Back in the 90s, I was a student (aka apprentice) of Odd Nerdrum and also modeled for this painting.
I knew he saw me, but I was also embarrassed to admit it. I was embarrassed by the knives and that aspect of me.
If people asked me what the knives represented, I would innocently say “I don’t know”.
So here it is, all laid out.
This painting is of a saint and a beast.
The face is that of a saint, and I have that side of my personality.
The arms and knives are those of the beast.
What is the saint-beast dynamic?And what is the beast? It can be seen in several ways.
The first is one I don’t like to admit to so much. I have a tendency to people-please and set aside my own needs, and that comes with suppressed anger, feeling like a victim, reactivity and so on. The face is the people-pleasing, and the knife is the suppressed anger. (This also reflects a family and cultural pattern.)
More generally, any identity comes with a shadow side, and if I identify as good and “spiritual”, what in me doesn’t fit goes into darkness. It’s more hidden. Not acknowledged. And I have spent a lot of time exploring and owning – or owning up to – those sides of me, even from before this painting was made.
The beast also mirrors a ruthless side of me. If something is important to me (awakening but sometimes other things), I can be ruthless going after it.
And that’s related to another way to look at the knives. Swords and knives can represent cutting through the bullshit. Going for the truth and reality, even if it’s uncomfortable (see Manjushri). (This is best applied to oneself.)
I think this dynamic in me is also why I resonate with characters like Hellboy (especially as depicted in the del Toro films). He is born a beast (demon) but has a pure heart.
Why the twins? I am not sure. If this image was in a dream of mine, I would wonder if it represents a division or kind of a split. The saint on one side and the knives and beast on the other. Something that’s not (yet) brought into or recognized as part of a whole. That was more true of me then although it’s still part of me. I am still working on it.
And the primal clothing and setting? It’s typical for Nerdrum (and one of the reasons I resonate with and love his art). And the theme is primal too, whatever the theme is. That too is typical for Nerdrum.
Most of the subjects have a mythic or archetypal feel to them, and we can have a sense of it, but the exact meaning is hard to pin down. My sense is that by trying to pin it down, we miss the point and the power of the paintings. They are meant to work on us at a more primal level.
Here are some comments about the painting from Alejita, my partner.
The painting: They are two. Two parts of you. Although the clothes and the hair are of a mystic, the look of him (especially in the man behind) is bestial. And with the knife, he is opening the left side of your body, your heart. One of them covers the heart of the other. One, the one behind is more beastly than the one in the front. However, the most beastly is the one who opens the heart. The force with which he is taking the knife is abysmal. And the horizon is at neck height, splitting your body from your head.
And what she wrote after reading this post:
I feel that the two of you are both a beast, both have a knife, both are ready to kill the “things” are not any more “useful”. I don’t see the two characters as a separation, rather they are the complete image of you. It looks like the two coexist with the beast, there is no separation. The double image is more the feminine and masculine together, living with the beast that is not a third party. It is completeness, union.
I resonate with that way of looking at it. The one on “stage right” is more masculine (this is the original) and the one stage left is more feminine (he copied this based on the first). And both have the saint and beast together. It’s all one – feminine and masculine, saint and beast.
In depth psychology, the shadow refers to what we disown in ourselves. Qualities and characteristics in us that we see (more) “out there” in the world and in others than in ourselves, and that we haven’t yet befriended and gotten to know in ourselves. These are usually qualities and characteristics our culture tells us are undesirable, and that don’t fit our desired image of ourselves.
We are scared to admit to them as part of ourselves and our life, often because of fear of how others may see us and judge us, so it’s easier to pretend they exist mostly or only in the wider world and others.
This means we often become afraid of our own (psychological) shadow.
It scares us when we see it in the world because it seems threatening to our well being. We may be afraid of angry people, or immigrants, or people with a certain ideology, or wolves, or aliens, or ghosts, or anything at all. Of course, sometimes it may be appropriate to be afraid of someone or something. And a sign that its a shadow-fear is that it’s consistent, out of proportion to the situation, and often made into an ideology.
And it scares us when someone (which may be our own mind) suggest it’s part of us because it threatens our desired identity. Often, this scares us because we are afraid of how others may see us, judge us, and treat us if we admit to it in ourselves.
Say I am a US businessman with a checkered history. My father gave me almost all my wealth and bailed me out repeatedly when I went bankrupt. My business dealings are often based on deception and semi-illegal activities. So I feel like a fake and a failure, and instead of admitting it (which would be a threat to my desired image of being a successful businessman) I call others failures and fakes. And since I’ll need to keep this up in order to maintain my desired image, this becomes a habit.
