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).