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Dark Nights and Nonlinear Paths in Western Abrahamic Contemplative Traditions

  • Author(s): Fisher, Nathan E
  • Advisor(s): Taves, Ann
  • et al.

Recent research has documented meditation-related experiences in contemporary Buddhist traditions and the appraisal processes involved with either normalizing or pathologizing such experiences. These studies have complicated the frameworks that even clinicians and psychologists use to make such differential diagnoses but to date there has been almost no comparable work examining how such appraisal processes are navigated in other religious and spiritual communities. This thesis makes a contribution in this area by investigating some of the textual sources and themes that contemporary teachers and students in Western Abrahamic contemplative traditions draw upon to interpret distressing and challenging meditation-related experiences. When appraising difficult experiences as ‘part of the path’ in contemporary Christian traditions, teachers and practitioners invoked both Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, particularly the latter’s discussion of the “dark nights,” and the contemplative path structure utilized by both of purgation-illumination-union. Purgation or purification was often translated into a psychological key and Thomas Keating’s conception of “divine therapy” and “the unloading of the unconscious” in the Centering prayer tradition was found to be influential in this formulation. In Western Sufi traditions, challenging or distressing experiences were understood as normative in relation to Classical Sufi psychological literature describing different states (hal) and stations (maqamat) of the Sufi path (tariqa), particularly those related to a process of purification or “polishing the mirror of the heart.” Other key ideas referenced in normalizing interpretations were the valley of bewilderment (hayrat) in Farid ad-Din Attar’s The Conference of the Birds, descriptions of painful experiences in the poetry of Jallal al-din Rumi, and the dual concept of annihilation (fana) and subsistence (baqa) that is ubiquitous in classical Sufi literature. Jewish teachers and practitioners referenced a constellation of several key texts, figures, and ideas in appraising challenging experiences as ‘part of the path’ as well: mystical interpretations of the Song of Songs, “descent for the sake of ascent” (yeridah tzorech aliyah) and purification, the doctrine of “expanded and constricted consciousness” (mochin d’gadlut, mochin d’katnut), the Hasidic practice and doctrine of elevating sparks and “foreign thoughts” (machshavot zerot), and finally, liminality and “the breaking of the vessels” (shevirat ha-keilim). In introducing the conception of ‘non-linear paths’ to describe these trajectories of contemplative practice invoked by contemporary teachers and practitioners, this thesis seeks to highlight the ways in which certain negatively valenced meditation- related experiences are normalized even as individual variability and unpredictability has been acknowledged for centuries in these traditions.

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