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Spiritual Loneliness

About twelve years ago, some extraordinary letters came to light. These were letters written by the much-loved Mother Teresa of Calcutta, also known as the “saint of the gutters.” She wrote these letters to people who came to her for “confession.” These letters allow deep insight into the spiritual life of this extraordinary woman.

There was a familiar weariness to her writing, and it seems that the Teresa of these letters actually lived in a state of deep and abiding spiritual pain. Shortly after beginning her life’s work, she felt that something in her relationship with God had suddenly altered. We read, in more than forty letters spanning a period of 50 years, that she experienced dryness, darkness, loneliness, and even mental torture. She compares this experience to hell and, at one point, says it had driven her to doubt the existence of heaven and even of God. For most of her 50 years in service to him, we read how she was unable to come to terms with what she saw as a serious lack of spirituality within herself.

To read about her spiritual struggle is particularly sad, in light of her devotion to God and the devoted service she rendered to humanity on his behalf. Yet her experience is a relatively familiar one, one that affects many devotees or disciples on the spiritual journey. Whether the experience is brief and only just touches us, or whether that experience is deeper and far more intense, as with some of the saints and mystics we read about – nonetheless it affects us in some way or another. Sometimes we have a gentle touch of this experience and sometimes it is a devastating and inconsolable experience of grief and inner loneliness, as in the case of Teresa.

There have been many names given to describe this characteristic stage in the growth of spiritual devotees, such as “spiritual loneliness,” “spiritual darkness” and, in the extreme cases of the European saints and mystics, it has also been known as “the dark night of the soul.” According to the saints and mystics, this kind of experience can strike at any time and can last for any length of time. The length of its duration and spiritual impact depends entirely on the Lord’s will and what He needs to accomplish in that person’s life.

Those disciples, in their grief and inner loneliness, then consciously struggle for the light and divine love of God once again. So we can say that it is this experience of spiritual loneliness that inevitably becomes the catalyst or turning point for spiritual progress, because this struggle also creates such a yearning and longing within us for the Lord that we are automatically drawn closer to Him. However, when undergoing this kind of experience, whether extreme or otherwise, the disciple is at first usually unable to understand why this is happening and therefore remains caught up in the misery of overwhelming loneliness.

But this is when the sweet advice of the mystic Hafiz is so valuable, for he says:

Don’t surrender your loneliness so quickly.
Let it cut more deep.
Let it ferment and season you
  as few human or even divine ingredients can.1

Here Hafiz is advising us to adopt an unusual approach to our experience, one of positivity. Rather than seeing it as a kind of punishment from God, we should accept it instead and allow it “to ferment and season us” in such a way that the deeper it cuts both mentally and emotionally, the more profound the experience. According to Hafiz, there is nothing on this earth, human or spiritual, that has the ability to inspire within us that kind of love, longing, and yearning for the Lord. Hafiz then shares something very special from his own personal experience:

Something missing in my heart tonight
  has made my eyes so soft, my voice so tender
  and my need of God is absolutely clear.

Here he has come to realize, through this experience, his all-out need for the Lord, which has now inspired within him a longing and yearning of such depth that the moment he thinks of God his eyes become soft; and when he speaks, his voice becomes tender. Hafiz was fortunate enough to recognize and embrace what was happening to him at that moment in time, thereby embracing that ultimate experience of love and yearning for the Lord, for his Master.

Sadly, we struggle to see with that same kind of clarity, because the veil of illusion clouds our mind, and so we suffer in that loneliness, that ignorance, and find it difficult to see anything good in our situation. Yet here Hafiz once again says something that is awe-inspiring. He says:

I wish I could show you,
  when you are lonely or in darkness
  the astonishing light of your own being
  above the eyes.2

These words are profound, because this is the desire of all true living Masters – to show us the blazing or “astonishing light” that is constantly burning at our eye center – precisely when we are feeling so wretched, so worn down, and so positively unspiritual. The saints and mystics through their teachings assure us that this light is always there, has always been there, and will continue to be there. They remind us that through the practice of our daily meditation – that of simran, dhyan and bhajan – we will in time come to discover this astonishing light within ourselves at the eye center, that most sacred holy of holies where we make contact with the Shabd or audible life stream, which liberates our soul from its enslavement by the mind and senses, thereby freeing it to reunite with the Lord.

We now know primarily from the teachings of the saints and mystics that going through a period of spiritual loneliness boosts inner progress. According to Hazur Maharaj Ji, there could also be certain factors which may trigger this sudden experience.

He states four possibilities:

  • Sometimes a strong layer of karma comes
  • Sometimes ego enters our mind
  • Sometimes attachments enter our minds
  • Sometimes our minds are pulled back to the senses.3

His advice in such cases is that we continue attending to our meditation, because “if the grace was there before it will return once again.”4 Then Hazur speaks of what he calls “one other extra hidden factor.” He says “there is hidden pleasure in the pain.” He goes on to explain what he means by giving an example from the teachings of Christ. Jesus said:

A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.5

Hazur explained how this applies to us in Die to Live:

If a woman is frightened of the pain of childbirth, she will never have the pleasure of delivering a child, because that pain carries the pleasure. To receive pleasure, she needs to first undergo the agony associated with childbirth. It is the same way with us. We have to pass through that agony of separation from the Father before we can achieve the happiness of union.6

Hazur was once asked:

Does every soul have to go through a period of intense longing before it reaches the Father?

