3. The Dark Night of the Soul - or more simply "The Dark Night" - is used in Christian mysticism typically to refer to the period of intense purgation i.e. cleansing of the faculties that divides the culmination of the first mystic way in illumination from complete mystical attainment in the life of Union.

However it has to be said that a certain vagueness attaches to its use.

The symbol of the dark night refers broadly to the spiritual development of the unconscious. Just as there is complementarity in natural terms as between day and night, likewise it is similar in psychological terms with day referring to the conscious and night to the unconscious respectively.
Indeed further divisions can be made by referring to the fading of natural light at dusk (onset of mystical development), midnight (the darkest period in the spiritual life) and dawn (onset of unitive life).
Indeed in one place St. John proposes three dark nights to refer to each of these periods.

Because in psychological terms the shadow personality is rooted in the unconscious, deep healing of the shadow must take place before spiritual union is possible. The shining of the spiritual light therefore on this unreformed shadow - initially hidden in the unconscious - causes darkness and distress (and the deeper the light penetrates the more intense is the perceived darkness).

St John of the Cross is perhaps the best known - and most precise - in his use of the symbolism of the Dark Night.

He distinguishes firstly as between active and passive nights. The active nights refer to conscious acts - motivated by spirit - designed to reform the imperfect ego.
These can take on positive or negative aspects. The positive aspect - referred to as detachment - is a willingness to face into specific circumstances that are desirable in terms of the authentic development of personality but which one naturally tends to avoid. For example an introvert who shies too much away from social relationships might find it necessary to address this issue through going against nature. So detachment here always implies a willingness to embrace pain where considered spiritually appropriate.
The negative aspect referred to as mortification is the willingness to give up some pleasurable activity again in the overall interests of authentic personality development e.g. fasting from certain types of food. So mortification implies a corresponding willingness to deny "lesser" pleasures as spiritually appropriate.

The active nights can also be classified in terms of "sense" and "spirit". As used by St. John, sense refers to the more superficial affective and cognitive regions of the personality based on perception.
Spirit refers to the deeper conceptual and volitional regions of personality (relating directly to the will).
Though sense and spirit are ultimately interdependent, purgation in conscious terms initially tends to be largely confined to the senses and later to the spirit (though these are reversed from an unconscious perspective, where they are represented through indirect conscious projections)

St. John lays more emphasis on the importance of the passive nights for the attainment of perfection.
Consciousness is always based on motivation which in part is unconscious. No matter how well intentioned one may be in rooting out faults, conscious effort can never get to grips with imperfections which are really rooted in the unconscious. Here direct passive activity is required whereby the spiritual light focuses intensely on these imperfections, slowly revealing them before disentangling and consuming them in the same pure light. (Light which reveals inner imperfection is concealed as darkness!).

Again St. John distinguishes as between the passive night of the senses and the passive night of the spirit.
The passive night of the senses - which is more superficial in quality - is related largely to the personal unconscious. It would coincide with the stage that Underhill refers to as "The Purification of the Self".
The passive night of spirit - which is much more severe and deep-rooted in quality - refers directly to what Underhill refers to as "The Dark Night of the Soul"

However one interesting way in which Underhill departs from St. John's treatment is in her emphasis on active as well as passive purgation during this period. Though her treatment is not nearly as profound as St. John's it is crucially more balanced in this important respect.
Indeed she provides graphic evidence from the account of the Dominican monk "Blessed Henry Suso" of the importance of continued active purgation during his "Dark Night of the Soul".

However it has to be said that there is one important respect in which Christian writers generally do not deal satisfactorily with the mystic life. This is the failure to distinguish clearly as between directly conscious activity and indirect or projected activity of the unconscious (and the associated type of purgation required to deal satisfactorily with both forms).
There is therefore a considerable blurring as between - what would be referred to in Eastern terms as - the subtle and causal realms in Christian literature. Really insofar as we can compare treatments in Christian terms the causal is simply a continuation of the subtle (and not really distinguished from it).
This failure in distinguishing direct from projected (involuntary) consciousness coincides with another major difficulty which is a failure to deal frankly with the very important psycho-sexual dynamics that unfold throughout mystical development. So sexual erotic fantasy is unduly treated in negative terms as "temptation", "promptings of the devil", the "weakness of the flesh" etc. which unfortunately is of little assistance in understanding its true nature, or in assisting proper incorporation of the body with the spirit.

In terms of the direct and indirect (or projected) consciousness an important complementarity exists.
Therefore what is achieved first in terms of purgation at a conscious level i.e. the senses, is the last to be satisfactorily achieved at the involuntary level of projected conscious activity.

Indeed when one reads St. John carefully there is strong implicit recognition for what I am saying as his poetic treatment of the Dark Night in his "Spiritual Canticle" is substantially very different in some respects from his corresponding formal treatment in the Dark Night treatise.

