Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life's Ordeals

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9781592400676: Dark Nights of the Soul: A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life's Ordeals
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INTRODUCTION

THE DARK NIGHT

At one time or another, most people go through a period of sadness, trial, loss, frustration, or failure that is so disturbing and long-lasting that it can be called a dark night of the soul. If your main interest in life is health, you may quickly try to overcome the darkness. But if you are looking for meaning, character, and personal substance, you may discover that a dark night has many important gifts for you.

Today we label many of these experiences “depression,” but not all dark nights are depressive, and the word is too clinical for something that makes you question the very meaning of life. It’s time for a different way of imagining this common experience, and therefore a different way of dealing with it. But, I warn you, this business is subtle, and you will have to look closely at yourself and at the examples I give to see how a deeply disturbing episode can be a precious moment of transformation.

Every human life is made up of the light and the dark, the happy and the sad, the vital and the deadening. How you think about this rhythm of moods makes all the difference. Are you going to hide out in self-delusion and distracting entertainments? Are you going to become cynical and depressed? Or are you going to open your heart to a mystery that is as natural as the sun and the moon, day and night, and summer and winter?

If you are like most people, you have gone through several dark nights of the soul. You may be in the middle of one now. You may be in a difficult marriage, have a child in trouble, or find yourself caught in a tenacious and terrible mood. You may be grieving the loss of a spouse or parent. You may have been betrayed by a lover or a business partner or going through a divorce. For some people, these situations are problems to be solved, but for others they are the source of deep despair. A true dark night of the soul is not a surface challenge but a development that takes you away from the joy of your ordinary life. An external event or an internal mood strikes you at the core of your existence. This is not just a feeling but a rupture in your very being, and it may take a long while to get through to the other end of it.

A dark night may not feel like depression. In a long illness or a troubled marriage you may be anxious, but not depressed. On the other hand, a clinical depression might well qualify as a dark night. Whatever you call it, the experience involves you as a person, someone with a history, a temperament, memories, emotions, and ideas. Depression is a label and a syndrome, while a dark night is a meaningful event. Depression is a psychological sickness, a dark night is a spiritual trial.

Many people think that the point in life is to solve their problems and be happy. But happiness is usually a fleeting sensation, and you never get rid of problems. Your purpose in life may be to become more who you are and more engaged with the people and the life around you, to really live your life. That may sound obvious, yet many people spend their time avoiding life. They are afraid to let it flow through them, and so their vitality gets channeled into ambitions, addictions, and preoccupations that don’t give them anything worth having. A dark night may appear, paradoxically, as a way to return to living. It pares life down to its essentials and helps you get a new start.

Here I want to explore positive contributions of your dark nights, painful though they may be. I don’t want to romanticize them or deny their dangers. I don’t even want to suggest that you can always get through them. But I do see them as opportunities to be transformed from within, in ways you could never imagine. A dark night is like Dante getting sleepy, wandering from his path, mindlessly slipping into a cave. It is like Alice looking at the mirror and then going through it. It is like Odysseus being tossed by stormy waves and Tristan adrift without an oar. You don’t choose a dark night for yourself. It is given to you. Your job is to get close to it and sift it for its gold.

NIGHT WORK

You probably know more about the depths of your soul from periods of pain and confusion than from times of comfort. Darkness and turmoil stimulate the imagination in a certain way. They allow you to see things you might ordinarily overlook. You become sensitive to a different spectrum of emotion and meaning. You perceive the ultraviolet extremes of your feelings and thoughts, and you learn things you wouldn’t notice in times of normalcy and brightness.

A dark night of the soul is not extraordinary or rare. It is a natural part of life, and you can gain as much from it as you can from times of normalcy. Just look around at your friends and acquaintances. One is going through a divorce. Another’s mother is seriously ill. A young child has been hurt in an accident. Another can’t get a job. Several are depressed and acting strangely. This is today’s list in my own life, and it doesn’t even include the threat of war and the fear of terrorism. Each of these involves both suffering and discovery.

