The Dark Night of the Soul: Understanding Amidst the Absence of Meaning
Have you ever felt alone in a meaningless universe, unable to bear going through the motions, having no sense of direction and feeling like you have lost all hope? You could be going through a ‘Dark Night of the Soul’. The purpose of this article is to shed light on this deeply miserable process of growth to come out the other side a more conscious and mature individual.
The dark night of the soul is a stage in personal development when a person undergoes a difficult and significant transition to a deeper perception of life and their place in it. This enhanced awareness is accompanied by a painful shedding of previous conceptual frameworks such as an identity, relationship, career, habit or belief system that previously allowed them to construct meaning in their life.
The Dark Night of the Soul might sound unfamiliar but it has various relative conceptions in religion, mythology and psychology. Some common associated conditions like ‘existential crisis’ and forms of depression are more recognisable. Other related concepts include ‘Positive Disintegration’ in psychology, ‘Soul Loss’ or the ‘Descent to the Underworld’ in Shamanism, ‘Katabasis’ in Greek mythology and ‘Nigredo’ as Carl Jung symbolically understood it in Alchemy. The “Dark Night of the Soul” aka “Oscura Noche” however references the name given retroactively to an untitled poem by the 16th century Roman Catholic priest and mystic; St. John of the Cross, where he describes the anguish of the separation of an individual’s soul from God while imprisoned for his unconventional religious beliefs.
So what does the dark night of the soul mean?
The ‘dark night’ symbolises an obscuration, and ‘soul’ usually refers to an individual’s true essence. In other words; the dark night of the soul is the obscuration of the true self. The obscuration may consist of a previous idea of what one believes about themselves or the world that is thrown into question.
“There can be no rebirth without a dark night of the soul, a total annihilation of all that you believed in and thought that you were.”
― Hazrat Inayat Khan
As we grow through different stages of life, we are influenced by many factors of our surroundings. From birth the family impresses upon a child a name, what the family believes, and what is acceptable and unacceptable. The education system further influences the child; in high school the adolescent seeks the acceptance of the community as well as internalises or rejects its values, at work there is a role to play and at home many switch on the news or attend social gatherings where the topics of conversation can jump between media, the economy or the failures and successes of their peers. Personal goals may be the goals of everyone else: to have nice clothes, a fancy car, a comfortable home, an attractive partner and so on without a thought of the why, what or how of their personal existence.
To a person who has bought into the regular motions of modern society life can seem like it is on autopilot, guided by ego and habit based on arbitrary and subjective conditioning from the surrounding culture. However for many there is a rude awakening; A tragedy, their “faith flickers” as Ram Dass puts it, an experience of a non-ordinary state of consciousness, loss of a sense of objectivity, distrust in authority, an accident, career change, illness or realisation that you don’t know who you really are or what you want to do in your life — or maybe you have everything you ever wanted and you are still unhappy. Ultimately something shakes you out of your day to day limited perception of life.
“The only way we can really approach this is to realise that when we have received the full conditioning of our society and have attained physical maturity that perhaps we will be able to pause for a moment and try to find out a little more about ourselves. Usually however, this moment of pause only comes when physical or emotional reverses break down the structure of the so-called physical-material-industrial plan for living. Nearly always a crisis: a great disappointment, a heartache, a desperate illness. These are the kinds of pressures that perhaps have been placed here to remind us that we have an individual existence and that this existence must be given expression or the life we are living will remain incomplete.”
― Manly Hall
During the dark night of the soul a person can struggle with their sense of meaning in the world. Everything can seem purposeless and it seems that there is no place where they belong. It is quite easy to reluctantly succumb to a despondent nihilism as one floats in liminal space, a kind of purgatory. The allure of victim-hood, comfort and avoidance of responsibility dwells in this place but it comes with the cost of misery… but at least it’s familiar. It’s no wonder people choose this option because unfortunately there is not much refuge for this in the fast paced modern world which can cause the pressure to outweigh a person’s capacity — a threshold where the dark night of the soul can go from emergence to emergency, with accompanying suicidal thoughts or apocalyptic hallucinations of death and destruction in extreme cases. There are usually intense feelings of sadness, frustration, hopelessness, meaninglessness and hiraeth — a homesickness for a place that never was.
