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“The Dark Night of the Soul” is a term that is commonly used to describe a period of spiritual transformation.

During this dark period, one feels depressed, lost, and lonely.

Everything seems meaningless, hollow, and empty.

There is no meaning to life and nothing makes sense anymore.

What you have previously found meaningful becomes meaningless.

You feel very confused and you want to be alone. You lost interest and energy in doing things. It feels like depression because you share similar symptoms that a depressed person has.

But there’s a difference between the two. Before we go any further, let’s have a deeper understanding of what the Dark Night of the Soul is and how it is different from clinical depression.

What is the Dark Night of the Soul?

The term “Dark Night” is made popular in the 16th century by Saint John of the Cross, a Spanish monk, in one of his poems, “Noche Oscura” (which means “dark night” in Spanish). The poem describes his spiritual journey and the hardships he faced in his union with God.

Somehow along the way, the term “Dark Night of the Soul” becomes more widely used instead of the term “Dark Night”. However, this term can be somewhat misleading because it suggests that our soul is suffering.

But our soul isn’t dying. What’s dying is our ego.

Our soul is always full of aliveness, joy, freedom, and love. It’s always expanding and connected to the Higher Power. But the problem is most of us are not in tune with our souls. We act from the ego instead and therefore, we suffer.

The Dark Night of the Soul signifies the beginning of a shift in perspective from our ego to our soul. We realize that the ego’s perspective no longer works for us anymore but we are not yet connected with our soul. So we are stuck in between these two states and have no clear sense of identity or a stable home to reside in.

According to Eckhart Tolle, the “Dark Night of the Soul” is a term used to describe a collapse of a perceived meaning in life. What dies, in essence, is the egoic sense of self.

Previously, when we act from our ego, we derive our identity from our career, our wealth, our relationships, our roles, etc. But once we realize that these things don’t actually make us happy, we lose our purpose in achieving or acquiring them. The conceptual framework that once gave us meanings and kept us going in life collapsed.

That’s why we experience an existential crisis and a loss of identity. We don’t know who we are, what we want in life, and what to do with our lives anymore.

Dark Night of the soul Symptoms

When you are experiencing a Dark Night and you don’t know about the term, “depression” will be a good word to describe your experience to others since the two are rather similar in terms of symptoms.

Here are some of the shared symptoms that one can find in both the dark night of the soul and depression:

  • Everything seems to be breaking down.
  • You feel confused, lost, meaningless, empty, and lonely.
  • You don’t feel satisfied or joy in the things that normally make you happy.
  • Life has no meaning or purpose and you have an existential crisis.
  • You don’t feel like doing anything.
  • Random emotions might surface. You might cry uncontrollably or without any reason, and experience anxiety, and panic attacks.
  • Past memories and childhood events might surface.

Sometimes, people even called the Dark Night of the Soul, a spiritual depression. 

Is It Dark Night of the Soul or Depression?

The main difference between a spiritual depression and a psychological depression is there is no spiritual evolution or component in the latter. This means that when you recover from psychological depression, you might have a healthier mind but you are still identified with your mind. You still think that you are your thoughts.

The Dark Night of the Soul results in a total shift of identity

while depression doesn’t.

Someone who gets through the Dark Night of the Soul doesn’t completely identify with their ego anymore. You experience some kind of ego death and you know that you are not your thoughts. You are more connected to your soul, you have a new purpose in life, and you take on a different identity. There is some kind of transformation and spiritual awakening. Your old personality dissolves and you come out a different person.

The best way to describe this is to use the caterpillar and butterfly analogy. Recovering from a psychological depression makes you a stronger, healthier caterpillar but in the end, you are still a caterpillar. There is no change in identity. In contrast, a Dark Night of the Soul is like a caterpillar hiding in darkness in its cocoon and allowing metamorphosis to take place. The caterpillar has to digest itself, break down its cells, and regroup them before it comes out as a butterfly.

Before I went through my Dark Night, my identity was shaped by my career. I jumped from being an auditor to an accountant and then to an animator, trying to find my identity. Once I no longer want to be an animator, I became depressed and lost my sense of self. If I’m not my career, then who am I?

