The article consists of extracts from Fiona Roberston’s bookThe Dark Night of the Soul: A Journey from Absence to Presence’ 


The spiritual journey is not a matter of transcending or somehow overcoming our humanity, but of maturing into the depths of it, of realising and becoming who we really and uniquely are. There is no end to this unfolding; it does not conclude in some triumphant attainment or achievement, nor does it confer specialness in any shape or form. Such metamorphosis is unconditional; opening to life in the present inevitably entails opening to the unfelt pain of the past. Self-knowledge and even wisdom are forged in the embodying of pain in a way that cannot be taught.

Finding balance and reclaiming our deepest being

Much of modern spirituality has lost its balance. The cult of lightness and so-called positivity is endemic. Those emotions characterised as negative—terror, fury, fear, shame, angst, guilt, outrage, grief, resentment, sadness, horror, jealousy, envy, rage, sorrow, anger, hatred and so on—are repressed, denied and often pathologized, regardless of what may have prompted them and however fitting a reaction they may be to the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Humankind seems to yearn for experiences of depth, awe and wonder. I was no exception. A deep yearning resided within me from a young age. Possessions and achievements could not fulfil this elemental longing, nor could the modest success I attained. Mostly the feeling was subliminal, a nagging sense of “This isn’t it. There must be more to life than this,” an emptiness or hollowness within. Every now and then, it felt like an unfillable chasm. It whispered or howled in the small hours when the busyness of life did not distract me. It attempted to bring my attention to what was missing, to what seemed lost.

Since my teenage years, I had longed to connect with the numinous, to something greater than my small self. I had experimented fleetingly with psychoactive drugs, dabbled in meditation and made a more serious study of transpersonal psychology. During the dark night, I found myself immersed in this landscape with no choice but to abide there. At times it felt like being in a liminal space between worlds. I endured more suffering than I imagined possible. At times, I doubted my capacity to survive it. Yet from the start I knew that what I was experiencing was not an illness to be healed but a reclamation of my deepest being.

Not transcending the ego but unravelling limitation

In my experience, awakening is not a matter of transcending the ego. The notion of getting rid of the ego, even if such a thing were possible or desirable, seems to hold attraction only for the ego itself. Instead, the dark night process brings every aspect of the self structure to consciousness in order to be heard and transmuted. It is a process of distillation, an unravelling or disentangling of the false from the real. The dark night takes us far beyond any ideas or notions we have about the ego, awakening or spirituality as a whole. In fact, it often feels like the opposite of awakening, as if we could not be further from what we imagine awakening to be.

The ideas, beliefs and concepts I had lived by began to unravel. Without their apparent solidity and stability, life felt tenuous. I fell into the unknown. This is the terrain of the dark night, unnavigable by reason. This falling apart rarely conforms to our notion of how things should be. It is not neat, predictable or orderly. Some of us cannot keep it from infiltrating every aspect of our lives. It does not wait for an invitation.

Little by little, however, we become aware that we are more than this limited persona. We come to realise the person we think of as “me” is unquantifiable and unfathomable, a mysterious being who cannot be easily defined or categorised. Even though there are times we doubt we will survive beyond the next moment, we find ourselves waking up each day, taking one step after another, still here. What is dying is not the real self, but the part of us that developed to protect our authentic selves. What is dying is not who we really are. While we mourn its loss, we become more alive in its absence. We find ourselves surrendering to the process, willing to nail ourselves to this cross.

The origin and function of the persona

Amongst other functions, the adapted self creates a protective distance between the inner self and its experiences. It filters what comes in and goes out, trying to protect us from potential, perceived or actual harm. It represses the mess and chaos within and attempts to control the flow of life. It ensures that the world sees an appropriate version of “me”, in alignment with external criteria and conditioning. It adheres to the script it has been given as closely as it can.

