The Dark Night Of The Soul Explained By An Ex-Monk
Depression can be a crushing blow to our conscious mind. One moment life seems to be going along just fine, and the next we are ensconced in our own self-doubt and uneasiness about the future. The dark epochs of our life seem to come almost unbidden, and without any signs of letting up. When our world of explored territory—the predictable—is shattered and broken up into pieces of an anomaly, we either let it engulf us into realms of anxiety, or use it as a magnifying glass to focus on what really matters.
Given that we can’t go through our own competence without some kind of struggle, we learn to appreciate the times we are tested the most, knowing that every dark night is followed by a rising sun. Our evolution as beings on this planet comes at a cost—and the grist-mill of hard times is what releases our immaturity and helps us blossom into the next stage of our life.
Welcome to the dark night of the soul—a moment in time where depression, psychosis, nervous breakdown, and the feelings of lost hopelessness are an everyday occurrence. I’m here to tell you that your misery may be for good, it may be a long time coming, and it may be the best thing that can ever happen for your own personal spiritual and social evolution.
My dark night of the soul came during the peak of my career living inside a Hindu monastery. After twelve years of living as a monk, the dark night of my soul showed me who I was, where I was going, and what my life was for.
Dark night philosophy
Much has been written about this metaphysical subject if you know where to look. Essentially, the “dark night” of your soul is not just a bad day, it’s a complete reboot of your entire operating system. When we get to a certain age, typically around 17 to 35, we become who we are going to be for the rest of our lives. With enough data—life experience—coming from our upbringing, media, role models, community, and traveling, we overlap the young “us” with a newer version of who we are supposed to be.
This overlapping, or superimposition, of old and new creates friction, friction creates heat, and the pain of shedding our old skin—values, morals, belief systems—becomes evident. Our world that used to be so solid and sure is now falling to pieces. The trouble is that when this kind of transition begins to happen it’s hard to tell where it came from, where it will take us, and if we will ever be the same again. Losing the only identity we’ve known for years—possibly forever—is what causes madness, relieved only when the new identity takes over. The event is also known as the death of the ego, and the ego never goes down without a fight.
The dark night of the soul has been described as a Shamanistic experience by clinician Dr. Jordan B. Peterson in his work Maps of Meaning by saying,
The shamanic “process of transformation” appears as the means by which cognitive systems are updated, when necessary; the affect that is released, during the process, is necessarily part of the experience. Every major “step forward” therefore has some of the aspect of the revolutionary “descent into madness…”
Peterson’s “descent into madness” is hardly desirable but entirely relatable. People have these moments of despair at some point in their life and insanity is not a superfluous way to describe it. The liberating aspect of this topic is knowing that the pain we experience is not necessarily in vain. Your troubles may have meaning hidden inside them and a lesson to be learned at the end of the dark and scary tunnel. Once the ego is under our control, life itself becomes something to enjoy as we move through it with ease, seeing it for what it really is.
British mystic and spiritualist Paul Brunton wrote an entire book on the subject of transformation through psychosis.
The most dangerous feature of the “dark night” is a weakening of the will occurring at the same time as a reappearance of old forgotten evil tendencies. This is the point where the aspirant is really being tested, and where a proportion of those who have reached this high grade fail in the test and fall for several years into a lower one.
It’s as if the dark night is a right of passage that occurs when our intelligence is ready to break free from the tyranny of our ignorance. It certainly felt that way for me but I had the advantage of knowing—and hoping—it would happen. In monk training, one is expected to reach the dark night of the soul, and an accomplished monk actually looks forward to the experience of ego-death.
A right of passage, yes, but also a moment where the monastic candidate can discover who he actually is: monk or man. The episode brings with it a life path: make it through to the end and decide to stay a monk, or use this new perspective on life outside in the world—I chose the world. For those outside in the world already and going through their own ego-death, their dark night of the soul will determine if they are to continue learning from their experiences, or go through life thinking “life’s a bitch, then you die.”
My test finally came during my tenth year as a monk. I hadn’t found Dr. Peterson’s “Shamanistic” explanation of the phenomena until after it had happened. The text not only explained to me what had transpired, but it gave me the answer of what to do next now that it had occurred. While living in a controlled environment of spiritual and theological growth I had always anticipated the long-awaited ego-death but had no idea how to actually go through it. It wasn’t until after that I realized we simply endure it, and it wasn’t until months later that I realized we endure all things in life, whether we want to or not.
This 10th year of my monk life meant I was to be promoted to Yogi rank, a position of great trials and inner striving. I was blessed in our traditional Hindu temple setting and given the typical sacraments: new robes, beads, and a bamboo staff to walk with wherever I went. Of course, until now I had been through several transforming periods thinking that they were all as bad as it could get—but I was wrong.
Above, Rajan Shankara, then Yogi Rajanatha, poses after the auspicious Yogi ceremony
The dark night of the soul can best be explained as a disintegration—the process of losing cohesion or strength, or coming to pieces—because the reality that is formerly known and explored suddenly becomes torn apart piece by piece. What was once solid is now fluid, what was once known is now a mystery. Emotions can change due to the slightest trigger, darkness, and despair become your friend, and the thought of being as you once were becomes unthinkable, while simultaneously not knowing who else you could be.
Those who maintain their heads during the “journey into the underworld” return — contaminated by that underworld, from the perspective of their compatriots — with possibilities for re-ordering the world and, therefore, for maintaining sanity and stable life. -Peterson
For me, it lasted three months. And, it was clear that the entire monastic community knew what I was facing. I rarely spoke during that time, never smiled, not even a laugh came out of me — and knowing me that is rare. My insides felt like they were being burned, my skin was hot, I didn’t know or care how I looked. It was as if a dark grey cloud loomed over me, and inside me. A feeling of hopelessness constantly enveloped my perspective and I had to scream at times just to feel something. I remember cowering in corners at times, shaking back and forth not knowing who I was or if the “I” that I remember would ever return.
