The Dark Night of the Soul
Are you in a “Dark Night of the Soul”?
The Dark Night of the Soul is the title given to a poem by 16th-century Spanish poet and Roman Catholic mystic Saint John of the Cross. He wrote the poem and extensive commentary on the Dark Night. If you search for “Dark Night of the Soul” on Google you will find 58 million results - and counting. 58 million! Clearly, the Dark Night of the Soul still speaks to us after 400 years. It speaks to a deep and perplexing place in us.
The durability of the idea of the Dark Night suggests that it an archetypal process intrinsic to the demands of being human. As you have chosen to read this, I am taking for granted that you know something of this place already. So I speak to you as a person undergoing your own soul’s journey, and perhaps guiding others through their own Dark Night.
The use of myth to accompany our investigation of the Dark Night.
We have many examples of dark night experiences in myths and religions through processes of descent. Dying and rising gods were common in ancient times: Mithras, Adonis, Dionysus, Osiris, for example. I am going to ponder the Sumerian myth of Inanna, which is recounted in “Descent to the Goddess: a Way of Initiation for Women by Sylvia Brinton Perera” (Perera, 1981). The myth (c. 1900-1600 BCE) tells of Queen Inanna-Ishtar and her descent into the underworld to Ereshkigal, her dark 'sister,' or shadow. Inanna remains in the underworld for three days and three nights. She returns to the top-side world after retrieving her sister, or shadow-life and is subsequently known for her wisdom and many fine qualities.
The message we can take from this is that the descent enables us to reunite with lost or disowned parts of self, and that these parts are then integrated into a “wider horizon” of consciousness, as Jung said. The myth also states that Ereshkigal holds the “water of life”, the water of regeneration (Perera, 1981, p. 60). So the descent experience is required in order to access that water, and through it we are restored to a more abundant life.
Inanna-Ishtar and the Christian calendar.
Inanna-Ishtar has found her way into the centre of the Christian calendar as Easter, through the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ. What insights might we take away from this familiar, nearly ubiquitous metaphor of dying and resurrecting gods? The gods can be understood as symbolic psychic energy, and the myths as rituals of our own processes. C.G. Jung writes, “Myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings” (9i,Jung, 1977, p. 157). In other words, myths connect contemporary people to their own inner world, the world of personal meaning. So how might we make personal connection, rather than historic meaning to the crucifixion, death, descent and resurrection of Christ?
As Dr Bradley Olsen, an author writing for the Joseph Campbell Foundation (Olsen, 2017) says:
“symbolically and psychologically, the crucifixion of Jesus reflects an archetypal journey undertaken to realize the self. The self is fertilized, one might say, by a harrowing of psyche that includes polar, diametric shifts and reversals in perceptions and beliefs, sometimes so extreme that one loses any sense of subjective self-identity; functions are suppressed and familiar reference points are annihilated; panic may overcome rational thought, and death seems possible.”
Certainly symbolic death occurs in the Dark Night. The loss of subjective self-identity is the loss of ego-function. Jung however, says that “the moment may come when the relinquished ego must be reinstated in its functions.… It must hold fast or be thrown catastrophically off balance. The holding fast can be achieved only by a conscious will, i.e. of the ego.… The urges of consciousness towards wider horizons cannot be stopped; they must needs extend the scope of the personality. We add to ourselves a bright and a dark, and more light means more night” (CW 9i,Jung, 1977para 563). Jung is stating that any gain of “light” consciousness requires or invites a compensatory dark night aspect, where the ego is initially surrendered but also required to endure for the sake of integration. Or, put another way, the “wider horizons” of the individuation process cannot be achieved without descent.
In the annually repeated events of Easter in the Christian calendar, we are being given personal instructions into the conduct of our own dark night experience - with the promise of renewal or even rebirth. The dark night is worth enduring with this kind of reassurance.
As Dr Olsen points out, “Jesus refers to the rite of baptism as a form of rebirth and to his death on the cross as a baptism: “But I have a baptism to be baptized with; and how I am straightened till it be accomplished” (Luke 12:50). Jesus compares the woe of his own death to the pangs and hardships of birth. But this new life isn’t simply a new physical, material existence, rather it is a psychological and spiritual rebirth facilitated by introspection and reflection—attitudes that are commonly illustrated by the motif of descent.
One may argue that it was a psychological hell, which Jesus descended to and remained in for three days and nights after surrendering to the process. New life coalesces in one’s own depths, and these depths constitute a form of psychological hell. “The dread and resistance which every natural human being experiences when it comes to delving too deep into himself is, at bottom, the fear of the journey to Hades” (Vol 12, Jung, 1977, para 439). Jung’s words here are revealing - he says “too deeply”, indicating that he too dreads the descent.
