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The Phenomenon Known as The Dark Night of the Soul
What is the Dark Night of the Soul?
In recent years, those who consider themselves to be “spiritual” began using the phrase “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Many have written articles and books on the subject. It has become a popular term, which has been used to cover every bout of depression and loss. People seem to have no real idea what it is and certainly no true understanding of its meaning. So, what does it mean? The answer is complicated. The basic explanation is that it is a feeling of meaninglessness that goes far beyond depression. It is the death of Ego – the false self. The phenomenon known as “The Dark Night of the Soul” is more than merely deep depression; it is a time of soul-wrenching loneliness and anguish that changes a person forever.
The first one to use the phrase “The Dark Night of the Soul” was a 16th-Century Spanish mystic named St. John of the Cross. That was the title of his epic poem, which describes the soul’s journey from the body to its union with God (Underhill). He describes the first stage as a “purification of the senses” and calls it “The Active Night of the Senses”. The second stage is described as a “purification of the spirit,” called “The Active Night of the Spirit” (St. John of the Cross).
The term “dark night of the soul” is used in Catholicism to describe the spiritual crisis in one’s journey to unite with God. It is described as an intense form of an identity crisis caused by a spontaneous spiritual experience. There are drastic changes in one’s beliefs and system of meaning in life (Anonymous). This is more than simply having things go wrong, and is experienced by nearly everyone, to some degree. It is an ongoing process that leads to a “deep transformation” (Underhill). It breaks on free from attachments and compulsions and empowers one to “live and love more freely” (Underhill). The darkness implies that the “liberation takes place in hidden ways, … mysteriously, in secret, and beyond our conscious control” (Underhill 5).
Some Native Americans believed some were marked at birth or during childhood to be Shamans (Andreas). If they denied the power within them, they suffered (Andrews). A true Dark Night came upon those who followed their Path, after any spiritual progress. These were Lessons they had to learn, in order to go to the next Level. It was about healing what was broken within them. The more they resisted, the longer it lasted (Coleman). The process of the Dark Night of the Soul has been called many things: “a period of psychic fatigue,” “a completion of Purgations,” “purification of selfhood” (Underhill), “the loss of the Presence of God” (St. John of the Cross). What is learned and revealed through this experience is “beyond understanding” (Underhill).
In this modern age, spiritual crises are understood. People now know that a dark night is not just a religious experience. It is the feeling of being disconnected from – and abandoned by – the Divine. It is the sense of being betrayed and forsaken by Life. It is the feeling of having your world torn apart around you and having no anchor to stabilize you (Luna).
During a Dark Night, people all ask the same questions – or at least the same types of questions:
- What is the meaning of life?
- Why am I here?
- Is God listening?
- Does God care?
- Is God even there?
- Why do innocent people suffer?
- What is Truth?
- What is the point of any of this?
In seeking the answers, on finds that each question has a multitude of answers. None of them really makes much sense. Some say: “We’re here to serve God and others.” Others say: “We’re supposed to make the world a better place.” Then there are those who say the whole point in living is to “propagate the species” (Luna).
When most people are passing through a dark night, they will seek professional help. Counselors and therapists are trained to see this as a protective device; a reaction to stress (May). The one suffering is given the label “clinically depressed”. Depression is characterized by biological chemical imbalances, destructive patterns, and/or excessive concern for self. It is typically the result of a loss, abuse, or illness. Depression does mimic many of the characteristics of experiencing a dark night. Depression can be treated. A Dark Night is different in that there is no medication or therapy that can cure or even treat a dark night. No one can save the one passing through it. Only he can save himself (Luna).
When St. John of the Cross wrote about the Dark Night, it had a different meaning than it does today. It referred to a time of solitude and contemplation in order to reunite with God. St. John was referring to the process of the saints who willingly suffer, in God’s Name. It was a choice. One loses his sense of identity. The masks he wears fall away and he can’t even hide from himself. This is more than a simple identity crisis; “it is the sudden absence of identity and an absolute loss of self” (Alger, Dark Night of the Soul 1: Inside a Dark Night).
