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A dark night of the soul may feel amorphous, having no meaning, shape, or direction. It helps to have images for it and to know that people have gone through this experience and have survived it. The great stories and myths of many cultures also help by providing an imagination of human struggle that inspires and offers insight. One ancient story that sheds light on the dark night is the tale of the hero swallowed by a huge fish. The hero, or better, antihero-he is the victim of circumstances-simply sits in the bowels of the fish as it carries him through the water. Because the story is associated with the sun setting in the west and traveling underwater to the east to rise in the morning, this theme is sometimes called the "Night Sea Journey." It is a cosmic passage taken as a metaphor for our own dark nights, when we are trapped in a mood or by external circumstances and can do little but sit and wait for liberation.
Imagine that your dark mood, or the external source of your suffering, is a large, living container in which you are held captive. But this container is moving, getting somewhere, taking you to where you need to go. You may not like the situationyou're in, but it would help if you imagined it constructively. Maybe at this very minute you are on a night sea journey of your own.
Sometimes in your darkness you may sense that something is incubating in you or that you are being prepared for life. You are going somewhere, even though there are no external signs of progress. I have sat in therapy with many men and women who had no idea what was happening to them, as they felt pulled away from the joys of normal life. All they felt was bland, inarticulate confusion. Still, most were willing to sit with me, week after week, as, slowly, meaning began to emerge. Some from the beginning had the slightest hint that something creative was at work.
The whale's belly is, of course, a kind of womb. In your withdrawal from life and your uncertainty you are like an infant not yet born. The darkness is natural, one of the life processes. There may be some promise, the mere suggestion that life is going forward, even though you have no sense of where you are headed. It's a time of waiting and trusting. My attitude as a therapist in these situations is not to be anxious for a conclusion or even understanding. You have to sit with these things and in due time let them be revealed for what they are.
THE HERO-SUN AND THE SEA
The classic story of the night sea journey is the Biblical tale of Jonah. God called Jonah to tell the people of the city Nineveh that their evil ways were angering him, but Jonah tried to evade the call by sailing on a ship going to the distant city of Tarshish. A storm came up and the sailors discovered that Jonah was running away from his mission. To save themselves, they threw him overboard, and a great fish swallowed him. He was in the belly of the fish for three days and three nights before it spewed him up on land. Then God called him once more, and this time he responded.
In your dark night you may have a sensation you could call "oceanic"-being in the sea, at sea, or immersed in the waters of the womb. The sea is the vast potential of life, but it is also your dark night, which may force you to surrender some knowledge you have achieved. It helps to regularly undo the hard-won ego development, to unravel the self and culture you have woven over the years. The night sea journey takes you back to your primordial self, not the heroic self that burns out and falls to judgment, but to your original self, yourself as a sea of possibility, your greater and deeper being.
You may be so influenced by the modern demand to make progress at all costs that you may not appreciate the value in backsliding. Yet, to regress in a certain way is to return to origins, to step back from the battle line of existence, to remember the gods and spirits and elements of nature, including your own pristine nature, the person you were at the beginning. You return to the womb of imagination so that your pregnancy can recycle. You are always being born, always dying to the day to find the restorative waters of night.
The great Indian art theorist and theologian Ananda Coomaraswamy said, "No creature can attain a higher grade of nature without ceasing to exist." In the dark night something of your makeup comes to an end-your ego, your self, your creativeness, your meaning. You may find in that darkness a key to your source, the larger soul that makes you who you are and holds the secrets of your existence. It is not enough to rely on the brilliance of your learning and intellect. You have to give yourself receptively to the transforming natural powers that remain mysteriously dark.
A powerful example of this sea journey is the last year or so in the life of St. Thomas More of England. He was a lawyer, theologian, and highly cultured man condemned to death by King Henry VIII for not formally acknowledging the validity of the king's divorce. To do so would have been to contradict the teachings of his religion. More was held in a small, vaulted room in the Tower of London, a room unfurnished and whitewashed when I saw it, a womblike space that was a concrete metaphor for the terrible vessel in which More found himself. Standing in that room even today, you can imagine it as the inside of a great beast, and in that uterine space More polished his ideas and his conscience.
