Anyone who meditates, practices magick, or follows a path of energy work sooner or later finds themselves having a Dark Night of the Soul. The term comes from Saint John of the Cross’s 16th century poem of the same name, describing a Christian’s spiritual crisis during their journey towards union with God. The name is something of a misnomer, as that state of bleak depression can last for years. While Saint John was describing it from a Christian standpoint, the notion of finding oneself in a place where none of your previous experience is of any use to you is common to all spiritual paths. It can be particularly disconcerting to those of a Zen persuasion. Often, those who take up Zen meditation will discover to their delight that after a relatively short period of time they’ve become more peaceful, focused, and relaxed. They will, with the annoyingly tireless enthusiasm of the recently converted, begin to extol the virtues of meditation to everyone they come into contact with. However, after a while, the peace begins to wear off and new emotions start to emerge: feelings of sadness, anger, and frustration. Sitting down to meditate may stir up anxiety, making it difficult to sit. Most give up the practice at this point and begin telling everyone how Zen doesn’t really work or is just a short-term solution or that they didn’t have it in them to stay with it, it’s dangerous, blah, blah, blah.
What really happened is they achieved the next level on their journey and weren’t prepared to handle it. The late Dr. Glenn Morris liked to say that what we consider the ego, or socially learned self, is really just a collection of masks that we present to the world. Peel off one mask and there’s another, then another, and another. The goal is get past all those masks and achieve a relationship with the greater reality. Call it God, the Divine Will, the Holy Guardian Angel, Enlightenment, the Higher Self, or the Collective Unconscious, the name is irrelevant. All paths are designed to get us to the same state of mind, once you strip away the local flavors and political agendas. Beginning meditators usually do find it a tremendous relief to finally strip away the first few layers of their egos. The sensation can be very refreshing as trapped energy gets released and reintegrated. Eventually, however, pull away enough of the smiling, I’m-A-Good-Person-Just-Trying-To-Get-Along masks and you’ll uncover all the hidden negative emotions you’ve been trying not to think about: buried childhood resentments and frustrations, anger, hate, fears we thought we’d outgrown. Pandora’s Box gets thrown open and all that repressed negativity comes flying to the surface. The practitioner has just come face-to-face with what Carl Jung referred to as The Shadow and most folks find it overwhelming. If the person begins projecting their personal Shadow on the world around them, things can get damned scary. This is usually the time when the religious devotee starts examining the world and wondering why so many horrible things happen under the guidance of a supposed loving God. (Note, I differentiate The Dark Night of the Soul from getting tossed into what Robert Anton Wilson called Chapel Perilous. The Dark Night is precipitated by an internal shift that brings us in direct contact with our own Shadow self. Chapel Perilous is a bizarre frame of mind kicked off by contact with something perceived to be external to the self. Occultists often find themselves in Chapel Perilous after coming to the rather startling reality that magick actually works and can have very visible effect on one’s life).
So, how does one deal with the waking up one day in the throes of a Dark Night? In my fiction, I often have my characters deal with those harsh emotions by drowning them in whiskey and wild sex. In reality, such things are typically only a distraction not a cure-all. Confronting the Shadow is tough, but rewarding work. You either learn to embrace and take ownership of those dark emotions or back away and work on getting those ego masks back on. Embracing the Shadow doesn’t mean allowing those emotions to rule, but understanding that human beings are paradoxical creatures and negative emotions are just as important to living a full life as the positive ones. Balance is the goal. If your negative emotions are so strong they’re interfering with your daily life, then the help of a therapist, especially a Jungian, is invaluable. Realize that you have to pass through Hell to reach Heaven. Keep going no matter how rough it gets and you’ll eventually be rewarded with a much more profound peace than before, and a deeper understanding of how complex your persona really is. In Taoism, the dark side is the seat of true healing, creativity, and wisdom. Take what you learn from the Shadow and gratefully return to the light a wiser being. Practice the Secret Smile to keep the darker states from pulling you down into a black pit.
