A Dark Night of the soul is always a rite of passage. In ancient times, and cultures rites of passage were honoured with ritual. Not all made it through the various rites, but I would say, looking around me in the world that today even less makes it through a rite of passage. Although it may not result in actual physical death, many lose their will to live, and are living a life of the living dead. Some just decline deeper and deeper into depression, just waiting for death, or engage in mindless activities, or uses some form of chemical substance just to numb the nagging pain, while others are walking time-bombs. How many do I wonder, are stillborn in their rites of passage? With all the knowledge that there is today about our minds, our brains, the millions of books on psychology, the Self Help books, still the rite of passage , a Dark Night of the Soul, is viewed by most as an anomaly, not a seen as a natural part of growth, yet, all of us will experience it during the course of our lives to some degree, and through many seemingly unrelated external events.
Although we strive for happiness and success, our mistakes and failures, and our sorrows, forms the shadows; the creative darkness out which our strivings rises.
“Here lies another paradoxical secret of the soul: That which seems to have twisted your life or personality for the worst is the very thing that will heal you and give you meaning … Heraclitus said, ‘ Your daimon is your fate. ‘ I might interpret this to mean that when you feel possessed and out of control, you may do things for better or worse, that define you, that give you the basic structures of your life. Because they are largely unconscious and unwilled, they may come to you as a dark night of the soul. Still they are precious to you and offer you material for reflection and serious conversation fot the rest of your life.” – Thomas Moore
We may think that we can separate our emotions into the desired ones and the undesired ones, the light and the dark ones, but really they are inseparable, without the one the other would not exist. If you have always been been brave and courageous, you will one day find yourself in a position where you will be forced to experience the opposite. To live only one side of an emotion is to remain incomplete. I knew a doctor who was a wonderful strong man, who spent all his life helping others, then he got cancer. It was not the pain and suffering that was hardest for him, but it was to for the first time in his life be totally helpless and reliant on others. Before his death, he confessed as much and said he was filled with gratitude and compassion. I have often seen men who were strong all their lives, die very soon after they realize that they will have to live dependent on others caused by an illness. It struck me as if, they would rather die than live helpless. I saw that with my father too.
Chiaroscuro (Italian. Light-dark) As generally used, chiaroscuro (or the French clair-obscur) means the balance of light and shadow in a picture, and the skill shown by the painter in the management of shadows. One can also say that we are each a painting expressing a view of the world through the complex combinations of light and dark, we are indeed uniquely what we are through the skillful use of shadows in our lives.
In musical terms, the minor key, is a refreshing alternative to the brighter major key. “When people approve only of major tonalities they become simplistic, not only in their thinking, but in their very being. Today many of the conflicts that threaten the peace, both at home, and around the world, stem from raw, naïve, and unintelligent prejudices and reactions. Passions routinely break out in violence. It takes a complex view of yourself and your fellow human being to hold back on hatreds and fears. A mature person is complicated and has complex ideas and values. The minor tonality of a dark night adds a significant and valuable complexity to your personality and way of life.” – Thomas Moore
In that way a Dark Night is predictable in hindsight; the pendulum will swing. Many goal setting courses and systems have at their basis the circle of balance; where you examine the areas in your life, or the roles you play, and see which one has been neglected. In those areas you can predict a breakdown will happen sooner or later, and some work must be put into it. If we don’t a Dark Night will force us. However, I have yet to meet a person who actually is completely balanced in all areas of their lives, in all of their emotional experiences. Even Saints and Enlightened men and women, have had to go through some kind of rite of passage into what appeared darkness.
Most African Shamans that I know, came to their calling through some kind of illness, or what appeared a madness. They are then put through a series of initiations until they are a fully fledged shaman, and thus are reintegrated into their society as valuable contributing members. In today’s world, the western culture, most of those people would have been locked up, put on medication, rejected as unstable members, the inner voices stilled as soon as possible, so that they could fit into the formulated model of what is considered normal. Where then today are our structures to guide us through our rites of passage, in whatever form they come, for come they will, as without what appears to be chaotic crisis, there will be no growth. In ancient cultures and myth, the Dark Nights are represented by the underworld journey. The descent into the underworld always begins with a death, either the physical death of the body, or the psychological death of an aspect of ourselves.
According to James Hillman, “ The underworld has gone into the unconscious; even become the unconscious. Depth psychology is where today we find the initiatory mysteries, the long journey of psychic learning, ancestor worship, the encounter with demons and shadows, and the sufferings of Hell.”
“Because we no longer understand the role of death in cyclical process, and instead have come to believe that it represents a state of absolute finality, we fear our modern initiations of psychological transformation. We resist any kind of change that brings the loss of what we know as security, and we shirk from recalling any event that holds traumatic memories that crystallize us into negative, self-defeating patterns of behavior. And in our resistance to change, which is the very source of renewal, we stagnate and truly die.” – Demetra George
“Here is another interesting dynamic that you may find in all kinds of dark nights. You have to distinguish resistance against the dark night from the dark night itself. People trying to avoid the pain, remain in an empty, defensive, and fallow period precisely because they won’t let the dark night happen. The real dark night is not as bad as the resistance to it; a dark night has more life in it and less ego.” – Thomas Moore
The Vision Quest is a very well known initiatory rite for those experiencing a dark night of the soul, and within it lies another clue of what a dark night hold for us. Often being stuck means that you have reached the limits of your imagination, and that is exactly what a dark night does; It throws out of our usual patterns and forces us to re-imagine our lives. With this in mind lets look at the stages of the dark night, the stages of transformation.
