The Dark Night of the Soul
The Evolution of the Spirit
Inevitably, once a person has chosen a mystical, magical, or spiritual path, there comes a time when s/he is challenged in his or her commitment to that path. After the initial enthusiasm and often rapid forward movement, there is a period of stillness. This can be as relatively simple as an “Apophis” stage (see my column, Into the Aethyr, in this month’s issue) or as difficult as the subject of this article — the Dark Night of the Soul. The Dark Night is an essentially universal concept, one of those core truths that finds its way into all philosophies, due to the profundity of the experience and the deeply felt, vividly remembered effects it can have on an individual.
The Dark Night as Natural Selection
The challenge of the Dark Night of the Soul is intrinsic to the development of the spirit, as by its very nature it weeds out those too weak to sustain the necessary effort to progress beyond it. Those who, by contrast, can maintain their commitment to their goals despite the difficulties presented during the Dark Night will grow without having to do anything more than survive it. It’s a process of natural selection, if you will. The “weaker seeker,” so to speak, is incapable of waiting out the aridity, and even more incapable of accepting the pain and misery inherent in this experience. This seeker will either find something new and exciting to do, thereby abandoning his previous plan in exchange for the “new and shiny,” or he will discard all effort in studying new things and default back to his original, stress-free and automatic religion (usually, in our culture, Christianity). This choice is made in the mistaken belief that he has exhausted all that his magical study had to offer, and has found it empty and unfulfilling.
The thing that few deserters realize is that any true calling to any spiritual pursuit is going to include this particular challenge as a matter of course. Christian mystics experience it as distinctly as any other. But for most people, Christianity is a religion that inspires no serious work; rather, it is a comforting illusion of spirituality that people use to convince themselves that they’ve covered their asses in the event of Judgment Day. By contrast, anyone who takes his spiritual and inner life seriously will encounter the challenges that, over time, hone and shape the spirit into something more. Without challenges, we do not grow. Without trials, we sit in idle acceptance of the status quo and make little effort to gain anything that is not material or does not further ease our idle sitting.
What Makes You Think You Should Have It Easy?
The belief that a life full of spiritual meaning should somehow be less troublesome is amazingly widespread. It’s astounding to me that people can truly think that being close to God (or whatever they call their motivation) should exempt them from harm or from challenges. If God loves me, I should never lose a loved one, have an accident, experience injustice, lose a business deal, lose a political race, etc. What hogwash! An old saying states that “God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle.” This is true (whether it be God, self, fate, or Universe), and what so many fail to grasp is that as we grow, our ability to take more challenges grows — so the challenges will also grow. This does not make them more difficult, necessarily, when you also consider the growth of our personal strength. It only makes them more impressive-sounding, and more tragic to the onlooker. We may find ourselves more horrified, or more convinced that any second now we are going to completely buckle under the weight of the current stressor, but the fact is that the only way we’ll likely buckle is if we make the choice to do so — a martyr’s choice, choosing noble defeat to collect the sympathy of those superficial witnesses so that we may coddle ourselves and attempt to believe our own bullshit. But if we choose to keep trying — to take one more step, then one more step, then damn it, one more step, we will make an important discovery: the pain will end. It will probably end a step or two past what we were certain was the limit of our ability to cope, but it will end, and then we will find that we were stronger than we thought. Because the fact is, when you’re facing a difficult challenge and you think you can’t possibly take another minute — surprise, time does not stop to give you a break. You might not be able to handle the idea of one more second of this, but the reality of that second, that minute or day or year, is way easier than the anticipation of it ever was. And if you buckle and choose the martyr’s way, then you’re simply prolonging that state of anticipation, and never getting the actual experience out of the way so you can put it behind you and move on. Martyrdom is masturbation, and it’s also one of the stupidest, least pragmatic choices you can make.
Healing, then, is a matter of standing up when it’s all over, and walking on your own power to the next signpost on the path. But I’m getting ahead of myself now.
Who Turned Out The Lights?