More's family, especially his dear and highly intelligent daughter Margaret, tried to convince him to agree to the king's wish. In one letter from the tower to her he uses Jonah imagery: "For myself, I most humbly beseech God to give me the grace patiently to conform my mind to his high pleasure, so that after the storm of this my tempestuous time, his great mercy may conduct me into the sure haven of the joyful bliss of heaven."
He wrote to Margaret that he couldn't sleep, thinking about the possible painful deaths he might face. He had "a heavy fearful heart." Yet, in the midst of this nightmare, he felt a deep peace because his conscience was clear. No one else might understand his position in relation to the king, but he had deep certainty based on his religious faith.
I know of no better example of an ordinary, life-loving person, in the midst of a terrible tempest, who could refrain from blaming his enemies and calmly counsel his friends and family. Thomas More was a Jonah figure who had to take time to understand what he was called to do. It went against everything he wanted and against all the affection in his heart. But he found inscrutable peace and grounding in his faith and belief. He took the time of his imprisonment to deepen his ideas and his conviction.
The lesson I take is that there is no loss too great or challenge too overwhelming, provided you are anchored in your vision and your values, while following your destiny. Up to the last minute More was tempted away from his choice, but the honing of his vision in prison allowed him to keep his values clear. He could be fearful and sad and yet be led by the clarity of his vision.
As with other examples in this book, More was an extraordinary man finding himself in extraordinary circumstances, and physically he didn't survive. You, too, may find yourself in a life-shaping drama of smaller proportions. There, in the midst of a tempest of your own, you may discover how to keep your vision clear and allow your own night journey to define your life.
NIGHT AND DAY
Think of a dark night as part of organic living. To avoid it would be like choosing only artificial food that never spoils. As a natural person, you are going to feel a wide range of emotions and go through many different kinds of experiences. Over the course of your lifetime, parts of you will grow and blossom, some will rot. To be sad, grieving, struggling, lost, or hopeless is part of natural human life. By riding the wave of your dark night, you are more yourself, moving toward who you are meant to be.
For a feeling of well-being, you have to shine, but your sparkle need not be superficial. It can rise up out of a deep place in you that is dark but has its own kind of light. Thomas Aquinas said that a central element in beauty is its splendor, but other writers-Beaudelaire, de Sade, Beckett, Sexton-include a dark luminosity, what the French psychoanalyst Julia Kristeva calls, following an ancient tradition, the Black Sun. Imagine a black sun at your core, a dark luminosity that is less innocent and more interesting than naove sunshine. That is one of the gifts a dark night has to offer you.
Humphrey Bogart was one of many actors to have this dark luminosity that shone through in his characters. In childhood his parents were alcoholic and addicted to morphine and spent a great deal of time away from him, when he was beaten by his caretakers. Later, as a hard-working contract actor, he played the part of many tough detectives and murderers, transforming his sadness and edginess into a form that worked perfectly for him. His insightful biographer Eric Lax says his effectiveness was due to his ability to "project a sense of something going on beneath the surface." He made his characters Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe "desirable and remote, both too cynical and too honorable to be true." I am not presenting Bogart as the ideal solution to a dark night, but as an example of how a person can at least make something positive out of dark experiences. Bogart once played the lead in a film called The King of the Underworld, the perfect image for his fate. He played the social underworld well in his films because he knew the emotional underworld from his childhood.
Both in his childhood and in his servitude to the studio system, Bogart went through strenuous dark nights. Paradoxically, it was the darkness of character created by those torments that made him successful, indeed, made him a figure of myth who endures today. He offers a good example of a person not actually overcoming his captors but outshining them.
Being shaped by your darkness, like the captive Jonah, you become the sun rising out of the night water. You are always being reborn, always slipping back into the sea. Your dark night may feel stagnant and unrhythmical, but it has its subtle movements. T. S. Eliot describes the movements of life and death, light and darkness, as a Chinese jar moving perpetually in its stillness. The movement in your darkness may be difficult to sense, but it may be present nonetheless. You may not be advancing, but you are in quiet motion. There you are, suffering your fate, stuck in some container that keeps your precious life at bay, and there you have a special beauty, a pulse that can be felt only in the dark.