If you give all your effort to getting rid of your dark night, you may not learn its lessons or go through the important changes it can make for you. I want to encourage you to enter the darkness with all your strength and intelligence, and perhaps find a new vision and a deeper sense of self. Even if the source is external—a crime, rape, an abortion, being cheated, business pressure, being held captive, or the threat of terrorism—you can still discover new resources in yourself and a new outlook on life. We are not out to solve the dark night, but to be enriched by it.

JOHN OF THE CROSS

The phrase “dark night of the soul” comes from the Spanish mystic and poet John of the Cross (1541–1597). John was a member of the Christian religious order of Carmelites and, along with St. Teresa of Avila, tried to reform that order. Many in the order were so against reform that they imprisoned John for eight months, during which he wrote a series of remarkable poems. His later writing is chiefly commentary on those poems, one of them entitled “Dark Night of the Soul.”

John writes about the night of the senses and the night of the spirit. The first phase is a purifying of intention and motivation, the second a process of living by radical faith and trust. John’s work is used especially by those who devote themselves seriously to cultivating a spiritual life through community, meditation, and various forms of service. Less technically, the term sometimes refers to depression or to bleak and trying periods in a person’s life.

In my use of the phrase, I fall somewhere in between. I see a dark night of the soul as a period of transformation. It is more like a stage in alchemy than an obstacle to happiness. Usually it lasts a while—you wouldn’t call a day’s worry a dark night of the soul. It doesn’t always end happily with some new personal discovery. In fact, we will see several examples of people who committed suicide or succumbed to illness. To appreciate these episodes as transformations in the soul, you can’t judge them by any simple, external measure. You have to look deep and close, understanding that you can make significant gains by going through a challenge, and yet it’s not always obvious how you benefited from the darkness. Sometimes a dark night makes sense because of what it contributes to others, not what it does for you.

A SPIRITUAL RATHER THAN A
PSYCHOLOGICAL APPROACH

I am always slow to label difficult emotions as sick. Usually I would rather see them as trials that make you more of a person. I keep in mind the many men and women of the past I admire, who were complicated, who were neither whole nor healthy. You will find many such people described in this book and held up as models, even though their imperfections and failures showed luminously in their lives. In general, I place a higher value on soulfulness than on health and propriety.

One chapter of my book Care of the Soul in particular made an impression on many readers—“Gifts of Depression.” I have learned from many sources—ancient medical books, thoughtful artists and writers, and the work of C. G. Jung and James Hillman—to value visitations of melancholy and sadness. I tried to be specific about the rewards that can come from depressive moods. As overwhelming and distressing as it is, what we call depression is, after all, a human experience, tied to all the other meaningful events in your life. You do a disservice to yourself when you treat your feelings of despair and emptiness as deviations from the normal and healthy life you idealize. The dark times, too, like enlightenments and achievements, leave their mark and make you a person of insight and compassion.

This book begins with some strong images from ancient ritual and religion. People of the far distant past knew secrets to dealing with trying times that have been forgotten; the image of the night sea journey, the notion of catharsis, rituals to help with life’s passages, and a moon spirit with rather unholy but helpful blessings. Then we look at intelligence and love, how to think and how to be connected, as important lessons to learn from a dark night. Finally, we consider various aspects of ordinary life in which a dark night of the soul might well appear: in attempts to be creative and our need for beauty, in anger and in those times when we “lose it”; in illness and in old age. Each of these experiences might spawn a special kind of dark night.

EMOTIONS IN A MINOR KEY

Emily Dickinson said that her penchant for solitude was like the minor key in music, a refreshing alternative to the brighter major key. Now think of your dark nights. Could they be as useful and even as beautiful as the bright periods? Could they be moods and events in a minor key? Today, books are written explaining how Dickinson was neurotic. But she didn’t think of herself as “mentally ill,” though she was certainly eccentric. In a similar way, I want to consider our dark nights as out of the ordinary, but not sick.

