Me and My Shadow

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Shine a light on your unconscious mind, and you’ll see the root cause of the negative thoughts and behaviors you haven’t been able to control—until now.

Liane is sure that Brian is the love of her life, but when they move in together, she begins to notice a disturbing pattern in herself. When he is late getting home, or absorbed in his work when she wants to talk, she feels red hot with resentment. Soon, she sinks into infuriated silence, or worse, explodes at him. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror during one of these tirades, Liane is shocked to see the hard, angry expression on her face.  She writes me in search of a meditation practice that can help her get centered enough so that she doesn’t blow up at her boyfriend. “I’m a loving person,” she says. “I don’t even know where these feelings come from.  Isn’t there some practice I can do to get rid of my negativities?”

This question comes up a lot, especially from people who know what it is to experience loving, expansive states.   As a spiritual practitioner, an ethical person, you know the beautiful, warm-hearted, wise person inside you.  So where do these ugly feelings and behaviors come from? Often, you wish there was a magic bullet to destroy your fearfulness, anger, and insecurity for good.

But the desire to get rid of your negative qualities, so that you can just be your “good” self, is actually part of the problem.  There is no magic bullet, in yoga or in any other spiritual path, for eliminating negativities. Instead, you need to bring them to consciousness, learn the lessons they have to teach you, and deliberately work with them. The painful samskaras, deep mental grooves that lead to negative behaviors, will continue to ambush your thoughts and behaviors until you take a close look at them, accept them as an intrinsic aspect of your consciousness, and then release the energy tied up in them, so that it becomes available for your personal and spiritual growth.

The Person You’d Rather Not Be

In other words, we don’t really grow up until we learn how to deal with these tendencies—which the great modern psychologist Carl Jung famously referred to as your “shadow.” We’ll often get clues about our shadow tendencies from friends. “How come you’re always late for our dates?” someone will ask you.  Or, “Why do you keep spreading gossip about other people?” Maybe you just become aware, like Liane, of how often you erupt at someone close to you, or how you mask your insecurity with boastfulness, or how your sunny moods are often followed by stormy ones.

Jung, whose work was influenced by his reading of Eastern sources, called the shadow “the person you’d rather not be”—the opposite of your conscious personality. He coined the term “shadow” to describe qualities that some yogic scriptures categorize as the kleshas (literally, causes of suffering). These are qualities that a key yogic text, the Bhagavad Gita, rather dauntingly describes as “demonic.” In other words, all the selfish, primitive, egoic, violent, lazy, entitled, aspects of yourself.

Shadow includes all the aspects of your psyche that you prefer not to look at, the traits that you’ve been ashamed of all your life, the things about yourself you keep in the psychic basement. Our shadow qualities are often primitive and immature, because they haven’t been cooked in the fire of our self-awareness. In fact, when certain negative tendencies remain hidden from our conscious awareness, they will tend to drive our emotions and behaviors in unpredictable ways. This is when you might find yourself losing your temper over something minor, or going into despair over a small mistake, or disliking someone who exhibits the trait you don’t want to see in yourself.

For example, Shelly, a nurse, prided herself on her ability to empathize with patients, and disliked her supervisor, whom she felt treated patients dismissively. As a result, she often found herself in arguments with her supervisor, which threatened her job.  In a workshop, I asked her to look at why her feelings of judgment were so intense. As we discussed it, she realized that she often felt dismissive towards these same patients–but over-compensated by bending over backwards to be nice. Her judgments about her supervisor exactly mirrored the judgment she directed at herself whenever she ‘lost it’, or behaved in a way that belied her sweet, caring persona.   It took Shelly a while to connect her own self-criticism with her judgments about her supervisor. When she was able to see the harshness of her own inner judge, she was also able to look at her supervisor with more compassion. As a result, they quarreled less, and Shelly feels that the atmosphere in the ward is easier for everyone. “Maybe it really changed,” she told me. “Maybe it feels different because I changed.”

Projector Screen

Your unconscious shadow attitudes, inescapably, become the lenses through which you look at life. Refusing to “own” a shadow tendency just makes you less conscious that it is distorting your perspective. Because inevitably, when you can’t see something in yourself, you project the quality onto someone else, either judging or admiring the quality in them.

This is just one reason why shadow work can be so revelatory, and so life changing. Just learning to recognize your shadow can transform your relationship to other people and yourself. You’ll have an easier time accepting constructive feedback once you’ve recognized that it’s your perfection-obsessed inner critic who’s beating you up, and not the person who’s trying to give you a useful critique. Even more important, when you do your shadow work, you’ll find that it can dissolve many of your negative feelings about yourself—feelings like shame and unworthiness, or the sneaking suspicion that you’re not the person you pretend to be.  It also becomes easier to notice and let go of unconscious behavior patterns like being deceitful with your coworkers, blowing up at your mother, or choosing romantic partners who tend to take advantage of you. Shadow work, if you do it authentically, lets you begin to unpick the threads of your negative samskaras.

Often, people who have engaged in shadow work exhibit a high degree of balance, tolerance, and self-acceptance. They tend to have high integrity, in the sense that they don’t say one thing and do another. Their ethics are not undercut by their unconscious impulses, emotionally charged projections, or negative habit patterns.