Those in the grip of a dark night feel utterly lost. Their health suffers. They become different and this causes their friends to turn away from them. This abandonment intensifies the loneliness. Everything is going wrong and nothing seems to go right. The Ego has to go through these various deaths so that the True Self can emerge. The True Self “grows up,” through each of these transition phases (Underhill). “As long as this pain lasts, we cannot even remember our own existence.” – St. Teresa of Calcutta.
The Four Noble Truths taught in Buddhism seem to point to explaining the dark nights. These Truths teach that suffering (dukkha) is real and is part of what we are taught to believe. They teach that there are reasons for suffering: we are clinging to what must be released – or resisting Lessons we must learn. They teach that the suffering does end, leading to an Awakening. Eventually, after working through the various phases of suffering, we become Enlightened. They teach that the Eightfold Path leads to this Enlightenment. These periods of suffering are about “unlearning what we have conditionally learned” (Bodhi).
The Dark Nights are necessary. Zen teachers refer to meditative bliss – or constant states of happiness – as “the cave of hell.” People want these moments to last forever. When they fade away, people suffer. The Dark Night experiences are called “pits of emptiness.” “Dukkha” means “suffering” – in all its forms. “Nana” means “insight knowledge,” and refers to the “awakening phases” between Dark Nights. The Dark Nights are called “dukkha nanas”, which means “misery insights” (O'Brien).
There are several layers to the Ego. Each Dark Night corresponds to each layer of Ego: Mind, Heart, Body. The Journey goes through the Four Stages of Creation:
- Observation: You observe something with your senses.
- Analysis: You think about what you have observed and question it.
- Will: You decide how to respond and use your will to follow through.
- Action: You act on your decision. Thought becomes manifest in reality.
Ego is connected to attachments. When you lose something or someone you are attached to, there is a lot of pain. Eventually, because of the pain, you must let go. You have no choice. Once you truly, completely, let it go, that layer of Ego dies, and an Awakening occurs. The next layer of Ego reacts to this Awakening, bringing on a Dark Night. Because you have had an Awakening, your energy is stronger – causing quicker manifestations. This causes each Dark Night to get progressively worse (Rabyor).
This phenomenon reaches across every faith and belief system, every religion, every tradition. It is universal. The person suffers from a “deep longing for an experience that he cannot define” (Alger, Dark Night of the Soul 1: Inside a Dark Night). The term “dark night of the soul” describes the total collapse of the meaning in life. One falls into deep depression. Nothing makes sense and there seems to be no purpose in anything. The person suffering feels as though he is stuck in the dark with no hope of ever seeing light again. He feels totally alone, completely helpless, and utterly without hope (Rabyor).
St. John of the Cross wrote that there are four Dark Nights, each in two stages. The spiritual life mirrors the physical life:
- Beginners (Purgative Way) = Childhood
- Proficients (Illuminative Way) = Adolescence
- Perfect (Unitive Way) = Adulthood
Each stage before a transition is marked by crisis. The transition from Purgative to Illuminative is the Dark Night of the Senses. The transition from Illuminative to Unitive is the Dark Night of the Soul (Mahmood). Each dark night, like an initiation, comes after a big step toward Higher Consciousness. Most of the time the person truly is as alone as he feels. He must go through this alone. There may be those who help, but the actual Dark Night is very lonely. Generally, the person going through a dark night can function quite well, despite the inner suffering. Usually, only those closest to him will know something is wrong (Rabyor).
The Third and Fourth Nights purge the person’s soul, teaching him to “deny and purify” himself. “Spiritual persons … do not enter the second night immediately after leaving the first … [T]hey generally pass a long time, even years, before doing so” (St. John of the Cross).
