Anyone who has been on the spiritual path for a number of years is likely to come to the point one day when they seem to hit a wall. We may have started off filled with enthusiasm (an interesting word whose literal meaning is ‘possessed by a god’), and we may have had certain numinous experiences which confirm the reality of our initial vision. Our spiritual practice may have brought us a measure of peace and detachment from worldly preoccupations. People we meet on the path who share our beliefs may have provided us with companionship. But one day, even if we remain true to ourselves and that initial vision, there will come a time when the world starts to close in on us again, and our spiritual achievements, whatever they might have been, begin to seem just a little hollow.
This is not a bad thing. In fact, I think we can say that, if it doesn’t happen, something is not as it should be. In that case it may mean that we have become caught up in the outer aspects of the spiritual path or, putting it in conventional terms, that our religion, the form our practice takes, now means more to us than God, the goal of our practice. It may mean that we have become satisfied with what we already know, or even think we know all there is to know. It may mean we have settled into the position of a spiritual teacher and gain the wrong sort of fulfilment from that position of authority. God forbid, we may even have become a spiritual expert. In all these cases we have lost the purity of that initial vision. We have ceased to be a child.
There is always a danger for the long-term spiritual practitioner that the mind will take over from the soul as the motivating force to advance along the path, and the individual won't even realise what has happened. He may continue for the rest of his life thinking he is making excellent progress when, in actual fact, he has become spiritually becalmed. I can tell you that there are many spiritual seekers (teachers and gurus among them) who imagine they have reached the end of the path when they have merely gained a certain stage on it, and who, unless they reassess their situation with a little more humility than they currently display, will arrest any further growth and might even regress.
That is why I say that it is not necessarily a bad thing to reach a point in your practice when everything seems to dry up and you feel you are not getting anywhere. At least you recognise that you have more to learn. You are saved from spiritual complacency.
What is happening here is that you are being tested. You might have received spiritual favours in the past, but these are withdrawn to test the worthiness of your motivation, and to prepare you for the next, and higher, step. Many people take to spirituality initially for what they hope to gain from it. There is nothing inherently wrong with that to begin with, but you can't carry on in that way. You must come to the point at which personal seeking gives way to acceptance of the will of God, whatever that may be. These periods when the light is withdrawn are to prepare you for that.
The spiritual path has many stages and what is right at one point is not at another. Generally speaking, the further you advance along that path, the more you will be tested and the less you will be offered spiritual sweets to encourage you to step into the wilderness. For the path does lead through the wilderness and the road is thorny. It is so because, despite what you may have been told by teachers of the feel good and be positive variety, there is no spirituality without suffering. That is not to say that suffering is part of God’s plan for us, but it is the inevitable result of identification with the ego. It requires a measure of suffering to cleanse the soul from the canker of self. Theoretically it would be nice if this could be accomplished simply through an awareness of the truth about the separate self and the fact that it is constructed by thought. If perception could bring this about then well and good, and perhaps in some cases it does. But the reality is that perception is usually just the first step. An essential step, to be sure, but it is rare that what we know alters at a fundamental level what we are. The prising away of ego, the stripping of self, must take place at a deep, deep level and that is why we need to experience the pain of suffering. That and the fact that without suffering there is no true compassion for, if you have not suffered, how can you identify with the suffering of others?
This is why, if you look into the eyes of a saint, you see depth. This depth has been brought about by the experience of suffering but, in the case of the saint, suffering freely accepted as the agent of purification and self-cleansing.
It may seem strange to speak of spiritual emptiness as suffering. For a worldly person it just proves that it was all nonsense to begin with, and it's time to 'get real'. But for someone who has had a taste of the soul and who has perceived its reality, for someone who knows in his head and heart that the spiritual world is the real world, to be denied access to that world is indeed suffering. It is correct to say that a really spiritual person would not be attached to his spirituality (for this is what is going on here), but we are frail creatures. We may know that emotional detachment is the mark of the sage, and we may aspire to that, but you cannot expect someone on the path to behave in exactly the same way as someone who has reached the end of it – even if that is what they have to learn to do if they would progress.
So what do you do in such circumstances? Well, one thing you can profitably do is put yourself into service to others in whatever form is appropriate for you. This will take your eyes away from yourself and arrest any tendency to self-preoccupation which, along with apathy, is one of the besetting sins of many on the spiritual path. Or else, if no such avenue opens up (and it may not), you just soldier on, living from moment to moment, forgetting self, forgetting your emotional reactions, ignoring your sense of loss and thanking the higher powers for their continual presence because, whether you feel it or not, they are there. These are the times when God is rewarding you for your efforts by withdrawing His presence. He wants nothing more than to give Himself entirely to you but He can only do that when you have given yourself entirely to Him. It is to enable you to do that that He plunges you into this darkness. You are on your own, abandoned and bereft of support. Only when you are in that state can you truly let go of self. Only when you have nothing can you be nothing, and only when you truly and absolutely know yourself to be nothing can God give Himself to you. For God is all there is, and if you would be filled by Him you must be perfectly empty of what is not Him. God is the True Self and you can only know that True Self when the false self has gone.