St Teresa of Avilla wrote that when anyone under her care was undergoing a descent, a Dark Night of the Soul, the others were extremely respectful. And in dread. Jung’s words and St Teresa’s experience remind us that the encounter with the numinous comes with both awe and dread.
Going back to Jung’s statement about the fear of the journey to Hades, what is Hades referring to here, and how this might relate to Dark Night experiences? During the late 350’s C.E. the Apostles’ Creed was solidified and the words that were agreed upon to describe Christ’s descent into hell were “…decendit ad inferna,” descent into the grave (the word grave may mean serious and dangerous, and gives itself to the word gravid, or pregnant) rather than the more literal decendit ad infernos, decent into hell”. Regardless of whether we have “hell” or “the grave” in mind the words are non-literal moves to describe a descent into serious, dangerous psychological territory, a place of rebirth and a new life (Olsen, 2017). The descent is inward, and deflects our gaze from outer life, to inner meaning. Not collective meaning, but personal meaning. The meaning that fuels individuation.
Let us turn now to the predicament we find ourselves in in contemporary culture.
Is the Dark Night of the Soul in conflict with the medical paradigm?
Modern medicine, and indeed modern psychology, does not do well with Dark Nights of the Soul. The use of cognitive therapies, of anti-depressants, of “getting over” things as fast as possible, of finding closure, of minimizing suffering are nonsense when one is in a Dark Night. A sufferer of the Dark Night can feel very misunderstood and incorrectly treated by the medical model. Because there are certain passages in a lifetime, when all the usual frameworks of understanding the human condition, our own and that of “the other”, prove inadequate. If we are clinicians in the medical model the diagnostic frameworks we rely on try to contain the suffering patient, and perhaps aim to protect the clinicians own bewilderment and helplessness. As the patient, diagnostic frameworks can all too easily diminish both our suffering and our capacity for endurance and resilience. Of descent and return. What we long for is someone to witness or accompany our journey.
The spiritual dimension of psychology
C.G.Jung said that inevitably a spiritual dimension becomes necessary in psychological work - after all, it is soul-work, psyche work. He is saying that the Dark Night has both spiritual and psychological dimensions. If we follow Jung’s thoughts here, the sorrow and suffering are in the service of the soul’s journey, the Night’s Sea Journey, as he called it. Jung also found a paradigm that allows for this experience in the processes of alchemy, in the nigredo or blackening. The ego resists blackening. It does not like descent into the "perilous chasm, where one falls into deep, swirling, unknowably dark waters", as the I Ching puts it, (Barrett, Hexagam 29). No detours are possible, the only way is through. We feel hopeless, helpless, betrayed, thwarted - and depressed. Especially depressed. Modern medicine and psychology aim to remove the depression
If we are the physician or therapist, how can we discern whether this particular Dark Night is a psychotic episode, or a wrestling with despair in the darkest corners of inner and outer life which will, in time, evolve to create depth of character and resilience? What about duty of care, ethical guidelines and the constraints of 10 sessions? What about our own limitations in bearing the suffering of others?
Spiritual traditions give us clues how we might navigate this trackless territory. The Dark Night is not fundamentally a religious experience, but it is often the spiritual traditions that provide language and metaphors for the experience, as I have already shown. Thomas Moore in his very popular book “Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life's Ordeals” (Moore, 2004) speaks to this potent place, as one who knows it well. Transformation does not necessarily result from all suffering, as therapists will know. The outcome of the Dark Night of the Soul, however, is posited by all traditions that embrace it, as ultimately transformative. We are changed, we look at life differently, our attitudes have changed, our values have changed.
How friends, family and therapists treat you during a period of suffering will influence whether this is a transformative journey or not. This is an extreme challenge to the therapist, who is often the one accompanying the journey. Good guides are important. Some of my guides have been C.G Jung, John Weir Perry, R.D Laing, Thomas Moore and Pema Chodran.
What we believe about the purpose and nature of suffering will make a big difference to how we endure a Dark Night.
The unique power of Thomas Moore’s book “Dark Nights of the Soul” is that he speaks from the experience, not about it. His words are thus able to meet us in our own Dark Night experience. Christian mystics such as St John of the Cross and Teresa of Avilla knew the Dark Night well, and the power of their words is likewise gained from their living of it. A very current example is Pema Chodron, the Buddhist teacher, who I will quote later. An interview with Pema Chodran and the singer kd lang on this subject of the Dark Night is available on Sounds True (An Evening with Pema Chödrön and k.d. lang 2015).
