist meditative tradition but rather from the Roman Catholic meditative tradition. (Of course, there's nothing wrong with using Christian terms for Buddhist experiences but...)

(2) One must clearly define what one means by a "Dark Night" within the context of Buddhist experience.

It is certainly the case that almost everyone who gets anywhere with meditation will pass through periods of negative emotion, confusion, disorientation, and heightened sensitivity to internal and external arisings. It is also not uncommon that at some point, within some domain of experience, for some duration of time, things may get worse before they get better. The same thing can happen in psychotherapy and other growth modalities. For the great majority of people, the nature, intensity, and duration of these kinds of challenges is quite manageable. I would not refer to these types of experiences as "Dark Night." 

I would reserve the term for a somewhat rarer phenomenon.  This phenomenon, within the Buddhist tradition, is sometimes referred to as "falling into the Pit of the Void." It entails an authentic and irreversible insight into Emptiness and No Self.  What makes it problematic is that the person interprets it as a bad trip. Instead of being empowering and fulfilling, the way Buddhist literature claims it will be, it turns into the opposite. In a sense, it's Enlightenment's Evil Twin.  This is serious but still manageable through intensive, perhaps daily, guidance under a competent teacher. In some cases it takes months or even years to fully metabolize, but in my experience the results are almost always highly positive. For details, see The Five Ways manual pages 97-98.

This whole Dark Night discussion reminds me of a certain Zen Koan. Although the storyline of this koan is obviously contrived, it does contain a deep message. Here's how the koan goes: A monk is walking on a precipitous path and slips but is able to grab onto a branch by his teeth. A person standing below, recognizing the monk as an enlightened master, asks him to describe Enlightenment. What should the monk do? As a teacher, he's duty bound to speak, but as soon as he speaks, the consequences will be dire. It sounds like a lose/lose situation. If you were the monk, what would you do? That's the koan.

If we don't describe the possibility of Dark Night, then we leave people without a context should it occur. On the other hand, if we do discuss it, people get scared and assume it's going to happen to them, even if we point out (as I just did), that it's relatively infrequent. So the take-home message is:

1. Don't worry, it's probably not going to happen to you.
2. Even if it does, that's not necessarily a problem.

It may require input from a teacher and time but once it's integrated, you'll be a very, very happy camper. 

I think it would be a good thing if people lighten up around this issue. This may help (see attached cartoon).

The program that you asked about is coming along very nicely. 

All the best,

On Tue, Oct 11, 2011 at 9:30 PM, Andrew wrote:

Hey Shinzen,

Hope all is well! Just a question regarding the dark night issue we spoke about recently. I heard an interview with Dan Ingram on Buddhist geeks and from what I gathered he paints what seems to be quite a dark image of enlightenment actually and as something that most people only pursue if they have to after passing the A&P stage.
He even said that he himself still lives his life in so-called dark night and has these cycles every day of A&P, dark night, equanimity etc and that anyone like him does too. And that he's an Arhant!? Do you think he means the same thing as what you call the pit of the void because the whole point is to be happy right? He claims that everyone who at least follows the dry insight path will experience this. I'm just trying to clarify how everyone's different use of terms coincides. Some teachers seem to portray enlightenment as something really worth pursuing and others almost seem not to! I heard Upasaka Culadasa talking about how the 4 path model is quite a brutal way to get the results and can really mess people up compared to other paths, particularly ones which emphasize shamatha first as the grounds for developing sufficient joy and equanimity before insight. I guess different approaches suit different personalities but is there a more user-friendly method than say the dry insight one?
Forgive my confusion, as you know the way teachings are presented these days are so numerous it can be overwhelming. Naturally I want to read about and understand meditation very deeply as my experience and understanding grows plus it's just absolutely fascinating but it's also easy to run into confusion and even doubt which can halt my super enthusiasm.
Cheers Shinzen,
All the best :)

On Wed, Oct 12, 2011 at 3:12 PM, Shinzen Young wrote:

Hi Andrew,

I sympathize with your confusion. At this point, there is no scientifically-developed, universally-agreed-upon description regarding how people evolve over a lifetime of practice. I am confident that through open dialogue among teachers, practitioners, and scientists, such a map will be developed over the next century or so. But what to do until then? My main suggestion would be to lower your expectation regarding understanding who's right and how things really work, and just put a lot of time and effort into your own practice.  Of course, I realize the Catch-22: How can I put time and effort into practice until I know what the "right practice" or "best practice" is? This may not be of much help but in my not very humble opinion all current systems of enlightenment are roughly equally sub-optimal. This, of course, includes all of my own innovations. Both Daniel and Culadasa are right. Daniel is right because being enlightened is being totally dead. And Culadasa is right because being enlightened is being totally alive. It's both at the same time. It is absolute devastation AND absolute empowerment. 