It’s only through my Dark Night that I am awakened and realized that I am not what I do. My whole identity shifted and I became more in touch with my spirit and my purpose. What’s amazing is that previously I hardly read any books on spirituality and have no interest in the topic. But once I’ve had an identity shift, suddenly I can understand all the books about spirituality with ease.

What to Do During the Dark Night of the Soul?

1. Embrace it instead of resisting it.

First, you have to realize that the Dark Night of the Soul is not something that you have to fix. Fixing is what the mind wants and is familiar with. Our mind is problem-focused. Sometimes, our mind creates a problem so that it has something to fix.

However, the Dark Night of the Soul is a process initiated by the soul. The soul desires growth and expansion. It pulls you towards a direction of love, joy, and peace because the soul knows that you are ready for growth.

During the Dark Night process, the soul brings so much energy to the new path that going against it or resisting it is futile. You are just slowing down your process of spiritual evolution. Therefore, the best way to deal with your Dark Night is to surrender and follow the guidance of your soul.

When you go against the flow, you suffer.

When you go with the flow, you enjoy the ride.

Your resistance makes the emotional pain you experience more unbearable. The more you hold onto the past identity and stories that your ego has created for you, the more you are going to suffer. On the other hand, if you tell yourself that the Dark Night is a blessing and it brings you a new level of awareness and enlightenment, your journey will be so much smoother and easier. It will also come to completion faster than when you resist it.

The first time I had my Dark Night, it was two months of depression. There was a lot of crying, panic attacks, and resistance. Now, five years later, I’m experiencing the Dark Night again. This time eroding my identity and attachment that are associated with people and relationships.

But because I’ve been through it once, I know that this is for my greater good and I can appreciate the expansion my soul is bringing me, so I don’t suffer much at all. It doesn’t even feel like a Dark Night the second time around when I embrace it and surrender to the process. It’s probably more appropriate to call it a “growth period”.

2. Allow the intense emotions to surface.

When you are going through the Dark Night of the Soul for the first time, you are going to experience a lot of intense emotions that you have previously suppressed or ignored. Apart from meaninglessness, you might experience feelings of loneliness, sadness, shame, powerlessness, worthlessness, anger, abandonment, grief and etc.

It feels scary and miserable because everything seems to be falling apart and your emotions become out of control. But if you truly understand the Dark Night of the Soul, you will know that this fear comes from the ego. The ego is dying. It’s losing control and the power to dictate the direction. The conceptual structure that it’s relying on to survive is collapsing. Of course, the ego is going to panic and hold onto whatever it can grasp.

During this period, you might want to blame and resent others for your circumstances, especially because Dark Nights are often triggered by a change of external events such as the loss of a loved one, a physical accident, a sudden illness, and a loss of job or relationship. Our ego wants to avoid pain and tries to find relief by blaming others.

But when you blame, you are deflecting your emotional pain to others.

You are not processing the stuck energy in your body.

Focusing on others and what they have done doesn’t help you to process your emotions. You are just resisting the transformation and avoiding the pain that is necessary for your growth.

Instead of focusing on the stories in your mind, you want to focus on your body and welcome the pain to move through your body. Don’t judge the emotions or yourself for having such emotions. Since you are processing the loss of something that is once meaningful, there will definitely be some emotions and grief behind the loss.

Also, know that the pain is ready to be released. That’s why it is brought to your attention now. You are actually growing even though it seems worse from the ego’s perspective.

3. Practice solitude.

People who are experiencing the Dark Night of the Soul often want to be alone and lose interest in interacting with others. Even though having support from friends, family and mentors can be great, being alone is usually more helpful during this period of time.

Our previous identity, the one that our ego built is often a result of social conditioning. Most of our lives are about making money, having a successful career, finding the perfect partner, building a family, having the perfect body and etc. They are what society deems as successful. But when you are going through a Dark Night, all these material things are meaningless and don’t matter to you anymore. You are supposed to be happy when you achieve these things but you are not.

There is too much noise from other people and society influencing you and telling you who you should be and what you should do. Even though others might have good intentions, it’s better to be alone when you are redefining your identity so that you know what you want.

