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 Content Eckhart on the Dark Night of the Soul

Q: Have you ever experienced the dark night of the soul? Your teachings have been so helpful
through this difficult period. Can you address this subject?

A: 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, on
an external level. The death of someone close to you could trigger it, especially premature death,
for example if your child dies. Or you had built up your life, and given it meaning – and 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 then is the
whole conceptual framework for your life, the meaning that your mind had given it. So that results
in a dark place. But people have gone into that, and then there is the possibility that you emerge
out of that 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, which is no longer based on concepts in your mind. A
deeper sense of purpose or connectedness with a greater life that is not dependent on
explanations or anything conceptual any longer. It’s a kind of re-birth. The dark night of the soul is
a kind of death that you die. What dies is the egoic sense of self. Of course, death is always
painful, but nothing real has actually died there – only an illusory identity. Now it is probably the
case that some people who’ve gone through this transformation realized 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.

The first lesson in A Course in Miracles says “Nothing I see in this room means anything”, and
you’re supposed to look around the room at whatever you happen to be looking at, and you say
“this doesn’t mean anything”, “that doesn’t mean anything”. What is the purpose of a lesson like
that? It’s a little bit like re-creating what can happen during the dark night of the soul. It’s the
collapse of a mind-made meaning, conceptual meaning, of life… believing that you understand
“what it’s all about”. With A Course in Miracles, it’s a voluntary relinquishment of the human mind-
made meaning that is projected, and you go voluntary into saying “I don’t know what this means”,
“this doesn’t mean anything”. You wipe the board clean. In the dark night of the soul it collapses.
You are meant to 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 – to 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.
Your sense the aliveness through your own sense of aliveness, but you are not trying to fit your
experience into a conceptual framework anymore.
Dark Night of the Soul 1: Inside a Dark Night

A dark night of the soul amputates our sense of identity. Our survival threatened, the masks we
wear can no longer hide us from ourselves. We can feel an approaching interior darkness on the
horizon. Our soul poignantly whispers to us that authenticity is our only identity. A dark night of the
soul is not merely an identity crisis; it is the sudden absence of identity and an absolute loss of self.
In the midst of a dark night, our struggle is to survive.

Introduction

Inside a Dark Night of the SoulThe writing that follows is my own creative interpretation of St. John
of Cross‘ Dark Night of the Soul. I hope that in some way help to inspire more creative approaches
in finding relief from this crucible of abandonment, loneliness, grief, isolation, and suffering.

A dark night of the soul is the medium in which we learn about our own suffering. To fully inhabit
our suffering is to pursue the essence of our unique presence here in this life. I believe that there is
an artistry of suffering that can inspire us to move forward. Our struggles in living demand artistic
insight to overcome them.

This article is a creative exploration of the terror we must endure inside a dark night. My orientation
to the dark night is spiritual but non-religious. I acknowledge that my improvisations on a dark night
of the soul lie outside the Catholic faith it was originally created in. In taking this perspective, I do
not wish to cause any offense.

In Dark Night of the Soul 2: The Landscape of Darkness I explore the artistry of a dark night.
Creativity is the primary means of creating motion within the grip of the dark night.

In the end, we are all artists of the dark night.

On a Dark Night of the Soul…


Darkness means an absence or deficiency of light. From a spiritual perspective, darkness creates
an intuitive geography in which the fragility of our beliefs about the meaning and purpose of our
lives becomes uncomfortably apparent. To enter into a spiritual darkness is to begin an
excruciating and intensely distressing journey into of the essence of our own impermanence.

A dark night night of the soul is not an absence of spirit; it is a pervasive and unavoidable calling
deep into the realm of the soul. A dark night is a spiritual endeavour that places us firmly in the
landscape of our own inadequacies and frailties. The dark night of the soul is a profound threshold
in life and a spiritual point of no return.

Spiritual darkness is a vast interior landscape of loneliness and abandonment. Solitude is our only
companion in a dark night. Even in the midst of our loved ones and friends we persist in feeling
desperately alone. Darkness invokes extreme contrasts between our immense feelings of solitude
and deep desire to belong to something greater than ourselves. The suffering that results
overwhelmingly defines our presence in the world.

It is this pervasive sense of abandonment and loneliness in the midst of a crowd that is, for me, the
essence of the dark night of the soul.
The Spiritual Desolation of Modern Society

We live in a time in which the quality and capacity our minds seem to be steadily deteriorating.
Anxiety, stress, dysfunction,and depression are core features of modern society. New age thought
parades nonsense masquerading as insight.