I’m a huge Star Wars fan, but I do have to acknowledge that George Lucas is largely responsible for introducing at least two generations to the notion that the Dark Side is a terrible thing, a path that only leads to hate and ruin. I would generally find this amusing, except the constant repetition of the idea has led some to mistake it for truth instead of a plot device. Certainly it plays into the Judeo-Christian motif of good vs evil. But let’s look at it from a different point of view. Psychologist Carl Jung theorized that we all have a Shadow, an inner darkness filled with all the painful emotions we don’t want to deal with in daily life. As a theoretical model, Jung’s work provide an excellent pathway for change. One of the most interesting things I discovered doing Shadow work is that embracing your inner darkness results in a deep sense of inner peace. Pop culture would have you believe that turning toward the dark will make you angry, violent, and emotionally unstable. In reality, it is the refusal to deal with your own darkness that creates those terrible states. This is why you so often see the deeply religious commit terrible crimes, despite peace and mercy being at the heart of their scriptures; they try to live up to an ideal that makes you less than human and repress everything that doesn’t jibe with that ideal.
Repressed emotions tend to express themselves in often uncontrollable ways. No matter how hard you try to live in the light, the shadow is always there. If you often find yourself saying things like, “I don’t know why I said/did that”, or “I’m so ashamed of myself for what I did”, or “I wish I wasn’t so anxious/fearful/angry all the time” then you have fallen prey to the shadow emotions lurking deep in your subconscious mind.
To embrace the dark side is to understand that you are a multi-layered being, a walking, talking paradox. You were not meant to join the “right wing” or “left wing”; to be a “light-sider or dark-sider”; to walk the “right hand path or the left hand path”. Peace comes from balance, which can only come from accepting the light and the dark. You are capable of the most beautiful ecstatic love and of committing the most heinous of atrocities. Most people, of course, shy away from either extreme and live mundane lives of luke-warm emotions. This behavior feeds the shadow: fear forces them to love in only the most shallow sense, to shy away from going for what they really want in life, to spend their days anxiously worrying making ends meet. A curious phenomenon that psychologists have noted is that repressed people rarely blame or rebel against the institutions that are repressing them. Instead, they direct their growing rage at the people who are living lives they secretly desire. It’s almost cliché that the people most violently opposed to homosexuality will one day be caught meeting a gay lover in secret. The misogynist fears the power women have over him. The current trend towards outrage in America reveals that repressing dark emotions is possible on a massive level. Donald Trump’s campaign has uncovered the ugly truth that America didn’t become less racist, misogynistic, or prejudice in the past few decades; it was just pretending it had. Under the surface, white America was seething at the idea of a black president, of a female CEO, of a gay married couple. This is what happens when the shadow is denied, when the darkness is pushed aside in favor of “living in the light”.
The most effective method I’ve seen for embracing and understanding the shadow comes from Connie Zwieg’s Romancing the Shadow. I highly recommend that you read it. She uses Greek and Arthurian mythology to help draw out the shadow archetypes that live in your subconscious mind and bring them into consciousness. Her methodology uses a visualization of King Arthur’s Round Table; the King/Queen’s chair is supposed to be occupied with your Higher Self (your Holy Guardian Angel in occult parlance). But, for most of us, a shadow element has taken over that spot and now dominates. Repression has allowed that process to take place. We don’t want to get “rid” of the shadow (which is impossible), we just want it to stop causing trouble. The idea is to listen to what the shadow is attempting to tell us, then encourage it to take a seat at the table. This way, it’s concerns are heard without being overpowering. At first, the shadow may be indistinct, a blur of darkness. But, as you work with it, it may sharpen into a character from mythology, a person from your past, or something else entirely.
I was, frankly, amazed at how powerful this “mere” visualized exercise really was. Emotional pains that I’d been holding onto for decades melted away in a few days. It’s amazing to think that a simple exercise in imagination can have far-reaching effects into behavior and mental state, but I can attest to the effectiveness. It’s not a panacea for every problem you have and it does take quite a bit of consistent effort.
In Taoism, the dark side or “Yin” is the seat of the feminine principle, and is associated with music, creativity, cold, and healing. It is considered the passive aspect, opposite and complimentary to Yang, the masculine light. As an energy source, it feels very cold, almost freezing (which is probably why the Sith wear heavy dark robes). Learning how to embrace your shadow enables the light to shine softer and more clearly. The goal of the mystic is to awaken the inner fire, a process that is greatly aided when you’re psychologically healthy.