RUSSEL BROWNLEE February 23, 2012
When Things Fall Apart
Navigating a Dark Night
of the Soul
Most of us will have heard of the term dark night of the soul and known instinctively what it means – a period of intense suffering or trouble where no solution can be found. The term was coined by the 16th century mystic known as John of the Cross, who was imprisoned and tortured for trying to bring about Church reforms. During his imprisonment he went through a profound crisis of belief that stripped away his illusions about himself and God, leading to his enlightenment.
John’s central message in his writings is that certain of our troubles are brought about not because we are weak and are failing in some way but because we are ready to take a leap into the unknown. All that once served us has to be stripped away for a new and unimagined self to be born.
Even though John was writing of a spiritual stage of development, his insights into the Dark Night can change the way we experience loss and failure in our ordinary lives.
Could you be going through a Dark Night right now?
A dark night experience is one in which:
the strategies that used to work for you no longer work
you’ve tried everything you can to fix the situation, but it remains broken
you feel powerless and abandoned
the things that used to give your life meaning now feel empty and worthless
Not all these aspects have to be present, but the common thread is that what you are going through is more than just a spate of bad luck – it has shaken your sense of self and your place in the world. The pain you feel is a crisis of meaning and existence.
The way through the Dark Night
John’s advice for navigating the Dark Night is to recognize it for what it is and to stop running around trying to make it better. Don’t try to fix the situation, he says, because it is broken beyond repair. Just be present with yourself, in the midst of the loss of everything you have known. Give up asking God/Universe for stuff, give up trying to change reality to suit your needs. In the true Dark Night the only solution is to humbly be present with reality exactly as it is. You can still work to change things, but you have given up expectations of the outcome – you have given up your war with reality.
This is a profound message in this age of entitlement and self-empowerment where we are led to believe that ill-health or lack of success means we are failing in some way. We spend our time studying the self-help books and attending more ‘manifesting your dreams’ courses, hoping that one day we will get it right and receive the abundance we deserve. We don’t stop to consider that maybe our desire for success – even spiritual success – is an addiction that needs to be broken.
When the dark night descends, our illusions about who we are and what we need in order to be complete are shattered. In not trying to medicate our condition with money, with a new relationship, with spiritual feelings or whatever other thing we imagine we need, we discover a deep acceptance of life that is nothing less than union with God/Reality. The Buddha said that our suffering arises through running after things that please us and running away from things that cause us discomfort. The message of John of the Cross is the same – stop all the running and be present with what is.
When you can do this you will truly have everything you need.
This article has been reprinted here with permission from the author.
Photo of Corolo Borromaeo by Trey Ratcliff, Creative Commons