Dark Night of the Soul
photo by Lisa Rapp
Many of us hit circumstances in our lives where things go dark. This can be brought on by particular circumstances that thwart our personal will and resources, or can seem to appear through no external cause whatsoever. The dark can last for months or years. The dark can be about shedding some small aspect of one's personality or mask that one no longer needs, or it can be about shedding the personality or mask altogether.
Suddenly life energy and positivity drains out of even the activities and things that used to bring us the most joy. Our positive qualities can be eclipsed and the gnarliest of shadow material can come and take us over. I write here to tell you: take heart. Once you address any physical/health issues (and certainly many dark sojourns are accompanied by these), it's time simply to hang out and find what comfort you can while the Holy removes a big ol' sliver from your foot. My daughter screams and cries when that happens, and she can see it's her loving mama who is doing the job. When the Holy goes for your sliver full-tilt, it is done in the dark, in silence, and you cannot see the face of that which stalks you.
It doesn't help that most of those around you will not understand what's going on, and few will be able to be with you in a useful way. In ancient days or current dark-friendly cultures, you would be taken by the shaman to the far reaches of the village, somewhere safe and apart, perhaps a cave, where you would be fed, kept warm, protected, prayed over and guarded from the community as you descended into the dark, without the constant pull of everyday concerns and regular contact with those wishing you would return to your "normal" self. And if the shaman said anything, she would have said something like, "I know sweetheart, you cry it out, you howl your agony, you are dying, and it stinks, and I know just the road you are traveling on, and it's a good solid road. It just sucks right now."
Forget normal. It's too late. You are being recruited by Love and any thought of normalcy will only be a further abuse to yourself. You are disintegrating. From the perspective of the culture and all of us being like well-mown grass, all the same, and all doing it according to the program, you stand out like a sore thumb. You are plain ol' weird! You just fell off the train and can't figure out how to get back on again.
You are not alone, and the Holy knows what it's doing. There is really not a perfectly graceful way to make it through -- a dark night experience is messy. As my friend Kim said to me, "If you have a nice spiritual perspective in a dark night of the soul, it's not a dark night of the soul." All that is required of you is that you live through it.
From Lacy Enderson's "How Does a Caterpillar Change into a Butterfly?" at www.ehow.com:
Inside the cocoon the caterpillar changes into a pupa. ...the caterpillar digests itself from the inside out, causing its body to die. During this partial death, some of the caterpillar's old tissues are salvaged to form new. This remnant of cells... are used to create a new body. Using its digestive juices, the caterpillar turns his old larval body into food which he uses to rebuild its new body.
You are a caterpillar turning to liquid on her way to butterfly-hood. You are an ugly duckling, about to realize she is a swan. You will not believe these words, but nevertheless may you at least consider considering that they might be true. All is not lost.
This page is dedicated to those who find themselves with nowhere to turn -- between a rock and a hard place -- as an offering from one who journeyed through the dark desperately seeking a way to make sense of what was happening. Poems and books that were helpful to me will be included here. Suggestions for additions (particular books, tapes, poems, whatever) are encouraged - please send those to firstname.lastname@example.org for consideration.
In nature, there is a beautiful cycle, as a seed rests in the dark, then slowly pushes it's green head up through the dark earth toward the sunlight. Growing, growing it becomes a shoot, now a young plant, now a mature plant. It flowers, bears fruit. And then, the fruit falls, or rots. The leaves fall to the ground. A bare stalk is seen against the sky, and then even the stalk falls toward the ground, and everything is rotting and composting and returning to the soil. Between the rotting and the green head pushing up, there is a period of time where nothing appears to be happening, and yet, in the dark, in the invisible, plenty is.
Here is T.S. Elliot's experience of it.
I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope,
for hope would be hope for the wrong thing.
And wait without love. For love would be love,
of the wrong thing.
Yet there is faith.
But the faith and the hope and the love, are all in the waiting.
And the darkness shall be the light
and the stillness the dancing.
Our culture loves the flower, loves the fruit, even has tolerance for a promising young shoot. But rotting? Darkness? Seed beneath the ground!? Come on, sweetheart, get a life, right? If a woman didn't have a pregnant body to show for the amazing happenings in the dark, we'd likely scoff until the baby poked its head out. And yet, our human seasons of dark, where we submit to the void, where we allow ourselves to be taken by the holy unknown, are not part of what is revered in our culture. Sickness, old age, death, or even having too long a gap in a conversation brings up the fear of the unknown that most carry within. That fear is projected on us as we try and communicate and reach for those around us who are completely stymied by our descent from shining rosy flower to rotting I-don't-knowers. Those who have not traveled this path will find your travels strange at best, terrifying at worst. They will try and cheer you up, give you lots of suggestions, tell you to get a life (usually in well-meaning ways), get sick of you, or send you to a doctor.
