Dark Night of the Soul
By Damcho Pamo
The concept of the Dark Night of the Soul, Noche Obscura del Alma, was first developed by St. John of the Cross. He was a Spanish Roman Catholic friar and priest of the Carmelite Order who lived from 1542-1591. His exposition of his poem, The Dark Night of the Soul, which he wrote while imprisoned, became available in 1619. His essential view was that our true nature is God and that through denial, attachment and clinging this truth is obscured (obscura) and we enter into the Dark Night of the Soul.Interestingly the European root of the word attachment is staked or nailed; very descriptive! Gradually, if we are following a spiritual path, the negative effect on our clarity of vision from such aspects as denial of our true nature and attachment to such false idols as status, is realised and this obscuration lifts and we awaken to our true nature of divinity, feeling great joy and liberation. In moving to this “morning light” there are three developments a sense of freedom by letting go of attachments, metamorphosis from autonomous self-determination to self -giving willingness to be led and realization of our essential union with God and all creation. The person is freed to join the dance of life in fullness without having a clue about what the steps are! This process may not be linear and we may go through several experiences of the Dark Night of the Soul, learning something valuable at each stage. In its pure state the Dark Night of the Soul is characterised by feelings of emptiness and dryness. The person often finds the spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation are no longer fulfilling and there is a sense of being cut off from their source of inspiration. At the same time there is a motivation for some kind of change in their practices but an uncertainty what this should be. In such a state the person is still able to function in ordinary life. They are still effective in everyday matters such as work and relationships but with an underlying feeling of emptiness and dryness. However the state of the Dark Night of the Soul is often also tainted by sadness or depression of varying degrees. With a natural sadness, that is a response to the emptiness and dryness of the situation, the person’s daily life is unlikely to be adversely effected but a more debilitating depression, through such aspects as lack of motivation and lowered confidence, can also develop. In our modern times such symptoms can be effectively treated and the received medical view is that it is wise to seek treatment if debilitating symptoms arise even if you are on a spiritual path.
When I became ill I don’t think I was going through a Dark Night of the Soul experience in the classical sense. I was under chronic multiple stressors with the final trigger being the intense meditation retreat, the straw that broke the camel’s back. This accumulated stress pushed me into a physiological state that my system was no longer able to remain in balance with. Throughout my illness, treatment and recovery I never had a sense of losing faith. At the time I was a practising Quaker, with a belief in the inner light within each person. During my first spell in hospital even though I was feeling utterly terrible I was still courteous to nurses and considerate to my fellow patients however bizarre their behaviour. I mentioned this to a friend afterwards and she said I was just hardwired that way. However I wasn’t so good with the psychiatrists! Strange as they really are the people who can help you but when you feel imprisoned in a hospital it doesn’t feel like it! I would often spend my afternoons, alone, in the small hospital chapel, reflecting and found that really helpful.
However as my recovery has progressed, becoming more nuanced over the last 15 years, I would say that I have become more whole in myself, feel freer and have changed for the better. This has been assisted by being on the Buddhist path and becoming a Buddhist in 2013, though I am still a Quaker: at present not an active one. The aspects of being that I am working on at present are non-attachment, being in the present moment and equanimity. So to this extent I have emerged from a very difficult situation into a better state. You could say this is to do with taking a positive and constructive approach to having had to cope with a harsh situation and if you do that you develop as a person but perhaps in spiritual terms it is more than that. My path has similarities to St. John of the Cross’s view and in developing such aspects as non-attachment I am convinced of the reality of Buddha Nature, to me the equivalent to St. John’s Our true nature is God.
Gerald May (2003) also expresses the view that perhaps societies can go through a collective Dark Night of the Soul emerging from that phase with an improved situation. Perhaps World War II could be thought of in this way with life being considerably improved in the years after the war. Perhaps we could think of our present societal situation in this way and hopefully we will come through it with a better approach one that embraces squarely the realities of climate change, works towards sustainable energy sources, further develops international co-operation and above all creates the situations where we all care for each other better.
St. John of the Cross, First available 1619, Dark Night of the Soul, Noche Obscura del alma, Dover Publications
Gerald G. May, 2003, The Dark Night of the Soul, A psychiatrist explores the connection between darkness and spiritual growth, Harper Collins
Gloria Dura-Vila, 2017, Sadness, Depression and the Dark Night of the Soul, Transcending the medicalisation of sadness, Jessica Kingsley