Dark Night of the Soul

Dark Night of the Soul—When Everything Means Nothing

   Articles

IF YOU’VE FOUND YOUR WAY TO THIS POST it may be because you suspect you’re going through what’s known as the “dark night of the soul”. You may be feeling confused, desperate, and helpless. You might be looking for answers. If so, you’ve come to the right place. As someone who has been through the dark night himself, I can tell you that everything will be okay—in fact, more than okay. On the other side of this darkness lies a true spiritual awakening.

So what exactly is the dark night of the soul? This term describes a collapse of everything that seems real to you, resulting in a deep sense of meaninglessness. Nothing makes sense anymore. There’s no purpose to anything. The phrase comes from a poem written by St. John of the Cross in the 1500s which opens with the words, “In a dark night… forth unobserved I went… in darkness… in secret, seen of none, seeing nought myself, without other light or guide save that which in my heart was burning”. It concludes, “I continued in oblivion lost… lost to all things and myself, and, amid the lilies forgotten, threw all my cares away.” This poem aptly describes a feeling of being lost, abandoned, adrift on a sea of meaninglessness, even feeling disowned by God—a mental, emotional, and spiritual void, not dissimilar to depression, but having a deep spiritual aspect to it.

What triggers a dark night episode? Sometimes it will be an external event, perhaps a disaster such as the death of someone close to you. Or maybe you’ve built a life for yourself and given it meaning and then everything collapses—who you are, who you know, what you do—and your whole conceptual framework evaporates leaving you realising the temporary nature of everything. For a Jehovah’s Witness, whose entire identity is associated with being a member of a congregation, perhaps a pioneer, or a ministerial servant or elder—for someone whose whole life revolves around preaching and meetings—this can happen if you get disfellowshipped or if you wake up to it being a cult and leave, maybe fading or disassociating and then finding yourself completely alone in the world.

On the surface it sounds depressing, losing everything and everyone, and having to start over, but here’s the thing: There is a strong possibility that you will emerge from this dark phase of your life into a transformed state of consciousness. Life will have meaning again, but this time it will no longer be merely a conceptual meaning, a meaning you create around ideas such as God, the Bible, Armageddon and paradise, or somehow being “approved” by the Big Man upstairs. All of these things are mere mental constructs that can, and do, fail. Quite often, people who go into a dark night of the soul awaken because their previous conceptual sense of reality collapses.

Following the dark night of the soul, you will awaken into something much deeper, which is no longer based on constructions of your mind. Instead of religion, you will find you have spirituality, which is completely different. You will realise you have a much deeper sense of purpose or connectedness with a life that is no longer dependent on religious explanations or anything conceptual. I hesitate to use the expression “born again” because of its Christian connotations, but it is, essentially, a kind of re-birth from something abstract into something that feels very real. I lost count of how many times Witnesses would say if I survive Armageddon”. What you move into after a dark night of the soul is more concrete. You may still find it hard to explain to those not yet awake, but to you, it will feel very real, and you will not be alone. The feelings you will experience are shared and understood with others who have been through their own dark night of the soul.

At its essence, the dark night of the soul is a kind of death. That which dies is the egoic sense of Self, an illusory identity. You no longer base your worth or your meaning on the part you were merely acting as a Jehovah’s Witness. Now you truly know who you are. You have a connection to your Higher Self. You feel awake, especially on a spiritual level. Painful as it is, you have to go through this transformation, this death and rebirth of the Self, in order to bring about—or complete—a spiritual awakening. As the saying goes, “There’s no gain without pain”.

As Witnesses, we thought we had all the answers. It was safe, mentally speaking. It was comfortable. All the answers to the big questions were handed to us on a plate, but it was second-hand information. We didn’t know for sure what we were being told was true. We didn’t experience the things we read about in the Bible first-hand. We never saw burning bushes or seas that parted. These were just stories we’d been told by pseudo-authority figures, perhaps even from birth. We didn’t know for sure that Armageddon was coming, or that we would one day live in paradise and welcome back our loved ones from the dead. These were merely ideas we had bought into. Our “reality” was just a mental construct with no real evidence to support it. When we went into our dark night, all these imaginary beliefs fell away and we found ourselves staring down the barrel of a true reality, a reality with no meaning, perhaps even no friends or family. We felt lost and empty. But it’s in that dark, lonely space that the real work of awakening takes place. It’s only by having everything “meaningful” in our life peeled back that we can see the real truth of who we are.

