Seeing Our Shadow

One of the definitions of Enlightenment that I appreciate is Carl Jung’s, “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light but by making the darkness conscious” We all have parts of ourselves that we don’t want to acknowledge, that we would prefer to leave in the dark. Feelings like rage, jealousy, greed, lust, shame, competitiveness. Often the pain of those feelings leads us to actions like addiction, laziness, aggression, dependency, which only lead to more shame and deeper shadows.

In Buddhism we talk about shadow parts as the three poisons or the klesas (poisons in Sanskrit.) The three poisons, commonly known as Greed, Anger and Ignorance, encompass all of the shadow material. Greed includes, desire, lust, competitiveness, jealousy; Anger includes, hatred, rage, revenge, aggression; Ignorance includes, denial, addiction, laziness, and not seeing the interconnectedness of all beings, all things.

Our work as Zen students is to work to shine a light on those parts of ourselves we would prefer not to see. Meditation is a very powerful light. Those parts just pop up when we sit. When they pop up we can allow ourself to get curious about them,  inquire what they are about. We can even work to develop compassion toward these disowned parts of ourself. When we can feel compassion towards ourself, compassion towards others naturally flows.

If we keep those parts in the dark, not acknowledging them, we act them out while at the very same moment we deny them. We say something mean and then say, “That was just a joke.” Or we can be passive aggressive by disrespecting others by showing up late regularly, but with out making any effort to change. Or for example, if we have a lot of old rage from early trauma that we don’t acknowledge, that rage will find a target in our life and we will justify the rage, believing we are right. This will disrupt our current relationships. We will get stuck in being right and lose the connection with the other person.

As a psychotherapist I do volunteer work for an agency that works to support prostitutes who have left “the life”. Some of these women are still teens who ran away from terrible homes and were picked up by undercover cops. Others are women lured here from other countries with the promise of good jobs as nannies or housekeepers. But once they are here they are imprisoned in brothels, their clothes and passports taken away so they cannot leave. Once they are able to break free, they are very angry even many years after and they are unable to connect in a healthy way to their own children and new lovers. Like war vets, their anger erupts unexpectedly with little provocation. They need help dealing with their old trauma to clear away their dark shadow parts.

Our masks of innocence and “niceness” cover up those parts of us that we don’t want to see. As we begin to take off our own masks and look underneath, we must try to see ourself with ruthless honesty  so that we can address those parts of ourself. The shadow parts need time, patience and courage to reveal themselves to us. They often are revealed through glimpses of strong emotion that seem out of place even while we try to explain the strong reaction. Sometimes we find ourself being kind of compulsive and don’t understand it ourself. We may find we hold very strong judgements about others which is usually about a self judgement that we don’t want to admit. Feelings of contempt for others is a clue to a feeling about our own shadow quality.

For example, someone who is driven to accomplish many things will often feel contempt for someone who is less ambitious and more dependent. The shadow, a laid back, dependent part, will hide because it’s not safe to come out as long as self judgement is around. I often see this in husbands and wives. The wife may be ambitious and driven, hard working, successful and the husband unhappy with a laid back job and lots of free time. The wife may feel jealous of his free time and contemptuous of his lack of ambition. Her own dependency needs are hidden away deep within her and she can’t acknowledge the part of her that would like to be more laid back and less responsible for everything. She hates those parts of herself. That self-hate manifests in the contempt she expresses towards her husband because he doesn’t “make enough money.” In order to rebalance this relationship, she has to begin to accept her own dependency needs and he has to allow his caretaking parts to get more active in taking care of her in some way. Then she will drop her contemptuousness and he will feel more self worth.

Finding and acknowledging our shadow parts makes us vulnerable because we are dropping our mask. Vulnerability itself is often a shadow part. We have deep fears about being vulnerable. We often view it as weakness. This is a big mistake. Being vulnerable is not weakness at all, but strength. It is only through vulnerability that we can connect with others. It is only through our vulnerability that we can be lovable. As long as our mask is up in our intimate relationships we are not connecting. Oddly enough, those shadow parts that we hide from ourself, are easily seen by our intimate family. They can see the rage, hatred, jealousy, greed, lust, and shame that we hide from ourself, and being family, they often point it out to us when we are not interested in hearing it. Can we hear and put it aside to reflect on later?

