The dark night of the soul

Photo by Marcel Schreiber on Unsplash

Whenever I used to hear the term, ‘dark night of the soul’, I thought it meant a prolonged series of bad days after something horrible happened.

You lose your job, your girlfriend breaks up with you, your dog dies, and you get mad/sad/depressed/bummed out for a few days/weeks/months because of this thing.

But just the other day, I heard a description of the dark night of the soul that showed me something entirely different. It also revealed to me that I’d been in the middle of one for some time.

Michael Bernard Beckwith describes the dark night like this (my words, but his concept):

Life is ever progressive and unfolding. We can pretend like it’s not. We can hold on to old defense mechanisms and narratives of the world, but eventually, life pushes us into the darkness. The dark night of the soul happens when you’re losing your identification with your previous identity, but don’t yet have an identification with what’s newly emerging. You don’t KNOW where you’re stepping because you’ve never stepped there before. You’re in the dark. Pain pushes us until the vision pulls us into the larger vision. The universe is progressive. It’s pushing us towards a potential that’s bigger than our pain.

Right now, I feel like I’m coming out of the darkness. As I can see more clearly, I notice that I’ve gone through two overlapping dark nights of the soul — the smaller one from a vocational/life change and the other larger one from a deep loss. I hope you can relate and learn from my story.

My micro dark night

About a year ago, I essentially signed up for a new life by enrolling in divinity school to become an interfaith minister. Although it was heart-initiated, I soon began leading with my head. I made it make ‘sense’ for me. I told myself that I was mainly doing it because I didn’t have a college degree and here was a program where I enjoyed the subject matter enough to give myself the possibility of actually completing it.

I made it for me.

Little did I know that I’d be called to move across the country and get up on stage in front of hundreds of people in a new city at a new church in this role. No, I haven’t given a full sermon yet, but even the idea of getting up there as assistant minister-in-training to do my mere 5-minute intro to the congregation was enough to make my inner child run for cover.

The weeks before and just after our grand opening were hellish for me. My ego wanted no part in this. It wanted self-preservation. This was terrifying. Suddenly, my mind was taken over by a voice not of my own (but which felt enough like it for me to believe it).

You’re not a minister, you’re just a blogger. You can throw words together — big deal. Who are you to be on this pathway to ministry? I mean, really. Besides, do you want to be one of those effete, sterile, foo-foo people that you can’t stand? Do you want to be seen as a fraud trying to actually make money from spirituality? Do you want to be a part of this? Do what makes sense, Jonas. You’re a decent writer. Stay in your lane.

I could go a lot longer on its diatribe, but this is the gist of it.

I panicked. I wiped my website clean of all ‘spirituality’ verbiage. I deleted my title as ‘assistant minister-in-training’. I deleted the copy on my spiritual coaching program — this work that was truly changing people — and made it more ‘safe’.

I wanted mommy’s bosom. I wanted my old home. I wanted comfort and ease and tranquility in the midst of this seismic shift in being. But it was like wanting to take a nap during a massive earthquake: Not the time. Not the place.

I stopped blogging daily during this time. I was stuck in this place where I couldn’t go back no matter how much I wanted to and I couldn’t go forward because the darkness was too terrifying. And so I tried to stop. If I stopped, my logic went, then this chaos would stop.

But it didn’t. Something inside of me was being born and it didn’t really care about my ego. It was like the universe was swinging a big-ass 2-by-4 at my head to get me to move forward. Instead of getting the hint and moving with it, I stopped dead in my tracks. Not a good idea. Smack.

The macro dark night

The dark night I’ve been describing has come on the heels of a larger one, I also realized after hearing that definition from the good Rev. Beckwith.

My dad died in 2013 six months before my daughter was born. There were a lot of other things going on at the time that added to the agitation of this period, but this is the crux of it. Because if you knew how close I was to my dad— how much of my life revolved around that man — you’d know how much upheaval was in store for me when his heart stopped beating that one February night.

Ever since my mom died (when I was 16), it was just dad and me. Mano y mano. At the time, he was working out of state as a systems analyst at a gold mine. His initial arrangement was that he’d receive a regular living stipend for two years and then cash out with millions of dollars in stock when the company went public.

Very long story short, his regular living stipend was hardly regular. Two years turned into five, then ten, then fifteen, each year with the carrot on the stick being stretched out further. My dad and I lived together until I was 28. He was only home for a few days every couple of weeks, so it worked out.

I lived for over a decade with the promise that we’d soon be millionaires and would be able to live a life of luxury. As a teenager, when you’re told that, you naively take it at face value and base a lot of your decisions on it. I know I did.

What that meant for me was that my dad never took my passions and interests very seriously. Because one day, we’d be millionaires and he’d hire me to run his own mining operation, which he planned to start as soon as his windfall arrived.

But it never did. There were many months where we couldn’t pay the rent. When I got married and moved away, he lost my part of the finances toward the rent and bills and whatnot. A couple years later, he got sick. Very sick. I, being his only child, moved him into the basement apartment in the house where my wife was pregnant. And so, at the same time that I had birth happening upstairs, I also had death happening downstairs.

When he passed, there it was again. The cosmic 2-by-4. Swinging me into the darkness in a very deep way.

As flawed as he was, my dad was my rock (although I’m glad I never had to work for him — because that sounded horrible). I don’t have a big family. When he passed, my wife and my cousin were the only two I could lean on for healing. Which was great. But not quite sufficient for this big of a blow.

The light on the other side

And so here I am. I feel that I’m on the other side. Although it’s still a little dark, the sun is coming up just enough to allow me to see what’s happened. And for that, I’m grateful.

It feels amazing here on the other end. I have a new sense of purpose. Everything is renewed.

I learned that a dark night of the soul is not a period of intense, definable madness or sadness. That’s just a bad day/week/month/season. Those make ‘sense’. The dark night of the soul is a period of disorientation. A time when your ego has nothing to grab onto for support. A time when the next version of you is emerging.

And so my words of advice are so…

Let it emerge. Know it won’t be a cakewalk. Stay with yourself. Embrace the darkness. It’s only dark because you’ve invested your light in the old.

Shine your light now. Move with it. Know you can’t go back, and that’s fine. Ask yourself this: If this experience were to last forever, what quality would have to emerge in order for me to have peace of mind? Is it inner calm? Is it more enthusiasm? Is it joy? Is it a more robust sense of humor? When your attention focuses on that quality rather than resisting the dark night, you move through it faster.

The cosmic 2-by-4 doesn’t need to hit you as hard because you’re moving in the direction of your growth. And you’ll start to see the sun come up.

Your steps will be sure. 
And your life will be totally new. 
But you’ll still be you. 
Just more you than before.