Dark Nights of the Soul


Several months ago, a therapist-friend gave me the book Dark Nights of the Soul; A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals (2004) by psychologist Thomas Moore, PhD. Moore has also authored the bestsellers Care of the Soul (1992) and SoulMates  (1994) as well as many other books. Moore was a Catholic monk for twelve years and later became a psychologist.

The back cover of Dark Nights (2004) reads: “Our lives are filled with emotional tunnels: the loss of a loved one or the end of a relationship, aging and illness, career disappointments, or just an ongoing sense of dissatisfaction with life. Society tends to view these ‘dark nights’ in clinical terms as obstacles to be overcome as quickly as possible. But Moore shows how honoring these periods of fragility as periods of incubation and positive opportunities to delve into the soul’s deepest needs can provide healing and a new understanding of life’s meaning. Dark Nights of the Soul presents these metaphoric dark nights not as the enemy, but as times of transition, occasions to restore yourself, and transformational rites of passage…”

The phrase “dark night of the soul” comes from the 16th century Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross; a member of the Carmelite Christian, religious order who, along with St. Teresa of Avila, tried to reform that order. For his efforts, John was imprisoned for eight months during which he wrote several remarkable poems and commentaries on those poems, one of which was entitled “Dark Night of the Soul.”

In the second chapter of the book, “Rites of Passage,” Moore tells the story of English poet John Keats, who “had just turned twenty-six when tuberculosis put him on his deathbed. His physical pain was great,  but more difficult for him was the separation from the woman he loved, Fanny Browne. Four months before his death and in one of his last letters, he writes to his friend Charles Brown: ‘I can bear to die – but I cannot bear to leave her….Where can I look for consolation or ease?….I fear there is no one can give me any comfort.’ Yet in the next letter, his last, he still has his good humor, and he makes a simple but important statement. ‘You must bring your philosophy to bear–as I do mine,  really–or how should I be able to live?’ Keats, a young man of remarkable maturity, had developed  a philosophy of the soul by which he could live.”

“In a key letter, written to his brother and sister-in-law when he was twenty-three, he said that being intelligent is not enough. Your intelligence has to be converted into a soul. ‘Do you not see,’ he wrote, ‘how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an Intelligence and make it a soul?…Call the world if you please ‘The value of Soul-making.'”

Moore writes: “Keats converted his emotional and physical suffering into a highly intelligent and sensitive soul through his letters and his poems….One difference between depression and a dark night of the soul is that depression is a mood you endure and try to get through, while a dark night is a process in which your course soul is refined and your intelligence deepened. How you imagine your  ordeal makes all the  difference.

Creating a carefully constructed and passionate philosophy of life is not something modern people do….Many get their life guidance from television and rarely have original thoughts about their experiences. Others may have opinions based on the latest studies but generally have not worked out a deep vision. They are informed, but they haven’t thought deeply enough.

Without a philosophy of life, you may be swamped by your emotions and believe that life is meaningless. You see the chaos in and around you, and you assume that it could never make sense. With this attitude it is easy to latch onto simplistic explanations,  which are never far away….But these borrowed and purchased strategies aren’t enough when a dark night has really taken hold of you. You need to work out a system for yourself….

How do you create a supportive and livable philosophy? First, you take your life seriously. You don’t have to be morose about it, but you must realize that you can’t pass on the responsibility for your life to anyone else. Today, people don’t always feel the weight of their existence. They live by superficial values and naive ideas. Instead of pursuing deep and solid pleasures, they lose themselves in light entertainments, legal and illegal drugs, and general unconsciousness. The only time they feel any emotional weight is when they are depressed, but then it is only symptomatic and painful. Depression is a strong emotion, but a dark night is a slow transformation fueled by the deep issues at work defining the very meaning of your life….

A philosophy of life begins to take shape when you educate your heart and cultivate your life. You read, you talk, and you think; you don’t just act. You consider your experience and take lessons from it. You may need to write these lessons down in a journal and talk about them with friends. Deep conversation is a valuable way of cultivating an intelligence about life. Many people in the past used letters, written thoughtfully and honestly, as a way of self-education. In these people their philosophy of life came into being through the process Keats called ‘soul-making’….

Henry David Thoreau lived in a tiny cabin at Walden Pond outside Boston for over two years to practice a life of reflection, to help him move more consciously into his life. For him it was clearly a way to make an important shift, a concrete rite of passage. About this experience he wrote, ‘I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.’ You can prepare for your dark nights in the same way, by finding your own style of retreat and reflection, developing a vision that supports and inspires you. Everyone needs a ‘Walden Pond’ on his  own, a real or metaphorical place where you can take stock of your life and find a sense of purpose and values by which you can live.”

Psychotherapy and counseling can help this process. Again, Moore writes: “A philosophy of life elevates and airs out what might otherwise be an emotional swamp. Feelings are wet and damp, inundating us and preventing us from thinking clearly….The work  of psychotherapy, too, aerates a soggy soul. You consider your overwhelming emotions and sort them through until an idea appears. This idea may not be a solution to your problems,  but  it may mark a first step in drying out. I have seen people in therapy swamped in love, drowning in passion, deluged in feelings. Simply talking about the emotions offers relief and begins a process that leads to a less compulsive lifestyle.”

Moore’s last sentence is worth repeating: “Simply talking about the emotions offers relief and begins a process that leads to a less compulsive lifestyle.”

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

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