Surviving the Dark Night of the Soul

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It’s been called the Void, the Abyss, the Cave, the Womb, the Dark Night of the Soul. Those who never experienced it can never fathom its reality, while most of those who are in its depths have no idea where they are. I was once trapped there for many years, but now I am slowly emerging. Oh! how dark it’s been!… I wrote this message because someone that I care deeply about has just descended into its depths. I hope that she and others like her will find it and use it to make their way out. I often stop to look back towards the center, towards a massive whirling cloud of menacing darkness, hoping to see a sign of her.

The void is not an evil place; it is a universal human experience. It sometimes manifests itself physically in the form of a prison, a cave, a belly of a whale, or a serious injury or illness. At other times it manifests itself socially in the form of an unhappy relationship, loss of a loved one, broken dreams, or the feeling of permanent entrapment beneath the rubble of bad life choices. However, in all cases, the void is a psychological and spiritual struggle; an inner state that forces us to transform our inner selves or be forever condemned to languish in its depths.

In it, all the lies we lived are exposed, the games we played no longer function, and the stories we told ourselves are challenged. The void’s main tool to achieve all of this is simple: pain in the form of a near constant depressive state that ebbs and flows. At its peak, your head feels like it is weighed down by a heavy invisible hand; as if you are being forced to look deep down within your soul.

Despite how horrendous all of this seems, this experience is actually an opportunity of a lifetime. Carol Orsborn eloquently writes: “However you refer to it, one experiences it as the period that comes between what was and what’s next. Within its darkness, it has no boundaries and no landmarks. When you are inside it, it feels that there will be no end. Fortunately, there are many ‘survivors’ who have journeyed through the void and emerged more vital, more integrated, more connected to life’s possibilities, not despite of, but because of the experience. The void is, after all, perhaps the most effective place of reordering of one’s cognitive processes to take place, for that is where one is least invested in the structure that once circumscribed meaning in one’s life.”

In the beginning, this place was so dark that I could not even see myself. We all intuitively know that in the midst of darkness only light can save us, and so I began searching within my soul for torches to set alight. After years of searching, I found ten torches whose collective light could pierce through even the darkest core of the void. These torches exist within you as well; all you have to do is find them.

  1. The Torch of Surrender: The void is like a physician who is attempting to save our lives Our unwillingness to cooperate with him could lead to death or serious harm. We have to peacefully surrender to the process rather than try to fight it or escape it.
  2. The Torch of Painful Embrace: We naturally guard against physical and emotional pain. Yet emotional pain is somehow regarded as Taboo; we are often ashamed of displaying it because we’ve been taught to see it as a sign or failure and personal weakness. Since pain is unavoidable in life, this attitude only makes it worse by adding layers of guilt, shame, and frustration. Ironically, pain is actually a well-meaning, misunderstood friend that we must embrace if we ever hope to heal. Pain is sometimes a warner that is standing at the frontlines of a looming disaster, yelling at the top of her voice, hoping that we would heed the alarm and make a course change in our lives. At other times, pain is simply inviting us to heal from old open wounds that are buried beneath the sands of time.
  3. The Torch of Divine Friendship: The darkness of the void is overwhelming. We simply cannot face it by ourselves. The only being who can give us company in its loneliness is our Maker. Most of us don’t realize that we are worthy enough to speak to Him directly without the need for intermediaries and saints. The prayers of a sincere heart can echo beyond the limits of the Universe itself. Unfortunately, many people are unable to have this spiritual connection because ‘God’ is simply a projection of their Egos. Being vainly self-righteous and following our self-serving desires at the expense of doing what is right, is a sign of this disease.

In the Qur’an, God is called “The Ever-Subtle One”, therefore as you embark on building this relationship, do not expect a grand vision or a thundering voice, but rather learn the subtle art of reading between the lines. Rabi’a, the 8th century female mystic said:

O God,
Whenever I listen to the voice of anything you have made
The rustling of the trees,
The trickling of water,
The cries of birds,
The flickering of shadow,
The roar of the wind,
The song of the thunder,
I hear it saying:
God is One!
Nothing can be compared with God!

  1. The Torch of Truth: We enter the void as impostors but only our true selves can emerge. For many of us, our true selves are buried alive beneath a mountain of lies and broken promises. They are suffocating, gasping for the air of truth, trying to dig their way out from beneath the dirt of deceit. They wail, weep, and call out to no avail. Every time an opening is made revealing the rays of truth, a lie snuffs it out. Therefore, no more lies, manipulations, broken promises, unfulfilled commitments, two-faced deceit, and false claims of love.