Defending and propping up our desired (and very partial) self image is tiring. So eventually, we may realize that it’s easier to just admit to it in ourselves. It’s a relief. It makes us more human and ordinary. It puts us in the same boat as everyone else.
To the mindset that wants to maintain a desired self-image, this can seem threatening. But when we actually do it, we find it is a great relief. We are able to be more real with ourselves and others. We don’t have to be so vigilant when it comes to our self-image. And our views and actions are more fluid and less dictated by the need to maintain our old desired self-image.
As usual, this is an almost infinitely rich topic so I’ll just add a few things.
It is easier to do this among others who do this. It makes us feel more safe. So making a shift to befriending our shadow sometimes does come along with a shift in who we spend our time with.
And there are more structured ways that makes it easier for us to befriend our shadow. There are specific shadow work approaches. Tonglen is great. Most forms of inquirytends to do it. And for me, the most effective and thorough approach I have found is The Work of Byron Katie.
As we befriend our shadow, it’s no longer a shadow. What seemed scary and threatening no longer is that to us. I suspect that’s why I rarely use the term shadow when I write there. It would make sense to use it since it’s a well-known term but it doesn’t fit my experience so well.
The term shadow makes it sound like something monolithic and one single thing. It’s not monolithic. It’s not a single thing. And it’s not even a thing in the first place. It’s just one thought held as true, which makes my mind see it out there and not in here, and spend some effort trying to maintain that division. And then another thought. It’s something that happens here and now, with the thought that’s here and now.
And the content of that thought varies. Sometimes, it’s about heartless politicians. Sometimes, it’s about idiotic people wanting to shoot all wolves. Sometimes, it’s about a friend who is too angry. Sometimes, it’s about how my mother treats my father. Sometimes, it’s about noisy neighbors.
Since we can project the shadow (any unwanted characteristic) onto anything, we can also put it into the past and future. We can vilify the past, and we can scare ourselves with scary images of the future, whether it’s our own or the world’s.
The image of being afraid of one’s own shadow is a bit comical. And that’s how it is with the psychological shadow as well. We are afraid of something we don’t need to be afraid of. We scare ourselves. It seems real before we investigate it, befriend it, and see it’s literally almost nothing.
In one sense, it’s almost nothing since it’s all created by the mind. In another sense, it’s something since admitting to certain characteristics in ourselves can lead to others judging us and treating us differently. (Especially in more traditional and smaller societies.) And in another sense, it’s something since befriending our shadow allows us to experience ourselves as more whole, more deeply human, more connected to everyone and everything, and it allows us to draw on all of these characteristics in ourselves and make use of them in different situations in life.
How is it all created by the mind? It’s the mind putting labels on the world, others, and ourselves. Deciding these labels are either good or bad, desirable or undesirable. And then making the effort of putting bad labels out there and good ones on ourselves. These labels of good and bad are partially cultural and partially individual. Sometimes, we decide that culturally “bad” labels are good for us. They serve as protection for us. (For instance, being stupid, ugly etc.) So we reverse the usual
These labels of good and bad are partially cultural and partially individual. Sometimes, we decide that culturally “bad” labels are good for us. They serve as protection for us. (For instance, being stupid, ugly etc.) So we reverse the usual good/bad content and tell ourselves “I am stupid, and she is brilliant”. In this case, our own shadow contains characteristics that our culture see as good and desirable. We just don’t think we deserve to see it in ourselves, and we find some sense of safety in it.
Why can it be so difficult to recognize and befriend our shadow? It’s largely because of our culture. It tells us some characteristics are good and some are bad, so we naturally want to see the good ones in ourselves and put the bad ones somewhere else. Our family demonstrates this to us as we grow up, as do friends and society in general. It becomes a habit for us, ingrained almost from birth. So it naturally feels difficult and perhaps scary to befriend our shadow, at least at first, and at least with the characteristics our mind most strongly tells us are bad, undesirable, and scary.
I also assume that in some traditional and smaller societies, it could be risky to openly befriend our shadow. If done with some wisdom, we would just appear as more whole and wise people. But it can also be done in a less balanced, more brash, and less mature and wise fashion, and that could be risky in any culture and society. We’ll get a backlash telling us to wise up.
Our culture does also send messages about befriending our shadow, often through fairy tales, poetry, books, and movies. It tells us humanizing stories about the gifts of befriending our shadow. These are very valuable pointers.
I’ll also say a few words about projections in general. The shadow is one type of projections. And projections are, in one sense, images our mind creates and puts on the world. These types of projections are essential for us being able to navigate and orient in the world.
