Understanding our existential fear is the key to moving beyond it.
Do you wake up in the middle of the night overcome with fear? Perhaps you are getting in touch with something important in your subconscious? The middle of the night is “the witching hour,” the timeframe from midnight to about 4 a.m. Many ancient traditions say this when the veil between the worlds is thinnest. It’s that time when the world of commerce is silent. Most people are asleep. So, if we are awake, our consciousness has less interference.
The term soul is interchangeable with spirit. Others call this the observer. The observer is the person you talk to you inside your head. It’s the person who experiences your dreams. We know from experience that thoughts and emotions appear real in vivid dreams.
So, the “dark night of the soul” is more than a powerful emotional experience. These events could be breakthroughs in perception. We may not plan or want this experience, but that doesn’t matter. All we know for sure is a message is making its way to our conscious mind. And this message is triggering one of our primal fears.
We don’t know the origin of this message. It could be something from our subconscious or some other source like our soul. Some traditions believe it is the way the universe speaks to us. Regardless of the source, it is a message that’s trying to get our attention. We must deal with it.
The Dark Night of the Soul
The origins of this term date back to the 16th-century and poem entitled “The Dark Night” by mystic, poet, Roman Catholic St. Paul of the Cross. He was a Carmelite friar and a priest of Spanish origin.
So, what is this dark event? It’s the time when our deepest fears and memories of loss surface. These episodes often follow a personal tragedy. Then, when we are alone, we ponder the fear of death. We get lost in memories of lost love. It is a time when we relive missed opportunities and mistakes. So, perhaps there is something to the “witching hour.”
“But at three o’clock in the morning, a forgotten package has the same tragic importance as a death sentence, and the cure doesn’t work — and in a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day.” ― F. Scott Fitzgerald
The thinking and emotions that come with this experience are a slippery slope. Once these thoughts and feelings arise, they overwhelm your reason and common sense. So, this is when many people become self-destructive, even to the point of committing suicide (1).
Unfortunately, our culture is the source of many troubles and stress. Instead of providing a safety net, our society exacerbates inequity. As the divide between the rich and the rest of humanity gets greater, so do daily life pressures. Many individuals have multiple jobs, and people lose their savings and homes to pay for necessary healthcare. Children go hungry in the world’s most developed countries, while billionaires get to buy a new yacht.
Therefore, it is so important to keep questioning the cultural narrative. Don’t allow yourself to fall under the control of this propaganda. The more you expose yourself, the more susceptible you become to self-hypnosis techniques. This will enable others to control what you think. You don’t need to disengage from your social responsibility. However, it would help if you learned how it affects what you think.
Those involved with intense inner work will find themselves in this state. And, therefore, it can happen at any time. That’s because intense inner work will bring hidden things to the surface. We do not confine these dark thoughts and emotions to the Witching hour. However, it seems worse at night.
This situation affects the Empath to the greatest extent. These are people with a gift of being sensitive to others’ physical and spiritual energies. They must learn proper coping mechanisms. Otherwise, they are subject to the moods and negative emotions of others.
Yet, this experience can also be a doorway if we learn the key to opening the lock.
“There can be no rebirth without a dark night of the soul, a total annihilation of all that you believed in and thought that you were.” ― Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan
When you recognize you are going through one of the sleepless nights, make it a time of self-discovery.
Yes, religion has its special contribution to this dark night experience. That’s because the most popular religions take advantage of your fear and insecurities. Instead of providing tools to explore our existential fear of death, it sells the Afterlife. The Afterlife is a counterfeit that substitutes one fear for another. Now you worry about obtaining your afterlife benefits.
One needs to be mindful of the proper use of mythology. Mythology is a metaphor or an analogy, but not a fact. So, thinking in mythological terms helps you to keep perspective. “The vale of tears” is similar to the expression, “the dark night of the soul.” Both express the emotional turmoil of the spirit.
The term is roughly translated from a poem by St. John of the Cross, 1542-1591. His poem entitled “the dark night” talks about the loss of soul and all possessions when we die. Facing this eventuality, he found peace. This idea is very much like the Buddist concept of surrender.
It’s hard not to treat myth as a fact, especially if your identity is part of your religious beliefs. Religion is the most significant source of this intentional misrepresentation of metaphor as fact. Be mindful of how to treat the power of mythology. Use the myth as a metaphor to help point you away from organized religion.
“Thinking in mythological terms helps to put you in accord with the inevitables of this vale of tears. You learn to recognize the positive values in what appear to be the negative moments and aspects of your life… The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” ― Joseph Campbell
Understanding Our Existential Fear
In general, the best way out is to go through. You can’t back up. You can’t change the past. The moment you find you are facing this turmoil, engage in self-care, find a “healthy” way to relieve your emotional distress. There are three basic steps to this process.
Our existential fear of death teaches us to value life. It should propel us on an inward journey of exploration. This quest is what we call spiritual exploration. If you are reading this, it could be because you need to start this journey. If you don’t deal with it, the fear of death will keep coming up.
Substituting the afterlife for fear of death does not address the issue. You can’t “believe it” away. You must learn to face this fear and explore it. Understanding our existential fear is the only way to make it work for our lives.
Step One ― Recognize it.
Once you realize what’s going on, you can guide the process. Say to yourself, “I see what’s happening.” Now you regain some control of reason and common sense.
You have two choices. First, you can stay in this downward emotional and spiritual spiral. Second, you can change the downward spiral into a circle.
Step Two ― Move Through it.
Changing the spiral to a circle means circling back to acknowledge the thought or feeling. Find out where it started, and then frame it positively. For instance, dark emotions might focus on lost love. If so, acknowledge the pain and find the lesson to be learned. Learn to recognize positive feelings and events. You frame it positively by saying this experience helped me understand the power of love. Minimize the negative and stress the positive.
If you can’t find a positive way, change the subject to something positive. Either way, decide this is not healthy. Don’t deny the thought or feeling. Instead, resolve to move through it. What you don’t want to do is to dwell on the pain.
If harmful programming keeps you from moving beyond the fear, remove the thought script. You can do this using the Enneagram and the Repeating Question exercise. With these tools, you identify the source that’s holding you back and then delete or minimize it. To delete it, you learn to “banish” the thought or memory. If you can’t delete it, you minimize it by turning down the volume of memories.
Step Three ― Seek Help
If you can’t move through it on your own, seek help. Call a friend. Call your spiritual teacher, or contact the International Society for Suicide Prevention. Above all, find a way out so you can live to learn from the important life lesson involved.
Understanding our existential fear is one of the first goals of the inner quest. We can only grow intellectually and spiritually when we move beyond this boundary. Another powerful exercise we use in our introductory phase we call exploring memories. This helps us to learn what we value and what we fear.
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(1) International Society for Suicide Prevention, Wikipedia.
(2) Joseph Campbell & Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey, Wikipedia