Our soul is not always a sanctuary of comfort. The musings of the soul can lead us directly into the midst of a dark night of the soul. In dark night, we face a profound call to attention. And we must find a courageous voice to begin the conversation. Hidden within a dark night of the soul is the artistry of suffering; an interior crucible of transformation and survival – the artistry of the night.
The idea of a Dark Night of the Soul originated with St. John of the Cross (1542-1591), a Spanish saint, mystic and poet. In the previous article I explored the feeling of a dark night of the soul. In this article I explore the perceptual landscape of a dark night.
Creativity is Survival
The experience of spiritual suffering is normal. There is no life that is void of suffering.
A dark night of the soul catapults us to the very edge of our courage and creativity. When we are touched by a dark night a period of internal destruction is initiated. In this frightening realm, artistry is survival.
A dark night of the soul is a necessary journey into pure artistry and creativity. My belief is that a dark night is a primal creative process that serves to transform our identity, awareness, beliefs, and sense of purpose in life.
When we think of art we might imagine beautiful, aesthetically pleasing objects that have been crafted by an artist. A physical work of art is one possible outcome of artistry. However, it is the underlying capacities that are the source of an artist’s creativity. These capacities include intuition, perceptual acuity, imagination, vision, attention, awareness, discernment, comprehension, apprehension, concentration, and contemplation.
The artist’s terrain is the land of thresholds where raw perception leads us to the very edges of knowing. The artist embraces all types of experience, beautiful and ugly, peaceful and distressing, safe, dangerous, as well as life and death. The artist is, in this sense, a perceptual explorer who journeys into the extreme thresholds of experience.
A dark night of the soul is a profound creative threshold that requires us to embrace our own unique artistic sensibilities.
The Perceptual Landscape of Darkness
When we enter a dark night of the soul we find ourselves surrounded by a mercurial and bleak feeling of aloneness that permeates our sensibilities. The beliefs, ideas, attitudes, priorities that form the foundation of our identity have already become frail and inadequate. We feel as though we have been somehow abandoned and have been left alone to improvise our way through a landscape of internal distress.
We see the same world around us that we always have, but it now feels strangely unfamiliar and inhospitable.
In the midst of a dark night of the soul we become an artist in order to survive. Raw experience is our canvas. Our palette is the touch of darkness within. We fear what we cannot see. We fear the destruction of our identity. We fear the approach of an unknown but ferocious darkness. We fear being absolutely abandoned in the midst of a crowd. We fear… perhaps for the first time.
We cannot see in the dark, yet we know something unknown, unfamiliar, and threatening is upon us. Darkness ushers in the impenetrable mystery of life, existence, and survival.
We sense the presence of a potential enemy, but there is none to be found other than in the vagaries of our own imagination. We are alone, yet we do not know how to be alone. We seek relief, only to intensify our suffering. We try the standard advice to no avail. Our senses seem dead and unresponsive to our requests for help.
The soul has transported us into the darkness of night, and we find ourselves in an unavoidable destiny with our own creativity.
St. John of the Cross described the dark night as contemplation. That is to say, a dark night of the soul forces us into a deep, unavoidable contemplation about the essential nature and purpose of our life in this world. He assumed that there are two interrelated dimensions of the night, the night of the senses, and the night of the spirit.
The night of the senses is the destruction of the beliefs that create the foundation of our lives. We are, in a sense, stripped of all that gave us comfort and assurance in our being. Once the sensory devastation is completed, the soul is ready to begin its journey toward the life force (i.e. – God) that animates all life.
The dark night, which we name “contemplation,” creates two kinds of darkness which align with the two aspects of human nature: the sensual and the spiritual.
In the first night of purification, the soul is stripped of senses and accommodated to pure spirit. In the other night, the spirit itself is purged and made naked in readiness for the soul’s union of love with God.
The Mental Terrain of a Dark Night
A dark night is a form of contemplation, that is to say, the dark night is a medium, an environment, a total surround, in which the contemplation of meaning, purpose and existence becomes completely unavoidable. A dark night creates possibilities from which there is no retreat.
