Dark Nights of the Soul: Spiritual Transformation or Clinical Depression? Part 2 ll By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA.

Dark Nights of the Soul: Spiritual Transformation or Clinical Depression? Part 2
By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA.

As I said in my last blog, dark nights of the soul result from the pressures building under the oceanic tectonic plates of our unconscious worldview, readying to propel a tsunami that will forever rearrange our surface lives.

But before we proceed further, more definitions are in order, including spiritual transformation, soul from a religious perspective, clinical depression or Major Depressive Disorder, and sadness.

In an earlier blog I discussed spiritual , and basically it’s what brings meaning to our lives, usually through our sacred practices, disciplines, and rituals. Dark nights of the soul occur when that meaning fails us.

Our psyche is pushing for an upgrade to our operating system

We then work harder at our sacred disciplines, blaming ourselves for the fact that what used to bring us a measure of peace doesn’t anymore. Advice from well-meaning people increases the pain: “You must not be mediating right or long enough. You need a retreat.” Or “Well, God doesn’t change, so it must be you. What are you doing wrong?” And more.

What’s happened is that we’ve outgrown our world picture, our worldview—it’s not working anymore. AND THAT’S OKAY. Our psyche is pushing for an upgrade, time to update that old operating system or maybe jettison it in its entirety. Crudely summarizing John of the Cross’ reasons for a dark night: we have incomplete and inadequate ideas about ourselves and/or God—however we define Ultimate Reality. The box we’ve put ourselves in can’t contain us anymore, and it’s not meant to.

This upgrade comes in the form of spiritual transformation, which will leave us with a greater sense of who we are and our purpose in this world. Perhaps our outdated meaning was passed onto us by our parents, our teachers, or our culture. We’ve never consciously made it our own, but unconsciously let it rule our lives. And when it’s time for these unconsciously appropriated beliefs to shift, along comes those dark nights.

It’s time to examine our motives and the foundation of our values, ideas, and belief systems. These drive our actions and determine what’s still serving us.

That’s what being an adult means. We take responsibility for our lives and the choices we make. We are not under the control of unexamined beliefs and values anymore. We may decide to return to those, but we will do so consciously. Our psyche refuses to stay an adolescent.

Linking soul with genuineness and one’s true nature

I defined soul in my last blog from a Jungian perspective. What follows are from major world religions. Keep in mind these are basic definitions—and subject to controversy by various schools of thought and accredited meaning inherent in each spiritual tradition.

• Hindu: Ātman is a Sanskrit word that means inner self or soul. In Hindu philosophy Ātman is the first principle, the true or real self or essence of an individual (Wikipedia).

Buddhism subscribes to an Anatta doctrine, translated variously: No-soul, No-self, egolessness, and soullessness. The Buddha regarded soul-speculation as useless and illusory (Wikipedia).

Judaism: From the Hebrew scriptures, Genesis 2:7: God did not make a body and put soul into it, like putting shoes in a box, but God formed the body from dust and then by breathing divine life into it (nepesh, or breath), the body of dust became alive, it became a living being. Nepesh refers to the principle of life in any living organism, just like any other living creature. A tree does tree things; an elephant does elephant things. A doctrine of an immortal soul in Judaism developed later through the interaction of the Greek philosophies of the separation of soul and body (1).

•The Christian scriptures use the Greek word (psūchê), or psyche, for soul, translating the Hebrew word nepesh for the Greek. It kept the original meaning, however, of nepesh, or breath, or of a living, breathing, conscious being, which initially did not have an intent of an immortal soul. Later, the Biblical Patristic writers would adopt the Greek interpretation for soul as a separate, immortal entity (2).

Islam uses the Arabic word which includes several definitions, one of which is a person’s essential, immortal self (Wikipedia).

And it’s not necessarily either/or

Clinical depression is the layman’s term for Major Depressive Disorder (MDD), its symptoms laid out in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (see Note 3, with the symptoms included at the end of this blog under Depression DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria). An MDD diagnosis for a mental health professional centers around determining for how long, and to what degree, these symptoms persist in an individual’s life and whether or not he/she still finds joy in everyday life. Can the sufferer still enjoy a good book? A good movie? A night out on the town with friends? Hiking in the woods? How is the individual functioning in life’s daily routine?

