“In the dark night of the soul, bright flows the river of God.”
- St John of the Cross
It was a Carmelite Monk in the 16th Century, St John of the Cross, who wrote a poem and thesis entitled “Dark Night of the Soul.” The text tells of the saint’s mystical development and the stages he is subjected to on his challenging journey towards union with God. The phrase has since come to be used for such a cathartic journey of self-discovery.
The dark night of the soul is a deeply disturbing experience in which intense suffering arises at a level not felt before. Such despair can continue for days, weeks or even years. During this time, we may have feelings of being abandoned by God or the Universe, and feel a great internal anguish and void. Life may seem to offer no reassurance whatsoever, no matter how many ‘good’ things there are outwardly. There could even be thoughts that one is going crazy, and of there being just no way out, no way forward. There could be much fear about whether the future will continue to be dark in this way. The dark night is not just another low period in one’s life, it is the lowest of the lows, it is as if there is no way to hide or duck from this. The intensity of misery that is experienced is a rock-bottom place, where the individual may view themselves as insignificant, alone, empty and defeated.
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. In these moments of darkness the Divine is touching and purifying us. This certainly may be hard to see and this is why help must be sought. It is very difficult for a human being to see the light in the dark night by him or herself.
The nature of human beings is such that it is often at the last hour, when things have reached an extreme point, that we summon the strength and endurance to do what is required for our own well-being and happiness. Hence it is no surprise that for some people the dark night of the soul occurs. Would we listen otherwise? Have we listened fully thus far when things have gone awry? Thus with the depths of pain that the dark night brings, it becomes much more difficult to escape the pain.
During this night we are urged to learn raw honesty. We are being called upon to awaken to the truth of our shadow self, or imperfections and are being shown that vulnerability is an expression of our fuller humanity. We may begin to see how we continually inflict pain on ourselves and on others. To realize this, is uncomfortable for sure, but if we examine our thoughts and actions openly, this will be found to be so. Embracing the darkness in ourselves makes it much easier to embrace it in others also. Therefore, love, given and received, is also made much more possible through greater acceptance of that which is not love. Perhaps for the first time in this life we start to learn what Love, with a big L, is really is all about.
The dark night is all about self-acceptance. This is very hard to do, but not impossible. As Carl Jung said, “The most terrifying thing is to accept oneself completely.” But as we progress into the night, our pain can be gradually understood and released, and the truth of one’s Divine eternal Self can be given the space to finally surface.
The real despair in the heart of human beings is a feeling of being separate from everyone and everything, including, and especially God, or the Universe. The dark night represents an opportunity to find out that there is a completeness, a oneness within one’s Self, that even includes – and gradually dissolves – those feelings of separation.
As we see the truths about our own shadow or pain, ego begins to be relegated from its primary position. This relegation involves great anguish for a human being for we have known no other way to be up to this point. Up to this point we have been ego. Ego has run our life for us. Grief and great sorrow may be felt for an identity that we begin to understand we must now let go of. As this darkness is allowed to just be without resistance, the torch of truth may put the ego in the spotlight, and we may see the impact of a ‘me’-centred life on ourselves and others. Ego makes an empty shell out of us, with no real substance, a second-hand life lived from second-hand beliefs, these forming a wall around us keeping us feeling separated from others and keeping enduring love out of our life also.
In this space of honesty we may experience an unnerving nothingness, as well as fear which arises because there is now no known or familiar way forward. We are essentially facing an unknown future, without ego (which doesn’t serve us well but which we are understandably attached to), and with simply our Self, alone and aware. It is the experience of our own death in life.
The loss of ego or personality is rebirth in an individual. The state of being ‘reborn’ can only come through dying to our conditioned thinking, whether religious, cultural, social and so on. The dark night can be the starting point for this transformational journey. And it occurs when we are ready.
The acknowledgment of our false persona (ego) is what is made poignantly possible during the painful dark night. This might 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. It calls to mind the phrase ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.’ But in this case the ‘devil’ you don’t know is the one that will eradicate the need for all the other devils. We are entering the place of don’t know as opposed to all that we do know, and alien as it may feel, this is where the real Self will be discovered. If you could know your way to real, enduring happiness, then most of us would be ecstatic now. This is why one of Jiddu Krishnamurti’s most well-known books is entitled Freedom From The Known, because the known (ego, beliefs, relative knowledge) does not provide the freedom and joy we seek. In fact what we think and know are the blockages.
If we can summon our deepest resources of courage and endurance at this time, and allow the human ego to be finally relinquished, then grief and fear will quickly be replaced by That which is blocked by ego. This is the peace and joy of our Divine nature. It is only by acknowledging the detrimental and insidious impacts of ego in our own life that a human being will take the challenging steps to let this go. Until we can take responsibility for our own actions and where they originate in, we can’t move into a momentum of coming from a place of no-ego. But only the loss of ego can make room for reality, God or the real Self in a direct way.
The dark night brings us face to face with our own suffering. Its message is: we cannot know light unless we know dark. It’s the space in which we realize for the first time, that life has in reality been experienced as suffering yet we have played a constant game of denying this. In becoming more aware of the hidden and unsatisfactory experiences in our daily life, we gradually shed the attachment to such experiences, drama, desperations and neediness (for in the end it is attachment). This inauthentic way of living suffices no more. The relief is huge. It is the mind that gives rise to all our activities and it is contemplation and release of the imperfections of the mind (ego) that allow actions to become pure, clear and effective.
When the extent of the ego’s controlling ways are seen for what they are, beliefs, concepts and judgments become greyed out. What takes their place is an empty vessel from which to listen and speak, in innocence, focus, honesty and spontaneity. It may sometimes seem that freedom in reality is not the freedom we had previously imagined; it’s an alien feeling due to there being nothing to speak of articulately. Truth has a way of surprising us.
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. Universal laws are at play and things transpire just as they do. How could it be any other way? Arguing with reality is a lost cause. 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, but that reality just is, neither good nor bad. “Good” and “bad” now become values which are null and void, paling in comparison with the brilliance of seeing reality – the Now moment – as it is. We don’t stop taking action to improve the world, but we do so from a place of accepting the outcomes whatever these may be. Action becomes joyful in and of itself without ego providing motive, such as desperate ambition or seeking renown.
As the truth of our own Self is glimpsed, it becomes evident that traversing darkness does indeed lead us to light. The dark night is the wake-up call we sent to ourselves to remind us of our true purpose on earth. The dark night of the soul offers a dynamic that can purify a person’s spiritual vision and resulting actions. It is ultimately a gift that reveals the real Self and brings one back to one’s unadulterated, untarnished state of happiness that is intrinsic, though hidden, in all of us.
Reena Gagneja runs the Spiritual Truth Blog, where you will find the ‘truth behind the scenes’ – vital information for these changing times. She is a Spiritual Counsellor, Soul Plan Reader and Amega Global Business Associate.
The Truth shall set you free!