The Dark Night of the Soul is so named because when it hits you, all the light in your life is extinguished. The progress you were making stops. The connection you felt to your god(s) or to divinity in general, or to the Universe as a whole, is severed. There is nothing you can do to regain it, and you can’t go back and start over (though many try by constantly changing paths). Everywhere you turn, there’s a wall. You’re in a bubble of misery, unable to articulate what’s wrong, and feeling isolated, abandoned, and dead inside. Nothing inspires. Everything hurts. Depression hits, and at a level you may have never experienced before. Efforts to change things, to progress with anything at all, fail. Relationships suffer. Work suffers. Life is reduced to a routine, colorless existence. And joy becomes a distant dream, doubted in the past and unexpected in the future.
Occasionally (particularly when the Dark Night is coming to a close), you will get a glimpse of that profoundly moving connection, just enough to show you that it was real after all, that you didn’t imagine it. Then it’s gone again, for an interminable time. Exhaustion and despair strike once more, and seem cumulative over time, driving you to a depth of despondency that begins to take hold as the new status quo. At this point, surviving the darkness is most in doubt, and the seeker who perseveres is the fanatical one who absolutely will not be turned away. That seeker has found something with genuine meaning for him, and even if he desires to, even if he tries to, he cannot quite break away from the vision of himself he found in his earlier momentum. That seeker is a rare thing indeed.
The Inner Watcher
There is a key to the survival that you must find if you really want to make it to some elusive unimaginable goal, some “Great Work.” That key is this: Do not suffer over your suffering. Find a way to activate the inner Watcher, and when you need relief from your pain, transfer your awareness (or part of it) to that component of your psyche. The Watcher will always be objective, and will be able to view your situation without attachment. So, as you strain under the weight of despair and feel incapable of taking one more step, transferring the emphasis of awareness to the Watcher gives you the distance necessary to continue without collapsing. The Watcher says, “You know, this is really hard. But you know it’s going to end. It always does. It’s hard, sure, but it’s not endless, and you can do this. I know you can, because you’ve done it before.” The Watcher provides what no encouraging or supportive friend can: the certainty that this is an exercise. It’s not personal. It’s not pushed upon you because you sinned, or were bad, or because you don’t deserve good things, or because you’re not perfect, or any other reason that your inner voices of subversive bullshit are feeding you. It’s just a process of growth, as necessary as cutting teeth. It hurts where it counts — inside — because it provides growth to areas that never age and never break down.
Another facet of growth somewhat connected to the experience of the Dark Night is vacillation between ecstasy and agony, often in rapid succession. These little darknesses, or little abysses, provide exercise for the “psychic” muscles, allowing them to develop and strengthen over time for a more consistent long-term connection to the divine (or other levels of reality, depending on how you categorize your experience). These often precede and follow the Dark Night experiences, in a sort of warm up/cool down effect. They become easier to handle once you’ve gained some ground and realize that what you gain never actually leaves; it just changes, and sometimes that change can feel like starting over. But moving up a level is always rewarding in the long run, and moving down (or backing up) is simply not part of the program, regardless of how it may seem while you’re having those growing pains when initiation to a new level of awareness occurs.
Take strength in the knowledge that if this path is what truly captures your heart and inspires you, you will make it. Don’t give up when the going gets tough. You don’t have to force it, and in fact you can’t force it, but if you stick with it on some level of awareness, you will know when it’s time to apply effort again. You’ll feel the shift and things will start to move, and once again you will make great strides in your work. Until that shift occurs, any effort made toward moving things will fail. You can go through the motions, but the rewards will not be there.
In the midst of the Dark Night, despair is king, and its job is to keep you down. Assimilation of knowledge gained in your most recent leap forward takes place, and there is little you can do except review, digest, and try to cope with the frustration and pain that cycle through. How long will this phase last? Well, that depends. In my experience, a Dark Night can last anywhere from six months to three years. Shorter ones than six months can’t rightly be called Dark Nights, in my opinion, as anything shorter really isn’t that challenging. (See the “Apophis” stage at link above.) But I’m sure others have had longer ones and scarier ones than I’ve had. One thing I can say for certain is that it will shake you to the core. Its job is to test your faith, and it often results in a seemingly complete loss of faith for a period so long that you will believe yourself to have given up. At such point, ask yourself this: “Do I wish I could experience that surge again?” If you answer yes, you’re hanging in there.
