The Sweat Lodge: Ancient Shamanism in the Modern Age

The Sweat Lodge: Ancient Shamanism in the Modern Age

Not long ago I had the chance to participate in my first sweat lodge. I thought it might be useful to set down my impressions of the experience, for others who have never undergone it but who are curious as to what is involved, or may be thinking about undertaking the ordeal for themselves.

The sweat lodge is an ancient part of shamanism that is widespread around the world in various forms. It was the ritualized spiritual custom for many of the native peoples of North America. A modern secular derivative of the practice is the Scandinavian sauna. In the sweat lodge the body is subjected to prolonged exposure to high-temperature steam. This causes abundant perspiration, hence the name.

The lodge in which I participated was overseen by a group of shamans in my part of Eastern Canada, among them some of the Mi’kmaq tribe, which is the Indian tribe native to the province of Nova Scotia, and to other areas of the north-eastern part of North America, such as New Brunswick and northern Maine.

Preliminaries

Prior to undergoing the sweat lodge, I had no first-hand knowledge of what it would involve, and did not know what to bring with me. I wondered if I would have to be naked in the lodge during the ceremony. Not to worry, everyone wore clothing of some sort. I was told that an old pair of jeans would be fine, but that I should bring along a change of clothing, since whatever I wore during the ceremony would get wringing wet. I wondered if I should wear shorts instead of long pants but was told by one of the people who planned to participate that, no, jeans would be fine. Mistake — but not a fatal one. Shorts are the clothing of choice for the sweat lodge.

The men generally wear loose shorts, and undergo the experience naked from the waist up. The women wear loose dresses or light tops, and skirts or shorts. In the sweat lodge ceremony I attended, the women were not naked from the waist up, which hardly seemed fair to me. Why should the men get to strip off their tops, but not the women? None the less, that’s the way it was. There is a general custom of modesty in the sweat lodges that are held across North America. However, everyone goes barefoot inside the lodge. No exceptions to this rule.

We were asked to arrive at the sweat lodge an hour before the beginning of the ceremony, which took place in a small clearing in a wooded valley at the end of a long private road, far from any human habitation. The result was complete privacy for the ceremony. Two lodges were being run simultaneously — one for men only in the smaller of the two sweat lodges, and another larger mixed group of men and woman in the bigger lodge. The men’s group consisted of about half a dozen men and the shaman who led the ceremony. I attended the mixed group, which had around eighteen or so participants, plus the person leading the ritual activities.

When I got to the clearing, a huge bonfire was blazing over a pile of stones. It was a nice, mild pre-spring day in Nova Scotia. Most of the snow was gone from the open patches of ground but the winter-browned grass and the sod were still frozen solid. The breeze was fitful and tossed the rising smoke of the fire in all directions, so that it was impossible to avoid it no matter where I stood or sat. Benches had been arranged around the fire, but the smoke was so capricious, no one could use them. We stood around talking while the stones got hot.

One of the organizers of the sweat lodge took me aside and gave me the low-down on what was expected. She told me that I would have to take off my boots and socks to enter the lodge, that it was necessary to crawl through the door and that I should not stand up while inside the lodge. All movement in the circular lodge was sunwise around the central fire pit. She warned that I should take off any jewellery as people had sometimes found that wearing jewellery during a lodge could result in burns on the skin when the metal of the jewellery became hot. She also told me to remove my contact lenses.

The larger lodge was a round, hut-shaped structure about twelve feet across and six feet or so tall. It was made of a frame of slender poles bent together, and was covered in fabric similar to blanket material. It had no windows of any kind, and a single door in the north side facing the fire, so low that it could only be entered by getting on hands and knees. This doorway was closed by a flap of fabric. Inside, the floor was bare turf. I noticed a small vent at the very top of the hemispherical lodge, which I presumed was there for ventilation, to prevent us all from suffocating.

I have to admit, after the recent disaster in the autumn of 2009 concerning a sweat lodge in Sedona, Arizona, in which three participants were killed and 21 others sickened, being able to get enough fresh air was a concern in my mind. I was glad to see this vent, small though it seemed to be. It was baffled to prevent the entry of any light.