The most intense part of the “swing-back into darkness” is a time of powerlessness, stagnation, blankness, and solitude. This divides the “first mystic life” – or Illuminative Way – from the “second mystic life” – or Unitive Way (St. John of the Cross).
The Four Dark Nights
The First Dark Night
The First and Second Nights purge one of the “sensual parts of the soul.” The Active Night of the Senses follows choices made to seek out God. The Passive Night of the Senses is where God is causing the suffering – or simply allowing it to happen. The “senses” refer to things that can be experienced through the senses. The stage deals with the physical parts in direct contact with the physical world. These deal with the body. The one passing through this can find no comfort in anything, nor any consolation. There is no pleasure or joy, either physical or spiritual. These Nights purge all of the senses, to prepare him for Divine Influence (St. John of the Cross).
The First Dark Night follows your first true Spiritual Awakening. For some, it is their Kundalini Experience. Everything during the First Dark Night is processed by the Mind. This is the stage where you are letting go of things. You realize things can’t satisfy you. You begin your Search for Truth, after questioning everything. When you come out of that First Dark Night, you truly question everything. You know that everything you thought you knew isn’t the whole Truth. Now you want to know what the whole Truth is. This Search for Truth can take many years (Rabyor).
The Active Night of the Senses is the renunciation of physical desire in all its forms. Giving up things of the earth to seek out Truth. Letting go of all distractions. Fasting, eating simple foods, withdrawing from others, praying and meditating in solitude (New Day Monks).
Once you’ve gone through this Spiritual Search and Self-Knowledge, you think you know everything there is to know. You think you’re Enlightened. So many Insights hit you from every angle, from everywhere. Your mind is open. Your heart is open. You may be having profound Visions. When you’re at this stage, everything that is coming to you is filtered through your personal interpretations. You see and experience so much and explain it in your own way. That becomes your new Belief, and you think you have it all figured out. Many people never leave this stage. This is how false beliefs, false doctrines, false religions begin. People in this stage believe their interpretations are Truth, and that is what they try to teach to everyone. Trying to save the world. They become missionaries of this new belief system they have created. This creates a split in the identities. You are completely focused on the Spiritual aspect of things, no longer thinking with your Mind or your Heart. You think your Heart is open, but you are completely in the Spiritual viewpoint. Most will never get past this point because they stubbornly cling to their new beliefs and will not accept what anyone else tells them. They believe they know everything and will group with “like-minded people” – others who have gotten to this stage. That only prolongs this phase (Rabyor).
The Second Dark Night
Eventually, some reach the point where they know they don’t know everything. They begin to realize that maybe they interpreted things incorrectly. When many people come to this realization, they enter the Second Dark Night. This part is not voluntary, nor can the Seeker control it. It becomes a deep despair. They think “I went through all that, I had my Awakening. I came out Enlightened, so what did I do wrong?” (Rabyor)
This Passive Night of the Senses shows the person faults he was not aware he had. He does not actively choose this Dark Night. The “active” Nights are, for the most part, voluntary. The “passive” Nights are internal and out of the person’s control. The Active Night of the Senses pulls one away from distractions. The Passive Night of the Senses takes away all pleasure from one’s work. The Active Night begins with the person being full of joy and energy, secure in the knowledge that he is on the right Path. As the Passive Night settles in, he has lost all joy. The Path feels tedious. Having lost all joy in his spiritual pursuits, the Seeker becomes confused. He feels guilty for no longer enjoying what should be wonderful. He thinks he has lost his Way, so he either seeks a new Path – which begins a new Loop – or he tries harder (New Day Monks).
According to St. John of the Cross, there are two reasons for this:
1.) The Seeker must be purified of his imperfections. The Passive Night of the Senses follows the Seven Deadly Sins – pride, greed, lust (in all forms), wrath, gluttony, envy, and sloth.
- The beginner is proud of the progress he has made and feels superior to others
- The beginner is greedy for more attention and recognition.
