The “Dark Night of the Soul” is a spiritual term that refers to a period of intense inner challenges, transformation, and spiritual awakening. The Dark Night of the Soul is usually associated with the Spanish mystic and poet St. John of the Cross, as he was writing a lot about his own experiences of the Dark Night.
The Two Traditional Stages of the Dark Night of the Soul are the ‘Dark Night of the Senses’ and ‘Dark Night of the Spirit’. However, a common and updated interpretation of the Dark Night of the Soul includes four stages: Awakening, Purification, Illumination, and Union.
In this article, I will explore the two traditional stages of the Dark Night of the Soul, the four-stage model of the Dark Night of the Soul and share with you my own personal experience. This experience was challenging and profoundly confronting, but I would not take it back. I hope this article will help if you are in the Dark Night period yourself!
The Two (Traditional) Stages of the Dark Night of the Soul
St. John of the Cross was a Spanish mystic and poet who lived in the mid to late 1500s. He is known for his contributions to Christian mysticism and his writings about spiritual journeys, including his famous work “The Dark Night of the Soul.” He is considered one of the greatest mystics and spiritual writers of the Catholic Church.
St. John of the Cross described the two stages of the Dark Night of the Soul in his book.
The Dark Night of the Senses
The Dark Night of the Senses is the first stage of the Dark Night of the Soul experience. In this stage, you may experience a sense of spiritual emptiness, feeling disconnected from life, God, higher power and yourself.
This can be a very difficult and challenging experience, as you may feel confused and as if your faith is being tested, or you may experience the feeling of abandonment. Feeling abandoned by God, Universe, Higher Power, and Life.
These intense feelings of confusion and loss of faith may also be triggered by events that are not “spiritual”. For example, you may enter the Dark Night of the Senses after you are let go from work, your personal relationship ends, or you are faced with a health crisis.
The feeling of disconnection and thoughts such as “What’s the point of anything”, “I feel so lost and confused in life”, and “It feels like life is testing me” can be the doorway to the first stage of the Dark Night of the Soul.
According to St. John of the Cross, the Dark Night of the Senses is necessary for spiritual growth. It helps you let go of your attachment to sensory experiences and external gratification. Through this process of detachment, you can develop a deeper, more profound relationship with yourself, life, God, Higher Power/Universe and experience a more meaningful and fulfilling spiritual life.
common characteristics of the dark night of the senses include:
- Feelings of spiritual emptiness
- A sense of isolation or separation (from yourself, life, God, Universe/Higher Power)
- A lack of motivation or enthusiasm
- An overall sense of confusion and disorientation
- Feeling lost
- Feeling like life is testing you.
It is important to remember that this is a temporary stage – even if it doesn’t feel like it at the time! It is possible to move through this intense period and experience a deeper level of spiritual connection and fulfillment on the other side.
This is one of the most uncomfortable and challenging experiences you will ever have (I thought I was losing my mind, and it felt like everything in my life was falling apart). But I got through it, and you can too!
The Dark Night of the Spirit
The Dark Night of the Spirit is the second stage of the Dark Night of the Soul experience. In this stage, you may experience deeper spiritual transformation as you confront your deepest fears, doubts, and attachments. This can be a very intense and challenging experience, as you may feel like you are losing your sense of self or identity (hello, ego-death!)
According to St. John of the Cross, the Dark Night of the Spirit is necessary for spiritual growth. It helps you let go of your attachment to spiritual experiences and concepts. Through this process of detachment, you can develop a deeper, more profound relationship with yourself and everything around you.
Suppose you didn’t consider yourself spiritual before. In this stage, you may feel called to develop a spiritual practice or feel the connection to Higher Power, God, Life, and the Universe (something that you might have never felt before).
In this stage, you will feel highly confronted as you investigate your deepest fears, doubts, and attachment. It is like looking in the mirror for the first time and seeing all parts of yourself – the light and the dark.
This stage is like a purification process: you are stirring up all your deepest feelings, beliefs, values, and perspectives. It’s time now for all of this to come to the surface. You can watch this video for an illustration of this process.
common characteristics of the dark night of the spirit include:
- Struggling with intense emotional and psychological pain
- Feeling like you’re losing your sense of self or identity
- Questioning your beliefs and values
- Feeling a sense of disconnection from yourself, others, and life
- Experiencing a profound sense of transformation and growth
When you enter the Dark Night of the Spirit stage, you can think of it as your “acceptance” or “commitment” to your purification process. Some people may get stuck in the first stage, feeling confused, hopeless, and lost – but not wanting to do anything about it.
If you accept this challenge that life presents and commit to getting to the other side, you will be rewarded with immense growth transformation. You will shed your old skin and feel like you are awakening to a new you.
The Four stages of the dark night of the soul
The concept of the “Dark Night of the Soul” can be understood in different ways, and different authors have described the stages of this experience differently. Other than the traditional 2 stages, a common interpretation of the Dark Night of the Soul includes 4 stages.
stage 1: awakening
In the first stage, you begin to experience a sense of disconnection from your current life or spiritual path. You may feel a sense of restlessness or dissatisfaction with your current beliefs or practices. You may feel lost, confused, disconnected and begin questioning who you are, what you want, and what your life means.
You may begin to feel restless that there is something deeper or more meaningful to life than what you have previously believed or experienced.
This awakening can be triggered by various events, such as a personal crisis, a significant loss, or a transformative spiritual experience. In this stage, you begin to question your values, beliefs, and the meaning of your existence.