Practicing solitude helps you to turn inwards and to connect with the soul.

Social conditioning is what created “us” till this point. Going forward, you have to let your soul guide you to what’s truly meaningful for you, who you want to be, and what you are here to experience. But it’s only when you are alone and not affected by other people’s opinions that you can listen to your soul better or at least when you are starting out.

Also, if your friends do not have the same spiritual experience as you or have not been through a Dark Night, they might not understand what you are going through. You will only feel more disconnected, hopeless, and frustrated when you try to communicate with them. So taking time alone to meditate, journal, contemplate and do your inner work might be a better option.

If you are really struggling on your own, you can always find someone who has experienced the Dark Night of the Soul before or read spiritual books from authors such as Eckhart Tolle who have been through this.

4. Be patient and trust the process.

People like to ask, “How long does the Dark Night of the Soul last?” It really depends on the individual. It could take weeks, months or even years. Some people go through it faster than others because they are very in tune with their soul, while others might take a long time because they have a lot to let go of.

As mentioned previously, it also depends on how much you allow. All the pointers above have something to do with allowing, surrendering, and letting the soul take over. The key to ending the Dark Night of the Soul quicker is trust.

Your soul knows exactly when the process will be completed. 

There is nothing much to do or anything you can do to make the process any faster than what the soul desires. But be patient and trust that the end will come at the perfect time.

One doesn’t get gradually better during the Dark Night of the Soul. It’s not a linear process. When you come out of the Dark Night, it feels like a sudden transformation. It’s like going through a dark tunnel. Most of your journey will be dark. It’s only when you reach the end of the tunnel that suddenly you see the light shining in and illuminating your view.

Another good analogy for this is boiling water. When you reach the boiling point, you transform from water to steam at that instant. But all this while when you are heating up and increasing in temperature, you are still water. That last increase in degree makes all the difference and enables the transformation from water to steam to take place. So trust the process and don’t interfere with it. Allow your soul to bring you insights and a new purpose to your life.

5. Gracefully emerge from the Dark Night of the Soul.

When you finally see the light and have a new identity, you will probably need to make some adjustments to your life. A butterfly has a new purpose in life. It can’t live like a caterpillar anymore. You might have to change your career, your relationships, your lifestyle and etc somewhat.

After emerging from my Dark Night, I was given a new identity as a writer. Even though I had been writing quite a bit before the Dark Night, it was only then that I have a clearer direction in my writing and become more committed to it. Also, after my Dark Night, peace and self-compassion have been my top priorities. So I have to let go of relationships that are drama-inducing and don’t align with the next stage of my growth.

Your world after the Dark Night of the Soul is going to be flipped upside down. Everything is wiped clean and you start afresh on a clean slate. You will see things with new eyes. People around you might not get you anymore. But that’s okay. There is no need to explain to them, argue with them, or get them to understand. They will get used to the new “you” or they will leave you alone eventually.

Lastly, be open to having more Dark Nights in the future.

For most of us, the ego has not died completely.

In my book, The Emotional Gift, I wrote at the end, “Perhaps we need to die multiple times in order to realize the true meaning of life. I’m grateful I died today.” I’m referring to ego death. What dies, in essence, is the ego identity, but only part of it dies in the process. As in my case, I don’t take my career identity seriously anymore. Even for my new identity as a writer, I take it lightly. I know that it doesn’t define me. But after my first Dark Night, I still derive a sense of self from my relationships from time to time.

Unless you are very deeply connected with your spirit or devote your life to spirituality, most of us will still act from the ego from time to time even after our first Dark Night of the Soul. There’s nothing wrong with this. We don’t have to kill our ego completely. In fact, having a healthy ego can help us to function well in the physical world, and going down a complete spiritual path might not be suitable for all of us.

What happens after our Dark Night is that we come to a stable point where both the soul and ego can co-exist for now. The ego knows it has lost power over our consciousness and the soul is taking charge now. But as long as there is something for the ego to hold onto and have some control over, it’ll be fine for now.

It’s only when the soul wants further expansion and growth but the ego refuses that the next Dark Night will come.

Self-Compassion Books

Featured Photo Credit: Lukas Rychvalsky