Rather than going after our walls and barriers with a sledgehammer, we pay attention to them. With gentleness and honesty, we move closer to those walls. We touch them and smell them and get to know them well. We begin a process of acknowledging our aversions and our cravings. We become familiar with the strategies and beliefs we use to build the walls: What are the stories I tell myself? What repels me and what attracts me? We start to get curious about what’s going on. ~Pema Chodron
I’ve always had a prickly sense about what’s going on beneath the surface. In my consultation group this week we were talking about how to use our sensitivity in the service of healing rather than taking it on ourselves, being scapegoated, and/or becoming therapeutically aggressive.
Many of us as children were the ones who talked about the thing that no one wanted to talk about. Others expressed it symbolically through acting it out or developing physical symptoms to hold the family’s pain. It is a challenging role to play and many of us suffered a lot. Someone likened it to walking around with a head lamp on, bringing out what was hidden, but not knowing what we were doing.
In Western psychology, we label this phenomenon as the human shadow. This refers to unconscious feelings and behaviors that our ego has deemed unacceptable. Our shadow shows up in all aspects of our life, in our relationships, at work, with friends, and in the groups we belong to. In our culture, shadow content usually revolves around power, sex, money, and addictions. The hidden feelings are typically some version of hatred, rage, jealousy, greed, and lust; which often result in acts of aggression, deception, affairs, and other betrayals.
Our shadows were created early on when we figured out as young children who we should be to feel safe, loved, and accepted. Whatever thoughts, feelings, and behaviors weren’t sanctioned in our family of origin and surrounding cultural context went underground in our psyche. Those hidden feelings were then projected onto others, repressed, or held in our bodies. The better our defenses worked, the more fixated and solid our egos became.
As adults, we can learn to relate to our shadow by shining the light of awareness on it and thereby making it conscious. Because it’s hidden, we need to know where to look for it, e.g., in the people we react negatively towards, our obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviors, our verbal slips (when we make fun of people), or gossip. All of our unconscious mishaps point to our blind spots. Even while meditating, our shadow material grips us with repetitive thoughts, intense emotional reactivity, and bodily sensations.
When we are able to face our shadow, our idea of who we were begins to crumble. We may feel like we’re having an identity crisis, but this is major progress in terms of our human development. As our idealized self image begins to dissolve, our egos die a slow and painful death. The “painful” part, however, is really from the point of view of ego. Most people I know say they feel a whole lot better, have greater humility, and more compassion for self and other. What a relief it is to let the whole thing go and relax into our humanity.
In the Buddhist tradition, the phenomena of light and shadow is presented somewhat differently. Because it is a non-dual wisdom tradition, there is no sense of good (light) versus evil (dark). Rather, we talk about how all human beings have Buddha nature. This fundamental essence of who we are shines through each of us like how the sun shines through crystal manifesting as rainbow light of the five colors. Each of us reflects the pure light of this fundamental essence (openness, clarity, and love) in a particular way, as a manifestation of the five Buddha families and their corresponding wisdoms. Each wisdom can also present in a confused or disguised form. The five Buddha families manifest from the true nature of our mind. They are expressions of our own wisdom and include the light and shadow aspects. The display can vary, but the essence is the same. Each Buddha family is associated with a color, an element, certain enlightened qualities, and confused aspects. Here is a very brief summary just to introduce the basic idea:
Buddha family (white, element of space) is the quality of openness, presence, and spaciousness. It is our meditative mind, the space from which all of our thoughts, sense perceptions, feelings, and sensations arise. It is all encompassing wisdom. The confused or neurotic aspect of this wisdom is a state of dullness, stupidity, laziness, or being spaced out. This is the klesha or poison of ignorance.
Vajra family (blue, element of water) is the wisdom of clarity or mirror-like wisdom. It is our intellect and curiosity. It is logical, direct, and cuts through our self-deception and hypocrisy. It helps us be clear with others and set appropriate boundaries. The confused or shadow side is anger, aggression, rigidity, and being fixated about our ideas.
Ratna family (yellow, element of earth) is the wisdom of equanimity and all-inclusiveness. There is a sense of generosity and abundance and an expression of appreciation and enrichment of our environment. The flip side is a sense of poverty and feeling that we are not good enough–or the opposite–we have an inflated sense of arrogance, pride, and over-indulgence.
Padma family (red, element of fire) is discriminating awareness wisdom. There is a sense of connection, relational-ness, warmth, and compassion. The confused state is becoming seductive, clinging, and possessive–we cannot tolerate being alone.
Karma family (green, element of wind) is all-accomplishing wisdom. There is a sense of energy, efficiency, competency, and creativity. The shadow side of karma is jealousy, envy, self-doubt, and comparing yourself to others. It can also be meaningless activity, business, obsessive thoughts, and compulsive behaviors.
My hope is that by considering shadow work in this way we can develop both fearlessness and greater skillfulness in working with others. Everyone we meet, all the people in our life present opportunities to engage with different styles of enlightened wisdom. We need to lean how to go beneath surface appearances and work with these energies no matter how confused or neurotic they appear. By relating to others in this way we are simultaneously working with shadow aspects of ourselves that we have not been able to see.
When we can connect with the wisdom inherent in the raw energy of our emotional states, we have a greater potential to liberate ourselves. When we can include our shadows in the light of our awareness, we can transmute the poisons into wisdom. We need to expand our minds to hold the opposites of light and shadow simultaneously. This takes time, practice, and a certain willingness to look into the hidden parts of ourselves. We practice meditation to ride the waves of our emotions without getting washed away. We remain curious, open, and somewhat detached. We try to gain perspective of what’s happening here and now, rather than identifying with it, acting it out, and creating more suffering for ourself and others. We don’t mistake these states for who we are or that this is how our life will be forever. We begin to recognize our primordial Buddha nature in the “shadow” itself because we see its true essence.