In another sense, projections are when the mind tells itself that some characteristics are mostly or only in us and not in the wider world, or the other way around, and when these stories are invested with energy (associated with bodily sensations) so they seem more solid, real, and true.
And the shadow are the characteristics our mind tells itself are undesirable, and sees more in the wider world than in itself.
What does it give us to befriend our shadow? When we don’t, we have a unrealistic picture of the world, and we tend to get caught up in (harmful) ideologies and reactivity. It can lead to dehumanizing other people and groups of people, and “demonizing” people or parts of the world. We also make more misinformed and misguided decisions, and we are less able to work around or strengthen our weaknesses. We are, quite literally, prone to be blind-sighted by our blind-spots.
When we befriend our shadow, it gives us a more realistic view on ourselves and the world. We are better able to make good and informed decisions and take care of our own weaknesses (find workarounds, strengthen). It creates a sense of us all being in the same boat. And we are less caught up in reactivity, dehumanizing people, and demonizing parts of the world. We are hopefully a little more able to act from informed clarity and kindness.
Sometimes your deepest shadow comes up after your deepest awakening.
– Adyashanti, The Way of Liberating Insight
Why does it come up? We can say that an awakening is an opening to reality, and that reality includes our shadow. Or we can say that bringing the shadow into awareness is required for us to live the awakening in more situations and areas of life.
In any case, long before this happened to me, I thought this and other forms of a dark night sounded noble and a bit heroic. I thought I would be able to continue keeping what surfaced at a safe arm’s length’s distance and remain firmly centered in clarity and presence.
When it happened, it was more experienced as a complete disaster. And for me, that was part of the shadow that surfaced. I was unable to remain clear, centered, and keep it at some distance. And I had to finally admit to myself I was completely and utterly human.
Note: Healing unhealed parts of us is part of the embodiment process. As long as they remain unhealed, they will be triggered by life situations and we tend to live from reactivity to these unhealed parts. To the extent they are allowed and healed, there is space there to instead live from responsiveness, clarity, kindness, and wisdom. The shadow surfacing in the way Adyashanti talks about it is an important part of the embodiment process. It’s not comfortable. It may not be what we think we want. But it’s what’s needed for us to live more fully from the awakening.
It’s common – or perhaps inevitable – for shadow material to surface in an awakening process.
What’s shadow material? Anything in us that’s unhealed, unmet, unloved, unrecognized as the divine. Anything in us we are unaware of, or deny, or see in others and not in ourselves. Anything in us we live from and react to without openly recognizing that’s what’s happening.
Why does it surface?
The mind’s ability to push it down is weakened or gone. In an awakening, the mind opens to all as the divine. And that opening is also an opening to whatever in us is still unseen, unprocessed, and unhealed.
It surfaces with an invitation for us to recognize that too – the most painful and unwanted parts of us and our experiences – as the divine and what we are. That is another piece of the puzzle. Another phase of the awakening and embodiment process.
It comes to be seen, felt, met, healed, and loved, allowing for a fuller embodiment of the awakening. It allows the awakening to be lived in more situations in our life. When life triggers something unhealed or unprocessed in us, we may respond by reacting to it. When that’s healed, we are more free to respond from clarity and kindness.
And what about the role of identification? The more identified our mind is with how it reacts to the surfacing shadow material, the more it tends to struggle and suffer. But it can’t just decide to not identify. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. What we can do is notice what it all happens within and as. We can invite our center to shift somewhat in that direction. And although it may not make it any easier in the moment, we can remind ourselves that the cycles of identifications are part of the process. It’s part of what allows the mind’s tendency to identify to gradually burn out.
What can we do when we are in a phase of surfacing shadow material? Here are some thing’s that’s been helpful for me, at different times.
Go for walks. Spend time in nature.
Notice and allow. Rest with the noticing. Notice the space it’s happening within.
Invite it – and my reactivity to it – to heal through whatever approach works for me. In my case, inquiry, dialogue (kind, respectful), ho’oponopono, TRE, Vortex Healing etc.
See if I can find a way to meet it – and my reactivity to it – with kindness, respect, patience, allowing. Befriend it. Ho’oponopno, dialogue, and tonglen can be helpful here.
Find and talk with people who have gone through it themselves. People who understand and shows us we can get through it.
It can be a very painful process. It can feel unbearable and overwhelming. It can feel like it will never end. And yet, it does. At least the intense phase does, in my experience. And as more shadow material is seen, felt, healed, and loved, it does create more space and opening in our system for living from the awakening in more situations in life.