A Dark Night forces us to review our philosophy of life.
An inadequate philosophy, based on cultural norms and myriad distractions collides with the real needs of our soul life. If we look for another distraction we are likely to become radically disappointed. Some of the many distractions available are legal or illegal drugs, sex, alcohol, food, our technological devices with ever-new apps, or yet another set of guidelines that someone else created. A life crisis shows us the cracks in our philosophy, so that we need to reframe, renew or even completely change our philosophy. “I’ve tried everything”, we say. Yes, perhaps everything we already know about, but there are huge capacities of soul that are yet to be mined, by travelling the dark journey within. Ideally, the therapist is the companion, careful witness and midwife.
A map of the Dark Night of the Soul: How is this new meaning, the new philosophy, built?
At the beginning of a Dark Night experience we are inclined to deny it, try to push it away, and flail about. But, as it progresses we are overwhelmed by the weight and darkness of it, and we become still. Our energy focuses inwards, we begin to accept that things are the way they are, and we prepare to endure.
As therapists we can become very uncomfortable when faced with a patient’s dilemmas in the Dark Night, which we are helpless to fix. It takes considerable courage to trust the place of meaningless that comes with the Dark Night. Yet from meaninglessness is built new meaning that is specifically relevant.
The finding of new meaning might be through providing deep and penetrating conversation, using mythology and poetry and other imaginative vocabulary to discuss depression, suggesting thought-provoking literature, challenging accepted beliefs. Inevitably we listen to the tangled emotions of lost love and hope and much grieving. Thomas Moore emphasizes, “Dark Nights ask for intelligence and deep thought on our part, not just emotion” (Moore, 2004, p. 33). Intelligence and deep thought contribute to the new building.
C.G.Jung, in contrast with other psychology pioneers, valued the Dark Night, and found it to be an essential aspect of individuation. Many people turn to the writings of Jung during a Dark Night, simply because he provides language that meets experience. He himself struggled to find meaning for something that seems to evade rational attempts at meaning.
Jung quotes the medieval alchemists and mystics, who understood this process. I’ll quote from his Collected Works:
“O blessed Nature, blessed are thy works, for that thou makest the imperfect to be perfect through the true putrefaction, which is dark and black. Afterwards thou makest new and multitudinous things to grow, causing with thy verdure the many colours to appear” (Volume 19 Jung, 1977, p. para 179).
This alchemist author, says Jung, conceives the ‘spiritual night’ of the soul as a supremely positive state, in which the invisible, and therefore dark, radiance of God comes to pierce and purify the soul.
Jung does not unreservedly praise the Dark Night, as I’ve already alluded to. To navigate the Dark Night, Jung says, one needs a “good deal of experience of life and a certain amount of maturity. Young people, who are very far from knowing who they really are, would run a great risk if they obscured their knowledge of themselves still further by letting the ‘dark night of the soul’ pour into their immature, labile consciousness” (Vol 4, Jung, 1977para 762).
Jung goes on to say that an immature consciousness can be present in someone of any age. The more mature we are, or the further along the individuation path we are, the more able we are to let go of the egoic position, which Dark Night experiences require.
A contemporary thinker, familiar to most of us, is Eckhart Tolle. He says that through the Dark Night you “awaken into something deeper, which is no longer based on concepts in your mind. A deeper sense of purpose or connectedness with a greater life that is not dependent on explanations or anything conceptual any longer. It’s a kind of re-birth. The dark night of the soul is a kind of death that you die. What dies is the egoic sense of self. Of course, death is always painful, but nothing real has actually died there – only an illusory identity” (Tolle).
Jung described the Dark Night process as “a borderline experience”. (Vol 8,Jung, 1977para 431). While his understanding of borderline is not the borderline personality in the DSM, some people feel right on the edge or even over it, when in a Dark Night. How often, in a Dark Night, have we wondered if we are going mad, if the psyche can remain integrated under such pressure? In Jung’s view, the Dark Night is an integrating experience, where we retrieve lost parts of self. He’s been there himself and various biographers have tried to work out if he was insane or inspired.
Thomas Moore has undoubtedly been my own most reliable guide in my Dark Nights. He says: “A dark night of the soul is a kind of initiation, taking you from one phase of life into another. You may have several dark nights in the course of your life because you are always becoming more of a person and entering life more fully. … One simple rule is that a truly deep dark night requires an extraordinary development in life” (Moore, 2015).
Examples of those who have endured a Dark Night.
