Are you experiencing a dark night of the soul?
Has life suddenly lost all meaning, purpose, and passion?
There is much hope, because the dark night of the soul is a rebirth.
You will soon discover why.
What is the Dark Night of the Soul?
When I search for the definition of the dark night of the soul, I get this:
a period of spiritual desolation suffered by a mystic in which all sense of consolation is removed.
I find that to be quite accurate. In the dark night, the external world seems to reject you. You may lose your job, your relationships, and anything else that’s given you comfort in the past.
If you do not lose those things, then they may become empty to you, so you lose them internally.
Here’s what Eckhart Tolle says about the dark night:
The “dark night of the soul” is a term that goes back a long time. Yes, I have also experienced it. It is a term used to describe what one could call a collapse of a perceived meaning in life…an eruption into your life of a deep sense of meaninglessness. The inner state in some cases is very close to what is conventionally called depression. Nothing makes sense anymore, there’s no purpose to anything.
The phrase itself seems to originate from the 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross (San Juan de la Cruz). He wrote a poem covering the subject of the dark night of the soul (La noche oscura del alma).
What I experienced during my long dark night was a total meaninglessness. I lost all hope. I couldn’t cling to any idea, concept, or belief. Everything seemed absurd and empty.
At the same time, I was experiencing what Carl Jung would call the shadow. I had to face my inner demons, beliefs, and everything I’d suppressed during my life.
Here’s a short video I recorded that complements what you’ve just read:
Why is This Happening?
It happened to me because I asked for it, and because it was simply my path.
I wanted to know the truth.
Why am I here?
Who am I?
When you ask these kinds of questions, you are pulled on a different trajectory.
When we first embark on a spiritual path, we imagine it to be full of positivity and happiness.
What we don’t know is that in order to see what is true, we have to get rid of what isn’t true. To connect to your inner wisdom, everything else needs to go.
This happens through facing our shadow, and integrating it. Through integration we become whole, and more in touch with the Divine, with life itself.
We discover that we don’t have to be afraid of our inner world (thoughts, emotions, etc).
Your personal, more detailed reason for going through the dark night of the soul will likely become evident after you come out of the darkness.
An Important Note
The view I take in this article is that you are ready and willing to meet what the dark night of the soul brings up. Going through these periods is not uncommon for serious meditators or anyone inquiring into their nature.
However, even for serious meditators, sometimes therapy is needed to work through the material that surfaces. It is also highly advisable that you work with a skilled meditation teacher that is familiar with this territory.
5 Signs That You May Be Experiencing a Dark Night
With all that being said, how do you know if you’re experiencing a dark night of the soul?
Here are five signs that I noticed on my voyage:
- Life Slows Down. You lose your job. You lose your relationships. Success is nowhere to be found. Outward progress grinds to a halt. Everything comes to a standstill externally, so you can look within, and face what you’ve been avoiding all of your life.
- Darkness. Depression and anxiety are turned up. You now see what was always there. Fear, negative beliefs, judgments, and unhelpful stories all come to the forefront. You may even be drawn to dark movies and books, have dreams of destruction, and see symbols of death.
- Concepts. How you arrange the world collapses. We are seldom aware that we don’t feel the world. We feel our thoughts about it. We arrange the world internally, and then we get to experience and feel the world through our own concepts. This is our self-made virtual reality. In the dark night, this reality breaks down.
- Meaninglessness. Our old goals lose their meaning. Our purpose, if we had one, crumbles. Nothing holds meaning. We begin to fantasize about escaping, which is a symptom of wanting to avoid facing our inner darkness. This meaningless is not bad. In the end, it helps you see what is valuable.
- Heaviness. Why me? Why you? You easily sink into victimhood. You feel like you’re covered with a heavy blanket. This is similar to depression, but the dark night of the soul comes with a deep spiritual aspect.
Do any of these signs ring true? I go deeper into them in the video below if you’d like more information:
How to Get Through the Dark Night of the Soul
So what to do? How do you survive this suffocating darkness?
When I first entered my dark night of the soul, I resisted. I tried to avoid it. I was so fatigued that I didn’t have the energy to do anything.
Eventually, I realized, somehow, that I had to keep moving forward. I couldn’t do it myself, so I asked for assistance from life, from God, from a Higher Power, whatever you want to call it.
This is when life began to offer help. Things began to turn around.