The title of “Awakening” sounds lovely, but the experience itself is very challenging and intense (to say the least!) It feels like your whole life is being turned upside down, and you may experience a complete loss of control.
stage 2: purification
The second stage is about purification and involves letting go of old patterns, beliefs, and attachments that no longer serve you. You may experience inner turmoil or upheaval as you confront the parts of yourself that you have been hiding or denying.
This process is the most profound “look in the mirror” you will ever have. It is confronting, it is painful, and it is not for the faint of heart. You will have to let go of old patterns and ways of being or thinking that no longer serve you.
If you stirred up all the gunk and dirt that has been sitting deep within you in the first stage, the purification process is all about cleaning out this gunk. Get ready for some deep-soul-level cleaning!
This is (in my opinion) the most challenging stage of all. As I was going through my own Dark Night of the Soul, I struggled so much that I realized I couldn’t do it alone (or I would go crazy). Therefore, I started working with a therapist.
My therapist supported me through the profound realizations I was having. I had to face my own shadows and negative beliefs, patterns, and behaviours. It was ugly and raw, and I was highly emotional and sensitive during this period.
I recommend that someone you really trust and who you can be honest and emotionally vulnerable with would support you in this stage. Whether that is a partner, friend, family member, coach, or therapist. This stage can be very challenging and it is easy to get lost in the shadow side of ourselves. Having a trusted companion to help you ground + make sure you don’t get stuck in the “woe is me” mindset is crucial.
Stage 3: Illumination
In the third stage, illumination, you will experience a new understanding or insight that helps you see your life in a new way. After the heaviness of the first two stages, this is where you will begin to have a sense of clarity, peace, or joy that comes from these new insights and understandings.
You made it to the other side! Congrats! Things are beginning to look brighter, happier, and deeper. You are exploring new ways of thinking and new ways of looking at life. You may ask yourself what you want the “New You” to look like and how you want to contribute to the world.
You may also experience spiritual ecstasy or intense mystical experiences during this stage. You may gain a deeper understanding of the nature of reality, the interconnectedness of all things, and the presence of the divine in all aspects of life.
It’s important to note that the stage of illumination can also be challenging, as you may struggle to integrate your new understanding with your previous beliefs and ways of living. This can result in confusion or disorientation as you seek to make sense of your new experiences and insights.
This stage for me felt like a push-and-pull between my old self (which I was trying to let go of) and my new self (which I was striving to be). At some points, I felt like I had 2 different people living inside of me! Not a joyful experience, but a necessary one. We must fight through this resistance and commit to our new vision of ourselves and the life we want.
Stage 4: union
This fourth and final stage of the Dark Night of the Soul experience involves a sense of connection or union with yourself and a Higher Power, whether you call it God, the Universe, Nature, or something else.
You may feel a deep sense of peace, love, and belonging as you work on integrating your new understandings and insights into your life.
The feeling of ‘oneness with all things’ is often associated with this stage. You feel one with life, Nature, The Universe, God, and others. You may begin to work on transcending your ego, which will lead you to experience deep purpose and direction in life.
The Dark Night of the Soul is not a linear experience
i want to mention a crucial point: not everyone who experiences the dark night of the soul will go through all four stages, and the experience can very widely from person to person.
Additionally, the Dark Night of the Soul is not a linear process! You may move back and forth between stages or experience them in a different order. You may start with awareness, move to purification, then back to awareness, then to illumination, then to union, and back to purification.
I know, I know… saying that the experience isn’t linear is probably not what you want to hear! However, if you know the different stages and what they entail, you can better navigate them. It’s like having a map so you can orient yourself.
How Long Does the Dark Night of the Soul Last?
Great question, but you may not like the answer. The Dark Night of the Soul doesn’t have a specific timeline. It is not a fixed experience where we can say, “Stage 1 lasts 4 weeks, Stage 2 lasts 3 months”, and so on.
Once again, this is highly personal and varies from person to person. One individual may navigate through all 4 stages within a couple of months, whereas another may navigate through all 4 stages for years. My dark night of the soul lasted almost 3 years!
Additionally, as mentioned, each stage will last a different amount of time. For me, my initial awareness stage lasted for a couple of months. Then, the purification stage lasted for about 1.5 years. Furthermore, I kept jumping from awareness to purification for a whole year after the initial awareness stage.
I worked on letting go of certain emotions, experiences or behaviours. Then this process made me aware of something new again! I then work on letting go of those experiences. Once again, I gain even more awareness about something in the purification process. On and on, the cycle went.
Finally, after 2.5 years of experiencing the deepest darkness I have ever felt, I began to emerge into stages 3 and 4. Right now, it feels like I am experiencing the combination of illumination and union simultaneously.
If you are currently in the Dark Night of the Soul, I hope this article has helped you navigate and better understand in which stage you might be. Additionally, with the overview of all stages, you better know what to expect in this journey.
I have gone through the Dark Night of the Soul journey myself, which has been the most challenging and rewarding phase of my life. This is not for the faint of heart, but if the doorway opens for you to go through this experience, it means you are ready.
It will be challenging and feel impossible to get to the other side, but please know that you are more than capable of navigating through this challenging and transformational period of your life. Keep looking in the mirror and questioning your thoughts, beliefs, and values.
Feel your feelings, process the experiences or emotions that have not been processed, and allow yourself the time to heal and let go. You’ve got this. A beautiful new you is waiting on the other side.
If you found this article interesting, you might enjoy reading How To Ask the Universe For a Sign.
If you would like to read some dark night of the soul books, you can check out the Dark Night of the Soul by Thomas Moore or this original book by St. John of the Cross.