Note: I added the “dark night” tag to this post since an intense phase of shadow material surfacing is one form of dark night. It’s one of the things that can happen in an awakening process that the mind doesn’t immediately like so much.
Chogyam Trungpa and many other spiritual teachers have shocked, puzzled, and baffled their followers with their apparently unenlightened behavior. It may be drinking, drug use, frequent affairs, bullying behavior, abuse of their followers, and more.
In our culture, we tend to have an image of awakened people as perfect. And yet, they so often are not. Why is that?
To me, it doesn’t seem so puzzling. In a way, it’s to be expected.
There can be a relatively clear awakening, and yet a lot left to heal at the human level.
If the person is receptive and open about it, then it can become a very helpful part of their teaching. It also helps their students know what they are getting into, and it helps the teacher to work on it if they are ready to do so.
And sometimes, there can be some degree of defensiveness around it, both on the part of the teacher and his or her followers.
The teacher may try to live up to an image or expectations from others. Admitting ordinary human flaws and hangups may not fit this image.
They may feel they are above criticism. (And perhaps lash out if they perceive criticism.)
They may justify their behavior, for instance as crazy wisdom or that they are above conventional expectations.
And really, they are just scared to admit it and look at it, as we all sometimes are. And they use all sorts of tactics to avoid facing it for themselves.
This is pretty universal. We all avoid facing certain things in ourselves because it seems too scary, and we use different tactics to avoid it. And this continues to some extent whether there is an awakening or not, and whether we happen to be in a teacher position or not.
What’s the difference between the boomerang in Living Inquiries and the shadow?
The shadow refers to seeing in others what I don’t like and don’t fully acknowledge in myself. The other is a direct mirror. If I judge the other in words, I can turn those words around to myself and find specific examples of how that’s true.
The boomerang question is more open: What does the situation say about me? We are looking for an identity triggered by the situation, and there may be a range of identities triggered.
So for instance, someone in my household is not doing their dishes.
Shadow: She is sloppy -> I am sloppy. She is irresponsible -> I am irresponsible. For each, find at least three specific examples of how that’s as or more true than the initial statement.
Boomerang: What does it say about me? What identities get triggered in me? I am responsible. I am tidy. (Inflated selves.) I am a victim. (Of her messiness, a deficient self.)
Some parts of the awakening process is what our personality likes. It aligns with what our personality likes and wants. For instance, an early and temporary transcendence gives us a taste of freedom from trauma, pain, and hurt.
Other parts may be more difficult for our personality. They can challenge or clash with habitual patterns our mind initially created to stay safe. These include but are not limited to:
Disillusionment. Awakening includes disillusionment and especially disillusionment about what awakening is and what “we” get out of it. We may hope for a state of eternal peace and bliss, and what it’s really about is awakening to and as that which already allows any experience and state, including sadness, anger, and pain.
Awakening to the shadow. Awakening means awakening to everything, including our own very human pain, trauma, and hurt. At some point, this comes to the surface with an invitation to question the unquestioned stories holding the hurt in place, feel the unfelt feelings and emotions, and love all of it as it is including any reactions we have towards it.
Most people have a lot of misconceptions about awakening or enlightenment. This is partly inevitable since awakening is a change of the context of our experience rather than a change within our experience, and most of us are only familiar with the latter until there is an initial opening or awakening. These misconceptions are also partly encouraged and perpetuated by some spiritual traditions and teachers, either for strategic reasons (which I happen to not agree with) or because they don’t know better.
It’s difficult to know in advance how much of the trauma is healed or cleared up by the initial awakening, or any practices we engage with before or after the initial awakening. It’s also difficult to know how much is there in the first place. A lot of it is “collective” trauma passed on through the generations and by our culture, and some may also be due to epigenetics. I was certainly surprised by the amount of pain and trauma that surfaced for me.
What do I mean when I say that awakening is a shift in the context of our experience? It’s because an awakening is an awakening to – and then as – what experience happens within and as. This is sometimes labeled awareness, presence, Spirit or something similar, although any label will make it seem more discrete and like an object than it is. Content of experience doesn’t have to change at all, although it often does as a side effect of this shift in context.
Here are some common pitfalls of openings and awakenings:
New identifications. With an opening or awakening, new identities may surface and the mind may identify with these for safety. These identities include but are not limited to awareness, oneness, spirit, free. These are just more thoughts that the mind identifies with, and it’s good to notice and inquire into these as soon as they arise.