The dark night of the soul provides a rest from the hyperactivity of the good times and the strenuous attempts to understand yourself and to get it all right. During the dark night there is no choice but to surrender control, give in to unknowing, and stop and listen to whatever signals of wisdom might come along. It’s a time of enforced retreat and perhaps unwilling withdrawal. The dark night is more than a learning experience; it’s a profound initiation into a realm that nothing in the culture, so preoccupied with external concerns and material success, prepares you for.

When people approve only of major tonalities, they become simplistic, not only in their thinking but in their very being. Today many of the conflicts that threaten the peace, both at home and around the world, stem from raw, naïve, and unintelligent prejudices and reactions. Passions routinely break out in violence. It takes a complex view of yourself and your fellow human beings to hold back on hatreds and fears. A mature person is complicated and has complex ideas and values. The minor tonality of a dark night adds a significant and valuable complexity to your personality and way of life.

UNENDING DARKNESS

Some people speak of their dark night of the soul as though it were a challenge to be dealt with quickly and overcome. “Oh, I’ve been through my dark night,” they say. “But now it’s over.” To some, what they think is a dark night may be only a taste of the soul’s real darkness, especially if it is relatively quick and easy, and especially if the person experiencing it feels cocky for having gone through it successfully and quickly. The real dark night cannot be dismissed so easily. It leaves a lasting effect and, in fact, alters you for good. It is nothing to brag about.

The dark night may be profoundly unsettling, offering no conceivable way out, except perhaps to rely on pure faith and resources far beyond your understanding and capability. The dark night calls for a spiritual response, not only a therapeutic one. It pushes you to the edge of what is familiar and reliable, stretching your imagination about how life works and who or what controls it all. The dark night serves the spirit by forcing you to rely on something beyond human capacity. It can open you up to new and mysterious possibilities.

SHADES OF DARKNESS

We will take note of several people who went through the special dark night of imprisonment, including Oscar Wilde, the Victorian writer who was jailed for his homosexuality. After being released, Wilde wrote to a friend, “My desire to live is as intense as ever, and though my heart is broken, hearts are made to be broken: that is why God sends sorrow into the world.... To me, suffering seems now a sacramental thing, that makes those whom it touches holy.... any materialism in life coarsens the soul.”

Wilde suffered loneliness and the loss of his exciting life, and in some ways left prison a broken man. But this passage shows that he learned a great deal and expresses in perfect language what I want to say here: Being unconsciously absorbed into the values of a materialistic culture “coarsens the soul.” The role of a dark night might be to refine your sensitivities and show you how to make yourself into a multidimensional, fine-tooled person.

To live your particular “shade,” the first thing you can do is give up clinical language that labels and categorizes. When you describe what you are going through, speak concretely from your own unique experience. Penetrate beneath the layer of language and ideas you pick up from television and magazines about your “problem.” Let it show itself for what it is, not for what the therapy industry wants it to be. Medicine and psychology, like many other institutions in modern life, prefer the understandable and treatable case to the irreducible individual. They can imagine restoring you to good functioning, but they can’t envision fulfilling your fate and discovering the meaning of your life.

Finally, and this may be the most difficult task of all, give yourself what you need at the deepest level. Care rather than cure. Organize your life to support the process. You are incubating your soul, not living a heroic adventure. Arrange life accordingly. Tone it down. Get what comforts you can, but don’t move against the process. Concentrate, reflect, think, and talk about your situation seriously with trusted friends.

INSPIRING EXAMPLES

Some people have to face enormous challenges and go through extraordinary periods of challenge. We can learn from their example to have the patience, the insight, and the courage to endure. In 1987, when he was in Beirut as the representative of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Terry Waite was taken captive as a hostage and kept imprisoned for five years. With his fellow captives, he suffered beatings, isolation, and many deprivations. He was cut off from his normal life, his family, and all supportive human contact.

Waite says that he often called to mind books he had read, and they sustained him during those long years of solitud...

Biographie de l'auteur :

Thomas Moore, Ph.D., wrote the phenomenal #1 bestsellers Care of the Soul and SoulMates as well as many other successful books. Moore was a Catholic monk for twelve years and later became a psychotherapist, earning degrees in theology, musicology, and religion. Moore now lectures extensively throughout North America.

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