In the center of the floor there was a circular pit around three feet in diameter and about a foot deep. I knew in a vague sort of way what the pit was for, but did not have a clear idea of how it would work during the ceremony itself.

All these features of the inside of the sweat lodge I learned only when I crawled inside for the first time. Before that happened, we performed a brief ceremony while standing in a circle around the bonfire. Each of the six directions of space, and the center, was acknowledged successively in prayer. This was done in an interesting way. Volunteers were asked to speak for the directions. Those who volunteered did not recite a prepared script, but spoke spontaneously from their hearts as the impulse arose within them at that moment. This resulted in uneven prayers, some better than others, but it had a spontaneity that I liked.

When we addressed the east, we all turned to face the east; when we addressed the west, we turned to the west. When we gave thanks and acknowledgment to the earth, the downward direction, many of those present knelt and touched the ground, although this must have been voluntary since many remained standing. I chose to crouch as a mark of respect.

A little mix-up occurred in the sequence of prayers. It was supposed to be the gods of the center that were acknowledged last, but the person speaking for the center jumped in too early, and we ended up praying to the sky last. The leader of the ceremony joked that she was sure the gods would understand, and would not be angry.

Inside the Lodge

We all took off our shoes, lined up on the frozen grass, and crawled into the sweat lodge. The men took up positions on the right side, and the women on the left side, from the viewpoint of the door facing inward. There was enough space to crawl around the lodge sunwise between the seated participants, who had their backs to the wall of the lodge, and the central fire pit.

It was pretty cramped in there, and uncomfortable. The ground was cold and hard, and more than a little damp. The wall of the lodge was uneven. I found that I could not lean back against it without having a ridge of wood dig into my spine. There was very little room to put our legs. I tried sitting cross-legged for a while, but in the end extended my feet toward the fire pit. That seemed the most comfortable position. Nobody wanted to press against those beside them, so everyone was trying to avoid contact by scrunching up, but there was so little room in the lodge, contact was unavoidable. This may have been deliberate on the part of the leaders of the lodge. We were told that the sweat lodge is an ordeal, and that it is supposed to be uncomfortable.

It was time for more warnings. If anyone could not stand the heat a moment longer, they were to call out in a loud voice “open the door! open the door!” which was the signal for the door to be opened. It would have to be called out loudly because there was going to be a lot of noise during the ceremony. Anyone who could not take the heat would be allowed to leave the lodge, but we were all asked not to give in to the heat unless we absolutely thought we were about to die, because it was very disruptive to have to open the door in the middle of the ceremony. We were also cautioned not to crawl into the fire pit in the darkness of the lodge by mistake, because the stones in the pit would be very hot. Well, duh.

I sat there a little nervously, trying to adjust my legs to a comfortable position, but found that there was no comfortable position. I tried to keep the sharp edge of wood on the side of the lodge from digging into my back, but every time my shoulders slumped, there it was again. Even so, I was glad I was sitting on the outside rim of the lodge — some people were sitting in a second circular row in front of me close to the fire pit. I was glad for the coolness of the side of the lodge at my back, and for the coolness of the earth under me. I wondered if I would be the first one to crack from the heat and call out “open the door!” That would be embarrassing.

I wore a T-shirt and jeans. Most other men were naked to the waist and wore shorts. I wondered if my extra clothing would make the ordeal more difficult for me. The person beside me told me that I could strip down to my underwear – nobody would mind – but I kept my clothes on. I wondered if the wedding ring on my finger would burn my skin, or if my metal belt buckle would burn through my jeans. We had been told to drink plenty of water, but I had only swallowed a single mouthful.

Part of the spiritual energy stimulated during a sweat lodge comes from this uncertainty as to what is going to take place. It is strongest the first time, when the person undergoing the lodge ceremony has no idea of what is about to happen. I was primed for a peak spiritual experience. I wasn’t even sure if I was going to come out of the lodge alive.

How the Sweat Lodge Works

The way a sweat lodge works is this — stones from the fire that are called “stone people” are carried into the lodge and placed one by one into the fire pit in the center of the floor. About eight stones are used, and each is around ten to twenty pounds in weight. They are so hot from the bonfire, that when they enter the dimness of the lodge, they glow red in their centers, and you can feel the heat radiating from them even from a long distance.

