The dark night of the soul is one of those very dramatic terms that people use for a wide variety of experiences. In essence, things are going really badly, and the person really, really doesn’t like it in a dark night of the soul.
This term can be represent a wide variety of experiences. People will use it to describe everything from the death of a loved one to a diagnosis of terminal cancer to flunking out of college to getting a divorce to losing a job and other situations. That’s a lot of different scenarios of varying levels of gravity, but depending on the individual ego, they may look like a dark night of the soul.
So let’s see if I can unwind this term enough to get you clarity on how to move out of a dark night of the soul.
The Dark Night of the Ego
Let’s start by creating two new terms: dark night of the ego and dark night of the body. The dark night of the body—which I’ll go into more soon—has to do with things physically going badly. The dark night of the ego—which is much more common—is our response to what is happening in our life. In some cases, a person can be only having a dark night of the ego with no actual bad things happening to their body or in their immediate physical life. This may seem absurd, but the ego is amazing at creating all kinds of distress for a person. The ego’s responses depend purely on a person’s upbringing and biological nature, and some childhood circumstances create people with egos that find disaster around every corner. In this way, the ego can constantly create dark nights of the soul.
The Dark Night of the Body
For something to truly be a dark night of the body, there has to be an actual physical issue going on. I don’t mean like you broke your ankle. I mean like you have a life-threatening disease; you’re living in a war zone; you’re in a concentration camp; you have debilitating every day chronic pain; you’re starving; and those types of very serious issues. In this instance, you’re not just living with some kind of discomfort; your body is truly in danger and/or real pain.
Furthermore, a change of perspective doesn’t fix this body situation. In the dark night of the ego, changing perspective starts to lighten up a lot of situations. It also makes dealing with lower levels of threat and discomfort more bearable. In dark night of the body situation, the body is in legitimate danger. For example, there is no positive perspective to a concentration camp.
What's worse is that the ego typically makes the dark night of the body more horrible by not liking what is going on with the body, and hey, to be at peace in a concentration camp is a tall, tall order. So, a person amidst a dark night of the body is often also going through a dark night of the ego, which can truly make things unbearable.
Breaking Out of Ego Exaggeration
However, the vast majority of people won’t be in such dire situations. Rather, their ego simply doesn’t like what is going on. There could be hardships happening, but the ego blows them out of proportion. This ego exaggeration can turn break-ups, lost jobs, and those kinds of things into a full blown dark nights simply because of how a person upsets themselves. There are more difficult things like the loss of a loved one that can trigger an ego dark night, but perspective can change that too. Where the ego spirals into despair through resistance and false beliefs, we can choose to consciously let go and process the loss of a loved one. In so doing, we let go; we heal; and we are at peace at the end of the process of grieving.
This ability to choose is central to getting out of the ego dark nights of the soul because the ego actually has unconsciously chosen to be in such a dismal space in the first place.
Spiritual Awakening and the Destruction of the Ego
There are many ways a dark night of the soul can get triggered, and a spiritual awakening is one of them. There are plenty of other ways people can land in a dark night of the soul too, and an awakening doesn’t necessarily create dark nights of the soul for everyone who awakens. But after awakening, one of the big reasons people end up in a dark night of the soul is because of lack of preparation. Since few people are ever prepared for awakening, the dissolving of the ego gets interpreted by the person as a kind of death and destruction. This isn’t wrong. However, instead of welcoming this ego death, it is feared and resisted. In resisting, it can feel like a person is being torn apart between two worlds. And that doesn’t feel very good to say the least.
Being Spiritually Ready Versus Prepared
To back up a step, a spiritual awakening is a sustained movement to realizing spiritual truth. It tears away that which is not real, and our constructed identities—aka our egos—are illusory. They are completely made-up, temporary things. But most people don’t know this. In their ignorance, people believe they are who they think they are. Then an awakening arises, and these illusions start getting peeled away. The person feels like they are being destroyed, and they try to hold onto their illusions. They keep holding on and get increasingly freaked out until they end up in some really despairing and dark places. Then, they decide that they are in a dark night of the soul.
