A dark night of the soul amputates our sense of identity. Our survival threatened the masks we wear can no longer hide us from ourselves. We can feel an approaching interior darkness on the horizon. A dark night of the soul is not an identity crisis; it an overwhelming state of liminality that severs identity. In the midst of a dark night, our struggle is to survive.
It can happen if something happens that you can’t explain away anymore, some disaster which seems to invalidate the meaning that your life had before. Really what has collapsed then is the whole conceptual framework for your life, the meaning that your mind had given it. So that results in a dark place.
– Eckhart on the Dark Night of the Soul
To experience a dark night of the soul is to experience a challenge to survive. The idea of a dark night of the soul originates with St. John of the Cross. In the Catholic religion, the dark night of the soul is the feeling of being abandoned by God. My orientation to the dark night is spiritual but not religious. I do not mean to cause offence in taking this approach. In a spiritual sense, a dark night is the feeling of relentless inner suffering permeated with an absolute loss of identity, purpose, meaning, motivation, and direction in life.
My work with the dark night of the soul presumes that creativity is our most valuable resource in finding a way through the terror of a dark night. Every experience is unique. All we can lay claim to is our own experience. There is an artistry of suffering that can inspire us to move forward. Our struggles in living demand artistic insight to overcome them. This article is a creative exploration of the terror we must endure inside a dark night. It explores an artistry of suffering, or the use of our own creative capacities to grapple with the night and find a way back home. In the end, we are all artists of the dark night.
More importantly, there is no advice here. This is a creative work filled with personal perceptions. It an expression of one person’s experience, not a proposed solution.
On a Dark Night of the Soul…
Darkness means an absence or deficiency of light. From a spiritual perspective, darkness refers to an intuitive geography in which the fragility of our beliefs about the meaning and purpose of our lives becomes uncomfortably apparent. To enter into a spiritual darkness is to begin an excruciating and intensely distressing journey into of the essence of our own impermanence.
A dark night of the soul is not an absence of spirit; it is a pervasive and unavoidable calling deep into the realm of the soul. A dark night is a spiritual endeavor that places us firmly in the landscape of our own inadequacies and frailties. It imposes a profound threshold in life and a spiritual point of no return.
Spiritual darkness is a vast interior landscape of loneliness and abandonment. Solitude is our only companion in a dark night. Even in the midst of our loved ones and friends we persist in feeling desperately alone. Darkness invokes extreme contrasts between our immense feelings of solitude and deep desire to belong to something greater than ourselves. The purpose of suffering is to redefine our presence in the world. It is this pervasive sense of abandonment, exile, and loneliness in the midst of a crowd that is, for me, the essence of a dark night of the soul.
Seeking Artistry Within a Dark Night
The dark night of the soul is an experience that permeates many religious, spiritual, and artistic traditions throughout the world. It is commonly associated with mystics or those people that dedicate their lives to the pursuit of higher levels of insight into the human condition.
On a dark night, Inflamed by love-longing– O exquisite risk!– Undetected I slipped away. My house, at last, grown still.
– St. John of the Cross in Dark Night of the Soul
The experience of a dark night is a natural, normal, and universal phenomenon that touches every person in some manner. It happens when the energy and animating forces of the soul overwhelm our sensibilities and throw us into an abyss of psycho-emotional torment. In a dark night of the soul, we lose our own sense of purpose, identity, and meaning. It provokes a solitary quest for meaning and purpose while standing within the annihilation of former beliefs. It is here, in the ruins of the beliefs that once guided us, that we struggle to breath.
The Artist of the Night
An authentic artist is a person who imagines their own life as a continual force for creativity. Artists do not merely create aesthetically pleasing objects; they create, destroy, and recreate their own lives.
All creativity embraces destruction. Destruction is not the opposite of creativity; destruction is a companion to creativity. The soul is a potent creative force with remarkable destructive potential. It can, with a mere whisper, bring us to our knees begging for relief.
In the midst of a dark night of the soul, destructive forces hack away at our most cherished beliefs. The darkness destroys what we once held to be real and true and replaces it with the absence of belief. The destruction of belief is vital and necessary, and although our suffering may take us to our most extreme limits of resilience, the soul is creating space for gestation and bringing forth.
A dark night of the soul teaches us that we cannot proceed to attain inner peace unless we are willing to give ourselves to the absolute destruction of the beliefs that bind us. A dark night of the soul is fundamentally a creative process. There is no meaningful creativity without destroying the things that serve to confine us. Our soul already knows this and will transport us into the midst of painful and harsh habitats to help us to re-create ourselves.
A dark night of the soul causes the absolute destruction of that which is familiar and brings us comfort, and of that which gave us a reason to do the things that we once did. We come to know the real meaning of exile in this foreboding domain. We cannot see where to go, nor can we return to where we once had been. Darkness mires us in confusion, abandonment, and feelings of hopelessness.
Even in the midst of darkness, we still try to move through our everyday existence, but with a nauseating feeling of paralysis. We move through the hours, days, and weeks, but with painful uncertainty. We cannot resort to an external system of faith, for our soul demands that we learn to create our own beliefs and feel the rhythms of the earth. There is no human thought “out there” that comes to our aid “in here.” We are surrounded by the darkness that has been born out of what is no longer there.
When Our Interior World Fails
When our interior world begins to fail and a sense of desolation begins to overwhelm our experience, society is quick to provide the label of depression. Of course, depression as a disease is virulent and does infect our thought patterns, emotional states, and biological functioning. To relieve ourselves from depression we often seek to change our thought processes and/or use chemical intervention to relieve the symptoms. Perhaps in our attempts to avoid and deny suffering, we have done ourselves a great harm.
Suffering is an unavoidable reality of everyday living. Even though it is uncomfortable, undesirable, and threatening, our task is to move through it and learn from it as we go. Sometimes we just need to find a way to get to the other side of it. A dark night of the soul conjures feelings of depression, but it is a phenomenon that is far more expansive, carnal, and primal.
There is no pharmaceutical relief from the sense of desolation brought on by the dark night. The calling of the soul cannot be medicated. Nor can we merely “think” our way out of the dark night as if finding release is an exercise in cognitive therapy. The dark night is far more powerful than the whimpers and burps of the human intellect and easily decimates any notion that we can “think” ourselves free of its grasp. The dark night of the soul recreates the mind.
He [God] leads them into the dark night. Here is where he weans them from the breasts of personal pleasure, through pure aridity and inner darkness. He removes all the gratuities and childish attachments and helps them acquire the virtues by very different means.
– St. John of the Cross in Dark Night of the Soul
- This article belongs to a three-part series that can be accessed on the Liminal Encounters page.
- A brief biography of St. John of the Cross: “St. John has often been represented as a grim character; nothing could be more untrue. He was indeed austere in the extreme with himself, and with others, but both from his writings and from the depositions of those who knew him, we see in him a man overflowing with charity and kindness, a poetical mind deeply influenced by all that is beautiful and attractive.”
- Dark Night of the Soul: St. John of the Cross. Book used in this work. Contains a forward by Thomas Moore. “Here, for the first time, a scholar unaffiliated with the Catholic Church has translated this timeless work. Mirabai Starr, who has studied Buddhism, Hinduism, and Judaism, lends the seeker’s sensibility to John’s powerful text and brings this classic work to the twenty-first century in a brilliant and beautiful rendering.”