A dark night of the soul is a popular term used to label an intense period of rapid and highly uncomfortable spiritual growth where an individual’s consciousness develops and evolves, often due to experiences of incredible suffering.
A dark night of the soul is a prolonged event, often lasting months and in some cases, even years. With this in mind, I suppose it would be more accurate for it to be called a dark chapter of the soul. The ordeal is acknowledged and discussed within many circles of mysticism and spiritual disciplines.
They can manifest for an individual for, or what appears at the time to be for, no apparent reason. However, in many cases, they just explode into a person’s life in the form of a prolonged, particularly unpleasant and challenging life event(s).
The intense suffering it bestows almost completely destroys the individual from the inside-out, launching them well-and-truly out of their comfort zone into an abyss of pain and anguish. In having to navigate through the stressful ordeal, the person has no choice but to learn and develop new methods and perspectives which help them to cope with the immense physical, emotional and psychological trauma. In doing so they indirectly evolve and mature, becoming stronger and wiser. This is the perspective in mysticism as to why these experiences seem to occur: to encourage the growth and expansion of consciousness.
As the saying goes: we are not the same person upon leaving the storm, as we were when we entered; which is the whole point of the storm.
Depression, despair, meaninglessness, anxiety, loss of libido, loss of direction, extreme apathy, frustration, anger, lowered self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, weight loss/gain, the return of old habits, loneliness, inability to express thoughts and emotions, self-destructive behaviour, hopelessness and social avoidance… are all commonly associated symptoms of a dark night of the soul.
So horrible are these experiences that not everyone survives them, many people commit suicide to escape the intense suffering.
To date, I have personally experienced two dark nights and without any hesitation I can comfortably state that they were the worst and most challenging experiences of my entire life. However, they did lead to huge undeniable leaps of growth and maturity. I am who I am today, because of climbing out of those dark pits. These words that you are reading right now were only possible thanks to the leaps of personal development I made after surviving and healing from the second ordeal, as I used to be a very shy person when it came to creative expression due to my fear of judgement and rejection.
My first dark night of the soul was a suicidal depression in my late 20s that required my attending to the suppressed wounds of my childhood traumas, which admittedly I had buried very deep. An attempted drug overdose woke me up to the fact that something deep within me wasn’t right that this festering wound needed healing, as I’m usually a very upbeat life-affirmative kind of guy.
The level of healing that was required at that time was enormous as (and I am being completely open here) I was an emotional and psychological mess. I was using an obscene amount of drugs to numb myself, which in the long run, just made my mental and physical health far worse. My mental health got so bad that I tried to kill myself with a drug overdose during this period by snorting an insane amount of cocaine, MDMA and speed after a three-day drug binge. My heart was already pounding in my chest and my brain felt like scrambled eggs but, at that time, I honestly didn’t care if I survived. I just didn’t want to come down and have to face reality and my ongoing suffering. I wanted to die in that moment and so I snorted the lot, hoping to die from a heart attack whilst unconscious. I passed out and, as I am sure you’ve already figured out, didn’t die. However, I felt so awful the next day when I woke up that I had to go to hospital for treatment. That was the lowest point of my life; the moment I knew I had to change. As the saying goes… when it becomes more of an effort to suffer than to change, you will change. This was definitely the case for me.
This focused desire to heal led to a ferocious explosion of studying self-help materials and Zen philosophy, whilst I simultaneously learned meditation in the desperate attempt to repair and save my sanity. I also completely changed my lifestyle and fixed my diet to accommodate maximum healing. I worked very hard and, thankfully, my efforts eventually paid off. I managed to slowly drag myself out of the abyss and rebuild myself anew.
I was a changed man a year on from beginning my healing journey. I had developed a deep love affair with meditation, which I continued with despite feeling like my mental health had fully recovered. I had also been fully won over by Zen, integrating its wisdom into my everyday life. As a result of these two factors combined, I began to feel more calm, spiritually centered and more myself than at any point in my life. As awful as it was the dark night had reset my internal world and allowed me the opportunity to not only heal my suppressed wounds, but also develop a new relationship with my mind and with life.
The second dark night of the soul manifested ten years (and many life chapters) later as a result of a sequence of shitty events that utterly destroyed me. I lost my home, my job, my girlfriend, all my savings, my little business and several friends, all within a five-month period. A financially risky move to the south of England to move-in with my ex (whom I loved very much at the time) sadly didn’t work out. I risked everything for love and it blew-up in my face. The icing on the cake was in having to move in with my father with whom I had always had a turbulent relationship, until that point. It was either that or homelessness. My father (bless him), is a toxic narcissist and his controlling, aggressive and highly violent parenting caused much of my childhood trauma. Having to learn to live with him again was a true living nightmare that fried my noodle good-and-proper.
