The dark night of the soul is a part of the spiritual journey that few people talk about. Why? Because it’s painful, lonely and can push you to your limits. But what exactly is it? The dark night of the soul is a pivotal stage in the journey of spiritual awakening. It’s a type of spiritual depression you go through as you shed the ego-driven version of you and step into a new more enlightened version of yourself.
It’s not easy, but it’s less scary when you understand what’s happening to you and how to ease the pain.
So, to help you on your journey, here’s a complete explanation of what happens during a dark night of the soul, the different stages and signs to look out for, and how to get through it.
What happens during a dark night of the soul?
The concept of a dark night of the soul was first described in a poem by St John of the Cross. lt’s the crossroads at which you lose who you thought you were BUT you do so before discovering who you really are, and this leaves you in a confusing and painful type of limbo.
Spiritual and yogic teachings say that all humans are souls (offshoots of the universe or infinite consciousness) having a human experience. The snag is that we forgot our true nature when we entered a human body – as that was essential for getting the full experience – and now, the aim of our lives is to remember who we really are.
So, how do we do that?
By achieving enlightenment or total awareness.
Achieving this state of awareness is what the spiritual journey is all about, but to truly rediscover your true nature, you first have to shed the person society has conditioned you to think you are.
That’s incredibly hard because this version of you is all you’ve ever known, and intentionally walking away from it requires blind faith. You have to jump off the safe shore you’re currently on and swim in a dark ocean when there’s no new shore in sight.
And to make things worse, you need to do this knowing there are sharks and pirates in the waters.
Every logical fiber of your being will tell you to turn around and swim back to safety, but an overwhelming urge within you will tell you to keep going… even though doing so is pure insanity.
What are the different stages of a dark night of the soul?
If everything we’ve said rings true, you’ll probably want to know what you have ahead of you. But before we explore the different stages of a dark night of the soul, it’s important to understand that these stages are different to those of a spiritual awakening. The dark night of the soul isn’t the entirety of a spiritual awakening, it’s simply the middle stage.
Awakening usually involves three stages.
Stage 1: the awakening; stage 2: the struggle/dark night of the soul; and stage 3: the realisation/enlightenment.
Like most spiritual concepts, the stages of a dark night of the soul differ depending on who you ask, and the whole experience can last anywhere from a few days to decades (and, it’s thought that you can experience it more than once).
But because the stages can differ so wildly, it’s easier to explain the experience by looking at the different signs and symptoms you may develop on your journey.
Signs and symptoms of a dark night of the soul
Feeling very low is a common symptom of a dark night of the soul and for some, this gets so bad, it becomes a full-blown clinical depression. Signs of this can include feeling emotionally numb and hopeless, crying all the time, eating a lot or not at all, trouble sleeping or crippling tiredness, and feeling generally overwhelmed.
This depression can bring feelings of guilt because you have no clear reason for feeling so low – often, your life looks completely fine from the outside and you may be aware that others have worse lives than you, but seem to be coping better.
If this sounds familiar, the most important thing to do is be kind to yourself. Acknowledge that you’re going through an intense rebirth that’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve experienced. Reach out for help if you need it. While you may be having a spiritual crisis, if you have symptoms of clinical depression, see a doctor for advice on the best way to manage your symptoms and keep yourself safe.
As a dark night of the soul is all about shedding the version of you that was built on illusions, it’s unsurprising that this shedding often brings a lot of confusion. Your ego is all you’ve ever known as a human, so letting it go can trigger an immense battle. One day you’ll accept that you need to surrender to the process, give up control and go with the flow; yet the next day you’ll find yourself crippled with fear that you’ll become a lazy drifter if you don’t take control of your life.
You may also find yourself doing all the right things (maybe you’re meditating, being more compassionate, listening to your gut more) but you feel worse, no clarity is coming and your life feels like it’s falling apart.
Worst of all, if those around you aren’t on a spiritual journey, you may have the added confusion that comes from everyone else busily playing the game of life without questioning the point of it all – leaving you feeling like you’re going mad because all you can think about is how to escape ‘ the matrix’.
Feeling lost and stuck
Being stuck between who you used to be and who you’re becoming will always lead to feelings of being lost and directionless. You’ll most likely feel an urge to find someone to help you figure it out, which means you may notice yourself signing up for lots of retreats and courses, and visiting life coaches, clairvoyants, therapists and so on. Doing so will bring short-lived relief because you’ll feel like you’re taking action and they will tell you what you need to hear. But you’ll find that once the relief wears off, you’ll be back where you started – feeling confused and stuck.
The good news is that this will pass in time, but keep in mind the famous saying ‘the guru is within’. This means that the answers you need lie within you and no one – not even the best psychic or transformational life coach – is going to break you out of the dark night of the soul. It will end when your entire being has comprehended its true nature and awakened. Sorry.
While many of the symptoms of a dark night of the soul are heavy and upsetting, there’s one glimmer of hope that will show up throughout your journey: synchronicities. Whether it’s thinking about a song, which then comes on the radio, thinking about a friend who immediately sends you a message, or funny coincidences like seeing road signs with a random word you were just talking about, it doesn’t matter. They are all cheeky winks from the universe that all is well and you’re on the right track.
The spiritual idea behind synchronicities is that everything in the universe – including you – is energy, and like attracts like. So when you’re in alignment, you’re in better control of your energetic abilities and this leads to clearer attraction of the things you think about.
Loss of interest in material things
When you start seeing the cracks in the life you previously identified with and you start shedding your ego (and by ego, we mean the part of yourself that recognises itself as separate from others and identifies with labels it has previously used to categorise itself e.g. I’m an intelligent, good and loyal person), it’s common for material things to lose their appeal.
You may find that your previous definitions of success change and you lose the drive you used to have to hustle hard and impress others. You realise true happiness doesn’t lie in these activities, because they are just distractions that prevent you from seeing the real meaning of life.
How to find your way through it
Like all of the hardest things in life, the only way out of the dark night of the soul is through – you just have to ride it out. But you can make things easier by firstly, acknowledging what is happening to you. Remind yourself that your experience is normal and it will end.
You may also find it helpful to find an activity you can do to centre yourself. This should be a sort of pattern interrupter you turn to when you need comfort, reassurance and to escape the noise in your head. Many people find meditation is great for this as it can bring you back to yourself, but there are lots of other options, from sound healing and forest bathing to using essential oils. Experiment with different tools and see what works best for you.