Engaging with Spiritual Darkness

The dark night of the soul can be a challenging experience and sometimes you might want to avoid dealing with what’s happening. But if you want to move through it and back into the light, you need to engage with the darkness. The following text is extracted from an excellent book by Robert J. Wicks called Riding the Dragon:

“…sometimes the sense of helplessness, confusion, loneliness, and near despair we encounter at periods in our life is unavoidable. This spiritual darkness is not mere sadness, nor is it clinical depression, or the result of poor coping skills. It is an existential confrontation with ourselves, the human condition, and with what … we believe about life, fate, and death. For some of us it is an existential confrontation with what we believe about God.

Spiritual darkness may have a very discernible precipitating event – loss of a spouse or dear friend, realisations of childhood abuse, the dramatic decrease in the confidence other place in you, a parting of the ways with a close friend, a serious illness, infidelity that undermines marital trust, a job loss, or repeated misunderstandings or hurtful comments by someone you love. These are only several of the more common triggers.

In some cases, the beginning of the darkness may be less obvious. In such instances, we find it hard to answer the question, ‘When did it begin?’ Whatever the case, though, the more important factor is: recognising spiritual darkness for what it is, namely, both a devastatingly lonely experience and an opportunity for new spiritual and psychological depth. Neither aspect should be underestimated. Spiritual darkness is an awful experience to encounter and go through. But, just as important, it is also an unasked for and unusual opportunity to be graced with radically new ways to relate to ourselves, others, even to life itself. There is a Persian proverb that sums it up well:

‘If life throws a knife at you, you can catch it by the blade or by the handle.’

The question is will we recognise and take this opportunity, or will we only focus on the suffering and miss the opportunities for radical inner change that this spiritual experience offers? My sense is that most of us often don’t let the possibilities blossom in the darkness. Instead, we hold on to our losses, run away, medicate ourselves (with work, alcohol, sex, religiosity), or live out of our bitterness in such a way that everything is tainted. We do none of this wilfully or consciously. But the personal pain and the unlived joys and peace that could have developed with new learning (or maybe more accurately unlearning) are nonetheless devastating.

One of the ways people are encouraged not to run away from life’s necessary spiritual darkness is to help them see the benefits of staying the course. Some of these advantages are:

  • Increased motivation and determination to face the darkness in ourselves and others
  • Greater insight into one’s personality style, defences, values, gifts, spirituality, and areas of vulnerability
  • Less dependence on the recognition or approval of others
  • New skills and styles of behaviour to complement our usual – possibly habitual – ways of interacting with others
  • A sense of peace that is independent of external success, comfort, and security

… By staying with our darkness with humility, openness, and what little courage we have, this is exactly what we are inviting – radical new possibility and necessary change for the next phase of our lives. … The question when confronted with any form of darkness is, will we stay the course or run, or seek a quick fix?

Since spiritual darkness is most often viewed as a problem to be solved, most people’s first – and false – start is to try harder. But the old maxim, ‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again,’ doesn’t work in this instance. It’s like bargaining with God at the final stage of a terminal illness. It’s like a person facing the darkness using logic, planning, and activities that have worked for them in the past. The only problem is, their efficient past approaches don’t work this time. Why? Because spiritual darkness is an unsolvable, permanent, and unwanted reality that must be faced directly, trusting that new possibilities are present but not yet seen. …

We finally recognise trying harder, bargaining with God, or doing anything to return life to normal (pre-darkness) as false starts. We realise they won’t succeed. Often we react with deep sadness, helplessness, and feelings of failure, shame, and anger. But possibly the worst part of all is that in this spiritual place, we feel alone and terribly lost. This sense of being lost is not a pinpoint experience but usually lasts over a long period of time. During this time we are fearful, distraught, and filled with self-questioning. At several points throughout this period of darkness we find ourselves faced with the choice to:

  • Continue trying approaches that have worked in the past even though they are not succeeding now;
  • Run away from the darkness through denial, rationalisation, or minimisation;
  • Medicate ourselves through work, drugs, sex, excessive religiosity, or some other compulsive behaviour; or
  • Face the darkness directly with a sense of trust that life will provide a new way for us – even if at some level we doubt this!

This last option is obviously not an easy one. We want what we want. We want a return to life as it was before a crisis triggered the darkness. Or we want our usual way of coping and regaining equilibrium or mastery to work. But, whether we like it or not, this is not to be.

If and when we finally recognise this fully, along with recognising our fragility, helplessness, alienation, deep sadness, and being lost, surprisingly we will experience a sense of peace. When we can no longer support our frantic flailing efforts at control and self-justification, we must either surrender in trust or remain lost forever. …

Surrendering in trust to God or believing in the personal value of asking questions and going to psychological places that we’d like to avoid is the point at which the futile cognitive, logical, left-brained efforts finally subside. Then the imaginative, new paradigm, right-brained way of perceiving allows new possibilities to rise.