Unprocessed material. With an opening or awakening, the lid may be taken off any unprocessed material. Anything that’s unfelt, unloved and unquestioned comes up to be felt, loved, and questioned. Any unfelt emotions or feelings surface to be felt. Any unloved parts of us or our experience (including our whole world) comes up to be loved. Any unquestioned stories surface to be questioned. This can lead to a version of the dark night of the soul.
Kundalini. With an opening or awakening, kundalini may activate. For some, this may lead to a kundalini overcharge. It may feel like high voltage is going through regular house wiring, and as if parts of us – and perhaps our brain – is fried. This can be prevented and reversed.
What do I mean with an opening or awakening? I mean that we realize what we are, or what we are realizes what it is. This is what the mind may call awareness, oneness, no separation, spirit (or even Buddha Mind, Brahman if it’s so inclined). This may be a glimpse, or it may be a more stable recognition. Often, there is a mix of this recognition and remaining identifications which partially obscure this recognition. We then live partially from noticing what we are, and partially from remaining identifications. This is very natural, and there is not really any problem here, but it’s good to be aware of and acknowledge, and also to have ways to work with these identifications.
In the classic cave scene from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes back, Luke Skywalker meets his nemesis and representative of the dark side, Darth Vader. After a brief sword fight, Luke decapitates Darth Vader, and sees his own face inside of Darth’s helmet.
Luke is what he fears the most. He is the dark side.
That’s how it is for all of us. We are what we fear. And that’s true in a few different ways.
It’s happening within and as what I am. It’s all happening within my world. It’s happening within and as (my) awareness. When it’s here, in awareness, it’s what I am.
The world is my mirror. Whatever I see “out there” in the wider world or someone else, is what I know from myself. Whatever stories I have about the world and other people, I can turn them around to myself, and find specific examples of how it’s true. (It may not look the same, or be expressed the same way, but that doesn’t mean I can’t find the same here as I have stories about in others.)
It pushes back. When I try to push something away in myself, and in the world, it tends to push back. It wants in. It wants to be acknowledged. Life is kinder than allowing me to reject something for good.
And why? Because life invites me to see what’s more real and true than my initial beliefs about it.
Life invites me to…. Recognize it as happening within and as what I am. Find in myself, as a human being, what I see in others and the wider world. Realize we are all in the same boat.
Life invites me to…. Meet it – the fear and what I fear – with respect, kindness, curiosity. Take a closer look and examine by beliefs about it, and how my perception of it is created by my own mind.
Life invites me to see that what I fear is not how it initially appears. (That doesn’t mean we become passive bystanders to injustice or cruelty, or approve of it. On the contrary. We are in a much better position to do something the more clear and mature we are in our relationship to it.)
How does it push back? We may find ourselves in situations where we encounter it again. We may replay a situation in our minds. We may have certain qualities or emotions surface in ourselves.
For instance, if I see anger as bad and try to push it away, I’ll still find myself in situations where people are angry, perhaps even at me. I’ll still replay memories of people being angry, or imagine someone being angry with me in the future. I’ll still experience anger, even if it’s pushed down and perhaps comes out as frustration or restlessness, or even feeling flat. It doesn’t go away.
P.S. I am aware that the usual interpretation(s) of the cave scene is slightly different. I imagine the more standard interpretation is that Luke has the potential to go over to the dark side, just as his father did. He has the anger. The impulsiveness. The restlessness. He is his father’s son, in that way. The cave experience is a warning, and also an invitation for him to recognize this in himself and take it seriously.
The lotus has always had an important mystical meaning. Its roots are down in the slime and mud at the bottom of the lake and the flower unfolds on the surface of the water.
– Carl Jung, ETH, Page 113.
There are several ways of understanding this.
One is that our “roots” are in what’s hidden to us, and they feed and lead to what’s visible. That happens within content, where dynamics we are unaware of inform what’s visible. It also happens in that what we are – this no-thing that it all happens within and as – is the metaphorical “roots” of who we are, this form and human self.
In a more conventional sense, we can use difficulties (mud) to grow (flower). We can use challenging situations in life, or embracing and finding kindness towards inglorious sides of ourselves, to mature, be more fully human, find more empathy, be more real, find a more open heart, find resiliency and more.
And in another sense, we can explore the basic ideas of mud and flower. We may see that they are not as they initially seem.
For instance, I may find that the “mud” in me – perhaps anger, grief, confusion, tendency to isolate, neediness, hopelessness, arrogance – comes from a wish to protect the me, it comes from deep caring, it comes from love. The mud is perhaps really a flower. And the flowers, what I and perhaps others see as my “good qualities”, may turn to mud if I hold onto them and take them as too precious. They may create problems for me and others.
