Joseph Smith’s “Sinking” Into the Darkest Abyss to Commune with God

“The highest form of meditation is not an activity that is undertaken by the mind. It is a relaxing, falling back or sinking of the mind into its source or essence of pure awareness, from which it has arisen.”

A recent quote I saw shared was from the nondual spiritual teacher Rupert Spira, in which he said this:

…just as the beam of light from a flashlight can be directed towards an object but cannot be directed towards the bulb from which it emanates, so awareness, in the form of attention or mind, can direct the light of its knowing towards objective experience but cannot direct itself towards itself.

We cannot direct our mind towards the experience of being aware; we can only direct our mind away from it. Therefore, it would be more accurate to say that awareness must relax the focus of its attention, or disentangle itself from the objects of experience, thereby allowing its attention to return to or come to rest in itself. Thus, the highest form of meditation is not an activity that is undertaken by the mind. It is a relaxing, falling back or sinking of the mind into its source or essence of pure awareness, from which it has arisen.

The returning of awareness to itself, its remembrance of itself–being aware of being aware–is the essence of meditation and prayer, and the direct path to lasting peace and happiness.

The word that caught my eye in this quote is “sinking.” We don’t often think of allowing our mind to “sink” into its essence or pure awareness, devoid of all objective thoughts. This may even be perceived as a kind of oblivion of self, because our self often identifies with the objects of our thought. It is those thoughts that make up our sense of “self.”

The Mormon prophet Joseph Smith experienced this kind of “sinking” in two very different ways. The first he expressed in 1838 in association with his First Vision experience, which he says happened to him in 1820. Just prior to having his heavenly vision, he felt as if he were overcome by darkness:

After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God. I had scarcely done so, when immediately I was seized upon by some power which entirely overcame me, and had such an astonishing influence over me as to bind my tongue so that I could not speak. Thick darkness gathered around me, and it seemed to me for a time as if I were doomed to sudden destruction.

But, exerting all my powers to call upon God to deliver me out of the power of this enemy which had seized upon me, and at the very moment when I was ready to sink into despair and abandon myself to destruction—not to an imaginary ruin, but to the power of some actual being from the unseen world, who had such marvelous power as I had never before felt in any being—just at this moment of great alarm, I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me. (JS-H 1:15-16)

“History, circa June 1839–circa 1841 [Draft 2],” p. 3, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 31, 2018, I’ve highlighted the word “sink.”
Joseph felt himself “sinking” into a “thick darkness,” and attributed this to an “enemy,” perhaps Satan, as most modern LDS commentators interpret it. This “sinking” he felt was like a destruction of his self, an abandonment of self, a kind of fall or total surrender into despair. It was in that very moment, he says, that he saw the bright sunlight appear over his head and he communed with God.

Since most Mormon interpreters see this as a visit by Satan, or his devils, it seems to be a very bad thing. Even Joseph himself, later in this same account, thought that he was visited by the “adversary” on this occasion:

It seems as though the adversary was aware, at a very early period of my life, that I was destined to prove a disturber and an annoyer of his kingdom; else why should the powers of darkness combine against me? (JS-H 1:20)

What is interesting to me is that less than a year later, in 1839, Joseph was writing a letter from Liberty Jail to the members of the church, in which he urged them to use their minds to commune with God. It is this quote which inspired the name of this website:

…the things of God Are of deep import and time and expeariance and car[e]ful and pondurous and solom though[ts] can only find them out. thy mind O Man, if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation must streach [stretch] as high as the utmost Heavens, and sink sear[c]h in to and contemplate the loest lowest consideatins [considerations] of the darkest abyss, and Expand upon the broad considerations of Eternal Expance, he must commune with God.

Notice here that originally Joseph seems to have dictated that one must “sink into and contemplate the lowest considerations of the darkest abyss,” in order to commune with God. That word “sink” seems to have been written over the top afterwards at some point and changed to “searh” or search (see original document and transcription here). It’s unknown who made this change (perhaps the original scribe or Joseph), when, or why, but most references to this quotation now use “search” instead of “sink.” Most people probably aren’t aware that it originally said “sink.”

“Letter to the Church and Edward Partridge, 20 March 1839,” p. 12, The Joseph Smith Papers, accessed January 31, 2018, I’ve highlighted the word “sink” that was subsequently changed to “searh.”

I think this is quite interesting and insightful, because in this instance Joseph seems to be advocating, even insisting on, the very kind of “sinking into darkness” that he earlier attributed to Satan, but this time as part of the process of coming to commune with God. What?! Indeed, even Joseph himself, in his First Vision experience, only saw the light “above the brightness of the sun” after passing through the “thick darkness,” or “powers of darkness.”

