I said to my soul, be still, and let the dark come upon you Which shall be the darkness of God.
— T.S. Eliot
I was seventeen when depression began to weave itself into my life: a classic “onset in late adolescence,” I would learn years later, when I finally fell into professional hands. With neat soul logic, I discovered Zen meditation that same summer. I spent my senior year of high school in Honolulu listening to the darker songs of the early Elton John, cutting calculus class to read D.T. Suzuki, slipping away to the Buddhist temple halfway up the Pali Highway, and in general letting the tidy warp and woof of my golden American future unravel.
The depression was not incapacitating. It made it hard to take a lot of my suburban life seriously, but that disillusionment was inextricably mingled with a growing consciousness of the larger brutalities of the world. Ethiopian children were starving on the evening news and genocide was mushrooming in Cambodia. Was I truly depressed, or just awakening to the First Noble Truth of Buddhism, the insight that worldly life is misery? My melancholy seemed like simple realism: if you weren’t depressed, you obviously didn’t know what was going on. And so I took long walks and thought about death and the suffering of innocents. I wrote bad poetry. I did not go to Stanford.
As I grew serious about writing and spirituality through my young adulthood, I came to see depression as my shadow on the path — like the “black dog” of Churchill’s recurrent blues, it was an inescapable presence. My lows could be debilitating, but they also seemed intimately related to my creativity itself, and so were slightly glamorous, like Hemingway’s alcoholism and Dostoevski’s epilepsy. But my art at this time was self-indulgent at best, graffiti on the cell wall of an unhappy self, and I invoked it much too readily to justify failures of character. I ruined a marriage, in no small part because my recurrent bouts of blackness had allied themselves with a still-untamed tendency to blame them on those closest to me.
Eventually, I made my way to California, seeking the solace of fellow pilgrims and eccentrics, and duly discovered the burgeoning New Age. I lived in an ashram, and then in a commune; I did dream work and yoga, read Ken Wilber and the Bhagavad-Gita, meditated and integrated and ate according to sophisticated plans, and through it all I was intermittently depressed in a way that no sacred technique or philosophy could touch. In the spirit of the times, I self-medicated with marijuana and the occasional hallucinogen, which, given my biochemistry, added a religiously tinged lunacy to the already volatile stew.
John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul and the third edition of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders were my faithful companions: I couldn’t decide whether I was making my blind way to God through the cloud of unknowing or was just clinically fucked up. I was hospitalized twice, once for depression and once for mania, and so in addition to the half lotus and pranayama, I became acquainted with Haldol, lithium, and four-point restraints. And still I persisted in the belief that my condition was manageable, that I was, more or less, steering the careening vehicle of my life. That is, until my mother died, terribly, of stomach cancer, in the winter of my forty-first year. That was when the wheels came off.
O Lord, You have plunged me into the bottom of the pit, into the black depths of the abyss. Your terrors have reduced me to silence, and my only friend is darkness.
— Eighty-eighth Psalm
There are things you simply cannot prepare for. This is not something anyone really wants to hear. We spend our lives preparing; we stake our pride on mastering the troublesome aspects of our world. We study, we practice, we polish and adjust. Even our earnest efforts to “go with the flow” and humbly surrender to the processes of a life force larger than ourselves are invariably suffused with a hidden agenda. If we are good, bad things will not happen; if we are good enough, our suffering will end. Our spiritual labors are directed toward achieving a condition of cosmic competence, and practice makes perfect.
But the dark night is not about how good we are, nor even how good we can get. The dark night takes our goodness like a handful of dry leaves and crumbles it into dust. It shows us that we can never be good enough. “If I should wash myself with snow and cleanse my hands with lye,” cries Job, the most righteous man on earth, to the Lord, in the first bitterness of his incomprehensible affliction, “yet you would plunge me in the ditch, so that my own clothes would abhor me.” It is not the cry of a man enjoying a “growth experience.”
In our day of endless how-tos for the seeker of sacred competence, I don’t think the involuntary nature of this plunge into the spiritual ditch is sufficiently emphasized. The dark night is not something we do on purpose. Our purposes, indeed, are one of the main blocks to the work the dark night has to accomplish. “The goal that promises to bring ‘healing’ and completion,” Carl Jung says,
is beyond all measure strange to consciousness, and can find entrance into consciousness only with the greatest difficulty. This cannot happen except under compulsion, and the compulsion always attaches itself to a life situation in which the individual does not know how to help himself in any other way.
