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.
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
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.
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.
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 solitude. One day a sympathetic guard gave him a book about slavery in America. He read it slowly several times and even memorized passages. He thought about the slaves spending their entire lives in captivity, yet without losing their spirit and their humanity. The image of the slave didn’t take away his pain, but it made it bearable. He was inspired and sustained by the images of others rising above even worse conditions.
There is a simple secret to dealing with dark nights. You can come through one morally and spiritually, even if to all appearances you have failed. External pressures may get you in the end, but you can still survive with your soul intact. For years, Terry Waite, and others like him, couldn’t prevail over their captors and free themselves from their physical torment. But throughout their long captivity, they dominated their situation morally, in their attitudes and in the many ways they gave their experience meaning.
Throughout history, many have been overpowered by their oppressors, but they have triumphed on another level. In the sixteenth century, Thomas More sat in prison for thirteen months before his execution, writing some of his best philosophy. The Marquis de Sade, in some ways the very opposite of a saint, reacted in a similar way. He ranted against his jailers, but he wrote some of his most important fiction under duress. Nelson Mandela prepared himself in jail to be an extraordinary leader and an example for everyone in his time.
This is the secret: Even if you can’t be liberated physically, you can still emerge with self-possession, vitality, and character. You can do this with divorce, the death of a child, a serious illness, or a failure in creativity. You can survive morally even if you die physically. We’ll see several examples of men and women living this paradox. Your dark night is your own invitation to become a person of heart and soul.
Every dark night is unique. In this book I will tell many stories of people I have known, especially in my practice of therapy. Stories of real people demonstrate the variety of dark nights and the many ways they are resolved. I will delve into many biographies of people who have long interested me, to see how they dealt with or succumbed to their dark nights. You can learn much from apparent failure, and you can glimpse subtle ways in which tragic lives succeed. I also won’t hesitate to mention my own experiences of the darkness, for I am no stranger to it.
To deal with these disturbances we also need rich, solid, and useful ideas, rare items in a world of facts and opinions. I get my confidence as a therapist from my studies in religion, mythology, the arts, and depth psychology. The best therapists I know are those who have educated themselves in the great mysteries of love, aggression, and death. They are not the ones with standard techniques and easy answers. You, too, could think through the basic questions, read the best writers, see good films, and educate yourself in the life of the soul. Then, when a dark night comes, you will be ready for it.
THE NIGHT SEA JOURNEY
A dark night of the soul may feel amorphous, having no meaning, shape, or direction. It helps to have images for it and to know that people have gone through this experience and have survived it. The great stories and myths of many cultures also help by providing an imagination of human struggle that inspires and offers insight. One ancient story that sheds light on the dark night is the tale of the hero swallowed by a huge fish. The hero, or better, antihero—he is the victim of circumstances—simply sits in the bowels of the fish as it carries him through the water. Because the story is associated with the sun setting in the west and traveling underwater to the east to rise in the morning, this theme is sometimes called the “Night Sea Journey.” It is a cosmic passage taken as a metaphor for our own dark nights, when we are trapped in a mood or by external circumstances and can do little but sit and wait for liberation.
Imagine that your dark mood, or the external source of your suffering, is a large, living container in which you are held captive. But this container is moving, getting somewhere, taking you to where you need to go. You may not like the situation you’re in, but it would help if you imagined it constructively. Maybe at this very minute you are on a night sea journey of your own.
Sometimes in your darkness you may sense that something is incubating in you or that you are being prepared for life. You are going somewhere, even though there are no external signs of progress. I have sat in therapy with many men and women who had no idea what was happening to them, as they felt pulled away from the joys of normal life. All they felt was bland, inarticulate confusion. Still, most were willing to sit with me, week after week, as, slowly, meaning began to emerge. Some from the beginning had the slightest hint that something creative was at work.
The whale’s belly is, of course, a kind of womb. In your withdrawal from life and your uncertainty you are like an infant not yet born. The darkness is natural, one of the life processes. There may be some promise, the mere suggestion that life is going forward, even though you have no sense of where you are headed. It’s a time of waiting and trusting. My attitude as a therapist in these situations is not to be anxious for a conclusion or even understanding. You have to sit with these things and in due time let them be revealed for what they are.
