all seems darkness, then comes the new life and all that is needed.
~ Joseph Campbell
The concept of a dark night of the Soul goes way back in spiritual history. It describes a time in a person’s life when everything seems to fall apart, especially the previous belief system about how the world works. This time can mark both a personal and spiritual crisis and can be triggered by numerous events within the human condition—the loss of a loved one, job or relationship, a health crisis, or anything else that hits us at our core. We seem to lose the very breath that takes us from one moment to the next and our desperation leads us to believe there is no end in sight. During these dark periods, nothing looks or feels the same and we recognize how vulnerable we really are—something few want to experience.
What happens when it seems like the entire world is undergoing a collective Dark Night? How do we find the strength—and more importantly, the wisdom within—to survive?
At the time of writing this article, nearly one million people have died from the COVID-19 pandemic, with 205,000 dying just in the United States. These numbers are not to be taken lightly and unfortunately, we have a long way to go before we can put this behind us.
You see, although the dark night shakes us at our core, it also helps us to break loose from beliefs, behaviors, thoughts, and patterns that no longer serve us. It helps us transform from a not so attractive caterpillar into something beautiful beyond belief if we allow the process to guide us on our path. Yes, there are those who decide to allow the dark night to also darken their soul for the rest of their life but those who do their soul-searching, soul “hygiene” and soul development emerge a brighter and stronger soul than before it all began. In many ways, both the soul and the person are more intact and whole than they would have believed possible—entering the light with a new outlook and an even brighter future. Mystical author, Caroline Myss, stated, “The dark night of the soul is a journey into light, a journey from your darkness into the strength and hidden resources of your soul.” Without this journey, we would not reach the destination of our soul.
But this transformation does not happen on its own—it takes work. We must embrace the darkness, examine why it is happening, extract the meaning that will enhance our growth, and accept that we must change in order to evolve. None of these steps are easy, but all are necessary on our evolutionary path. Because I’ve experienced the darkness more than once, I’ve learned that the process goes easier and faster if I become an observer of my circumstances rather than become absorbed by the depth of despair that accompanies the trying time. None of it is pretty and it feels like it will never end. But it does. It is then that you re-enter the light.
Just like the butterfly breaking through the cocoon, we eventually break through the darkness to find the light. Some describe the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to butterfly as gruesome and this pretty much describes the feeling most have as they experience a dark night. I doubt many would dispute the fact that the world appears gruesome right now. It doesn’t look the same, feel the same, or run the same. We don’t know how or when the darkness will end and no one wants to bet that it won’t get worse before it gets better. But one thing is certain, at some point we will find both our individual and collective light so we can look back to understand why this has all happened.
At the beginning of the pandemic, I offered six tools to help you navigate the months to come. Here, I offer tips to survive a dark night of the soul, whether it is your own or the collective one we see happening around us.
- Take life one breath at a time. Pema Chodron, my favorite Buddhist author teaches this in her book When Things Fall Apart. We really only have the breath that is right in front of the next one to count on. Staying grounded and in tune with our soul at the moment will guide us on the path back to light.
- Look for the deeper meaning in the discomfort. Holocaust survivor, Viktor Frankl, said, “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” Although it is uncomfortable to think that even the difficult things happen for a reason, you can bet that they do—you just have to learn to extract the meaning and understand the path of evolution.
- Widen the lens. “Rise to higher consciousness, because we are more than just living.” (Ankur Prasad) Work to step back to see and understand the bigger picture without judgment—this is where the wisdom lies.
- Observe the world around you instead of becoming absorbed by it. In other words,” be in the world but not of it”. This allows for objectivity when the bungee cord of emotion wants to pull us right in.
- Learn. Learn. Learn. Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.” As we become curious, the mysterious lead us to our inner wisdom and guides us to the next steps of our journey.
- Name your gratitude. Frankl also said, “The last of human freedoms is the ability to choose one’s attitude, especially an attitude of gratitude in a given set of circumstances especially in difficult circumstances.” Gratitude is the ultimate attitude adjustment; it is important to use this vital tool to overcome the darkness.
- Take the time to restore. “The work of restoration cannot begin until a problem is fully faced.” (Dan Allender) You will emerge from the darkness through the power of renewal. Self-care is more important than ever.
- Rebalance your life. In Soul Health, I talk about the importance of “cleaning out” so you can “fill up”. This goes for every branch of the human condition. Once you work on one area of your life, this will inevitably improve others, leading you back to your inner light.
- Get to know your soul. “The journey of the dark night of the soul is where we learn who we are without people telling us.” (The Requiem of Moon Poetry.) Also in Soul Health, I state that “To know the soul is to know true health. Only then will you reach radiant living.” Shining our light depends entirely on our willingness and ability to find and keep it.
- Know that this, too, shall pass. As Anthon St. Maarten noted, “There is light at the end of every tunnel.” Although we must stay in the moment, having faith that the light will return keeps us aligned with our mission to survive and thrive.