In varying traditions there is an understanding of the abyss (mainly occult traditions), and of the importance of crossing the abyss to make it out of a spiritual initiation relatively intact and alive. The mere act of crossing such an abyss allows for a time of deep introspection, existential crisis, despair, and a host of other emotions and experiences that are difficult to process. Once gotten to the other side of said abyss, we will have let go of considerable emotional material, past traumas, and belief systems, and will have received spiritual gifts, insights, or abilities as a result of the experience.
The difficulty with the abyss is realizing that you are there…
A Dark Night of the Soul is a similar experience to the Abyss (although seemingly slightly different places via direct experience, with slightly different realizations in the two places to be had), in which we feel dark, and alone, depressed… with an inability to reach out to another because they simply would not understand. We are solitary, and trapped within the illusion that we are a singular presence on this earth, and that nobody could possibly understand or even care about us.
As mentioned, the abyss and dark nights are strikingly similar, and many exchange one word for the other as if they are the same experience. Through direct experience it seems to me that a Dark Night is focused on the personal and the “I”– meaning that, similar to St. John of the Cross who coined the term, we are feeling trapped in a prison and are unable to free ourselves from nameless, faceless persecutors (although in his case it was the Carmelites). But the idea of a Dark Night is the feeling of being personally trapped in a sort of darkness that one cannot get out of. The end to this trapped realization is the understanding that even while enslaved, caged, or deprived of freedom… even isolated from the rest of the world one is not alone, and one can be free.
The Abyss generally to me is much more of a metaphor– a sort of spiritual initiation in which we are developing new understandings or need to process new material that is simply too much for us to incorporate. We get lost (or drown), or do not cross the abyss when we become inundated with spiritual information that is too much for us to logically incorporate through our egos (not ego in a new-age way, ego as in the creator of the illusion that is our daily lives and our worlds). The abyss is more of a blackout, in which we can feel ourselves flailing about, wondering what is going on, as we feel ourselves falling into darkness.
In both cases we are watching our worlds be destroyed in front of us. In both cases we come to a sort of blackout, where no physical or spiritual support seems available to us. This is obviously difficult to handle, and is more difficult to come away from… to see the light or to complete the crossing of said abyss. It is even more difficult to reconcile the falseness of the world once you have had several of these experiences.
Many of us pursue enlightenment, or advanced spiritual or occult knowledge to make ourselves more powerful, to become more fulfilled in our daily lives, or because we are drawn to do so without a logical reason why with a sort of fervor that can only be understood by others with similar fervor. As we progress on our path we quickly realize that the sort of new-age notion that gaining power or understanding or abilities resulting in a sort of delirious state of happiness or ability to rule the world or control the cosmos (or increasingly odd magical thinking about what the nature of enlightenment is like) is false, and the false prophets who maintain such illusions are simply that… illusions to fulfill the void of a modern society that is powerless, stuck on the surface levels of most spiritual paths, spiritually immature, wanting desperately to have control when they subconsciously know they do not, and preferring the romanticization and intellectualization of spiritual paths rather than the actual work or direct experience of them.
On any sort of spiritual path that is real (and by that I mean one that gains power, one in which takes work and direct experience and has come out of the immaturity and romanticization and intellectualization phases that are so prevalent in modern spiritual circles) we come across certain spiritual doors. These doors are metaphors, of course, and are initiatory– leading us to cast away old beliefs and delusions and come into new understandings, beliefs, and in some cases, spiritual abilities or new spiritual teachers.
Each time we pass through one of these doors, these gateways, we come upon a threshold guardians… the aspects of ourselves that tell us how comfortable we are with the known, how it would be easier to remain what and who we are. Many times we may listen to these guardians and not walk through the proverbial door. But other times we do, and we usher in a new era of Self.