I am not too proud to admit that having to process just one of these challenges would have been a difficult enough pill to swallow, but all of them together almost overwhelmed me. I have never had to overcome so much heartbreak, grief or tragedy in such a short space of time. Next to healing from my depression, this particular chapter was one of the toughest experiences of my life. I had never cried as much as I did throughout that period.
However, in retrospect, the second dark night of the soul was a little different from the first. All of the perspectives and life tools I had learned from overcoming the first helped enormously. They awarded me a perspective that allowed me to not only make sense of the suffering but to also understand what was actually happening. Admittedly, this didn’t delete any of the pain but it did make the pain easier to process. I also knew through experience that dark nights of the soul were thankfully only a temporary affair. I just had to survive the ordeal, be patient and weather out the storm, and the storm would eventually come to an end.
I took comfort from an old Zen perspective on tragedy during that time. It said that every now and again, an intense fire will roar through the forest of our lives destroying everything in its path. I now know from that experience that there is nothing more frightening than seeing your life turn to ash before your very eyes, when all you can do is look on helplessly as the trees of your life burn to the ground. It was truly terrifying.
Yet as destructive as forest fires first appear… with so much loss of vegetation, beauty and woodland habitat, after the flames have eventually died and the blackened ground cools, sunlight reaches the forest floor. All that fresh carbon replenishes the earth and given enough time the forest grows back bigger, greener and more beautiful than before it was destroyed.
So if this is the ultimate outcome, a forest fire, as catastrophic as it first appears know that it is not the end but merely an uncomfortable transformation. It is a reset button: an opportunity for greater growth. They are part of life’s death-and-rebirth cycles.
From great destruction comes new life, as we cannot make way for the new without first clearing out the old. Nature lives by this law and, as humans; I think we sometimes forget that we are part of nature too. The cyclical nature of life and death also manifests at the level of consciousness as we continuously evolve and journey through life. It is just that occasionally life needs to quickly clear the way of anything that no longer serves us – sometimes many things at once – so that we can begin the next chapter with a clear slate. All we can do is to let go, trust the reset process, accept the changes as best as we can and do our best to flow with the ride. This was definitely the case for me during that time.
When something ends, it is in our best interests to do our best to let it go. To hold onto someone or something longer than it is meant for us simply creates more psychological and emotional suffering. Better to let it go sooner than to drag it out and prolong the pain. By letting go we create room for something new to be born. We cannot start a new chapter if we keep attempting to re-read the last one from memory long after it has ended. The longer we linger in the dying embers of the old, smouldering chapter the longer we delay enjoying the excitement of beginning a new one. The old chapter we mourn was once a new and intimidating one too… and we survived that transition and eventually learned to love it. The next one will be no different.
The practice of meditation, positive thinking exercises and Zen studies saved my sanity during my second dark night of the soul. I honestly don’t know how I would have coped without them. I was able to navigate through it all without losing my dignity, my shit or my positive attitude and I am quite proud of that, as it honestly wasn’t easy. Don’t get me wrong, the suffering was incredible, but I had learned enough tools to navigate through it all without succumbing to the darkness.
As I have said, my life from that point on was reset, as is the direct result of most dark nights of the soul. In losing everything, I had no choice but to rebuild everything: a better life, one with many improvements on the old one that was lost. It was an opportunity to rise anew from the ashes, to begin a brand new chapter. I suppose I didn’t really have much choice in the matter, but what the hell… I saw the opportunity and went for it. So as the dust began to settle I once again embraced a new phase of self-development, as Dark nights are perfect opportunities for a little introspective fine-tuning. It is easier to see fears when they are pounding war drums in your mind and the objective of my personal self-development was to move beyond my fears. Our fears keep us locked into a safe but unfulfilled life. I wanted to give myself the kind of life that I felt that I deserved, but first I had to remove any fear blocks that could prevent me from achieving it.
So during this same period I began moving forward with a huge career change, which both simultaneously excited and terrified me. This had been a long time coming, but this reset was the window of opportunity I needed to wipe the slate clean and try something different.
From a Zen perspective I believe everything happens for a reason, even the moments that break our hearts. There is something of value to be gained from EVERY experience, even the experiences that destroy us. The beauty of having my life turn to ash (twice) was being granted the space and opportunities to rebuild a better one each time. My personal forest fires became the springboards from which I leapt into vast external and internal transformational revolutions. Both of my dark night experiences eventually opened up to a much better life… but more importantly, a much better me.
I’ve now seen for myself that like forest fires, dark nights of the soul have an important purpose; they clear the way for our authentic self to grow. As the saying goes: in order to rise, the phoenix must first burn.