Since I’d never undergone a sweat lodge before, I had assumed that the heat came from the rocks directly, by radiation. Not so. The heat is in the form of steam, which is generated by pouring water from a bucket over the hot rocks using a ladle. The rocks are so hot, that when the water touches them it is instantly converted to steam. I was afraid the boiling water might splash over my feet, which were close to the pit, so I covered them with a towel, but I did not need to worry. The rocks are so hot, the water does not boil or splash, it is all turned to steam instantly. The water comes from a large bucket that holds around four gallons, which is set beside the fire pit next to the person in charge of the ritual. That person controls the steam.

There are three levels of heat in a sweat lodge, as I soon learned. There is the first level, when a stone is being lifted through the open door on the tines of a pitchfork to the warning call of “rock!” and then blessed with a scattering of herbs, which burst into little sparks of fire and smoke the instant they touch its glowing surface. All the rocks together radiate a large amount of heat that can be felt on the face and skin like the heat from a blazing fireplace.

The second level of heat is when the first ladle of water is poured over the rocks in the pit, and a cloud of white steam rushes upward with a great hiss like that of a giant serpent. It is many times hotter than the heat from the rocks alone. The steam rises upward to the roof of the lodge, and then rolls around and down the sides in a moving curtain, so that it first touches the participants on the head and the back of the neck. It is easy to feel on the exposed tips of the ears.

The final and most intense level of heat is when the door flap is sealed tightly so that no trace of light or air can enter, and the inside of the lodge is plunged into absolute darkness. The ventilation from the open door prevents the full effects of the steam from being felt, but when the door flap is shut, there is nothing to cool the inside of the lodge. The level of heat is magnified several times over. It is most intense a few seconds after the water is applied to the rocks, when the curtain of steam has had time to fly up to the roof and roll its way down the walls.

Each ordeal lasts as long as the water in the bucket. The faster the water is applied to the rocks, the hotter it gets. I half-expected the rocks to explode and scatter hot fragments over all of those sitting around the pit when they were hit with splashes of icy water, but was told that the rocks were basalt and very old, excellent for holding the heat without breaking down. And indeed, none of the rocks cracked.

We did not just sit there in the dark and suffer the heat. All the while the door was shut and the water was being applied to the rocks, the air was filled with the sound of a rattle being shaken and often with the rhythmic pounding of a flat shamanic drum. The leaders of the lodge chanted and sang songs, some with words that were recognizable, and others native songs that seemed to have no words, or only a few words repeated over and over. Everyone was encouraged to join in. Many people began their own chants and songs when the initial song was dying down, so that a continuous noise of singing and chanting was achieved. In part, I think this chanting was designed to distract the mind away from the ordeal of the heat, but in part it was an invocation to the spirits of nature that were being honoured by the ceremony.

Four Sessions

We did four sessions in the lodge that afternoon — by that I mean four times when the door was sealed shut and the bucket of water ladled over the hot rocks. New rocks were placed into the pit for each session, so that they would be hot enough to turn the water to instant steam. The first session was devoted to honouring the Mother Earth and women’s mysteries. The last was free-form, during which we were invited to pray and speak as the impulse arose within us. Each session lasted around half an hour, and we opened the flap of the lodge and exited to cool off between sessions, and to drink water.

In the middle of the second session, the leader threw ladles full of icy water over the people inside the lodge. I think it was designed to shock us into a more intense self-awareness of the time and place. We didn’t know it was coming because of the pitch darkness. The first ladle-full caught me square in the face. It was quite a surprise. I suspect the leader of the session aimed it at me, because the experience was completely new to me, and I would have no idea it was coming, but how he managed to hit my face so accurately with the first shot in total darkness, I don’t know.

During the hottest part of the sweat lodge experience, it is difficult to breath easily. The steam is so hot and dense that it burns the insides of your nose, and if you try to breathe through your mouth, it burns your lips and tongue. We were told to breath through out bared teeth at those times. I found that this did not help much. It made my teeth too hot. The best approach, for me, was to breath very, very shallowly through the nose, and very slowly so that the steam was drawn in gradually, not fast enough to burn. The steam in the air can become quite dense. When the door-flap is first opened after a session, admitting light, the steam is so thick in the air inside the lodge that you can barely see across to the other side.

