The Difference Between Dark Night of the Soul, Dark Night of the Spirit, and Clinical Depression
Before I can go into my topic, I have to explain the symbolism of the cross. I know some people of my denomination don’t like the cross but I think that this is a gross misunderstanding of it’s symbolism. The cross is an ancient alchemical symbol of a process of embarking on the great spiritual work. The horizontal bar represents where we live and exist on earth. It is our human, incarnate, earthly, physical life. The vertical bar represents the spiritual real and our travels up and down in the vertical as well as the path that the kundalini takes as it rises. Where horizontal and vertical meet is is where heaven and earth meet. It is a great symbol on so many levels for Jesus Christ and who He was and what He stood for and what he did--He ascended above all and descended below all.
[Just a side note: Putting a representation of the dead or dying Jesus on the cross is a whole different symbol. That is no longer a cross, it is a crucifix. I am not a fan of the crucifix, but I can understand why some people might relate to it and find it useful.]
So now that I’ve covered that, lets talk more about the dark night of the soul and then, the dark night of the spirit.
When you first embark on the spiritual work, you experience ascending. You start making trips to the upper vertical (remember the visual of the cross). This is what happens when you start to meditate and your subtle perceptions open. You en-light-en. You begin to engage with lighter beings. It’s a whole new world of experiences and feels really good. (There are some things to watch out for—like getting lost in an area that is not actually the vertical but a sort of fantasy distraction fake vertical realm, but that’s for a whole different post.)
Sometimes, especially when we are new at ascending, we find that it’s hard to adjust back to the horizontal life.
What you mean I still have to vacuum my couch? I was just talking to Archangel Michael and having a new heart put in by Mary Magdaline.
Or as Edmund says in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (one of The Chronicles of Narnia): “I’m a King! I’ve led armies! I’m fought wars!” He was frustrated because his vertical experience was lifetimes worth, but his horizontal age was 16 and he could not enlist in the army. He was stuck sharing a room with his cousin Eustace.
What’s really going is that that as we ascend more and more often, our old ideas and ambitions and desires begin to become obsolete. But we can’t let go of them on our own. And so, what happens then is, at some point, we must descend to the lower vertical where they can be transmuted.
To be clear, the lower vertical is not hell. It is Heaven South. This is where those obsolete ambitions and desires can be transmuted with help from beings there. To get to the upper vertical, you need levity, to get the lower vertical takes gravity. The lower vertical is heavy. It feels dark. And it is. It is in the dark that the substance must ferment and become putrefied.
That might sound awful, and it feels awful when you are in it, but it is a part of the alchemical process—which is the process of turning base materials (you/your heart) into gold. Actually, you are not gold, but you become the necessary ingredient to make the gold. You can think of this symbolically if you wish.
We find ourselves in the lower vertical when the suffering of ordinary horizontal life makes us heavy. The soul uses this suffering to give us the gravity needed to descend. To the outside observer, a dark night of the soul might seem like depression. Our senses darken, we lose interest in horizontal life. We feel not totally human. We are more interested in the subtle realms, which can seem more real to us, but then we remember we are living on earth, which to our pure spirits feels like a demonic awful realm. In this state it is difficult to care about anything much.
I assure you, this is part of the spiritual process –at least for anyone who embarks on the deep inner work of spiritual growth and not just the exoteric, outer rituals and habits. You will find this process described in many mystic and religious works. It’s not a new thing. Every great spiritual teacher has been through a dark night of the soul, probably several of them to rise to the level that they attained. I have written about this before in different words. Just a few examples from the scriptures are: Job--talk about heavy. And Jeremiah. Did you know that the word jeremiad in the English language got its origins from this biblical chapter: It is defined as: “a long mournful complain or lamentation; a list of woes.”
It is clear from history and his writings and also his suspension of writing that Joseph Smith went through several dark nights of the soul. I think of Joseph in Egypt, rotting in prison. And I think of Alma or Mormon or Moroni, or Eve, or Leah or Rachel or Mary watching in anguish as the people who they loved made bad choices, or didn’t, but suffered anyway. These were all fodder for a dark night of the soul.
