The aim of the Buddhist practice is to learn to see reality as it is, without adding anything or taking anything away.
So how do we practice with shadow?
Understanding where shadow comes from gives us insights about ourselves, shows us this is not something we could help and we don’t have to carry the guilt for having the shadow in the first place. It also gives us clues as to how we can deal with shadow material integrating it rather than keeping it under the surface.
From what I understand shadow arises when for some reason we are unable to deal with the direct experience and decide (unconsciously) to suppress it. For example, if as a child I get angry but don’t feel safe to express my anger because this is not the type of emotions my family encourages and I am afraid I will not be loved if I show anger, I suppress it and this part of my experience becomes my shadow (goes into the basement). I will then project my anger onto others and see a lot of it on my path.
Poet and author Robert Bly sees shadow as an invisible bag we all carry around. Early in our lives when we are whole, we are 360 degrees and our bag is empty. As we grow up, we internalize the don’t be- messages coming from all directions (first our family, then even our peers) while as we grow up we try to lighten the burden by retrieving those sides of us we put into the bag (and freeing the energy that takes us to uphold the façade, that self-image that we pre- approved).
The strategy of working with shadow material includes the following steps:
– opening up to our shadow (we have to create a safe container for this kind of work)
– bringing up our dark sides into the light of awareness
– acknowledging them and integrating them with love and compassion
We can work with shadow material both in meditation and in everyday lives. These are the techniques I have started using so far.
On the cushion we can pay attention to our internal resistance to the arising experiences. What do I try to push away and disown? Sometimes this can be very hard to trace because the resistance can manifest itself as dullness and boredom, not necessarily some strong emotions we might be on a look out for.
For the last couple of weeks I have been gathering observations about my shadow. I started by making a list of the people I know and the traits in them that I resent. Every time I notice my own reactivity in a situation or remember from my earlier relationships with people, I pull out my little note-book and write it down. At this stage I am not processing the information, not attempting to control anything, just playing detective. It is actually more exciting than I anticipated.
When do I demonize people? (make them into “bad guys” by projecting onto them something I am not willing to admit in myself).
For the next week I will be adding yet another inquiry on manufacturing my self-image and ask myself the following question:
In this particular situation, what is not fitting into my self-image? What’s off limits for me?
This one is actually connected with the inquiry on the cushion and the technique mentioned above: I am resisting the experience on the cushion because it does not fit my self-image of an industrious meditator. I resent another beeing greedy or know-all because I think those are the traits that I don’t have (they don’t fit my idea of myself).
Once again, I am just gathering information and writing down what gets caught in the net in this first round. The light and humours attitude here is a very important part of the process. There are many ways of brining the shadow to the surface and working with integrating it. I am exploring the techniques I come across, trying them out and keeping the ones that resonate with me. I will be looking into working with the shadow using the following ways:
- art/dance/yoga/theater and all other embodied transformatiove practices;
- mindfulness of speach (our speech can reveal a lot about our shadow. Yet I sometimes hear people say with conviction, “No! It’s just a word I use, this means nothing. This is just the way I speak.” If nothing is in there, where is the resistance coming from? I’d look into that!);
How do YOU work with shadow?
I hold a beast, an angel and a madman in me,
and my enquiry is as to their working,
and my problem is their subjugation and victory, downthrow and upheaval,
and my effort is their self-expression.