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Archive for the ‘Shadow work’ Category

One of the big names in psychology Philip G. Zimbaro was a guest on Skavlan, the popular talk show in Sweden. He talked about the Stanford Prison Experiment he was running in 1971 and what it revealed about the situations in which “good people are placed in bad circumstances. ” I had learnt about the famous prison simulation a few years ago from the German film “Das Experiment” (2001).  (It was not exactly something one learnt about growing up in the Soviet, the whole country being basically a prison cell.)

The experiment scheduled for two weeks was interrupted after six days as the situation started spiraling out of control. Watching the film today it is hard not to draw parallels with the prisoner abuse in Abu Ghraib by the American soldiers.

What astonished me in Dr Zimbaro’s account was that he acknowledged how in the matter of six days he totally identified with his role of the superintendent of the prison, stopped seeing the people and saw only “prisoners”, how the only thing he cared about was that the “guards” followed their routines, although he saw the escalation of the abuse by the “guards”. Could that be?

The site dedicated to the experiment takes us on a tour around it, “uncovering what it tells us about the human nature.”  I catch myself lingering over the Begin the Slide Show button. What am I about to see the proof of? That in difficult circumstances we forget about being human? (The roles of the prisoners and guards in the original experiment were assigned by chance, nobody actually wanted to be a “guard” from the beginning).

Another experiment comes to mind:  two groups of volunteers (novice meditators and what I would call mega meditators – those who had spent more than 10,000 hours in meditators, like Matthieu Ricard) submitted their brains for scrutiny by neuroscientists when practicing compassion meditation towards all beings.  The difference between the two groups was striking, the monks showing a dramatic increase in high-frequency brain activity called gamma waves that are said to underlie higher mental activity such as consciousness. The novice meditators “showed a slight increase in gamma activity, but most monks showed extremely large increases of a sort that has never been reported before in the neuroscience literature,” says Prof. Davidson, suggesting that mental training can bring the brain to a greater level of consciousness.”

So if we practice meditation for hours and hours, we can actually change the structure of the brain and become more compassionate? That if anything is a good reason enough to introduce meditation in schools and working places, right?

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In his  interview at  Buddhist Geeks lama Surya Das was asked about the ways that would allow us to experience the transformative powers of spirituality in our everyday lives and outlined the following six building blocks as a base for a well-rounded and grounded spiritual practice.

  • a daily, formal spiritual practice period (meditation, prayer, yoga, chanting, etc)
  • some form of spiritual study (anything from opening the book of nature to studying yourself to studying your relationships)
  • inner growth work (therapy, men and women’s support groups, twelve step programs)
  • working with teachers, elders, experts, and mentors
  • group practice, being a part of a community
  • some form of service, giving back

He also noted that most of the time we already are doing one or two of those and that could be enough for some period of time (parenting, being a good colleague and worker, being engaged in the community work, etc). What I particularly was glad to hear was the point about the inner work. It is my understanding that meditation alone is not enough to help us deal with the internal issues and as another guest at BGs mentioned some time earlier, it was not designed for it.  This inner growth work includes any kind of self-inquiry work that gives us insights about ourselves such as expressive arts, gardening, contemplation.

I have been exploring different forms of inner work, depending on what I have access to and what appeals to me at the moment. Moving to a greener part of town that would allow me to take walks in the fields and the forest at any time was a way to come closer to nature that always brings me back to center and is conducive to the contemplative moods as opposed to analytical thinking. I see the inner work as coming close to the unconscious part of ourselves by getting to know its language that uses symbols to communicate to us.

“To get a true sense of who we are, become more complete and integrated human beings, we must go to the unconscious and set communication with it. …It is only by approaching it that we have a chance to become conscious, complete, whole human beings… We begin to live in partnership with the unconscious rather than at its mercy or in constant warfare with it.”

Robert A. Johnson “Inner Work: Using Dreams and Active Imagination for Personal Growth”


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As it often happens in life, once we ask a question, answers start coming from all possible directions. My journey into the basement to meet my shadow led me to often shocking discoveries of the patterns that kept surfacing in my personal life and insights as to how they were shaping my life. Some of those discoveries could have been done much earlier with the help of a professional, I suppose. Nevertheless, here I am, years and multiple sabotaged relationships later and my research on the subject (without looking for anything in particular) led me to mooching the book by Jungian analyst James Hollis “Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life“. This just a week or so before my birthday (interesting coincidence). I was saving the book for the week-end. Today, when iTunes started downloading the podcast updates, I opened it up to see who Tami Simon interviewed this time on “Insights at the Edge” and gasped in disbelief when I saw the title of the new episode: “James Hollis: Underneath the Midlife Crises”. Come on!  Now I had both the book and a very skillfully done interview with the author.

