Dark Night of the Soul
Recently I was trying to write something. I wasn't getting anywhere. I used all the techniques I knew, and got to a point where nothing was coming. I just couldn't do it. It wouldn't work. The next thing that happened was that I had finished it!
Actually, this happened twice, with two things. And the same phenomenon occurred. I didn't realise what was going on until it happened the second time. (Does this remind you of other postings where we talked about life as a learning experience and being open to experiences? And how we often miss things unless they jump up and say 'Boo!' Anyway, let's get on with the story.)
Many years ago, I decided to learn a computer language. I studied BASIC. When I started to study, it all went well and everything was quite easy. I carried on with my studies until I reached a point where I just couldn't grasp it. It seemed that this important part of the language was just too difficult for me. I felt so stupid. I was almost in tears. I had met my match. And then, I got it. I continued and finished my studies to my satisfaction.
Mm! I thought. Let's look at another language. What is this thing called Pascal? All I read about Pascal said this was far superior to BASIC and so I decided to learn Pascal. I got a book and bought the program and off I went. And do you know what happened? I got to a point where I couldn't understand it. I just couldn't do it. It was too hard for me. I just didn't have those skills. I might as well give up. I was so frustrated I was almost in tears. And then, of course it all went smoothly and I learned the language to my satisfaction.
Mm! I thought. Let's look at another language. What is this thing called C? The computer language C was supposed to be pretty difficult. Anyway, I bought some books and the computer program and off I went. All went very smoothly until I reached a certain point. Then it all seemed pretty difficult to me. I felt a little sad. Then I remembered! I remembered the two previous occasions this had happened and I knew I was very close to mastery. I realised that this was not an end point, but a new beginning.
When the night is darkest, the stars come out!
There seems to be a point when we are doing something difficult when we reach the lowest level. This is when it seems that all is lost. Yet, my experience and that of others - perhaps that of all of us - tells us that this is not really an end of our hopes, but a new beginning. The time just before we attain mastery.
This reminds me of 'The Dark Night of the Soul,' in spiritual development. Just before enlightenment, there are really interesting phenomenon that make the seeker believe that everything is pointless and impossible. They are not going to fulfil their dearest dreams.
What is happening? What is this phenomenon? As we have mentioned the spiritual and the elevated, let's go to the mundane, where we might find an answer.
A long time ago psychologists studied typewriting. They noticed that when people learned to type, the made steady progress until they could type the letters of the alphabet. And then it seemed to the learner they weren't getting anywhere. The learners stopped making progress. Whatever they did their speed did not increase. Then, sometimes quite suddenly, they would start to improve. They would continue in this fashion for a while until they reached another plateau.
Their typing speed would stop improving in spite of all the practice. And they would be in this frustrating state of getting nowhere. Then they would start improving again. They had, then learned to type whole words automatically and their speed began to increase again. Of course, they would reach another plateau where they would make no more progress until, quite suddenly they began to type phrases.
What appeared to be happening was that their ABILITY to type was increasing all the time, but their PERFORMANCE wasn't. When they were learning to type, not letters, but words, they made little progress until some mental change occurred and they had learned to think a word and type it. In the second stage, they stopped making progress until they learned to type phrases. All the time they were learning, but they were not showing an improvement in performance in a consistent way.
In order to make progress, we have to change our old habits and beliefs. This means losing old habits and beliefs. When we lose a belief - however wrong it might have been - we feel unhappy, discouraged or angry. We have lost something. We are in a protesting state until we get the new, better generalisation that will bring everything together in a better state of organisation. Then we experience the exhilaration of achievement.
This is not always good, however. In some types of brain washing, the victim has their beliefs destroyed and feels lost, miserable and alone. Then the brainwasher implants new beliefs, which appear to serve the victim better and the victim feels a sense of euphoria. So the phenomenon is a psychological one, and does not have to be better for the person experiencing it.
Yet for all significant change we may experience the phenomenon of frustration and unhappiness before we experience the euphoria of success. The negative feelings may include:
They are our reaction to change and the loss of the previous state. The more significant the change, the more intense the emotion.
In our everyday lives, I find that the experience of boredom is the most challenging. I have dropped more activities for this reason than for the more intense emotions. If only I had realised, that by persisting through boredom, I would have achieved my goals and the exhilaration of success!
We can profit from this knowledge by realising that in any challenging activity we will experience negative emotions just before we attain our goal. If we fail to realise what is happening, we might actually give up just at the point we are about to succeed. We cannot understand what is happening at the time, because our old understanding has been broken down and the new has not been formed. We are in a halfway house. We need to realise, however, that our ability, understanding, life, etc, is continually increasing even though it appears we have reached the lowest point. We need to press on and take the next few steps.
When the night is darkest, the stars come out!
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Most Recent Revision: 20-Mar-99.