You are supposed to arrive at a place of conceptual meaninglessness. Whether it’s the shedding of inherited beliefs, conditional relationships, or a sense of who we are based on the approval of others, it’s completely necessary to see that those things have no real value or persistence other than what we place in them. Meaning, as it was back then was conditioned and cultural. It wasn’t who we truly were, and it wasn’t the life we were here to experience. Everything was fake.

Waking up involves looking upon the world afresh. No longer do we superimpose a mind-made framework of meaning to ourselves and everything around us. We see things as they truly are. It can feel scary at first. No longer do you have all the answers, and that’s okay. No longer do we need to interpret everything compulsively. Not knowing is fine. Simply being present and observing ourselves experiencing the Universe is what it’s all about. It’s only then that we are able to look upon the people and situations around us with a renewed sense of aliveness. Now we live in the moment, rather than a mental construct of something that may or may not happen in the future. We feel the power of Now, which is truly all that exists. We feel alive and connected to everything that is.

Surviving my dark night of the soul changed everything for me. It was truly a blessing although at the time I didn’t think so. As the American writer, Byron Katie wrote, “I have had the privilege of losing everything.” From the loss arises a better life, like the mythical phoenix from the flames. The dark night of the soul is paradoxical. You have to embrace the darkness to find the light. You have to lose everything you think matters to find everything that really matters. You have to die to your old life to truly live. You have to lose your way so that you can find your true path. You have to abandon yourself to find yourself. Your soul must die to reawaken. This is what the mystics refer to as “ego death”.

So what happens during a dark night of the soul? Simply put, you find healing in the darkness. All spiritual Masters have been through such a time alone and abandoned. Think Jesus in the wilderness or Buddha in the forests. Being alone and feeling the emptiness with no distractions is vital to finding the way to the spiritual light on the other side. The dark night is the space between who you are and who you will become. When you enter the darkness the old you will be stripped away and the new you will be born. To come back together again, as a better you, an authentic you, you first have to fall apart. You must feel abandoned by everything and everyone—your friends and family who may think you’ve lost your mind—even God if you believe in Him. It is a path you must walk alone. It is only with the clarity that comes from enormous loss that the soul work needed for a spiritual rebirth can take place.

In the darkness, you will feel as if you are going insane, losing your mind. You will wonder if you have depression or some other mental illness. Those around you will tell you so. Everything you ever thought you knew about life will be called into question. The very building blocks of who you are will crumble and fall. You will feel bewildered, even angry, consumed by cognitive dissonance such that nothing makes sense to you anymore Many mistake their dark night for clinical depression, and for good reason. At its depth, you feel an agonising sadness that feels like it’s never going to go. You may find you cry uncontrollably and lose interest in activities you once enjoyed. You may withdraw from relationships, wishing to isolate yourself. In your solitude, you might stop caring for your physical health and hygiene. You may think about or even attempt suicide. You may be diagnosed with depression and given antidepressants, but if it’s a dark night of the soul you’re experiencing, the problem is not with your brain. It’s your soul that is undergoing a transformation.

The dark night is illogical, a mystery imparted upon a chosen few. The dark night traveller will get to re-examine everything they previously believed was real. You will ask the big questions again, only this time you will find the answers from within. Why am I here? What is my purpose? Is there a God? What is the nature of reality? Realising that everything is temporary you may purge yourself of possessions and relationships that no longer serve you. You might find yourself questioning positions you have always been firm on—for a former Witness, things like the Bible, homosexuality, blood transfusions and so on—and wondering if you were wrong all along. Of course, everyone experiences their dark night of the soul differently and only you can know if that’s what’s happening to you. If you don’t feel a strong spiritual aspect to your condition, you may be suffering from depression so it would be good to seek help from a doctor. But if you truly are going through a dark night episode, although painful, it will ultimately be a blessing.

Looking back, I’m grateful for my dark night. Although it felt horrendous at the time—the loss, the sadness, the questioning of my very existence—I came out the other side feeling happier and more spiritual than ever before. But I easily might not have. I tried to end my life on a number of occasions. I’m certain many do. So I want to share with you my top ten tips for making the darkness easier to navigate. 

Tip 1. Surrender. Most people hear the word “surrender” and associate the term with giving up. That’s not what surrender means in this context. Rather than being a weakness, surrendering is one of the most powerful things you can do when struggling with a situation. It’s about trusting the process. It means giving yourself over to something bigger than you. Call it God, Source, the Universe, your Higher Self—whatever—but the physical you is no longer in control, nor should you try to be. The key is to stop fighting. Cease trying to direct your life. Be like a leaf on a stream. Allow yourself to follow the flow wherever it takes you. What happens is “done unto you.” Once you let go and trust the process, you will find a way through. Soon, the darkness will give way to the light and your dark night will reap rewards you never could have imagined.