THE HERO-SUN AND THE SEA
The classic story of the night sea journey is the Biblical tale of Jonah. God called Jonah to tell the people of the city Nineveh that their evil ways were angering him, but Jonah tried to evade the call by sailing on a ship going to the distant city of Tarshish. A storm came up and the sailors discovered that Jonah was running away from his mission. To save themselves, they threw him overboard, and a great fish swallowed him. He was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights before it spewed him up on land. Then God called him once more, and this time he responded.
In your dark night you may have a sensation you could call “oceanic”—being in the sea, at sea, or immersed in the waters of the womb. The sea is the vast potential of life, but it is also your dark night, which may force you to surrender some knowledge you have achieved. It helps to regularly undo the hard-won ego development, to unravel the self and culture you have woven over the years. The night sea journey takes you back to your primordial self, not the heroic self that burns out and falls to judgment, but to your original self, yourself as a sea of possibility, your greater and deeper being.
You may be so influenced by the modern demand to make progress at all costs that you may not appreciate the value in backsliding. Yet, to regress in a certain way is to return to origins, to step back from the battle line of existence, to remember the gods and spirits and elements of nature, including your own pristine nature, the person you were at the beginning. You return to the womb of imagination so that your pregnancy can recycle. You are always being born, always dying to the day to find the restorative waters of night.
The great Indian art theorist and theologian Ananda Coomaraswamy said, “No creature can attain a higher grade of nature without ceasing to exist.”4 In the dark night something of your makeup comes to an end—your ego, your self, your creativeness, your meaning. You may find in that darkness a key to your source, the larger soul that makes you who you are and holds the secrets of your existence. It is not enough to rely on the brilliance of your learning and intellect. You have to give yourself receptively to the transforming natural powers that remain mysteriously dark.
A powerful example of this sea journey is the last year or so in the life of St. Thomas More of England. He was a lawyer, theologian, and highly cultured man condemned to death by King Henry VIII for not formally acknowledging the validity of the king’s divorce. To do so would have been to contradict the teachings of his religion. More was held in a small, vaulted room in the Tower of London, a room unfurnished and whitewashed when I saw it, a womblike space that was a concrete metaphor for the terrible vessel in which More found himself. Standing in that room even today, you can imagine it as the inside of a great beast, and in that uterine space More polished his ideas and his conscience.
More’s family, especially his dear and highly intelligent daughter Margaret, tried to convince him to agree to the king’s wish. In one letter from the tower to her he uses Jonah imagery: “For myself, I most humbly beseech God to give me the grace patiently to conform my mind to his high pleasure, so that after the storm of this my tempestuous time, his great mercy may conduct me into the sure haven of the joyful bliss of heaven.”
He wrote to Margaret that he couldn’t sleep, thinking about the possible painful deaths he might face. He had “a heavy fearful heart.” Yet, in the midst of this nightmare, he felt a deep peace because his conscience was clear. No one else might understand his position in relation to the king, but he had deep certainty based on his religious faith.
I know of no better example of an ordinary, life-loving person, in the midst of a terrible tempest, who could refrain from blaming his enemies and calmly counsel his friends and family. Thomas More was a Jonah figure who had to take time to understand what he was called to do. It went against everything he wanted and against all the affection in his heart. But he found inscrutable peace and grounding in his faith and belief. He took the time of his imprisonment to deepen his ideas and his conviction.
The lesson I take is that there is no loss too great or challenge too overwhelming, provided you are anchored in your vision and your values, while following your destiny. Up to the last minute More was tempted away from his choice, but the honing of his vision in prison allowed him to keep his values clear. He could be fearful and sad and yet be led by the clarity of his vision.
As with other examples in this book, More was an extraordinary man finding himself in extraordinary circumstances, and physically he didn’t survive. You, too, may find yourself in a life-shaping drama of smaller proportions. There, in the midst of a tempest of your own, you may discover how to keep your vision clear and allow your own night journey to define your life.