Be truthful with our Maker, with yourself, and with everyone else. Only then will you find yourself, and only then will you be able to see the path ahead with crystal clarity. Only then will you be able to distinguish right from wrong. When we lie, it is our own spiritual vision that we damage.

Emerson once wrote, “Any attempt to make a good impression or a favourable appearance will instantly vitiate (spoil) the effect. But speak the truth, and all things alive or brute are vouchers, and the very roots of the grass underground there do seem to stir and move to bear witness.”

  1.  The Torch of Hope: This is the central torch. Its light is the most illuminating, when there is absolutely no hint of light anywhere else. You must never give up the hope that beyond the seemingly infinite ocean of hardship the land of relief awaits.

I remain hopeful,
Even when I see no reason to be
The walls are high as heaven
The doors are sealed shut
Darkness envelopes me in layers
Yet the Sapling of Hope is in my right,
And I dare to plant it
Knowing the world might end tonight.

  1. The Torch of Humility: Humility means having a modest view of our own importance. Our Ego is the Dragon that keeps us locked up in the prison of our self-centeredness. An indication of our progress in lighting this torch is how often we place the needs of others over our own needs.
  2. The Torch of Integrity: In the void, you will be tested by many situations that will pit your personal desires directly against what is right. Every time you make the right choice, you will move forward, while every time you choose wrongly, you will violently be tossed many miles backwards. Hidden motives and self-serving actions are the vipers that lurk in the darkness of the void. The fourth Torch of Truth can help expose them.
  3. The Torch of Meaning: There comes a point in many people’s lives when they realize that what makes life rich and meaningful is being strongly connected to everyone from their Maker to their neighbor. The Prophet Jesus (Peace be upon him), summed it all up when he said: “The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. And love your neighbor as you love yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”
  4. The Torch of Myth: The most important story is the story we tell ourselves about ourselves. Our lives came to a grounding halt because our story could no longer sail us forward. Yet we fearfully cling on to it, like passengers refusing to jump off a sinking ship. The truth is that there is nothing to fear. We may still hold on to parts of our story that continue to be valuable. We can still honour the story that we wrote as children for despite its dysfunctional elements, it was the best story we could tell in order to survive. However, now that we are beginning a new phase in our journey, we have to realize that only the adult storyteller within us is fit to be the narrator.
  5. The Torch of Patience and Flow: The Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him), said: “Victory is intertwined with patience, relief is intertwined with hardship, and with every difficulty there is ease.”

If hope and divine love are what move us forward, then patience and flow are what saves us from sliding backwards when faced with obstacles, setbacks, and provocations. To be patient is to hold ourselves back from acting out of frustration and instead choosing to remain calm until the storm passes. Flow on the other hand stems from the realization that our control over what happens to us is an illusion, and therefore like a river, we gracefully flow over and around obstacles instead of allowing them to hold us back. Those who do not flow with the river of destiny are always stuck in the stagnant waters of frustration, anger, and resentment. They are like a hissing cat that is being dragged, while its nails are dug deep into the ever-moving carpet of life.

Flow, Flow, Flow …
Through every hardship and delight
Flow, Flow, Flow …
Through the darkness and the light
Flow, Flow, Flow …
Like a Monarch in its flight
Flow, Flow, Flow …
Like a river in the night

What I have just described is the enriching and noble inner work that you will need to embark on. If it seems overwhelming, then remember that “a journey of a thousand miles always begins with one step.” You are fully capable of completing this journey. Why else would you be called on to undertake it at this moment in your life?

Whether you realize it or not, you are a hero in the making. Joseph Campbell taught us that every hero that ever came before us, whether they were a noble Prophet or a mythical adventurer, had to go through the phases of Separation, Initiation, and Return. In Separation, they were physically or psychologically separated from their people. In Initiation, they were internally transformed by the knowledge, wisdom, and special powers they gained. Finally, in Return, they went back to their people and shared with them the gifts they were granted.

O Night of my soul, ever so dark
Into your darkest corners I shall embark
Swimming through the deepest oceans of tears
Withstanding the howling winds of my fears
Seeking what every noble soul has sought
A treasure that is neither sold or bought

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