- The beginner lusts after more spiritual advancement and isn’t satisfied with his progress.
- The beginner becomes angry that he isn’t receiving attention for his work.
- The beginner envies the attention and recognition that others receive.
- The beginner can’t get enough of the attention. This is the gluttony.
- If he doesn’t continue getting what he feels he should be getting, he gives up. This is sloth.
- The true test during this Night becomes whether or not he continues his work. If joy is gone, and no one notices the work he does – he receives no praise or recognition – will he continue or will he give up?
2.) The Second reason this Dark Night is imposed upon the Seeker is that he is being prepared for something better. (New Day Monks)
This stage can happen on many different levels, many times, over many years. These are often called “mini Dark Nights” or “Loops”. You can cycle through many of these, having many “mini-Awakenings” before you hit the Second Major Awakening (Rabyor).
The Third Dark Night
When the Seeker reaches the point of learning what he believed was only his interpretation of the truths he was shown, he begins to open his mind again. When that understanding comes, this time, he isn’t thinking with his Mind. He is thinking with the vibrations of the Heart Chakra. He feels it; he doesn’t just think about it. The Heart opens. This time, he isn’t trying to interpret anything (Rabyor).
The Active Dark Night of the Soul and the Passive Dark Night of the Soul are the next two phases. The Soul refers to the non-physical parts of Man. “The part that communes with God”: the Mind, the Memory, and the Will (New Day Monks).
The Mind refers to intellect, thought, logic, understanding. The Memory refers to actual memories, as well as the imagination, dreams, and hopes. The Will refers to choice – free will – plans, intentions, goals, priorities (New Day Monks).
During the Active Dark Night of the Soul, one moves away from what he “knows” things to be, and into experiencing and feeling them. He cannot focus on prayer, meditation, or study. He must simply contemplate things. Only faith can see him through. “Prayer focuses less on asking and understanding, and more on hearing and communing” (New Day Monks 3).
During this time, the Seeker finds himself walking both worlds, and doesn’t seem to belong to either one. He experiences moments on the Spiritual Plane, while knowing he isn’t fully there. He experiences moments her on the 3D Plane, while knowing he doesn’t fully belong here, either. He doesn’t know where he fits in or where he belongs. This is the beginning of the Third Dark Night – the Active Dark Night of the Soul (Rabyor).
During this Dark Night, the Heart is fully open and you feel emotional about everything. Your emotions are raging, on overdrive, and you don’t understand them. You find yourself crying over the stupidest things. You don’t know how to deal with what is happening. You may even find yourself falling in love with someone, and not understanding why. You may be falling in love with someone who is only supposed to be a friend. With emotions raging out of control, at this point, you don’t know what to do. You don’t know how to handle it. You can’t figure it out, you can’t focus it, you can’t filter it. You may find you don’t have a filter, at all. You may think you’re going crazy. Other people think you’re going crazy (Rabyor).
This is the time your Heart is open to everything, and you’re feeling everything at once. People tend to be afraid of you, because you’re extremely emotional and can’t deal with it. You start driving people away, finding yourself alone again. You lose everything again. Perhaps not the physical things you’ve gained, but you feel you have lost your friends and the person you fall in love with (Rabyor).
Some things may even be going well for you. Outsiders can’t find a reason for you to be sad. Yet you feel alone, disconnected. You feel like no one will ever love you again. Then you find yourself accepting that: “Maybe no one ever will love me. Maybe I was just meant to be alone.” You truly examine those emotions you have been feeling. You find yourself examining feelings you’ve felt your entire life. You finally begin to understand them. It suddenly all makes sense why you felt things and reacted the way you have for your entire life. Especially during this Dark Night. And, once all of that makes sense, you being to feel a sense of freedom. Slowly, the Ego dies and falls away. Fear falls away. A feeling of peace overcomes you and you are slowly transformed. You are more sensitive to the Energies around you. Your meditations become deeper and this happens faster. Your body begins to heal faster, almost spontaneously. You find you want to meditate all the time, to make things happen faster. You start to get impatient. On one hand, you feel lighter. You feel good, most of the time, as you begin to come to the Third Awakening. The world just seems right. This leads to another full-blown Kundalini Awakening, which leads to the full-blown Kundalini Power Activation, which – in turn – leads to the Fourth Dark Night (Rabyor).