It is, of course, quiet times that facilitate this movement. Sitting zazen – that is sitting alone or with a group in silent meditation – gives us the space to be in the darkness without preconceived notions of what would be good, what would be the healing, or what would be the next move to take. …

The American Buddhist nun Pema Chodron, in her book When Things Fall Apart, addressed this need to directly face all of our life, including those places we naturally want to avoid. She says,

‘The trick is to keep exploring and not bail out, even when we find out something is not what we thought…[a] sign of health is that we don’t become undone by fear and trembling, but we take it as a message that it’s time to stop struggling and look directly at what’s threatening us.’

… In many instances, [the]…cognitive, left-brained approach [makes] sense. …But there are times when this approach isn’t appropriate. As a matter of fact, to use it during spiritual darkness or when facing the existential realities of life, death, and impermanence (all things change no matter what we do) is delusional.

Yet, most of us live by this delusion, and when it collapses in the darkness, we deny, ignore, or run away from the new wisdom sitting there. We don’t see life as being filled with joys and chronically unsolvable problems. However, if and when we do allow this delusion to melt away in the darkness, we can enjoy life’s gifts and face its pains in ways that don’t hold on to unnecessary suffering. …

One of the lessons learned in the darkness is that we must face all of our life with trust and courage. We must do this until it no longer takes courage because we realise that we can hold on. Life can only be appreciated for what it is, as it is now. And although society, with all its games and schemes, would have us think this is defeatist, it is far from the truth.

While others read from menus of what they feel they deserve or need, by living in the now we can enjoy the actual food we have in front of us. If we can improve the mean, great. If we can make it different, great. But, by being grateful, trusting, and open in the now, we never ruin the meal we are being served now. The greatest gift of all is to never miss the joys and grandeur of the life that is before us each day.

Moreover, spiritual darkness – when it is fully embraced and allowed to teach us lessons we wouldn’t learn if we were wilfully in control – helps us to embrace the following essential lessons:

  • Learning takes place when we join clarity and kindness.
  • Great love is usually found in small deeds – not dramatic gestures or achievements.
  • We must toughen our souls so we can deal with things that upset us even though they really shouldn’t.
  • We need to travel light by erecting a ‘barrier of simplicity’ between ourselves and the world.
  • We need to come home to ourselves more often in a spirit of meditation and know why we sometimes avoid this beautiful prayer experience in our lives. (And, no, it’s not because we are too busy!)”

The rest of the book deals with these lessons in detail – read my review here.


  1. I wonder a lot about this encounter with the dark. Because of how it is resolved as first being a problem and then no longer a problem, I often consider that there is this illusory aspect to the shadow that involves how we choose to think about or react to things (anything really), which is effectively creating our own narrative that we then make real….and even have existential crises about. A tempest in a teacup. I say this because of how many times this has been so where this terrible thing just went…poof…and how I saw it was forever changed through a process of both radical self-honesty and a stirring force within the self that turns the issue on its side just enough that it is seen in a different enough light that it is known to not be quite what I had thought it was before. Maybe the shadow is our insistence on holding on to pain and trauma which no longer really has any reality except that we are holding on to some memory of what we think happened (which is again just how we chose to respond to an event). Huh. Nice I think to think about this again, I think. And thank you for sparking that!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Absolutely! A tempest in a teacup – so true. I’ve had many moments like you describe where dark thoughts or feelings have suddenly evaporated into nothing. It really is just an old ego game, holding on because that’s all it knows – a bad habit to grow out of…

      Liked by 1 person

      • So you think that an aspect of our individuality wrongly perceives or thinks about what it thinks is true about any number of things and then thus suffers, then builds this backlog of junk that then needs to be unloaded or released, which awakening comes along and does away with some of it? (welcome to the land of the run-on sentence!)

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes – something like that appears to happen. It’s probably unavoidable, up to a point. Perhaps it’s a natural development that then goes wrong or gets stuck. I mean, you have to become aware of yourself as separate as you grow up, but then your poor old ego gets confused and thinks the stories it tells itself are true. Awakening blasts all that away but usually only in parts. Some of your old stories are more sticky than others. So then you have this process of gradually peeling back the layers, releasing junk, and letting go. It’s kind of like evolving back to where you started, except that now you know who you are.

          Don’t know if you saw this, Parker, but I did a series on the Evolution of Consciousness a while back on my main site – starts here: https://jessicadavidson.co.uk/2015/04/06/evolution-of-consciousness-how-to-grow-a-person/


Comments are closed.