JOSEPH LANGEN April 5, 2014
Navigating the Dark Night
of the Soul
An excerpt from
Release Your Stress
and Reclaim Your Life
“Your dark night is your invitation to become a person of heart and soul.”
Stress and the Soul
Minor stressors do not usually create a religious or spiritual crisis. Yet major stressors, as we have already learned, have long term effects on the body, mind and emotions to which we can now add the life of the soul.
Your soul or spirit does not have exempt status and can be just as severely tested as the rest of you. Let’s see how. If you don’t think you have a soul, please accompany us anyway and see if you can find something useful in the discussion.
Life changing events often lead you to modify or at least question your values. The death of a child might steer you toward reevaluating what you find important in life. Such an experience can also lead you to question your faith and religious/spiritual beliefs.
If you were raised in a religion, you no doubt learned to see God as a loving and caring father, at least when you are behaving yourself. When you encounter the untimely loss of someone very important in your life,you will likely be tempted to wonder if God knows what he or she is doing and whether God is being fair. God’s plan stinks! It sounds blasphemous, but you are still human and react with human emotions.
As you begin to understand more about life, you start to question the religious teachings with which you were raised. Reevaluating your early beliefs and teachings creates stress especially if you end up rejecting some of them as less than true or even nonsense.
You most likely found it unsettling in the past to let go of beliefs which no longer fit the values you adopted as your life progressed. Reconciling your new-found values and your old beliefs can keep you off balance until you resolve the conflicting implications for your life.
Like any other stress, spiritual stress comes in varying degrees. A little stress can distract you. Moderate stress can unnerve you. Serious chronic stress can paralyze your spiritual orientation at least for a time. Perhaps the best way to understand stress’s effect on the soul is to look at an extreme case.
The Dark Night of the Soul
John of the Cross, a 16th century Carmelite mystic, coined the term dark night of the soul. He saw it as a process of purification in which we root all the dead wood out of our lives and concentrate on becoming the person we want to be.
Thomas Moore, in his book “Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals,” sees dark nights as periods of transformation. It is not always clear what the transformation might entail, where we will end up and how we or others might benefit from our trial.
We don’t choose our dark nights. They choose us, appearing unexpectedly when we least expect them. As you might have gathered, dark nights are no fun. They disrupt the ordinary course of our lives, giving us a chance to reevaluate where our life is headed should we choose to do so.
We feel suddenly buried in an avalanche of troubles. We might be overcome by grief, feeling suddenly lost on our life path or abandoned by someone on whom we deeply relied.
Medically, we might view a dark night as a state of depression. In our cultural haste to return to normal, we might rush to the doctor for antidepressant medication. We want to get this experience behind us as quickly as possible.
Taking this path, we miss an opportunity. A disruption in our daily living pattern stops us from business as usual. We try to fit in all the activities in which we have become entangled. With a break in the action, we have a chance to consider whether we are still on our life path or have wandered into the brambles.
Without such a disruption, we might continue along, trying to keep up with the frenetic pace of our current society. We don’t seem to have time to think these days about our lives and what course they are taking. A dark night stops us in our tracks and gives us the opportunity for self reflection. Instead of viewing our predicament as a tragedy and just feeling sorry for ourselves, we have a chance to make a course correction in our lives.
We might learn that we are doing pretty well staying on the course we have set for ourselves. We could find that we have forgotten how we would like to live our lives. At the very least we might discover that we do not have the best ways of coping with misfortune. Maybe this is your first major disaster and you have no idea what to do now. Now is the time to discover who we can count on when we are in trouble. It’s also a time to learn some new skills we can use in future life challenges.
Life Lab Lessons
If you are suffering a major life trial, be thankful for the opportunity.
Use it to see where you have been and where you want to go in life.
Don’t feel sorry for yourself in troubled times.
Don’t look for someone to blame.
Take charge of your life.
This article has been reprinted here with permission from the author.
Dr. Langen is the author of Release Your Stress and Reclaim Your Life, available on Amazon in paperback and as an eBook.
Photo of path in Plitvice, Croatia, by Tom Sartain, Creative Commons