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Experience a Dark Night of the Soul

Updated: Jul 2, 2023

It's a good thing


Autumn scene of two willow trees reflected in a lake, with most of their leaves gone. Pale blue sky. Reeds in background.
This autumn tree in the winter lake at Evergreen doesn't need a suitcase, nor will it experience a Dark Night of the Soul These things are reserved for humans. Photo by Lara.

I was at an airport check-in recently and an embarrassed young woman at the next counter had opened her suitcase and was flinging things out of it onto the floor.


The area around her was a huge trip hazard. An official should’ve been hurrying off to get several orange cones and strips of yellow tape to cordon off the area.


The young woman was in despair. Her suitcase was too heavy for the airline’s allowable limit, she didn’t want to pay for the excess, and she was trying to decide what she could leave behind. Her toiletries? Her mesh bag of underclothes? Duffle jacket? The two rolls of toilet paper? Fur-lined boots? Her books?


She was aware of the bemused stares of dozens of onlookers watching her secret life being revealed. The bits and pieces that had seemed so precious and necessary when she’d packed them were now facing the possibility of being tossed into the nearest bin.


No one wanted to be her. We hoped we wouldn’t have to do what she was being forced to do in public.


On her knees, at the airport, she was facing a minor Dark Night of the Soul.


She was being forced to let go of some of the things that had seemed to give her life meaning.



What Is a Dark Night of the Soul?


The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins experienced his Dark Night of the Soul in the 1880s. He recorded his despair in poems that are now called the ‘Sonnets of Desolation’ or the ‘Terrible Sonnets’. The lines below appear in his poem, ‘No Worst’:


O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall

Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap

May who ne’er hung there.


And from ‘I Wake and Feel’:


I wake and feel the fell of dark, not day.

What hours, O what black hours we have spent

This night! what sights you, heart, saw; ways you

went!


Some Dark Nights of the Soul are darker than others.


I’d say the one I experienced a couple of decades ago was a shade between Dulux Paints Shale Grey™ or Basalt™, rather than a Midnight Black. It was a result of a loss of meaning in my life after leaving the church I’d spent thirty years in, with the added stress of undiagnosable stomach pains.


But whatever degree your Dark Night of the Soul is, it does one thing very well:


It makes your life seem meaningless.


This is a good thing.


Why?


Because it takes away the illusions we have coated ourselves with.


We spend a lot of time adding things to ourselves (think of the woman with the suitcase).


During a Dark Night of the Soul, the suitcase that contained our illusions of ourselves opens and everything falls out. The figurative floor is littered with things that once gave us a sense of meaning, and defined who we were – perhaps our title, career, financial records, family, friends, age, looks, health, or potential.


These things either dissolve, turn on us, or die.


When the meanings we’d once given ourselves have gone, and we can find nothing with which to replace them, things look black. We may sense we’re free-falling in outer space, with nothing to ground or guide us.


We believe the world has nothing to offer us, and we have nothing to offer ourselves.


We no longer say I am sixty-nine, or I am a politician, or I am a Marilyn Monroe look-alike; or I am a mother. These may be true in a physical, time-limited way, but they will disappear just as surely as the grandeur of King Ozymandias turned to dust in Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem - and just as surely as that woman’s specially selected possessions were finally discarded at the airport.


When we let go of life’s illusions – those things that we think define and embolden us – what are we left with?


Stripped of the self-illusions we have coated ourselves with, all we can say is, I am.



A Dark Night of the Soul Is an Opportunity for Enlightenment


Eckhart Tolle defines the dark night as letting go of everything that isn’t real and experiencing enlightenment.


When we let go of everything that isn’t real, we’re left with what Eckhart Tolle refers to in his book, Oneness With All Life, as:


the Being behind the human, a field of pure potentiality

rather than something that is already defined.



The spiritual teacher Rupert Spira says,


Enlightenment is the recognition of the nature of your being.


When you stop identifying with your thoughts, emotions, and concepts, all you’re left with is I am.


I am.


Say that from time to time during the day and feel your egoic illusions fall away.


I am.


Stripped down to your essence, that is your meaning.


It’s that simple.


Who needs a suitcase for that?


With love, Marlane

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