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Current Update as of November 22, 2005 

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Edited by HENRY REED, Ph.D.

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Dark Nights of the Soul

Dark Nights of the Soul

(New World Library)

   I wonder if you've ever lost hope? I once was not able to get out of bed much for several weeks; I just could not get up. I feigned ill health, but it was a deep emptiness and vague fear that left me weak, helpless, hopeless, useless.

I was working in computer systems at a distribution center for a foreign car company. They were planning a move to another location a couple of hours away, and there wasn't much for our department to do until the move was made.

We spent our time doing little projects to keep busy, and we would take long lunches playing hearts and joking around. As boring as the time was, it was a secure, well-paid job with lots of benefits.

When it came time to make the move and I was faced with relocating, I knew that if I stayed with the company, this would be my life from then on. Safe, secure, well paid, unfulfilling, boring. I quit and went to bed.

   Several weeks of intense spiritual searching and reading in philosophy and religion ensued. I was bogged down with what a mess the world was in and what a mess I was in.

Malcolm X had been assassinated, Watts had exploded in riots, antiwar protests were escalating, and the My Lai massacre in Vietnam had just been exposed (more on that later). So much was wrong, yet I felt I was not contributing meaningfully.

I remember reading an Eastern guru and finding him to be profoundly intelligent, creatively engaging, and completely unintelligible.

Everything I had ever believed was being brought into question, and for the life of me, I could not understand what the man was saying. It left me with nothing, and I sank deeper into depression.

   Of course, that was what the guru was trying to do. Like a modern Buddha, he was calling into question every belief about religion, the values of our culture and society, the foundation of my personal psychological security system, and what I was doing in my life and work.

And he left nothing whatever to replace it with, leaving it all up to me. For a while, I lost the will to live.

   Sometimes drastic transitions from one way of life to another demand the complete falling away of all support systems.

You may not even know what is going on inside you except that you feel like shit. Our minds can break down when we find ourselves without meaning and purpose.

   Internationally renowned psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, who endured years of unspeakable horror in Nazi death camps, wrote this in his groundbreaking book Man's Search for Meaning:

I published a study devoted to a specific type of depression I had diagnosed in cases of young patients suffering from what I called "unemployment neurosis."

And I could show that this neurosis really originated in a twofold erroneous identification: being jobless was equated with being useless, and being useless was equated with having a meaningless life.

Consequently, whenever I succeeded in persuading the patients to volunteer in youth organizations, adult education, public libraries, and the like - in other words, as soon as they could fill their abundant free time with some sort of unpaid but meaningful activity - their depression disappeared although their economic situation had not changed and their hunger was the same.

Frankl developed "logotherapy." Logos is a Greek word that denotes "meaning," and his therapy was based on the "striving to find a meaning in one's life," which he felt was "the primary motivational force in man."

What matters is "not the meaning of life in general, but rather the specific meaning of a person's life at a given moment....

Everyone has his own specific vocation or mission in life to carry out a concrete assignment which demands fulfillment.

Therein he cannot be replaced, nor can his life be repeated. Thus, everyone's task is as unique as is his specific opportunity to implement it."

And that is why I'm writing this book to you right now, and why you are reading it right now.

"The more one forgets himself - by giving himself to a cause to serve or another person to love - the more human he is and the more he actualizes himself...self-actualization is possible only as a side-effect of self-transcendence."

   Wilson Van Dusen, a clinical psychologist, philosopher, and author, echoes Frankl's observations. As a doctor of clinical psychology, he worked for many years at a mental hospital with the most serious cases of mental illness.

He defines madness as "a turning in on one's self that makes one a constricted uselessness that misses one's highest potential...mad people are relatively useless both to themselves and to others....

Usefulness and acting constructively toward others is therefore the way out of madness."

He discovered that trying to analyze people out of their madness by attempting to rearrange their inner mind simply didn't work, and that the treatment that brought inner change was accomplished by having the patient perform small, useful chores.

As the patient begins feeling useful again, the inner becomes rearranged by the actions of the outer. "The inner is, after all, a symbolic commentary on the relationship of the person to the world....The reality of the inner is in what a person does....Sanity is usefulness."

   What if you find yourself in a job with a useless company that makes useless or even harmful stuff, engaged in daily work that is beneath your potential, and beneath your own value system? You're part of a company that's basically gone bonkers.