The “way” we do not know is darkness to our mind. It’s not what we signed up for, setting out on the shining path with such high hopes. Everyone wants to see the light. But Moses hid his head in a cleft of rock when God passed near, simply to survive the encounter. Saul of Tarsus, on his way to Damascus, was literally blinded by the glare of God and had to be led by hand into the city, where he spent the next three days in anguished eclipse, unable even to eat or drink. “It is a terrible thing,” he later wrote, as Paul, in his letter to the Hebrews, “to fall into the hands of the living God.”
Linda Schierse Leonard, in her marvelous book Witness to the Fire: Creativity and the Veil of Addiction, says that the dark night of the soul “refers to the common experience of the mystics whereby, after a period of illumination, one swings back to emptiness, to pain and desolation, to impotence and helplessness, in preparation for total self-surrender to the Divine.” In a profound sense, the dark night is an ordeal of admittance to another order of experience, an “initiation” of sorts. Clarissa Pinkola Estés calls it a necessary aspect of the creative journey and gives it a characteristically upbeat spin: “Stripped of your fantasies, plunged into the coldest pools of the psyche’s reality, you are advancing in a spectacular process.”
“We must not minimize the fact that this is a genuine risk,” Thomas Merton cautions: we “may not be able to face the terrible experience of being apparently without faith in order to really grow in faith.” He adds that the night, with its agonies and its dangers, is, however impossible it may be to see this at the time, “a gift of God.” Quoting Isaac of Stella, a twelfth-century Cistercian monk, he insists that it is an “inferno, sed misericordiae, non irae”: a hell of mercy, not of wrath.
Our psychiatric age has its own name for the dark night of the soul. We call it “depression.” We even have a solution for the condition. It is called drugs. One cannot stray far from what passes for normal consciousness in our culture without encountering the guardian deities of medication. In my case, I had tried lithium early on, under some compulsion, and found what every artist fears to be true: the drug interfered with my writing. I felt blunted and dim on lithium, displaced about three feet from the center of myself, a gray bystander to my essential life. And so I stopped taking the drug — “Dog don’t eat what dog don’t like,” as a writer friend succinctly put it — and took my chances.
The depression in which I found myself mired after my mother’s death was different from my earlier depressive episodes: different in intensity and, most crucially, in duration. My life had always been peppered with black days, days in which taking a shower seemed far beyond my means, days in which I just hunkered down like a wounded beast and endured. I’d had black weeks, and even the occasional black month. During a particularly trying time in the early nineties, I’d spent an entire summer staring at the blinking cursor on my computer screen, as if at a receding satellite. Unable to write a word, I was reduced to reading Job, the Psalms of anguish, and Jeremiah’s Lamentations. (“He has beset me round about with bitterness and grief, and left me to dwell in the dark like those long dead.”) Bernadette Roberts’s The Experience of No-Self, a blessedly lucid account of the dark night’s debilitations and ultimate fruition, was a great help to me. I steered by such passages as “The best protection against this pain is to fully accept it; by virtually sinking into it, sinking into the feeling of utter misery and nothingness, the pain loses much of its punch.” With the writings of John of the Cross, hers was the only survival manual I had found.
But now the manuals were no help; my spiritual library, crammed with the wisdom of the ages, was useless to me. I might as well have been collecting detective novels all those years. Indeed, as the blackness deepened and went on, detective novels were all that I could read. The fact that I found Agatha Christie more appealing than the saints and mystics only deepened my sense that I had lost it completely.
By this time, my depression had passed beyond the fact that my mother had spent the last night of her life vomiting an evil-smelling stew of diarrhea-like bile every five minutes; that she had finally, inevitably, choked on the stuff; that she had died in my arms with her clear blue eyes gazing at me in an absolutely mystifying peace, with nothing between us except death. It had passed beyond the sense that my puny career was in the crapper, that my books had sunk from sight without a ripple. It had passed beyond even the knowledge that I was going to die myself someday, and that everyone I knew and loved was going to die. My depression by now was general and undiscriminating. The universe had simplified itself into a desert of meaningless suffering, and the wisest words were just marks on the bleached expanse.
Paradoxically, John of the Cross had warned me of this long in advance:
Because of the solitude and desolation this night causes, a person in this state finds neither consolation nor support in any doctrine or spiritual director. . . . He resembles one who is imprisoned in a dark dungeon, bound hands and feet, and able neither to move, nor see, nor feel any favor from heaven or earth. He remains in this condition until his spirit is humbled, softened, and purified.
