How to Survive a Dark Night of the Soul

Following my epic article on the Dark Night of the Soul, I wanted to go into a little more detail on the symptoms of the Dark Night and strategies for surviving it. I was going to include this information at the end of the previous article but it was already too long.

To summarise: the Dark Night of the Soul is a transformative process that can occur after awakening. It is designed to purge you of all ego attachments so you can develop a direct relationship with the divine. You must be ready for this process, and there is often a period of ‘ripening’ as you build the strength and maturity necessary to move through the darkness and dissolution of the self.

Symptoms of the Dark Night of the Soul

Everybody will experience the Dark Night in a different way, but there are archetypal patterns which seem to arise in everyone. The process of awakening is basically the same in all people, but how the ego breaks down will vary. Our cultural conditioning is similar because we grow up listening to same illusory narratives, but we each have our own particular quirks and hang-ups. Where I get stuck will not be the same as where you get stuck.

With that in mind, here’s a list of some of the symptoms that may be experienced during a Dark Night of the Soul. You may not encounter them all, or indeed any of them. In no particular order:
  • Regret over having started a spiritual practice but you know you can’t stop
  • Your spiritual practice no longer works like it used to
  • Inability to meditate or pray
  • Despair over your lack of spiritual progress
  • Find yourself cursing God
  • Feelings of Purgatory
  • Depression due to increased awareness of impermanence
  • Find things passing away: relationships, jobs, possessions
  • Loss of dreams, hopes and desires
  • Loss of purpose and sense of meaning
  • Inability to let go of the past or what you have lost
  • Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
  • Normal life now seems boring and pointless compared to your vision of Oneness and you see how much of your life is false
  • Feel cut off from others and alienated from ‘normal’ life making it hard to join in
  • Values change making it hard to relate to others at times
  • Priorities are challenged and new goals may need to be found
  • Profound aloneness and the awareness that no-one else is experiencing this
  • Need for silence and find it hard to talk
  • Want to be alone
  • Feel like you’re falling into madness
  • Fear of what is coming into your awareness as you confront the shadow
  • Can’t stop crying or find it hard to cry even if you want to
  • Exhaustion / unable to sleep / can’t stop sleeping
  • Feel helpless and unable to assert your will
  • Difficulty eating or wanting to undertake a fast
  • Physical pain with no obvious cause / hypersensitivity
  • Feel like you’re dying / strong death wish
  • Despair
  • Intense fear
  • Confusion

I’ve probably missed a few. If you’d like to add to this list, please use the comment section to share your experience.

How to survive a Dark Night

The first thing to remember when you find yourself in the Dark Night, is that the spiritual path isn’t really about feeling good. For all the talk of bliss, this process is more about wholeness and the ability to be present with whatever is happening in your life, good or bad.

The fact that you feel confused, frightened and borderline crazy is not a sign that something has gone wrong. Arrival in the Dark Night means your deeper Self wants this to happen. You are ready to let go and open to the ultimate Reality, even if it doesn’t make you feel good. This is a sign of strength, spiritual maturity and courage. The Dark Night may feel like the worse kind of hell, but it really is a blessing.

The hardest thing to let go of is the idea of spiritual attainment, specifically enlightenment itself. This is, apparently, the goal of the spiritual journey but here we encounter our old foe: the wily ego. At this stage of the process, if you want it, you won’t get it.
“The desire to enjoy ecstatic union with God is one of the things which most effectively separate us from God.” – Abu Hasan Al Shadhili
While the statements “seek and you will find” and “knock and the door will be opened” are true, they’re only true up to a point. The ego’s games and desires must be exhausted before any kind of ‘finding’ or ‘door opening’ will happen. In reality, what you must do is knock and knock and knock, seek and seek and seek, and when none of it works and you feel as confused and lost as you did at the start, you finally give up.

As Andrew Harvey says, you are only given the world when you no longer want it.

But this doesn’t mean you can short-circuit the process by giving up now thinking that will bring you want you want. For this is not a genuine surrender, there is still the shadow of a desire lurking in the background.

This from Nagarjuna: “Believers in emptiness are incurable.”

Ten Dark Night Strategies

Keep Practising: whatever you do, don’t give up your spiritual practice, even if it seems pointless or scary. If you stop now, you can get stuck in an endless Dark Night and your life will become unliveable.

Have Faith: remember that you are not in control of this process. Trust in the process, in your True Self, God, or however you want to characterise it. Allow yourself to be guided.

Stay Open: remain open to whatever comes up, good or bad. Say yes to it all. Don’t resist.

Maintain Perspective: don’t go too far with extreme practices in order to free yourself faster. It isn’t a race. Maintaining a sense of humour is vital to surviving the worst of the Dark Night.

Don’t Pathologise: try not to interpret the Dark Night as a sign something is wrong. Just remembering it is a normal part of the process can help you to overcome many of the problems. And stay away from psychiatrists – most of them know nothing about non-duality and won’t be able to help.

Embrace the Darkness: it may seem crazy to say yes to darkness and loss, but it’s a symptom of your old ego illusions. Learn to see in the dark. Dispel the darkness by bringing more consciousness to it. If you fight it or push it away, it will only become stronger.

Beware Expectations: if you expect the Dark Night to be hard or scary, then it will be. Be careful of the stories you tell yourself about what is going on. They are all ego narratives and therefore illusory.

Exercise: keep yourself grounded by exercising regularly. Go for walks, do yoga, weight training – anything that keeps you moving and focused on the body so you don’t get lost in your head.

Practise Self-Inquiry: break down the components of the experience by deconstructing what you’re feeling and thinking during your meditation practice. Remember to ask the right questions: Who is thinking? Who is scared? Who is dying? Who is going stark staring bonkers?!

Find a Teacher: find someone who can guide you through the process, but be sure they have been through it themselves. If you can’t find someone, then read spiritual literature, particularly Ramana Maharshi, Nisargadatta Maharaj and Nagarjuna.

The most important thing to remember is this: you are losing your illusions – nothing more. Just let them go.
Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” – Brene Brown

Resources for a Dark Night of the Soul

Recommended Books:
  • Dark Night of the Soul – St John of the Cross (trans. by Mirabai Starr)
  • Dark Nights of the Soul – Thomas Moore
  • In Case of Spiritual Emergency – Catherine G Lucas