How to Navigate the Darkest Night of the Soul

Shengzi Sun July 1, 2021

Many of us may have gone through emotionally difficult times and felt stuck in feelings of frustration, disappointment, anger, and resentment. Here are some ways you can navigate these periods. 

Often the first step towards self-empowerment begins when we can name what we are experiencing.

Many of us may have had periods where feelings of frustration, disappointment, anger, resentment, and/or desperation have accumulated in our bodies to a point where it is unbearable. There is an endless quality to these seasons, where we feel beat up, defeated, and alone. It is hard in times like these not to succumb to endless rumination and self-pity. If any of this sounds familiar, you could be amid your own personal dark night of the soul.

Although often regarded as a sign of spiritual growth and maturation, it is not easy to navigate. I hope that the following will provide you some guidance along this stage in your journey.

Embracing the darkest nights of the soul

"Be silent. Float in your darkness as if it were the waters of the womb and give up trying to fight your way out or make sense of it."

—— Thomas Moore

When we are in the dark night of the soul, every cell of our body seems to tremble and enter a fight-or-flight mode. When we feel that things are out of our control and we can hardly bear with the heaviness of life, we seemingly are forced to gaze at the "abyss" up close while trying our best to securely move onwards and upwards.

Anyone who has stood on the edge of a chasm or canyon knows the feeling of teetering on the edge; they also know the unique vision and vantage point of the position.

The abyss may represent the pain or fear that we have been consciously or unconsciously trying to escape, avoid, or distract ourselves from. The abyss represents different things to different people. For some, it may be insecurities that developed due to past experiences. For others, it could be an irreconcilable conflict they have pretended doesn't exist in their intimate relationships. Or it could even be an unforgettable loss we have not fully processed and let go.

The abyss manifests differently for us all. Friends of mine shared that the pandemic and quarantine life have felt like a disaster for them. With almost no pastimes and in-person social interactions, they suddenly realized that they had used achievements, interpersonal relationships, substances, or social events to distract themselves from so many things that they had found too challenging to confront before COVID.

Unsurprisingly when COVID-19 hit, many of our usual distractions disappeared, some people found a deep and profound pain and fear surfacing, providing an excellent opportunity to know the abyss up close. Jiddu Krishnamurti, a legendary Indian philosopher, said, "What is needed, rather than running away or controlling or suppressing or any other resistance, is understanding fear; that means, watch it, learn about it, come directly into contact with it. We are to learn about fear, not how to escape from it."

Most of the time, feelings are painful and challenging. Perhaps, when we can no longer avoid the pain, we can allow ourselves to feel and process it, and to follow the guidance of our emotions. Try to let go of the "self" and observe without any expectation or purpose. When we can understand our truth behind this pain, we may see and understand ourselves more deeply. According to Krishnamurti, that is healing.

Let nature take its course

"Let nature take its course, do what one ought to do."

—— Dr. Shoma Morita (Founder of Morita therapy)

There are two common mistakes people often make when facing harrowing feelings: rumination or escape. Those prone to rumination, fixate on painful feelings and get occupied and finally overwhelmed by the pain. This can become a vicious cycle where the more we focus on our pain, the more sensitive we are to these painful feelings; the more susceptible we are to these painful feelings, the more subjectively intense these painful feelings become.

On the other side of the coin, those prone to distraction will avoid feeling anything unpleasant through any and all means necessary. Even though many of these distractions may temporarily allow us to avoid the pain, often they are destructive and untenable for the long run.

Morita claims when facing painful emotions, we should let nature take its course. Allow the body and the mind to do what it will, and in these times, do what we can do to help ourselves feel better (though not at the cost of compromising our physical or mental health).

When you feel you need to escape or distract yourself, try to do it in a non-destructive way. Conversely, when you feel it is time to contemplate and reflect, strive to do it in a non-obsessive way. The main point is to trust and allow your body to feel and tell you what you need to carry it on.

We need not be victims

"We need not be victims of our past or our present unless we choose to be."

——Dr. William Glasser (Developer of Reality Therapy)

Glasser proposed two essential concepts: Quality World and Choice Theory. These two concepts are helpful when trying to regain power and a sense of control in the darkest night of the soul.

Quality World refers to a special place in people's minds where we store some of the most beautiful pieces of memory in our lifetime. He posits that these memories exist and never disappear. However, when we are surrounded by pain, we may temporarily lose the connection with our Quality World and forget the beauty of life.

People who have experienced depression or depressed moods understand this: the more depressed you are, the easier it becomes for you to draw your attention to negative signals. Therefore, evoking our Quality World, remembering the good and beautiful, is an important step to get us through the darkest night of the soul.

Much like with Morita, letting nature take its course and allowing the body and mind to do what it will is essential to reconnecting with the Quality World. Feel all your feelings, including the emotions that make you uncomfortable, then trust your body will tell you the answer. Follow the rhythm of your body to learn what your body and mind need.

Whether you remove yourself from the situation, participate in activities as emotional catharsis, distract yourself briefly, or empty your mind and feel your feelings, the main point is to free up the inner space and let the Quality World emerge.

When we experience positive feelings to ignite our vitality again, we will naturally have the power to face ordeals in reality. When we allow our emotions to flow and give ourselves time and space to take a pause and pay attention to ourselves, our mental energy has a high chance to rise. After that, you can gradually return to real life, create more beautiful experiences, and expand the Quality World.

Choice Theory emphasizes the power of personal choice. That is the transformation from external control to internal control mindset. External control mindset refers to the belief that people's experiences and behaviors are determined by external forces, like luck, other people, and circumstances. In contrast, an internal control mindset refers to the belief that people are responsible for their choices and the resulting consequences. In other words, internal control theory promotes that life is NOT about circumstances we are in, but it is about who we are as possibilities.

In the End

Human beings are varied—from the specific circumstances we are in, to the maximum level of psychological endurance, to the minimum amount of support and guidance that we need to thrive. I want to clarify I am not intending to romanticize emotionally difficult periods or even guarantee if and when they will end. What I want to present is the possibility to transform within the darkness. Below are some practical suggestions to further aid in your journey:

  1. Focus on things you can control.
  2. Adopt a meditation practice
  3. Practice gratitude daily
  4. Eat well
  5. Get enough exercise
  6. Be close to nature
  7. Prioritize supportive and empowering social relationships
  8. Find opportunities to help others.
  9. See a therapist

As Thomas Moore once wrote, "A dark night is like Odysseus being tossed by stormy waves and Tristan adrift without an oar. You don't choose a dark night for yourself. It is given to you. Your job is to get close to it and sift it for its gold."

I wish you the best of luck and the most fun in your adventure of alchemy.

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