Our exploration today is this deeply important topic of working with our shadow. There are so many reasons why I think it is deeply important. It is so clear that many spiritual communities can generate practices and cultures which entirely veer away from any direct work or acknowledgement of shadow.
I do think there is something amazing about spiritual teachings and transcendence and liberation theologies where people think “Well, maybe this is what really matters, this is what is really important.” And it is, spirituality is incredibly important. It’s at the center of my life. But at the same time, in order to fully be spiritual, at least for me, it means that it is not enough to just liberate the effects of consciousness. That is a wonderful thing to learn how to do. It’s amazing to be able to go “Oh, that’s just a thought” or “There’s that pattern again” and to not bite the hook and to rest in spacious clarity. There is a level of freedom there, absolutely.
However, there can be also a certain kind of limited freedom because the same kinds of effects can keep arising. You know how this is in your own life, when you learn something about your own patterning, when you see something deeply about why you’re having certain sets of habits or thoughts. Sometimes sometimes it actually changes them and they stop arising in that same way.
This is not somehow about the secret perfection of relative behavior will be achieved. I don’t believe in that. But we can certainly try to agree on prosocial values, like we want to care for each other. we care about our impact, we want to learn about our behaviors that are causing each other unnecessary suffering, but we don’t want to create dynamics that actually detract from our growth, both relatively psychologically maturing as a human, but also spiritually, and being able to maintain profound transcendent views while being in the world. Mixing a healthy relative psychology and a healthy sense of union or oneness, that is my path.
So what do I mean by shadow? Well, there’s the Jungian school, which came out of the Freudian model. His appreciation of the unconscious was a big contribution to western thought. There are notions of the unconscious in the Yogacara teachings that I love from Buddhism in India. It’s called the alayavijnana, the 8th consciousness or the substrate consciousness, which literally is an unconscious, it’s the all ground where the seeds of karmic habits are planted and where they rearise into the 6th consciousness, in dreams and also during the day. The eight consciousnesses of yogacara to me are still mindblowing. They talked about the unconscious vividly, in great detail. The 7th consciousness, this assumption of being behind the eyes and thinking there is a territory here and world out there, that is brilliant.
I’m talking about these different levels of identity in us, our primitive old dorsal nervous system, that was more primitive in vertebrates or fewer-celled organisms, and then as we evolved, flight or fight, we had more energy from our environment and we developed that active and frenetic survival style, and out of that came this frontal lobe, this thinking and reasoning and organizing mind, all of which are different levels of identity.
There is the biological survival system and then there is this primitive sense of territory that, if unexamined, can inform a lot of our behaviors, and it is connected to what Freud discovered about being a being that is afraid of their own mind, afraid of the uncertainty of life, and the way we deal with that is to create unconscious defense mechanisms. When something in our environment is too threatening, we enact fight or flight, we attack or get away from the thing in our environment. Really what is happening is inside we’re getting closer to our fundamental fear and uncertainty about the vulnerability we have, being a fragile being living in uncertainty.
So I really want to talk about this from the survival level, the organism is helping us. Now you might look back and start to notice there were certain environmental triggers, things that scared you in disproportionate way to what was actually happening, you were getting brought back into that memory of the traumatic event but it’s not fully conscious. The survival system thinks it could go bad, so it acts up to keep you alive. That is our nervous system. So I’m connecting trauma and shadow.
Shadow is also internalized defenses that we have that we don’t know we have consciously, or we don’t want to know. Generally the way we recognize shadow is by reactivity. I’m going to focus here on the aspect of shaming others, attacking others. We shame and attack others when there is something we can’t feel. When we’re not activated in fight or flight we’re in our mirror neuron system, the resting state where we and all mammals naturally have the capacity to harmonize heart rates, breathing rates, energetic and electromagnetic fields. It’s crazy how interdependent we are. We are literally one. Except that is a terrifying experience when we don’t feel safe, we don’t want to be one.
The thing about reactivity is it indicates “I don’t want to feel.” If someone is going through horrific pain that we know on some level if we really allow ourselves to be present and conscious, present and alert and aware, we will start feeling what they are feeling, and that may bring us into territory where our nervous systems “No no no no. Wait a second. We can’t do this.” Then we disconnect. One of the ways we might disconnect is by attacking that person. The vulnerability they have is the vulnerability we have.
Thich Nhat Hanh has realized directly that all suffering that happens out there exists in his own heart, in our hearts, in the seeds of our own fear and survival, and he is working with that directly. He doesn’t see that as just for the ignorant and confused people. He says “Those little patterns in my heart, when I’ve been a tyrant, when I do something unconsciously out of fear to protect myself.” As long as we point outward and judge people with that aggression and hatred for their badness that means we don’t want to feel it in ourselves.