In our world, knowledge building does not serve to clarify; it fosters increasingly deeper levels of
confusion, complexity, and contradiction. The bland and arid surface of information overwhelms the
higher ground of comprehension and understanding. Expertism desires an incestuous relationship
with business by manufacturing victims for its deception and profit-seeking.

We are plagued by distraction; our minds are losing their ability to focus. We invent problems that
don’t exist so that we can market and sell solutions to our own lies and deceptions. The
acceleration and pervasiveness of human interaction erodes our powers of discernment and
concentration; we obsessively communicate in greater quantity and with greater speed, yet words
have increasingly little to offer.

We have seduced ourselves into believing that this vast frenzied state of destructive inertia we call
progress actually matters. We are destroying ourselves and the planet that is our only source of
life.

Spirituality in the modern world has become a commodity. One of the most reprehensible aspects
of human existence is our obsessive need to commodify everything we come into contact with.
Spirituality has fallen victim to a plethora of new age buffs selling their wares under the deceptive
guise of guru-ship. We are surrounded by false prophets whose main motive is material profit.

Our education, which imposes the design of the prerequisite, has conditioned us to behave as if we
were intellectual lemmings void of any capacity to imagine our own lives for ourselves. We never
really learn about death, until it happens.

Spirituality is a uniquely individual artistic endeavour in which we seek to discover how we can
connect, interact, and preserve the essence of life and existence within our own being. The way to
reclaim ourselves is only found only through the way of the artist; to reclaim our birthright to the
artistry of life is the very essence of spirituality.

In the absence of artistry, spirituality would not exist.

Seeking Artistry Within a Dark Night

The dark night of the soul is an experience that permeates many religious, spiritual and artistic
traditions throughout the world. It is commonly associated with mystics, or those people that
dedicate their lives to the pursuit of higher levels of insight into the human condition.

On a dark night,
Inflamed by love-longing–
O exquisite risk!–
Undetected I slipped away.
My house, at last, grown still.

– St. John of the Cross in Dark Night of the Soul

The experience of the dark night is a natural, normal, and universal phenomenon that touches
every person on the planet in some manner. In other words, the energy and animating forces of the
soul overwhelms our sensibilities so completely that regardless of our everyday pursuits, we are
thrown into an abyss of psycho-emotional torment.

In a dark night of the soul we lose our own sense of purpose, identity, and meaning.

Each of us journeys through the dark night in a unique way, but the underlying current is
relentlessly concentrated on the solitary quest for meaning and purpose in the midst of the
destruction of our present beliefs. It is here, in the ruins of our own beliefs that we attempt to take a
breath even though we feel as though even the air has abandoned us.

The Artist of the Night

An authentic artist is a person who imagines their own life as a continual force for creativity.

Artists do not merely create aesthetically pleasing objects; they create, destroy, and recreate their
own lives. All creativity embraces destruction. Destruction is not the opposite of creativity;
destruction is an aspect of and companion to creativity. The soul is the single most potent creative
and therefore destructive force in humanity, one that can, with only a mere whisper, bring us to our
knees begging for relief.

In the midst of a dark night of the soul, destructive forces hack away at our most cherished beliefs.
That is to say, darkness destroys what we once held to be real and true and replaces it with a
complete absence of belief. The destruction of belief is both vital and necessary and though our
suffering may take us to our most extreme limits of resilience, the soul is creating space for the
artistry gestation and bringing forth.

A dark night of the soul teaches us that we cannot proceed to attain inner peace unless we are
willing to give ourselves to the absolute destruction of the beliefs that bind us.

A dark night of the soul is fundamentally a creative process. There is no meaningful creativity
without destroying the things that serve to confine us. Our soul already knows this, and will
transport us into the midst of painful and harsh habitats in order to help us to re-create ourselves.
A dark night of the soul causes the absolute destruction of that which is familiar and brings us
comfort, of that which gave us a reason to do the things that we once did. We come to know the
real meaning of feeling lost and alone in this landscape. We cannot see where to go, and we can
no longer return to where we once had been. Darkness mires us in confusion, abandonment, and
feelings of hopelessness.

We still move through our everyday existence but with an overwhelming feeling of paralysis. We
feel ourselves moving through time, but each step we take has become painfully uncertain. Nor
can we resort to an external system of faith, for our soul demands that we learn to create our own
beliefs and feel the rhythms of the earth. There is no human thought “out there” that comes to our
aid “in here.”

