St. John of the Cross, a medieval Spanish mystic, went through a period of several months in which he was detained and tortured by the Catholic Church. From that experience he coined the phrase “dark night of the soul” to describe a time in which a person experiences the very foundation of their existence as being in turmoil; all they have accomplished seems like dust in the wind; and the purpose of life is called into question.
We experience these times at different points in life, and for different durations of time. For some a dark night occurs in the wake of specific substantial loss – the loss of a career, the dissolution of a marriage, the death of a loved one, the loss of health. For others it may arise out of no specific event but seems to come from general and persistent life circumstances.
The dark night heralds in a shift in consciousness and way of relating to life that is not a surface remodeling but more akin to geological change. Think earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and hurricanes. A shift in the very ground of existence.
I lived in Miami for a good part of my childhood. The week before I was to leave for college Miami was hit by Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm. The hurricane was not like anything I had experienced before. It sounded like several freight trains were running right outside the house for hours. Normally benign objects became deadly missiles as they were thrown by the strong winds. A neighbor’s shed ended up in our back yard. If a large tree had fallen just a few feet from where it landed it would have destroyed part of our house. At some point it was raining inside the house as well as outside. I spent hours feeling it was quite possible I would die. When the storm ended and we went outside and saw that my neighborhood for miles around us had been demolished. We used to not be able to see our neighbors through the trees; after the storm we could see for miles in every direction. There were no standing trees, no power lines. Roads were completely blocked with trees and debris. Houses were destroyed. It took years to rebuild.
A dark night of the soul is similar – what you have built, what you think you have, is gone, and you find yourself at ground zero. It brings you close to death. The rebuilding process can be long and arduous.
When we enter a dark night, it may seem like nothing has any use and ultimately nothing is helpful. It can be easy to get lost in despair and hopelessness. But it is important to understand that the purpose of a dark night is not punishment and is not an indicator that anything, ultimately, is wrong. A dark night calls you to geologic change. It calls you to experience a complete reassessment of what you think you know and what you think you have. It is a doorway through which the soul can emerge freer, stronger, and closer to a deeper level of self-realization. It takes mettle, persistence, and surrender as you find yourself in the dark. You can’t sugar-coat a dark night. The only way “out” is through.
The dark night shows you what you are attached to at a very fundamental level; the purpose is the very liberation of your soul. What beliefs do you have about life and how it should be lived? What do you feel entitled to? What are your surface identifications that are not necessarily true to your core Self? What are your beliefs about life that are simply not true? A dark night calls you to access your wisdom nature and meet life on deeper terms. It calls you to create from the dark.
For more information about dark nights:
Dark Night of the Soul, by St. John of the Cross, translated by Mirabai Starr and Thomas Moore
When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, by Pema Chodron
Dark Nights of the Soul: A guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals, by Thomas Moore