Once more Hazur replies:

It’s not a question of having to, as that feeling is always there. The soul is always yearning to go back to its own Source, to the Father. But we don’t feel that longing now due to our load of karmas and our tendency towards the senses.7

Hazur Maharaj Ji pointed out that it is only by the grace of the Lord that we are able to achieve anything on this path at all. Otherwise our karmas keep us back. He said:

Without grace nothing can happen. Only by his grace will we come into a certain atmosphere where we can work our way up. And without his grace, we would never even know that the Lord exists.8

We’re always talking about grace, and we’re always asking the Master to “shower his grace on us,” but do we really understand what it is that we are asking for? And more important – do we even recognize grace when it comes? More often than not, grace comes in ways that we don’t expect, or which we are not even willing to acknowledge, for often the grace we receive can be painful and seemingly hard to bear.

The philosopher Paul Brunton said:

Grace does not necessarily follow the lines set by human expectation, prayer, or desire. … Grace needs a prepared mind to receive it, a self-controlled life to accept it, an aspiring heart to attract it. It is grace which inspires our best moves, and which enables us to make them. … Grace is the medicine that enables us to subjugate our ego and to enjoy the pleasures and delights of spiritual progress. The grace of God is no respecter of persons or places. It comes to the heart that desires it most whether that heart be in the body of a king or of a commoner, a man of action or a recluse.9

So even those pangs of loneliness or the perception of separation is the Master’s grace, but to identify it in that light, we need – as with Hafiz – a prepared mind to receive it and an aspiring heart to attract it.

The jolt and painful feeling of separation may not be the sort of thing that we would expect to happen to us on the spiritual journey, nor perhaps the preferred way in which we would like for the Master to “shower his grace on us,” but in time and in hindsight, we will see things with a greater clarity. And we will be grateful for this experience, because it is humbling to say the least, and it brings us to our knees before him. This is a necessary part of our spiritual development because we have grown so accustomed to thinking that our spirituality is about our meditation, our love for the Master, our efforts, and our yearning for him, that it becomes all about “ourselves” and not about the grace of the Master.

But the fact is, for us to be able to actually meditate, love the Master, and yearn for him, something would have had to be placed deep within us by the Lord himself to trigger these responses and create the pull of love, yearning, and the desire to return home again.

Hazur Maharaj Ji explains:

Who makes us yearn? It’s not our meditation. It is the Father himself. He uproots us from here and takes us to his own level. Practically, we do nothing. You can take credit that you sit for two hours or three hours, but there is something which makes you sit. It’s not you. Left to you, you would not even sit for five minutes. So, if you see this from the higher point of view, it’s definitely the Father who is pulling us up to his own level. It’s not our efforts at all.10

The Lord moves in mysterious ways, and what we don’t realize is that every time we think about our poor meditation, our lack of spiritual joy on the path, or our lack of love for the Master, we are already living in a state of grace, because our thoughts are turned towards this loss, which in turn makes us yearn to experience these things – which in turn makes us think of him.

The Lord is all-knowing and works in ways that we cannot fathom until he chooses the particular moment in our lives to enlighten us. But his fundamental reasoning is always to bring us closer to him, to break down those barriers of mind and illusion, and take us home again.

To repeat what Hafiz says to us:

I wish I could show you
  when you are lonely or in darkness
  the astonishing light of your own being
  above the eyes.

Here Hafiz is reassuring us that even though things may appear dark and hopeless at times, the light of our soul, which has never gone out, is still blazing away at the eye center, dulled only by the layers of our karma.

So if we are able to remember these words of Hafiz and then grasp hold of that vision of our soul, glowing in all its perfection, we will discover that there is a beacon of light shining in the surrounding darkness of our lives, enabling us to glimpse through our karmic shadows the glory of what is yet to come. It is in that brief glimpse that we perfectly come to understand exactly what we need to acknowledge, which is, once more and finally, in those words of Hafiz:

My need of God is absolutely clear.

  1. The Subject Tonight is Love: 60 Wild and Sweet Poems of Hafiz, tr. Daniel Ladinsky
  2. The Gift, Poems by Hafiz, tr. Daniel Ladinsky
  3. Die to Live, # 329
  4. Ibid
  5. Bible, John 16:21–22
  6. Die to Live, # 288
  7. Die to Live, # 289
  8. The Master Answers, # 120
  9. Paul Brunton, The Gift of Grace: Awakening to Its Presence, Notebooks, ed. Sam Cohen; Larson Publications, 2011
  10. Die to Live, # 377