Needless to say, I got soaked to the skin at each session. Standing outside in front of the smoking bonfire served to half dry me off, but I was never completely dry before we crawled in for the next session. My bare feet on the frozen ground had the hardest time. They became numb but I was able to warm them by holding them up close to the bonfire, and that prevented them from being frozen too badly.

I learned that many of my fears had been groundless. My wedding ring did not burn my skin. Maybe this was because I took care to shield my ring from the direct contact of the new steam as it rolled around the lodge. I could probably have worn my contact lenses, because I kept my eyes closed most of the time inside the lodge. Since the darkness was total, there was not much point in keeping them open.

The herbs that were mixed with the water poured over the stones left a curious taste at the back of my throat for a time, but no ill effects. Apparently, it is possible to modify the effects of the steam by putting various herbs in the water. Each shaman has his or her own recipes of herbs to use with the water.

The Peace Pipe

After the four sessions in the lodge, participants were invited to sit around the fire pit inside the lodge with the door-flap left open, and share a peace pipe. Many chose not to do so, including myself, because they did not smoke and did not wish to expose their lungs to tobacco smoke, and this was fine with the leaders of the lodge. No aspersions were cast on those who stayed outside during the pipe ceremony.

The general mood inside the sweat lodge throughout all four sessions was one of joyful exuberance. Everyone was encouraged to sing, chant, and release their emotions, and everyone seemed to do just that. There was nothing heavy or forbidding in the ceremonies — it was all child-like happiness that comes from living in the moment. Prayers were given, spirits were seen by many of those who participated, and prayers were answered. A good time truly was had by all.

©2010 by Donald Tyson.
Edited by Sheta Kaey.

Donald Tyson is the author of Sexual Alchemy: Magical Intercourse with Spirits, Familiar Spirits, and Soul Flight: Astral Projection and the Magical Universe, among other works. You can visit his website here.

Into the Aethyr #4 – IAO: Isis, Apophis, and Osiris stages

Into the Aethyr #4 - IAO: Isis, Apophis, and Osiris stages

Based on personal experience and observation, and anecdotal evidence from various other magical practitioners, the stages of development for magicians, mystics, and spiritual practitioners follow a fairly predictable route, at least with regard to common denominators of experience. While I address the “Dark Night of the Soul” at length in my article of the same name in this month’s issue, I’m devoting this column to lesser known stages that ceremonial magicians call, after the Kemetic gods, the “Isis,” “Apophis,” and “Osiris” stages of growth.

Isis

The Isis stage of development is familiar to everyone. It includes the initial attraction, enthusiasm, and often rapid momentum that introduce you to the new idea or philosophy. During this stage, you, the practitioner, are gung-ho and excitable and find it easy to keep your focus as the inertia of “ooh shiny” carries you effortlessly along. Ideas are popping into mind at an astounding rate, and the process of discovery is self-perpetuating. There is no boredom, no difficulty, and you’re certain you’ve found the Holy Grail of your spiritual life — many say, “I’ve come home,” or “I’ve finally found that there was a name for what I’ve always believed,” or similar description for a concept that revolutionizes their paradigms and infuses new life into their personal raisons d´etre.

No one ever quits his new religion, philosophy, discipline, or study during the Isis stage. The new adherent can be obsessively focused and talk about little else. He feels alive like never before. Clearly, this is what he’s been looking for, and he’s certain it will always be perfect. In romantic circles this is known as “New Relationship Energy,” or “N.R.E.” It’s the honeymoon phase in which the focus of your amore can do no wrong.

As we all know, inevitably that wears off and we start to gain a more realistic perspective of our new toy. Sometimes disillusionment is abrupt and cruel, while other times it is gradual and easier to accept. With regard to magical disciplines in particular, it slows down through friction against the overwhelming amount of new information and in time, comes to rest. Now begins Apophis.

Apophis

Ecauldron.com has this to say: “Isfet is a form of destructive chaos, uncreation, un-naming. It is personified in Apep (Apophis), the great serpent that tries to devour the sunboat while it is travelling in the underworld at night. It is imbalance or impurity. How isfet manifests in each person’s life will be different, but many people can identify the sort of turmoil that leaves them feeling undone, as if their selfness is being stripped away and destroyed, their sense of identity: that is isfet. . .”1 [Emphasis mine.]

