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. Sometimes it’s triggered by some external event—some disaster perhaps. The death of someone close to you could trigger it, especially premature death—for example, if your child dies. Or the meaning that you had given your life, your activities, your achievements, where you are going, what is considered important, and the meaning that you had given your life for some reason collapses.
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 is the whole conceptual framework for your life. That results in a dark place.
There is the possibility that you emerge out of it into a transformed state of consciousness. Life has meaning again, but it’s no longer a conceptual meaning that you can necessarily explain. Quite often it’s from there that people awaken out of their conceptual sense of reality, which has collapsed.
They awaken into something deeper. A deeper sense of purpose or connectedness with a greater life that is not dependent on explanations or anything conceptual. It’s a kind of re-birth. The dark night of the soul is a kind of death. What dies is the egoic sense of self. Of course, death is always painful, but nothing real has actually died—only an illusory identity. Now, it is probably the case that some people who’ve gone through this transformation realize that they had to go through that in order to bring about a spiritual awakening. Often it is part of the awakening process, the death of the old self and the birth of the true self.
You arrive at a place of conceptual meaninglessness. Or one could say a state of ignorance—where things lose the meaning that you had given them, which was all conditioned and cultural and so on.
Then you can look upon the world without imposing a mind-made framework of meaning. It looks, of course, as if you no longer understand anything. That’s why it’s so scary when it happens to you, instead of you actually consciously embracing it. It can bring about the dark night of the soul. You now go around the Universe without any longer interpreting it compulsively, as an innocent presence. You look upon events, people, and so on with a deep sense of aliveness. You sense the aliveness through your own sense of aliveness, but you are not trying to ﬁt your experience into a conceptual framework anymore.
By definition, visionary people imagine utopia, a word that means both ‘no-place’ and ‘good-place.’ It is an imagined state of the world in which people are free of their struggle, where at least the basic insecurities and inequalities have been dealt with. But oddly, it takes the pain and despair of a dark night to envision utopia.
Think about it, you wouldn’t be compelled to imagine a perfected life unless you were steeped in its imperfection. The emptiness of the dark night transforms into the no-place of a wonderful world. If you don’t feel the hopelessness of a dark night, you will probably float through life identifying unconsciously with the values and expectations of the culture.
You won’t know that there is something wrong, something that calls for a response from you. Personally, you may not feel your being. You may eventually decide that you’re a nobody, for you to become a somebody, your identifying with the world outside you. Self-realization is not a private psychological achievement managed by a strong will and a hygienic attitude. A strong sense of self emerges when you own and activate the awareness that you are your world. A mystical sensibility and social action go together. Through an essential shift in imagination you realize that you are not the one suffering; the world is.
The real stunner is that when you begin to serve the world, your darkness changes. It doesn’t go away completely; nor should it. It continues to feed your vision of utopia and your frustration at the imperfection of it all. But your personal darkness converts into anger at injustice and then into compassionate vision and effective action. The darkness and the vision are two parts of one flowing movement.
Maybe it isn’t that your darkness eases but that your ego investment in it diminishes. It feels as though it goes away because you’ve been grasping it. There may be a degree of love for the darkness and a disdain for hope. You don’t want the challenge of being alive and engaging the world. It may be easier to sink into the pit. Some people resist participating in the transformation of the world because they glimpse the challenge in it. They will have to give up a long-held philosophy of easy, comfortable pragmatism and, maybe for the first time in their lives, feel the world’s suffering.
You see this pattern of waking up from pleasant unconsciousness to awareness of suffering in the story of the Buddha, and one of the key words Jesus uses in his teaching, not often pointed out by his followers, is ‘wake up.’
But waking up is also entering your dark night instead of remaining in the oblivion of avoidance. You do wake up to a joyful message, the meaning of the word ‘Gospel,’ but the dark night is always part of the picture, the other side of the coin.
The best source in classical spiritual literature for describing the paradox of darkness and vision is the Tao Te Ching, where on every page you are invited to live without polarization. Chapter 14 is a good example: “Above, it is not bright. Below, it is not dark.” ‘It’ is everything. Below, where you might expect darkness, it’s bright. Above, where you think you’d find light, it’s dark. Keep this paradox in mind and you will be neither a sentimental idealist nor a cynical pessimist. You will be part of the transformation of it all because it is happening in you.
by: Eckhart Tolle and Thomas Moore