Some of the hard-won and simple things that were useful to me were: 1) friends who didn't need to fix me and had room to simply listen to the depths of my agony without leaving, judging, or freaking (I had two of them, you know who you are, thank you very much); 2) hot water of any sort (hot springs, baths, etc.) 3) darkness 4) sinking my attention into simple things like fluttering leaves or rippling water 5) lying on the earth 6) attending meetings (such as satsang), reading poetry or books or listening to tapes that gave me any sort of hint that someone else had gone through what I was experiencing, and that it might be alright to just let it take its course. It still was a nightmare (and then afterward a long, wearing down trek), but these things helped.
Rainer Maria Rilke was a poet who kept me company -- a true champion of the dark. Here is his description (from Robert Bly's translation, Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke) of the rock and a hard place aspect of the dark night, as he calls on the Holy to help him out.
It's possible I am pushing through solid rock
in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone.
I am such a long way in I see no way through,
and no space; everything is close to my face,
and everything close to my face is stone.
I don't have much knowledge yet in grief--
so this massive darkness makes me small.
You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:
then your great transformating will happen to me,
and my great grief cry will happen to you.
There was nothing that at the time felt redeemable about the years I spent in deep angst and suffering. Every possible attempt was made by my mind to understand what was happening in an effort to solve it, but the mind spectacularly failed. It seemed there was nothing I could do to alleviate the tremendous anxiety in my body, the way the world looked like Hades, or the way that I had gone from a giving, highly functioning woman, friend and lover to a dark-filled desperado.
One of the most challenging parts of the experience is that the alchemical process of dissolution forces one's shadow to the fore. For me, gone was the woman full of generosity and energy for others, gone was any sense of humor (except later a defeated gallows sort), gone was the light, the bright, the perky. Anyone who implied that I should move in that direction I felt like growling at, or maybe biting, or maybe even tearing the flesh off their bones and having them for dinner. Did they think I hadn't already considered that 10,000 times? Did they think that if I could raise my miserable bones out of the swamp to perk that I would? I was already miserable at my plight and reminders that I might not be trying hard enough while giving it everything that I had were maddening.
This part of the process is humbling to say the least - that despite one's best efforts, one is dark and not that fun to be around, irritable and nasty. Of course we must do our best to not make our misery about anyone else nor dump venom on the innocent sweeties that surround us, but know this: this is simply a feature of the grinding. All of your energy is in the basement with the Mad Scientist who is working to disassemble you. Give yourself a break and require less of yourself. Find solitude and those who need nothing from you as best you can. Anne Sexton says it like it is in this poem.
I have gone out, a possessed witch,
haunting the black air, braver at night;
dreaming evil, I have done my hitch
over the plain house, light by light:
lonely thing, twelve-fingered, out of mind.
A woman like that is not a woman, quite.
I have been her kind.
I have found the warm caves in the woods,
filled them with skillets, carvings, shelves,
closets, silks, innumerable goods;
fixed the suppers for the worms and the elves:
whining, rearranging the disaligned.
A woman like that is misunderstood.
I have been her kind.
I have ridden in your cart, driver,
waved my nude arms at villages going by,
learning the last bright routes, survivor
where your flames still bite my thigh
and my ribs crack where your wheels wind.
A woman like that is not ashamed to die.
I have been her kind.
Rilke's poem "The Man Watching" (from the same Robert Bly translation) was comforting - to see that someone else had been wrestling with his angel, as Rilke put it, and that there was something deeper that might be going on besides my failure to master the situation with my strategies.
The Man Watching
I can tell by the way the trees beat, after
so many dull days, on my worried windowpanes
that a storm is coming,
and I hear the far-off fields say things
I can't bear without a friend,
I can't love without a sister.
The storm, the shifter of shapes, drives on
across the woods and across time,
and the world looks as if it had no age:
the landscape, like a line in the psalm book,
is seriousness and weight and eternity.
What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great!
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it's with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers' sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.