Thomas Moore gives the example of Nelson Mandela:
“There are many examples of men and women who endured unimaginable ordeals and yet contributed in a striking way to humanity’s progress. Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years under harsh conditions, yet he never lost his vision and sense of destiny. One of his younger fellow prisoners said of him: “The point about Nelson, of course, is that he has a tremendous presence, apart from his bearing, his deportment and so on. He’s a person who’s got real control over his behaviour. He is also quite conscious of the kind of seriousness he radiates.” This is Dark Night talk. Mandela’s Dark Night was an actual imprisonment, not a mood. Still, he teaches how to deal with a Dark Night. Don’t waste time in illusions and wishes. Take it on. Keep your sense of worth and power. Keep your vision intact. Let your darkness speak and give its tone to your bearing and expression” (Moore, 2015).
Avoid shallow advice and empty distractions.
When in the Dark Night, Thomas Moore adjures us to avoid shallow advice givers, popular psychology, experts in general, and the distractions of mass entertainment. Become acquainted with yourself on the deepest level possible, and in the smallest detail. Become the expert on your own journey. Pay attention. Be aware of when you avoid, excuse, justify and explain, and any hint of being a victim in your story. As Thomas Moore says: “winnow out any subtle innuendos of resistance.”
Don’t struggle to get out of the Dark Night until it lets you go. Let the experiences and sorrow do their work in you. Wait. Usually it lasts for a while - a day’s worry does not constitute a Dark Night, says Thomas. Write a journal. Track the face of your soul – it will be much more visible now, in darkness.
“I want to encourage you to enter the darkness with all your strength and intelligence, and perhaps find a new vision and deeper sense of self. Even if the source is external - a crime, rape, an abortion, being cheated, business pressure, being held captive, or the threat of terrorism - you can still discover new resources in yourself and a new outlook on life” (Moore, 2004, p. XVI).
When in a Dark Night simplify your life. Let go of as many things as possible that are not essential to you and your family. The Dark Night takes a lot of energy. Use your energy wisely. At the same time keep up something that anchors you to your responsibilities to the outer world, such as your job. When Jung was in his Dark Night, which lasted for years, he said it was family life with his wife and 5 lively and demanding children that held him together. While the Dark Night directs us towards solitude, resist the temptation to diminish your life even further than the Dark Night already dictates. When in a Dark Night, look after yourself. Keep a regular routine - do your best to eat, sleep, have basic exercise and care for your health. This can be hard to do when none of it makes you feel better immediately.
It is inevitable that the Dark Night will be experienced in or as depression. Remember that Nigredo means blackening. Indeed, part of the Dark Night challenge is staying with the depression and having faith that out of it will come depths that you could not have dreamed of.
As Thomas Moore says, allow for the gifts of depression:
“You probably know more about the depths of your soul from periods of pain and confusion than from times of comfort. Darkness and turmoil stimulate the imagination in a certain way. They allow you to see things you might ordinarily overlook. You become sensitive to a different spectrum of emotion and meaning. You perceive the ultraviolet extremes of your feelings and thoughts, and you learn things you wouldn’t notice in times of normalcy and brightness” (Moore, 2004, p. XV).
You do a disservice to yourself when you treat your feelings of despair and emptiness as deviations from the normal and healthy life you idealize. The dark times leave their mark and make you a person of insight and compassion.
Pema Chodron directs us to trust whatever comes up, whatever you feel, as a necessary and absolutely valuable part of the Dark Night experience.
She goes on:
“working with adverse situations is what wakes me up, not avoiding or distracting myself from what is the searing pain in my own heart and mind. Accepting this has taught me everything, including an increased sense of wellbeing and happiness. This is a Buddhist tenant, of letting the painful and disturbing aspects of life be one’s teacher. At the same time being unconditionally friendly towards myself, to the feelings which outer circumstances bring up in one; the sorrow, the suffering, accepting the unacceptable. Don’t get caught up in the mind story, but stay with the felt experience, located in the body. It might be shame about something I’ve done, or self-loathing, feeling really bad about oneself. Finding deep acceptance of oneself, beginning in the body, staying with something, for short periods at first, till we understand that we are fundamentally good, complete and whole. So, don’t get caught in the stories you tell yourself, but cultivate a feeling of warmth and kindness to yourself. No matter how dark, stay present with the feelings, comfort yourself with touch. Treat yourself as a child that you are not going to give up on. Be willing to do it, even when feeling really bad. Do it a little at first, moving closer to being able to accept, honour and respect what it is to be human. Experience what you experience fully and completely. Ultimately this leads to compassion and empathy for all others. Melancholy, sadness and despair are not sicknesses; we do not need to pathologize them” (An Evening with Pema Chödrön and k.d. lang 2015).