THE SPECIAL LANGUAGE OF THE NIGHT SEA
In your dark night you may learn a secret hidden from modern people generally: the truth of things can only be expressed aesthetically-in story, picture, film, dance, music. Only when ideas are poetic do they reach the depths and express the reality. In his highly original essay "The Poet," Ralph Waldo Emerson says that the poet "stands one step nearer to things" and "turns the world to glass." You don't have to write poetry, but you need an appreciation for story, image, and symbol. It would help to get beyond the modern habit of giving value only to facts. You could educate yourself in the arts and in the great stories and images of the world's religions. Bogart fulfilled himself, complete with his anxieties and anger, in front of a camera. You can do it when you find your medium for self-expression. It might be nothing more than telling a good story to your friends. You may discover a talent for a particular mode of expression-an art, a craft, even a sport.
One hundred years after Emerson, another New England poet, Wallace Stevens, described the poet, perhaps borrowing Emerson's imagery, as "a man of glass, who in a million diamonds sums us up." You have that capacity within you to be the poet to your experience. Your dark night may help make you into a person of glass, transparent and readable. You have to learn how to "sum up" your experience in images that convey your personal truth. I do it by writing books on subjects that I wrestle with personally. Many people write songs, poems, and stories. Some, less obviously, make gardens.
Everyone around you expects you to describe your experience in purely personal or medical terms. In contemporary society we believe that psychological and medical language best conveys the experience we have of a dark night. You are depressed and phobic; you have an anxiety disorder or a bad gene. But perceptive thinkers of other periods and places say that good, artful, sensuous, and powerful words play a central role in the living out of your dark night. Consider this possibility: It would be better for you to find a good image or tell a good story or simply speak about your dark night with an eye toward the power and beauty of expression.
Poetic language is suited to the night sea journey, because the usual way of talking is heroic. We naturally speak of progress, growth, and success. Even "healing" may be too strong a word for what happens in the soul's sea of change. The language of popular psychology tends to be both heroic and sentimental. You conquer your problems and aim at personal growth and wholeness. An alternative is to have a deeper imagination of who you are and what you are going through. That insight may not heal you or give you the sense of being whole, but it may give you some intelligence about life.
The quality of your language is significant. In your dark night, try speaking in story and images. Resist the attempt to explain, defend, and interpret. Use metaphors and symbols. Many people say, for instance, that they feel like a volcano about to explode. That is a strong image, but it's a bit overused. Look for your own images that very specifically describe what is going on. A woman once told me that every day she found it difficult to believe that the sun would rise. I have never forgotten that simple image because it conveys so clearly the worry about whether life would continue.
One of the best models for using poetic language for times of dismay is Emily Dickinson. Her letters tell of many tragedies and losses in her life, and almost every one contains a brief poem and a sentence or two that captures the very depth of what has happened. For example, when the friend she loved more than any other, Judge Lord, died, she wrote to her cousins:
Each that we lose takes part of us;
A crescent still abides,
Which like the moon, some turbid night,
Is summoned by the tides.
You don't have to write actual poems, but you could learn from Dickinson to formulate your experience in language that captures its essence, linking it up meaningfully with the rest of your life.
Excerpted from Dark Nights of the Soul by Thomas Moore Copyright © 2005 by Thomas Moore. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted June 5, 2004
'Every human life is made up of the light and the dark, the happy and the sad, the vital and the deadening. How you think about this rhythm of moods makes all the difference. Are you going to hide out in self-delusion and distracting entertainments? Are you going to become cynical or depressed? Or are you going to open your heart to a mystery that is as natural as the sun and the moon, day and night, and summer and winter?' The above quotation is the crucial question in Thomas Moore's sequel to his best-selling and ultimately helpful 'Care of the Soul.' Read in his soothing, contemplative voice it is a challenge to all for everyone of us experiences times of grief, suffering, disappointment, and failure. Rather than reject these experiences, try to avoid them or get through them as quickly as possible, Moore, a former Catholic monk who became a therapist, suggests that we see them as opportunities for personal and spiritual growth. Not an easy task you say. I quite agree. Yet, as Moore speaks from his personal life, cites case studies, and presents stories from art, literature, and mythology, listeners may find both encouragement and strength.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.