I have written about this before. And it’s sometimes helpful to revisit the topic since my perspective on it inevitably changes.
What is a dark night of the soul? A dark night of the soul – in a technical sense – comes after an opening or awakening phase and is life showing us what’s left to see, feel, heal, awaken to, and awaken. It’s a phase, and by no means the end of the process. People typically report several dark nights following a classic dark night of the soul. And the naming is perhaps a bit arbitrary as well.
How my dark night of the soul started. For me, it’s pretty clear how it started. I had an opening at 16 which lasted and clarified for several years. I lived from a clear and strong sense of guidance in smaller and larger life decisions. And when I got married about ten years later, I moved to another state in the US against a strong and clear guidance.
Going against my clear guidance, and continuing to do so for the next several years, was the beginning of the dark night of the soul for me. I know that for others, it’s often different. It seems that dark nights can be triggered by a wide range of circumstances and situations.
For the first few years, I was moved along by the momentum from before I went against my guidance. And then I started feeling more and more off track, and more deeply off track. I lost momentum, passion, engagement, direction, and joy in life. I also lost education and work opportunities and friends, and eventually, I lost my health (CFS crash and PTSD), marriage, house and more. There was an almost complete collapse in all areas of my life.
Now, there is a process of gradually getting back on my feet, and that’s a slow process that has included setbacks and also gifts and serendipities.
The label and phases. I don’t need to call this a dark night of the soul, although it does fit the outline and stages described by – among others – Evelyn Underhill in her book Mysticism. There was an initial opening and awakening and a honeymoon period over several years. (The initial phase included a dark night of the senses.) The dark night of the soul had a gradual onset and deepened over time. The darkest phase so far was 4-6 years ago, and it has gradually lightened.
Why did I go against the inner voice? Why didn’t I follow my guidance after I got married? I don’t know the full answer, but I know some pieces. I had strong beliefs about marriage, inherited from my family and culture, and although I consciously didn’t believe them I did at a deeper and more emotional or energetic level.
I felt I had to support my wife in doing her graduate studies in Wisconsin, and that I had to go with her even if it meant that I left my own education (graduate studies in clinical psychology), my friends and community, and the Zen center where I lived and felt more home than I had anywhere else. I felt that since we were married, I couldn’t ethically live apart from her. It wouldn’t be right. It wouldn’t look right. So I sacrificed following my guidance, and many of the things most important to me in life.
Not following my guidance also meant I became unable to do activities that meant connecting with my inner life in a more contemplative way. For ten years or more, I had a daily meditation and prayer practice (1-3 hours a day on my own, 7-9 hours when I was at the Zen center) and also a daily drawing and painting practice. Almost immediately after moving, I was unable to continue with this. It was too painful since I tapped into my heart, and my heart told me very clearly I had to get out of Wisconsin and back to my previous path.
The simplest way of looking at this is that I went against my guidance and my life went off track and eventually collapsed. That in itself is a sufficient explanation.
Meeting more of the shadow. In the bigger picture, I can also see that the dark night helped me meet and face a great deal in me I previously was unable to connect with. Since the more complete collapse with CFS and PTSD, a great deal of shadow material has surfaced. A lot of it has been from early adulthood (missing out of relationships due to shyness), teenage years (social anxiety, awkwardness, aloneness), and early childhood (left alone in a crib in a dark room, abandonment, aloneness). Some has been from apparently before this life. (Being shown my next incarnation, being asked if I wanted it, and saying “yes” even if a part of me definitely didn’t want to.) And it has also included a deep and overwhelming survival fear (to the point of sleeping maximum 1-2 hours a night for several months), and a consistent and immensely uncomfortable feeling in my heart.
There has also been a strong fear of losing my mind. For months, I felt I lost all anchor points as soon as I closed my eyes and laid down on my bed.
And at a very human level, there has been strong regrets over lost opportunities, and fear about the future (being alone, sick, poor, homeless). Of course, all of this is very human.
The dark night is very human. The initial honey moon phase was a course in being what I am. Whether we call it presence, love, consciousness, or something else. It was a course in finding myself as that which is always here and not human. And the dark night was and is a crash course in being human.
I see there are many gifts in it. And there is also still a lot of regret, fear, anger, and disappointment. And both are OK. Both are part of being a human and living a very human and flawed life, and a life that also is complete as it is.
Taking comfort in the idea of a dark night. For a while, I took some comfort in the dark night idea. I would walk in the forest listening to the audio version of the dark night chapter in Underhill’s book, or Adyashanti talk about the dark night. It gave me a sense that there was a larger meaning to what was happening, and some hope that it would eventually be over. (A bit part of the dark night for me, and others it seems, is a deeply felt conviction that it will never end.)
Now, the dark night is more of a convenient shorthand. It points to something. It can be useful in communication. And at the same time, I don’t know if this is really a dark night as people talk about it (although it fits all the criteria), and it doesn’t matter so much.
What matters is that I recognize what seemed to trigger it (going against my heart, the quiet voice, my knowing, and continuing to do so), and that it has helped me face a great deal of shadow material (there is, of course, much left, and I don’t know and don’t need to know how much). And in facing shadow material, there is also a weakening and softening of many identities and identifications.
Is it “my” dark night? I cringe a bit when I write “my” dark night, since it isn’t really. It’s a good way to phrase it since it seems more ordinary and relatable, and it’s true in the sense that it’s happening to this human self right here. It’s also not so accurate since it’s life being and experiencing all of this. It’s life appearing as a human being. It’s life being and experiencing the opening, the honey moon phase, the dark night, the presence it’s all happening within and as, and this very human life.