I perceive that this “darkness” was not an outside entity or external evil being attacking him, but Joseph’s own shadow, the darkness of Joseph’s own ego or psychological “self,” which he perceived was being destroyed, annihilated (see the Sufi fana), passing into oblivion (see the Buddhist anattā, anātman “no-self,” or śūnyatā “emptiness” or “voidness”). His sense of “self” was disappearing, and this was extremely frightening to him (to his ego), and he felt as if something else, some other power, was doing it to him. But perhaps it was that ego itself, feeling threatened with its own dissolution and “death,” that was externalizing the cause of that destruction to something else, when really it was simply passing away in Joseph’s consciousness.

As Spira noted in the first quote, the highest form of meditation (contemplation or prayer) is one which rests from all the objects of experience, disentangles itself from all objective experience, relaxes from all the objects of thoughts in the mind, and falls back or sinks back into its own essence or pure awareness of mind. Because our minds almost always identify our sense of “self” with the objects of experience in our minds, the abandonment of these mental objects may feel like a destruction of our very mental model of our “self.” We may feel like we are being destroyed, dying, falling into the “lowest considerations of the darkest abyss.” Joseph notes in another account of the First Vision that “my mind was taken away from the objects with which I was surrounded,” after which he “was enwrapped in a heavenly vision.” All the “objects” of his conscious experience left his mind.

This kind of destruction of the egoic self, or psychological self, has quite an extensive history in mysticism and mystical experience. It has become known by many names, including ego death, and “the dark night of the soul.” The latter term comes from the 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross, who wrote a famous poem and commentaries on the topic by that name, Dark Night of the Soul. I perceive that it is also known in Christianity by the name “atonement,” “sacrifice,” and even “crucifixion.” It may be what Jesus himself did when he cried out in despair from the Garden of Gethsemane, “not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42). Indeed, the Apostle Paul later recorded that he too had been “crucified,” and that he no longer lived, but that Christ lived in him (Galatians 2:20). I perceive that “Satan” is essentially the personification of this darkness in the human ego, all our objective experience of “self” and its illusions, which must “fall away” for Christ to be revealed in us (see 2 Thes. 2:3-4). We must lose our life (egoic self), to find our Life in Christ (Matthew 10:39). We find that our true Life is Christ, just as Paul. We realize that name in us, as us, our True Self (Alma 5:38-39). I perceive that Jesus realized this too, his true nature, and thereafter came to embody it in his life, which is why they called him “Christ.”

We can find this symbolism throughout the Old Testament too. God was often found within a cloud of darkness. In Job 38, God speaks to Job from out of a “whirlwind,” which Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown call “the veil of a dark cloud.” The description of it as a “whirlwind” may suggest the tumultuous and destructive nature of it, like a tornado, since it is also called a “storm,” “clouds are the dust of his feet” (Nahum 1:3). Ezekiel sees a vision of God coming out of a “whirlwind” and a “great cloud” (Ezek. 1:4). Elijah is said to have been taken up into heaven by such a “whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:1, 11). Of course, earlier Yahweh spoke to Moses from out of a “cloud” which covered Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:15-18). It later covered the tabernacle too, as a “cloudy pillar” (Exodus 33:9-10, 40:34). In the Psalms God is said to have “darkness” “under his feet,” “fly upon the wings of the wind,” even “darkness [is] his secret place,” his pavilion being “dark waters and thick clouds” (Psalm 18:9-12).

It is often by passing into this dark cloud that one then sees God’s fire, or the fire comes from out of these dark clouds, just as Joseph passed through “thick darkness,” a “the darkest abyss,” and afterwards saw a “pillar of fire,” in which he “communed with God.” The “cloud of darkness” shows up many times in the Book of Mormon too, which I think is a reflection of Joseph’s contemplative and mystical experiences with the Divine. These talk of fear, death, and destruction, from which God speaks, and from out of which comes light and pillars of fire, and even God (see the whole chapter of Helaman 5). See also 3 Nephi 8, which talks of “thick darkness,” “vapor of darkness,” and “mists of darkness,” and great death and destruction. It is from in that darkness that the voice of Christ is heard (3 Nephi 9), and eventually Christ is revealed (3 Nephi 11). Truth and light come forth “out of darkness” into light (Mormon 8:16). In 2 Nephi 7:10-11 (Isaiah 50:10-11), which talks of “walking in darkness,” and then “kindling fire,” and walking in the “sparks” and “light of your fire.” There are many more examples.

Perhaps this egoic darkness of “self” is what we too must all pass through, and ultimately surrender, if we wish to “commune with God.” All the objects of “self” experience must fall away from our consciousness, and we sink through that “darkness” and void of objective experience into pure consciousness, into pure awareness itself, into the awareness from which all light arises, the contemplation of “Eternal Expanse,” which is “lasting peace and happiness.” This is what Joseph also felt after passing through the darkness; he said that as the “fire” rested on him, it “filled me with joy unspeakable,” even a “state of calmness and peace, indescribable,” “my Soul was filled with love,” and “the Lord was with me,” perhaps even perceiving himself as God’s “Beloved Son.”

Unless there is first a death of “self” in our consciousness, how can their be spiritual rebirth, even a resurrection of Christ within us, or the realization of our Buddha-nature?

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