The difficulty with receiving so much information (stimuli, understandings, see/feel/hear/etc) on a spiritual level is that it needs to be assimilated. This is especially hard on our egos, who have created the experiences of the abyss or the dark night because they need a sort of waiting period to reboot and re-create a new reality, or illusion, for us. When we let go of a huge amount of trauma, belief systems, and chaos our outer reality changes. When we do this quickly our outer reality significantly changes. When we let go of the chaos, the destructive beliefs, the illusions that we have hung our hats on to create our world(s), we become closer to true realization, understanding, and begin to see more deeply into the spiritual realms and are able to interact with the spiritual realms, and our every-day world, in a much different manner.
All of this means, quite simply, that when we change who we are in a very short period of time (for some people undergoing significant spiritual awakenings this can be five minutes… for others it might be days or months or years), when we unload a bunch of chaos and trauma out of our system, we are very different people than we once were. And our world will be different.
The real difficulty is not the actual experience of the Void or the abyss (although when you are experiencing it you may react differently to this notion). Each of them are simply concepts that we have created to reason as to why we are experiencing a re-configuration of our reality… why we have such different understandings or realizations or even abilities than we may have had five minutes ago, or five years ago.
The difficulty in these experiences is allowing ourselves to make it to the other side of them.
It can be easy to get lost in existential despair, in crisis, in chaos. It can be easy to understand when you are having such spiritual experiences, especially because many of them are not talked about beyond an intellectual level, that you truly are alone or are the only one experiencing them. Seeing the world as patently false, trapped in chaos and delusion… and not only that seeing people prefer their illusions because they give them a quiet sense of comfort even if covering a sort of despair… it can be easy to isolate. Navigating a world that you know is false, wanting to live in that world that is full of chaos and trauma, is difficult.
The further that you go and the more spiritual doors that you go through, the more difficult this realization can be. Many people are just on the surface of this world, and that is where they wish to be, and that is where they are supposed to be. It can be difficult to get beyond the previous point to a realization that people are where they are supposed to be. To let go of the control or wish that the world or the individuals in it were somehow more enlightened, more aware, or were simply able to be a little uncomfortable to achieve a bit of spiritual growth. It is certainly one of the spiritual doors/initiations to let go of the idea and the emotions over the fact that most people, including perhaps yourself, are just playing in this world like a group of actors cast in a play that they are not aware of. And this fact becomes more difficult the more aware you are. Experiencing other worlds, paradoxes, energies, beings, dimensions, times, or understandings that are not common, or are not talked about, is difficult for those who experience them, especially when you see that many of the people in the world are simply intellectualizing and playing with spiritual concepts they don’t really understand.
When further initiations are had it can be incredibly isolating, albeit with the understanding of oneness simultaneously. To see the worlds reverberated and experience oneness and divinity and at the same time falseness and separation is a difficult paradox to reconcile. But at some point many of us begin to reconcile it… this realization that the world is false and true at the same time, and to fully love and forgive people for being who they are without a desire to control or sway them in any way from their path because they are experiencing exactly what they need to, and would be experiencing something else if they were ready to or intended to.
But in being okay with overwhelm, in being okay with the world crumbling around you like it does while crossing the abyss and while engaged in its murky depths the other shore begins to appear.
And this other shore is ourselves reformulated, with our new worlds reconfigured for us. We look through the eyes of our new illusions, the remaining beliefs and trauma that we have. We have new understandings, realizations, and more access to our power. We may even have new abilities or spiritual teachers or access to new realms or beings that we did not before. We go forward in our new lives with more peace and generally more stability, as the amount of chaos that once swirled around us has lessened.
If you are experiencing a dark night/the abyss, realize that you are there. Understand that your world is reformulating and this takes time. Realize that you have created this experience for a purpose– to make logical sense out of crossing into new terrain, into a new understanding of Self. Most of all, if you are lost in the inky black, feel like your spiritual support has disappeared into the murky depths of the abyss, and are feeling despair, suicidal, or unsafe, please reach out for help. Your loved ones may not realize what the abyss is, but they will understand if you need help.
For further information to understand your spiritual experiences, I suggest my books The Spiritual Awakening Guide and Working with Kundalini