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Blessed spiritual anguish

What is the cause, and what the remedy, for spiritual dryness and darkness? I
will be using the term “spiritual dysphoria” or simply “dysphoria” to refer to these
two closely related spiritual/emotional experiences.

Most of the time we are consciously or subconsciously accumulating objects and

experiences which we are tacitly assuring ourselves will protect us from the threat
of meaninglessness. We worry continually, even though we are usually unaware
of it, that our lives might be accurately described as only a “chase after wind”
(Ecclesiastes 1:14). While we are busy accumulating our defenses against this
threat we usually feel fairly good. But we periodically run into nasty glitches that
cause us to question everything we had been counting on to give our lives
meaning and value. Fear of meaninglessness turns into fear of worthlessness.

We find reports of these doubts and the consequent suffering throughout the
literature of mysticism, perhaps most famously in the torments of St. John of the
Cross described by him as “the dark night of the soul.”

How does the mystical adept respond to these angst-filled threats? How is it
that she actually learns to greatly benefit from them?

Many of us who practice mysticism are not surprised to find we cannot

eliminate the threat posed by the possibility of meaninglessness. But what has
astonished some of us is that there is a way to feel quite well, in fact often joyful,
without having to rule out the possibility that life might be a chase after the wind.

Some of us actually look forward to episodes of spiritual dysphoria as a way to

clean out the miserably failed tactics we have repeatedly tried in our vain
attempts to master the fear of meaninglessness. Free of those all but useless
tactics, we become able to find a more effective way to deal with the menace.

It turns out that dysphoria can be a rewarding place to hone our psyches,
preparing them to better receive grace, a grace that brings an increased capacity
to experience the intensity of mystical ecstasy. But first we have to surrender our
desperate attempts to employ rational measures to eliminate the threat posed by

To have an enduring intensity of mystical ecstasy we will do our best work at

the root, not at the flower of the spiritual structure. And even while later
enjoying the flower of ecstasy, we are best to remain aware that paradoxically the
generator of this ecstasy is effective only when it is rooted just a hair’s breadth
away from the threat of meaninglessness.

We work at that foundation quite effectively when we are suffering from

spiritual dysphoria. Why is that? It seems that when we are cleaned out of our
flawed attempts to “save ourselves” we are most likely ready to surrender to a
dynamic that is beyond our control. After our surrender we have nothing to lose
by patiently (and painfully) waiting until something might happen. (However, if
we do lose our patient curiosity as this point, we may start heading for a disaster.)

If we can wait long enough in the aridity of surrender we will see the arrival of a
compelling realization. (This will be characterized as a “God” by some, but the
phenomenon also occurs for faithful atheists. By faithful I mean those who wait
faithfully for the phenomenon to occur.) Surrendering to the power of this
mysterious dynamic has an uncanny effect. What we experience compels us to
realize a sense of self-value which transcends any rational criteria that we had
thought necessary for establishing self-worth. We experience a breathtaking
freedom from any further need to justify our lives. We realize a liberation that
allows us to feel amazingly well for no reason. We had been denied this freedom
when we were trying to establish rational meanings for our existence. Now as a
result of grace, we no longer need a logically constructed meaning with which to
validate our existence.

But not so fast! When we clean out everything that had supported our self-
esteem in the past, instead of breathing the powerful air of freedom and ecstasy,
it is also possible that we might rather end up in a nearly incurable despair. We
might even lose our lives, one way or another, because of this despair.

How do we avoid disaster while we are working unprotected so near the deadly
chasm of meaninglessness?

Three things I can do to avoid disaster:

First of all I can intend to try as long as possible to remain provisionally open to
the possible validity of information which I have received from the others who
have trod this path before me. As I read their reports in the mystical literature I
find out that many of them have had this dreadful experience which I am having.
They report that like me, they found themselves in a position that appeared
completely hopeless. These folks claim that not only did they survive what
appeared to be an impossibly hopeless situation, they also found that the
brutality of that night helped them clean out the last of their feeble tactical
devices for achieving any self-cure. They tell us that they were unable to make
the liberating surrender until they completely gave up their efforts to rationally
achieve self-esteem. And so instead of wasting time merely suffering in this
painful darkness, I will be best to see if I can find any evidence of what they
claimed to have found: is it possible to make a profound surrender without giving
up my life? Is it possible to turn a disaster into a remedy? These mystical
ancestors of mine told me that at the time of the dark night, they felt these things
were surely not possible, but they remained determined to “wait and see.”

Second of all: I can carefully avoid hope. Hope is always something for the
future; it is an attempt to escape from what is happening now. But an attempt to
deny the present reality is exactly one of the flawed and failed tactics that I have
needed to discard. I need to admit that I feel hopeless, and let myself feel it to the
bone. But from that hopeless position I also need to remain curious about those
things I mentioned above in my “first of all.” I need a little faith, but no hope.
Hope will only delay my progress. But I do need enough provisional faith to
consider what I have heard from others, enough to explore the gloom and see
what might arise from my immediate position in hopelessness. I need enough
faith to remain curious.

Thirdly: if there is anyone available who understands spiritual dysphoria it will

be very helpful to talk to them. Not for advice, but for the understanding ear.
Being understood is a miraculous but rarely found support during spiritual
distress. Most people’s attempts at help won’t do you any good. For example,
you don’t need someone to tell you that you are simply a narcissist. You already
know that.

So let’s say you survive the ordeal. What are the benefits? Most importantly
you have found a mystical ecstasy generated from the bottom, not from the top.
You have found it in the gloom of life, not in the joy. The top can be so easily lost.
If your ecstasy had been founded on euphoric experiences it could have been
“easy come, easy go.” But it is now rooted at the bottom, right next to the edge of
hell and the threat of nihilism; it will be almost impossible to shake it there.
When you are at bottom and have found liberation, it is aptly called non-
contingent, because you have found being in love with yourself, and all other
beings, for no rational reason. There is no plausible rationale for the
phenomenon, and so likewise there is now no rationale left to fail you! You are
going to feel euphoric in times of joy, and you are also going to have a compelling
sense of well-being during the sadness of tragedy. You have firmly rooted your
ecstasy in the impoverished soil of complete vulnerability, a place whose
substance is nowhere to be found, and so there can be almost nothing that will
ever be able to take it from you. Blessed it is to be “poor in spirit.”