NIGHT AND DAY
Think of a dark night as part of organic living. To avoid it would be like choosing only artificial food that never spoils. As a natural person, you are going to feel a wide range of emotions and go through many different kinds of experiences. Over the course of your lifetime, parts of you will grow and blossom, some will rot. To be sad, grieving, struggling, lost, or hopeless is part of natural human life. By riding the wave of your dark night, you are more yourself, moving toward who you are meant to be.
For a feeling of well-being, you have to shine, but your sparkle need not be superficial. It can rise up out of a deep place in you that is dark but has its own kind of light. Thomas Aquinas said that a central element in beauty is its splendor, but other writers—Beaudelaire, de Sade, Beckett, Sexton—include a dark luminosity, what the French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva calls, following an ancient tradition, the Black Sun. Imagine a black sun at your core, a dark luminosity that is less innocent and more interesting than naïve sunshine. That is one of the gifts a dark night has to offer you.
Humphrey Bogart was one of many actors to have this dark luminosity that shone through in his characters. In childhood his parents were alcoholic and addicted to morphine and spent a great deal of time away from him, when he was beaten by his caretakers. Later, as a hard-working contract actor, he played the part of many tough detectives and murderers, transforming his sadness and edginess into a form that worked perfectly for him. His insightful biographer Eric Lax says his effectiveness was due to his ability to “project a sense of something going on beneath the surface.” He made his characters Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe “desirable and remote, both too cynical and too honorable to be true.”5 I am not presenting Bogart as the ideal solution to a dark night, but as an example of how a person can at least make something positive out of dark experiences. Bogart once played the lead in a film called The King of the Underworld, the perfect image for his fate. He played the social underworld well in his films because he knew the emotional underworld from his childhood.
Both in his childhood and in his servitude to the studio system, Bogart went through strenuous dark nights. Paradoxically, it was the darkness of character created by those torments that made him successful, indeed, made him a figure of myth who endures today. He offers a good example of a person not actually overcoming his captors but outshining them.
Being shaped by your darkness, like the captive Jonah, you become the sun rising out of the night water. You are always being reborn, always slipping back into the sea. Your dark night may feel stagnant and unrhythmical, but it has its subtle movements. T. S. Eliot describes the movements of life and death, light and darkness, as a Chinese jar moving perpetually in its stillness. The movement in your darkness may be difficult to sense, but it may be present nonetheless. You may not be advancing, but you are in quiet motion. There you are, suffering your fate, stuck in some container that keeps your precious life at bay, and there you have a special beauty, a pulse that can be felt only in the dark.
THE SPECIAL LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT SEA
In your dark night you may learn a secret hidden from modern people generally: the truth of things can only be expressed aesthetically—in story, picture, film, dance, music. Only when ideas are poetic do they reach the depths and express the reality. In his highly original essay “The Poet,”6 Ralph Waldo Emerson says that the poet “stands one step nearer to things” and “turns the world to glass.” You don’t have to write poetry, but you need an appreciation for story, image, and symbol. It would help to get beyond the modern habit of giving value only to facts. You could educate yourself in the arts and in the great stories and images of the world’s religions. Bogart fulfilled himself, complete with his anxieties and anger, in front of a camera. You can do it when you find your medium for self-expression. It might be nothing more than telling a good story to your friends. You may discover a talent for a particular mode of expression—an art, a craft, even a sport.
One hundred years after Emerson, another New England poet, Wallace Stevens, described the poet, perhaps borrowing Emerson’s imagery, as “a man of glass, who in a million diamonds sums us up.” You have that capacity within you to be the poet to your experience. Your dark night may help make you into a person of glass, transparent and readable. You have to learn how to “sum up” your experience in images that convey your personal truth. I do it by writing books on subjects that I wrestle with personally. Many people write songs, poems, and stories. Some, less obviously, make gardens.
Everyone around you expects you to describe your experience in purely personal or medical terms. In contemporary society we believe that psychological and medical language best conveys the experience we have of a dark night. You are depressed and phobic; you have an anxiety disorder or a bad gene. But perceptive thinkers of other periods and places say that good, artful, sensuous, and powerful words play a central role in the living out of your dark night. Consider this possibility: It would be better for you to find a good image or tell a good story or simply speak about your dark night with an eye toward the power and beauty of expression.