At first I searched for the mistakes I had made that perhaps led to my predicament. I went over and over the months leading up to my descent. I analyzed old journals, my mind dashing about like Gollum in search of his precious lost ring. I consulted doctors and web sites and herb store owners about depression and pregnancy, then post-partum depression, then nursing hormones. I read the DSM V to see if I could diagnoze myself with a mental illness. When I came up with nothing (no problem, therefore no solution), I simply searched for anyone who could normalize or bless the wretched experience I was having, looking for any news that conveyed to me that this wasn't all about my failure at doing something right, that this wasn't about the Holy punishing me for being bad in some way. Rumi was another pal during this time, and his use of words like "devastation" comforted me, since it told me that he was no stranger to the experience I was having.
The way of love is not a subtle argument.
The door there is devastation.
Birds make great sky-circles of their freedom.
How do they learn it?
They fall, and falling, they're given wings.
I was lucky enough to be in a sacred poetry class with Mirabai Starr at the time, and got my hands on the pre-published manuscript of her translation of St. John of the Cross' Dark Night of the Soul. When I read it, there was no way I thought of myself as someone holy enough to categorize myself with St. John; nevertheless St. John's words echoed my own experience and again helped to invite me to consider that something beautiful and spiritually necessary was happening to me, though I could only distantly consider it from my wretched agonized world. (See Mirabai's website - her book is available on Amazon.)
The dark night of the soul is a cleansing, a purification, a burning. At some point, whether consciously or unconsciously, your soul said a dangerous prayer. Some pray, "Make me only love." Some say, "All I want is God." Mine was "Give me nothing that I want." And then when the burning shows up, we have second thoughts, we do not recognize it as an answer to that prayer. However, it is this burning that leaves us clean vessels for the Holy to move in and set up housekeeping. I like to say that She's going to completely redecorate. Like Rilke, Rumi celebrates those who long for and understand the beauty of this burning in this poem.
The Truth stands before me,
On my left is a blazing fire, and
On my right, a cool flowing stream.
One group of people walk toward the fire, into the fire,
And the other towards the cool flowing waters.
No one knows which is blessed and which is not.
But just as someone enters the fire,
That head bobs up from the water,
And just as a head sinks into the water,
That face appears in the fire.
Those who love the sweet water of pleasure
And make it their devotion are cheated by this reversal.
The deception goes further-
The voice of the fire says:
“I am not fire, I am fountainhead,
Come into me and don’t mind the sparks.”
David Whyte has some beautiful poems that reflect his own experience of the rotting and composting separate self. Particularly useful was his tape called "Poetry and Self Compassion" - see David's web site for availability.
In the dark, we can feel profoundly lost -- as though the place that we called our own is dissolving and there is nothing ahead. We drop deeply into the gap of the unknown and cook there, without reference points to tell us that where we are is anything but lost. Wendell Berry sees this not knowing as perhaps the beginning of our true work and real journey:
It may be when we no
longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
David Wagoner's translation of an old Native American elder's story gives some great guidance about being lost, and standing still just here, now, giving up trying to solve the dilemma with your mind, letting the Holy carry you on its back.
The trees ahead and the bushes beside you Are not lost.
Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you,
If you leave it you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still.
The forest knows Where you are.
You must let it find you.
When the former identifications are dissolving, and all that is old, obsolete or false is leaving you, it can be difficult to find guidance for living in a true way. Many times the dark will not allow you to do things the old ways -- they start to feel dead, they make you sick, they make you anxious, they hurt. And yet, what now? Mary Oliver offers some clues in this poem (from Dream Work), turning away from being "good" and into what the "soft animal of your body" loves.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting-
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
And another clue from Rumi about how to move in this emptying out place:
Today like every other day
We wake up empty and scared
Don't open the door of your study
And begin reading.
Take down a musical instrument
let the beauty we love be what we do
There are hundreds of way to kneel
And kiss the earth.
More advice from Wendell Berry:
Willing to die,
You give up
your will. Keep still
by what moves
all else, you move.
If you feel that you are experiencing a grinding down like that described here, you may be interested in occasional conference calls that Jeannie has on the topic. Please email email@example.com to inquire about these.
As well, you may be interested Jeannie's article, Dark Night the Breakdown of the Mythology of Me, in the Undivided Journal (Online Journal of Nonduality and Psychology).
Jeannie's work embraces this experience of grinding down, so please inquire about attending an event if you can get to one - see the Schedule page.
Bless your heart.
If this material was useful to you and you are able, please donate to support Jeannie to write a dark night survival guide for folks who might benefit.