“Darkness began to cast its shadow over my soul. I felt no consolation in prayer; I had to make a great effort to meditate; fear began to sweep over me. Going deeper into myself, I could find nothing but misery. I could also see the great holiness of God. I did not dare to raise my eyes to Him, but reduced myself to dust under His feet and begged for mercy…”
What St. Faustina here describes about not daring to raise her eyes to God but instead reducing herself to dust under the feet of God is equal to the misguided love of the “Oh, night.” Being in love with the night is the deep sorrow and depression that comes from a feeling of being inferior to God and not able to look God in the eyes.
In St. John of the Cross’ writings on the Dark Night of the Soul there are two nights: an active night and a passive night. This distinction between active and passive is important because it is only through the second night, the passive night that the soul finds its way back to God.
The two dark nights we could also call the two paths of sorrow. The first path of sorrow is the path into deeper sorrow and thereby depression that we have looked at till now. The soul feels completely alone as if having been rejected by God and this increases the pain and despair.
In her book A Return to Love, Marianne Williamson explains that, “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.”
It is here our fear and not our light that we are in love with. The problem with fear is that it overshadows our light because we have a heavy history of fear. Fear of what is outside the cave and in world. Fear of hell and what authority tells us to fear. This conditioning has caused a suppression of who we really are and the knowledge that we are powerful beyond measure.
Many of us have been conditioned to think that depression is negative or not normal, which is why more than 50 percent of Americans see depression as a weakness. So, when we start to feel sad or depressed, we will often react by rejecting the sadness and try to get rid of it. This reaction is the suppression where we try to fix the negative or think our way out of the sadness.
A great book called The Mindful Way through Depression explains how this pattern works:
“In our heads, we try out this solution and that solution, and it doesn’t take long for us to start feeling bad for failing to come up with a way to alleviate the painful emotions we’re feeling. We get lost in comparison of where we are versus where we want to be, soon living almost entirely in our heads. We become preoccupied. We lose touch with the word, with the people around us, even with those we most love and those who most love us.”
The root cause here is separation from God and our true nature. In this separation the pain is born in the gap between who we are and who we want to be, or how we feel and how we want to feel. This is the classic definition of separation that results in the painful state where we cannot experience fulfilment and completeness.
This is where St. John’s distinction between the active and passive night comes in. Even in the pain of the night and our depression we are still a child of God. God always loves us and is always part of us, so in fact it is not God who rejects us but we who reject God.
That we are experiencing pain and sorrow does not mean that God no longer loves us, but instead it means that we are unable to accept the pain and thus reject the night.
The active night is where the soul actively tries to get out of the night by thinking and trying to solve the problem: “The more a soul endeavours to find support in affection and knowledge, the more will it feel the lack of these, which cannot now be supplied to it upon that road.”
This preoccupation and struggle to solve the sadness is ultimately why we are unable to look God in the eyes because we ourselves have turned away from love by not accepting the pain. This turning away from love is the active night where we are active and busy looking the other way in a misguided attempt to avoid the pain.
Through being in love with the night and thereby our sorrow it is not a sadness directed towards love but instead towards sorrow. Avoiding the pain is the same as loving the pain because we subconsciously do not want it to go away. If we truly wanted the pain to go away and to heal our sorrow we would instead turn towards love and not the pain.
In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle explains that for us to want more pain is insanity and that’s why the love of the night is unconscious. If we truly were conscious about our pattern it would dissolve, but this is how our conscious mind, or ego, tricks us into falling in love with the pain:
“The dark shadow of the ego is actually afraid of the light of your consciousness. It is afraid of being found out. Its survival depends on your unconscious identification with it, as well as your unconscious fear of facing the pain that lives in you. But if you don’t face it, if you don’t bring the light of your consciousness into the pain, you will be forced to relive it again and again.”
The reason that we fall in love with the night is that our ego, or conscious mind, seduces us into the darkness. It is the conscious mind, or ego, that says: “I am sad,” “I am depressed,” or “I am afraid.” To sustain the sadness and for the night not to cross over into daylight, the conscious mind needs to dive into the night again and again.
This activity is casting a shadow over the light of day because the ego is afraid of the dawn and thus keeps hiding from the light. As the pattern of thinking has been feeding the ego energy, it has now become seemingly real and thereby strong. It is due to having built up a pattern that the ego fights against the dawn as the first light of day is the beginning of its end. The ego is fighting for its own survival and this is why it engages us in a struggle when we try to remove it by casting light on it.
St. John’s second night is passive because we have stopped fighting the night and surrendered ourselves to God. The surrender is passive and by being passive we accept the night. As our fear would have us actively reject the pain, it is clear that surrendering to it does not come without pain.
But as the acceptance comes out of love the trust of the surrender results in what St. John calls “the fire of love.” St. John uses the metaphor of a fire burning wood and that this fire takes hold of the soul as if it was the wood burning in the fire.
Through this image we get a very clear picture of the painful contemplation that we are being guided towards. In another poem called The Living Flame of Love, St. John takes us deeper into an understanding of the fire of love as the love of the Holy Spirit.
This burning contemplation is part of the second passive night as the understanding of our pain lies in the darkness of the night. The soul is burning and thus wounded but the pain of this wound is focused on love and not sorrow. The pain rests upon the Holy Spirit and this focus guides the soul in its sorrow towards God as it seeks reunion with God.
St. John describes here that the spirit feels itself to be “deeply and passionate in love” and this is the safe way to pass through the dark night of the soul because the path leads towards God. Through not being attached to the sorrow, the soul becomes passive and thereby open to its reunion with God.