Because of the (justifiably) negative language used by some teachers, students like yourself might get the impression that enlightenment isn't any fun. So here's the take-away message: If I was given the choice of living one more day experiencing life the way I experience it, or living 20 more years as a wealthy, healthy, celebrity sexual athlete, beloved by everyone but not experiencing what I experience (vis a vis enlightenment), the decision would be a no-brainer--I'll take the one day of enlightened living. IT'S THAT GOOD, DUDE.

All the best,

Finally, here are some video resources on The Dark Night on my Expand-Contract YouTube Channel, created by (and thanks to!) Har-Prakash Khalsa:

Enlightenment, DP/DR & Falling Into the Pit of the Void


  1. Thank you, great post. I've been thinking about this lately as well and the take-away message helps. It can be a bit difficult navigating all the different maps, methods and intepretations of people's experiences.
    I try to keep my reading to a minimum and just do the practice.

  2. This article was posted on a forum for meditation, and the thumbnail of the comic was part of the link. One comment there was:

    "Even though I subscribe and do enjoy the Meditation subreddit, I must admit I clicked on this link thinking something cool about Batman would be here. Great article though!"

    It must be hard to compete with Batman. I think Shinzen does an excellent job. Thanks.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. Whoops... need to edit before I post anything.

    Shinzen, all very relevant to what is going on in my own personal life. I find that it is easier to just ignore all the confusion in me and keep on going.

    I find that my mind wants to focus on learning all the teachings. This i feel will not bring me any enlightenment, but just more fodder for my monkey mind.

    I have to focus more on my practice. I wish University wasn't so demanding. I need to sit both in the morning and at night instead of focusing on other distractions. This is my takeaway from your writing.

    See you next monday.
    Peace and Love,

  5. Daniel Ingram's current teaching style strikes me as unwise. He really puts a lot of emphasis on how badly what he refers to as the Dark Night "can really fuck your life up", and even goes as far as to encourage people to NOT get into meditation since he considers the fear / misery / disgust / desire for deliverance (Theravadin map) to be inevitable stages that a person dabbling in mindfulness practice will fall into and remain in for the rest of their lives even if they never meditate again!

    I saw him give a talk at Brown, which he spent the majority of expounding his rather extreme views (suicide bombers are people who have played around with meditation and fallen into an inescapable Dark Night scenario).

    Perhaps this is a case of "today's enlightenment is tomorrow's mistake"?

  6. To clarify my comment: Daniel didn't say that the Dark Night is permanent for everyone; only for those who don't buckle down and get stream entry.

  7. Yeah, it's quite difficult to keep up a motivation when there are so many teachers advocating the benefits of meditation but then a couple that point out and emphasize the thornier aspects of the path. Teachers like Shinzen, Goenka, Jack Kornfield, Thich Nhat Hanh put up a huge case for the benefits of mindfulness practice which serves as a strong incentive to get deeply into it so when such opposing views about exactly the same practice are expressed one has to wonder what to use as a guide for practice. I mean the stated goal by those teachers above is Human Happiness, it's Shinzen's specific reason to meditate. I'd like to see these two apparently opposing attitudes to mindfulness discussed more and clarified.

  8. Andrew, I'm with you on the confusion thingy!

    My feeling is the two views cannot be resolved, but just noted and held as "tension", "fear", "hope", etc.

    That tension then becomes my guide for practice, really, IS my practice.

    I really appreciate this being talked about, thank you Shinzen and Andrew.

    "Perhaps better not to being. Once begun, better to finish."


  9. I appreciate Daniel's dark, zesty enthusiasm for its atypical tone and intellectual furor.
    My initial influences on the meditative path were people like Alan Watts - who thankfully imprinted me with more of a fun, experimental, open-ended edge in my approach to my practice right from the get-go.
    People like Daniel Ingram SEEM to radically contrast this (though I have to say he has a cracking sense of humour sometimes), and I REALLY appreciate this.
    Daniel's hard-ass gunz-blazing commando attitude was probably the main inspiration for me deciding to head to Malaysia for a one-month intensive retreat, something i probably would have taken a couple more years to get around to if his 'dark vibrancy' hadn't shocked me into action.

