Have you had hard times when things have been such that you’ve hit prolonged periods of pain, depression or illness? Have there been really hard times in your life when all has seemed to be going against you? Sometimes we hit really low points when we despair or feel utterly stuck and constrained. This is when life seems to close in on us and it appears that this is all we’ve got. Some people call this sort of time a dark night of the soul.
The phrase “dark night of the soul” derives from the 16th century Spanish mystic, St John of the Cross, who was imprisoned for his beliefs in a cell in which he could not sit or lie down. His experiences and his fortitude amidst the seeming impossible have blessed us all and provide great teaching.
Times when we hit rock bottom
These times when we hit rock bottom are very important. We might imagine them as “bad moments”, to be forgotten as soon as they are over. “Don’t go there,” we think, “it’s a bad place and you might not get out”, which doesn’t help much equip us with skills to help us learn for the future. In fact the more we resist a dark night, the more we get it: “what you resist, you get”, is an old saying. It is far more constructive to open yourself to the experience, to stay with it, enter into what is so very bad, so that you can get to the heart of it and learn whatever it has to teach you.
A dark night of the soul is a spiritual and well as a psychological event. It is when our faith is tested to the utmost. Come out of it we can, and with important learnings about ourselves and life which strengthen us, make us wiser, purge us of ego characteristics that don’t serve us, enable humility in the face of adversity, bring about a greater acceptance of life, ourselves and others. How we come out of it is in itself a teaching, since we can learn skills about how we manage life that we hadn’t fully got before.
The dark night of the soul can teach us how to handle adversity
How we handle adversity is thus a teaching. For example, over the last 3 years I’ve been tested severely around financial issues, such that in the end there was only one way to go and that was to face and feel the survival and faith fears that lay beneath the surface issues. For ages, I used to wake up in the middle of the night terrified. If I indulged the thoughts, away I would go in my mind to Armageddon. What I learned to do was to shift my awareness to the feeling, fully embrace the feeling and let it wash though me and slowly evaporate. In time I learned that fear was not to be feared. Just let it be. It is an illusion.
So too are the thoughts that support it. Just as I learned to release the feeling, I also learned to not be attached to the thoughts. Yes, I knew the theory; now I had to practice it. Noticing that I might be caught up in a vicious circle of negative thinking was crucial. I repeatedly reminded myself to stop the thoughts, to drop them. Slowly the habit would reduce, as a habit it was, and there came a point when I no longer felt the panic as I had done. That doesn’t mean the pattern has gone; it does mean I have a mastery over it, rather than it over me.
So, dark nights of the soul have to be faced and embraced. In a way it’s our shadow side, and we need to learn to integrate it before moving on. We will be much the wiser for it. It’s like we’re being tested, When we come through it, we’ll really know it’s for real, who we really are.