It is precisely because we resist the darkness in ourselves that we miss the depths of the loveliness, beauty, brilliance, creativity, and joy that lie at our core.
According to St. John of the Cross, the night of sense, or the purification of the senses, creates the following conditions:
- The Complete Absence of Pleasure: Things that once provided pleasure may no longer have the same effect. There is no pleasure in objects or material things.
- Thought and Memory are Impaired: Our memory, thoughts, and emotions are imbued with a primal yearning for a deeper relationship with our own existence. We seek out deeper meaning, purpose, and presence in life. The absence of these qualities induces spiritual suffering.
- The Destruction of Personal Beliefs and Assumptions: The mind (thoughts, concepts, ideas, beliefs, assumptions, identity, desires, etc.) becomes influenced by unknowing. We realize that the rational and logical mind offers no solace or solution, leading to the realization that contemplation is the only possible means to navigate through the dark night.
- Gaping Wounds of Loss and Abandonment: There is an unavoidable sensation of being completely lost and abandoned in the world, even while in the midst of our loved ones and friends. That which once gave us meaning and purpose has vanished. We have lost our way, with no hope of going back to what once was.
We cannot think ourselves out of the darkness. The dark night asphyxiates our thoughts and renders them ineffective. Our habits of mind, even our most addictive thought patterns, become frail. Our memory, in the sense that it provides a sanctuary for the past, becomes fragile.
Finally, a deep and pervasive feeling of being lost and abandoned is perhaps one of the most disturbing elements of the dark night. We may continue to proceed through our daily routines and give others the impression that nothing about us has changed, while our interior world remains under siege.
Destruction is a natural and normal aspect of creativity. While the dark night may be destroying aspects of our identity, the purpose of this destruction, as uncomfortable as it may be, is to create space for new possibilities in life.
Surviving a Dark Night
The notion of “living vibrantly” within a dark night of the soul seems completely contradictory, and perhaps even insensitive.
People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own souls. They will practice Indian yoga and all its exercises, observe a strict regimen of diet, learn the literature of the whole world – all because they cannot get on with themselves and have not the slightest faith that anything useful could ever come out of their own souls.
– Carl Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (1952)
Vibrant means vigorous, energetic, and vital. Living vibrantly in the midst of a dark night means we openly accept our situation and circumstances and maintain a firm persuasion and intention to move through the terrain before us, regardless of the extreme discomfort we are feeling.
The mind is profoundly immersed in the knowledge and feeling of its limitations and miseries… The soul has no clue that she is advancing on her path… She is losing herself to all that she has ever known or tasted.
She is walking a road of entirely new flavors and new knowledge… To get to an unknown land by unknown roads, a traveler cannot allow himself to be guided by his old experience… When an apprentice is learning new details about his trade, he works in darkness.
If he were to cling to old methods, he would not make any progress… The soul is making the most progress when she is traveling through the deepest darkness, knowing nothing.
Living vibrantly in the midst of suffering is a vital and essential spiritual response to excruciatingly difficult circumstances in life. This doesn’t mean we enjoy the experiences we are having, but it does mean we are courageously alive within them. Physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual suffering is a perfectly normal life experience. A dark night of the soul demands a courageous conversation.
Artistry reveals hope within the absence of light.
Our interface with the unknown is our creative imagination. A dark night embraces and calls upon our deepest and most primal creativity – an authentic creativity that originates in hope, survival, love, belonging, gratitude, and beauty. Our creative challenge is to keep moving under the weight of the night in order to seek out pathways through the gauntlet of our own fears, anxieties, and insecurities.
There is an Artist that inhabits each one of us. It is the source of energy and inspiration that encourages movement within a dark night. In the absence of artistry, we become victim to our own inactivity. We lose our vitality, and intensify our suffering. Contemplation, awareness, attention, observation, perception, and discernment are essential qualities when we are held captive by the perceptual surround of the darkness.
A dark night is a new beginning. But it is also a point of no return, that is to say, once a dark night moves in there is no possibility of returning to the life we once had. Life as we once knew it becomes relentlessly transformed. In our interior world, there is only the struggle for motion, that is, to feel as though we are moving through our own inertia.
In the midst of a dark night, artistry is survival.