And, with seeming ruthlessness, John blithely adds, “To be truly efficacious, the process will last some years.”
The dark night is not something that happens to spiritual beginners. Most beginners are in the happy condition of having just discovered something, of having glimpsed the Light, and of being drawn onto the path toward its realization. The early stages of the spiritual life are filled with vigorous resolutions and earnest, hopeful work on oneself; a sense of possibility prevails, and the infusion of buoyant energy leads to a heady expansion, a joyous sense of moving steadily toward the radiant goal. We see a transformed self emerging, a better self, progressing more or less systematically toward perfection. Within the natural cycles of ups and downs, of relative dry spells and plateaus succeeded by periods of breakthrough and renewed illumination, this honeymoon phase of the spiritual life can often last for years. In certain personality types, it can even last an entire lifetime.
For others, though, this initial surge toward the Light passes sooner or later into an unnerving ebb. The sustaining spiritual energy is inexplicably withdrawn; the tide of illumination recedes. The self that floated so happily on the divine profusion runs aground on the freshly exposed rocks of unregenerated personality. There is a shocking sense of regression, of seemingly transcended character flaws reasserting themselves more strongly than ever. The spiritual self, confronted with the mortifying reality of the old, unspiritual self, finds the contrast far more painful in light of the ideal glimpsed and cherished and more or less identified with during the honeymoon phase.
Practices and techniques that had reliably produced a sense of peace and love are suddenly futile exercises. Meditations turn dry, and prayer goes stale. The libido flails, or fails; the emotions rage, the mind runs wild, and doubts and pettiness prevail. Worse still, the energy and spiritual enthusiasm we need to counter such psychic disarray are nowhere to be found. We drift, buffeted by our own worst fears about ourselves.
There can be no real question of turning back, even if we wanted to. The process has reached critical mass. The old self and its ways have become unbearable to us. We can no longer live in the stunted dream of the life we knew before our awakening; we have seen too much of the land beyond. But the way forward now is blocked, as well. “God has hemmed me in with no escape,” Jeremiah laments: “He thwarts my prayer; He has barred my ways with blocks of stone and made my paths impassable.”
The impasse is humiliating. We fast, we pray, we take up a martial art. We spice our diet with ginseng and eat only vegetables grown in Zen-monastery gardens. If we have been meditating one hour a day, we meditate two. We hang the appropriate crystals and buy new furniture to address the nagging issue of feng shui. We see a past-life therapist. But none of it is any fun. The fountain that bubbled within us has gone dry, and we’re just going through the dusty motions now.
We haunt the bookstores, but the spiritual books all seem like chatter now. Joy, compassion, peace, and the divine: blah, blah, blah. Even the authors who try to buck us up with insights into the difficulties of the path have obviously never really been through a blackness quite like this. It’s the same old shit, and none of it helps. Darkness is our only friend. But we don’t like darkness. We wish he’d go away.
A sense of genuine helplessness dawns slowly, like a sunrise in a rainstorm. We humans are prodigiously resourceful animals, and it is not until our bag of tricks is turned inside out that we are able to suspect, even briefly, that our muscular spiritual egos, the objects of so much self-improvement, have failed us. It’s just not something we want to know about. We’ve worked too hard to consider that it’s all been “for nothing.”
This obsession with thwarted reward is the key. What the dark night shows us, through the intensely resisted revelation of our spiritual bankruptcy, is that we have been in the game for the payoff; we’ve accumulated spiritual experience as we might build a stock portfolio. We’ve been hoping for peace of mind during our golden years, a solid foundation of spiritual capital, and a 9 percent return of bliss. But now the bottom has fallen out of the market. Our spiritual checks are bouncing.
I remember when I reached this point of realized helplessness. For more than twenty years, I had prided myself on surviving as a writer. No matter how bad things got, I would raise my meager quota of pages like the flag at Fort McHenry in “The Star-Spangled Banner”: by the rockets’ red glare, I would offer my tattered art to the world. My sense of vocation, of doing the work that God had given me, was my rock. It was the symbol of my endurance, if nothing else. And, secretly, I never really let go of the notion that all this faithfulness would lead to a happy ending in the finest literary tradition: that I would end up on the bestseller list in the final reel; that the world would eventually kiss the frog of my obscure little books and find a prince.