We are surrounded by the darkness that has been born out of what is no longer there.

When Our Interior World Fails

When our interior world begins to fail and a sense of desolation begins to overwhelm our
experience, society is quick to provide the label of depression. Of course, depression as a disease
is virulent and does infect our thought patterns, emotional states, and biological functioning. To
relieve ourselves from depression we often seek to change our thought processes and/or use
chemical intervention to relieve the symptoms.

Perhaps in our attempts to avoid suffering, we have done ourselves a great harm. Suffering is an
unavoidable reality of everyday living. Even though it is uncomfortable, undesirable, and
threatening, our real task is to move through it and learn from it as a we go. Sometimes we just
need to find a way to get to the other side of it.

A dark night of the soul invites feelings of depression, but it is a phenomenon that is far more
expansive, carnal, and primal. There is no pharmaceutical relief from the sense of desolation
brought on by the dark night. The calling of the soul cannot be medicated. Nor can we merely
“think” our way out of the dark night as if it were some kind of exercise in cognitive therapy.
The dark night is far more powerful that the whimpers and burps of the human intellect and easily
decimates any notion that we can “think” ourselves free of its grasp. The dark night of the soul
recreates the mind.

He [God] leads them into the dark night. Here is where he weans them from the breasts of
personal pleasure, through pure aridity and inner darkness. He removes all the gratuities and
childish attachments and helps them acquire the virtues by very different means.

– St. John of the Cross in Dark Night of the Soul

Contemplating the Dark Night of the Soul

Contemplation of the dark night of soul reminds us that all life is extremely fragile.

All suffering requires us to turn and face it directly so that a conversation can begin. Our task is not
to wage war on an opponent, but to begin the process of learning from a mercurial mentor. The
courageous step is to build our powers of contemplation, or the long and careful observation of our
experience. Contemplation, concentration, discernment, mindfulness, and focus are our most
trusted guides inside a dark night.

Of course, suffering is a phenomenon we all wish to avoid. The reality of life is that it is not always
avoidable. All human life across the vast expanses of time and place have experienced suffering in
varying degrees. To turn away from it is to lose our humanity.

In a dark night of the soul, contemplation creates a space for working with our fears. Sometimes
that which has the power to destroy is precisely the thing that has the most to offer us. Our own
unique suffering in the midst of the dark night of the soul is our most trusted adviser.

We have anesthetized ourselves to spirituality. The parroting of beliefs has become commonplace.
Religion has become more of a question mark, perhaps even more of a roadblock, than a
sanctuary for the contemplation of authentic belief. Merely adopting a particular set of beliefs that
have been defined by other people, whether they are religious or spiritual in origin, will not prevent
a dark night of the soul from visiting.

A dark night of the soul demands that we recreate our beliefs.

In essence, a dark night kidnaps us from the false security of our beliefs, traditions, and faith and
carries us into a mercurial space in which we cannot find our identity, purpose, or meaning. A dark
night is a physical, mental and spiritual abyss in which questions such as, “Why am I here?” are
sources of pain, suffering, and internal torture.

A dark night is the place of utter abandonment, solitude, and loneliness – there is no relief to be
found other than to journey through it even though our footing has become uncertain.
Demons of Our Own Conjuring

Is there not enough meaning and value in our ordinary lives to pursue? Is it not enough to educate
ourselves, raise families, contribute to society, and retire well without adding in the angst
generated by the soul? Isn’t religion enough – just choose one to believe in, follow its assumptions
blindly, and all will work out in the end? Is there really an internal world, a spiritual terrain that we
must traverse in order to relieve our burden and reach a calmer place?

Is the angst of the soul really a delusion in itself, a source of suffering that we have in fact
manufactured for ourselves in the pursuit of false assumptions and beliefs? Have we fallen victim
to the vagaries of our own imagination?

Moreover, why willingly fall into what is described as an abyss of suffering, dislocation, and
desolation?
Sometimes we see what’s not there. We see demons of our own conjuring.

– The Devil’s Mistress

Our imagination creates a reality that is just as real as something that is “out there.” If we are
seeing something internally, then it is there and it is real. The experience of a dream is just as real
as the experience of looking at a tree. Perhaps demons have always been of our own conjuring,
and our interior world of the spirit is their natural habitat. There is nothing “out there” that isn’t also
“in here;” and in this sense, demons can only be of our own conjuring.