The stage of Apophis is, as implied above, the darkness following those initial rays of hope and discovery that we found in Isis. When Apophis arrives, the river of momentum that carried you through the landscape of discovery dries up, leaving you parched and without an easy way of travel. In a sense, it is related to the path of Gimel — the path of the Abyss on the Tree of Life in Qabalah. While not the “big Kahuna” of abysses, Gimel (and Apophis) nevertheless constitutes a sort of trial by fire, a traversing of the spiritual desert in which you thirst for knowledge (or even a sign of encouragement) — but like all deserts, it’s full of mirages, false starts, and shining promises of nourishment that never manifest. It tests your resolve, dedication, and endurance, pushing you cruelly, beating you down, and worst of all, abandoning you completely to your own devices.

If you’ve never experienced this before, reading about it isn’t going to give you any idea of the reality. All of your inspiration is gone, and your feeling of brethren toward your fellow magicians is replaced by a feeling of alienation and confusion. You’re convinced of your own ineptitude, because nothing you do furthers your progress (or even makes any difference), and you feel as though you are conspicuously failing where others appear to be doing just fine. The alienation combines with the despondency, driving you away to lick your wounds in private, and you are left feeling completely isolated. It stays that way for a long time.

This is the stage wherein the wheat is separated from the chaff. Those who did not enter their new discipline or study with a true desire to grow (rather than with a passive sense of curiosity or by simply being swept along by a friend’s interest in the subject) will fall away due to boredom and the sudden lack of automatically supplied reinforcement. These individuals are unwilling to work past the challenges or push beyond the veil to see what comes next. They accept that what they see, and have seen, is all there is, so they move along to the next thing or drop out and return to their usual (pre-attraction) daily lives.

The stage of Apophis is often likened to a “spiritual winter,” due to the barren landscape of the psyche at this time. The thing to remember is that in winter there is growth — it’s just under the surface, invisible. The roots of plants and trees grow in winter, providing a solid foundation for spring blossoms and the expansion of the visible greenery above the earth. Without this foundation, the body of the plant would be unsustainable. There must be a balance. If you apply this knowledge to the stage of Apophis, you begin to understand that without the assimilation of our previous surge of learning, we cannot hope to retain it, nor can we hope to expound upon it and gain another “summer” of visible growth.

So what happens to the ones who stick it out? That’s the real question, isn’t it? How many people make that effort? One in ten? One in a hundred? I don’t know the statistics (or any way to determine them) but I can say that the vast majority of people I’ve personally worked with eventually fall away or give it up. It’s disheartening, and it leaves the field of serious practitioners rather thin.

Osiris

As you may have guessed, the stage following the darkness of Apophis is Osiris. Osiris is Kemetic god of the underworld, and of resurrection.2 In this stage, he brings new life where Apophis has taken it, and rends the veil, showing what lies beyond. Osiris is the payoff.

Many devotees of spiritual or magical pursuits find that after suffering an interminable period of frustrating inability to affect change, they will begin to feel, on some deeper level, that something is coming. Though not the only time this feeling ever occurs, as the end of Apophis nears it takes on the distinct flavor of a light at the end of the tunnel. It teases and shimmers indefinably, and after a time, draws close enough that we gradually gain insight into the nature of the upcoming dawn. Then the sun rises, and all systems are go.

Suddenly, efforts to move that previously had no effect now begin to work, sometimes with surprising efficacy. Locked doors fly open in welcome. Enthusiasm takes a tentative step forward, and finding conditions favorable, surges anew. We are once again able to learn, grow, relate, and celebrate our successes. And not only do we gain access to further study, we find that our understanding of knowledge learned in the stage of Isis has deepened and we are now able to articulate concepts that we previously found difficult to communicate. This is due to the assimilation of the winter darkness of Apophis.

Without limits, expansion gets out of control and we cannot comprehend the tangle of ideas erupting from our inspired minds. We must step back, and as we humanly may find that difficult to do in the rush of enthusiasm provided by Isis, Apophis steps in as a matter of natural progression, allowing us the “dead time” necessary to solidify our spiritual foundation and prepare for the next stage of growth.