And it’s not either/or—we’re not limited to a dark night OR a MDD—but it’s often and/but. Sometimes life throws many stressors at us at one time—death of a loved one, a job change, a divorce, a cross-country move—and pharmacological interventions can help us get over the hump. These same events often then act as dark nights when they strike “you at the core of your existence. It’s not just a feeling, but a rupture at the core of your very being, and it may take a long while to get to the other end of it” (4).

Sadness or depression?

Sadness intertwines itself with depression. How to discern what’s going on? Sadness is a normal emotion, usually triggered by external life events, such as the passing of a pet, the moving away of a friend, or loss of a job. But one can still find pleasures and joy in everyday life. And with time, it will go away.

Sadness in depression, however, needs no external trigger. But it isn’t just the degree of sadness, but the combination of factors in a MDD as noted above: how long, and to what degree, these symptoms persist in an individual’s life, whether or not he/she still finds joy in everyday life, and is the individual able to function in life’s daily routine (see Note 5 for a link for more details on sadness).

As oceanic tectonic plate shifts wound the ocean skin with its tearing apart, dark nights of our soul do the same. Author Jean Houston writes, “The wounding becomes sacred when we are willing to release our old stories and to become the vehicles through which the new story may emerge into time.”

More on this in my next blog. Meanwhile, honor your psyche by paying attention to the energies moving in your soul. Watch for when your true essence buried within you is seeking a passage  out to the light of day!


Notes & Sources:

  1. 1. Atkinson, David. The Message of Genesis 1-11. Inter-Varsity Press. 1990. Pages 55-59.
  2. 2. Vine, W.E. An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words. Volume IX, page 55. Fleming H. Revell Company. 1966.
  3. 3. American Psychiatric Association. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) is the 2013 update to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the taxonomic and diagnostic tool published by the American Psychiatric Association (APA). See also: https://www.psycom.net/depression-definition-dsm-5-diagnostic-criteria/
  4. 4. The best resource I have found on determining if it’s a dark night of the soul or a clinical depression requiring the attention of a mental health professional is Thomas Moore’s book, Dark Nights of the Soul, A Guide to Finding Your Way Through Life’s Ordeals. Penguin Random House. 2004.
  5. 5. https://www.psycom.net/depression-definition-dsm-5-diagnostic-criteria/


Depression DSM-5 Diagnostic Criteria: The DSM-5 outlines the following criterion to make a diagnosis of depression. The individual must be experiencing five or more symptoms during the same 2-week period and at least one of the symptoms should be either (1) depressed mood or (2) loss of interest or pleasure.

a. Depressed mood most of the day, nearly every day.

b. Markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all, or almost all, activities most of the day, nearly every day.

c. Significant weight loss when not dieting or weight gain, or decrease or increase in appetite nearly every day.

d. A slowing down of thought and a reduction of physical movement (observable by others, not merely subjective feelings of restlessness or being slowed down).

e. Fatigue or loss of energy nearly every day.

f. Feelings of worthlessness or excessive or inappropriate guilt nearly every day.

g. Diminished ability to think or concentrate, or indecisiveness, nearly every day.

h. Recurrent thoughts of death, recurrent suicidal ideation without a specific plan, or a suicide attempt or a specific plan for committing suicide.

To receive a diagnosis of depression, these symptoms must cause the individual clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. The symptoms must also not be a result of substance abuse or another medical condition. For more details, see https://www.psycom.net/depression-definition-dsm-5-diagnostic-criteria/


About the Author: Rev. Mary Coday Edwards is a Spiritual Growth Facilitator and People House Minister. A life-long student of spirituality, Mary spent almost 20 years living, working and sojourning abroad in Asia, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and Latin America before finding her People House “tribe” and completing its Ministerial Program. Past studies include postgraduate studies from the University of South Africa in Theological Ethics/Ecological Justice, focusing on the spiritual and physical interconnectedness of all things. With her MA in Environmental Studies from Boston University, abroad she worked and wrote on environmental sustainability issues at both global and local levels, in addition to working in refugee repatriation.

People House: a Center for Personal and Spiritual Growth