Now, in the brutal clarity of the dark night, I began for the first time to consider that God had called me not to a path of vindication and the trumpets of success, but to failure, and to silence. Because silence was the deepest truth of my existence now. After years of listening to a thread of inner music, I couldn’t hear a thing. Even when I managed, through surrender, cunning, or pure dumb luck, to slip beyond the din of negativity, there was only silence — a silence so complete, in an inward stillness so vast and seemingly final, that there was no appeal. I would inevitably flinch and panic and try new tricks, anything to escape that terrifying hush; but always when the fresh spasm of resistance had used itself up, the silence was there. Like cliffs of stone, like the desert and the sky. It was increasingly clear that I wasn’t going to be able to wiggle out of this one. Eventually, from sheer exhaustion, I began to try to learn to live with it.
By this time, my wife and I had moved to Tidewater Virginia, trading in the scrap of grass and garden behind our apartment in San Francisco for an old farmhouse and two acres of weeds amid soybean fields and swamps. I sat at my writing desk with a view of the Back Bay every morning for my ritual four hours and didn’t produce a thing. Reduced to inarticulate prayers for mercy and messy wrestling with the demons of despair, I watched literal dust settle on my work-in-progress, slow motes drifting onto the pages out of shafts of morning sun. In the afternoon, I pushed a lawn mower around and around our infinite lawn in the soggy Tidewater heat, and in the evening, I drank a beer or two, watched the nightly news like everyone else in America, and tried to be decent to my loving and long-suffering wife.
I had learned at last not to blame my darkness on those around me. I knew perfectly well that I had a good marriage with a wonderful woman, a beautiful home, and the only job I had ever wanted. I had a life that most of the people on the planet would trade for in a second, but all this meant in practice was that there was nowhere left to run. I’d lost my sense that any of it meant anything, and I hadn’t written a word for almost a year. It seemed to me that, in just about every way that mattered, I had simply disappeared.
There is an old joke about a farmer who decided to save money by teaching his horse to go without food. He cut down on the poor beast’s ration of oats day by day. The horse, being a horse, plodded on stolidly, if somewhat lethargically, and the plan seemed to be working pretty well. The farmer was soon saving twenty dollars a week. Unfortunately, just about the time he had gotten the horse trained to go without food entirely, the damn thing died.
I felt that God was performing a similar experiment with me. I missed my “oats” of love, joy, inspiration, and meaning — of everything that makes life worth living. I really wasn’t good for anything anymore except surrender. For perhaps five minutes a day, my fevered brain would cool into acceptance, and I would grow calm and peaceful, reconciled to my nothingness. It didn’t seem like much to base a life on.
“Going deeper into the experience seems like accepting eternal damnation,” Stanislav Grof writes in The Stormy Search for the Self. Yet deeper into acceptance is the only way to go. “Everything depends on a fathomless sinking in a fathomless nothingness,” Johann Tauler, a fourteenth-century mystic, offers helpfully.
A fathomless sinking into a fathomless nothingness. If you have reached the point where this makes any sense at all to you, God help you. Because you are finally prepared to understand that no one and nothing else can. We have, in the deepest sense, arrived. And we are nowhere.
It is unnerving at first to glimpse the life beyond the self. Nothing has changed: The world is still an infinite desert to us. We are still useless, hopeless, and helpless. According to all our ego’s criteria, we should be six feet under, with our loved ones standing sadly around the grave reciting the Twenty-third Psalm and hoping that our soul finds the comfort in the hereafter that it never found on earth. But here we are, still breathing in the darkness, immersed in a secret peace. The worst has happened, and it turns out to be a surprisingly lovely, quiet thing.
You try to tell your friends and family, who’ve been so worried about you, about this unlikely peace. But in the telling it sounds dishearteningly morbid. The embrace of a fathomless nothingness is not exactly the American Dream. In fact, it sounds suspiciously like diagnostic criterion number two for a “major depressive episode” in the APA’s Manual for Mental Disorders. There’s still not a damn thing you can see worth doing in the whole wide world. It’s just that you’ve made your peace with this.
So you go back to your secret quiet, deep inside your cocoon of misery. And you think, in that lovely hush, So this is what it’s like to be dead. It’s really not so bad.
In January of the brand-new millennium, two years after my mother’s death, my old friend April called from San Francisco to say happy New Year. A painter whose work I loved, she had been my classmate in the school of depression for years, and we’d often swapped tales of our darker hours with rueful camaraderie.