In Denmark where I am from we have saying; “warm is the bleeding heart,” which is often used to console broken hearts. The premise of the bleeding heart is like the living flame of love; that if you have not had a broken heart yourself, you cannot love and respect the heart of someone else. Thus, a broken heart is good for you because your bleeding heart makes you warm and prepares you for true love.
While true but often used as a cliché, during my prolonged waiting time with unemployment I came to learn the deeper meaning of this figure of speech. In the past, because my life had always been easy and all the doors were open, I sometimes looked at people who were unemployed or even homeless people as weak and blamed them for giving up.
Seeing the world through my eyes and my personal experience of life which always had open doors, I simply could not put myself in the shoes of someone else. My lack of experiencing hard times in my life meant that I had a lack of empathy for people who were going through hard times.
Besides developing empathy for unemployed people and the homeless, I also got a completely different understanding of the politics of immigration. On TV immigrants and refugees are nearly always portrayed as unwanted lower status people wanting to game the system, and even though being white from a rich country I all of a sudden felt colored and from a third world country.
This was a painful experience but I cannot begin to explain how valuable this lesson for me has been. There is a saying that without having felt your own mortality, you cannot understand life much less be a teacher of life.
The point being is that the hard lessons in life are painful as pain is inseparable from life. By passing through the night on a foundation of love, we can find the deeper understanding and compassion that makes us aware and help us transform.
Thereby, there are two paths from within the sorrow: one towards despair and sorrow, and another towards compassion and learning from the sorrow. The first path leads towards more sorrow and depression, where the other path leads to growth and learning.
While hard to bear and sometimes understand, from a spiritual point of view sorrow can be seen as a gift because it forces us to seek God through compassion and understanding. Sorrow can be a progressive feeling that can wake us up from our pleasant lives and reconnect us with the light of God, and as such, it serves as a positive spiritual force for awakening the soul.
The meaningless of sorrow can also push us to look for meaning through growth and a deeper understanding. This is the way in which deeper truths and spiritual insight are received. And more importantly this is where our deep sorrow can be transformed into the joy of mindfulness.
Sorrow and pain is a form of emptiness but by embracing this emptiness we can transform it from being empty to being full of joy, compassion and love. This is accepting the bleeding heart where through embracing the fire in our soul we can enjoy even this moment as being connected to a deeper part of life, which is our sorrow and emptiness.
This emptiness seems like sorrow and pain on the surface but on a deeper level it has another aspect: joy and well-being. Thus, emptiness has two aspects: pain and joy – meaning that if we reject our emptiness it will turn into pain but if we embrace our emptiness it will be transformed into joy.
Until the age of 27, I had been an atheist all my life and my personality was very selfish without much compassion for other people. Since the beginning of my twenties I had noticed a kind of emptiness inside but I could not put my finger on what it was. To make it go away or sedate it, I would often use both alcohol and drugs until one day when something happened that I could not sweep under the rug.
As the first thing in the morning of my 27th birthday, I got a phone call that my father had died the evening before. The shock of this, not only that my father had died at an early age and many things had been left unsaid, but also that this happened practically on my birthday and in the middle of my final exams, was a knockout blow.
It shocked me to my core and I bailed on a job that I had lined up, packed my backpack and left on a travel around the world. On this travel, through little coincidences I ended up in India – ‘the mother land’ – which was to be a very significant turning point in my life.
To make a long story short, I had a very deep spiritual experience that gave birth to my unborn soul in this life. This spiritual birth was extremely powerful, and being an atheist before my experience I felt my mind split between two realities: this world and the other much more real dimension of the spiritual.
After about a year going through psychotherapy I finally got myself back together and found my grounding in the world again. The surprising thing was that what brought me back to life was exactly the same thing that had made me run away from life: the emptiness of my true being.
I didn’t know the word yet but the powerful spiritual truth of my experience was based on this foundation and I suddenly found myself having a rock foundation in my life. It was about a year later when on my spiritual path I was on a meditation retreat that I had the same powerful breakthrough of experiencing the emptiness of my true being.
The difference now was that having experienced this emptiness before I was no longer that much afraid of it and I could begin to embrace it. Through the embrace I discovered that this emptiness was full of love, joy and well being – in fact, I was love, joy and well being – this was my true state of being.
As I both studied and practised many other religions and spiritual traditions, I found that this core of my being was the universal essence of all religions and spiritual traditions. And having experienced different forms of therapy, I also understood that this universal foundation was the underlying aim of most therapies and psychologies.
However, I also learned that as not all religious or spiritual people get to this core, so also not all therapies and psychologies understand this universal essence. The emptiness or our true being is the ultimate and fundamental level of reality. A religious or spiritual view without an in-depth understanding of this essence of pure being is as blind as a therapy that does not understand the causes of the symptoms.
Psychiatrist Mark Epstein explains it like this:
“Emptiness can never be eliminated … Any therapy that tries to explain it away, or cure it with a corrective emotional experience, is destined to produce frustration and disappointment. Only when we stop fighting with our personal emptiness can we begin to appreciate the transformation that is possible. Buddhism authenticates a feeling that nearly all Westerns seek to deny, that psychotherapy endeavors, unsuccessfully, to eradicate.”
The way to embrace your pain instead of suppressing it, is to simply ask yourself: “what am I feeling?” To this question, you can answer with whatever you are feeling at that moment. For example: “I am feeling sadness because …”, or: “I am feeling anxiety because …”
Accepting what you are feeling instead of fighting it is the embrace, and this is the release and understanding that will enable you to have compassion for yourself. This is the mindful and passive way to heal your pain and get out the dark night.