Out of suffering have emerged the strongest Souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars. – Khalil Gibran
Although we are all born with Souls, not all of us know how to fully embody them and integrate them into our human experience. The truth is that in our modern world, we live Ego-centrically rather than Soul-centrically.
Mystics, saints, and shamans throughout history have referred to our struggle as humans in different ways – but they all pointed to the need for us to consciously grow into our divine potential.
These days, the concept of the Dark Night of the Soul has come to be used in a much broader way. What was once a term reserved for people actively going through a Spiritual Journey, now has come to easily label anything ranging from a few bad days and a period of depression to the death of a loved one.
But what really is the Dark Night of the Soul?
First, we’ll start with a basic definition:
What is the Dark Night of the Soul?
The Dark Night of the Soul is a period of utter spiritual desolation, disconnection, and emptiness in which one feels totally separated from the Divine. Those who experience the Dark Night feel completely lost, hopeless, and consumed with melancholy. The Dark Night of the Soul can be likened to severe spiritual depression.
7 Omens That Herald the Dark Night of the Soul
I am a forest, and a night of dark trees: but he who is not afraid of my darkness, will find banks full of roses under my cypresses. – Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
“What’s the difference between the dark night and depression?” you may still wonder.
Even back in the 16th century, Saint John of the Cross himself was at great pains to distinguish the Dark Night from mere melancholia (depression).
After all, the symptoms of the Dark Night of the Soul are not that different from depression. But while depression is psychological/neurological/biological, the Dark Night heralds a deeply occurring change within known as spiritual transformation.
Here are 7 “omens” that you might be going through a Dark Night of the Soul:
- You feel a deep sense of sadness, which often verges on despair (this sadness is often triggered by the state of your life, humanity, and/or the world as a whole)
- You feel an acute sense of unworthiness
- You have the constant feeling of being lost or “condemned” to a life of suffering or emptiness
- You possess a painful feeling of powerlessness and hopelessness
- Your will and self-control is weakened, making it difficult for you to act
- You lack interest and find no joy in things that once excited you
- You crave for the loss of something intangible; a longing for a distant place or to “return home” again
The ultimate difference between depression and the Dark Night of the Soul is that depression is usually self-centric, whereas the Dark Night is philosophical in nature and is accompanied by existential reflections such as “Why am I here?” and “What is my purpose?”
Also, when depression ends, not much changes in your life in terms of your beliefs, values, and habits. However, when the Dark Night of the Soul ends, everything in your life is transformed, and life becomes wondrous again.
Why Suffering is Necessary
My desire to live is as intense as ever, and though my heart is broken, hearts are made to be broken: that is why God sends sorrow into the world … To me, suffering seems now a sacramental thing, that makes those whom it touches holy … any materialism in life coarsens the soul. – Oscar Wilde “Letters“
Polish psychologist Kazimierz Dąbrowski coined a term Positive disintegration which views tension and anxiety as necessary in the process of spiritual and psychological maturing. In other words, it is the friction within us that causes the mirror of our Souls to be polished enough for us to glimpse our True Nature.
I often hear people speak of the Dark Night as some kind problem they have to “fix,” or something they “went through a long time ago, that is now over, thank God.” But what these people thought was a Dark Night may have just been a glimpse of the darkness within them, especially when they speak egotistically about it as if it were a badge of honor.
A true Dark Night of the Soul leaves a long-lasting impact on you – it changes you completely. When you exit a Dark Night, you will discover that something is always taken away from you (for the better), such as your beliefs, your perceptions, your former meaning in life, or even in rare cases, your ego. The metaphysician Ananda Coomaraswamy put it this way, “No creature can attain a higher grade of nature without ceasing to exist.”
Have you ever seen a butterfly begin to emerge from its cocoon? It must struggle in order to strengthen its wings. If someone frees the butterfly from its cocoon prematurely, it won’t be able to fly because its crucial tempering stage will not have occurred.
The same is true for trees. Trees need wind in order to build their structural strength to stay upright.
Your Dark Night of the Soul is your wind, your cocoon; it is the struggle of shedding the Ego Self that helps you to embody your Soul Self.
If you try to avoid the hard work of, as Ananda put it, “ceasing to exist,” or breaking down your old confining structures, you won’t have what it takes to truly embody your essential nature.
The Dark Night and The Spiritual Awakening Process
As humans, the prospect of change is avoided and resisted because it is unknown territory. Therefore, we fear it. For this reason, we require a Spiritual Awakening.
There are three ways that Spiritual Awakenings can occur: the first is at the hands of wise spiritual teachers, the second is through the spiritual drive of soulfully mature people, and the third is spontaneously due to life experience.
Spontaneous awakenings arrive in a number of ways: a terminal diagnosis, old age, a near-death experience, a physical accident, the loss of a loved one, a romantic breakup, the destruction of your home or homeland, suicidal depression, or the complete loss of your religious faith.
The Dark Night is a herald, an omen, of change. It lets us know that we can’t continue living the way we have been living. There is no growth, no awakening in life, to life, without first seeing and acknowledging our existing disappointment.
Acknowledging our disappointment means becoming aware of the deeply held sense of “incompletion” that we all carry; it means becoming aware that something is desperately missing from our lives. Those that have experienced, or are currently experiencing a Dark Night of the Soul will know that something very fundamental at a core level is out of focus or completely lacking in their lives. Those going through a Dark Night will sense that so much more is possible in their lives, even though they don’t exactly know what that “so much more” is.
