Navigating a Dark Night of the Soul
“Oh, night that guided me, Oh, night more lovely than the dawn…”
(~from Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross)
It seems odd to be writing about dark nights of the soul at the height of summer, as the prevailing energy around me is one of vacation, fun, and sunlight. But it’s been a recurring theme with people I’ve been working with lately, so I felt compelled to write about it. As background if you’re not familiar with this term, ‘dark night of the soul’ is the title of a poem written by sixteenth-century mystic St. John of the Cross. The dark night represents the painful periods a soul goes through on its journey to union with God. Although ‘soul’ and ‘God’ aren’t usually part of my spiritual lexicon, this poem and the journey it describes really transcends religious boundaries.
When we talk about a dark night of the soul, we are very specifically talking about a spiritual crises – a crises of faith. Not depression, or grief, or anxiety, or any of the other difficult phases (or disorders in the case of clinical depression or PTSD) that we might experience in our lifetime, although of course sometimes these may trigger a spiritual crises, or visa versa. In a dark night of the soul we feel spiritually disconnected, disillusioned, and cast into doubt about all we previously felt to be true. We may feel as if we’ve been kidding ourselves, or that we’ve been betrayed by the teachings or teachers we once held dear. We may feel unworthy, or simply adrift – often a dark night follows a period of great transformation and awakening, when we felt we had opened to a new level of understanding and joy. Then suddenly – perhaps triggered by an event but often not – we feel a loss of momentum, an inability to connect with the light or Source in the way we once did.
The first step for working with a dark night of the soul is admitting we are in one. This can often be the hardest part in our feel-good, Prozac-fueled, ‘think positive’ culture, where we are encouraged to view sadness, doubt or any heavier emotion as something to be medicated or overcome through counter-thoughts. And certainly both medication and seeking to change our thoughts have value at times, depending on what we are going through. But in a true spiritual crises, they may only halt the process we are undergoing, causing us to lose a precious opportunity.
Because a dark night is an opportunity, an extremely powerful one. It represents a step in our spiritual maturing – a growing up. At heart, a dark night of the soul represents some loss of projection, the loss of some delusion we once held as truth. Some foundation of our ego has been dashed, and we are at a loss. Sometimes this might be a kind of backlash after a period of great healing, opening, or awakening. Sometimes it creeps up on us slowly, as at some level – not necessarily conscious – we gradually come to realize that whatever spiritual basket we had put our eggs in will not guarantee us a perfect life, free from strife or pain or struggle.
Often it represents disillusionment with whatever spiritual path we have been on. However open and accepting of multiple paths that we may think we are, however much we may say that there are many different paths, and we each walk our own, and there are many different truths, and we respect everyone’s journey as valid etc. etc. (all the cornerstone beliefs of us contemporary progressive spiritual seekers) it is always our ego’s tendency to grasp onto whatever path we are currently on as THE ONLY TRUTH. Oh we have finally found it! The truth! The one teacher/technique/meditation/philosophy/organization etc. that has it all RIGHT! We are finally in the know! This awakening experience was finally it! There is no turning back!
And there is no turning back, that is for sure. But our psyche is very tricky. Even when on the surface of our mind, at the level of ideas, we are constantly affirming the validity of others’ paths, at some level we can still come to identify with our own as THE ULTIMATE, the one true way. And when this becomes threatened by other’s doubts, or beliefs, or by what we perceive to be our own failings (snapping at our children, silently cursing a slow cashier, cursing the driver who cut us off – how could we? after dissolving into the light?) we lose faith in what seemed so certain. Because we have become subtly attached to our path or what we perceive its fruits to be, we crash when something threatens its validity.
Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa termed this attaching ‘spiritual materialism’ – the trick our ego has of co-opting our spiritual process and understanding. He once wrote, “enlightenment is ego’s ultimate disappointment” – and so of course our ego will resist it all the way. That’s it’s job! The ego is about survival, and in terms of our survival here on earth, it is quite useful. But on our spiritual journey, it is a trickster. And when we hit a dark night, it is a sign that our ego has been crushed in some way – it has not gotten what it wanted. Which if you are interested in truth, is great news, really.
So once you’ve admitted you are in a dark night, the best thing you can do to navigate through is to meet it head on by asking yourself, “Ok, how have I been disappointed? What idea, or belief, or experience, has not met my expectations? What did I think I would get from my spiritual practice, or teachings, or experiences, that I have not gotten? What had I attached to my search without realizing it? What projections had I created? What about me did I think would be ‘fixed’?”
This isn’t easy, and sometimes you need to be gentle with yourself. But if truth is what guides you, what choice do you have? To deny your doubts will only give them more power. By inquiring into them, you may let projections go. Or you may discover that the doubts themselves were part of a habit of mind, and let that go. Either way, you will mature.
Trungpa, known for his intensity, put it slightly differently:
“Whatever shakes you should without delay, right away, be incorporated into the path.”
Because if it shakes you, you are not relying on conditioned mind. You are questioning. You are uncomfortable. You are in process, not static. (And he was master of shaking people up, employing some quite unconventional and controversial methods for doing so! But that’s another topic:-)
Adyashanti is a contemporary spiritual teacher that addresses this quite wonderfully in his End of Your World, which I’ve recommended more than once here. Talking about the enlightenment process, he says:
“We have to be willing to lose our whole world. That may sound romantic when you first hear it—’Oh, yes, let me sign up! I’m willing to lose my whole world.’ But when your whole world starts to crumble, and you start to emerge from unimaginably deep states of denial, it is something altogether different.”
For his part, St. John, with whom we started this post, describes going in and out of these dark nights, emerging each time with a deepened understanding. He sees these periods as a temporary denial of spiritual ecstasies, that in his view are the usual reward for virtuous conduct and devout spiritual practice. Without the reward of these ecstasies, we have to practice for its own sake, without thought of the pleasure it may bring us. Our practice becomes less self-absorbed, more humble. And it is through this that we grow or ascend.
While this view may seem puritanical, I think it offers another valuable tip for navigating a dark night – practice without hope of reward. Meditate. Inquire. Chant. Study. Do whatever you have been doing, but let go of your expectations about what it will bring you. Don’t go in search of another system, another teaching, another method – at least not right away. In time, it may be that you do need something new, that whatever has led to your doubts is urging you towards change. But often, if we do that too quickly, we just repeat the cycle of honeymoon-projection-disillusionment-dark night with a new veneer.
Blessings to you on your journey! And I’d love to hear bits from your dark nights…I’ll leave you with one last bit from St. John, towards the end of Dark Night of the Soul, when dawn has broken for him:
“I abandoned and forgot myself,
laying my face on my Beloved;
all things ceased;
I went out from myself,
leaving my cares forgotten among the lilies.”
P.S. For more great quotes from teachers of all traditions on dark nights of the soul, check out this post I found from SoulPaths.