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There’s a pattern I’ve noticed over and over again in meditation. You know how when you ask someone about the steps they take to serve a tennis ball, it temporarily messes up their tennis serve? That’s a cliche, and I think there’s at least one thread of research and a popular book about how attention can (temporarily) screw up a local optimum of an automatic process.
Of course, ideally, you reflect on a previous tacit process, take the hit of temporarily messing it up, and your attention and intervention may raise you to a higher local optimum or onto a continuous growth path. Of course, with great power comes great responsibility.
(Opaque, highly compressed tangent: I just want to note that the previous tacit process might not have “existed” before you covered it with a high-dimensional attentional shroud. In some of Wilber’s new language, that tacit process could have “subsisted” as opposed to “existed.” My point is just that, as always, objects are achievements, and there are an infinite number of ways to carve reality up at the joints, depending on what you’re trying to do. Don’t restrict yourself to what you think is there.)
Ok, anyway, so over and over again in meditation, you gradually become aware of all these muscles you didn’t know you had. And you fuck up their smooth, symphonic, seamless operation and integration with everything else. Usually it’s transiently, say, on the order of minutes to days, but, if you’re unlucky, and especially if you rigidly apply heavy-handed rule-governed behavior, you’re going to maybe lock yourself into suboptimal functioning, possibly making you worse off than before you made your tacit or reflected-upon meditation discovery.
With great power comes great responsibility. For example, I hypothesize that meditation facilitates the negative capacity for experiential avoidance, a research construct that is correlated with a bunch of bad stuff. What I mean is that meditators are probably, ironically more skilled at avoiding their own experience, and, if they stumble upon the trick of avoiding their own experience as a sometimes short-term effective (long-term destructive) stance to move forward through their lives, then they’ve got a sticky problem. (And they probably don’t have the conceptual tools to easily escape that trap, though, of course they can still find a way to escape via books, internal exploration, outside mentorship, etc.)
I would go so far as to say that meditation probably attracts people who are already experiential avoiders because they intuitively realize that meditation will give them more and better tools to control their experience. I don’t mean to pick on experiential avoiders; I mean it’s a useful skill if surgically, transiently applied. My point is that meditation can give you tools to enhance your bad habits, and some people can be intuitively attracted to meditation for this reason. (Of course, people will be attracted to meditation for a mix of reasons.)
Now, continuing to use experiential avoidance as an example, I want to emphasize that there’s of course other forces at work within meditators. In addition to acquiring more skill for experiential avoidance, meditation is still making the (conscious) operations of your mind more and more apparent. So there’s this tension there between giving you better and better skill and strength to hide from yourself and systematically making it harder and harder to hide from yourself. This could partially account for the sometimes oscillatory nature of the dark night, as well as being stuck in it for an extended period of time.
Another example, meditation gives you ever increasing capacity to tolerate and operate within discomfort. This is fantastic for personal growth and agency. But, it can also make you hunker down and endure situations for too long, where anyone else would have run screaming, melted down, rooted out causes versus tolerating symptoms, or called out for social help, for good reason. Specifically with meditation, if you’re doing something that’s fucking you up, you’re also getting better and better at tolerating being fucked up, so you just fuck yourself up further and further. So there’s another possible bad spiral.
Possibly worst case, you’re making it easier to commit suicide. I haven’t looked at the quality of this research, but, apparently, a key factor in committing suicide is capacity for tolerating discomfort. And, suicidal people prepare for suicide by increasing their capacity for self-harm. So, at this stage of knowledge, a possible increased chance of committing suicide is probably really, really important to disclose to anyone who wants to learn meditation. (And, sure, as a meditator you’re simultaneously probably massively increasing your resilience to life stressors, maybe, but there’s a complicated tension here.)
So, as a general principle, I think a lot of negative side effects of meditation come from reflexively screwing up subtle, automatic processes by (sometimes tacitly) realizing you can influence them and then not slipping into a new local optimum or continuous process of improvement.
Now, I want to focus on a big one in particular: Identity. Logically, perhaps, identity is valence-free: black, gay, cis, republican, kinky… labels are for cans. They are useful, hopefully fluid, interpenetrating patterns and maps of an underlying territory. Use ‘em for communicating and getting your needs met and for improving the world.
But, of course, identity is woven very, very, very, very deeply into our functioning as monkeys. Identity lights up parts of our brains hard, structuring our motivation, perception, cognition, mood, immune system, it just goes on and on and on [2, 3].
So. I think one of the fundamental causes of the dark night is that meditation fucks up the identity system.
Of course, if one is lucky, tenacious, or mentored, neurological identity can become a joyous, multifaceted, lived, seamless, flexible, embodied, consciously deployed tool, something both a useful fiction and neurologically, phenomenologically real, undeniable, potent, and lived.
But, wow. As the meditator begins to see self and social identity as the contingent, constrained-yet-arbitrary fictions they actually are, sooooooooooooooo much can go wrong and stay wrong in deep monkey ways . Social identity and belonging are extremely important . And as described above, you can all these new tools and muscles related to identity, which if used reflexively, might unluckily take you in a nihilistic direction or be used to construct identities of separation and so forth. With great power comes great responsibility.
So, in conclusion, meditation can disrupt automatic processes and not always improve those processes after their disruption. And, social identity is particularly important process that meditation is prone to disrupt. And, these could be contributing factors to the dark night.
So, maybe these are are just more puzzle pieces, or maybe these cut to the heart of the dark night. And I hope that people take these ideas and critique, refine, or recontextualize them. And I hope that these ideas will factor into informed consent in meditation. And I hope that these ideas will suggest more ways to avoid or escape the so-called dark night.
 Cruwys, Tegan, S. Alexander Haslam, Genevieve A. Dingle, Catherine Haslam, and Jolanda Jetten. “Depression and Social Identity An Integrative Review.”Personality and Social Psychology Review (2014): 1088868314523839.