And do you know what that means? Isis, Apophis, and Osiris cycle through regularly. Don’t let the darkness get you down . . . the dawn is just over the horizon.

Footnotes

  1. The Cauldron: A Pagan Forum. “Kemetic FAQ” by Darkhawk
  2. Wikipedia: Osiris

©2007 Sheta Kaey. Edited by Trinity.

Sheta Kaey is a lifelong occultist and longtime spirit worker, as well as Editor in Chief of Rending the Veil. She counsels others with regard to spirit contact and astral work. You can read her blog here.

The Dark Night of the Soul

March 21, 2007 by  
Filed under mysticism, ordeal work, self-transformation

The Dark Night of the Soul

The Evolution of the Spirit

Inevitably, once a person has chosen a mystical, magical, or spiritual path, there comes a time when s/he is challenged in his or her commitment to that path. After the initial enthusiasm and often rapid forward movement, there is a period of stillness. This can be as relatively simple as an “Apophis” stage (see my column, Into the Aethyr, in this month’s issue) or as difficult as the subject of this article — the Dark Night of the Soul. The Dark Night is an essentially universal concept, one of those core truths that finds its way into all philosophies, due to the profundity of the experience and the deeply felt, vividly remembered effects it can have on an individual.

The Dark Night as Natural Selection

The challenge of the Dark Night of the Soul is intrinsic to the development of the spirit, as by its very nature it weeds out those too weak to sustain the necessary effort to progress beyond it. Those who, by contrast, can maintain their commitment to their goals despite the difficulties presented during the Dark Night will grow without having to do anything more than survive it. It’s a process of natural selection, if you will. The “weaker seeker,” so to speak, is incapable of waiting out the aridity, and even more incapable of accepting the pain and misery inherent in this experience. This seeker will either find something new and exciting to do, thereby abandoning his previous plan in exchange for the “new and shiny,” or he will discard all effort in studying new things and default back to his original, stress-free and automatic religion (usually, in our culture, Christianity). This choice is made in the mistaken belief that he has exhausted all that his magical study had to offer, and has found it empty and unfulfilling.

The thing that few deserters realize is that any true calling to any spiritual pursuit is going to include this particular challenge as a matter of course. Christian mystics experience it as distinctly as any other. But for most people, Christianity is a religion that inspires no serious work; rather, it is a comforting illusion of spirituality that people use to convince themselves that they’ve covered their asses in the event of Judgment Day. By contrast, anyone who takes his spiritual and inner life seriously will encounter the challenges that, over time, hone and shape the spirit into something more. Without challenges, we do not grow. Without trials, we sit in idle acceptance of the status quo and make little effort to gain anything that is not material or does not further ease our idle sitting.

What Makes You Think You Should Have It Easy?

The belief that a life full of spiritual meaning should somehow be less troublesome is amazingly widespread. It’s astounding to me that people can truly think that being close to God (or whatever they call their motivation) should exempt them from harm or from challenges. If God loves me, I should never lose a loved one, have an accident, experience injustice, lose a business deal, lose a political race, etc. What hogwash! An old saying states that “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” This is true (whether it be God, self, fate, or Universe), and what so many fail to grasp is that as we grow, our ability to take more challenges grows — so the challenges will also grow. This does not make them more difficult, necessarily, when you also consider the growth of our personal strength. It only makes them more impressive-sounding, and more tragic to the onlooker. We may find ourselves more horrified, or more convinced that any second now we are going to completely buckle under the weight of the current stressor, but the fact is that the only way we’ll likely buckle is if we make the choice to do so — a martyr’s choice, choosing noble defeat to collect the sympathy of those superficial witnesses so that we may coddle ourselves and attempt to believe our own bullshit. But if we choose to keep trying — to take one more step, then one more step, then damn it, one more step, we will make an important discovery: the pain will end. It will probably end a step or two past what we were certain was the limit of our ability to cope, but it will end, and then we will find that we were stronger than we thought. Because the fact is, when you’re facing a difficult challenge and you think you can’t possibly take another minute — surprise, time does not stop to give you a break. You might not be able to handle the idea of one more second of this, but the reality of that second, that minute or day or year, is way easier than the anticipation of it ever was. And if you buckle and choose the martyr’s way, then you’re simply prolonging that state of anticipation, and never getting the actual experience out of the way so you can put it behind you and move on. Martyrdom is masturbation, and it’s also one of the stupidest, least pragmatic choices you can make.

