Understanding The Dark Night Of The Soul (+ How To Get Through It)
Every spiritual journey has its share of ups and downs, and when things reach their lowest, it's known as the "dark night of the soul." While never easy, the dark night of the soul is an essential part of spiritual awakenings and is sure to teach you some hard-fought lessons.
Here's what spirituality and mental health experts want you to know about the dark night of the soul's six distinct stages and how to get through them stronger than ever.
What is the dark night of the soul?
The concept of the dark night of the soul was first coined in a poem by Saint John of the Cross, a 16th-century Spanish mystic and poet. The idea of a spiritual depression, however, is a part of many different spiritual and religious traditions, including Buddhism, where it's referred to as "falling into the pit of the void."
According to Anna Yusim, M.D., a psychiatrist and the author of Fulfilled: How the Science of Spirituality Can Help You Live a Happier, More Meaningful Life, "The dark night of the soul is essentially any time when our darkness comes to the forefront. It's as if we are doing everything we can to stay afloat, and it seems as if the universe, the world, and life is against us."
Yusim adds that the dark night of the soul will often involve suffering, setbacks, and obstacles. Nevertheless, she says, "Oftentimes, a dark night of the soul is a necessary part of people's spiritual evolution."
As Shannon Kaiser, spiritual teacher and author of Return to You, tells mbg, "It often happens to guide us to find our purpose in life, pay back or balance karma, and understand deep karmic and spiritual lessons. The dark night of the soul is a breaking away from the illusions of fear and ego to shift our alignment and values to what is real and true, the connection to the divine, and ultimately pave the way for your life purpose and mission here on Earth."
Depression vs. the dark night of the soul.
There can definitely be an overlap between depression and the dark night of the soul, but they are not synonymous. Someone going through a dark night of the soul may be depressed and vice versa—but not necessarily.
According to Kaiser, for one thing, depression is a mental health disorder, while a dark night of the soul is a spiritual desolation. "The dark night of the soul is more localized to feeling distressed and disoriented in our relationship with the bigger meaning to life and the creator," she says, adding it affects one's worldview, beliefs, perspective, habits, thoughts, and relationships. "It wakes one up to life," she notes.
Stages of the dark night of the soul.
Stage 1: Major disruption or triggering event(s)
The dark night of the soul often begins with some sort of trigger or disruption that you're unprepared for in some way. Kaiser also calls this stage "The Roller coaster" and describes it as an existential crisis due to intense pain caused by outside disruption you have no control over. This could be, but is not limited to, the death of a loved one, extreme poverty, or an illness, betrayal, injustice, abuse, job loss, and so on.
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Stage 2: Loss of direction and hope
Following the initial trigger, as the dark night of the soul sets in, so, too, does despair and hopelessness. As Kaiser explains, you may feel as if life, and specifically the life you've been living, is meaningless during this stage.
Think of the journey through the dark night as an inverted bell curve—rather than peaking high up in the middle, this journey leads you down, down, down to the depths, which brings us to the next stage.
Stage 3: Rock bottom
The entire dark night of the soul is not easy, but at rock bottom (or the bottom of the aforementioned inverted bell curve) it's going to feel like a breaking point or threshold of pain. Kaiser says this is typically the darkest time in someone's life.
You may become emotionally numb, lose friends and family, isolate, and/or numb through addictions during this time, she notes, adding, "Often in this phase, family and friends abandon us. This phase turns into the darkest hours of our life, but it will also teach us a valuable lesson if we are open to receive it."
Stage 4: Waking up to the truth
There is light on the other side of rock bottom—and a steady climb up that bell curve we keep mentioning—in order to return to a sense of wholeness. After your darkest hours, Kaiser says, you begin waking up to the truth, which won't be easy.
This stage can include physical symptoms of stress such as headaches, nausea, and body aches, and even psychological and emotional manifestations, according to Kaiser. "One will have the opportunity to go deeply into themselves because it's an inner journey back to source. You will finally be ready to face 'what is' instead of running away from it and wake up to the greater meaning to your life and it all," she says.
And as Yusim adds, the dark night of the soul will accentuate what you need to release or otherwise transform.
Stage 5: Spiritual study
With your newfound knowledge of self and your purpose, then begins the fifth stage of spiritual study and attaining balance. As Kaiser explains, "After you've discovered your life purpose, you will start laying the foundations of the life that you are truly meant to live."
You may become more curious and drawn to spiritual teachers and guides at this time, and you'll slowly but surely start to act like a creator and build the life you want, she adds.
