Is This My Dark Night of the Soul?
I had wrestled with depression for 40 years. This was not depression.
Yes, some of the symptoms were the same: the lack of motivation, the boredom with hobbies, the never-ending fatigue. But the sadness was missing. So, in fact, was emotion of any kind. In its place were calm, stability, and clarity of thought that transcended feelings.
I wondered if I’d stumbled onto something that sages have written about for centuries: the dark night of the soul.
Today, many people use the phrase dark night of the soul to refer to an episode of depression. But experts who know both conditions take care to distinguish the two. John of the Cross, the sixteenth-century mystic, devoted a chapter of his classic Dark Night of the Soul to discerning the dark night from depression. Noted psychiatrist Gerald May, MD, has written extensively on the topic as well.
The distinction even shows up in research. A 2010 study in Transcultural Psychiatry, which focused on 10 Spanish nuns, observes:
The nuns’ descriptions of the Dark Night of the Soul coincide with Font’s … observations of the ‘salutary’ religious depression, which he differentiated from ‘pathological’ religious depression which is the domain of psychiatry. Although this salutary depression may share some symptoms with the pathological condition, the depressive symptoms could be the healthy expression of a process of spiritual growth.
Indeed, the nuns saw the dark night as indispensable to their growth. One sister, whose dark night lasted 10 years, told the researchers:
Given the option, I would not have avoided those many years of spiritual void and dissatisfaction, as they enabled me to become who I am today. I got rid of lots of baggage … so many imperfections! … I came out of it completely changed … it made me grow in my faith.
So how do you tell which is which? Gerald May suggests several differences. People in the dark night, he writes, tend to retain their sense of humor and compassion for others. Many continue to be effective in their daily lives. They often sense the value of the experience even as they endure it. None of these “symptoms” are typical of depression.
Still, the distinctions are subtle. To make things even more difficult, depression and the dark night can occur at the same time. My own dark night took place after two years of one life crisis after another—a seriously ill child, a nightmare job, elder care, marital stress—and the severe depression that accompanied them. When the cloud of depression lifted, however, that calm clarity was still there.
For months I reflected on this. I kept on doing what I needed to do, despite the fact that it brought me little happiness. And something began to dawn on me: I could live this way. I could do what my work, my family, and my soul asked of me, without emotion, and it would be OK—even fulfilling.
What lessons might emerge? As part of her dark night, Mother Teresa learned to identify deeply with the desperation and emptiness of the destitute people she served. As part of my dark night, I learned how thoroughly I often confused my emotions with reality; the lack of emotion allowed me to see the difference. Moreover, it helped me to see how the most valued gifts of the spiritual life—love, joy, peace—are not transitory feelings but rather states of being, permanent, available to us whenever we need them.
This knowledge has made me much more resilient in the face of the ups and downs of my emotional life. As it turns out, the Spanish nuns discovered the same thing: they used the lessons they’d learned in the dark night to manage the other stressors in their lives.
Unlike depression, which calls for treatment and recovery, the dark night invites us to explore, pay attention, make meaning—or, rather, let meaning emerge. So the next time the darkness comes, ask whether it’s depression, or something deeper, or both. Get the right help, and if you can find the riches within the experience, mine them and savor them for all they’re worth.
How to Learn from the Dark
Over the years, I’ve encountered several steps that have proved useful in living with dark nights:
Seek help. This always bears repeating: because depression can be dangerous, it’s best to start with a therapist to treat or rule out mental health issues. Beyond that, a wise guide of your choice—a spiritual director, shaman, guru, or even a close friend—can “listen with you” to your experience.
Ask questions of the darkness. Where is the Universe, or God, or your Higher Power in all this? What wisdom might the darkness have for you? Holding these questions in mind during meditation can yield more insights than you might expect. Journaling can encourage them to rise to the surface. So can going on retreat.
Read about others who have endured the dark. My go-to book was Come Be My Light, a collection of Mother Teresa’s letters, which chronicles her 50-year dark night and the priceless lessons she learned from it. Writings like these can help you explore aspects of your experience that you might not have considered. Even better, they provide the comfort of knowing you’re not alone.
Keep moving. The point is not to distract yourself from the emptiness. Rather, you keep moving because you can still be productive even without feelings.