The dark night of the soul is a troubled time for a person; it is a stage which can last for years. In life, when one experiences an existential crisis, a feeling of hopelessness and despair that eventually leads to revelations, enlightenment and understanding. The suffering makes way for a new way of being and perceiving in the world.
St John of the Cross, a 16th Century Christian mystic and poet from Spain, is often credited with the creation of the phrase, Dark Night of the Soul. The phrase comes from a combination of the title of his poem Stanzas of the Soul and the title of his explanatory treatise Dark Night, but its roots can be seen in most religious traditions as well as contemporary spirituality.
The poem itself references a seeker experiencing two separate nights (metaphors for two separate stages of life): the night of the senses and the night of the soul. The night of the senses is when the seeker aims to transcend their appetite or craving for objects of the senses. In other words, the seeker is trying to rise above earthly desires. The idea is that freedom cannot be found when we lead with or from our appetites. The second night, the night of the soul (or spirit), the senses overcome, attachment to knowledge and intellect is also abandoned, leaving behind pure faith. To use Jungian psychological terms, it is an ego death. The purpose of this death, in Christianity, is to be reborn in union with God.
The ‘dark’ part of the name comes from the idea of “spiritual dryness” which means feeling the lack of God in your life; being in spiritual darkness. In modern spirituality, the darkness comes from an internal crisis that leaves one feeling alone and isolated.
There are striking parallels of this journey within Buddhism. In Buddhism, jhanas are a meditative state that trains the mind not to react to the senses. The first barrier to achieving this state is attachment to sensual pleasures, a mirror of the ultimate problem in the night of the senses. Another similarity is that rambling thoughts must be transcended so other ways of knowing can arise; this dismisses rational thought as a barrier to truth rather than a path towards it. This is also seen in Daoism where “effortless action” comes as a result of non-striving, where straining to achieve a particular outcome leads away from true knowing.
One other parallel is the idea of transcending the self which is a key tenet of Buddhism as well as the Dark Night of the Soul, although, of course, the former aims for pure transcendence through nirvana while the latter transcends the self so that they can be in perfect union with God.
At present, the concept brings to mind alienation, loneliness, darkness, solitude, confusion, helplessness and emptiness. It is a death and a rebirth. But the way we think about it today isn’t necessarily related to the intention at the time it was written.
The seeker and their dark night journey to true understanding become the focus in contemporary spirituality. On them, we project ourselves, our worries and follies. That journey does not necessarily have to be related to faith or religion, it can be a loss of identity, lack of meaning and general dissatisfaction with life. This dark night is an awakening after a long period of being asleep.
So what can it teach us?
One important lesson it can teach us is compassion, towards ourselves and others. By confronting this feeling of meaninglessness in life we realise that everyone must eventually tackle the same situation. By understanding this, we gain a sense of compassion for other people, wherever they may be on their journey, but also for ourselves. It helps us to realise that the feeling of isolation that the dark night engenders is merely an illusion. We are all on the same path, just at different points along the road.
Another lesson that is found in many religious tenets is the stripping away of the unnecessary trappings of modern life. Craving and appetite lead to suffering, according to Buddhism, and it’s only when we transcend them that we can ever reach enlightenment. By stepping back and seeing our cravings for what they are, a human instinct, we can become aware when our desires burn strong, from a dispassionate point of view. We can accept that we can be aware of these desires without needing to engage with them, and thus we are no longer bound to its cyclical (and never-ending) nature. We can exist outside of that trap.
By understanding that everyone is making their way through the same journey, that we can overcome our desires without needing to engage with them and that the idea of self is just a construct, we can truly absorb the nutrients of the Dark Night of the Soul and use it to create meaningful change.