More men than ever are experiencing a phenomenon known as the dark night of the soul.
February 1, 2022
Nine Octobers ago, I quit what had once been my dream job at GQ magazine and agreed to accompany my friend Justin on a monthlong trip to Paris. I remember wandering the old, stone streets, smoking cigarettes and brooding, doing my best René Descartes: Doubt is the origin of wisdom.
I was 29, naive and lost—unsure of what it meant to be a man in this world. For the past several years, I'd had my eyes fixed on making a name for myself in the glamorous, New York media world. But that came and went, leaving me feeling no more satiated than when I'd begun. In the coming years, I'd search fervently for meaning in many of the other things I was told a man should want: I accepted other prestigious jobs, piled up romantic conquests, and accumulated possessions, including my first house. By 2015, I'd exhausted the list. I'd experienced everything I'd been told would make me happy, and I wasn't. Life felt truly meaningless.
In the modern world, we might call what I went through burnout or depression. We might label it as a byproduct of privilege, or simply call it crazy. We might say: if you'd only risen one rung further, you'd be singing a different tune. But all of these are erroneous. Many incredible, successful men come to my coaching practice believing they are burnt out, clinically depressed, or inadequate when they have actually entered into what Spanish mystic St. John of the Cross coined in the 16th century as the “dark night of the soul.”
The proverbial “dark night” has had many names throughout history: Carl Jung called it Nigredo—literally, an investigation of the shadow—the ancient Greeks called it Katabasis. Spiritual teacher and author Eckhart Tolle describes the dark night as when “the meaning that you had given your life for some reason collapses.”
Although a collapse of the meaning of life triggers panic ... it’s an invitation to grow up, show up, and ultimately become a whole, self-sustaining person.”
Dark nights are often kicked off by a major external event in one's life, whether that event is perceived as positive or negative: there could be the death of a loved one, loss of a job, major illness, breakup or divorce. But there can also be reaching a goal you lusted after for so long—finding the partner of your dreams, buying a house, or moving to a new city, and finding out that it actually does not bring the relief you had hoped for. That was me many times over.
It'd be easy to brush off dark nights of the soul as some dusty spiritual artifact. But there are more happening in the world right now than ever. No event in modern life has spurred the onset of more dark nights than COVID-19, when the world as we knew it changed almost overnight. The full effect of the pandemic will continue to be measured in the years to come but one thing is for sure: A lot of men went into spirals over the last 19 months. Some of them ended up in the practices of life coaches like myself, some went to therapy or couples counseling for the first time, others merely asked for help. But many were not so fortunate: and slipped further into addiction, depression and suicide. Make no mistake—when our lives have no meaning, things can get dire very quickly.
What's important to realize, though, is that although a collapse of the meaning of life triggers panic for the ego—sometimes called the “small self”—the dark night is the beginning of something very good indeed. It is the beginning of a rebirth in consciousness and depth where a man breaks free of his conditioning and establishes new rules for what is truly important in his life. It is an invitation to grow up, show up, and ultimately become a whole, self-sustaining person.
There are many informal structures for how to navigate the dark night, and its many stages. I've written frequently here about Robert Bly's classic Iron John, which lays out the male archetypal journey that includes Katabasis, or what Bly calls “ashes work.” Ashes work is the dark night of the soul: the messy, grunt-work in our psyches of everything we've never faced. Carl Jung's theory of individuation is still a fantastic model, as well, which begins, again, with the identification of the shadow, facing one's dark side. Perhaps the finest is Joseph Campbell's Monomyth (often called “the hero's journey”) and its twelve stages. Stage eight—the “supreme ordeal”—is a classic example of the dark night in its most powerful form. In Hollywood movies, we see this staged as the battle between good and evil: Darth and Luke. The Joker and Batman. But in our psyches, it's not so simple. It can feel a bit like a perfect storm, and the best way to steer through it is with a trained guide.
Boy is born. Boy is a sponge who inherits the beliefs of his family, community and education system as his own. He continues living on autopilot until something happens to shake the foundation of what he knows to be true. Usually this takes until his mid-30s, or even 40s to occur. Although I'm now seeing it happen as young as the late 20s. (Because, well, consciousness.)
2 Cracks in the facade
The inciting event—either internal or external—shakes the young man out of his limited perception of how life works. Everything is thrown into the air. It's not uncommon at this time to back away from familiar relationships and to go into a hiding, of sorts, seeking the comfort of solitude. Or to leave on a walkabout, becoming, quite literally, the prodigal son, questioning everything you've known along the way. The young man may feel crazy, different. He thinks: How does everyone not see what I'm seeing? They must be asleep!
3 Shadow confrontation
Armed with acceptance of, and knowledge of the process (a coach, therapist or mentor is supremely helpful here), the young man makes a deliberate u-turn from the external world into the recesses of himself. He goes down the rabbit hole becoming ... wait for it ... an Inside Man. It's here, in the depths of himself, that he'll first encounter his shadow side, which includes his fears, desires, traumas and beliefs. This part of the process can take many years. And while the psychological risks of confronting the shadow are many, the most important thing to remember is to keep going. You will want to turn away when it gets scary, and that's the point. Dragons and demons are scary, even if they don't really exist. But to paraphrase an oft-used twelve step saying: “Don't quit before the miracle.”
4 Light emerges
I know this stage is happening with clients when they begin to laugh more, or when they have done a lot of grieving or raging and say they feel lighter. They have wrestled with the proverbial dragon in the back of the cave and come out the other side unscathed, but forever changed. There is less ego in everything they do now. They let go of old ideas of success, and self-obsession and often seek out chances to help others. They rebuild their life in accordance with their authentic selves or who they desire to be—perhaps changing cities, careers or friendships, as their external world aligns with the internal shift. They begin seeing the world through a lens unvarnished by their family or societal programming. They are, at this stage, an adult, sovereign man—they are also a very small percentage of the population. Abraham Maslow—creator of the well-known Hierarchy of Needs—estimated self-actualized people at just 2%.
My own journey through the dark night of the soul raged on for nearly a decade, and led me to coaching. And one of the greatest joys of my life is guiding other men through these murky waters to the freedom on the other side. If you're a man who is experiencing a lack of meaning in your life, don't hover over the “send” button forever. There is passion and purpose waiting for you on the other side of your confusion. What you need during a dark night is a welcome hand to reach out to in the darkness. Someone who has done it before. Someone who can hold a lantern for you as you traverse the unknown.
(Thank you to John Lee, Jacob Gershoni, Linda Ward, Debra Greten-Ganberg and Sheldon Ganberg and many, many others for being the lanterns that guided me.)