Myss | May 1 2012
I recently wrote a small piece on prayer for a particular CMED group of students. I send out a prayer each month to these students as part of their work with their Fate to Destiny Sacred Contracts class. As I was searching through my literature on prayer, I reviewed some of the writings of Thomas Aquinas, the renowned and rather old world Catholic theologian. One has to sift through his writings to find his wisdom as it’s hidden, but it’s still there. I selected only a slight passage – not much – in which Aquinas notes that prayer is made more powerful by a person’s clarity of heart and mind and secondly, by living in accordance with what you are praying for. That is, your life choices and lifestyle need to be congruent with your prayers rather than counterproductive. Prayers will not compensate for foolish life choices, particularly conscious foolish life choices. You cannot pray for health and then poison yourself with the wrong foods, in other words.
The response to this teaching was astounding, given how brief it was. The outpouring of positive comments by people especially surprised me given that the source of this teaching is Aquinas. It’s not that I think Aquinas is such a bad guy, but he’s not on the top ten list of popularly read authors these days.
But one who is far more current though just as much a “blast from the past” is John of the Cross, the wondrous Spanish Carmelite priest who was St. Teresa of Avila’s spiritual advisor. He is not remembered so much for that as he is for having authored his immortal work, The Dark Night of the Soul. The expression alone, “I am in a dark night,” has become a part of our common parlance, though many who use that phrase are unfamiliar with its origins.
More often than not, people associate the “dark night” with an emotional or psychological crisis when it is primarily a mystical journey that ignites identical dark inner sufferings. The difference between a mystical or spiritual crisis and emotional/psychological crises, however, is specific and significant and is defined in the stages articulated in the magnificent text of The Dark Night of the Soul.
The writings of mystical theologians are intellectual jewels, not just because they articulate the feather-like fine lines that exist between the consciousness of our soul and our psychological theater, but because they speak about the type of inner communication that needs to be given its own vocabulary – other than the type provided by our “reasoning intellect.” Said differently, our intellectual makeup is such that we are primed to identify all feelings, sensations, and states of being in accordance with what is reasonable and with what aligns us to a state of “sanity.” Deviations from any of those “acceptable” behaviors becomes, “by definition” grounds for socially acceptable labeling such as: schizophrenia, bi-polar, chronic depression, prone to hallucinations – you get the picture.
Mystical consciousness and the parameters of what qualifies as “active and acceptable” experiences within the mystic’s psyche are quantifiably different than the well-guarded realm of the reason-based intellect. The operative word in that sentence is “experiences,” which implies that the mystic is one whose primary center of gravity and thus “sight” is an interior one supported by the intellect and its reasoning skills. Said differently, knowledge gleaned from inner perception and intuitive sensing holds more authority than what the physical eye can see, or what is said. In Zen, a parallel teaching is, “First thought, best thought”; Your intuitive senses provide you an immediate report of all that you need to know in the moment – if you are alert enough to trust and interpret such data.
Even though John of the Cross did not write in our contemporary psycho-babble vocabulary, he knew of what he wrote and he knew it perfectly. He recognized the many tricks the intellect plays on itself, especially an ego-driven one, and how such an intellect forms a mental portrait of an off-planet God that is essentially nothing more than a problem-solver and an employer who provides one with high income occupations and, when necessary, an emergency room technician with advanced healing skills.
Aside from those roles, the off-planet God keeps a good distance away, honoring the unwritten law that promises, “So long as I am good, bad things won’t happen to me.” The problem with that last bit is that we always think we’re good, right? I mean we might have occasional twinges of guilt here and there, but do we really pause to wonder if we are taking advantage of people? Or if we are truly fair minded?
John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila had “spiritual night vision.” They grasped the game the ego played in the intellect, especially when it came to how the ego needed to design its own God for the sake of retaining its own comfort zone. But their genius truly shined when it came to discerning the multiple lines of communication in the realm of the soul, where the ego and intellect are banned. In fact, they are crushed in this dimension from lack of oxygen and power, which is why the ego-driven human being so fears entry into mystical consciousness.
But enter you do, like it or not.
The Nature Of Dark Guidance
We associate spirituality with Light. We speak and write about following our inner Light. Light is the metaphor for God and Light is the name we have given to the consciousness of the afterlife (aka, death). We are comfortable in “lightness.” The dark and all things associated with darkness signals terror, horror movies, bad dreams, and demonic forces. Nothing good comes out of the darkness – ever. And that’s just the way it is. Period.
