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The Dark Night of the Soul: Does My Pain have a Purpose?

Healing, Inspiring, Life LessonsGuest Writer

Are you Depressed, or are you Walking a Spiritual Path Without Even Knowing it? 

by Giulio Pietro Benati, reposted with permission translated from Italian

In your life, you have probably experienced a “bad day” in which you are sad, irritable, or lazy. Sometimes, this condition persists and before you realize it, one bad day becomes a week…then a month…until it somehow becomes your normal state.

For no apparent reason, your mood gets worse by the day and at a certain point, you find yourself locked in your house, plagued by negative thoughts, and without any energy. Life has no meaning and you see it more as a burden than as a joy.

Real crisis is one of the worst experiences you can have: you feel hopeless, without resources, completely incapable to deal with life and people. You are too weak to engage any activity—physical or mental—everything has very little importance… In fact, the worst thing is that nothing seems interesting or pleasurable. You are depressed, and you feel like a failure. You are angry at the world and isolation seems the only possible solution for this condition. So, you hide yourself away in a state of complete apathy.

Western medicine considers depression a disease and it tries to heal it with psychotherapy and medications to balance the levels of serotonin in the blood.

Depression: An Ancient, Yet New, Perspective

There is another way of looking at depression: many spiritual masters consider this state an opportunity to look inside. When you are depressed, feeling isolated, and having difficulties dealing with yourself, you develop a natural impulse to bring your attention inward. According to this perspective, people who suffer from depression have a better chance to evolve spiritually than those who are happy with their lives. The state of melancholy can be a big push to ask yourself the fundamental questions which are the core of any genuine spiritual path: Where do I come from? What am I doing here? Who am I?

Mysticism and Depression

There are a large number of mystics, from a wide range of traditions, who considered depression a source of spiritual transformation. St. John of the Cross, a Christian ascetic who lived in the 16th century, argued that the person walking the spiritual path has to pass through a “Dark Night of the Soul” before reaching God. During this stage, in order to look for the Spirit, the seeker detaches from the world and loses interest in material things. Suddenly, everything that had previously provided pleasure and joy generates the exact opposite feelings (disgust, loathing, etc.). It feels like God and the world have abandoned the practitioner, and nothing in life seems to make sense anymore. Everything is so futile, shallow, purposeless…

“And thus He leaves them so completely in the dark that they know not whither to go with their sensible imagination and meditation; for they cannot advance a step in meditation, as they were wont to do afore time, their inward senses being submerged in this night, and left with such dryness that not only do they experience no pleasure and consolation in the spiritual things and good exercises wherein they were wont to find their delights and pleasures, but instead, on the contrary, they find insipidity and bitterness in the said things.” St. John of the Cross, Dark Night of the Soul

According to St. John of the Cross, this state is fundamental, and even beneficial, in the search for God. The “Dark Night” is an obligatory step—looking inside for answers, letting the fundamental questions arise, detaching completely from the superfluous, and caring only about the essential. When the seeker finally finds what is sought, the “Dark Night” of depression turns into a “peaceful night, abyssal and dark divine intelligence.”

Most of the great spiritual masters had to go through this path of suffering before reaching the apex of the spiritual path.

Contemporary mystic, Advaita Vedanta master, and bestselling author Eckhart Tolle had to pass through the “Dark Night” described by St. John of the Cross.

According to Tolle, it was exactly this constant state of depression that awakened in him the fundamental questions and brought a deeper understanding about himself, his life, and his mission on Earth.

“Until my thirtieth year of life, I lived in a state of almost continuous anxiety interspersed with periods of suicidal depression. It feels now as if I am talking about some past lifetime or somebody else’s life.” — Eckhart Tolle,The Power of Now

I guarantee you that, at the end of this difficult phase, life will continue to go on as joyfully as before. The difference will be an increased awareness of yourself. The path along the winding road that you are walking will have taught you so much. You will have asked yourself questions and somehow, you will have found answers (or perhaps, you will have received them).

When you are without energy or enthusiasm, or in the middle of an acute crisis of sadness and melancholy, I suggest that you try to keep the attitude that Rumi (the 13th century philosopher, mystic, and important exponent of Sufism) suggested in this poem:

“This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.”

— Rumi The Guest House

Instead of considering depression a disease, try to consider it an honorable guest, as Rumi says.

What if our negative emotions were really sent from beyond, from our innermost self? Wouldn’t it be worth listening to them?

The next time one of these “guests” knocks on your door, simply try to invite it in. Give it the most comfortable chair and listen to the stories that it has to tell you. You might be surprised by what it has to say! This may not be easy or pleasant, of course, but try to do it. If you can manage, it might be the beginning of a profound transformation for you, which could bring marvelous gifts.


Giulio Pietro Benati | Yogi & Teacher

Giulio is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and the founder of Il Giornale dello Yoga, an Italian-language online yoga magazine.

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