Even if you’re convinced that your previous experience of attainment and growth was illusory or fluke, and that you are not worthy or capable of getting to that place again, in time you will rediscover the joys of movement and activity. No one will be able to convince you of that during the darkest moments of this rite of passage. You will be certain of your failure and of your inability to go on. You will be isolated and unable to get a glimmer of divine energy on command. You will be lost. But in time, eventually, you will find your way again.
A quote from Evelyn Underhill, in her manuscript Mysticism, underlines the necessity of understanding the individual experience of the Dark Night of the Soul:
In some temperaments it is the emotional aspect — the anguish of the lover who has suddenly lost the Beloved — which predominates; in others, the intellectual darkness and confusion overwhelms everything else. Some have felt it as a “passive purification,” a state of helpless misery, in which the self does nothing, but lets Life have its way with her. Others have experienced it rather as a period of strenuous activity and moral conflict directed to that “total self-abandonment” which is the essential preparation of the unitive life. Those elements of character which were unaffected by the first purification of the self — left as it were in a corner when the consciousness moved to the level of the illuminated life — are here roused from their sleep, purged of illusion, and forced to join the grooving stream.
The Dark Night, then, is really a deeply human process, in which the self which thought itself so spiritual, so firmly established upon the supersensual plane, is forced to turn back, to leave the Light, and pick up those qualities which it had left behind. Only thus, by the transmutation of the whole man, not by a careful and departmental cultivation of that which we like to call his “spiritual” side, can Divine Humanity be formed: and the formation of Divine Humanity — the remaking of man “according to the pattern showed him in the mount” — is the mystic’s only certain ladder to the Real. “My humanity,” said the Eternal Wisdom to Suso, “is the road which all must tread who would come to that which thou seekest.” This “hard saying” might almost be used as a test by which to distinguish the genuine mystic life from its many and specious imitations. The self in its first purgation has cleansed the mirror of perception; hence, in its illuminated life, has seen Reality. In so doing it has transcended the normal perceptive powers of “natural” man, immersed in the illusions of sense. Now, it has got to be reality: a very different thing. For this a new and more drastic purgation is needed — not of the organs of perception, but of the very shrine of self: that “heart” which is the seat of personality, the source of its love and will. In the stress and anguish of the Night, when it turns back from the vision of the Infinite to feel again the limitations of the finite the self loses the power to Do; and learns to surrender its will to the operation of a larger Life, that it may Be. “At the end of such a long and cruel transition,” says Lucie Christine, “how much more supple the soul feels itself to be in the Hand of God, how much more detached from all that is not God! She sees clearly in herself the fruits of humility and patience, and feels her love ascending more purely and directly to God in proportion as she has realized the Nothingness of herself and all things.”1
As she states, “We must remember in the midst of our analysis, that the mystic life is a life of love: that the Object of the mystic’s final quest and of his constant intuition is an object of adoration and supreme desire.” This, then, is the trick of it: love for the process itself, leading to the object of desire, regardless of whatever degree of abstract or concrete quality it may possess — this love is what carries you through. It may be repressed during the Dark Night to the point that you believe it to be extinguished, but a single glimpse of that original inspiration, revisited, will fan the hidden spark to a roaring flame in an instant. And then you’re off again… until next time.
- Mysticism by Evelyn Underhill. Oneworld Publications; Reissue edition (October 1, 1999) Excerpt link.
©2007 Sheta Kaey.
Sheta Kaey is a lifelong occultist and longtime spirit worker, as well as Editor in Chief of Rending the Veil. She counsels others with regard to spirit contact and astral work. You can read her blog here.