We come to practice hoping to experience clarity, peace, happiness. Being told the work lies in facing all the parts of ourself that we want to pretend don’t exist is not welcome news. However, we really can’t find that inner peace, clarity and happiness unless we are willing to tackle the dark places.

So sitting practice is a part of the lifetime work to bring light to the shadow. It’s not the whole story however, because the work of finding the shadow also must be done off the cushion, in our lives. We must begin to recognize how we are reacting to events in our lives from our shadow parts. Learning to respect those parts of ourself instead of denying them is enlivening and enlightening. It gives us greater access to ourself releasing creative energies and compassion for others. It is known as “Clearly knowing” in Buddhism, seeing ourself with ruthless honesty.

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One Response to Seeing Our Shadow

  1. James Jakudo Shammas says:

    Not until my mid 30’s did I wake up. Before then, I had no awareness that my entire life was putting on one mask for another. When I was a brilliant, hard-working teenager, my masks took various forms: white, Christian, handsome, sexy, and then the one that really made me feel special, “valedictorian.” I was high-school president, pre-med and on top of the world. Marriage and middle life catapulted me into other masks, like: husband, father, doctor, and mid-life athlete. Then I ran into unexplained sadness, marriage difficulty, and strife. I was told I was an alcoholic, and although I didn’t like that one very much, it was true. Gratefully, it is the one mask than brought me “face-to-face” with every mask I’ve ever worn, as well as all the masks I was to put on in the future. Getting up at an AA meeting and saying the words, “I’m Jim and I am an alcoholic” was the greatest koan of my life. Most of my on-going recovery was completed with that simple phrase. Of course, after that admission over ten years ago, I began to wear more masks, this time modifying them by adding one or two adjectives to them, like: “recovered alcoholic.” On some days, I did not feel so spiritually sober, and so sometimes called myself a “dry drunk.” Overall, though, my masks became more “noble.” Six years ago, when I discovered the Buddha’s teaching, I started wearing all kinds of spiritual masks, like student, buddhist student, and zen buddhist student. When I took the precepts and began wearing a rakasu, I confess I walked around with a Shakyamuni mask, maybe thinking I would quickly get enlightened and impress my friends.

    Well, the point I guess I am trying to make here is that all of my masks do indeed hide the whole spectrum of human emotion, thought and feelings. Furthermore, it is only with awareness and training that one can see them and embrace them for what they are. I took me many years of hard work just to admit to myself that sadness, loneliness, sexuality, anger, and arrogance stand side-by-side, co-existing with bliss, abundance, self-confidence, and strength, and to desire and hold on to any one feeling or emotion is not possible. I also don’t know if I am wearing a mask right now. Indeed, we can rephrase one koan from the Gateless Gate and ask, “What was my original mask before my parents’ masks,” or something of that nature. But zen is not about intellectual or philosophical, or even psychological, exploration as I am told. And this is precisely where the brutal honesty that Sensei talks about comes in, which is uncannily similar to what is stated in the “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous, which talks about “vigorous honesty” in making a “searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves (Step 4),” admitting to ourselves “the exact nature of our wrongs (Step 5),” and after having had a spiritual awakening “carrying this message to all alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs (Step 12, and quite akin to the 10th oxherding picture, perhaps).” The program goes on to declare that positive results will undoubtedly materialize if one does this with conviction and sincerity. This resonates with every authentic buddhist teacher I’ve met: that “Enlightenment” is my birthright: It is ever-present and always accessible, but it takes initial and on-going effort to realize and actualize, and it is also not about eliminating anything: not the masks, not archetypes, not emptiness, not form. It is about on-going honest practice for me. May I dress and undress freely!

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