In INSIGHTS by Ira Rechtshaffer3 Comments

If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.

There is a dark side of the mind that many spiritual practitioners unwittingly avoid. We could meditate for many years and still be plagued by agonizing emotional patterns, dysfunctional behaviors, and addictions of all stripes and colors. Meditation or prayer doesn’t always shine a light into these areas because our shadows are heavily defended. 

Meditation may reveal the transparency of the ego, who we take ourselves to be, but that is only half the story. We also struggle to not be the person who we secretly suspect we are. The shadow, a term of coined by the Swiss psychologist C.G. Jung, is the aspect of ourselves that we have suppressed. Through meditation we could eventually see through our persona, the social face of ego, while our shadow remains invisible as a psychological force that shapes our thought and behavior.

The shadow holds the wounded and broken parts of ourselves, the failed ideals, the fateful consequences of poor choices. It is the inferior, unprocessed, or undeveloped aspects of our personality that our social mask hides. These are the contradictory aspects of personality where we feel most vulnerable, deficient and shamed. They are the very areas that we’re most resistant to communicate with, yet they contain missing pieces of our wholeness.hand-70508_1920

The rejected or disowned shadow self is a natural consequence of the ego building process, consisting of those qualities that were forbidden or denied by our family of origin. These unacceptable and unacknowledged qualities accumulate to form an inferior personality with its own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The shadow does not want to be revealed or known and so it feels alien to us, like a dark twin or evil other. The problem of the shadow is not its real psychological existence, but its denial. In our effort to ignore our own dark self, we tend to deny our possible greed, hypocrisy, cowardice, our obsessions and addictions, or our capacity for destructiveness. Every time we avoid or dissociate from the parts of ourselves that feel distasteful, unacceptable or threatening, we are abandoning ourselves. In our misguided effort to avoid contamination with our own imperfection, we tend to manufacture enemies or adversaries who become sacrificial scapegoats, imagined embodiments of what we have disowned in ourselves. It is a psychological law that whatever aspects of ourselves we reject, we project onto others.

The shadow is like a silent underground stream that runs beneath a city. It is a silent other that runs underneath our persona, but which becomes accentuated when we love or hate, or experience intense jealousy or anger, or when we feel utterly buoyant and celebratory. It often breaks through the cracks in our self-image or persona when we are experiencing extreme emotion. We can recognize the shadow by its vehemence, the intensity of our emotions that are disproportionate to the faults of a targeted individual or group, or the situation at hand. A comment or a certain look from another, the appearance of injustice or exploitation, a controversial opinion expressed by a friend challenging our own, all can trigger places within us where we are unresolved.

While shopping at the mall we might witness several teenagers with sagging trousers, carrying skateboards, who are speaking loudly and laughing uproariously. From our perspective they seem to be oblivious to the other shoppers and lack all sense of propriety. This ordinary scene immediately provokes our angry subvocal narrative and negative judgment. We might be oblivious to our own rigid hyper-control and inhibition to let loose and be silly. The stark contrast between our own goodness, orderliness, or rightness and the teens wrongness or chaotic behavior has triggered us. The sudden upsurge of emotion is the tip-off that we are in shadow land. This kind of black and white thinking and blind negativity can be found in racism, male chauvinism, class warfare, homophobia and gay bashing, which are examples of collective shadow projection. As meditators or spiritual practitioners, when we are working with our shadows, we are dealing with something that has immense implications.

One method to elicit your own shadow is to engage in a self-dialogue, asking to speak to different parts of yourself. This can be done with a partner or through journal writing. For instance, you may ask to speak to the part of yourself that is shamefully inhibited, or the part of yourself that is unambitious and lazy, or ruthless and opportunistic, or perhaps the part of yourself that is fearful, needy and dependent. You call forth one of your hidden faces and engage it in a dialogue as if it were a psychological twin, as a way of looking behind your persona. Ask this part of yourself what it really wants, and why it feels the need to hide in the shadows. Then you morph into that aspect of yourself and speak from its point of view back to yourself.

Another method to smoke out your shadow, is to describe in detail an imaginary or actual adversary or enemy by writing down his or her qualities. Without editing your initial feelings, describe how dislikeable, disgusting, immoral, or horrible this person is. This imagined individual probably contains qualities that are completely opposite from your own, qualities that you have forbidden yourself from experiencing, and consequently which have been buried. Welcome to your evil twin!

The question naturally arises, “Does that mean that we all are just like our enemies, horrible, disgusting and immoral? No, but because we have rejected certain taboo aspects of ourselves, they have become distorted, magnified and emotionally charged over time, and now appear to be either grotesque or exceedingly shameful. They do not represent our totality, but are psychological islands that have split off from the mainland of our wholeness.

Whenever we shine the light of awareness onto patterns that we have disowned, we are taking ownership of what we have denied and projected onto others. Our vices, our imperfections, our neuroses and our dark passions, reveal something essential about our human nature, something that needs to be worked through and not abandoned. The shadow holds our buried potentialsThe shadow includes the unlived life because we can’t be fully alive if we are crushed by secret fears and shame. As we learn to make a relationship with the shadow dimensions of ourselves, our identity expands immeasurably. We are reclaiming psychological territory which was formally held in an unconscious domain. Working with our shadow can heal us by increasing our capacity to be alive, to be whole and therefore to be more present to our surrounding world.

On the Buddhist path we extend maitri or loving kindness to our shadows so that we are more able to feel compassion for the broken, vulnerable and wounded parts of our personality. Extending loving kindness to ourselves creates a fierce fire. Yet, it is precisely these forgotten aspects of ourselves that cry out for our love so that we can be healed and whole. To our surprise, we might discover that the shadow contains tremendous energy which could be used to further our spiritual or dharma path. Through the process of disidentifying from who we think we are and from who we are afraid of becoming shadow, we come closer to embracing our true identity as the profound formless depth at our core. When we hold our shadow in tension with our persona, identifying with neither, we are closer to experiencing our egoless Buddha nature. The Buddha proclaimed 2600 years ago that the self we thought we were, did not exist. Perhaps in the 21st century, integrating meditation with shadow work will bring us closer to this realization.

Ira is the author of Mindfulness and Madness: Money, Food, Sex and the Sacred.

About the Author
Ira Rechtshaffer

Ira Rechtshaffer

I hold a PhD in Buddhist studies and have been a Buddhist practitioner for approximately 40 years. I've practiced Zen Buddhism in Japan for four years, have been a practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism since 1976, and have taught Buddhism in various seminaries, contemplative centers and graduate school programs. I am a practicing psychotherapist, integrating Buddhist with Western psychology, attempting to bring 'soul' back into the helping profession. My recently published book, Mindfulness and Madness: Money, Food, Sex and the Sacred, has been published by john Hunt Publishers and has received 5 star reviews on Amazon.

Photos by Natálie Šteyerová, age 18, Česká Republic.

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  1. Avatar

    Deeply insightful…Thank you for opening this to us.

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    A very nice website.

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