Looking back, there were six things that were the most helpful to me during this time:
- Awareness. Having the wherewithal to not take my thoughts too seriously. I knew I didn’t have to identify with every idea, image, sound, and feeling. I was aware of it. It was still painful, but there was more space. Practices like Vipassana meditation help with this, because it is a practice of labeling thoughts, feelings, images, and sensations. You begin to see that you are not what comes and goes through your inner world. You are not your thoughts.
- Facing Your Demons. During the dark night of the soul, I had to face my biggest fears, such as being alone, being homeless, and losing security. The way I faced them was to, again, not get identified when they came for a visit. Instead, I let the thoughts come in. I embraced the accompanying feeling. I let it dance in my body. I relaxed into it. When there is no resistance, there is no fuel. I surrendered completely to the energy, and eventually it ran out. Then the next wave would come, and I would repeat the process.
- Inner GPS. At times, it felt like I was abandoned, not just by human beings, but by life itself. But life was there to support me through this process. It spoke to me through movies, books, people, and even silent whispers. It nudged me to look into certain books, to do an online search, or to take a walk in nature. Your inner guidance system is always speaking to you. It’s harder to hear during this time, but it is there.
- Finding Enjoyment. It’s easy to get bogged down, to succumb to the darkness. We get stuck in shoulds, musts, and have-to’s. We forget to find enjoyment in the small things, such as taking a walk, listening to music, painting, dancing, or just laying under a star-filled sky. This is a time of quietude, a time of being with yourself. Even in that, you can find enjoyment in the things that don’t seem productive.
- Stumbling. All I could do was stumble forward. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t know if I was going to survive. I didn’t know anything. I had no comfort. All I did, and all I could do, was put one foot in front of the other, and wander forward in the dark. Be kind to yourself during this time. Just do your best. That is enough.
- Health. We go to food to numb ourselves. When we suffer as much as we do in the dark night of the soul, it’s easy to reach for alcohol, junk food, and sweets. This leads to a downward spiral, because when your health declines, the dark night of the soul becomes harder. I know it is challenging, but as much as you can, take care of your body. Give it fruits, vegetables, and plant-based foods. Sure, indulge from time to time, but don’t go too crazy.
You will get through the dark night. All you have to do is your best, because that is all you can do.
Your mind may say that all is lost, but it is not. Your mind saying that is merely a sign that your old identity is disintegrating.
There is something new being born.
And remember, if you truly are struggling, there’s nothing wrong with seeing a professional, or even taking medication. Listen to your inner wisdom and common sense.
Here’s a video on this if you prefer the spoken format:
Don’t Make This Mistake
What is the natural response to the dark night of the soul? To escape.
I remember being in the thick of it. All I wanted was for it to end. I tried to numb myself with watching TV-series, food, candy, whatever I could find.
This is normal. You will most likely do this as well. But there comes a point where you realize that you cannot run from this. You have to face the darkness.
As Carl Jung put it:
Only when we bear our situation and accept our depression will it be possible for us to change internally.
Acceptance is required for change. You may not be depressed, as Jung puts it, but you still have to accept what is going on.
That is what I had to do.
Somewhere deep inside, I knew I had to walk into the cave, and face the dragon that represented my shadow. I knew that self-pity would lead me nowhere.
You have to slay the dragon, which is your old self, your negative thinking patterns, worries, fears, self-sabotage, and self-defeating impulses.
You do this by being present with whatever comes up, feeling everything fully, and seeing that there is nothing to fear.
The dragon guards a treasure. The dragon isn’t real, but the treasure is.
So whatever you do, do not run. See what happens when you turn around, face the darkness, smile, and surrender to it completely.
You will be surprised.
How Long Does the Dark Night of the Soul Last?
One of the first questions people ask me about the dark night is when it will end.
When you’re in it, it never seems to end. And you’re afraid that it will last until the sun stops dancing in the sky.
Your mind wants to know the duration, the length of the dark night. When will you get out? How long do you have to endure this torture?
The answer won’t be what your mind is looking for, because it’s different for everyone.
The most intense period of my dark night lasted for around 2-3 years, and then it took me a few years after that to begin to reorientate, to get used to living life from a different viewpoint.
So my tip for you is to see that this yearning to know the duration of the dark night comes from your mind. You don’t have to cling to it. Instead, you can bring your focus back to the present moment.
Notice what you feel drawn to do. Remember that this is happening for your benefit.
When thoughts of duration pop up, simply embrace the energy completely, and let it run itself out.
It is your mind trying to escape the present moment.
Can It Come Back?
The dark night of the soul can ebb and flow.