Now, it appeared, April had graduated. Her voice was bright, strong, and full of laughter. She was pulling together a major show, surviving the wreck of a relationship with wisdom and humor, and painting beautifully. She had joined a gym and she was buff. She was having breakthroughs in therapy. And, oh yeah, by the way: she had finally taken the plunge and gone on an antidepressant called Zoloft.
“It’s changed my life,” she told me. “I wish I’d started taking it twenty years ago.”
This wasn’t, of course, the first time I’d considered the notion of chemical assistance. You can’t be as fucked up as I was for as long as I had been without a lot of people telling you you should be on drugs. I’d been shot full of Haldol to break a mania, swaddled in sedatives to blunt the breakage, and spoon-fed lithium to reconstruct a durable decorum. I’d had relationships in which the woman made going on antidepressants a condition of our staying together, and I had left those relationships. I’d been handed any number of xeroxed articles on Prozac, Wellbutrin, and the new generation of serotonin-reuptake inhibitors. I’d even gone so far as to try Saint-John’s-wort, and had eaten endless vitamins. But this was the first time I had heard the chemical gospel preached by an artist who was an inspiration to me, and who could assure me that the drugs hadn’t messed up her creative process.
The next day I told my wife that I was thinking of seeing a psychiatrist and asking about antidepressants. She nodded supportively, ducked her head, and began to sob quietly from gratitude and relief. She’d been praying that I would ask for professional help for a year and a half. It’s hell living with a depressed person.
A week later I was in the office of a chipper little woman with a prescription pad, who briefed me on the laundry list of potential side effects and recommended Effexor, a “phenethylamine bicyclic derivative,” the woman explained helpfully, as opposed to the “monoamine oxidase inhibitors.” I nodded humbly and got my prescription filled at the K-Mart pharmacy on the way home.
A good proportion of the side effects duly occurred, but about a week after I started on the drug, I was driving home one afternoon with a bag of groceries and a pack of cigarettes, and I noticed how beautiful the winter trees were in the crystalline February light. That got my attention, all right. It seemed like forever since I had noticed any trees.
Would my dark night have ended without drugs? Not when it did, certainly. This bothered me quite a bit, until a friend of mine told me a joke: It seems there was a man who lived beside a river. One day, a hard rain fell in the mountains, and the water upstream began to rise. Flood warnings were broadcast on the television and the radio, but the man ignored them, saying, “God will take care of me.” As the water began to come up into his yard, a neighbor on a bicycle pedaled by and shouted that he had better pack up and leave, that the flood was coming. But the man said, “No, it’s OK, God will take care of me.”
Soon the water had reached his porch; it poured into his living room and started rising up the stairs. The man climbed out onto his roof, and another neighbor in a boat paddled by and told him to hop in. “No, thanks, God will take care of me,” the man on the roof told him, and the neighbor shook his head and paddled on.
Finally, even the rooftop was awash. The man climbed into a nearby tree, praying pretty hard by now, clinging to the branches as they swayed in the torrent. A helicopter drew near, and a rope was lowered, but the man hollered over the rotor noise, “IT’S OK! GOD WILL TAKE CARE OF ME!”
And so, of course, he drowned.
When the man got to heaven, he went straight to God and asked him what the hell had happened, why he hadn’t been saved by his faith.
“I don’t know,” God told him. “I’m as baffled as you. I sent you those reports on the radio and the TV, I sent the guy on the bicycle and the guy in the boat, and finally I sent a helicopter. What more did you want from me?”
I think my friend’s New Year’s phone call was a saving gift from God. I think God sent the indomitable little woman with the prescription pad, and that by God’s grace I was desperate enough by then to grab the lifeline. I think the K-Mart pharmacy is an outpost of heaven. The dark night is not about suffering for suffering’s sake; it is about a certain work of the soul being accomplished. When the work is done, it is time to move on.
Within three months of my introduction to Effexor, the novel that had been stalled for a year and a half was finished. I was socializing with my family and friends again, and making new friends. I was teaching Sunday school to first-graders and could tell them without rolling my eyes that God was a good and merciful God. I felt that my life had been given back to me in an immeasurably heightened way. Even taking flowers to my mother’s grave, I was filled with a sense of gratitude and joy. I still missed her, of course, missed her laughter and her stories and the sheer vigor of her spirit; I even missed her terrible driving. But the grief was warm and sweetened now, like honeyed tea, a liquid, gentle heat within. I wished she could have stuck around to see her son grow up.