You can't really analyze your way out because you end up simply justifying your situation, but you want to make your way to your real purpose. You can't just leave because that would be irresponsible to others who depend on you for support.

Following Frankl's and Van Dusen's advice, your first step might be to find something that is of real ser-vice, like volunteering for a local aid organization.

As your inner self responds and changes, you are back on the journey of finding your true purpose, which is to match up what you are best at giving with what the community truly needs.

   I've heard mythologist Joseph Campbell's advice misstated as "Follow your bliss and the money will come." That's not what he said.

He actually said: "If you follow your bliss, you will always have your bliss, money or not. If you follow money, you may lose it, and you will have nothing."

He advised taking a first step toward the gods, whereby "they will then take ten steps toward you." That first step brings the psychological support needed.

Then, as you progress, your true vocation comes into focus and your choices come from knowing rather than guessing.

   Eventually I got back in touch with my surroundings and climbed back out of the hole. I sold my Porsche, lived on my savings for a while, and eventually found the most life-changing work I've ever experienced.

I feel lucky. Some never return from depression. It was then that I recognized how short our precious lives are, how quickly they can disappear.

Soul School

   Guy Murchie wrote a wonderful book called The Seven Mysteries of Life, published in 1978 and still in print.

Subtitled An Exploration in Science and Philosophy and almost 700 pages in length, it was called by one reviewer "a staggering work of encyclopedic proportions, with a stirring noble vision to match."

Murchie's artful combination of scientific explanation and visionary, mystical spirit is both challenging and inspirational.

   Murchie writes, "The only hypothesis for the nature of this troubled world that fits all the known facts [is] the hypothesis that planet Earth, is, in essence, a Soul School."

He asks us to test that hypothesis by imagining that we are God, intent upon creating a world for the creatures we are creating to live in.

Could we "possibly dream up a more educational, contrasty, thrilling, beautiful, tantalizing world than Earth to develop spirit in?"

Would we want to make the world comfortable, safe, and free of danger, or "provocative, dangerous, and exciting" - as it is?

He then goes on to say that the tests we meet in life are not to punish us but are here to "reveal the soul to itself," that the world is a "workshop...for molding and refining character."

   Whether you interpret this as allegorically or literally true, Soul School is where mystery, psychology, and spirituality meet.

We slowly but surely learn the lessons of wisdom if we are seeking them, or we ignore them at the peril of our own character and life purpose.

Our failings have consequences, to ourselves and to others, that are not magically undone through a belief system. As we sow, so do we reap.

That is the moral order that we learn as adults to take responsibility for. It is what traditional wisdom and most religions teach.

   Seeing life as Soul School can also show us how we find meaningful work. Through the knocks and challenges of life, we find out who we are, what we really care about.

Each time we pick ourselves back up and start again, we draw closer to our meaning.

If we take the scary leaps that are sometimes necessary to do what we are here to do, or to figure out what needs doing that best fits who we are, we are on the mythical hero's path to find the work that has meaning for us.

"We must be willing to get rid of the life we've planned," Joseph Campbell said, "so as to have the life that is waiting for us....[E]very process involves breaking something up. The earth must be broken to bring forth life. If the seed does not die, there is no plant."

Whole Earth Heroes

   It was on the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog, beginning in the late sixties, that I and many others first encountered new, alternative ideas about Gaia, whole systems, the conservation of resources, eco-ethics, organic and biodynamic gardening and farming, permaculture, well-made tools, solar and owner-built homes, domes, organic food by mail, soy foods, voluntary simplicity, and foraging.

New, different heroes began emerging in our consciousness.

   Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, called Walden, Thoreau's book about living simply, "the prime document of America's third revolution, now under way."

But, of course, in our culture you can't live simply unless you've got lots and lots of really good stuff. We didn't want to be materialists like our parents, so we called all our stuff "tools," which made them okay.

   In Brand's catalog, we met some unique and interesting people with new ways of living and looking at the world, and we learned some disturbing information. We learned about going back to the land and living self-sufficiently.

We learned that pesticides and pollution were potentially the death of nature (the United States now applies twice the amount of pesticides as in 1962 when Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, which sounded the alarm about poisonous chemicals and helped launch the environmental movement).

We learned that we were devastating the planet and that there were smart solutions that were being ignored. We learned that there were well-proven alternatives to the use of chemicals to grow food.