When I began exiting my dark night, it didn’t happen all at once. I went in and out.
Even then, years later, you can suddenly find yourself back in. This is nothing to be afraid of. It merely shows you that there is more to be released.
Your mind will want to paint this as the worst thing in the world, but it doesn’t know what is ultimately in your best interest.
All you can do is welcome what comes up, and do your best.
Fear of Death
During the dark night of the soul, death often looms heavy. You may start seeing how fragile things are. You may see how humanity itself could be destroyed at any given moment.
This is what I experienced.
I’ve never been especially afraid of death, so that wasn’t a problem for me. What was a problem was the loss of security I perceived. I was afraid of my house breaking down, not having enough money to fix it, and not being able to provide for my family.
When we experience the fear of death, it is helpful to remember that it is not death we fear, but the images and ideas we have about it.
This becomes clear when you look at different cultures. You see that they represent death in different ways, which means they have different reactions to it.
Some are afraid of it.
Some even look forward to it.
In reality, we don’t know what death is. We only know what we’ve learned about it, and we experience death through our own thoughts about it.
If death keeps coming up for you, it’s an opportunity to look at it, because overcoming your fear of death will free you to live life with more zest.
Instead of shrinking away from the morbid thoughts and images in your head, become curious.
See what happens if you let them be without reacting to them. Notice what transpires if you let the feeling of death dance in your body.
Thoughts and emotions are sensations in your being. When you do not fear them, you do not resist, and when you do not resist, they can transmit their message and dissolve.
Giving Up and Surrendering
For me, the dark night of the soul ebbed and flowed. I was in it for a few months, then I thought I was done, only to have it return.
I began to cry out: “I can’t take this anymore. When will this end? This is too much.”
And each time, I could take it. It was only my mind that was crying out, because the old me was expiring. The dark night of the soul kept pushing me until there was nothing left, until I was totally exhausted, until I was ready to surrender.
Surrender the idea that I am in control. Surrender to the flow of life.
So if you feel like this is too much, realize that that’s another thought. It is your mind that is in pain. You can watch it. Feel everything.
You are being emptied out, so you can live a more meaningful life.
If you believe in God, then this process is opening you up to God. If you believe in the universe, then this is the universe helping you become more open to its subtle hints and nudges.
This is consciousness evolving through you, as you.
What Happens After a Dark Night of the Soul?
Having gone through the dark night, I feel tremendous gratitude for it.
Even writing this, I feel a sense of joy in sharing with you what I went through, because I still remember the hopelessness that I experienced. I thought that what I was going through had no meaning or purpose.
I see now that I was mistaken.
In a way, it’s understandable, because during the dark night of the soul, all I could see was my own pain. I was in the lair of the dragon. I couldn’t see what was waiting for me.
Judith Orloff, M.D. put it well when she said:
I’m no Pollyanna, but what I’ve learned about the dark night is that it can organically incubate something drastically unexpected — and good — if you have the proper support.
In a way, I went through my dark night of the soul alone.
I had the support of my family, who didn’t fully understand what I was going through, but they were still there to support me in the best way they could.
I was also supported by life itself. I bumped into healing modalities, videos, books, articles, and thoughts that helped me.
Being on the other side of the dark night of the soul, I can say that there’s much more joy than before. I have gone through a metamorphosis.
I feel more in touch with life.
Update from 2023: It gets even better. The more I’ve felt everything, the more this has deepened into a sense of joy, peace, and equanimity.
So if you feel like you are breaking as you read this, know that you are breaking open, and through those cracks will come something new, something that you will be delighted to witness.
Here’s a video on the lessons I learned in my dark night of the soul:
The dark night of the soul is difficult. It may be the most difficult thing you will experience in this life.
You may not feel like you can do this, but you can. Begin to see that it is your mind going crazy. It is your ego trying to hold on. You could say that this is a spiritual awakening, which is another way of saying a shift in consciousness.
You are changing. The old you is disappearing.
You have nothing to hold on to. You feel like you are floating in nothingness. Know that you are not alone in this.
Others have gone through this. They have survived, and you will, too.
Pay attention to what feels magnetic to you, because that is life bringing you wisdom to overcome the dark night of the soul.
The dark night of the soul itself is a gift. You have been given an opportunity to become something incredible.
You can do this.
That is all that is required.
P.S. If you have any questions I didn’t answer in this article, please leave a comment below, or email me (if the comments are no longer open), and I may answer your question in this article.
P.P.S. One more thing…
Photo by Felix Mittermeier
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