Poetic language is suited to the night sea journey, because the usual way of talking is heroic. We naturally speak of progress, growth, and success. Even “healing” may be too strong a word for what happens in the soul’s sea of change. The language of popular psychology tends to be both heroic and sentimental. You conquer your problems and aim at personal growth and wholeness. An alternative is to have a deeper imagination of who you are and what you are going through. That insight may not heal you or give you the sense of being whole, but it may give you some intelligence about life.
The quality of your language is significant. In your dark night, try speaking in story and images. Resist the attempt to explain, defend, and interpret. Use metaphors and symbols. Many people say, for instance, that they feel like a volcano about to explode. That is a strong image, but it’s a bit overused. Look for your own images that very specifically describe what is going on. A woman once told me that every day she found it difficult to believe that the sun would rise. I have never forgotten that simple image because it conveys so clearly the worry about whether life would continue.
One of the best models for using poetic language for times of dismay is Emily Dickinson. Her letters tell of many tragedies and losses in her life, and almost every one contains a brief poem and a sentence or two that captures the very depth of what has happened. For example, when the friend she loved more than any other, Judge Lord, died, she wrote to her cousins:
Each that we lose takes part of us;
A crescent still abides,
Which like the moon, some turbid night,
Is summoned by the tides.
You don’t have to write actual poems, but you could learn from Dickinson to formulate your experience in language that captures its essence, linking it up meaningfully with the rest of your life. Dickinson’s words about her loss speak to us all. Have you ever felt as though some slice of you was at the mercy of unknown tugs of feeling, like the moon susceptible to the tides?
American speech is often plain and pragmatic. You probably use clichés to describe original and deeply felt experiences. An alternative is to discover the power of strong, descriptive words. You could also experiment with different forms, until you find the style that best allows you to say what you feel. Could you create an original letter form, the way Emily Dickinson did? Could you find a poetic expression that says more about your experience than ordinary words can?
Dickinson’s poems are not easy to understand, but that’s because they don’t give everything away. They safeguard the mystery of the experience. You may need that kind of language: words that hold your thoughts and experiences without saying too much. Poetry is sea-language; it keeps you in the water of your life as it articulates your experience.
THE SEA AS THE SOURCE
Many poets and artists have created their best work out of their emotional darkness. Even if you don’t see yourself as an actual artist, you are an artist of your own life. You create your own story and have your own ways of expressing yourself. I think of this mystery when I sit in the Mark Rothko chapel in Houston, which the artist filled with completely black paintings, or at the Tate Modern in London, surrounded by his haunting and ethereal, more colorful abstractions. His biographer notes that right after the artist’s shock, in his mid-sixties, at having an aneurysm, his “confrontation with death would return struggle and emotional depth to his work, and produce a final artistic advance.” A dark night sometimes shocks you back to life and gives you the edge you need to do good work.
One sunny spring afternoon when I was visiting London, I sat in the Rothko room and felt the power of his large, subdued, but colorful paintings. I knew that I was in the presence of a man who had really lived. He knew the bright and the dark, and that knowledge, made part of his very being, shone through in his canvases. In return, I could recover a sense of my own darkness and depth, a direct gift from him to me. Some artists and actors disappoint because, no matter how good they are technically, they don’t have the personal depth required to make real art. I find that as I try to incorporate the substance of an artist like Rothko, or Samuel Beckett, who is my ideal of the honest and visionary artist, I lack their edge and their imaginative muscle, but still something of their dark force works itself subtly into my words.
In your darkness, you are in the belly of a whale with nothing to do but be carried along. In tales of the fish-womb, the hero, swallowed by a great sea monster, loses his hair in the inner heat, a sign of profound transformation, akin to the monk who shaves his head to mark the change from ordinary life to a life of holiness. Monk and infant, bald, precursors of every man and woman who returns to a state before birth in certain dark nights of the soul.
When you sense that your dark night is one of pregnancy and oceanic return, you could react accordingly and be still. Watch and wonder. Take the human embryo as your model. Assume the fetal position, emotionally and intellectually. Be silent. Float in your darkness as if it were the waters of the womb, and give up trying to fight your way out or make sense of it.