To ignore the messages that seem to originate in that untraceable location we call our intuition, is
to ignore our higher and more artistic sensibilities. It is a courageous endeavour to inhabit those
places of our being that lie beyond immediate sensory perception and spaces that do not conform
to our collective compendium of knowledge and assumed belief. Have we become so confined by
externality that we deny the possibly of other modes of perception and being?

A dark night of the soul is an artistic journey into that which literally may destroy us, but it also may
renew us.

We are forced into spiritual exile that serves as a medium of transformation, in which we are utterly
lost, alone, and riddled with thrusts of anxiety. Once inside a dark night, there is no way or means
to reverse our way out of it, no way to return to that which was. In this sense, a dark night of the
soul is a threshold into a primal form of suffering in which our mentors and companions are
loneliness, solitude, despair, confinement, disillusionment, isolation, uncertainty, angst, fear, panic,
and desolation.

There is no promise or guarantee within a dark night, that is to say, there is no certainty that we will
ever emerge from it in this life. To assume that everything will be alright in time only places us at
risk. The things we fear the most are the very things that can help us to find our way out into a new
life.

A Dark Night of the Soul

A dark night of the soul is one of the most significant experiences we can have in life.

A dark night literally destroys what we had become, and demands we discover what to become in
the midst of abandonment, loneliness and deep despair. Lying deep within the essence of the dark
night is creativity, a creativity that originates in the carnal and primal rhythms of life.
A dark night embraces the essence of art, artistry, and creativity – and therefore absolute
destruction. In this realm we learn that suffering and learning are inexorably interconnected. The
coldness of externally created knowledge is of no assistance to us here in this world; we are left to
create our thoughts, beliefs, and faith for ourselves.

In the midst of a dark night, each day becomes an improvisation on the theme survival.

We are perfectly healthy, yet find that each breath we take feels ponderous and heavy. We may be
completely financially independent, perhaps even wealthy, but have absolutely no clue as to what
we should do with our lives. We suffer from a deep longing for an experience we cannot grasp or
define.

The daily routines of waking, working, relaxing, and resting fail to resolve our angst, and in a
curious way exacerbate a desire we cannot understand. Everything we once thought of as
providing stability in life has fallen into ruin and decay.

And we enter into a dark night of the soul…

Dark Night of the Soul 2: Artistry of the Night

Our soul is not always a sanctuary of comfort. The musings of the soul can lead us directly into the
midst of a dark night of the soul. In dark night, we face a profound call to attention. And we must
find a courageous voice to begin the conversation. Hidden within a dark night of the soul is the
artistry of suffering; an interior crucible of transformation and survival – the artistry of the night.

Dark Night of the Soul - Artistry of the NightThe idea of a Dark Night of the Soul originated with St.
John of the Cross (1542-1591), a spanish saint, mystic and poet. In the previous article I explored
the feeling of a dark night of the soul. In this article I explore the perceptual landscape of a dark
night.

The Artistry of the Soul

The experience of spiritual suffering is normal. There is no life that is void of suffering.

A dark night of the soul catapults us to the very edge of our courage and creativity. When we are
touched by a dark night a period of internal destruction is initiated. In this frightening realm, artistry
is survival.

A dark night of the soul is a necessary journey into pure artistry and creativity. My belief is that a
dark night is a primal creative process that serves to transform our identity, awareness, beliefs, and
sense of purpose in life.

When we think of art we might imagine beautiful, aesthetically pleasing objects that have been
crafted by an artist. A physical work of art is one possible outcome of artistry. However, it is the
underlying capacities that are the source of an artist’s creativity. These capacities include intuition,
perceptual acuity, imagination, vision, attention, awareness, discernment, comprehension,
apprehension, concentration, and contemplation.

The artist’s terrain is the land of thresholds where raw perception leads us to the very edges of
knowing. The artist embraces all types of experience, beautiful and ugly, peaceful and distressing,
safe, dangerous, as well as life and death. The artist is, in this sense, a perceptual explorer who
journeys into the extreme thresholds of experience.
A dark night of the soul is a profound creative threshold that requires us to embrace our own
unique artistic sensibilities.
The Perceptual Landscape of Darkness

When we enter a dark night of the soul we find ourselves surrounded by a mercurial and bleak
feeling of aloneness that permeates our sensibilities. The beliefs, ideas, attitudes, priorities that
form the foundation of our identity have already become frail and inadequate. We feel as though
we have been somehow abandoned and have been left alone to improvise our way through a
landscape of internal distress.

We see the same world around us that we always have, but it now feels strangely unfamiliar and
inhospitable.

In the midst of a dark night of the soul we become an artist in order to survive. Raw experience is
our canvas. Our palette is the touch of darkness within. We fear what we cannot see. We fear the
destruction of our identity. We fear the approach of an unknown but ferocious darkness. We fear
being absolutely abandoned in the midst of a crowd. We fear… perhaps for the first time.

We cannot see in the dark, yet we know something unknown, unfamiliar, and threatening is upon
us. Darkness ushers in the impenetrable mystery of life, existence, and survival.

We sense the presence of a potential enemy, but there is none to be found other than in the
vagaries of our own imagination. We are alone, yet we do not know how to be alone. We seek
relief, only to intensify our suffering. We try the standard advice to no avail. Our senses seem dead
and unresponsive to our requests for help.

The soul has transported us into the darkness of night, and we find ourselves in an unavoidable
destiny with our own creativity.

St. John of the Cross described the dark night as contemplation. That is to say, a dark night of the
soul forces us into a deep, unavoidable contemplation about the essential nature and purpose of
our life in this world. He assumed that there are two interrelated dimensions of the night, the night
of the senses, and the night of the spirit.

The night of the senses is the destruction of the beliefs that create the foundation of our lives. We
are, in a sense, stripped of all that gave us comfort and assurance in our being. Once the sensory
devastation is completed, the soul is ready to begin its journey toward the life force (i.e. – God) that
animates all life.

The dark night, which we name “contemplation,” creates two kinds of darkness which align with the
two aspects of human nature: the sensual and the spiritual.

In the first night of purification, the soul is stripped of senses and accommodated to pure spirit. In
the other night, the spirit itself is purged and made naked in readiness for the soul’s union of love
with God.

– Dark Night of the Soul



The Mental Terrain of a Dark Night

A dark night is a form of contemplation, that is to say, the dark night is a medium, an environment,
a total surround, in which the contemplation of meaning, purpose and existence becomes
completely unavoidable. A dark night creates possibilities from which there is no retreat.
It is precisely because we resist the darkness in ourselves that we miss the depths of the
loveliness, beauty, brilliance, creativity, and joy that lie at our core.

– Thomas Moore, Dark Nights of the Soul

According to St. John of the Cross, the night of sense, or the purification of the senses, creates the
following conditions:
The Complete Absence of Pleasure: Things that once provided pleasure may no longer have the
same effect. There is no pleasure in objects or material things.

Thought and Memory are Impaired: Our memory, thoughts, and emotions are imbued with a primal
yearning for a deeper relationship with our own existence. We seek out deeper meaning, purpose,
and presence in life. The absence of these qualities induces spiritual suffering.

The Destruction of Personal Beliefs and Assumptions: The mind (thoughts, concepts, ideas,
beliefs, assumptions, identity, desires, etc.) becomes influenced by unknowing. We realize that the
rational and logical mind offers no solace or solution, leading to the realization that contemplation
is the only possible means to navigate through the dark night.

Gaping Wounds of Loss and Abandonment: There is an unavoidable sensation of being completely
lost and abandoned in the world, even while in the midst of our loved ones and friends. That which
once gave us meaning and purpose has vanished. We have lost our way, with no hope of going
back to what once was.

We cannot think ourselves out of the darkness. The dark night asphyxiates our thoughts and
renders them ineffective. Our habits of mind, even our most addictive thought patterns, become
frail. Our memory, in the sense that it provides a sanctuary for the past, becomes fragile.
Finally, a deep and pervasive feeling of being lost and abandoned is perhaps one of the most
disturbing elements of the dark night. We may continue to proceed through our daily routines and
give others the impression that nothing about us has changed, while our interior world remains
under siege.

Destruction is a natural and normal aspect of creativity. While the dark night may be destroying
aspects of our identity, the purpose of this destruction, as uncomfortable as it may be, is to create
space for new possibilities in life.

Living Vibrantly In the Midst of a Dark Night

The notion of “living vibrantly” within a dark night of the soul seems completely contradictory, and
perhaps even insensitive.

People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. They will
practice Indian yoga and all its exercises, observe a strict regimen of diet, learn the literature of the
whole world – all because they cannot get on with themselves and have not the slightest faith that
anything useful could ever come out of their own souls.
– Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (1952)

Vibrant means vigorous, energetic, and vital. Living vibrantly in the midst of a dark night means we
openly accept our situation and circumstances and maintain a firm persuasion and intention to
move through the terrain before us, regardless of the extreme discomfort we are feeling.
The mind is profoundly immersed in the knowledge and feeling of its limitations and miseries… The
soul has no clue that she is advancing on her path… She is losing herself to all that she has ever
known or tasted.
She is walking a road of entirely new flavors and new knowledge… To get to an unknown land by
unknown roads, a traveler cannot allow himself to be guided by his old experience… When an
apprentice is learning new details about his trade, he works in darkness.

If he were to cling to old methods, he would not make any progress… The soul is making the most
progress when she is traveling through the deepest darkness, knowing nothing.

– Dark Night of the Soul

Living vibrantly in the midst of suffering is a vital and essential spiritual response to excruciatingly
difficult circumstances in life. This doesn’t mean we enjoy the experiences we are having, but it
does mean we are courageously alive within them. Physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual
suffering is a perfectly normal life experience. A dark night of the soul demands a courageous
conversation.

Artistry reveals hope within the absence of light.

Our interface with the unknown is our creative imagination. A dark night embraces and calls upon
our deepest and most primal creativity – an authentic creativity that originates in hope, survival,
love, belonging, gratitude, and beauty. Our creative challenge is to keep moving under the weight
of the night in order to seek out pathways through the gauntlet of our own fears, anxieties, and
insecurities.

There is an Artist that inhabits each one of us. It is the source of energy and inspiration that
encourages movement within a dark night. In the absence of artistry, we become victim to our own
inactivity. We lose our vitality, and intensify our suffering. Contemplation, awareness, attention,
observation, perception, and discernment are essential qualities when we are held captive by the
perceptual surround of the darkness.

A dark night is a new beginning. But it is also a point of no return, that is to say, once a dark night
moves in there is no possibility of returning to the life we once had. Life as we once knew it
becomes relentlessly transformed. In our interior world, there is only the struggle for motion, that is,
to feel as though we are moving through our own inertia.

In the midst of a dark night, artistry is survival.


The Muse of the Spanish Mystics
August 3, 2009

Deep thanks to each of you who shared reflections on your own experiences of grief and
transformation in response to my maiden blog voyage. Your accounts and your willingness to
show up so fully for the journey are powerfully inspirational to me. I look forward to hearing more
Tales from the Road! There are two mystics whose teachings closely mirror my own path of
suffering and transformation: the sixteenth century Spanish monk, John of the Cross, and his

mentor, Teresa of Avila. I had already been swimming in their poetry and prose for years, but after
my daughter’s death I completely submerged myself. It was in that descent that I learned how to
breathe under water. John of the Cross, known for introducing the term dark night of the soul into
the vernacular, was referring to the kind of spiritual crisis that squeezes every drop of devotional
succulence from our senses and entirely dismantles the edifice of our religious concepts. In the
throes of the dark night, we cannot feel the presence of the sacred anymore, no matter how many
tricks we use to conjure up old feelings of connectedness. We can no longer even conceive of
such a notion as God, which has become a mere word, devoid of meaning. While this ordeal
carries an intense emotional charge, it is not primarily a psychological experience. The catalyst for
entering these depths may be a disaster – the ending of a marriage, the death of a loved one, the
loss of a job or a home or a community – but the mystical darkness John speaks of transcends
trauma. It is deeper than depression. It is a dissolving of the separate self into the blinding light of
love. Yet the divine radiance only becomes visible when our old eyes have been utterly
consumed. This annihilation is excruciating. Teresa of Avila speaks about the beautiful wound of
longing for union with God. The soul that has tasted even a fleeting sip of his love will catch on fire
and only absolute union with him will end her terrible suffering. She will be unable to speak of this
agony, and yet silence melts her bones. In the very depths of this predicament lies the solution.
Our yearning for connection with our divine source is in itself the divine response. The call and the
answer are reciprocal. Only the empty cup can be filled. Both of these mystics testify to the
necessity of enduring the profound pain of separation on our path home to God. Both remind us
that the divine dwelling place lies inside ourselves, and is in fact none other than the truth of who
we are. Both reveal that the joy and peace that lie on the other side of our shattering so far exceed
any pleasure we have ever imagined that it would be like comparing the light of a candle to the
blazing of a ten thousand suns. Finally, both John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila teach us that
the only real purpose of the mystical experience is to be of simple service once we have returned
from that garden of blending with the absolute to the relative desert of our ordinary consciousness.
We are back, but we are different. Transfigured by the encounter. Disabused of our illusions.
Divested of a false sense of separation and rooted in the certainty of interconnectedness. Once
we have witnessed everything we ever believed to be true go up in flames, we have trouble ever
again identifying with the story of our own thoughts. When Jenny died, I became fearless. The
worst thing I could imagine had happened. What did I have left to be afraid of? And with that loss
of fear came a desire to give comfort, to give sanctuary, to call out to my companions drowning in
the darkness: look for the treasure that lies only at the bottom of the well of grief. And, when you
have found it – and you will, I promise, you will — bring it back. If we can collectively recognize the
gifts that lie in the stripping away of all our false constructs, and, as a human collective, surrender
to knowing nothing, we can reap the fruits of this transformation and get on with the task of feeding
each other, both spiritually and materially. The dark night of global crisis will reveal itself as a state
of pure luminescence, where nothing is at we thought it was, and the only possible response is
compassionate action, rooted in shattering sorrow and blossoming in radiant joy.
A Dark Night of the Soul and the Discovery of Meaning
By Thomas Moore
PUBLISHED IN SPRING | SUMMER 2015
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Anyone may go through a period of sadness or challenge that is so deep-seated and tenacious
that it qualifies as a dark night of the soul. Not long ago I was giving a talk at a university when a
man shouted at me from back in the crowd: “I’m terribly depressed. It’s been years. Help me.” I
shouted back my email address. In his voice and body language I could see that this man was not
caught in some passing depression. His life was broken by some loss, failure, or long-forgotten
emotional wound that left him in a desperately dark place.

I reserve the expression ‘dark night of the soul’ for a dark mood that is truly life-shaking and
touches the foundations of experience, the soul itself. But sometimes a seemingly insignificant
event can give rise to a dark night: You may miss a train and not attend a reunion that meant much
to you. Often a dark night has a strong symbolic quality in that it points to a deeper level of emotion
and perhaps a deeper memory that gives it extra meaning. With dark nights you always have to be
alert for the invisible memories, narratives, and concerns that may not be apparent on the surface.
Faced with a dark night, many people treat it like an illness, like depression. They may take
medication or go into counseling looking for a cause. It can be useful to search for the roots of a
dark night, but in my experience the best way to deal with it is to find the concrete action or
decision that it is asking for.

Engaging the Night

A dark night of the soul is a kind of initiation, taking you from one phase of life into another. You
may have several dark nights in the course of your life because you are always becoming more of
a person and entering life more fully. At least, that is the hope.

One simple rule is that a truly deep dark night requires an extraordinary development in life. One
outstanding example is Abraham Lincoln. With his early life surrounded by death and loneliness
and his adult life weighed down by a war in which thousands of young men died, he was a
seriously melancholic man who, in spite of or through his dark night, became an icon of wisdom
and leadership. One theory is that he escaped his melancholy in his efforts for his country, but
another possibility is that the very darkness of his life—he once said, “If there’s a worse place than
hell, I’m in it.”—was the ground out of which his leadership grew.

As a therapist, I have worked with people profoundly sad and discouraged, and I join with them in
looking for ways to transform that heavy mood into a weighty life. Contemporary people often don’t
take their lives seriously enough. This tendency might be an aspect of the cult of celebrity, where
we lose sight of our own importance by making too much of it in others.

In the archetypal psychotherapy that I practice, we always say: Go with the symptom. I don’t look
for quick escapes from the pain or good distracting alternatives. I try to imagine how a symptom,
like a long-standing dark night, might be re-imagined and even lived out in a way that is not literally
depressive. As far back as the Middle Ages at least, dark moods were considered to be the work of
Saturn, a spirit symbolized by a planet far out in the solar system. He was cold, lonely, and heavy,
but he was also the source of wisdom and artistic genius. Look through history and you will find a
great number of creative men and women who have struggled with the Saturnine humor.

This ancient idea that a dark night may be connected with genius and inspiration could help us
today as we try to be constructive with a Saturnine disposition, like Lincoln’s, or a period of smoky
moodiness. We might imagine it as the root and basis of an engagement with life that could give
meaning and purpose. This doesn’t necessarily mean that eventually the dark spirit will go away,
but it may have a counterweight—some extraordinary creative activity and involvement in life—that
will make it more than bearable and may diminish it.