Shadow work gets really raw and personal. There is this part of ourselves that doesn’t want to know what we don’t feel we can handle, and it’s in our survival body to avoid the pain of being brought into situations where we’re confronted with aspects of our experience that don’t fit our self image, and our self image in this case is something that we want others to see and say “Yes, you’re okay, we won’t throw you out of the tribe. You won’t be excommunicated or destroyed.” That is a real fear that lives in our body, again at these different levels of evolution. I’m talking about it autonomically because it is not up to you and me. We feel the fear and the thing is we can bury the fear with unconscious patterns and distractions, but it is still active and it still effects what we focus our energy on.
How do we hold space for working this way? There first has to be tremendous love. So let’s do the firefly meditation. In our heart we can imagine a little light and let it shine, filling up your height, width and depth, your body, your torso. It’s like liquid sunshine. There is this quality of pouring light into your body, you could even do it as sort of a cumulative body scan, starting at your feet, filling up your legs with this light as if it were liquid light, pouring it in, it’s pooling and rising. Wherever this light is, it is bright, loving, maybe it’s golden, whatever color you like, it’s nurturing, luminous and shimmery. It just feels good.
As it moves up through our hips, our belly, our hands and forearms, elbows, ribs. It could also be poured in through the top of your head and coming down, either way, your heart shining or coming down. As it fills up your chest, shoulders, neck, jaw, ears, eyes, your skull, all the way up to the tips of your hairs. Just feeling this unconditional love for no reason. It is so kind, kinder than you can even imagine.
This light is the light of aliveness. It mixes with our sense perceptions. There is kind of a field of tenderness. In this space, without leaving this gentle bath of kindness and love, just asking “What is in the shadows?” Staying with the light, it’s not diminishing, and we’re also curious about what is in our body-mind experience. The great civil rights activist said “Where does it hurt?” This is another way of getting to this. Where does it hurt? Where is there a wound that we don’t want to touch because it’s so sore. We’re just keeping the light and opening this question “Where is a wound, a core wound, a fear, that we almost can’t give voice to?” Whatever images come to mind, just surrounding them in this light of kindness and love.
Notice what feelings emerge as we are curious about the orbit of these ideas. Now we’ll shift gears a bit with one last question for our luminous heart and body is “Where am I most reactive or judgmental? When do I get most reactive or judgmental of others?” You might think of a situation and then you could ask yourself “What does that get me so scared? Why does that make me so scared that I have to react?”
This culture, this community, what we’re practicing right now, is so powerful. Everyone is being embodied, speaking from their truth, vulnerable and brave, and that has an effect.
There is something emerges into the light. It was in the shadow maybe a little and then it is conscious. What are the things that are so antisocial, so disconnected from the nature and compassion and yet they come out that. We have a world full of deeply confused destructive behaviors and horrifying states of being that can really destroy people’s lives and wellbeing.
The multifaceted jewel comes in really handy in these moments. There can be a way of looking at reality as good and evil, and then there is a way to look where it’s all just luminosity and somethings are confused about their nature and other things aren’t. I love that we can just occupy different perspectives around this.
Shame concealed and driven down becomes more powerful and more dangerous. If we can’t have shadow feelings be embraced by the light, then they get even darker and more eruptive. How do these phenomenon keep happening? Compression of something and gets even stronger with repression. It gets worse.
If we feel resourced enough, it can make us more curious, like “Wait. Why is this still happening? What am I not feeling in myself? What am I not touching? What is the fear that I’m not willing to bring into the light that is just too terrifying, so I keep doing the thing like a valve to let off the steam but it doesn’t actually do anything?” That is why I am so against just liberating effects in our spiritual path. Yes, you can do it, and it’s not the whole liberation. At least for me.
This is not a spiritual question, that is what is so exciting for me, in the sense that having a healthy self identity is not a problem for our path, in fact it is helpful, but working with these different levels of identity and not being reductionist about them, not being simplistic, not reifying the shame and blame mentality, the fear-based “I don’t want to get kicked out of the group” we can see that happening and then be more nuanced and go “Wow, there are all these layers of my entity that are at force, and I could listen to them and observe them with more nuance and care instead of turning it into “I’m not like that.” You can’t.
All this month we are looking at life and life is this inner light. This inner light mixing with the shadow, the darkness, and shining into it with curiosity, the unknown, and the layers and layers, but not letting that become moralized or an assessment of our value. We still have this inner light which is fundamentally valuable because all life is just beautifully alive and valuable because it is alive. Period. It just is. The exploration then becomes more nonlinear and more curious, as opposed to “I’m trying to see if I have the good stuff.” We have the good stuff. We are the good stuff. And the bad stuff is just expressions of different levels of evolution and different systems and growth and not knowing and how we relate with things.