John of the Cross, however, discovered a way to articulate a type of “divine code” hidden within that state of inner darkness that expresses itself as depression, fear, endless anxiety, panic, loss, night terrors, and absolute abandonment. He found his way through these “states of consciousness” because he found his way into them. His own life circumstances led him to be kidnapped, imprisoned, and tortured. He believed he was following God’s plan for his life and when it resulted in such a wretched situation, he plummeted into a shattering despair. Only he realized he was experiencing more than ordinary despair. In the depths of his darkest fears and abandonment, he understood that “darkness” was its own Divine language.
The ego panics in darkness because it is a “righteous” and self-centered instrument that responds to “right and wrong, good and bad.” Those are the polarities through which your ego has set up your world and it can hardly function when taken outside those polarities. If you are right, someone has to be wrong. If you are wrong (which I’m sure rarely happens), then someone (and it’s usually only ONE because we reduce all answers to ONE) has to be right. If you are good, then someone has to be bad. Good cop, bad cop. The ego in you likes things clear, simple, and structured in opposing forces at all times. Thus, You have no choice but to always function opposing something or someone because your mind is “mechanically” set up to function that way. Light is good; darkness is bad.
But what if darkness was not “bad?” What if inner darkness was simply “essential?”
John of the Cross calls guidance in darkness, “Idealess knowledge”; that is, dark knowledge. Empty knowledge. It is “knowledge without intellectual content.” How’s that for a mind bender? (How many of you are cross-eyed right now?) John of the Cross describes dark knowledge as a “ray of darkness, a bright ray of His secret wisdom, a divine and dark spiritual light, a wisdom so simple, general and spiritual, a knowing far beyond all limited, finite details and concreteness. These paradoxes are crowned by a supreme one – knowing by unknowing.”
Now, let’s discuss a few key points. First of all, John of the Cross is describing a mystical state of consciousness and not the ultimate intellectual one. So no head scratching allowed here. Mystical consciousness is a parallel reality to the manner in which our intellect functions. “Secret wisdom, a divine and dark spiritual light” hints at John’s having experienced a complete liberation from the fear-driven consciousness that the intellect holds you in. Your intellect and its many fear patterns is the true source of inner darkness, not God.
John of the Cross’ idea of becoming “idealess” is identical to Buddha’s teaching of piercing through your illusions. Darkness is not despair or a punishment, but an invitation to withdraw from thoughts, ideas, beliefs, and inner patterns that are dead in you. Panic erupts because you are seeking Light. You are seeking conscious, intellectual, clear, and reasonable guidance that makes you feel safe. You are looking for signs that say, “Go this way and do that.”
If you would cease looking for what you will never find in darkness and cooperate with “dark guidance,” the darkness would no longer feel as threatening. But to be realistic, going through a dark night or trying to understand “dark guidance” is frightening and confusing because we are rational creatures. We have not grown up educated to be mystics and to “speak intuition” fluently or to pray into the depths of our souls. Most people are completely confused when it comes to prayer and cannot sit still for a silent moment, much less for a ten minute meditation. So I get how challenging this premise is.
Yet, the teachings of John of the Cross are more relevant than ever, precisely because we have entered into the realm of the psyche and the soul though without the spiritual guidance that these wise mystics knew was so necessary. You need to know how to interpret your own inner states of consciousness. You need to have a far more fluent inner vocabulary or you will carelessly identify a spiritual crisis as a psychological one and – God forbid – turning to medication as a way of silencing a part of you that is longing to emerge.
Unknowing, listening for “dark knowledge – that is, unlistening” is a new form of practice for all of you. It’s a new vocabulary, so we are going to start out with small steps as an exercise. I would welcome your feedback; if you would like another Salon on this subject, I will gladly do that.
Exercises for Dark Listening
- Enter into silence and emptiness
- Enter into dark space – loneliness, fear
- Do not fill that place with mental distractions
- Do not keep “observing/wondering/looking”
- Do not look for answers
- Repeat as you breathe, “God is present”
Go into this devotion once a day.
From John of the Cross (kindred spirit of the Buddha)
To reach satisfaction in all
Desire its possession in nothing.
To come to possess all
Desire the possession of nothing.
To arrive at being all
Desire to be nothing.
For to go from all to the all
You must deny yourself of all in all.
In this nakedness the spirit finds its quietude and rest.