“Self-nurturing: The Hardest Task
You’ll Ever do.”
~Sarah Ban Breathnach
Dark Nights of the Soul
By Cindy Trevitt, Registered Professional Counsellor and Master Practitioner in Clinical Counselling
I fell into a very dark night of the soul where I succumbed, floundered, and almost drowned – or so it felt. I struggled some more. I cried, feared and dreaded. I suffered intense emotional pain. I considered the stance of the ‘Buddha bubble’ – riding on the surface of the water, floating on the waves, neither drowning nor drifting away. I became curious, questioning, and sought understanding. I found acceptance. Then I wrote and wrote and wrote. Awareness and insight started to come.
“No man knows till he has suffered from the night how sweet and dear to his heart and eye the morning can be.”
In the black of night. In that lonely, feverish, stark place of uncertainty creeping in the twilight between wakefulness and slumber. In my twisted, restless and relentless dreams it came in symbols, people, illusions and shadows of my past. Vague and gloomy monsters crept under the bed and haunted the corners. It was reminiscent of a time where I felt the same lost feeling. I wept for the lost person I had become. I erroneously believed that I was no good because I was lost. I was a salmon stuck in the rocks while millions of my brothers and sisters seemed to pour past in a torrent of purpose and direction. Maybe it sounds twisted when I say this, but I’m very grateful for these times – at least after the fact. Each one of these times is a thorny labyrinth at the end of which I get a deeper understanding of my self, my life and my path. It may not look different from the outside but inside a whole other galaxy has been born and I’m wiser, deeper and lighter. My curiosity, compassion and acceptance are what help me the most.
“Between living and dreaming there is something else. Guess what it is.”
(transl. Mary Berg and Dennis Maloney)
Life can feel like a whip at the back of the knees commanding us to fall down, giving in to the pain. Cornered, we are forced to wrestle our demons; become agitated; anxious and angry; to despair and sweat and wring our souls. We are destined to experience it again and again. Sometimes the lesson is to learn to change our behaviour or beliefs. Sometimes the lesson is to do the messy emotional work we left behind. To grieve. To wring our hearts and let flow all the pain from yesterday, last year, or decades ago. Sometimes, for some mysterious reason, it is just time to peel away another layer. To take an earthy, salty scrub to the soul; exfoliate the dead skin and grasp a fresh, honest and humble revival.
“In the middle of our life journey I found myself in a dark wood. I had wandered from the straight path. It isn’t easy to talk about it: it was such a thick, wild, and rough forest that when I think of it my fear returns… I can’t offer any good explanation for how I entered it. I was so sleepy at that point that I strayed from the right path.”
~Dante, Inferno, Canto I
And it keeps happening. We don’t know when. We don’t know where. We don’t know how long. It just does. It doesn’t ask. It doesn’t announce. It just shows up and commands our attention. The more we fight the deeper we sink into its oppressive quicksand. It is akin to natural and essential hibernation. We are like the seedling buried deep, damp and cold. Sleeping, ruminating, twilighting, and slumbering. Not awake. Not fully alive. Not at the height of creative energy. Until some spirit spring; our seedling peeling its fleshy husk and thrusting its naked body up through the dark, heavy soil to burst into the raw air and fill its aching lungs and to recover – then grow magnificently.
It’s like the winter. We sleep and feel heavy, broody, sullen and dark. We want to shed a light on ourselves. Drink. Take a pill. Consume sweet and refined foods, shallow in nutrition; hoping our body is tricked into an awakened state but only to slip in deeper. Eat more greens to cheer up. Pots, mugs, and bowls of caffeinated warmth propping up our fatigued eyelids. To force ourselves to be okay. The truth is maybe we need a little hibernation. Maybe we are still attuned to the cycles of nature. Our circadian rhythms, if left to their own desire, would purr along in harmony with the seasons and this darkness would be our season of rest. Our seasons of shedding our dead leaves; growing again; growing new limbs or sprouting full and fleshy bloom. Perhaps this makeshift world of false lighting and room temperature does us a disservice. Perhaps we need to sleep with the moon. Starry-nights of slumber and dark nights of the soul, if accepted, could drift us onto shores unseen and much needed.
In the epicenter of all this magma and darkness is the simple truth. Truths are difficult and complicated to find sometimes but in, and of themselves, they’re often quite simple. And waiting for you.
Acceptance and compassion are healing remedies. Truths we need.
I know I’m not alone. I know that everyone I have ever known has experienced this – sometimes often and frequently. We have learned not only to feel the burn of tears, the painful knot in our throat choking our voices, but to judge ourselves mercilessly for even having such a feeling. As if there is something wrong with us. We’re bad, weak, stupid, failures, and whatever other judgmental adjective we can hurl at ourselves. Those feelings you’re having are natural, normal and valid. You are beautiful in them. I invite you to sleep. Cry. Rage. Run. Rest. Protest. Hurt. Grieve. Laugh. Smirk. Explore. Express. Write and write and write. Paint a portrait of your battered and scaly self. And accept this. Accept yourself. Marvel at the miraculous, enigmatic, powerful, cyclical, spectacle of nature that you have become.
Make a point of celebrating your dark nights. Without pain, it is difficult to savour pleasure. While we need not seek it out unnecessarily, consider the possibility that the ability to experience pain significantly heightens our ability to experience pleasure.
Your dark night is a terribly lonely place, your experience is unique to you and no one will ever truly know what your subjective soulful time of reverie is like. Others also have these disturbing dark nights, subjective to them. So while we are all different, we are also all the same. Know that most people have this experience. We are all the same.
Remember compassion and acceptance and gentle curiosity.
“Someday, emerging at last from the violent insight, let me sing out jubilation and praise to assenting angels. Let not even one of the clearly-struck hammers of my heart fail to sound because of a slack, a doubtful, or a broken string. Let my joyfully streaming face make me more radiant; let my hidden weeping arise and blossom. How dear you will be to me then, you nights of anguish. Why didn’t I kneel more deeply to accept you, inconsolable sisters, and, surrendering, lose myself in your loosened hair. How we squander our hours of pain. How we gaze beyond them into the bitter duration to see if they have an end. Though they are really our winter-enduring foliage, our dark evergreen, one season in our inner year-, not only a season in time-, but are place and settlement, foundation and soil and home.”
From ‘Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke’ Edited and Translated by Stephen Mitchell
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Thanks for your friendship.