We learned that we don't need meat to get enough protein, and that there is more than enough food in the world to go around; we learned that hunger is caused by a scarcity of democracy, not food.

We learned that nuclear war would murder nature, creating a nuclear winter that would result in the total loss of human agricultural and societal support systems, and eventually all humans on Earth.

   Here, in the pages of Brand's catalog, our whole way of life and our value system were being brought into serious question, and here creative solutions were also being presented.

And the encyclopedic diversity of opinions, questions, and answers felt like a whole new world and hopeful way of living being born before our eyes.


   The gulf between what was and what could be heightened tensions in the culture. When fundamental questions are being raised and the old answers are no longer believable, that first question mark you allow into your own consciousness can doom your comfy little belief system.

The world you never questioned - because "that's just the way it is" and "here are the answers given in the Holy Book" and "comments like that are blasphemy and will get you eternal damnation" - suddenly gets held up for scrutiny.

What you see going on around you conflicts with everything you've been told. Values voiced, but not lived. Beliefs stated, but not followed and making no sense. It might start with an unjust war.

It might start with discovering a hidden priestly perversion in your church.

Then it all comes tumbling down around you, and you're left with the most important and scariest realization you've ever had in your life:

They seem so absolutely certain and sure of themselves - these authorities who say they know - but they don't know! Just because they say so doesn't make it so.

   I'd grown up in church. My identity was firmly attached to a religion that had all the answers.

Now, as the tensions of the Civil Rights movement and the escalating war in South Vietnam increased relentlessly, and sides were being taken in politics and the culture, everything was up for questioning.

   I remember so well the last fundamentalist church service I attended. The pastor was lamenting all the "lost souls" in foreign lands, and he said everyone in the congregation was to blame.

Not only would the heathen go to hell forever and ever if they rejected Jesus as their personal savior, but they would also go to hell because they had never even heard about Jesus, and we were each to blame for not caring enough or giving enough money to send missionaries there to tell them what was going to happen to them and how they could escape.

I had heard this so many times before and never thought twice about it. But within the context of the questioning going on inside me, and all around me, I began understanding the implications for the first time.

   Wait just a minute, I thought. No way! That couldn't be the truth!

If God was a God of love, he wouldn't create people who'd never heard of Jesus and then condemn them to be burned forever because others failed to tell them.

I was born with a brain as well as a heart, and that sermon, and the whole belief system behind it, suddenly became unacceptable.

The Bible commands that we are to love God with all our mind, heart, and soul, but this was stupendously cruel.

If we, the lucky ones, were then to go to heaven, how could we selfishly enjoy it knowing what our friends "down below" were going through?

   The dots magically disconnected, and I was pissed! Up I stood and out I walked, leaving behind my safe little life. I needed better answers than that.

I was totally uninterested in living forever with the tyrannical, vindictive, monstrous God being offered by my religion.

Why didn't he follow his own Golden Rule? What kind of faith and hope was that? I'd take my chances elsewhere.

   But church was my identity. Church was my community. I was lost. Where was some truth I could count on, truth that spoke to my heart, that registered in my brain, that made some sense?

   "Why should not we also enjoy an original relation to the universe?" Emerson asked. "Why should not we have...a religion by revelation to us, and not the history of theirs?"

Friends Meeting

   While the Vietnam War was still in its infancy, two little old ladies arrived at the Stanford Shopping Center in Palo Alto, California, every Saturday morning at 11:00 and stood silently at the entrance for an hour protesting the war.

They were there every Saturday without fail, and they were alone in their protest for months.

But as the war became an issue in the press, others began joining them, and in 1968, the year Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated and the Tet offensive in South Vietnam exposed the futility of the war, hundreds stood with them in protest.

Those faithful, steadfast, responsible, unintimidated little old ladies were "bearing witness" to their beliefs, and their efforts were gathering momentum.

   As I walked through the crowd to do some shopping, I stopped and asked them who they were. They told me they were Quakers, members of the local Religious Society of Friends. Out of curiosity, I visited their church.

They met each Sunday for "Friends Meeting" in their plain, no-frills meetinghouse, with twenty or thirty chairs on each side facing each other.

People quietly filed in, the doors were closed, and there was silence. Some sat with eyes open, others with eyes closed. Some seemed to meditate, others to contemplate, others to pray.

