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The Dark Night of the Collective Soul

How to embrace hope amidst societal chaos and despair

Authors & Thought Leaders
words: Robert Atkinson, PhD, for Bodhi Tree

In this season of the winter solstice, the darkest time of the year, how could we not marvel at the entire universe obeying the same fundamental laws of nature? These laws are constant, can be observed and allow us to identify patterns in all realms of existence— physical and spiritual, individual and collective—since they are all part of the same ultimate Reality. All of creation is an indivisible oneness.

Individual and collective development, just like the cycle of seasons, follows the same pattern of maturation, decline and eventual renewal. It is well known from the world’s spiritual and mystical literature that we experience periods of doubt, confusion and conflict many times over in our lives, all of which can fuel a dark night that eventually turns into a process of transformation, or rebirth.

A Cyclical Time of Crisis

The journey into a dark night where all is new, unknown and at risk is a journey toward reshaping our lives, and redefining who we are. The phrase “dark night of the soul,” introduced by 16th century mystic St. John of the Cross, is now a classic motif in all literature and has come to identify a time of challenge, despair and spiritual crisis in a person’s life that often leads to transformation involving a symbolic death and rebirth experience, resulting in a deeper spiritual life.

But what about the dark night of the collective soul? Is there a similar process of crisis and despair leading to the transformation and renewal of the community, the nation or the entire human society as a whole? Is humanity currently experiencing a loss of soul, a spiritual crisis?

Civilizations and empires have long followed a pattern of rise and fall, bringing to mind the Egyptian, Aztec, Incan, Mayan, Greek, Roman, Persian and Ottoman empires, and in more recent centuries, Spain, Portugal, France and Great Britain. All these powers have risen and fallen yet continued to exist in a different form after their dark night of the collective soul.

A Pattern of Opposition Followed by Progress

Many feel we, humanity as a whole, are currently in that dark night of the collective soul. In our time, the transformation of one leads inevitably to the transformation of all. What affects the part, impacts the whole.

However, though we are becoming a global community, a “dark night” in one region of the world does not mean that transformation will occur in all regions of the globe at the same time. Global transformation would be a gradual, part-by-part process, in the long run resulting in the advancement of civilization as a whole.

All of creation participates in this pattern of opposition followed by progress. Nothing escapes the cycle of opposites that defines the nature and process of change and growth. It is a process of deep organic change in the structure of society that most characterizes the dark night of the collective soul.

A “two-fold process” of “universal fermentation” in every continent and every sphere of life (religious, social, economic or political) is, according to the Baha’i writings, “purging and reshaping humanity in anticipation of the Day when the wholeness of the human race will have been recognized and its unity established.”

This dual process is part of a collective pattern of growth characterized by “a series of pulsations, of alternating crises and triumphs,” forming “a dialectic of victory and crisis.” One aspect of the process is essentially integrative, striving to unify world systems, while the other is fundamentally disruptive, tending to oftentimes violently maintain the barriers that separate humanity, keeping it from its destined goal.

Humanity’s Rebirth

Ours is a time of one of humanity’s greatest transformations. We live in a world defined by the dramatic collapse of the old forms of society. This disintegrating force has made chaos the norm for the generations of the 20th and 21st centuries. Though this societal fermentation is a painful process, all of the elements that have been broken apart will gradually be reorganized and reformed into something entirely new.

Humanity’s story has taken this turn toward chaos and disintegration because it refuses to acknowledge and embrace the spiritually based principles meant to guide its own evolution into a new global era that demands cooperation and integration. A shortsighted and limited vision is holding humanity hostage.

The Way Forward

At the same time, a vast process of renewal is underway throughout the world. Our suffering is serving to purify and bring together the entire human race. Our dark night is changing us from one state of being to another. This is an inescapable part of our healing and rebirth.

The way forward may be through further pain and destruction. Yet this is what will finally bring the differences into sharper focus and help us learn to distinguish more clearly between poison and honey, dark and light, and illusion and reality.

The Promise of World Peace

In fact, as the recurring crises increase and intensify all around us, it is most important to maintain a focus on the whole overarching process that is indeed unfolding. The Baha’i writings provide this big picture, long-term perspective:

“The winds of despair are, alas, blowing from every direction, and the strife that divides and afflicts the human race is daily increasing… adversities unimaginably appalling, undreamed of crises and upheavals… might well combine to engrave in the soul of an unheeding generation those truths and principles which it has disdained to recognize and follow… Whether peace is to be reached only after unimaginable horrors precipitated by humanity’s stubborn clinging to old patterns of behavior, or is to be embraced now by an act of consultative will, is the choice before all who inhabit the earth… The current world confusion and calamitous condition in human affairs [is a] natural phase in an organic process leading ultimately and irresistibly to the unification of the human race in a single social order whose boundaries are those of the planet.”

The promise of world peace has been out there for millennia; it is up to us to bring it into reality. As a glimmer of the light at the end of the dark night begins to rise above the horizon, we must keep our eyes on this coming dawn, and on the signs of hope and progress we are witnessing.

Beneath the illusion of separation, humanity is one family. A global community with a consciousness of oneness is emerging. Don’t be distracted by seeming setbacks; hope is our inspiration, love our unifying force, and unity our ultimate destination. How we get there depends upon the stories we live by, and the action we take.

Robert Atkinson, PhD, author of The Story Of Our Time: From Duality to Interconnectedness to Oneness (Sacred Stories Publishing, February 2017), from which this piece is adapted, and of which Michael Bernard Beckwith wrote, “…a must read by the widest of global audiences…,” is professor emeritus at the University of Southern Maine, director of Story Commons, and the author of eight other books.