A yoga teacher emailed me to ask: “Can I harness my power and still be nice?”
The short answer is no. Because power is the ability to create and sustain what matters most in your life. And what is nice?
Nice is a knife.
It’s a knife you use to cut-off parts of yourself that are unacceptable to you. You started using this knife when you were young. Cutting off the parts that didn’t fit with family expectations. We all do this. It’s part of the human condition. But those dismembered parts are still there, are still part of you.
The dismembered parts don’t disappear.
They go into, what Robert Bly evoking the work of C.G. Jung, called the “shadow bag.” All the cut-off parts of your soul go into the shadow bag. Here’s how it works . . .
Imagine you’re a child feeling the buoyant energy of Spring.
You run into the living room. You’re feeling pure joy. But to your parents your being noisy, wild, loud. They tell you in no uncertain terms to cut it out. And, you do.
You cut out the buoyant, leaping, energetic parts of yourself and stuff them into the shadow bag.
Year-by-year the bag gets heavier, filled with the unacceptable parts of your life. The parts of your soul and self deemed unacceptable by powerful others – parents, teachers, leaders, friends, lovers, etc.
Those parts aren’t gone. They’re in the shadow bag. You drag them behind you but don’t offer them to the world. You tiptoe along. You modulate your voice. You’re nice.
Every cut diminishes your power.
You can still proceed with your life with parts cut off. You can even do quite well – you’re nice after all, and people respond positively to nice. But there’s that bag and all those cut-off parts dragging behind you.
Sooner or later things start to stink.
You begin to notice a strange odor. At first it comes and goes. It’s bothersome but not persistent. If you neglect it too long, the stink gets stronger. Soon, everywhere you go you can smell it.
It’s the odor of your cut-off parts seeking to rejoin your life.
They’ve been reaching out to you for years. But you were trained not to notice. So you didn’t. You were taught from a young age to hide your deepest longings, to deny essential and sacred parts of who you are. In your family, school, and at work you’ve been encouraged to act as if you are complete while simultaneously cutting off parts of yourself and exiling them to the shadow bag.
When you cut off parts of yourself, you cut off the flow of your life.
To get unstuck and live a more powerful authentic life, start reclaiming what’s in the bag. This starts when you notice that persistent stink.
In the Gospel of Thomas, Jesus is quoted as saying “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.”
The stink that is pursuing you isn’t a problem to make go away. It’s a call to live more fully and contribute more completely.
But it’s not easy to turn and face the stink.
Let me be the first to admit – I’d rather use air freshener than face my own shadow bag. But at a certain point, it becomes clear that turning towards the stink is the way forward. The path to freedom travels through the shadow bag.
It’s not a matter of being either nice or being powerful.
It’s a matter of facing your experience fully, truthfully, without leaping to conclusions or solutions.
So how can you proceed? There’s really no road map. It’s a step-by-step process. Step towards the unacceptable places within you. You don’t need to do anything else. Simply step with awareness towards the shadow bag. Take your time.
As you step forward, your experience of the stink changes.
You begin to see how the difficulties you encounter (especially the really stinky ones) are precisely structured to call forth the cut-off parts that are waiting to be redeemed from your shadow bag. The conflicts that you face at work and in life point towards the unintegrated parts of yourself in order to return them to life.
I don’t want you to think that this path is automatically strewn with flower petals. But I do want to encourage you to pay attention. Notice the stink. Step forward. Keep breathing.
As you breathe, you’ll notice something strange. That stink – which had been so noxious – is starting to smell like flowers. Now, that’s nice.