The ego or persona deems much of our inner experience unacceptable. As children, we were overtly or implicitly taught that certain feelings or behaviours were off-limits. Others might have shamed, punished, bullied or abused us for our emotions, self-expression, creativity, sexuality, gender, ethnicity or physical attributes. We might have learnt to feel unworthy, unlovable, insufficient or flawed. Parents might have neglected us, oblivious to our needs or too self-absorbed to pay us attention. The persona or ego inevitably perceives itself as deficient in some way, whatever our personal history. If we were to be exposed, its worst fears would come true. Its whole function is to prevent such exposure, keeping buried what has been buried. It uses all kinds of behaviour to that end.

Dying to all that is false and trusting our real selves

This willingness to die is unlike being terrified of death or suicidal. It is a readiness to die to ourselves, to all that is false within us, to return home. It is a relinquishing of control, the deepest kind of letting go. It reminds us of both our immensity and our glorious insignificance. It comes with tears and sometimes laughter. It wakes us up to the very fact of our existence.

The act of trusting our real selves is inseparable from trusting our bodies. During the dark night, we begin to hear and understand the meanings and messages in sensations and symptoms rather than dismissing or silencing them. The body knows the truth of what has happened even as our minds might try to make the happened unhappen.

The greater our willingness to be with our bodies, the more unconditional our trust becomes. We become willing to be with our somatic experience—sensations, emotions, senses, movements and energies, along with the plethora of images and thoughts that accompany them. We let it all unfold in an organic, fluid way. The more we trust the natural unfolding ofthe process, the greater the depths we reach and the more insight we gain. We begin to honour how the process is evolving within us, rather than comparing ourselves to other people and concluding we are either less than or more than. Staying true to ourselves can be hard. We each experience a unique version of the dark night.

No longer bypassing, excluding or demonising

The notion that we can bypass the reality of our pain is a kind of violence. In fact, the idea that life should be free from pain begins to seem bizarre. We become radically honest, no longer willing to dissemble or hide, at least from ourselves. Knowing the richness and depth of ourselves, we can no longer countenance excluding, discounting, denying or demonising any aspect of our being. We begin to distinguish between the fantasy of awakening and the reality of our experience, however mundane or sublime it is in each moment. We develop greater discernment in relation to spiritual teachings and offerings, having the nous to distinguish between what is or is not conducive to our unfolding.

There is beauty and relief in coming squarely back to reality, whatever its particular nature in the moment. The spontaneous perceptual shifts that happen through inquiry reveal the real in both its singularity and multiplicity, the one and the many. The marvels of existence become ever more apparent, yet life feels more normal, as do I.

There is an unfathomable stillness in this meeting place. The stillness has always been here, but we become much more conscious of it as time goes on. It is the stillness of sunrise and snowfall, the stillness implicit in being, the stillness that draws us to the earth. It carries a sense of the ancient.

A process of disillusionment unveiling rich insight

The dark night bestows rich insights into the human condition. It teaches what cannot be taught. Having come to know my inner landscape so thoroughly, I now commune with others as they journey through their own terrain. Individually and collectively, we are immersed in the rawness and reality of life. At least partially restored to our authenticity, we now have the fibre to be with the full spectrum of our experience.

Our emotional resilience has increased, not because we are inured to our feelings, but because we are better equipped to be with them. Naturally, we still resist or rail against life at times. No longer trapped within the narrow confines of the adapted self, we can be in it all, denying nothing. We are as we are in any given moment without trying to escape, even when we are trying to escape. Living in this paradoxical, unconditional world is by turns heartbreaking, sane, startling, humdrum, painful, fulfilling and funny.

The dark night is a process of disillusionment, a bonfire of all our vanities. The burning, once begun, is ruthless. Any delusions we have about who we are or what we can claim for ourselves are scorched. Knowing we are neither superior nor inferior to anyone else, we become both more unassuming and more dignified. We have the fortitude to stand up for ourselves, to hold the line when it needs to be held. We can no longer be talked out of the truth of our experience. We discover a quiet authority within, a mature and common sense that can perceive and discern with clarity.