Tip 2. Love yourself. For a former Jehovah’s Witness, this can feel quite alien. We were conditioned to put ourselves last, to beat ourselves down. We were told self-love was selfish. It’s not. We were conditioned to think that if we didn’t put meetings and ministry first, even when we were struggling mentally or emotionally, we were somehow unspiritual. Nothing could be further from the truth. Don’t think of yourself as weak or broken or needing to “pull yourself together”. Think of yourself as undergoing a spiritual transformation, one which, like all growth, takes time. It can’t be rushed, and recognise the parent-child relationship you have with yourself. Nurture your inner child. Be understanding and patient. 

Tip 3. Give yourself permission. Once you understand what’s happening to you, tell yourself: “You’re exactly where you’re supposed to be.” When experiencing great pain it’s tempting to think that you should be doing something to end it, but remember—your pain has a purpose. So allow yourself to be in pain. Embrace it. Give yourself permission to be exactly where you are in your journey. 

Tip 4. Confide in people who love you. They will probably be concerned about you because “you don’t seem yourself.” Don’t leave them guessing and worrying. Tell your friends how you feel. Explain to them what the dark night of the soul is. Let them know you are undergoing a deep, spiritual transformation. While alone time is necessary for this to take place, you will also want to balance your solitude with healthy interactions with the people who care about you. Make sure you stay in contact. A short text or message on social media is all that’s needed to let them know you’re okay.

Tip 5. Pray and/or meditate. Generally speaking, those who experience a dark night of the soul are spiritually-minded people. In fact, it’s their innate spirituality that brings about the darkness. Those who undergo this process are most likely searching for answers to life’s big questions, if only subconsciously. The darkness provides the answers. Chances are, you recognise that you are going through a spiritual upgrade and most likely you will be praying or meditating. When asking for answers don’t get overly concerned with who you are praying to. Whether it’s God, the Universe, or your Higher Self, it’s the intent that matters. Ask, and be convinced that you will receive. You will, it’s all part of the process. 

Tip 6. Keep to a routine. When you are going through the dark night of the soul you may feel depressed and lacking in motivation. Simple things like washing and cleaning your teeth can seem overwhelming but try to keep to a routine. You will feel better for it.

Tip 7. Rest. When I was going through my dark night of the soul I was mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually exhausted. No matter how much I slept, I never felt rested. I would sleep all day and still sleep through the night. Fortunately for me, I wasn’t working at the time—my doctor had signed me off with depression—so I was able to give myself permission to sleep when I needed to. If you are tired, rest. Don’t beat yourself up for doing nothing. There is great healing in rest.

Tip 8. Avoid escapisms. By this, I mean unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol, smoking, drugs, junk food, casual sex, pornography and so on. Although these things might numb the pain temporarily, they will leave you feeling bad about yourself. Escapisms are not the solution. In fact, you need to feel the pain of the darkness in order to learn the lessons needed to transform spiritually.

Tip 9. Get creative. Write poetry, paint, draw, write songs, play an instrument—whatever your creative talent is, do it. If you’re not naturally creative, listen to other people’s music and sing along with the words. Go to art galleries. Read. Creativity, whether as a participant or an observer is a spiritual process. It nourishes and uplifts the soul. You may even find the answers you’re searching for in a song or a poem.

Tip 10. Have an attitude of gratitude. Remaining positive while going through the dark night of the soul is vital. Sure, there may be less-than-ideal things about your life, but there is always something to be grateful for. Write a list of 5 things you appreciate. Place the list somewhere you will see it each day. 

So what lies beyond the dark night of the soul? In a word, light. You will experience a spiritual healing that transcends words. I can’t express to you how it feels, not fully. You have to experience it for yourself. Suffice it to say, I now have an inner peace I never thought possible. Life finally makes sense to me. I know who I am and why I’m here, and I have the privilege of being able to share a little of my wisdom with others, wisdom that was purchased with my pain and the loss of so much from my past, illusory life. What seemed at the time to be a mess is now a mess-age: I wouldn’t change a thing. My dark night of the soul ushered in a new, authentic way of living. Today, I’m grateful for everything the darkness brought me. I’m certain that one day you will be able to look back and feel the same.

Further reading