    I often notice a tendency for people to take the 'Enlightened Masters' words as solid gold, and that they somehow have an absolutely perfect map of the universe and truth.
    It makes more sense to me that they all share facets of Deeper Truths, but these are usually communicated through the relativistic medium of language - different words mean different things to different people in different states-of-consciousness in different times and places.

    Hence the value, perhaps, in slight cognitive dissonance brought about by 'varying' view-points amongst different teachers, who know's who's really truly 'right'? Whenever I experience this, I smile and take it as a reminder that the map is not the territory, and to explore the territory and come to understand it, genuinely, there's one thing for it -

  10. Hi Shinzen,
    I cant believe i found this. I have been going through this for four years now and have searched and searched and investigated about it both on and off the cushion. I was particularly struck but how you call it "enlightenment's evil twin" because i would name it (for myself and few others that i shared it with) an "anti-awakening", haha!
    i've wrote an email to vsi. how should i contact you? i would really really want to start working on this with you.
    thank you so, so much for sharing this!

  11. I first came across the long, dark night of the soul in Piers Anthony novels, and the novel seems an excellent form for an explanation.
    Doesn't everyone have such an experience, once at least? Massive learning/growth opportunity, on whatever scale, isn't it?

  12. Shinzen, this happened to me in 1986.

  13. I think its important to know about the Dark Night, as one will inevitably experience some of it to some degree, and knowing what it is, is a great help on the path.

  14. Thanks for these insights Shinzen and others. I would like to add that I believe the Dark Night in Christianity involves, perhaps centrally, a serious loss of "faith" (or doubt) as a stage one can progress through along the path. In Buddhist terms we can see this as letting go/dissolution of some part of ego/self, or an attachment to some interpretation of the path as one has constructed it. In more mythical traditions it may be a dissolution of one's conventional beliefs. It has a different aspect from a more (post-) modern perspective where belief and faith are not based on given authorities. --tm

  15. That's the Grand Canyon - now jump in. Well, if I ever got as far as the edge of the Grand Canyon I would sit on the side until I was absolutely sure that jumping in would not be too scary for me. And I would not appear a bit unusual from the outside. Now and again I get the feeling the car is still moving after I put the handbrake on - could be my sinus though, apart from that nothing bad so far. Driving in an enlightened state looks like fun!!!

  16. Is it possible that a child of around nine years of age could have this experience without meaning to?

    1. I would imagine that that could happen in theory although I haven't had any experience with this issue in someone that young. Since DP/DR is a recognized psychiatric diagnosis, you might post that question to a mental health professional who specializes in either children or DP/DR.
      Best of luck,

    2. I came to your blog completly by accident and I'm glad for your reply to an above comment because that's what happen to me when from ages 8 to 12. Like Chung-Tzu butterfly alot of time I felt like I was a viewer in someone's life, through NLP exercises (sometimes very similar to meditation) I come to realise the despair I felt in my adulthood had its origin in my depressively unhappy childhood but before I realised this I went through a period of suicidial self-doubting that was very similar to your 'dark night'. Like you I was glad I pushed on but if a person has mental health issue it becomes a very dangerous exercise even though the eventual pay-off might be huge.

      Btw what do you make of the works of the Jungian Robert Moore?

  17. I would like to talk with people about this. I've been living in the void(s) for 15 years. I understand it well and proficiently. The insight into reality that has developed in patches, over the years has woven itself together and come into a cosmology that describes the How what we think of as existence came from nonexistence to pre-existence even in detail about how and why the first space (which is form,) and the first form (which is space within space) came into being. The general structure and development of awareness which is born in emptiness, also the truth of the middle-way and the Buddha nature.