Healing, then, is a matter of standing up when it’s all over, and walking on your own power to the next signpost on the path. But I’m getting ahead of myself now.

Who Turned Out The Lights?

The Dark Night of the Soul is so named because when it hits you, all the light in your life is extinguished. The progress you were making stops. The connection you felt to your god(s) or to divinity in general, or to the Universe as a whole, is severed. There is nothing you can do to regain it, and you can’t go back and start over (though many try by constantly changing paths). Everywhere you turn, there’s a wall. You’re in a bubble of misery, unable to articulate what’s wrong, and feeling isolated, abandoned, and dead inside. Nothing inspires. Everything hurts. Depression hits, and at a level you may have never experienced before. Efforts to change things, to progress with anything at all, fail. Relationships suffer. Work suffers. Life is reduced to a routine, colorless existence. And joy becomes a distant dream, doubted in the past and unexpected in the future.

Occasionally (particularly when the Dark Night is coming to a close), you will get a glimpse of that profoundly moving connection, just enough to show you that it was real after all, that you didn’t imagine it. Then it’s gone again, for an interminable time. Exhaustion and despair strike once more, and seem cumulative over time, driving you to a depth of despondency that begins to take hold as the new status quo. At this point, surviving the darkness is most in doubt, and the seeker who perseveres is the fanatical one who absolutely will not be turned away. That seeker has found something with genuine meaning for him, and even if he desires to, even if he tries to, he cannot quite break away from the vision of himself he found in his earlier momentum. That seeker is a rare thing indeed.

The Inner Watcher

There is a key to the survival that you must find if you really want to make it to some elusive unimaginable goal, some “Great Work.” That key is this: Do not suffer over your suffering. Find a way to activate the inner Watcher, and when you need relief from your pain, transfer your awareness (or part of it) to that component of your psyche. The Watcher will always be objective, and will be able to view your situation without attachment. So, as you strain under the weight of despair and feel incapable of taking one more step, transferring the emphasis of awareness to the Watcher gives you the distance necessary to continue without collapsing. The Watcher says, “You know, this is really hard. But you know it’s going to end. It always does. It’s hard, sure, but it’s not endless, and you can do this. I know you can, because you’ve done it before.” The Watcher provides what no encouraging or supportive friend can: the certainty that this is an exercise. It’s not personal. It’s not pushed upon you because you sinned, or were bad, or because you don’t deserve good things, or because you’re not perfect, or any other reason that your inner voices of subversive bullshit are feeding you. It’s just a process of growth, as necessary as cutting teeth. It hurts where it counts — inside — because it provides growth to areas that never age and never break down.

Another facet of growth somewhat connected to the experience of the Dark Night is vacillation between ecstasy and agony, often in rapid succession. These little darknesses, or little abysses, provide exercise for the “psychic” muscles, allowing them to develop and strengthen over time for a more consistent long-term connection to the divine (or other levels of reality, depending on how you categorize your experience). These often precede and follow the Dark Night experiences, in a sort of warm up/cool down effect. They become easier to handle once you’ve gained some ground and realize that what you gain never actually leaves; it just changes, and sometimes that change can feel like starting over. But moving up a level is always rewarding in the long run, and moving down (or backing up) is simply not part of the program, regardless of how it may seem while you’re having those growing pains when initiation to a new level of awareness occurs.

Take strength in the knowledge that if this path is what truly captures your heart and inspires you, you will make it. Don’t give up when the going gets tough. You don’t have to force it, and in fact you can’t force it, but if you stick with it on some level of awareness, you will know when it’s time to apply effort again. You’ll feel the shift and things will start to move, and once again you will make great strides in your work. Until that shift occurs, any effort made toward moving things will fail. You can go through the motions, but the rewards will not be there.