How does a dark night of the soul end?
One day you wake up and you find that you are human again. You smell the flowers and they smell heavenly. You can engage with the world in a new way. This re- assimilation can’t really be taught. It just happens.
How long does it last? That depends. Partly on each soul’s journey and also how you treat it. You can only go through it to know how long it lasts.
How to treat a dark night of the soul:
The dark night of the soul is a time to just be still and let yourself be worked on. The best thing to do in this phase is what we most want to do, lie low and keep quiet. Maintain inner silence. A daily discipline of meditation whether you feel like it or not will serve you well in a dark night of the soul. But don’t expect the fireworks like you may have experienced at other times. Accept the small graces when they come. Even if you feel nothing, keeping going will serve and abet the process.
Why would anyone consent to something like this you ask? The soul consents because it is needed for our resurrection into a whole new level of being. Here is what St. John of the Cross wrote about the Dark Night of the Soul:
Oh night that guided me, Oh night more lovely than the dawn,
Oh night that joined Beloved with lover, Lover transformed into the Beloved!
Of course, he did not write this or even think this in the moment--this was after the fact. But the truth is when we come out of a dark night, we might also feel the urge to write poetry. After a dark night we find, that life is more beautiful, more joyful and we find that it is easier for us to be human. Also some flaw we wished to shed is gone or some attribute we had longed for is now ours.
If you are wondering about the difference between depression and dark night of the soul, you can always try the advice above and see if it helps. If you are not depressed but just fermenting, then lying low and wrapping yourself up in restful silence will feel wonderful and just what is needed. Also, if the other symptoms of clinical depression are absent (anxious, hopeless, self-hating, fixated on the past, etc.) and physically feel pretty much like your normal self, then it is probably not depression. Though you should not take any of this as medical advice.
Now, lets move on to the DARK NIGHT OF THE SPIRIT. I put it in all caps to give you that ominous feeling.
Most people on the spiritual path have heard of the dark night of the soul, but until a couple of years ago I had not heard of the dark night of the spirit, nor did I understand the difference. Here is the essential difference:
A dark night of the spirit happens only to those who are already familiar with the dark night of the soul and have learned to recover and return to the horizontal with greater ease. So if you have already had a dark night of the soul or two you might be a candidate for a dark night of the spirit. So take it as a compliment. Even though it brutally sucks.
While the dark night of the soul is a decent from the horizontal into the lower vertical, a dark night of the spirit, is a descent from the upper vertical into the lower vertical. It’s a terrifying plunge from a great height. It is devastatingly dark. Even St. John of the Cross, who seemed like an optimist a minute ago called the dark night of the spirit “awful, terrible, horrible.”
During a dark night of the spirit all communication with spirit is cut off. You are totally alone with your thoughts and they are probably not pretty. It feels like one has lost all ability to receive revelation, inspiration or even feel the love of the lighter beings and the love of God. This creates a lot of distress, doubt, and feelings of abandonment. It is lonely, full of self-reproach. One may wonder if they have sinned, or if they are not worthy of the companionship of the lighter beings. One may even doubt that any of those revelations or spiritual manifestations actually happened or if they were mere illusions. Even the greatest devotee may toy with atheism in this stage.
I feel like all the great masters have been through this. Even Jesus Christ on the cross cried out: “Father, why hast thou forsaken me!” In that moment of anguish he was expressing what everyone feels in a dark night of the spirit. And this is why he knows how to succor us. Even if you can’t feel Him during your dark night of the spirit, he is the one who “descended below all” so if you are wondering who those “heavier” beings are in the lower vertical who are working on you—well He is one.
While a meditation practice or reading spiritual literature may have served you in a dark night of the soul, it will only make things worse in a dark night of the spirit. Those things that once brought light (the trusted and tried spiritual prescriptions) will make a person feel worse in a dark night of a spirit. It might feel a bit like having your eyeballs pecked out by vultures.