Stage 6: Authentic living
And finally, as your dark night of the soul comes to a close, you'll discover a sense of peace, understanding, and wholeness that has previously felt lost. Kaiser notes you'll know you're in the final stage of the dark night of the soul when you have a greater understanding of life's bigger picture, the lessons you've learned, and the wounds you've healed.
"So we've transformed our perspective, and then we transform the pain and suffering into wisdom, which enables us to move forward and have even more light to share with the world by virtue of having gone through that experience," Yusim explains.
In this stage, you'll be in a place where you no longer lean on dysfunctional, old patterns (both personal and generational), and you feel guided to live with more purpose and passion. You will also be inclined to be in service of others rather than self, Kaiser says.
How do I get out of the dark night of the soul?
While the dark night of the soul is anything but easy, Kaiser and Yusim recommend seeing it as an opportunity for growth and remembering that it won't last forever.
"Ask yourself what you need to feel grounded, to feel whole, to feel connected, to feel productive, to feel purposeful—and then do precisely that," Yusim says, adding that it's about "recognizing what you need and taking the best care of yourself possible. Self-care is a huge part of that."
Kaiser adds that you'll also want to trust your intuition, as well as spiritual guidance you receive. "The key is being willing to integrate the lessons and move on with serenity. The more open you are to change, the more you are likely to end your dark night of the soul sooner," Kaiser tells mbg.
According to Yusim, looking for the lesson that the dark night is trying to teach you will also be very helpful. "In every darkness, there is a diamond, and it's always about looking for that diamond," she says. "Sometimes the diamond presents itself and is readily available, but sometimes you really have to dig to see it, and create the narrative, and construct the meaning that you're going to take from that experience."
Don't try to control or resist your journey. As Kaiser explains, ego and a need for control is the biggest barrier to getting out of the dark night of the soul. "If you are someone who likes to be in control of things and fight the direction the universe presents to you, you may end up facing the same situations over and over again, until you learn the lesson and align with your ultimate purpose," she explains.
And for what it's worth, she adds, the bigger the ego, the more difficulty you'll have, "because [big egos] fail to have faith in what the universe brings and don't trust anything outside themselves."
Additionally, Kaiser and Yusim both stress the importance of not running away from yourself during this time. "There's some reprioritizing that needs to happen. Some people try to run away from their darkness, but you really can't run away from yourself," Yusim says.
Some people try to run away from their darkness, but you really can't run away from yourself.
Kaiser also notes to do your best not to numb or turn to old patterns of addiction, such as sex, substances, binge-eating, overspending, etc., since "the dark night of the soul is urging you to look at the patterns and behaviors that caused these, so you can break free and step into a healthier version of your highest vibrational self."
"Don't run from the pain," she reiterates. "Allow for it, feel it, know it won't last forever. Do not spiritually bypass your feelings—make sure you feel all the emotions coming up."
What to do once the dark night of the soul ends.
The good news is, once you've reached the dawn of your dark night, what to do next will likely be obvious. In fact, because the nature of this time period is to awaken you to your true purpose, the question of what to do is exactly the point.
As Kaiser explains, "The other side of the dark night of the soul is authentic alignment, awareness, peace and heart-based living allowing for true happiness. Many step into their true purpose and live with more purpose and joy, and their life becomes more rich and rewarding."
After all, Yusim notes, "The purpose of the dark night of the soul is to make us bigger, feel more at home, expanded, stronger—and able to give more light to the world."
What are the signs of spiritual awakening?
Signs of a spiritual awakening include but are not limited to: Feeling detached, reevaluating your beliefs, more synchronicities, heightened spiritual awareness and intuition, heightened compassion, and isolation.
Check out our full guide to spiritual awakenings for more information.
How long is the dark night of the soul?
The duration of the dark night of the soul is different from person to person, according to Kaiser. "Some go through multiple dark nights of the soul at different phases of their life—it all depends on how old your soul is, what truths you need to wake up to, how much karma you have to pay, and what lessons you have to learn," she explains.
What are the symptoms of the dark night of the soul?
Signs or symptoms of a dark night of the soul include spiritual depression, feeling hopeless, feeling isolated, questioning everything about yourself and your life, and searching for a sense of purpose, meaning, and/or belonging.
The dark night of the soul is quite literally the darkest point in one's spiritual journey, but rest assured it will never be for naught. As the pioneering psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross once said, "The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss, and have found their way out of those depths." And while the depths of the darkness may feel all-consuming at times, there is hope and wholeness on the other side.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.