At this point, all the person wants to do is get out of it. But unfortunately, that is exactly the wrong way to think about it and the right way to make things ten times worse.
A Crash Course in Letting Go
In awakening, things on the external world often fall apart too, but that’s usually because those things don’t actually serve the person. Very often, the person already knows they don’t want to be in these situations, yet they hold on to them all the same. Here are a few examples:
The person got fired.
Their partner left them.
The house is in foreclosure.
The person feels lost, confused, and adrift.
Nothing makes sense anymore.
This last one usually is built off of the other instances because the ego says, "If all of this other stuff is happening that doesn't make sense to my beliefs, then life as a whole doesn't make sense." For many people, the loss of meaning is the essence of the dark night of the soul, and the desire to find new meaning to replace it becomes exceedingly strong. That’s one of the things people seek from a coach like myself. They want me to provide them with a new meaning to restore a sense of safety with themselves and life, but they do not understand. This loss of meaning is actually a great gift. New insights are coming, but not to create a new belief structure. It’s to show you how to be in spaciousness and to be in the evolving unknown of human life.
Truly, after awakening, it’s a brand new world, yet it is the same world as it has always been. We just weren’t seeing it clearly at first. Now it’s time to get to work so that we do. Now it is time for a crash course in letting go and learning to heal pain/do inner work.
Learning to do Inner Work
In general, it’s a rare thing that someone really knows how to do deep inner work. Much of what people learn to do is to put bandages on bullet wounds. In true spiritual inner work, we go within and get to all the bullets. These bullets are our core beliefs and our pains, and we embrace them to let them go. It’s a powerful process, but if you’re in a dark night of the soul, you need some powerful work to get you back out.
Once again, I generally am referring to those dark nights where the person’s body is in no real serious threat or imbalance. When the body is under threat, inner work to help address the ego is important as a facilitator for addressing the serious physical issues. So if someone has a serious cancer diagnosis, working on the ego helps to make addressing the health situation clearer and less emotionally traumatic. Is this easy? Probably not. But the other option is potentially getting lost if fear and despair.
Identify, Accept, Embrace, and Let Go
I’ve come across more than a few people who really damaged their body trying to fix the body and get rid of all kinds of discomfort. They tried to fight their way out of the dark night of the soul. But in most of those cases, the body was not the problem. The ego and its stress responses were the bigger problems. However, the overreaction created actual physical problems that then had to be addressed. In those scenarios, people spiraled downwards because they addressed the wrong issue while their ego continued to react badly.
Focusing on the Wrong Pain, the Wrong Issues
So we learn to surrender first to figure out what is actually going on, and we learn to ask for help if things still remain unclear so that we safely address the right issues.
Getting a Spiritual Helping Hand
When things get this dark, it’s time to get help, probably from a group of people. While I am sure that this is inconvenient, not financially easy, not emotionally easy, and many other things, you have to do it. You want to get out? Don’t wait it out or hope for a Divine miracle. Be that miracle by asking for help.
Here are four types of help you very likely need to pull yourself out of a dark night of the soul:
Mental Help: The mind is obviously not seeing things clearly. It needs a spiritual teacher, therapist, life coach, or someone conscious enough to help you to see straight.
Heart Help: With so much going on emotionally, having someone with a lot of heart space to help you learn to be with intense emotions is critical. This could be a therapist or some kind of healer as well as a good friend. It probably should NOT be your spouse. That’s a lot of strain to put on a relationship, and if they’re a good partner, they probably already are trying to help.
Body Help: This depends purely on the state of your body. If your body is in good physical condition, yoga and breathwork can be great to help move the energy in your body and keep things healthy. If you’re in poor health, then you may need a dietitian for dietary help; a sleep coach to help you with sleep; a personal trainer to help with exercise; or even a doctor for other physical ailments.
Social Help: While this is in part included with the heart help and mind help categories, having a spiritual community (whether online or in-person) to share your experiences with and hear about others' experiences on the spiritual path can be a real help to keep up your spirits. The heart and mind help is meant to break down issues. This social help is meant to help you stabilize.
