Out of suffering have emerged the strongest Souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars. – Khalil Gibran
At some point, most of us go through a phenomenon known as the Dark Night of the Soul.
Although we try to run from it, it is still there. Although we try to cover it up and smother it, it is still there. Although we try to put on a happy, smiley face and pretend it away, it’s still there.
While some of us seek reprieve in religious thought, others of us seek respite in spiritual philosophy or psychology, and still, others seek relief through addiction and mind-numbing external pursuits.
The truth is that although we are all born with Souls, not all of us know how to fully embody 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 all referred to this ego-centric human struggle in different ways. But the one thing they all had in common was their tendency to point 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, has now 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 (it’s a type of spiritual emergency.)
The concept of having a Dark Night of the Soul has existed for a long time, and spans back to the 16th century when poet and Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross wrote a poem entitled, “La noche oscura del alma (The Dark Night of the Soul).”
Wrote Saint John:
If a man wishes to be sure of the road he’s traveling on, then he must close his eyes and travel in the dark.
Traditionally, the Dark Night of the Soul refers to the experience of losing touch with God/Creator and being plunged into the abyss of godless emptiness. The modern understanding of having a Dark Night of the Soul, however, is not exclusively a religious one, but can often mean losing all meaning in life, feeling out-of-touch with the Divine, feeling betrayed or forsaken by Life, and having no solid or stable ground to stand on.
Some of the heaviest questions we ask during this period include for example, “Why am I alive?” “Why do good people suffer?” “What is truth?” “Is there a god or afterlife?” and “What is the point of living?”
Dark Night and Depression – Is it the Same Thing?
The Dark Night of the Soul is not the same as depression.
Although depression shares many of its characteristics with the experience of having a Dark Night of the Soul, it can often be treated and sometimes cured with medications, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), mindfulness practices, lifestyle changes, and so forth.
Furthermore, depression often has its roots in biological chemical imbalances and/or unhealthy thought patterns, and often comes as a result of personal loss, mental illness, physical illness, abuse, genetics, and so on.
On the other hand, having a Dark Night of the Soul is a much different experience because it is primarily a spiritual and existential form of crises that can’t be treated or cured with therapy or psychiatry. Therefore, those of us going through the Dark Night often feel an increasing sense of hopelessness, unease, and despair as we discover that no one can save us but ourselves. Inevitably, this makes us feel even more alone, frustrated and confused about the world and about ourselves.
I am intensely aware of what it is like to experience complete psychological and spiritual desolation and although the feeling seems endless, there is a light at the end of the tunnel if you just know where to look.
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 deep-seated changes occurring within us 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 once 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 an ego death whereby you shed the ego that prevents you from embodying your Soul.
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.
What is the Point of Living?
Here’s another central question and concern that emerges over and over again during our Dark Night of the Soul.
What is the point of living?
Such a question weighs down on us like led, oppressing us constantly.
Each day we might obsessively search for an answer, but find to our greatest dismay that the answers to such a question are as expansive as the waves on the ocean.
Some people tell us, “the point is to serve God,” others tell us, “the point is to make a difference,” and others tell us, “there is no point: you make your own meaning.” These are only three of hundreds, even thousands of possible answers.
What the hell are we supposed to do?
Who is right, who is wrong … if there really is any “right” or “wrong” answer? We walk down one path and immediately become dissatisfied, disillusioned, and repelled by what we discover. Then we walk down another path and history repeats itself again and again until we realize with horror, “Every path is meaningless to me,” and we collapse in grief and despair, winding up at square one again.
Such a cycle repeats itself over and over again during the Dark Night of the Soul, so much so that it can become like torment. I know because I have experienced it. The strange thing is that although we get to a point of complete desolation, we still hold a glimmer of hope that pursuing the same path over and over and over again will somehow bring us to a deeply satisfying meaning one day. We seem to think that the mind is the solution to our problems; that utilizing the mind will release us from the original prison created by the mind that feels the need to quantify, measure, and define everything.
What most of us fail to do, however, is to question the actual questions we are asking and pursuing the answers to. Have you ever tried asking:
Why must there be a point to living? Instead of, What is the point of living?
I’ll elaborate on this below.
Happiness Isn’t This or That, Happiness IS
Earlier today I opened my email and received a poignant message from one of our long-time readers asking:
I don’t understand. Why am I alive? Why do I experience life? I don’t know why I am here now. I don’t see the point of living my life. I don’t want anything, not material /physical achievements, not relationships, not entertainment, nothing. I don’t know what to do with this body, mind, and feelings. Or maybe I just experience this life too intensely until I am numbed. But why?
My answer to anyone experiencing this is that although you might feel cursed, you are actually blessed. It sounds absurd, even insulting, but this is the truth.
Before any true growth or healing can occur, there must be a process of destruction and complete annihilation of everything you thought would bring you happiness.
Most people experiencing Dark Nights realize this: that nothing makes them happy anymore; not bodily, not sexual, not emotional, not material, not political, not social, not even spiritual. And this is the start of the purification process.
Conditioning vs. reality …
Since birth you have been conditioned to believe that money will make you happy, a sexy/rich partner will make you happy, a high IQ will make you happy, a big house will make you happy, a thriving career will make you happy, a perfect life will make you happy.
But this is all a lie because whenever you pursue happiness, you are immediately losing touch with the fact that happiness is already here, right now, in this very second, without you having to do anything or question anything. Happiness IS.
This sounds like the most ridiculous thing you might have ever heard, and yet deep down you might sense the truth in it. If this is the case the first layer of your illusion has been peeled away; what a blessing!
A blessing in disguise …
In reality, it is absolutely terrifying to have the ground beneath your feet ripped out from beneath you, and this is precisely what we experience during the Dark Night of the Soul.
And yet, this experience is the greatest teacher of all to us because it illuminates what is fragile, transient, and subject to change, growth, and decay. We are subsequently left with a feeling of great inner emptiness, but within this emptiness, we eventually come to see what can never come, go, change or die, and that is the truth of who we are: pure, peaceful, and blissful conscious essence.
The mind is always frantically searching …
The mind is a product of our evolutionary development: it protects us and structures our existence, and through it, we can experience the beauty of life. But in order to truly come to any closure during our Dark Nights we must understand that the mind is limited, narrow and finite – and therefore so is our reasoning.
Why must there be a “point” to living other than the experience of being alive in all of its fascinating and shocking diversity? Why must we “pursue” or “find” something rather than simply experiencing each moment fully and completely in the simplicity of Being?
That is why I say that happiness isn’t this or that, happiness IS. What exactly are we seeking when we want to answer the question, “What is the point of living”? We want a satisfactory answer that will appeal to the mind and “GIVE” us happiness.
But happiness can’t be given because happiness IS. This might all sound like fancy rhetoric, but I recommend that you let it sink in and really look into it more. For me it took years, but these six questions helped to solidify the understanding that happiness and fulfillment are already here, now. Please read them to continue your journey.
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.
Paradise lost and found …
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.
Find freedom through purging …
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: