- Religion and Philosophy
Getting Through a Dark Night of the Soul
Temporary Doubt or Something More?
Sometimes we don’t even know what causes that malaise in spirituality. Seemingly these feelings can come out of nowhere. It can be after a series of unfortunate events, or a single thought. Often it can be coming from Ego, who wants us to remain stuck where we are. Doubt can hinder our growth. These feelings can be tangible and physical. It can be hard to breathe through them as it can feel like we have a weight on us. Periods of doubt can be brief or can last for long stretches of time. Normally the long periods are during times of transition and deep growth. Dark Night of the Soul is a well used phrase that can cover many different conditions. It can vary in severity from feeling unsure about your path in a general way to deeply doubting everything you believe. I will refer to this as DNS.
The first thing I would say when simple doubt or discontent suddenly pops up is not to fight it. It is human nature to question things. Even after something is proven to work repeatedly, we want to take it apart and find out why. It makes perfect sense that we would want to do this with things that we can’t rationally explain, in fact we should do it. If the feeling persists, examine the feeling. Wonder why it is there. Look at what it may be trying to show you. Maybe you have somehow gotten off track. Perhaps you have made some decisions or changes that are not sitting right. Have you added or subtracted something from your regular practice? Have you been a bit lax? Or, conversely, have you been too stringent with your practice? This last thing can lead to Spiritual Burnout, which can in turn lead you to a crisis of faith, doubt, boredom or a DNS.
It is beyond the scope of this article to address anything brought on by serious illness, trauma or the like. The incidents that I am addressing are the natural progression of a spiritual path or human existence. Please use common sense - if you feel that there is something deeper going on, please consult your health care provider.
Do you ever have doubts about your beliefs?
Boredom and Doubt
When the stirrings of doubt or restlessness hit, sometimes it helps to go to the basics - meditation, stillness, breathing. Nothing more intense or complicated. This can help center you and bring you back to a point of balance. From there, you may find it easier to navigate the feelings and find your path again. Don’t try to rush or force it, just be. Mindfulness is important when we need to be aware of what is truly going on under the surface. If there is a disconnect, sometimes it can be remedied by spending time in nature. Appreciate the beauty around you. Then, if you feel inspired, return to your normal daily practice.
Ego has a way of preventing us from moving forward on the path. It wants to stay safe and protected. In many cases where we are “this close” to a breakthrough (spiritually or not) Ego will throw a wrench into the works to keep us where we are. It can cause fear, unease, doubt and many other feelings to keep us rooted. Meditation, mindfulness and strength of will can all help tame that unruly Ego. I think of Ego, and “rational mind”, as a cat that wants to play to distract me from my work. I in turn need to distract the feline. I have an automated laser toy that I use that occupies the cats while I go on with what I am trying to do. Find that laser toy for your Ego or rational mind.
If it goes deeper than just an unease or the disconnect is stronger, look at your current practice. Did you change something? Perhaps the new element isn’t working with your normal routine. On the flip side, maybe your practice has gotten stale. You may have been doing the same thing for so long that you are now merely going through the motions. Think about it like a relationship. If you don’t add some element to keep things fresh, soon it becomes a chore. It can be as simple as changing items on a home altar, meditating outside instead of indoors or switching the scent of incense you use. Divination can also help, especially oracle cards, as they can send messages from the subconsciousness to show where a block may exist. I advocate having a sacred space set up. It will absorb energies that can be used to heal these periods.
There are times when spiritual burnout can lead to a spiritual crisis. We are meant to be in balance. Sometimes we find ourselves pulled more to one direction at the expense of another. If we are delving too deeply into the spiritual realm, it can cause a backlash. For instance, I have found that when I am reading too many spirit heavy books while going about my work as a spiritual counselor and attending mostly spiritual events, I feel overwhelmed. At these times, it helps to do something purely physical, read something light and not too in depth or go out for a fun time that has nothing to do with spiritual pursuits.
The Deep, Dark Night
These are fairly common and are easily remedied, but what about a real DNS - one that has you wondering whether you are even close to being on the right path? Again, I suggest trying the above steps. Back off for a time and sit with your breath, be mindful. Allow yourself to feel. It is not unusual to have feelings of intense doubt during times of trial or transition. For example, the death of a loved one, loss of a job or other major life event (happy or sad). These times can be a real wake up call. Although some people may find themselves holding tighter to spiritual beliefs in such times, many find that difficult events make them question beliefs in general. During major transitions it is important to acknowledge what you are feeling. Suppressing will only make it worse in the long run. This includes any spiritual doubts that you may be having.
If it is your first Dark Night, it can be especially unsettling. It is difficult to admit to yourself that you aren’t sure what you believe anymore. You may think that there is something wrong with you. It can be scary. If you have a spiritual community to reach out to, this is the time. Chances are high that there are some among them who have experienced this themselves. If your DNS is in conjunction with a major transition or life event, then you may need to deal with it on a mundane level first. In the case of the death of a loved one, grieve, feel, do what you need to do to bring yourself toward a point of wholeness again. As I said above, we are humans and deal with things in a human way. As much as we wish to be enlightened, there are times when our human experience takes over - and that is okay. It doesn’t make you any less spiritual. For some reason, many people on a spiritual path feel that they can’t get angry or be sad or have human emotions. This is not true! Of course we will have bad days. Somedays we will handle it better than others. Allow yourself to process what you are feeling. Don’t feel badly about having an emotion. They are neither good nor bad - they just are. If you feel that you have acted inappropriately, such as losing your temper and yelling at someone who is innocent, then make amends as you can. Deal with the mundane and the spiritual will likely fall back in place. The length of time needed will vary with the depth of what you are dealing with. Don’t put pressure on yourself. Again, if you have a support system now would be the time to call in the calvary. Be gentle with yourself and give yourself a break. Compassion extends to ourselves. When you are feeling better emotionally you will be better equipped to deal with doubts and challenges in a spiritual arena.
Sometimes there is no identifiable trigger. Maybe it has been brewing for a time and we just overlooked the signs. Again, it helps to get back to basics. Start at the beginning. If you feel a disconnect, try to pinpoint where it began and what may have caused it. Starting with meditation is always a good idea, as it helps us to clear out the cobwebs and find a bit more clarity. Try not to force a solution. Go about your life and do things that you find bring you joy. Smile, play, spend time in nature, read, watch a fun movie. Listen to the inner voice. Perhaps you can re-read a book that was meaningful to you on your path in the past. Read stories of inspirational figures, perhaps even about their crisis and how they dealt with it. Look for inspiration in simple things. Engage all of your senses. For example, look at a flower, touch it softly, smell it. Start adding elements of your practice back in a little at a time. If it feels right work with it. If it doesn’t, it may be time to re-evaluate the usefulness of that particular part of your practice.
Take some comfort in knowing that for many people, DNS comes just before deep insight and spiritual growth. It helps you confront your beliefs and stretch your limits. It can bring you to a whole new stage of spiritual development. Also, your path will still be there. If you wander into the forest for a time, it is perfectly fine. Chances are you will return with renewed dedication and a point of view you may not have had prior.
What if nothing works? What if it isn’t merely a DNS? Maybe your current spiritual system is not working for you and you feel a pull to another. Maybe your tradition no longer makes any sense to you. I’ll address this at length in a future article as it is possible, even though it is not normally the case. If this is truly what you feel, then perhaps you should look at other spiritual traditions. Read about them. If there is a particular path that calls to you and you know someone who practices the tradition, talk with them. If services are open to all, attend some. Don’t make hasty or rash decisions. Learn all you can so that you can make well informed, well educated choices. Changing belief systems is not something to be taken lightly or without proper research.
This information is by no means exhaustive or complete in itself. In fact, it is a deep topic and this has merely scratched the surface. It is intended to help those seekers who may be experiencing doubt or conflict find their way back to the path. Again, if you feel that there is something deeper going on, such as depression, please seek the proper channels for assistance. Ultimately, you are the one who knows yourself best. Going back to mindfulness exercises and meditation will often give you the “ah-ha” moment needed to bring on the dawn. Be gentle with yourself, do not judge yourself or discount your feelings. Know that even the most evolved spiritual beings have experienced moments (or longer periods) of doubt. Allow yourself the time that is needed to work through your thoughts. Be aware that DNS often signals growing pains. If you have community to turn to, speak with a trusted member of that community. Tomorrow is a brand new day. Embrace it.