Spiritual transformation is painful, to say the least, and should change someone for good. If the subject is not transformed then another more permanent and disastrous “descent” is needed. Life has a way of bringing altering experiences our way, and if we don’t see them as enhancing—not taking away from—our wellbeing, then they will come over and over again until we extract the knowledge. This could be a theory as to why we are born in the first place.
The entire event is death and rebirth. The old is dying to make way for the new, and you remain the watcher all throughout. The subject, once appearing to make a change from mediocrity and evolve beyond what they are normally destined to achieve, feels their old selves begin to decay—during which time the sorrow of losing oneself takes place. When the world is ready for the new being to take action, the weight of the burden lifts, health is restored, and a new day has begun. One of the most challenging aspects of the situation is not knowing when it will all end and if any part of the old person will still exist. Who will take my place? is a constant wonder when enduring ego-death during the dark night.
The revolutionary hero is the individual who decides voluntarily, courageously, to face some aspect of the still-unknown and threatening. -Peterson
After we are torn up into pieces, burned alive in a metaphorical fire of metaphysical purification, and spit back out, we become the mythological hero of our own story. The old us could have never challenged our past, present, future, community, family, but the hero can—and thrives in such propositions. Born anew, spontaneous, healthy, prepared, creative, the individual now has a restructured value system and is ready to explore more meaningful ventures in life—ones that adhere to their own belief systems. The status quo is no longer sufficient, and systems that once were part of the old regime now must change along with the hero.
Having known that change arises from chaos, the hero seeks to explore various boundaries of known and safe territory and go through them, converting them—affecting old chaotic reality into new and ordered form. More efficient, effective and alive, the hero’s new mission is to never be the same again, and bring all of their being with them in everything they do. Significance is now sought after in every culture, tradition, and act. Praise or blame is no longer a concern as the hero manifests change and seeks to disrupt the normal flow of life.
For the hero, the new constant is change. Older systems once lead by regularity now cannot bear the chaotic emergence that the hero surrounds themselves by and crumbles. This is how old systems get destroyed and resurrected, and in order to stay the same, the old schemas must never allow heroes to enter. Thus, cultures and traditions eventually die out and lose traction as every generation breeds new heroes to change the face of history itself.
The heroes’ dilemma
Our own spiritual evolution is somehow limited by group identity. That is to say, the more investment into group identity and interest the more we lose ourselves, our individuality, and our own personal purpose and meaning. The group identity is considered a type of order in ancient mythology, and it is order and the mediocre that destroys the heroes’ personal pursuit of meaning—and that very meaning is what gives us our identity.
What does the hero seek? The alteration of chaos into order. It is the alchemistic transformation of chaos into order that gives us the hero, our purpose and meaning in life. Without it, we get engulfed by mediocrity and slowly die inside—thus limiting our pursuit of what means the most to us. Without the struggle of striving for what we believe in, we adhere to old systems of morals that don’t belong to us. The more we cling to someone else’s’ dream, the more we lose hope in humanity, in the future, and in life itself.
The heroes’ journey
Seeking chaos means to find what makes you wake up in the morning. Find out what makes you, you. The very seeking of our personal interest is what gives purpose to our life, and taking one step after another toward that interest is our meaning. It all begins with the breakdown of group identity into personal freedom. The breaking down is what causes ego-death and the dark night of the soul.
While every human will experience pain and hardship, not everyone will experience the dark night of the soul. The need for change, alteration and transformation doesn’t always enter the mind and being of the individual, so safe and orderly realities persist without drastic identity transformations. In the search for meaning and purpose, and when asking where are lives are going, we might need to wonder about the controlled crisis known as the dark night of the soul and if our life needs to take a dramatic spiritual alteration. How do we even begin applying for this position?
How do we poke the mythological dragon of chaos into breathing fire on our souls, burning our ignorance from the inside out? I think if it is supposed to happen, it will all by itself. One thing is for sure, we must constantly approach the unknown and unexplored areas of life in order to keep growing, expanding, and converting chaos into order as the hero of our own lives. With an ever-expanding global social culture, our mind’s ability to confuse itself also expands. After enough pressure builds inside the container of our souls, we either burst and break; or use the hot-house pressure-cooker of life to learn from the stress, use it to increase our capacity for pressure, and become more effective powerful people than ever before.
To explain the solution to life’s experiences, our harshest hardships, and our own personal dark night of the soul in one word, would be “endure”. To endure is our greatest asset in life, and without it, we never rise from our dark night and never explore that which we don’t know and what truly makes us happy. To endure suffering becomes the goal as we outweigh the meaning of living our own future or someone else’s.
This is why the mystic does not seek to lie to oneself and abandon interest, making us unimportant and human. But, knowing our individuality creates purpose-giving-interest, the mystic explores the unknown, making our existence meaningful and divine. We naturally seek a middle-path in our heroic endeavors, not having too much chaos or too much comfort. The balance of the two—taking one step into the unknown while keeping one back in comfort and stability—becomes the meaning of our lives.
Rebirth is re-establishment of interest, after adoption of culturally-determined competence. The rebirth of interest moves the individual to the border between the known and the unknown and thereby expands adaptive competence. In this manner, God acts through the individual, in the modern world, and extends the domain of history. -Peterson
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