In the midst of the Dark Night, despair is king, and its job is to keep you down. Assimilation of knowledge gained in your most recent leap forward takes place, and there is little you can do except review, digest, and try to cope with the frustration and pain that cycle through. How long will this phase last? Well, that depends. In my experience, a Dark Night can last anywhere from six months to three years. Shorter ones than six months can’t rightly be called Dark Nights, in my opinion, as anything shorter really isn’t that challenging. (See the “Apophis” stage at link above.) But I’m sure others have had longer ones and scarier ones than I’ve had. One thing I can say for certain is that it will shake you to the core. Its job is to test your faith, and it often results in a seemingly complete loss of faith for a period so long that you will believe yourself to have given up. At such point, ask yourself this: “Do I wish I could experience that surge again?” If you answer yes, you’re hanging in there.

Even if you’re convinced that your previous experience of attainment and growth was illusory or fluke, and that you are not worthy or capable of getting to that place again, in time you will rediscover the joys of movement and activity. No one will be able to convince you of that during the darkest moments of this rite of passage. You will be certain of your failure and of your inability to go on. You will be isolated and unable to get a glimmer of divine energy on command. You will be lost. But in time, eventually, you will find your way again.

A quote from Evelyn Underhill, in her manuscript Mysticism, underlines the necessity of understanding the individual experience of the Dark Night of the Soul:

In some temperaments it is the emotional aspect — the anguish of the lover who has suddenly lost the Beloved — which predominates; in others, the intellectual darkness and confusion overwhelms everything else. Some have felt it as a “passive purification,” a state of helpless misery, in which the self does nothing, but lets Life have its way with her. Others have experienced it rather as a period of strenuous activity and moral conflict directed to that “total self-abandonment” which is the essential preparation of the unitive life. Those elements of character which were unaffected by the first purification of the self — left as it were in a corner when the consciousness moved to the level of the illuminated life — are here roused from their sleep, purged of illusion, and forced to join the grooving stream.

The Dark Night, then, 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 Light, and pick up those qualities which it had left behind. Only thus, by the transmutation of the whole man, not by a careful and departmental cultivation of that which we like to call his “spiritual” side, can Divine Humanity be formed: and the formation of Divine Humanity — the remaking of man “according to the pattern showed him in the mount” — is the mystic’s only certain ladder to the Real. “My humanity,” said the Eternal Wisdom to Suso, “is the road which all must tread who would come to that which thou seekest.” This “hard saying” might almost be used as a test by which to distinguish the genuine mystic life from its many and specious imitations. The self in its first purgation has cleansed the mirror of perception; hence, in its illuminated life, has seen Reality. In so doing it has transcended the normal perceptive powers of “natural” man, immersed in the illusions of sense. Now, it has got to be reality: a very different thing. For this a new and more drastic purgation is needed — not of the organs of perception, but of the very shrine of self: that “heart” which is the seat of personality, the source of its love and will. In the stress and anguish of the Night, when it turns back from the vision of the Infinite to feel again the limitations of the finite the self loses the power to Do; and learns to surrender its will to the operation of a larger Life, that it may Be. “At the end of such a long and cruel transition,” says Lucie Christine, “how much more supple the soul feels itself to be in the Hand of God, how much more detached from all that is not God! She sees clearly in herself the fruits of humility and patience, and feels her love ascending more purely and directly to God in proportion as she has realized the Nothingness of herself and all things.”1

As she states, “We must remember in the midst of our analysis, that the mystic life is a life of love: that the Object of the mystic’s final quest and of his constant intuition is an object of adoration and supreme desire.” This, then, is the trick of it: love for the process itself, leading to the object of desire, regardless of whatever degree of abstract or concrete quality it may possess — this love is what carries you through. It may be repressed during the Dark Night to the point that you believe it to be extinguished, but a single glimpse of that original inspiration, revisited, will fan the hidden spark to a roaring flame in an instant. And then you’re off again… until next time.

Footnotes

  1. Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill. Oneworld Publications; Reissue edition (October 1, 1999) Excerpt link.

©2007 Sheta Kaey.

Sheta Kaey is a lifelong occultist and longtime spirit worker, as well as Editor in Chief of Rending the Veil. She counsels others with regard to spirit contact and astral work. You can read her blog here.

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