Also, when I look, can I find “mud” or “flower”? Can I find what I see these as referring to? Can I find it outside of words, images, sensations? Is it findable?
Simplified terribly, there are three ways of dealing with apparent evil:
(a) Let it have its way. Stay passive.
(b) Kill it off. Get rid of it.
(c) Treat it with respect and kindness, and contain it, prevent it from doing harm.
Most stories – whether fairy tales, mythology or contemporary movies, take the second approach. Some describe the first as a cautionary tale. And a few take the third approach, the more wise and mature (?) one.
Instead of killing the evil dragon, as is described in so many other stories, they capture the dragon. They treat her with respect, contain her fury, and prevent her from doing harm. And she turns into a golden wisdom dragon. If they had let her have her way, or if they had killed her, she and they would never have benefited from her transformation.
For me, doing The Work and other forms of inquiry, and also holding satsang, doing ho’oponopono and tonglen, are all examples of capturing the dragon, treating it with respect and curiosity, prevent it from doing harm, and giving it space to transform into a golden wisdom dragon – if that’s what will happen.
It’s interesting to note that in western cultures (at least in western Europe), we generally take the third approach at the social level. We are, after all, civilized. And yet, when it comes to things in ourselves a thought may label “bad”, “undesirable”, or even “evil”, we are often trained to take the second approach. We try to get rid of it, or at least put a lid on it. That’s why simple processes such as The Work, holding satsang, and ho’oponopono may seem revolutionary. They are very simple and even natural ways of relating to what’s here in us, and yet they go against – to some extent – what we have been trained to do.
Any belief creates shadow. As soon as an image or thought is held as true, some things goes into the shadow, hidden (mostly or partly) from view.
(a) The validity of the reversals are in a shadow. I don’t see the validity in it’s reversals, and I don’t so easily find it in my own life. I don’t so easily acknowledge it, feel it, take it in.
(b) The reverse identities go into the shadow. Any image or thought comes with an identity, and when it’s taken as true it’s identified with. That means that the reverse identities are unfamiliar to me, I don’t so easily see how they too fit me and my life.
(c) The limited validity of all of these images, thoughts and identities goes into the shadow. The image or thought held as true appears more true than it really is, and its reversals appears less valid than they may be – if I am honest with myself.
Underlying beliefs – and their corresponding shadows – tend to be quite universal, shared by most people in a culture or perhaps by most humans in general. Beliefs are transmitted by family, friends and culture. And they are also personal when they are adopted and taken as my own.
In a process of (a) consciously embracing and finding the wholeness of who we are, (b) what we are noticing and acknowledging itself, and/or (c) who we are aligning more with what we are, there is an invitation to see, feel and find love for these thoughts and images, the tendency to take them as true, and the innocence and love behind that tendency.
Even the most beneficial presence casts a shadow. Mythologically, having no shadow means being of another world, not being fully human. To live with our shadow is to understand how human beings live at a frontier between light and dark and to approach the central difficulty: that there is no possibility of a lighted perfection in this life; that the attempt to create it is often the attempt to be held unaccountable, to be the exception, to be the one who does not have to be present or participate, and therefore does not have to hurt or get hurt. To cast no shadow on others is to vacate the physical consequences of our appearance in the world. Shadow is a beautiful, inverse confirmation of our incarnation.
– David Whyte, from Readers’ Circle Essay, “Shadow”
I usually don’t use the words shadow or projection these days. And that’s perhaps a good reason to see what these words would mean to me now.
For instance, shadow is usually defined as:
A dark area or shape produced by a body coming between rays of light and a surface. (Physical definition.)
In Jungian psychology, the shadow or “shadow aspect” may refer to (1) the entirety of the unconscious, i.e., everything of which a person is not fully conscious (2) an unconscious aspect of the personality which the conscious ego does not recognize in itself. Because one tends to reject or remain ignorant of the least desirable aspects of ones personality, the shadow is largely negative. There are, however, positive aspects which may also remain hidden in ones shadow (especially in people with low self esteem). (Wikipedia.)
For me right now, focusing mostly on The Work, I see that any thought – when taken as true – comes with it’s own shadow.
The shadow of a thought is, to put it simply, (a) the truth in the turnarounds of the thought, and recognizing (b) that it’s just a thought, an innocent question about the world, and has no absolute or final truth in it. This is what’s not recognized, especially at a felt level, when a thought is taken as true.