This went on for some thirty or forty minutes of increasing uneasiness on my part, when finally an older woman got to her feet and began relating how a book she was reading had challenged her and what it meant in this time of war and social upheaval.

   What blew me away, because it was outside the realm of my own experience, was that the book this older, grandmotherly woman talked about was by Hermann Hesse, an author then popular with young people that was also in my stack of bedside reading.

These Quakers were people, young and old, who were questioning and examining their values. After she sat down, another two or three people rose and reverently said a few words of faith, inspiration, or insight, or quoted scripture.

Then there was quiet again before everyone stirred, joining hands all around for a few more minutes of silence. Then, with a hand squeeze passed from one to the other, the meeting was over.

No pastor, no sermon, no choir, no organ, no hymnals, no stained glass, no doctrine, no creed, no dogma, and no one in charge.

Any "authority" came from within themselves. I was moved and forever changed.

   Quakers believe that there is "that of God in everyone," the "inner light." They believe we can have a direct experience of God and therefore we don't need any middlemen to mediate between us and Spirit.

They combine mysticism (seeking within) and activism (applying values). Even though their religion is rooted in Christianity, they don't accept the idea of original sin or believe in a God who whimsically rewards and punishes.

There was no "fall from grace" because the first woman ate an apple, no need for a redeemer or atonement or plan of salvation. Quakers look for the truth within themselves and within their "Meetings for Worship."

By seeing "that of God in everyone," they overcome self-centered individualism. They believe in a life of simplicity, service, and love, and in letting their lives speak for who they are.

For them, the Bible is the word of God only as interpreted by each person for themselves. Sacred revelation is not only found in the Bible but continues today.

They believe in responding to injustice with peaceful noncooperation rather than either violence or acquiescence.

They are pacifists, following the Christian teachings of compassion, not returning evil for evil, and not killing their fellow human beings.

In their 1660 statement to King Charles II of England they wrote: "We utterly deny all outward wars and strife and fighting with outward weapons for any end or under any pretence whatsoever, this is our testimony to the whole world."

During the Vietnam War, many conscientious objectors and antiwar activists were Quakers.

   They believe in walking their talk; they believe that their values apply to what they do every day of their lives.

They believe in equality and were involved heavily in the women's suffrage movement - Susan B. Anthony and Lucretia Mott were Friends - as well as the antislavery movement, and the Underground Railroad.

And they are strong supporters of the United Farm Workers Union. They may be kind and gentle, but they are definitely not meek and mild.

Among Christian communities, Quakers may be the closest of any to practicing the values of fairness and justice that Jesus taught.

   And when it comes to meaningful work, their business decision-making process, a version of consensus democracy, is a revelation.

The Quaker "Meeting for Business" is based on a reverential "spiritual discernment," a search together for truth, as a group, rather than a pushing of personal desires or agendas.

Respect for everyone's point of view, with periods of silence between points offered, and a sober, serious attitude mark the Quaker way of doing church business. It's profoundly moving when first experienced.

   The Quaker history of lived values, now extending over hundreds of years, gives us hope that fairness and justice will continue to progress despite the huge steps backward that occasionally occur.

Ridicule from those protecting the status quo has failed to extinguish the Quakers' inner light, an insistent beacon of truth and equality for the rest of our culture.

There's no better illustration of their commitment than their treatment of women. Many churches still teach that God created women as inferior beings and that women must always obediently submit to their husbands.

But the Quakers, way back in the 1700s, had already progressed into the twentieth century, voluntarily relinquishing the privileged positions of men.

They recognized that women were not participating fully in their Meetings for Business, as most women would not "nay-say" their husbands. So they decided to form two separate "Meetings for Business."

They built their meetinghouses with a movable divider down the middle. During Meetings for Worship, the divider was raised, but for business meetings the divider was lowered, creating two rooms so each gender could run separate business meetings.

If they needed a common agreement, each group would send an emissary to the other meeting. They continued this practice until there was no longer a concern over whether women would feel free to disagree with their husbands.

Their patience and commitment of time to make things fair and just, and to reach agreement, is a commendable and prudent devotion to the most basic democratic values.

   As businesspersons in the 1600s, the Quakers' integrity and honest dealing would not allow them to haggle over prices, as was the common practice of their day.

Instead, they believed that it was dishonest and deceitful to ask a higher price than what they would accept. Their prices were thus set and nonnegotiable.