There is something Zen-like in this recommendation. Shunryu Suzuki, in his usual simplicity, taught “one-act Samadhi.”9 He said you should limit your activity and be concentrated on what is happening at this moment. In this way you can express yourself. You are not wandering all over the place. He says, when you bow, bow; when you sit, sit. I would say, when you are on a night sea journey, be taken. Don’t try to have it finished. Don’t try to figure it out. Don’t try to outsmart it. You wouldn’t interfere with the natural birth process, so don’t fidget your way into the journey of soul that will make you more of a person and reveal your destiny. Be in one-act darkness.
THE BELLY OF THE WHALE
Remember how Jonah got into the whale in the first place. He refused the call to speak to a thoughtless people. He has been seen as an antihero, a common man who doesn’t feel he has the stuff to become more than he is. Here lies another theme in this popular story: The dark night saves you from being stuck in your small life. It makes you a hero. It grows you into your fate and into being a responsive member of your community. In your mother’s womb you were becoming a person. In your womb-like dark night you are becoming a soul.
The whale’s belly is sunyata, fruitful emptiness. Jonah sits in the whale doing zazen, meditating like a monk. He sits, not literally but figuratively. His status as antihero is given place and becomes intense, and meanwhile he moves closer to his fate. He is like a Beckett character, having no control over his situation and yet mysteriously getting somewhere even as he doesn’t move. He is also like a person in therapy. “Why do I keep coming?” people ask, since change is usually not obvious and dramatic. You sit there week after week like a Chinese jar, imperceptibly in motion.
In the dark place you may ask the basic questions: Who are you? What is this world? What kind of family do you come from? What are your origins, your early experiences? Deep down, what do you want? What do you fear? In the belly of the whale you are given the chance to start over. The sun-fish rises once again in the east. You get another morning in your life.
In the Biblical story, Jonah, sitting in the whale, sings a song in praise of the Lord. His words would be familiar to anyone suffering a dark night: “Waters choked me to death; the abyss whirled around me.” There is only one psalm to sing in the dark night: the song that praises the dark. This is the song John of the Cross sings, and this is what Mark Rothko put on canvas and what Anne Sexton, the suburban homemaker turned poet, wrote on paper. The way you speak, the way you live, the ways you express yourself—these are all highly significant in dealing with your dark night. If you sing against the darkness, a tactic few real artists take, you may be in an impasse with it forever. But if you can find some way, suited to your talents and temperament, to express your situation poetically, you will be singing a psalm to the God who is your ultimate darkness.
You don’t have to be a trained artist to do this. From your dark night you can speak with unusual clarity and passion, from the depth of your feeling instead of from some habitual, superficial place. Many times I have seen people find a new way of communicating their feelings and thoughts from the darkness. This expression of yourself is essential to the experience and to whatever transformation is possible.
Society, too, prefers to sings its blues rather than to state them plainly. The poignant song gets through to us and charms us even as it portrays memories of sadness and loss. Whatever impulse moves us to create or to listen to a mournful song is the same impulse that begs for poetic expression of our dark feelings.
SPIRITUALITY OF THE DEEP
The language of psychology may not say enough about the darkness and therefore may not get you through. With its therapeutic goals, psychology reduces experience too far. Its mission is to relieve you of your suffering. It is not philosophically or theologically attuned for helping you find meaning in the dark. And so it isn’t sufficient.
Religion, too, often avoids the dark by hiding behind platitudes and false assurances. Nothing is more irrelevant than feeble religious piousness in the face of stark, life-threatening darkness. Religion tends to sentimentalize the light and demonize the darkness. If you turn to spirituality to find only a positive and wholesome attitude, you are using spirituality to avoid life’s dark beauty. Religion easily becomes a defense and avoidance. Of course, this is not the real purpose of religion, and the religious traditions of the world, full of beautifully stated wisdom, are your best source of guidance in the dark. But there is real religion and there is the empty shell of religion. Know the difference. Your life is at stake.
Flight from the dark infantilizes your spirituality, because the dark nights of the soul are supposed to initiate you into spiritual adulthood. You have to be exceptionally alert in the sphere of religion, because, for all its beauty and substance, it can be full of traps. Even those who perpetrate religious nonsense don’t seem to be aware of what they are doing, and that makes it only more difficult for the susceptible seeker of spiritual wisdom. You have to use your intelligence every step of the way.