“Even the progress accomplished by the active dark night of the spirit must, in itself, be purified by later stages in the journey.” (New Day Monks 3)
The Fourth Dark Night
This Passive Dark Night of the Soul is the deepest, darkest night. This Dark Void is the lowest point you will ever hit. Alone – and not wishing to be – unable to express yourself to even your closest companions – you enter the Midnight Phase. You are completely isolated. There seems to be no possible prospect of love or happiness. You feel no healing is possible and that you will never be whole again. Nothing goes deep enough to touch the pain you feel. You have lost all hope and have no interest in anything. Numbness sets in. There is nowhere to turn and nothing left to do or try. These are called “dark Nights”, because, when one is in the Active Nights, denying natural desires, these parts are “darkened”. The active nights are not truly “dark”; these are the times of active dreams, visitations, and visions. They show the person more victories and a sense of progress. The Passive Nights are dark – full of intense adversity and trials. They are filled with helpless hopelessness, as one comes face-to-face with one’s Shadow Self. Even during the passive nights, there are cycles of pain and pleasure (New Day Monks). Nowadays, these are considered “Loops” or “mini Dark Nights” (Rabyor).
Not everyone will reach this point. Many will be caught up at previous stages, never moving forward. Most who do reach this stage decide to “opt out”; they will take their own lives, not fully understanding what is happening to them – or why it is happening. This Passive Dark Night of the Soul feels unending and impossible to change. The Passive Night of the Senses has the person feeling deep guilt for everything he has ever done or allowed to happen. The Passive Night of the Soul has the person feeling empty and guilty for simply existing. St John of the Cross compares this stage to a log on a fire: being purified and transformed through trial-by-fire (New Day Monks).
At this point, the Seeker does begin to think of suicide. But he knows this would be foolish – an act of vanity and selfish arrogance. So he will accept his state and simply wait (Rabyor).
Handling a Dark Night
During the deepest part of the darkest night is the time for contemplation. Meditation or prayer does no good because the ability to focus is lost. One must allow oneself to simply be silent, to wait, even though this feels like a waste of time (St. John of the Cross). Accept the suffering, in order to let go of attachments to the idea of “the perfect life.” Only then can one open to the deeper parts of oneself and Higher Consciousness – the parts from which Divine Inspiration enters (Mahmood).
One can emerge from this “trial-by-fire” to enter a higher state. The destruction of everything known is not a bad thing. It is the gateway to creative thinking. Once the Seeker has hit rock-bottom, he must turn and face his problems head-on. Either that or give up and give in. Think it through. Embrace the Shadow Self and think carefully and long about the experience (Alger, Dark Night of the Soul 2: Artistry of the Night).
When you have a bad wound and you ignore it, it can become badly infected. You have to cut it open to let it drain so that it can begin to heal. The Dark Night is a spiritual detox. It’s like opening a festering wound. The pain one suffers is the pain he has always suppressed. Everything that has been suppressed surfaces. Allow it to come forward for purging, so that it can heal. The more you try to avoid the Dark Night, the more it will persist. If you ignore the Dark Night, it will only get deeper and longer (Rabyor).
Every transformation brings pain. This is a birthing process, and every birth is a painful transformation. Every transformation in life is a painful process, and the Dark Night is no exception. The “pursuit of happiness” is futile. One cannot pursue outside of himself what can only be found within (Alger, Dark Night of the Soul 2: Artistry of the Night). The meaning of Life is whatever one wants it to mean. To bring meaning to a meaningless universe, one must become the hero of his own story (Luna).
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