Dark Nights of the Soul: Spiritual Transformation or Clinical Depression? Part 3 ll Mary Coday Edwards

May 14, 2019
Dark Nights of the Soul: Spiritual Transformation or Clinical Depression? Part 3
By Rev. Mary Coday Edwards, MA.

John of the Cross wrote his Dark Night of the Soul as a guidebook for monastics, those who would dedicate themselves to a spiritual life through community, meditation, and various forms of service. I follow Thomas Moore’s lead (1), who looks at it less technically and sees it as a period of transformation.

In Part 1, I defined soul from a Jungian perspective. In Part 2 I gave more definitions, including spiritual transformation, soul from a religious perspective, sadness, and clinical depression or Major Depressive Disorder—including its symptoms.

Signposts of a Dark Night

Lack of consolation from our spiritual practice is a common signpost. We then work harder on its spiritual disciplines: we pray, we fast, we go to more meetings, more retreats; we sit longer on the meditation cushion. These disciplines in the past brought us a measure of joy and deep peace. Now they don’t. We go to a mental health specialist. We want some sort of drug to make these sad feelings GO AWAY.

Plans go awry. A deep ennui sets in. “What’s wrong with me?” we ask. Our postmodern society might call it an existential crisis. Similar in definition, it consists of when life loses its meaning for an individual. The same sort of questions haunt an existential crisis: “What is my purpose on this planet? Is there a set of predetermined convictions? How should I live my life?”

But if we name the pain and loss as an existential crisis, it’s too easy to ignore the soul. Existential crisis implies: “I can fix this. I just need to change my thinking. If I can come up with the right answers to my problems, everything will be okay.” Or “I need a new partner, house, car, vacation, etc.” Fill in the blank. It’s ego-driven. After all, the ego may have done a great job of protecting us so far, and it’s hesitant to give up that control to a nebulous other piece called “soul,” along with soul’s counterpart, “intuition.”

 

When we look to our soul’s wanderings, we move into mystery, symbols, and mythos.

This is another form of knowing outside our Western emphasis on brain, head, and thinking. If we turn to ego, we’re relying on the same tool that got us into this pickle to get us out of it. It’s inadequate. It may have served us for what Bill Plotkin calls our “survival dance,” it won’t help up in this next stage of transformation, which Plotkin names our “sacred dance” (2).

Common Reasons

Two common reasons lead into a dark night and a crumbling worldview:

1.) you’re not living your life, but what your parents, teachers, religious institution, or society says you ought to be doing, thinking, or believing.

2.) and related to No. 1, we remain an adolescent long past the time it’s time to be an adult.

Jung believed our psyches carry a deep-seated drive for integration, particularly our unconscious with our conscious lives. And that includes everything we’ve stuffed down into the shadows, including that which ego has deemed unworthy. If you’ve been living a lie, letting the ego and persona rule the roost, eventually your soul says, “ENOUGH.” At first it comes as whisper, but the more it’s ignored, the louder it becomes. Something comes along—external or internal: a long illness or a troubled marriage, a family crisis, or a career shift, for example. Sometimes an unshakeable, emotional inner mood grabs hold of us.

My work as a People House minister allows me the privilege of journeying alongside troubled individuals when they come to me carrying pieces of their shattered lives they’re trying to glue and/or duct tape back together. They’re unhappy and want life to return to how it was. What life they had might not have been perfect, but it was better than this.

 

Women, caring for others all their lives, tell me, “I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I like, dislike, or what I want.”

Creatives show up, feeling like failures because no longer can they force the deepest parts of who are they into the molds our dominant culture wants to squeeze them into. They have looked into their souls and feel them lacking. They live with constant judgment of falling short of what their loved ones expect of them.

And all the while, their true essence, buried deep in their souls/unconscious/psyches, sits huddled in a dark corner, rejected and in pain, imprisoned behind a thick wall.

 

A deep desolation typically accompanies your soul’s cry for help.

No longer can you cut yourself off from soul, that which carries so much energy. No longer can you pretend that everything is okay, that you can just buckle down and slog through life without that which gives you life.

And all the while, down in the dungeon, in the shadows, huddles our spark. Our true essence. And if we choose to ignore it, to push it down, eventually it will find the cracks in our persona.

We base our lives on beliefs and values that we presume to be rock solid. In reality, they’re more like earth’s shifting tectonic plates: our worldview continuously needs updating. The forces of life deep within us cannot be contained—best to integrate them consciously vs. letting them rule us unconsciously.

 

In my next blog I’ll talk about living with a dark night. Meanwhile, pay attention to the deepest parts of who you are.

To go in the dark with a light is to know light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight.

And find that the dark, too, blooms and sings.

And is traveled by dark feet and dark wings. (4)

_____

Notes & Sources:

1.) 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.

2.) Plotkin, Bill. Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche. New World Library. 2003.

3.) For Christians, a good book is John of the Cross for Today: The Dark Night, by Susan Muto. Ave Maria Press. 1991.

4.) Wendell Berry, from “To Know the Dark,” in Farming: A Handbook. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1967.

People House: a Center for Personal and Spiritual Growth