The spiritual life is both deep and transcendent. It shouldn’t whisk you away from your daily challenges but should offer you an intelligent way of dealing with all the complexity involved. It should make you a person of character and discernment, emotionally tough and intellectually demanding, as well as loving and compassionate. It should give you insight into the deepest of your questions and problems, and give you a vision that extends beyond the everyday issues. Religion often fails to explore the depths and only offers the vision, but then the transcendent possibilities lack depth and in the end hurt more than help.
One of the strongest voices of religion in the face of death, and yet another compassionate and talented person speaking from prison, is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a theologian and pastor, sentenced for participation in a plot against Hitler. In his last letters from prison, he tries to describe a kind of religiousness that is exactly the opposite of what it once was for him. “The world that has come of age,” he writes, “is more godless, and perhaps for that very reason nearer to God, than the world before its coming of age.”10 What he means, I think, is that in the old days religion called on God as a power outside of life to solve our problems. Today, Bonhoeffer says, we have to face our problems directly, and having lost the option of a God coming like the cavalry from the sky, we discover the real meaning of religion, an openness to the mysteries that are playing themselves out. Bonhoeffer wrote this toward the end of a dark night of the soul that was, by all accounts, not at all depressive. He kept his hope alive, but he also turned the very idea of religion upside down. He was another who won the battle morally, but lost it physically. He was hanged, but his letters now inspire a new and “ultimately honest,” to use his phrase, way to be religious. He wrote from the heart of his darkness, and there was an inspiring luminosity and energy in his thoughts.
Jonah’s resistance to the call of God could be seen as resistance to the other will that rises from within. Most of our decisions involve an interior dialogue: Should I take this job or that job, stay home or travel, get married or remain single? Circumstances may solve the question, but often you are torn between two sides of the issue, two voices trying to persuade one way or the other. From ancient times, the inner urge, which can be both guide and tempter, has been called a daimon.
The ancient Greeks used the word to describe any unnamed spirit having an impact on someone. Plato spoke of love as a daimon. Later, Jung described it as a spirit with a degree of autonomy, having a strong influence on your interior life. The existential psychiatrist Rollo May wrote frequently about the daimonic, describing it as a strong push, an urge like sex or hunger. He said to keep this daimon from overtaking a personality, it needs dialogue. You need to talk to people about it and maybe even, as Jung did, converse with it. As I see it, the daimon is a strong drive found either within you or sometimes in the world that urges you toward some action. You have to spend time with this daimonic force before you discover how to give it a creative place in your life.
When you feel an urge to take a major turn in your life, that is the daimon waking you up. When you find unexpected strength in your voice or in your work, that is the daimon empowering you. When you want to go in one direction, and something in you pushes strongly in a different direction, that other voice is the daimon. It is an ancient idea, but it also lies at the heart of the work of the Greek mystic Heraclitus, C. G. Jung, W. B. Yeats, Rollo May, and James Hillman. You live with your daimon when you take your innermost passions into account, even when they go against your habits and standards. You need dialogue so that you can work out a livable connection with this challenging but ultimately creative power.
In the best of cases, over time you get to know your deep passions. You come to recognize the voices that speak deep in your imagination. You sort out the devils from the angels, the voices of fear from the voices of hope. You may get to the point where you feel in harmony with yourself because you are in dialogue with these other presences. A psychologist might call them fantasy figures and warn against giving them too much reality. But in spite of the dangers, you can bring them into the equation and consider them carefully.
Anyone may feel an inner urgency that goes against all that is reasonable and intended. It’s not unusual to see a person craving something for himself, and at the same time something inside desperately wants just the opposite. In his early years, John Keats wanted badly to become a doctor, but the daimon poet in him won him over. Marilyn Monroe wanted to be a serious actor, but the spirit of sexiness and physical beauty got in the way. Today she is still, for the older generations anyway, a figure of cultural myth, a “goddess” more than an actress.
Heraclitus said that daimon is fate. That spirit in you that often moves strongly against your will may be the force that leads you to your fate. Keats and Monroe may have settled for their own vision of who they could be, but something more powerful inside them gave them a much greater presence in the world. The same is true for all of us: the hopes and plans we have for ourselves may be nothing compared to the possibilities. We have to allow this other self to have room to make us into who we might be.