The Dark Night and love.
Fundamentally, the Dark Night is about love. Pema Chodron says much of her awakening arose out of lost love, as does kd lang. Whether longing for love, mourning the loss of love, or the loss of the loved one, or love that is beyond understanding, love is beyond reason and beyond reasoning with.
Thomas Moore says,
“I am convinced that love is the most common source of our Dark Nights. It may be romantic love; it may be the love of a child. In all our loves we have little idea of what is going on and what is demanded of us. The Dark Night of love is shocking in its contrast to the bright airy quality of love’s beginnings. Love is ultimately an affair of the soul and is intimately tied to your destiny. The impossibility of love slowly cracks you open, teaches you the limits of human understanding, and gives you a bridge from the human to the divine, to further depths of soul” (Moore, 2004, p. 124).
So love takes us to the Dark Night, and also arises from the expanded horizons of the Dark Night.
Therapists and the Dark Night.
What can you do, if you are the therapist of someone in the Dark Night who is suffering the slow transformation fuelled by the deep issues that construct meaning? Irvin Yalom (Yalom, 2011, p. 34) in “The Gift Of Therapy” says, the “paramount task is to build a relationship together that will itself become the agent of change.” So it’s about the relationship that you build with your patient, and is not about techniques. In the Inanna myth, Inanna had witnesses to her ordeal. She was accompanied by mourners provided by the earth-God Enki. Sylvia Brinton Perera sees Enki as the Patron of therapists. She says
Enki "is able to accomplish a basic restructuring of psychic inertia by using whatever is at hand…He moves the situation to a different perspective…Healing occurs not only because the meaning or image is found, but because the process of life is given attention and empathetic presence and a mirroring that touches it wherever it is. As therapists, we are like those little non-oppositional yin creatures, servants of the god Enki, in our work at this level of the psyche. We are present, and accepting and letting be, expressing the truth of the dark affects.” (Perera, 1981, p. 74).
The Dark Night of the Soul and paradox
Finally, the Dark Night introduces us to paradox, to the proximity of opposites, such as suffering and joy. Thomas yet again brings us wise words: “While giving a dark night its due, you can also cultivate a love of life and joy in living that doesn’t contradict the darkness. You can be dedicated to your work and your vision for humanity and also feel overwhelmed by the suffering in the world” (Moore, 2015). Indeed, when we have plumbed our own depths, the suffering of the world cannot be denied. When we plunge deeply into our own humanity, we are as one with all humanity. I spoke before of the need for an adequate philosophy of life. This philosophy needs to include paradox, where conflicts come together and we understand that darkness and joy are side-by-side, not necessarily sequential.
Are you a therapist taking the role of Enki’s mourners?
Or are you the one who is in the dark descent, or who has passed through this vast but narrow place? What has been most valuable to you? What is the gold that came after the nigredo?
So, how is the Dark Night of the Soul relevant to your life?
Barrett, Hilary. I Ching with Clarity. Retrieved from https://www.onlineclarity.co.uk/reading/free-online-i-ching/
(2015). An Evening with Pema Chödrön and k.d. lang [Retrieved from http://www.soundstrue.com/store/pemakdlang)
Inanna's Descent: A Sumerian Tale of Injustice. Ancient History Encyclopedia.
Jung, Carl Gustav. (1977). The Collected Works of C.G. Jung (R.F.C.Hull, Trans.). London: Routledge.
Moore, Thomas. (2004). Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life's Ordeals. New York: Penguin.
Moore, Thomas. (2015). Dark Night of the Soul and the Search for Meaning. Retrieved from https://www.kosmosjournal.org/article/a-dark-night-of-the-soul-and-the-discovery-of-meaning/)
Olsen, Bradley (2017). Descent and the Birth of the Self. .
Perera, Sylvia B. (1981). Descent to the Goddess Toronto: Inner City Books.
Tolle, Eckhart. Eckhart on the Dark Night of the Soul. The teachings fo Eckhart Tolle. Retrieved from https://www.eckharttolle.com/newsletter/october-2011
Yalom, Irvin. (2011). The Gift Of Therapy (Revised And Updated Edition): An open letter to a new generation of therapists and their patients.) Hachette: UK.
 Read the full story of Inanna here ("Inanna's Descent: A Sumerian Tale of Injustice,").
Copyright © Kaye Gersch 2018
Please use freely as long as you acknowledge Kaye Gersch PhD as the author, with a link to Relationship Doctor and website, and as long as the parts of my work you use remain unchanged.