Not understanding this can create a lot of tension for family members or friends who are observing and wanting to help. From their experience, they know praying and going to the temple works, but this is because they haven’t been through a dark night of the spirit. I had this experience with a friend a few years back. I must have seemed pretty harsh telling her to just try harder. Mediate longer. In fact, this is the opposite of what a person should do in the dark night of the spirit.
The best thing to do in a dark night of the spirit is to avoid reading spiritual literature and avoid or minimize meditation and yoga and do minimal church and temple and pretty much anything spiritual (if you do it anyway to keep up appearances you will get the eyeballs pecked out feeling) and just do mindless things that entertain. When it happened to me not long ago I could only sit in a hammock and read a novel. (Unfortunately, even though I knew about the dark night of the spirit, I didn’t recognize I was in one at the time--one has no perspective when there.) But luckily I had a supportive person who recognized it as a kind of burnout and told me to take it easy, eat cake and read fiction. What an inspired relief society president. Wahe Guru! I expected her to tell me to work harder.
Reading a novel worked wonders because it was the exact thing to help the process. Of course, I stubbornly kept up my practice, because I have such a strong habit (or just a high tolerance for eyeball pecking feelings), but my practice was minimal in the extreme.
Why does something this sucky happen to people, especially when they are starting to feel advanced on the path?
The truth is, you are sent down, lovingly, and agree to being sent down (although you don’t remember agreeing in the moment) because some changes made in the above need to have corresponding changes in the below.
Here is an example. Perhaps while above you seen some truth and want to be it, but you can’t yet. You can wish for it and imagine it but you can’t yet be it because you can’t will it. You need help.
Catherine MacCoun says:
“The realignment of the will needs outside help, and this help is found where the will itself is found, in the below of the human being. It is a bit like going through surgery. The doctors would prefer that you were unconscious, not only to spare you pain, but because your conscious participation would only get in the way…. They need you to just go to sleep and let them get on with their work.” (MacCoun, 207)
So you get out of the way. You read a novel. You try not to talk to people too much. The disinclination to express one’s self or listen to others is normal during a dark night of the soul or spirit. This pandemic has been a great opportunity. A lot of people had a clear schedule and the soul may have taken advantage and scheduled a dark night of some kind for you.
If you or someone you love is going through a dark night of the spirit, the worst thing to do encourage them to do some kind of take charge of your life program. Just let them be worked on.
A note on depression: The dark night of the spirit definitely looks and feels like depression. Some main differences are: the onset of a dark night of the spirit is usually sudden, not gradual like depression. Also, with dark night of the spirit, there is often nothing to point to in the horizontal that was the cause. You were on a spiritual high and then suddenly you are in the canyon of doom.
Another difference is sleep. Clinically depressed people don’t sleep well—they have bad dreams or insomnia or sleep disturbance. Fermenting people sleep well. Have good dreams or no dreams and look forward to going to bed. But this is a generalization and not advice.
One other important thing: a fermenting person in a dark night of the spirit won’t have suicidal thoughts. Suicidal thoughts should be addressed by a professional.
What is accomplished by this dark night of the spirit? The same as a dark night of the soul, only to a greater degree. The attribute or behavior we were trying to achieve but couldn’t becomes ours. Or you know something you didn’t know before. We find ourselves changed for the better. We have been given a new heart (with less ego or judgment or unrighteous desires) and new spiritual power. And joy of living! It is not till you come out of the dark night of the spirit that you realize why you (your spirit) agreed to it in the first place. You may have new clarity and intuition and knowing. And you didn’t have to try.
I hope this helps someone out there and if you want to discuss it more at length with me or need more resources, feel free to reach out to me in the comments. They are moderated so send me your email if you want. Have a great day. Sat nam!
I have assembled this information from life experiences, talking to others on the path, reading the diaries of the great saints and spiritual sages and from Catherine MacCoun’s chapter “Fermentation” in On Becoming and Alchemist. I am deeply grateful for her work.