And you noticed that I didn’t mentioned energetic help. Well, if you’re in this much trouble, you need to get the other elements stabilized first before running to your local energy healer. Oftentimes when you stabilize the other elements, the energy will stabilize on its own.
Glimpses of Peace and Other Spiritual Openings
While some people have blissful and peaceful initial experiences to signify that a spiritual awakening has arisen, others do not. Some have so much pain that they are thrust right into the heart of darkness. And as I said, you don’t have to have any kind of spiritual awakening to end up in a dark night of the soul.
However, as someone does inner work and dissolves ego issues, they may have glimpses of peace and other types of spiritual openings even if they didn’t start off with an awakening. Maybe they aren’t super blissful or maybe they are. But the main thing is that a person starts to find a little bit of light as they release pain and open up. For the non-spiritual person, they may begin to become spiritual because of their dark night of the soul.
As usual, these experiences are rarely like anything the ego has been taught to look for. And you certainly shouldn’t be seeking a specific blissful experience. All experiences are transitory, and trying to hold onto any experience including enjoyable ones is a great way to throw yourself back into the dark night of the soul.
Instead, we practice surrendering to what is on this path. Again and again, we surrender. We surrender to our issues, and in that surrender, we can consciously engage with them. We surrender to the process of healing. We surrender to processes of spiritual growth (although that generally comes later). In general, the only way through a dark night of the soul is surrender, and from there, inner work is possible as are these glimpses and deeper spiritual realizations.
Realizations Moving You Towards Spiritual Freedom
What is the point of a spiritual awakening? Spiritual freedom. In spiritual freedom, we become free of the ego, which is the root cause of the dark night of the soul and all suffering. Even if we are in a dark night of the body, we do not suffer when we are free of the ego. We may have physical pain, but the mind does not trouble us with resistance towards that reality. And again and again, we learn that ego resistance is primarily a denial of reality.
Spiritual freedom is an embrace of true reality—not the social constructs and illusions that people are used to accepting as real. So these realizations simply are showing you what is real, not what you thought was real. The more you accept them, the more you can heal and leave the despair and pain of the dark night of the soul behind you.
Going Deeper Into the Darkness
Ironically, each time an issue drops, more is realized, and that often takes someone further into their darkness. Which is probably the opposite of what you would expect. But there is a big difference. Now, you are consciously engaging with the pain, and that means you are leaving or have already left the dark night of the soul. And you can be facing more difficult emotions and attachments, yet you are not troubled in the same way as when you are in the dark night of the soul.
Furthermore, this inner work can help prevent another dark night from arising. Always remember that so long as the ego exists, it can create another dark night of the soul. So the permanent solution to this problem is to root out the whole of the ego.
However, it is all too common for people to just want the pain to be over with. I understand. If you were not prepared for what has come up, you could be in a very unstable space. There is a value in getting stable again before forging deeper into the darkness. So if you’re really too upset to handle anything more than resolving what has already come up, then do your best to stabilize. But also, prepare yourself to go deeper again. Don’t leave these untended issues to continue festering in the darkness. Take a couple months or a year break if you can, then intentionally dive into these issues after that inner work vacation. When you do it in this way, the work is still intense, but it is also more empowering because you are consciously choosing to go back into the ego.
For those who truly have had an awakening, they are unlikely to get this choice. So just go into it, and as I said earlier, get the help you need to go where the awakened energy is taking you.
Emerging into the Light
The truest form of our Divine light embraces the dark. In the truth of spiritual oneness, we are all one. How can anything be left out? This is an important point, and it is a point that many people miss. In trying to avoid our darkness, we push away and repress so much pain, sadness, fear, anger, and more. That stuff festers in the dark. It gets worse. It becomes paranoia, terror, depression, hatred, and despair. Eventually, it gets so bad that it may rise up and pull a person down into a hopeless well.
But it is not a hopeless well. It is actually the path to hope. It is the path to healing. It is the path to wholeness.
So if a dark night of the soul feels like it has swallowed you up, then just know that this is actually a huge opportunity in disguise. Through embracing and healing the issues you find deep within you, you can emerge reborn back into a fuller and truer kind of light than you have ever known.