Dark Night of the Soul
In the dark night of the soul, bright flows the river of God.
– St John of the Cross
At the best of times, it’s not easy to talk of suffering. But it would seem that more people are going through inner spiritual catharsis. This article was primarily written in 2008, it was written just after my own experience through the dark night, some 3+ years ago at the time of writing this post. This article has now (whilst I needed to fix some page issues) been updated further in 2020, as understanding has ‘deepened.’
I say ‘an individual experience’ because each person’s experience is different, and this post relates to how it was for me, even though I’ve written it in the 3rd person 🙂
In essence, the dark night is but one, whoever we are, and we are all one anyway and there is no individual or person. As we are all one, through understanding our own self, we can understand another. Self-understanding is the only real knowledge. And indeed, you could say the dark night of the soul is the start of a process through which self-understanding arises, and existence of the one all-pervading Truth or Consciousness dawns.
The term ‘dark night of the soul’ was coined by a Carmelite Monk in the 16th Century, St John of the Cross, who used it as the title of a poem and thesis that he wrote. The text tells of the saint’s mystical development and the stages he is subjected to on his challenging journey towards union with God.
Until the dark night arrives with full momentum, suffering is resisted. But on this occasion, the suffering that arises is felt intensely. Such despair can continue for days, weeks or even years. During this time, there may be a feeling of being abandoned by God or the Universe and the presence of much internal anguish. Life may seem to offer no reassurance whatsoever, no matter how many ‘good’ things there are outwardly. There just seems to be no way out or forward. The dark night is not just another low period in one’s life, it is the lowest of the lows, with an intensity of despair that cannot easily be expressed. The individual may feel greatly isolated in this experience, and this isolation itself leads to an intensifying of the pain felt, until defeat is total. Defeat, that eventually, given an adjustment period, becomes welcome surrender.
Until surrender, the road seems full of sharp stones. But, the most important thing to understand at this time is that there is a deeper, spiritual meaning to this situation. There is a hidden purpose to it. A process is at play, and we must trust this process, if we wish to go beyond the darkness. Through this very darkness the Divine is touching and purifying us. This is not at first apparent, because that is the design. We must first experience that which is not Truth, so that when Truth does shine its torch on us, we thankfully recognize It and take the offering of transformation. How could we fully appreciate joy if we did not know what sadness was? How could we know strength, if we did not know weakness? How could we know freedom and love, if we did not know what it is to feel a victim and worthless? The negative counterpart, when experienced and transmuted, leads to exquisite higher energies and real knowledge.
But it is the nature of human beings that it is often at the last hour, when things have reached an extreme point, that we summon the strength and endurance to learn this lesson. Hence it is no surprise that for some people the dark night of the soul does occur, since with feelings at an extreme, they cannot run away now. Would we have listened when the going was good? We haven’t listened so far! Thus with the depths of pain that the dark night brings, it becomes much more difficult to escape and make it fine again. And this is the very nature and purpose of this experience. It forces the individual to take and precipitates a more honest look at their life and at themselves.
Now, the call to awaken to the truth of the shadow self is heard, reluctantly at first. There may be rebellion! There may be anger. Allow all negative emotions to do what they will, feel the pain, it’s the way of healing taking place right here and now. This allowing of emotion, frees and releases us from bondage. When faced with ourselves full-on it is inevitable that we will see some aspects as undesirable. These are just the doorway, not the final frontier. What lies beyond the doorway is now to be discovered from a new place.
The lesson is one of learning that vulnerability is an expression of fuller humanity. In allowing a level of vulnerability, it becomes unavoidable to face the pain which we have thus far inflicted on ourselves and on others. At this point in the dark night, much introspection is required, for a certain period. It is the process of embracing the shadow self. Embracing the darkness in oneself, it becomes easier to embrace it in others. The offering is a softening. You have been too harsh in the identity you have been carrying, and now, there’s weariness from the intense effort needed to hold up so many barriers. It is not loving to constantly whip yourself everyday for everything you do ‘wrong.’ So you make a choice for love and kindness, accepting also that you will ‘fail and fail’ until the ego is finally ‘killed’ and union with God is constant, and that this is ok. It’s all perfect as it is. This is the truth, however hard it is to see.
But in the dark night, that bliss is not there – yet. The real despair in the heart of human beings is a feeling of being separate from everyone and everything, including, and especially God. But again, we have to experience the downside of not feeling God is there, in order to feel Her bliss, whenever this is experienced.
As we see the truths about our own shadow or pain, ego begins to weaken, and thoughts begin to thin out. This is a different way of being and can take some getting used to. But for me, writing in 2020, it has been very welcome. Like simple neutrality. Then there could be a major upset, and that too has the background stillness of ‘this too shall pass’. The releasing of whatever dramas are occurring has gotten faster.
Ego makes an empty shell out of a person. It offers no real substance, and causes one to live a second-hand life lived from second-hand opinions, these forming a wall around the person ensuring the inner experience of separation remains in place at all times, no matter how much we may outwardly laugh.
The seeing of ego, is the experience of the beginning of our own death in life. Once seen for what it is, something shifts. Things are not the same again. And although it is a hard road, it is one that must be travelled, because what has been accumulated, must eventually be released and transmuted. The ego is an illusion, yet it does still exist within the confines of the game we play, illusionary as it is in the absolute sense. The layers of the identity onion are shed, one by one. The revealing of the non-existent ego is however not just death, but rebirth. The true state of being ‘reborn’ can only come through dying to our conditioned thinking, the identity we created for ourselves at a tender age to fit in with the world and people.
The dark night provides an intense period of growth which would otherwise take much longer. Human beings are prone to wanting an easy ride, and whilst a life lived from an ego-based mind is in fact a life of suffering, it is nonetheless easy because it is what we know in our ignorance. It is much easier to be unhappy than it is to be happy, for in creating happiness for yourself and others, you must traverse your unhappiness.
In all reasonableness, we could not have expected it to be easy now could we, given our ways?!
If during this time, inner resources of courage and endurance can be summoned to the fore, then That which is blocked by ego will shine forth. This is the peace and joy of our own intrinsic Divine nature. This is what has been waiting to be revealed with much patience for many a lifetime. And finally we get it. We really get it! The game becomes clear, and we laugh.
When the extent of the ego’s controlling ways are seen for what they are, beliefs, concepts and judgments become greyed out. It may sometimes seem that freedom in reality is not the freedom previously imagined; it may feel like an alien feeling. In time, it feels more natural.
As one sees things in this new way, the world may appear to be more crazy than previously thought! But the mental hospital that the world now seems, is also now known to be perfect.
Perfect in the sense that this is how it is. How could it ever be any other way?! Reality has the last word, and you see that now. There is nothing wrong. There is nothing to change in this moment in which one finds oneself alive. Saying that, does not mean that things are necessarily beneficial or must stay the same, or that they do not need to change.
But in essence, you have had an awakening to Truth, and it was traversing darkness that led you to light. This is the way that Truths are revealed to you – from the very bosom of your own life, the Light shines forth in clarity. Oneness is experienced from within your own life, not from a book.
The dark night is the wake-up call we sent to ourselves to remind us of our true purpose on Earth. I believe all who awaken to the truth of their own Being must experience their own dark night at the dawn of their awakening. This is because much has to be shed.
It is ultimately a gift that reveals real Self and brings one back to the unadulterated, untarnished state of our Divine nature.
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