If I – in a certain situation – think that life is unfair and take that thought as true, then it’s shadow is examples of (a) how life is fair and (b) how I am unfair (in my thinking about life), and (c) that it’s a thought, an innocent question, and I honestly cannot know.
If I think that M. is caught up in conspiracy theories, and believe that thought, then the shadow is examples of (a) how M. is not caught up in conspiracy theories, (b) how I am caught up in conspiracy theories (about him, life), and (c) that it’s a thought, an assumption, a question, and that I don’t know.
It’s an interesting topic. What comes up for me around it?
Definitions of Sacred and light/dark
First, what do I think of as the Sacred? The Sacred for me is the same as life, reality, God.
And light and dark? Light and dark are not inherent in reality, they are only found in my thoughts about it. Since they are labels in my thoughts, what’s called light or dark is arbitrary and influenced by culture, tradition and personal experiences. (It’s arbitrary from a big picture, and yet often not experienced as arbitrary within a particular culture or tradition.)
Aspects of the Sacred
Then, when we talk about the “dark” side of the Sacred, what aspects of the Sacred may we refer to?
I find three: (a) The “dark” side of the Sacred (God, reality, life). (b) Approaches that address the “dark” sides of the Sacred (life, reality). (c) The “dark” sides of a Sacred process (awakening, maturing).
The dark sides of the Sacred as inquiry
A simple way of defining the dark side of the Sacred is to see it as the shadow of our typical images of the Sacred (reality, God) and a Sacred process (awakening, maturing, living from it). If I see God as good, can I also see the bad (what I label bad in my own mind) as part of the Sacred? If I see clarity as sacred and part of a sacred process, can I also include confusion? If what I see as desirable is included in my image of the Sacred, can I also include what I see as undesirable?
If I see something as sacred, can I see the rest as also sacred?
(a) The dark side of the Sacred. What’s my image of the Sacred or of God? What’s the reverse? If I make a list, can I find genuine and simple examples of how each one is equally part of the Sacred?
(b) Approaches addressing the dark side. Any approach to the Sacred worth it’s salt will have ways to address and work with the dark sides of life. Some may be of the first aid variety, making the process a bit easier in the moment. Others will go more to the core of the issue, and may even uproot any ideas of shadow or light, right or wrong, desirable and undesirable. Some of my favorites are tonglen and various forms of inquiry (the Big Mind process, sense field explorations, The Work).
(c) The dark side of the Sacred process. I am not even sure what to define as a sacred process. If it is a process of awakening and/or maturing, then it does have it’s “shadow” sides, which – when I examined it a little closer – turned out to be it’s bright sides! For me, these have included loss (of dreams especially), disillusionment, illness, and primal fears and beliefs surfacing so intensively that they cannot be ignored, pushed aside or sidestepped.
The way to clarity is by way of delusion.
– Adyashanti, paraphrased
Here is a couple of ways this is true for me right now:
I find clarity by going through the shadow, by meeting (noticing I am) experience, inquire into beliefs, releasing tension/traumas out of the body etc.
And I sometimes find clarity by using delusion as stepping stones.
In a conventional way, I sometimes get caught up in a delusion which puts me on the course to more clarity. For instance, I may first meditate to change states, and through that realize the inherent discomfort in that impulse and allow the shift into allowing what is as it is. Or I may try to cultivate compassion, and then notice it’s already here – and available if it’s not covered up by the noise of believed stories.
In a more basic sense, any insight is a stepping stone for clarity. An insight serves to reorient, and is then another question and pointer for inquiry.
I am in an old town and Alder F. is going to lead a series of workshops. He has a plot, but it’s an old cemetery with just a few graves. He asks me to dig them up and remove the bones etc. so the space is usable. I am reluctant. My inclination is to clean up the appearance of the graves, place candles there, perhaps have a Christian ceremony since they are Christian graves.
I am now in a more residential area. A lively young woman lives in a house there, with her sister next door. She asks me if I can dig out and remove a few graves there so she can use the space for gatherings and events. Again, I am reluctant. I am partly concerned about what I’ll find, and partly don’t want to disturb the dead.
To put it simply, any belief creates it’s own shadow.
I take a story as true. Overlook what doesn’t fit that belief. What I overlook includes the truth in the reversals of that story and that I don’t know. And that becomes the shadow of that belief.
Why is it called a shadow? The light of awareness shines on the story itself, so whatever doesn’t fit falls in its shadow. It is in the dark for us, until we shine the light of awareness there too.
This way of looking at the shadow is simpler than the traditional one, and perhaps also more inclusive.
Whatever beliefs I have about myself creates a shadow. And whatever beliefs I have about others, life and God also creates a shadow.