I knew perfectly well that I had accomplished nothing. Stanislav Grof tells of a middle-aged woman who, having gone through what he calls the “ego-death experience,” said, “Afterward, someone congratulated me on my courage at putting the pieces of my self back together. But there were no pieces left, not even a shred. Everything I thought I was had been demolished.” This was true for me, too. My old self had melted away like cotton candy in the rain, but I had no sense at all of having actively fashioned a new one. And yet somehow the bills were getting paid and the grass was getting cut.
The central paradox of the spiritual path is that, in striving to transcend the self, we actually build it up; our holy solutions invariably calcify into grotesque casts of ego. The dark night is God’s solution to our solutions, dissolving our best-laid constructions anew into the mystery of grace. It happens in spite of our best efforts to resist it. But thank God it happens.
Was what I went through a “true” dark night, or was it “just depression”? To a vulnerable self suffering a crisis of such depth, the thought that all the agony is just the wasted motion of biochemical atoms may itself be enough to bring on thoughts of suicide. It is pointlessness that we fear most.
“At the first-order level of experiential description,” Denys Turner notes in The Darkness of God, “John of the Cross’s accounts of the sufferings of the ‘dark nights of the soul’ are uncannily similar to what a person will give from the inside of depression.” The truth of this is indisputable. The American Psychiatric Association lists nine diagnostic criteria for a major depressive episode, at least five of which must be present during the same two-week period, representing “a change from previous functioning.” These range from “depressed mood, most of the day, nearly every day,” through anhedonia, to fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, and suicidal ideation. Even a cursory glance through John’s vivid symptomatology of dryness, devastation, and despair will confirm that we are in the same country here.
John of the Cross himself specifies three principal “signs for discerning whether a spiritual person is treading the path of this purgation” or just succumbing to “sin and imperfection, or weakness and lukewarmness, or some bad humour or bodily indisposition.” The first indicator of a true dark night is that while we are finding none of our accustomed consolation in God, we are not finding any in worldly comforts, either. The second is that the afflicted person is painfully aware of falling short in her or his spiritual practice, as opposed to a merely lukewarm person who “has no solicitude about serving God.” The third sign is the “powerlessness, in spite of one’s efforts, to meditate and make use of the imagination, as was one’s previous custom.” If the night is simply the result of a “bad humour,” meditative imagery and the comforts of discursive thought will return when the humor passes; a true night, preparing us for the ineffable country of contemplation, continues to wean us from imaginal support in prayer.
Certainly it is possible, and useful in many cases, to make distinctions between spiritual crises and psychiatric and medical disorders. We do no one any good by encouraging a schizophrenic, a serial killer, or someone with a brain tumor to see his or her affliction as a dark night of the soul. But most of us fall somewhere on the semifunctional side of the line that marks the purely medical condition or untreatable character disorder. We are large-brained mammals with messy biochemistries; we are social beings riddled with the symptoms of civilization and its discontents; and we are spiritual animals subject to all the ills the soul is heir to. You may well be helped through your brutal moods by prescription drugs; you probably need therapy (I attend my weekly sessions religiously); and your childhood was almost certainly a mess; but what Viktor Frankl says in his wonderful book The Doctor and the Soul is likely still true for you:
The “symptom” of conscientious anxiety represents an “accomplishment” of the human being as a spiritual person. It is understandable only as the anxiety of a human being as such: as existential anxiety.
Denys Turner concludes his own brilliant analysis of the relationship between the dark night and depression with the unencouraging assertion that, while you’re in one, the two are basically indistinguishable. It is only by their fruits, by their outcomes, that you can tell them apart. In retrospect, depression is “the revolt of the self in despair at its disintegration,” while the dark night is
the dawning of a realization that in this loss of selfhood, nothing is lost; it is the awakening of the capacity to live without the need for it. When the dark night passes, all is transformed. When depression passes, all is restored, and normality is resumed.
We can treat the life-disrupting reality of depression, when it comes (and it will), as a speed bump on the road to the usual, and devote our efforts to getting back up to speed as soon as possible; or we can take the car wreck of the dark night as grace, as what Buddhist teacher and anthropologist Joan Halifax calls a “sacred catastrophe” and a “holy failure.” Led by suffering into the mapless country of faith, silence, and darkness, perhaps we will even glimpse the truth of what the sages and saints have been saying for ages when they talk about the necessary death of the ego and the mystery of divine life. Certainly I see my own depression — triggered by my mother’s death and exacerbated by neurotic conflicts, character disorders, a chaotic temperament, and even, at times, borderline psychosis — as a gift of God: a hell of mercy, as the old monk said, and not of wrath.