One of the common reasons why Dark Nights occur and are prolonged is due to mystical experiences, or short glimpses of the divine, which spiritual teachers often refer to as “grace” or samādhi. Soon afterward, the person “loses” this experience, and is plunged into unhappiness again. This is called the “halo effect,” “afterglow” or what the Sufis speak of as the “sobriety of union.”
Why does the “halo effect” happen? It happens because of the stark contrast between one’s rediscovered Divine Self and the return to one’s disconnected and tormented Ego self. To the spiritually mature person, the halo effect sets the stage for a future encounter with the transcendental, with God.
However, for the less prepared seeker, the glimpse into the Divine stirs up even more distress as old habits, obsessions, thoughts, and behaviors reappear. Now, such a person realizes that he has a long, complex, and demanding task of purification and transformation ahead of him.
In Spiritual Alchemy, there is a word for this experience called “solutio”; putting all the hard stuff in the waters of reflection (your ideas, your habits, etc.), where it dissolves and breaks apart, shows itself for what it is, and gives you the opportunity for a fresh start.
The solution to one’s suffering and disconnection from the divine realm can be any method of cutting away, dislodging, disintegrating and clearing old pieces of your life so that you can begin afresh.
Essentially, the Dark night is a process of shedding away your old home and going in search of a new one. Understandably, this process requires a huge leap of faith into the unknown which can come at quite a sudden and frightening pace.
If you think you might be going through this journey, it’s important to understand that many of us have been where you are. Many people still are. There is no map, there is only the flickering luminescence of your Soul to light the way.
I hope our work can encourage, embolden and support you if you are undertaking this descent into your Underworld. (You can read more about the Spiritual Awakening Process in our book.)
Dark Night of the Soul Meditation
While every experience of the Dark Night of the Soul is different, the one common thread is that it is a path of initiation. You are in the dark so that you can understand what Light is. You are disconnected so that you can know what connection is. You are lost so that you can find your way back Home. If these explanations of the Dark Night don’t resonate with you, please go ahead and discard of them. I’m not here to tell you what the Dark Night of the Soul should mean because ultimately you must figure that out for yourself. You need to be the one to make meaning out of your experience. I can only offer my own understanding.
If you have read up until this point you are probably looking for additional help, and that is completely understandable. However, the Dark Night of the Soul is a complex and profound experience and it cannot be solved by reading a “six-step” formula or bullet list. What I can offer you, however, is a simple meditation which may provide you with some level of relief.
When you can dredge up enough energy (I know how exhausting and depleting the Dark Night can be), try experimenting with the following Dark Night of the Soul meditation:
Find a quiet and undisturbed place. If you like, play some celestial or ethereal music in the background to set the mood. Lie down and close your eyes. For a minute or two focus on your breath. Feel your chest rise and fall. Once you feel connected with your body, shift your focus to creating an image of yourself walking through a dark forest. Imagine that you are looking above to see the dark tangled branches of the forest obscure the sky. What does the forest feel like? Is it cold, hot, balmy, humid or icy? Can you smell, feel or taste anything?
As you keep walking through the dark forest, the path in front of you seems endless. The atmosphere feels deathly and melancholic. Suddenly, a white wolf emerges from the trees. It looks at you with intelligent and kind eyes and begins to accompany you as you walk. Your feeling of loneliness lifts slightly as you enjoy the company of your animal friend. Suddenly, the wolf beside you stops and stares intensely into the dark trees ahead of you. You peer ahead but cannot see anything but dark shadows. Suddenly, your wolf companion lifts up his head and lets out a loud and haunting wolf call.
The hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Just after the wolf stops howling, a white light slowly emerges from deep within the forest. At first, the light is tiny and like a pinprick. But as you walk towards it, the light becomes bigger and brighter. A feeling of hope begins to fill you. Tentatively, you start jogging towards the light. You notice that the faster you run, the bigger the light gets. The closer you move to the light, the more open and expansive you feel. You pick up your pace. The feeling is exhilarating! Far behind you, the white wolf howls again. A feeling of wildness and freedom starts to warm you from the inside out. As you continue running, the light begins to consume your vision. The dark forest begins to quickly fade. As you look down, you notice that your legs are the legs of a wolf – without knowing it, you have experienced a total transformation – and it is liberating! Picking up your pace, you keep running and you let out a loud howl. The piercing sound of the howl dissolves all hopelessness, sadness, and darkness left within you. The howl has completely purified you. All that remains is pure light, love, hope, power, and peace. You feel spacious and open. You are free!
Enjoy the feeling of freedom for as long as you wish. When you are ready, wiggle your fingers and toes and return back to the room. You may like to journal about your experience.
Feel free to record this visualization, get someone to read it out to you gently, or change the meditation to your own liking. It has been created to ultimately benefit you.
To end this article, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite Dark Night of the Soul quotes by David Whyte – a man who understood the value of making peace with the darkness:
…Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your womb
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
You must learn one thing.
The world was made to be free in
Give up all the other worlds
except the one to which you belong.
Sometimes it takes darkness and the sweet
confinement of your aloneness
anything or anyone
that does not bring you alive
is too small for you.
– “Sweet Darkness” by David Whyte
Now, over to you: