The Dark Night of the Soul: Understanding Spiritual Depression
St. John of the Cross coined the term “dark night of the soul” to explain the experience of spiritual depression. Spiritual depression is normal in the soul’s journey to wholeness, but we don’t really talk about it enough. Our society wants a quick fix, an affirmation, or a pill to avoid the emptiness that sometimes plagues us within. The dark night is where the Divine is actually deepening us if we allow ourselves to go into the shadows within.
I believe that we cycle through periods of darkness in our lives as a way for the Divine to get rid of our false selves. The dark night purges us of all that is not real and forces us to turn to Divine support for guidance and assistance. I have had dark night experiences that have lasted for as little as a few weeks and as long as a few years. The more I was attached to a false self, the longer the experience lasted for me.
Characteristics of the dark night include: a crisis, dissatisfaction with your current life, a major life event, a sense that something is missing, deep sadness, changes in how you view the relationships around you, an ache you can’t explain, tremendous anxiety/guilt, feeling stuck, a series of closed doors, putting on masks, addictions, feeling lost, or feeling numb.
I realize that is a pretty long list of characteristics, but they all come down to living a life that is not aligned with the Divine and our soul. Living out of alignment with God’s will is one of the most painful experiences that we do not talk about nearly enough in the spiritual life. Getting rid of our ego and identities is not easy, but necessary, in order to fully express our soul.
I liken the dark night experience to being inside a balloon. When we attach to a false self, we put on an outer layer that is not real, but we think it is. At first, the balloon is uninflated so we can stretch and move around as often as we want, believing that we have the most beautiful self-identity. But our false self and shadows begin to inflate this new identity with titles, things, relationships, addictions, and money. We begin to believe those things are real, so we give them more air, which suffocates the soul. Before we know it, we have blown our balloon up so tight that we begin to try to fortify it or it will begin to weaken and burst. We can spend years fortifying the balloon and suffocating the soul. Once it bursts, the soul is freed, but our false selves die. We find ourselves lost and disconnected from soul.
I always grieve the death of my false selves because they have often been lifelong companions as beliefs that I picked up as a child. When I say “grieve,” I mean the gamut of emotions ranging across anger, denial, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. Where I see the dark night anchoring in so deeply with people is when we do not allow ourselves to feel our grief and loss of identity. We try to hold it all together and piece our balloon back together, but something is different; we can’t go back to our relationships or jobs in the same way because we are different. We want to be that person again, but can’t.
The other challenge of the dark night is that we often lose our connection to the Divine because the connection practices that we used as our false self no longer work in this new life that is forming. We wonder where the Divine is, why the Divine isn’t answering our prayers, and how the Divine could let this happen. That disconnection from the Divine causes the deepest sorrow in our being, which is the darkest part of the dark night of the soul. The Divine is asking us to go deeper and really listen for the new life that is emerging—a life free of illusions of the old self. We cannot go deeper unless we are willing to surrender and let go. We remain in the tension between soul and false self in the dark until we do finally surrender it all.
I want to leave you with a quote from the mystic Teilhard de Chardin that has anchored me through the journey to my true self: “In all these dark moments, O God, grant that I may understand that it is You (provided my faith is strong enough) who are painfully parting the fibers of my being in order to penetrate to the very marrow of my substance and bear me away within Yourself.”
Previously posted: https://www.karakeating.com