The daimon also plays a role in relationships. In therapy, sorting though love triangles and difficult partnerships, I thought I saw something much greater at work than relationship. The issue was not, how can these two people be together happily, but what are they fighting? What is their fate, in the largest terms, that they are trying so desperately to avoid? I could see in their marriages the validity of Heraclitus’ comment. They were avoiding the daimonic, which was showing itself dramatically in their lives together, and therefore they were saying no to their fate.
Today people often seek the right and healthy way to be in relationship, and they forget about the importance of their individual callings. They try to blend their lives together rather than live shared individual destinies. I knew one young man who spent years trying to be married successfully. In the meantime, he neglected his talents and wasted his life away at jobs far beneath him. He would come to me in times of distress, when yet another marriage was heading for the rocks. Finally, in his mid-fifties, he made the radical decision to finish his education and launch his career. Miraculously to him, his current marriage grew strong and happy. He had a life of his own, and therefore he could be in a shared relationship.
Consciously a person might insist that a certain marriage or partnership take place, but another will, from within the same people and couple, may want otherwise. This struggle against a deep inner urge is responsible for much of the distress and many of the dark nights associated with love and partnership. You think you know what is best and what has to be, but life itself, more mysteriously, works in a different direction. The prolonged struggle, which usually has both interior and external dimensions, becomes a dark night.
A dark night of the soul may involve a long, difficult contest between one will and another will, both of which act within the same person or the same couple. Even when the outer life is settled, and the couple get married or settle down, the battle may continue. You may learn that this incessant argument is not necessarily destructive and in fact gives life to the relationship. And, as Jung says in his essay on marriage, you may learn that you have married your partner’s daimon as well as her person, and she has linked her fate with your inner self as well. It all makes marriage and other partnerships fascinating, but not easy.
A VOCATION FOR TRANSCENDENCE
You may be blind to the very thing that will make your life feel worth living. You may be repressing the very source of your deepest satisfaction. You may be gullible, taking in the world’s insidious lessons in superficial satisfaction. Therefore, you have to dig deeper. Discover who you are and who you want to be. Don’t be dissuaded from that objective by the illusory promises of commercial life. Instead, be yourself.
That is the point of the night sea journey—to be born into yourself. There, you are in the amniotic fluid, in an alchemical substance once again. You are journeying toward your own life. You are preparing for your fate. The promise is exhilarating, but the dangers are extreme. You have to avoid being just one of the crowd and instead take the chance of being born an individual.
Jonah didn’t think he had it in him to realize his destiny. He tried to escape it by boarding a ship headed away from his God-given orders. But this ship took him out to the environs of the whale, which would prove to be the uterus of his becoming. His escape turned into his vehicle of self-realization.
Look deeply into your fears. Take serious note of your defenses. See where and how you elude the demands of your existence. Maybe now you will see the cosmic wisdom in your dark night. You have to change course and rediscover your own direction. You have to surrender to the steaming motion of your self-realization.
Jonah was called by God to speak on his behalf, which is a point of view directly opposite the one explicitly or subliminally presented in all forms of media forced on you today. Your dark night is preparing you to be yourself. It is reenacting your birth as a person. It is offering you an alternative to absorption in your manipulative culture.
Your dark night is forcing you to consider alternatives. It is taking you out of the active life of submission to alien goals and purposes. It is offering you your own approach to life. You can sit with it and consider who you are and who you want to be. You can be fortified by it to stand strong in your very existence. You can be born again, not into an ideology that needs your surrender, but into yourself, your uniqueness, your God-given reality, the life destined for you.
Needless to say, by emphasizing self-realization and individuality, I am not speaking against fellowship and community. A community thrives when it consists of true individuals, accepted for their own contributions and ideas. You are in the belly of the whale to get to Nineveh, to become part of the world, to add your important voice to its song. The people are waiting for you to be offered into society. They need you, and you need them. But you have to be prepared by your dark night, which is both your pain and your deliverance. It is the great obstacle to getting on with life, and yet it is the best means of entry into what fate has in store for you.