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The Dark Night of the Soul

The dark night of the soul…

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” So wrote the great Charles Dickens in the opening of “A Tale of Two Cities” He goes on..”it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness....”

Many people I speak to currently believe that in all of the history of humans in Universe this is the darkest of all times. There is great despair. For many, a sense of hopelessness. And indeed there is much to despair about. The confluence of events of the economy, the environment, our energy supply; plus the issues that do not seem to get onto the table as much, like our entitled, winging, spoilt brat Western world, over indulged, lazy, self centered, obese, and deeply narcissistic.

On top of this, many people I know are going through their own personal dark night. Whether triggered by illness, depression, the environment around them, loss of work, identity, career...trying to find a way forward when the way looks lost or hopeless for whatever reason....

I too went through a period of despair and hopelessness. I truly could not see a way forward, through or out...however, by my continued daily practice which included reading from the writings of my great mentor and teacher, Bucky Fuller, I was reminded that we emerge through emergency, and that our natural systems design as humans is to find ever more ways to do more with less. I wrote an article... ”the shift has already happened, please wake up..”, to describe my experience. It was also during this dark night and meltdown that I wrote about creating an emergency tool kit which became my life line.

I have been through a dark night of the soul before, and will probably go through a dark night again. I am learning to love them, for in their own way, they are extraordinarily beautiful. Painful, but beautiful.

With my medical background and my experience of working with people at the deepest level of their development, I am aware that the majority of us never make the real changes we know we must make until we are on our knees and the night is black. Until we are well and truly in our own dark night. However, this place is also a place of incredible beauty and grace. Humility and surrender live here, the willingness to do anything, to be open, to consider possibilities that we would not have considered on the way down into the dark night.

In my daily work I do get to partner with many people going through their own dark night of the soul, and it is such a privilege to walk with someone as they fall deep, live in the depths and find their way out. This place is one of extraordinary creativity. We forget this..we forget that shadow and light go hand in hand, and we live in a world that seems to make the shadow wrong. I love the shadow, because it is the birth of the new.

Why are we so afraid of the shadow...of age..of death?

Our current human predicament is solvable. It may not be solvable without a price. And it will require profound change from each and every one of us. However I am reminded that if we look back at history, while today's darkness seems to us to be the worst of the worst, I am sure those people who lived through world wars, or the age where the nuclear bomb threat was immanent, or the black plague, or slavery...or the inquisition, the holocaust ... the way out seemed impossible, hopeless, futile.

Each age seems to have these points that seem insurmountable. And yet out of the worst of us rises some of the best of us. The walls of creativity crack open, people pull compassion and miracles from the depths of the darkness. Ask anyone you admire, and they will talk of their own dark night, and they will do so with reverence for the experience, never wanting to take it away, speaking with the certainty of someone who rises through their own ashes to be transformed.

Nelson Mandela- Robben Island, 27 years, and he walks free and forgives his jailers and goes on to inspire the best in all of us.

On the weekend past I was a spectator at the Triathlon World Championships on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia, and I had the privilege to watch the para-athletes exit the swim section to prepare for the bike. Some of these athletes were blind, some had one arm, or one leg, some were paraplegic. And yet here they where, competing with able bodied athletes, mastering water, bike, run. Refusing to stay at home and be a victim. These people are my hero’s. They are the ones that bring tears to my eyes, in celebration of their bravery and choosing life. Or the people in the slums in Rio--- who within minutes of meeting me, offer me gifts, love, affection, grace... beyond anything I have experienced anywhere else.

Why do we make celebrities hero’s for doing nothing else but having the right parents, or making the right movie? What does this say about us? Doesn’t anyone else long for the real hero’s? Those people who rise above petty issues of self and go on to do things for others?

I look at this dichotomy and ask..have we not yet been through a dark night deep enough to turn our silly superficial values on their head? Do we need to do this...to do to the dark night as a collective, in order to make these changes? I suspect the answer is yes..we need to go through this. And I am an optimist...I believe we will find our way. But not until we break through and probably break down.

We cannot speak of the global economic meltdown, energy issues, environmental catastrophe, without also addressing the inner breakdown of morals, ethics, simple acts of gratitude, respect, acceptance, reverence for life.

There is much to be done, and having come through my own dark night once again, I feel ever more connected to the magnificence of life. To the possibility of humans. I am in love with the small actions of people around the world who are out of their chairs, doing what they can. I am inspired by the people who respond to “yes we can”, and who are willing to sign their own name on the dotted line, put their own stake in the grass and know that they can make a difference.

The dark night is a pre-requisite to wisdom. It doesn’t guarantee wisdom, but the journey to wisdom is not achieved without meeting the darkest aspect of self and slaying our own dragons.

Part of the work of people like myself is to be guides to people and communities as they navigate the tricky waters of their own dark night. It is to hold the space for the emergent wisdom and creativity. We have to build this kind of soul wisdom into our leaders as an imperative as part of any leadership development plan, or executive leadership coaching program.

If you are going through your own dark night, treat yourself and the journey with a renewed sense of respect and grace. Take the hand of a wise guide and mentor, and go deep, as deep as you have the stomach for. There is a treasure there. Of such beauty and grace. Well worth the journey. The you on the other side will be far more true than you thought possible.

In my own life I come back to my own practice, examining my thoughts, my actions, my own deceit. This is something I am able to do every day, always learning, always with more awareness and compassion. This I can do and do do.

To close with Dickens..

“It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to, than I have ever known.”

Let us celebrate the dark night for the birthing of the soul.

Christine McDougall, PhD, is an expert in the practical application of adult human development models, systems and integral theory. She is an experienced Executive Coach, Leadership Advisor, Keynote Speaker, Facilitator and Thought Leader. Christine has spent the past 16 years working with leaders globally on building leadership intelligence and innovative strategic pathfinding.

This article has been reprinted here by permission from the website of Christine McDougall.


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Photo of Wisdom Path in China by Michael McDonough, Creative Commons

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