In dealing with the period he calls "Spiritual Betrothal" which precedes union, we see that its is again made up of illumination and purgation. However the illumination is not of the type which characterises the "illuminative way" but rather like a tranquil night that is gently illuminated by moonlight (referred to in the literature as dim contemplation). Now this illumination period really refers to the causal realm (whereas "illumination of self" which precedes The Dark Night of the Soul refers to the "subtle realm").
Also St. John beautifully describes how this peaceful spiritual illumination (i.e. dim contemplation) frequently gives way to the purgation of one's deepest impulses (and it is clear that he is mainly referring to intimate erotic desire).
So the period which precedes union for St. John is again a "dark night of the senses" but here we are dealing with intimate involuntarily projected phenomena rather than directly conscious phenomena of the early stage.

So if we are to give a full account of the illuminations and "dark nights", which properly incorporates St. John's treatment in his Spiritual Canticle, we need a much more comprehensive picture where subtle and causal realms are properly classified. This requires in turn distinguishing as between "real" activity that is directly conscious and "imaginary" activity that is indirectly conscious (i.e. as the projections of unconscious desire).

Transition to Subtle Realm

Active night of "real" sense - first serious attempts at reform of ego-based conscious desires related to affective and cognitive perception.

Subtle Realm


1. Positive - The Awakening of Self

This follows on conversion representing the first real dawning of the mystic life.

2. Negative - The Purgation of Self

This would combine both active nights of "real" sense and of "real" spirit leading in to a passive night of the "real" senses.


1. Positive - The Illumination of Self

This represents more deep rooted spiritual illumination and the culmination of the first mystic way.

2. Negative - Dark Night of the Soul

This would represent the first phase of the Dark Night relating largely to a passive night of the "real" spirit i.e. deep rooted cleansing of direct voluntary consciousness relating to the conceptual and volitional regions of personality.

Transition to Causal Realm

By this time, considerable erosion of direct conscious activity has taken place facilitating a deep - and automatic - contemplative type awareness (i.e. dim comtemplation).
However now "imaginary" involuntarily projected phenomena tend to cloud the landscape troubling the self with fresh desires.

In contrast to the previous "dark nights" we now have "bright nights" which refer to the very gently illuminated activity (that is at source unconscious in origin).

Though the return of this "imaginary" consciousness in some respects helps to reorient one towards the world, restoring a degree of balance as between form and formlessness, its involuntary nature requires a new round of purgation (which interpenetrates to a considerable degree with illumination)

The active nights of "imaginary" sense and reason would now take place

This entails the refined conscious attempt to order reactions to phenomena at both a perceptual and conceptual level, that are themselves indirect expressions of unconscious desire.

Causal Realm

Causal Realm 1

Here pre and trans stages significantly interact in vertical terms i.e. positive and negative stages interact.
However in the early stages, supersensory and suprarational elements would still to a degree dominate corresponding subsensory and subrational elements.
This calls therefore for a passive "imaginary" night of the spirit to remove this "higher level" bias.
Greater freedom from involuntary attachment to the refined spiritual phenomena of the "higher" levels enables more exposure (without repression) to "lower" level desires.

Causal Realm 2

Whereas the balance in the previous phase was in favour of trans over pre recognition, here the position is reversed with the most intimate exposure of one's personal - which is also the universal - shadow.
This leads to a passive night of the "imaginary" senses (though as active and passive are complementary this will also to a degree mean the continuation of an active night also)
Following comprehensive purgation of both a "real" conscious and "imaginary" unconscious kind (i.e. indirect conscious phenomena projected from the unconscious), unity can take place.

Null Level

We can even identify a further stage which involves the simultaneous purgation of both a "real" and "imaginary" kind in relation to both sense and spirit (at both an active and passive level).
This entails the continuing maintenance in the midst of normal activities of a genuine detached attitude, receiving extremely little - yet wanting little stimulation in phenomenal terms. This represents in turn the direct purgation of the volitional aspect of personality (i.e. will)


The unitive life does not mean the end of purgation. What it does mean however is that such purgation of whatever form it takes is now accepted willingly as an integral aspect of development (whereas earlier - without perfection of the will - it was always experienced as somewhat of an intrusion)

It should be said in conclusion that there are remarkable structural similarities here as between this outline of the "dark night" and the physical nature of "black holes" (in particular to an influential hypothesis on "spinning" black holes by the astronomer Roy Kerr).
These similarities are no by no means accidental. Indeed understanding physical Black Holes and psycho-spiritual Dark Nights in appropriate terms, reveals remarkable structural similarities greatly enhancing appreciation of both realms. The establishing of such powerful dynamic complementarity as between such areas that would - in conventional understanding - be considered largely separate, is the very goal of what I term Integral Science.