The Dark Night of the Soul – the Technicalities

We all have experienced a dark night of the soul. Hitting rock bottom and shattering to pieces, sitting there, sifting through the pieces, discard some, dust and reuse the others, reassemble.

We know what it is like – by experience – but we don’t really know how personal doomsday comes about. Too busy dealing with it.

I had a closer look at the technicalities and found a few things that I want to share with you. It all begins with the mystery of traumas.

The Mystery of Traumas

If you google trauma you won’t find an explanation.

You’ll find the cause – a distressing event, and you will find the effects – mostly anxiety.

But that’s it.

Distressing Events

Wikipedia: Psychological trauma is damage to the mind that occurs as a result of a distressing event.

One woman’s trauma is another woman’s delight. The death of a person can be traumatic or a cause to celebrate – depending on the circumstances. Experiences that traumatize children may not traumatize adults. Different cultures, different traumas.

Conclusion: The mystery does not lie in the event, it lies in our emotional response.

But here is a little surprise for you: we can neither remember pain, nor emotions. Try it. The moment pain is gone, it’s forgotten and in-recollectible. Same for emotions. But we can remember traumatic events, and every time we do that, we re-experience the sense of loss and the whole string of negative emotions that comes with it.


Our senses turn experiences into a multimedia stream, which they display on our brain’s frontal lobe. If it were not for emotions, experiencing the external world would be like watching TV. Without emotions, we would look at an approaching lion and we would be like “Wow. Awesome. Beautiful.” And we would be dead.

The two most common emotions are fear and aggression. They serve survival – fight or flight. Excitement and satisfaction manage our pursuits, for example, hunting and gathering. Disgust protects us against diseases. Sexual arousal and infatuation serve the survival of the species. Sadness or grief are emotional responses to loss.

Our human spacesuit developed a few social emotions since we have a better chance of surviving in groups. Examples of social emotions are loneliness, pity, and embarrassment.

Emotions can be positive and negative. Negative emotions: fear, aggression, disgust, etc. Positive emotions: infatuation, arousal, excitement, and satisfaction.

Mind that we like to flirt with negative emotions, for example, fear – by going bungee jumping or watching thrillers.

Positive, Negative, and Tiny Traumas

Traumas can be positive and negative as well. Negative traumas: accidents, losses. Positive traumas: running into our soul mate, winning a gold medal, the birth of a child, etc.

The birth of my first child was a whammy. One moment, there was nothing, the other moment there was a complete human being with a life on its own. And I was responsible for it. It was a tiny, positive trauma.

Tiny traumas usually last a couple of hours or keep us up a night. We notice them, get sad or angry, and move on with our lives. Kids are great at that.

Some traumas linger. If not resolved, they turn into PTSD or, to use an old term, cause suffering. PTSD is a step toward the dark night of the soul.

Traumas Save Lives

Traumas have a bad reputation. This is inappropriate because traumas are life savors – they help us to stay away from dangerous situations.

Hot stove is a trauma. Height is a trauma. Dog bite is a trauma. Subconsciousness remembers traumas and alerts us in case we get into similar situations.

So, when do traumas go wrong?

The Fragile Ego

He explained that the first attention in man is animal awareness, which has been developed, through the process of experience, into a complex, intricate, and extremely fragile faculty that takes care of the day-to-day world in all its innumerable aspects. In other words, everything that one can think about is part of the first attention. – Carlos Castaneda, The Fire from Within, page 64

Our ego is not only the experiencer, but also our self-identification. Emotions make sure the ego feels that experiences are happening to him.

The ego identifies himself with many external things, for example, his body, his name, his status, his possessions, his nationality, as well as thoughts, ideas, emotions, and feelings. The ego is a cloud:

Ego Cloud

Remember Wikipedia and that traumas damage the mind? Not really. Traumas damage the ego cloud. Hence, (persistent) traumas are always accompanied by a sense of loss – the loss of a thing or idea or person which equals the loss of a piece of self-identification.

Losing a piece of self-identification is a little death and that triggers fear. That’s why anxiety is the most common symptom of PTSD.

Here is a list of distressing events that were found to cause traumas:

  • Domestic abuse
  • Sexual abuse
  • Chronic pain
  • Being bullied
  • War
  • Disasters
  • Sickness
  • Grief
  • Divorce
  • Loss of home
  • Loss of freedom

Self-identification before domestic abuse: I am a beloved child. Self-identification after domestic abuse: I’m not a beloved child. Result: Identity loss/change.

Self-identification before the death of a loved one: I am a wife. Self-identification after the loss: I’m a widow. Result: Identity loss/change.

Self-identification before losing one’s job: I’m a successful executive. Self-identification after losing one’s job: I’m a loser. Result: Identity loss/change.

Self-identification before giving birth: I’m a spouse. Self-identification after giving birth: I’m a mother. Result: Identity loss/change.

Integration, Rejection, and Re-identification

Traumas can go three ways:

A) The ego integrates traumas.

B) The ego rejects traumas.

C) Traumas enforce a harmful re-identification.

We experience the integration of tiny traumas on a daily basis. We learn, adapt, re-identify, and move on.

In case the ego fails to re-identify, he will try to forget the trauma. Physical traumas can cause immediate amnesia. I had a car accident when I was a kid and I can’t remember a thing. If the traumatic event doesn’t cause amnesia, the ego may resort to dissociation or motivated forgetting. In this case, the memory of the traumatic event sinks into subconsciousness and turns into a  psychological complex – a hidden wound.

In the case of harmful re-identification, the trauma becomes part of the ego cloud, which leads to the dark night of the soul.

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