“Are we all going through a dark night of the soul?” he said. “That’s what one of my teachers said last week.”
I have pondered that question for a month and have decided that I disagree. I do believe that we are all suffering, whether conscious of this fact or not. But we are not all going through a spiritual dark night. In fact, far from it. Over time, I’ve come to believe that there are four main responses to this pandemic time: Delusion, Denial, Depression, and Dark Night. I don’t want to claim that we’re all one or the other, simply that these categories might be helpful ways to check in on ourselves as we live these difficult times.
There are those among us who have responded to this time by sinking deeply into delusion. Whether fed by the right or the left, many of us have come to believe that most other people are wicked, duped, or part of a vast conspiracy of corruption and domination. We are aided and abetted in our delusions by the way that the social media operate (algorithms that feed us more of the same kind of thing we just looked at); by our evolutionary physiology (which predisposes us to expect the worst); and by our psychological need for control (which keeps us scanning the worst of the worst so that we are “prepared” for what is coming).
Whether delusion is perpetrated by the self—in a vain attempt to control the oh-so-unpredictable future—or by others—and yes, I do admit that some people are using this time to grab power—it renders us unable to work together. Delusion sets tests—Do you believe what I believe?—and if the other doesn’t pass the test, they are automatically relegated to the realm of less-than-human. This is the precursor for violence and injustice.
When I’m in delusion, I might actually feel pretty good. Since I’ve got the world figured out, I’m convinced of my own righteousness. That’s a heady place. I’m back in control. But the people around you may feel horrid, since you no longer treat them as deserving your respect and consideration.
If you find yourself having thoughts about other groups of people—like a close relative who recently told me that she is certain that everyone on the “other side” is corrupt—you might want to catch your breath and open your mind and heart to something other than your own certainty.
My personal favourite! Denial tells me that if I just put my head down and eat a little more, or watch another movie, or drink a little more, I won’t have to feel.
Denial differs from delusion in that denial doesn’t admit that there’s a problem. “This is how l prefer to live my life anyway,” “I don’t really think things are that bad”: these are the remarks that roll off my lips when I’m in denial. In denial, I’m not viewing anyone else as the enemy, I’m just not seeing anyone else at all. Two million people dead? Kids in my community without food? Rising numbers of white supremacists? Hey, I’ve got chocolate and a book.
I want to freely admit that I engage in denial regularly—every day, for that matter. I don’t know how I would survive if I didn’t let my overburdened psychic and emotional systems rest. We all need to shut the door on the suffering and confusion for a while. The amount of information and change that we are all facing is enormous and exhausting.
But when we find ourselves nailing the door after we’ve shut it, or engaging in really lovely things like meditation or a good chocolate bar compulsively—as a way to stuff those feelings into a dark, secure corner—that’s denial.
Where delusion blames, denial is blind. Other beings aren’t evil: they’re wallpaper which we feel free to ignore. When I’m in the grips of denial, it feels like numbness to me; for the people around me, it feels like I am unwilling to engage. My denial makes others feel incredibly lonely.
Sometimes depression and a spiritual dark night get confused. In both of these states, we feel the loss of pleasure. We are overwhelmed with a sense of our inadequacy. And both are deeply painful times. But there are two huge differences: humour and compassion.
When I’m mired in a depression, I am incapable of humour. I sure as hell can’t poke fun at myself; the only thing resembling laughter is sarcasm. I turn away from the comic side of life, dwelling in a bitterness that is infectious. One psychologist said that you can diagnose depression by how you feel after you’ve been with someone who’s depressed: depleted, deflated.
When I’m depressed, I am not only incapable of joy; I am also incapable of seeing anyone’s pain but my own. If I do happen to observe someone else’s pain, I translate it into something that’s about me, like when I convince myself that I am so exquisitely and uniquely sensitive that I can’t even bear to hear about others’ suffering. My compassion is non-existent.
Depression is a profoundly painful state for any person. While denial and delusion might actually feel okay, depression doesn’t. We might need medication to free us up to do the work we need to do.
And as in delusion and denial, depression is painful for the people around me. Depression is, ultimately, all about me. Other people constitute the wallpaper in the room; but this wallpaper is mirrored, forever reflecting me back at myself. It’s lonely and exhausting for those around us.
I’m not going to distinguish between dark night of the senses and dark night of the spirit except to say that in the first, we lose pleasure in outer things and in the second, we lose pleasure in inner things. That constitutes a real difference in spiritual terms; but in day-to-day functioning, I think it’s safe to say that dark nights do involve loss of meaning, loss of joy and loss of certainty. Doubt and self-doubt are regular visitors, as is deep sorrow.
But if I’m experiencing a dark night, I will still able to see the comic side of life. I will be capable of laughter. I may feel deeply the sadness, confusion, and horror of these times—and I may not expect things to get much better. But I can laugh, and most often at myself. I take myself lightly.
Even more certainly, I will be capable of compassion. The dark night does not reduce the capacity to care for others; it increases that capacity. In fact, some days caring for others may be the only thing that relieves the suffering of having lost my bearings.
Dark nights don’t involve a diminution of self, but rather a shift in focus away from the ego. I may no longer have the consolation of feeling like I’m a good person or experiencing closeness to the “god” that I used to know so intimately. But daily life will be filled with the awareness of the preciousness of all life.
A dark night is the only one of these responses which doesn’t dehumanize other people. We may be suffering, but we will not add to the burdens of our community. We may even lighten those burdens.
Where delusion makes the “other” an enemy, denial makes the “other” into wallpaper, and depression reduces the “other” to my mirror, the dark night heightens our connections to all living beings. In a dark night, I feel deeply the sorrow—as well as the joy—of the other. It may be dark in here, but it’s full of love.
I think it’s worth keeping track where I am on this spectrum of responses. These are parlous and uncertain times and it’s difficult to keep our feet underneath us. It’s not particularly helpful to wallow in self-hate because I’m paranoid sometimes, or checked out sometimes, or bitter sometimes. I will be all of these things until I am an ascended saint! No one I know is so evolved that they don’t slide around in terms of mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
But if I pay attention, I will notice when I’m slipping into thoughts and behaviours that are less than helpful to my own soul and to the world around me. Am I creating an alternative reality that must be defended? Am I lost in numbness? Am I focused entirely on my less-than-adequate self? Or am I feeling the pain and doubt and suffering of these times, and compassionately extending the love that I don’t necessarily feel but that I trust pours through me?