Although dark nights may appear chaotic, it is not as chaotic as it appears. Ancient rites of passage gives us very example of the structure of a dark night. In looking at rites of passage you will find three stages;
- Disintegration/ Separation/ Departure
- Purification/ Liminality/ Initiation
- Regeneration/ Re-incorporation/ Return
This will be clearly seen in the following rite of passage of a boy into manhood, described by Don and Jeanne Elium.
Disintegration/ Separation/ Departure
A boy is born, and the tribe rejoices. The infant spends his first months wrapped snugly on his mother’s body. He has no sense of where he ends and she begins. Mother is his universe. He rides on her back as she works; he sleeps with her; he learns to mimic her daily household tasks; he plays at her feet. He will remain unnamed until the tribe understands his nature, but his mother calls him Solee.
As Solee grows, he explores the boundaries between himself and his mother, and his world expands to perhaps twenty feet from her. He develops relationships with others of the tribe, especially the one called “Father.” Father has been nearby since his son’s birth and takes an active interest in his development. Although he is involved in tribal business and is often gone on the hunt, he spends as much time as he can with his small son. Under the eyes of his parents Solee grows strong, plays with his friends, and turns mischievous. Soon he grows taller than his mother, and his tricks on friends and adults are more risky and dangerous. He is becoming a problem.
Then one day, there is a different air of activity among the women of the tribe. All day they labor to make new shelters. They work long and hard, uninterrupted because the men are away on a hunt. The children are shooed from underfoot, and the older boys are put to work. That night all go to bed early, exhausted. In the middle of the night, strange shouts and frenzied chants awaken the sleepers. They can see torches lighting the sky, winding their way down the mountain toward the village, borne by wild-looking men. The women and children defend themselves with rocks and spears, but it is useless. The crazy men in masks drpping blood into each home and take all of the boys who are nine to twelve years old. “Don’t take my baby the mothers scream, to no avail. The boys, Solee among them, are gone.
Purification/ Liminality/ Initiation
They are taken into the hills to a cave where a fierce fire burns. The sounds of drums fill the night and shake the ground. The boys are placed in a circle around the fire. The wild men in the crazy masks dance to the drums. All at once, some mysterious force quiets the drums, each dancer takes his place in front of one of the boys. Solee is terrified. Knives are pulled. Solee screams with the other boys in panic. Suddenly the masks are removed and the boys scream again, this time in astonishment – ‘Father’ – as each sees his father’s face emerge from behind the monstrous mask.
“Father, why did you do this? Mother’s really upset back there. She could have killed you!” The father responds, “Son, I had to steal you away. She is not your real mother.” “What do you mean, not my real mother? Are you drunk or something? Enough of this. Let’s go home, “ says the incredulous Solee. The father replies, “Don’t get me wrong. She is a very good woman, but I will introduce you to your true mother in one year.”
The boy, who really has no choice in the matter, resigns himself to living for a year with his father and elders of the tribe, to be counseled about life and what it means to be a man. His strengths and weaknesses are determined, and he receives a new name that reflects his calling in life, Selu, The Wild Runner. He crafts a shield that symbolizes his unique skills and contributions to his tribe. His skin is scored and permanently dyed to indicate that he has become a man. He is carefully taught how to hunt, to fish, to fight, and to love. He learns to seek guidance from the stories of his ancestors and to honor the life-affirming forces that protect him and his tribe.
One day about halfway along, Selu and his father are making arrowheads, and his father says, “Oh, son. There is one more thing I forgot to tell you. I am not your true father.” “What? You are not my father? Who are you?” The father replies, “Don’t worry. I am a good man, and in few months, I will introduce you to your true father and your true mother.” Again, the boy has no choice but to continue. By now his body has filled out; his muscles are shaped; his skills are more refined. He has passed many of the tests required to be a man in the world of his tribe.
Regeneration/ Re-incorporation/ Return
One night the boys are told that the next day they will meet their true mother and true father. They go to sleep anxious and excited. Before the sun rises, the eldest male of of the tribe is assisted by other men to the mountain top. The boys are roused and told to follow. In this ancient culture the young were protected because they were the hope for the future, and the old were honored because the held the life wisdom from the past. And so it is an elder who says to the boys with the rising sun: “It is time to meet your true mother and father. Feel the earth beneath you. See the sky and sun above you. These are your true parents. Love them and learn their ways, and they will always support you and guide you. Now go to the village and take your places as warriors and hunters. And from this day, depend only upon your true parents.
A cheer rises as camp is broken, and the boys-made-men go down the mountain to their village. Selu sees his mother by the river. His first thought is, Oh no. She’s gonna be mad! She hated me to get dirty, and now look at my skin. He gazes at the permanent stripe of color that marks him a man. When Selu’s mother sees her son, she moans hysterically, “My son is dead. My son is dead!” Now the boy thinks, Even my mother doesn’t know me. I am no longer her son. I am a man. He takes his place in the tribe and continues to learn while he hunts for, protects, and gives life to his community. Eventually he takes a wife and has children of his own. When his son reaches that difficult age, Selu the father pulls out the mask and heads for the hills in preparation for the making of a man.
Within this composite story of a native male initiation is clearly contained all the elements required for navigating a dark night of the soul. Next I will expand on the elements contained within each phase.