    I have been experiencing various states of selflessness, and egolessness, and identitylessness in trace type states. I have experienced the void emptiness the voids in states of reverie, trance and dreams that were exactly like waking conscious, and audibly the experience of hearing and feeling the vacuity of void. I have died, breath ceasing and heart stopping understand the horrendous fate that befalls so many, practicly all will suffer in this place until its finished and it is more so this place that Buddha came to rescue us from. I have experienced all this which can not be expressed in this space.I In trance states before I began zazen, I experienced states of deep meditation and gained insight into the entrance of Nirvana, a fate that few could possably be able to do except for the odd saint only arising every couple milenia. I have insight as a result that fortifies the Buddhas teaching while explaining and bring its fullnness into brighter light, insight that expands the understanding of the teaching, reveals the true middle-way and exposes the ultra-mundane truth about emptiness and its mutual arising.. These insights which came to me from nowhere were each llike an island in the sea. as the water drops exposing one large landmass, so have these insights over time become a multi-universal cosmology that explains the nature born in non-existence and brought forth existence even describing the first formation of space, which is form ant the first formation of form which is space within space, and how and why it and what we are come to be. This stuff has been very hard for me to handle but is becoming more and more clear. I would like to talk to people, to help and be helped so I can help more. I am a farmer, not a Buddhist, but I have experienced the passing from life to death and know the secret and character of Samsara. I know the challenge of crossing the stream to the other shore. I am and it's children the void(s), their intra-activity and their off spring which only exist in principle. I understand how existence is not, yet is, how it comes to be while remaing not I do not mean to sound arrogant about this or mysterious beyond need; this understanding is a burden that I have bee the only one having the understanding. The gaining was not asked for and has even been traumatic, and the result has been isolation and a becoming a social being yet unsocialized alone in all of this, separate even from Buddhism because I have what it lacks, and it lacks what I have. I would like to contact others or talk and help

    1. I'm with you brother, I just fell into it and am crawling back out. There's two references I have, 'winnie the Pooh' and a book called the Tao of Pooh. If it helps :-)

  18. Is this all a joke ? evil twin ?...dark nights ?

    doesn't like like someone who has found the Void..

    sounds like someone is still trying to fill the Void...

    ...with chitter-chatter and intellectual mumbo jumbo

    I can't believe 'enlightened people' publish this stuff..

  19. Thank you for your work in this area, Shinzen.

    I attended a funeral yesterday for a long time student at our yoga studio. She hung herself.

    She was a quiet but consistent presence who was always courteous and polite but rarely spoke to me beyond a hello. She sometimes came to class with her ten year old daughter and had periodically appeared in the few yoga classes that I teach but never attended a meditation class which is what I do. I am a meditation teacher as you know if you recall our prior discussion on the role of The Good in a spiritual path. She took a yoga class with us on Sunday morning and hung herself on Monday leaving her dead body for her husband of twenty plus years and her 9 year old daughter to discover upon their return home.

    My wife and I attended her funeral and were floored to see two hundred people filling the pews at the church. It turned out that she was a member of what actually appears to be a loving and supportive East Coast Brahmin family. She was a highly regarded English scholar with a PhD in the subject, a master teacher, and, most importantly, a highly engaged Mindfulness meditator and sometime teacher in the Buddhist tradition. I was blown away.

    Then I became horrified as I realized that the depression the family and friends were describing in their homilies to her life had all of the hallmarks of a Dark Night experience. Then I became all the more horrified knowing that I saw her frequently and, had she reached out, I may have had the understanding and the tools to, perhaps, help her. I am despondent.

    My meditation teaching is highly provocative and challenging to many of the types of people who may be inclined to find their way to a Mindfulness practice. The students who respond best to my work are those who know nothing about meditation at all when they show up in my room. They are able to track the teaching and implement it with ease. As much as ease as any meditation practice can be implemented with, I suppose. Experienced practitioners are challenged deeply and only a few have had the stamina to persevere as I guide them back to the basics that most of their training and teaching has led them away from. The payoff for making it through and doing what I say is real, sometimes radical, life change. I help people become "wealthy, healthy, celebrity sexual athletes, beloved by everyone". For why not? It beats the hell out of being a depressed asshole on your way to Enlightenment, right?

    Then I carefully watch each student for signs of Enlightenment breaking out. Then I attempt to help when those arise.

    Your willingness to speak about the Dark Night and to offer a simple and clear methodology for handling it is powerful. I am grateful.

  20. I'm so glad I found this post! I would love to learn more about the critique of the 4-path Theravada model as being "quite a brutal way to get the results and can really mess people up compared to other paths." Does anyone have any resources or links about this? Maybe the Upasaka Culadasa talk mentioned in the post? Thanks!

  21. Hi there! Great article you have, I would also want to share my thoughts that Meditation indeed has positive effects not only in the body but also in the mind, a total holistic wellness that brings us to know our inner-self better. It gives us a peace of mind that helps us have a much better perception about our lives.
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  22. I grew up in a religious cult, after took took phychodelics on my path and then practised mindfulness.
    I am free now. Who's sane?


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