“We rarely find people who achieve great things without first going astray.”
― Meister Eckhart
How long does the dark night of the soul last?
To take ‘night’ literally would be a mistake. As with any spiritual crisis it is highly idiosyncratic. There is no predetermined time, no ‘normal’ experience as it depends upon each individual. This night is more like a polar night, where due to the earth’s tilt (life conditions), the area is in darkness much longer than the regular night and day (happiness and sadness) the rest of the world (the person) is used to. This experience however, as miserable as it may seem, hides extraordinary potential. Patience is essential as any attempt to forcefully speed up the process will inevitably hinder it.
You can put off the dark night of the soul in a world that can cater to your every sense with addictive pleasure or over-analysis but the beginning of a way out of this dreary underworld is to be conscious where you were once naïve, as well as letting go of the old parts of you that were conditioned, assumed or habitual that really isn’t in alignment with who you are. This usually must be accompanied by personal realisation that can only come through contemplation, meditation and relaxation.
Proper contemplation must occur in the context of radical honesty. You can no longer lie to yourself about how you feel or tell yourself how you should feel; meditation helps with the distractions and illusions of the mind; relaxation is required because tension will not reveal how you feel, only that you are refusing to feel. Relaxation will allow openness and surrender — without these things the pressure of trying to figure everything out simply with tireless thought can easily burn you out, make you feel even more hopeless and fill you up with a sense of dread and overwhelm.
The dark night of the soul can convince you that it’s just because you aren’t doing enough. Your peers certainly might enforce this idea. They don’t understand that there are feelings you need to feel and hang-ups you need to overcome in order to be functional again. Whipping yourself into submission won’t work as the mental pressure you are already under will fast lead to burnout. One thing to remember here is that you don’t need to ‘be more’, you need to ‘be’ more. You need to be able to switch off from everything external and come back to the basic experience of you being alive in the present moment.
The hardest part of the dark night of the soul is to face your shadow which contains the repressed parts of yourself such as your fears, desires, traumas, and beliefs. Behind the Dark Night of the Soul is the treasure of the underworld. It is guarded by the dragon, but you must go into the belly of this beast. If you turn away it will slowly devour you. Because this is very difficult, there is a risk. One of the greater risks is to adopt an extreme ideology or other pathological complex. Instead of breaking boundaries within yourself, you strengthen them and try to tear down boundaries in the physical world.
There are many enticing pre-packaged ideologies for sale. From religious dogma, conspiracy fanaticism or extreme activism, these are propelled forward by perverting the course of suffering. It is only natural for someone to seek wisdom in this time of suffering and it is helpful in breaking down previous ideas, but these groups allure people with their half-truths and lead down a path of misguided agenda. The same trap that is a common cause of the dark night of the soul.
Understanding the process you are going through and that you are not alone is a great first step in finding some fragments of meaning to hold onto again. Once a small amount of meaning returns it will then give hope, in turn affecting the frustration and sadness, introducing a sense of feeling more at ease in the process. Whatever the person’s natural temperament, there is an interpretation that can allow them to start to draw meaning from this experience to see the light at the end of the tunnel, from the darkest before the dawn.
The situation resolves itself in the event of the reintegration of perception beyond the original conditioning of the individual. Some event may make things click and awaken this sleeper within, or possibly a full retreat inside with no external stimulation is required. The conditioning one has received if it were to be analysed piece by piece can take more than a lifetime to deconstruct on the level of mind, but fortunately the change needs to take place at the fundamental level of perception. Time must be spent on this fundamental level.
During this experience meditation and quietude will be a helpful practice to meet life at a level beyond the noise and chaos of the fractured mind. More and more you will start to see the world as it is, rather than what you were taught, or what you would prefer it to be. From a place of calm, you can be honest enough with yourself to rebuild your life in accordance with who you are or aspire to be. Guidance from someone who has made this journey can also be invaluable.