According to A Quaker Book of Wisdom, written recently by Robert Lawrence Smith, a practicing Quaker:

Early in the history of the labor movement, Quaker businessmen recognized that unions were essential as a means of communication between management and workers.

Many saw collective bargaining at its best as similar to the search for consensus that goes on at Quaker Meetings for Business.

Viewed this way, negotiations become a method for bringing about an enlightened resolution or synthesis of different points of view.

One result is that, by and large, workers at Quaker businesses have been able to reach fair contract terms without resorting to strikes....

The fact is, many Quaker businesses have demonstrated that profit and social responsibility are not only compatible, but interdependent. Big business enterprises today have become increasingly bottom-line oriented.

Rather than being accountable to their customers, they are accountable only to their stockholders.

They demonstrate their success not by the public regard they've engendered but by pointing to the figures at the bottom of the profit/loss balance sheet.

The Quaker business model seeks cooperation, while recognizing the need to compete. Instead of seeing their workers and customers as adversaries, they view them as partners.

Quaker businesspeople understand that they are accountable to the individuals they employ, the customers they serve, the community they share, and their own conscience.

Not surprisingly, this adds up to both good citizenship and good business.

   This unassuming and gentle Quaker meetinghouse in Palo Alto became my center of comfort and community while I transitioned to a new way of understanding and found a new place in the world.

I look back with deep regard and respect to the way of the Friends. They saved me.

What Would Leo Do?

   The Quakers show us that the practice of loving-kindness summarized by the Golden Rule has practical application in our social and political systems.

Another source of wisdom I discovered during this time, to my surprise, was the great novelist Leo Tolstoy.

Although much more socially progressive in his day than was my dad, the nineteenth-century Russian novelist and philosopher saw the world through the same colorless lens, that is, in black and white. He saw no compromise.

   Although famous for War and Peace and other fiction, Tolstoy later grew weary of the emptiness of his life and social milieu and began studying what he called "true Christianity" - that is, the teachings of Jesus rather than the doctrines and dogmas of the Russian Orthodox Church.

His fiction became moralistic, and in widely circulated essays he began taking on the Church, political institutions, art, culture, and everything else he saw as false and meaningless.

His writing struck me deeply. This was a successful and intelligent man of the world thinking for himself, approaching the subject both rationally and emotionally, and with the same righteous indignation I was feeling.

Basing his beliefs in the teachings of Jesus, rather than church interpretations and creeds, Leo had this to say back in the late 1800s:

"The mistake of all political doctrines, from the most conservative to the most advanced, which has brought men to their present pitiful condition, is the same: the belief that it is possible to keep men social by means of violence."

   And this: "[L]ove is only love when it is given in the same degree to outsiders, to the adherents of other religions, and even to the enemies who hate us and do us harm....[T]his means that violence directed against you can never justify the use of violence on your part."

   Also this: "We will be free from the evil that is torturing and corrupting the whole world, not by preserving the present regimes, or by suppressing them, or by imposing them by force.

But by having recourse to this sole rule: each one of us, without worrying about the result to ourselves or others, must in our own lives observe the supreme law of love condemning every form of violence."

   Immensely appealing to my young idealism during that time of internal struggle, these tenets were even more fundamental than fundamentalism, more black and white than the doctrines of my church, but they were enforced with loving-kindness rather than condemnation.

Leo took the wishy-washy, contradictory lives that Christians around him seemed to live and, like Jesus, denounced them as hypocritical.

During a time of war like the one we were living in then - and now - Leo's position was an uncompromising moral condemnation of the wars we supported.

Leo's writings on nonviolence had influenced Mohandas Gandhi, and Gandhi's life, in turn, was inspiring the nonviolent civil rights campaigns of Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez.

   What I was struggling with back then was this question: Can those of us who were raised as Christians and who then discovered some things about Church history, beliefs, doctrines, and creeds we could not subscribe to still believe in the religion's basic values, along with other spiritual teachings?

Can we ferret out the true and good from the questionable and nonsensical? Can we incorporate them into our lives because they are the right things to do, and because that is how we want to be treated, rather than because we fear the consequences of violating a belief system?

And can we apply them not only to daily life, but to our daily work as well?

*Reprinted with permission of New World Library. Copyright © 2005. All rights reserved.
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