December 21, 2010

Afraid of Your Shadow?

Make friends with it.

When was the last time you were incensed by another person’s “selfish” or “careless” behaviors? Did your mind go through all of the reasons you were right and the other person was terribly wrong? Did you assail the other person out loud or mentally with a flurry of insults such as “a-hole,” “jerk,” “idiot” and so forth? In the midst of your fury, did you ever stop and think that maybe you’ve done something similar to what this other person did, even if it was on a much smaller scale?

Most of us would rather not consider that last question at all. Why? Because in doing so we would be moving toward acknowledging some part of ourselves that we would prefer to keep hidden forever from everyone. So we usually go on blaming the other person and missing out on a great opportunity to explore our personal shadow.

Recently, I discovered a fabulous set of dharma talks on the topic of “Practicing with the Shadow” by Donald Rothberg, an Insight meditation teacher and author of “The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World.” Below is a set of highlights from the first dharma talk. You can listen to the full dharma talk on the dharmaseed.org website. In this talk, Rothberg gave wonderful suggestions for how we can explore our shadows and begin to embrace them with compassion and love.

The personal shadow

Carl Jung, the founder of analytical psychology, said that we all have a shadow side. The shadow represents the irrational instincts, desires and judgments that we don’t want to see in ourselves. It resides in our unconscious minds and it influences our thoughts, speech and behaviors.

Donald Rothberg defined the shadow as “that which doesn’t fit our self-image.” The shadow is a psychological concept and yet opening to the personal shadow seems to fit well with Buddhist practice, which aims to cut through human ignorance. In the Buddha’s journey toward enlightenment, he brought great awareness to all aspects of himself, not just the aspects that he liked. The shadow’s manifestations include the thoughts, actions and behaviors that we do not want to own.

Why bring awareness to it?

Rothberg stated that the shadow “helps point toward parts of our ignorance that we wouldn’t necessarily look at otherwise.” Additionally, he noted that the shadow depletes our energy because it takes a lot of effort to squash the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to see. Yet the shadow also carries the light of our wholeness. By bringing our awareness to our personal shadows, we may discover inherent wisdom and compassion within the shadowy sides of ourselves.

What drives the shadow?

According to Rothberg, the shadow comes from “some inability to be present with a given experience with compassion and wisdom.” For example, when we experience something painful, something that triggered difficult and unpleasant emotions, and we do not have the tools to work with this experience, we subconsciously push the experience away. We might have pushed an experience away so that we could survive, especially if we were quite young. But the imprint of the difficult experience on our consciousness hasn’t disappeared; it has become a part of the shadow.

How does the shadow express itself?

Projection is perhaps the loudest expression of the shadow, yet we often do not realize that we project our shadows onto others. Rothberg asserted that we project qualities that we perceive as positive as well as qualities we perceive as negative onto others. We vilify people who seem to have our negative qualities. We admire and even fixate on people who have the positive qualities that we have difficulty seeing in ourselves. We have a tendency to project our positive qualities onto celebrities and romantic partners.

How do we get to know the shadow?

Meditation is a wonderful tool for shadow-seekers. Rothberg stated that during meditation we have the opportunity to observe what arises in our consciousness, and whenever we observe that we are resistant to something that comes up or that we want to “control our experience,” we can see the workings of our personal shadows.

Rothberg also suggested bringing mindfulness to our speech patterns. This practice can help us to see the thoughts that precede our choices of spoken words. I find that practicing “noble silence,” whether during a meditation retreat or in the midst of my daily life, is a powerful way to observe manifestations of my shadow. How often do I have the urge to say something with the intention of pleasing another person? How often am I quelling an urge to say something to someone?

Another of Rothberg’s suggestions was to write down dreams as a way of accessing shadow material because dreams offer us a window to our unconscious minds. Likewise, we can explore our unconscious minds through art, by giving ourselves free reign to draw or paint or dance whatever comes to mind. Aspects of the shadow may come up through images or stories that surface through the process of making art.

By noticing our strong reactivity to difficult interpersonal situations, we can begin to understand the workings of the shadow. Instead of avoiding strong reactions, we can look to them as signals that our shadows are in need of loving attention.

How do we practice with shadow?

“The condition of truth is to allow suffering to speak.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr

The key to working with the shadow, Rothberg emphasized, is to “bring awareness, love and compassion to the shadow.” We can do this through meditation, ritual/ceremony, journaling, making art, humor and any other method that helps us to befriend the shadow without judgment.

One way of practicing with the shadow is to reflect upon our self-images and all that they entail. We can compare our self-image with what we see in our whole self, for example. Rothberg also offered some questions to contemplate with regard to the self-image, including, “How do I define myself as good?” and “When does my self-image get enforced?”

In my own practice of working with the shadow, I find that my body gives me powerful cues to aspects of my experience that I have tried to reject. Sometimes the emotions that I experience are not easy to name, and yet I know that they live in my body. I give myself the freedom to stay with my body’s experience. I breathe with it, give it some time off from being in “doing mode,” and I listen to it. With enough space for it to simply “be,” I begin to understand a little bit of what is going on deep within myself. And then I can practice loving-kindness for my shadow, welcoming it as something that can help me to embrace my wholeness.

How do you practice with your shadow?

“Practicing with the Shadow, Part I” was a dharma talk given by meditation teacher Donald Rothberg on May 6, 2009 at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California. Rothberg also addressed the relational shadow and the collective shadow in this talk.

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