Much of what I do, for myself and others, is informed by a desire to re-connect to my True Nature — that which lies at the core of my being, that which is to be found when all layers of the proverbial onion have been peeled away. It continues to mystify me that if there is such a thing as True Nature, I have such difficulty in believing in its existence. Why do I resort to doubts when everything points towards happiness? What causes subtle worry about possible heartbreak when I’m surrounded by loving companions? Neuroscientists talk about the negativity bias as something originating in the reptilian part of the brain, that ancient fight or flight response, always ready to jump and run even while there’s plenty of food and no enemy in sight. Psychoanalysts have long spoken of denial as a most primitive way we have of defending against stress. If something is too painful, even potentially harmful, our mind refuses to accept it.
The ancient Greeks taught that suffering yield wisdom; the Buddha found freedom from bondage (enlightenment) through acknowledging and confronting the suffering that ordinary life holds for all of us; Christian spirituality, from Jesus onwards, teaches that to live a whole life involves confronting and integrating the dark side of our being.
The 16th century Carmelite monk John of the Cross spoke of the unconscious dimension of (the spiritual) life well before it was “discovered” by Sigmund Freud 400 years later. He used the term “dark” (oscura in his native Spanish), giving us, based on his own struggles and hardship, the expression “dark night of the soul.” As psychoanalyst Gerald G. May sees it, when we speak of darkness today, we are often referring to something sinister, as in “powers of darkness” or the “dark side.” That’s not what John means when he uses oscura which simply means “obscure.”
In speaking of la noche oscura, the dark night of the soul, John is addressing something mysterious and unknown, but by no means sinister or evil. It is instead profoundly scared and precious beyond all imagining. John writes that the dark night of the soul is “happy,” glad,” guiding,” and full of “absolute grace.” It is the secret way in which God not only liberates us from our attachments …, but also brings us to the realization of our true nature. The night is the means by which we find our heart’s desire, our freedom for love.
source: May, G.D. (2003). The dark night of the soul — a psychiatrist explains the connection between darkness and spiritual growth. HarperSanFrancisco, p. 67. For very readable translation with helpful commentary, see: Starr, M. (2002). Dark night of the soul. New York: Riverhead.