With our contemporary view of anything that looks like depression, we think: I’ll never be happy,
never have a good relationship, never accomplish anything. But with the medieval image of Saturn,
we might instead tell ourselves: A dark night is the sign of a high calling. My pain and loneliness
will prepare me for my destiny.

Finding the Gift in Darkness



There are many examples of men and women who endured unimaginable ordeals and yet
contributed in a striking way to humanity’s progress. Nelson Mandela was in prison for 27 years
under harsh conditions, yet he never lost his vision and sense of destiny. One of his younger fellow
prisoners said of him: “The point about Nelson, of course, is that he has a tremendous presence,
apart from his bearing, his deportment and so on. He’s a person who’s got real control over his
behavior. He is also quite conscious of the kind of seriousness he radiates.” This is dark night talk
—presence and seriousness, the key gifts of Saturn—as a long tradition holds. Mandela’s dark
night was an actual imprisonment, not a mood. Still, he teaches how to deal with a dark night.
Don’t waste time in illusions and wishes. Take it on. Keep your sense of worth and power. Keep
your vision intact. Let your darkness speak and give its tone to your bearing and expression.

The regenerative power of nature grows more beautiful after a devastating forest fire at
Yellowstone Park in 1988. photography | Wikimedia Commons, Jim Peaco
The regenerative power of nature grows more beautiful after a devastating forest fire at
Yellowstone Park in 1988. photography | Wikimedia Commons, Jim Peaco

As strange as it may sound, there is a temptation in a dark night to slip into enjoyment of the pain
and to identify with your emotions and moods. “I’m a lonely person. I’m depressed. Help me.” One
striking quality we see in men and women who are dealing with their dark nights effectively is a
lack of masochistic surrender to the mood, which can be forceful and dominating.

Mandela had “control over his behavior.” He didn’t succumb. It’s important to live through the dark
night, acknowledge it, notice its qualities, and be affected by it. At the same time, it is not useful to
be too attached to it or to let it dominate. You don’t want to be the hero who slays dragons and
tries to obliterate the darkness, but you do need all the strength of heart you can muster.

While giving a dark night its due, you can also cultivate a love of life and joy in living that doesn’t
contradict the darkness. You can be dedicated to your work and your vision for humanity and also
feel overwhelmed by the suffering in the world. To do this it helps to have a philosophy of life that
understands the creative coming together of conflicting moods. The rule is simple: Human beings
can do more than one thing at a time. You can acknowledge your darkness and still find some joy.

An example of the dark night leading to a transformative presence in the world is Maya Angelou,
who went from not speaking for five or six years as a child out of guilt and the wounds of abuse to
reciting the inaugural poem for Bill Clinton and inspiring millions to make something of their own
dark nights. In all her public appearances, Angelou showed both the pain and the joy that shaped
her mission in life. She carried her pain throughout her life and yet her joy seemed to increase with
her impact on men and especially women around the world.

Angelou’s experience demonstrates in an intriguing way how a dark night might take away your
‘voice’ and then give it back with added power. The question is, how do you go from a dark night to
having a positive impact on the world, thus giving your own life purpose?

The first step is to embrace the darkness, take it to heart, winnow out any subtle innuendos of
resistance. Then find any images that are trapped in the thick dark mood or situation. Those
images may hold the clue to your release and future service. Angelou lost her voice, a fascinating
symptom and a strong image, and then became known worldwide for her voice. The cure lies in
the illness, the hint at future activity within the symptom. If you tone down the dark elements
because they are painful and discouraging, you may also hide the gifts that are there for you.

The Return of Aliveness: The Dark Night of the Soul


By Eckhart Tolle

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.

Note: from Eckhart Tolle Newsletter, October 2011. Edited by Kosmos.


www.eckharttolle.com
Another important strategy is to avoid making the dark night too personal, too focused on yourself.
Yes, you feel it intimately and alone. But it could still have more to do with the suffering of the world
than with yourself. Maybe dark nights are generally less personal than they feel. At any one time,
beings on the planet are suffering. The planet itself is suffering; it is going through a dark night
constantly. If you live in a place where children are hungry and dying in wars and in domestic
violence, you are within the realm of the world’s dark night. Listen to political leaders deny climate
change and you worry about the future, not of the planet on which you live but the planetary being
of which you are a living part. If you can stretch your moral imagination to perceive this suffering,
then you will have the energy and focus to work toward a transformation.

Waking Up

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 become a somebody by 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.

~~~