So what’s the deal with the so-called “midlife” crisis and how come it seems I’ve been having one for years although I don’t have any conscious fear of aging?

Hollis posits that any crisis occurs when the maps we are carrying (conscious or unconscious ones we adopted from our culture or family of origins) do not match the terrain, when there is discrepancy between “what we sought, served, and accomplished, and what we feel in our private, honest moments”. This occurs when we experience the unavoidable conflict between the natural Self and the acquired “sense of self” (he calles it “the false self”) with “the values and strategies we have derived from internalizing the dynamics and messages of our family and our culture”*.  As children, we adopt certain defense mechanisms to ensure our survival and  we carry those with us into every decision we make as adults. Those unconscious mechanisms often guide our choices in directions quite different from those our soul desires. Most of us experience this identity crisis many times in the course of our lives and as any collision, it’s a painful experience.

As for “midlife” crisis, Hollis does not see it as “a momentary madness” , but an invitation from our soul to a more authentic existence, when something larger is wishing to emerge; an opportunity to radically examine one’s life. We have gathered enough internal material to actually address the critical question,

Am I living my life or somebody else’s?


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The Man Watching

About a month ago, when I started looking at the shadow aspect, a friend of mine was kind enough to point my attention in the direction I was not looking (of course!) .

I am in a company of a friend. Having spent some time together during the day, we share a minute of comfortable silence in the car when he suddenly breaks it by turning his face towards  me, looking me in the eye and saying,  “You are a wonderful person with a big heart”.  The second I understand what it is he is saying anxiety takes a grip of my heart and starts spreading into my stomach.  My eyes start darting around, looking for something to save me. Then, as if pulled by some unstoppable force from inside, I start talking.  I feel I have a case to argue. I am on a roll! My friend is not letting me off the hook easily: his eyes encourage me to receive the gift of his appreciation. He is sitting  next to me, smiling, giving me the time to experience my own discomfort and get comfortable with it. I stop bubbling. I have no idea what I was saying a few moments ago. I must sound like a crazy person and am ready to burst out laughing at myself when I notice the twinkle in my friend’s eyes and immediately get defensive, “Is he laughing at me?


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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).

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Until now I never really understood the mechanism of projections and what they opened for if seen not as the truth about other people but about ourselves.  How is it that we see in others what we like and don’t like in ourselves? Debbie Ford defines projection as “an involuntary transfer of our own unconscious behaviour onto others, so it appears to us that those qualities actually exist in other people.  Since we lie to ourselves about our internal feelings, the only way we can find them is to see them in others”. Makes sense: how else would I recognise something as arrogance if I didn’t know it? The others, who have the honour (often times the burden) of receiving our negative projections, have some quality that triggers that projection in us. So if I accept my own arrogance, I will not be affected by someone else’s because I will know I can be this way too. Doesn’t this also open for compassion towards others?

The problem with projections is that they actually prevent us from seeing people as they are. We are bumping into our own fears and emotions, talking to ourselves and our memories instead of the real people. We might even think we know them but in fact have very little clue about what’s behind this wall  we build between ourselves and other people. How very sad!


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Committed to the shadow work, I made sure I would not be walking into the dark forest entirely by myself but asked for a support of a dear friend of mine. We agreed on giving each other honest feedback and encouragement while opening this Pandora’s box. (I sure hope we will remain friends after! ) Besides,  since it is the nature of the shadow to remain unseen to us, others might have more to say about those sides that we are hiding or denying from ourselves so it can be helpful to turn to people for some clues (probably asking the ex would not be such a good idea, at least not in the beginning 🙂 ).

One of the things that came up for me even before I started going deep was arrogance and when I asked my friend about it he acknowledged that I could in fact be quite righteous.  I was prepared to hear an honest respond and was committed not to shy away from it but receive it and observe my own reaction.  The first feeling was that of frustration and disappointment, “No, dear, I can be quite arrogant but not in that way. I surely leave place for other people’s opinions and welcome the differences!” I knew exactly what I meant by arrogance and he was talking about something else! Well, I was prepared hearing the bad stuff, but obviously the one that I thought was right. When I saw the thinking process unfolding this way, I paused in disbelief:  wait a minute, what was I at the moment when I was reacting in this way if not something that could be discribed as arrogant and righteous?!

This was the first lesson: courage alone is not enough when meeting one’s demons. You gotta have some of that wisdom to cut through one’s habitual way of thinking and emotional reactivity that comes up as we start digging deeper and the ego is getting a fit. I laughed wholeheartedly at this unexpected twist and at how easy it is to get into this mind trap. I also see now that this work requires a state of mindfulness so we are not easily carried away by emotions or thoughts.

“The gold is in the dark”

C. Jung

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