I believe I shouldn’t be stupid, so exclude that from my conscious self-image, and that becomes a shadow for me. I believe another person is only noble and good, so whatever doesn’t fit that belief becomes a shadow for me in how I relate to that person. I believe life should be fair, and whatever doesn’t fit that idea becomes a shadow for me in how I relate to life.
(a) The stories I have about the wider world, equally apply to me. Whatever qualities, characteristics and dynamics I see out there, in others and the wider world, are right here. I can find specific examples of this to ground it and make it more real for myself, and I can always find one more. Whatever story I have about someone else or the wider world, apply to me, and not only at times in the past, but right now in how I relate to the ones I have this story about.
A quick look at the entertainment world – books, movies, songs, fairy tales, mythology – tells us that we are fascinated with the unpleasant.
Why is that? I can find several reasons for why I am drawn to it….
The most obvious is that these things (death, pain, cruelty etc.) are part of human life, and this is a way for me to get familiar with it in a safe way. I get to explore it without putting myself at risk. And I get to prepare for it should it happen to me or someone close to me. If or when something like it happens in real life, I am somewhat prepared.
There is a pitifully small band of wolves in Norway, and still some folks are afraid and want them killed.
It seems so thoroughly idiotic. No human has been killed by wolves in recorded history. The few sheep that are killed are generously compensated for by the government.
And we chose and accept far greater risks all the time, for instance every time we use a car, or use toxic chemicals in our homes or in the yard, or allow bees and wasps in nature (a significant number dies each year from stings). Most obviously, we chose and accept far greater risks through how we organize ourselves as a society, in ways that are not aligned with ecological realities (ecological footprints way over what the Earth can support, economical models and policies that ignore embeddedness in ecosystems, huge gaps between rich and poor, and so on).
Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow (America’s Evolutionary Evangelists) have published a new, as always excellent, podcast. Among other things, they talk about Blasphemy Day and ways of relating to religious fundamentalists.
There are many ways to relate to fundamentalists, and as usual, these are all mirrors for ourselves. We can find it here, in our own daily lives and right here & now.
It is quite common to hear people say they are sensitive to the energy of others. It may be especially noticeable – and sometimes uncomfortable – in close quarters with others over time, and if the others have relatively strong internal conflicts going on. I notice it mostly on the train or bus, and I know many others notice it – among other times – when giving bodywork.
There are lots of ways to work with this. Visualize a cocoon around oneself. Working on grounding. Visualize roots down the earth. Visualize clarity. Pray for the other and yourself. Visualize healing for both of you. And so on. All of these may work fine to some extent and for a while, but they won’t work completely or always because they are just alleviating the symptoms.
When I explore this for myself, I find that the discomfort I experience has one source, and that is my own beliefs about what is going on. Here too, I find that the discomfort I experience comes from friction between my stories of what should be and what is.
Some people and situations are especially good projection objects. They express qualities we are not in touch with in ourselves, characteristics outside of our conscious identity. So when we see it in others, it fascinates us. We may even be caught up in blind attractions and aversions to just those qualities, expressed in these people and situations.
Michael Jackson is a good example. His genius for music, dance, image and marketing gave him attention, and in itself made him a good project. Add eccentricity and scandals that never were resolved, and you have an irresistible and explosive mix.
I watched Letters From Iwo Jima earlier tonight. As one of two movies about the same battle, this one from the Japanese perspective, it is a great example of post-modernist approaches going mainstream. Why show just one perspective, when there are – at least – two major ones, and then several perspectives within each of those?
Whoever believes that the All itself is deficient is (himself) completely deficient.
Gospel of Thomas, verse 67.
This can be seen as referring to projections.
What I see in the world says more about me than the world. In a conventional sense, it says a lot about me and little about the world. In a real sense, it says all about me and nothing about the world.
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.
– Gospel of Thomas, verse 70.
Some simple ways of looking at this…
It can be seen as referring to the shadow. What we don’t bring into light from the shadow will destroy us. The parts of us excluded because they don’t fit our conscious self image is gold and will save us if it is recognized and owned, and will destroy us if it is not. We will be at its mercy.
It can be seen as referring to what we are. If we notice what we are, it will save us. If we don’t, it will destroy us. We will destroy ourselves through delusion, through taking stories as true.
And it can be seen as referring to living from what we are. If we notice what we are and live from it, it will save us. If we notice what we are, to some extent, and don’t live from it, it will destroy us. We are still caught up in beliefs and fears.
I certainly know both sides of each one of these through personal experience, even right now. We probably all do, if we notice.
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