As you, too, begin to acknowledge your disowned traits and do your shadow work, you’ll catch glimpses of what genuine inner balance feels like.  For instance, when you find yourself feeling envious of a friend’s success, instead of resenting them, you will be able to use the feeling of envy to look to how you can step up to your own potential. Or you’ll no longer feel so much resistance to getting on the mat, because having seen into your inner rebel, you’ll be able to negotiate a practice schedule that is free-form enough so the rebel feels less restricted.

Birth of the Shadow

That said, it’s painful to become aware of a deep-seated shadow trait. The pain often goes back to early childhood. Our parents might find us too exuberant, too volatile, too needy, too sensitive, or too angry. Our peers and teachers might reward certain behaviors, reject others. As we meet disapproval, we do our best to repress or cover these unacceptable qualities.

The problem is that as you repress these unacceptable behaviors, you lose the opportunity to work with them, to find the positive aspects of these traits.  For example, the intensity that expresses itself in childhood anger—assuming that you are a mentally healthy person—could grow into a mature quality that allows you to stand up to a bully, or assert yourself in a challenging situation. Your sadness could develop into a capacity for deep empathy. Your fearfulness has the potential to blossom into healthy vulnerability; your impulsiveness can mature into genuine spontaneity. This is why it doesn’t work to repress your shadow. Yes, it’s primitive, selfish, and sometimes volatile, but it’s also the source of the energy you need for creative and spiritual growth.

Into the Light

There are several core approaches to shadow, and each of them has its value. The classical yoga of Patanjali takes the view that shadow needs to be purified and ultimately, eliminated. The traditional prescription is to cultivate virtues like truthfulness, non-violence, and contentment, and to do purification practices; certain asanas, mantras, and types of meditation will clean out many of the shadow elements of the unconscious. Mantra and chanting practices, for example, can be powerful tools for clearing negativities from the mind and heart, dispelling painful feelings that might ordinarily spur us to impulsive action. These practices are important and necessary disciplines.

But at a certain point, you realize that there is a further step. You begin to recognize that it is possible to liberate the energy tied up in shadow energies, and turn them towards a positive goal. A key verse in a text called the Spanda Karika-s, an important text of tantric philosophy, explains something of the mystery hidden in shadow energy. It describes how spanda, the transformative energy of the universe, the energy that gives us the power to make an evolutionary leap, can be found with great immediacy in moments of intense feeling and passion—in anger, in fear, in deep confusion as well as in joyful excitement. The tantric approach to emotion suggests that you focus on the energy present in intense emotions and direct your focus inward, into the heart of that energy or impulse, rather than acting it out. Then, you can ride even a negative emotion into its Source—the pure consciousness that is your divine core.

Simple Strategies

If you want to begin to resolve the polarized opposites within yourself, you need to shine non-judgmental, conscious awareness on your shadow. A good place to start is by considering the traits for which people generally criticize you. Maybe you’ve been ignoring feedback from your family and coworkers that you’re bossy, or hotheaded, or a little flirtatious with other people’s significant others.

Take my friend Jon, for instance. He gets teased by all his friends for exaggerating his accomplishments, and criticized for blaming other people for his own mistakes. For a long time, he simply refused to accept the feedback. Then, his best friend of many years told him that he no longer wanted to be close to someone he couldn’t trust to tell the truth. And Jon had to recognize that stretching the truth had become a habit. As he admitted it to himself—and dealt with the accompanying feelings of shame and embarrassment—he began to vigilantly, and moment to moment, choose truthfulness.

When Do You Feel Charged?

Another technique is to notice when an encounter leaves you feeling emotionally charged. Why do you get so upset when the line at the ticket counter moves slowly? Could your fury come from a feeling of thwarted entitlement, a belief that life should arrange itself to fit your convenience? Why do you feel so sour when your girlfriend easily passes her bar exam? Is it because you have been procrastinating about finishing your doctoral thesis and her success feels threatening? As you look closely at your hidden shadow feelings, they begin to lose their charge—and, hence, their power over you.

Who is it You Can’t Stand?

A third way to bring your shadow to light is to look at the people you feel vehemently negative about. When Hillary Clinton was running in the 2008 primary elections, I kept running into women who would practically froth at the mouth when her name was mentioned. All of them were successful women who had had to make a lot of compromises to rise in male-dominated professions. Hillary, they would say, is ruthless. She’s compromised. And sometimes, “I just hate her.” The vehemence alone indicated that there was projection going on. The “dark” qualities they saw in her were unacknowledged aspects of themselves.

This also holds true for your positive shadow—for the unowned “golden” qualities in you. The people you idealize for their courage, creativity, wisdom, or charm inevitably mirror our own hidden potentials. Think about it: Who did you idolize in college, and why? Which qualities and traits make you fall in love with someone? What do you admire about your closest friends? These are clues to your own unexpressed or uncultivated strengths. My guru intuitively understood the phenomenon of projection. When you paid him a compliment, he used to say, “It’s your own greatness you see in me.”

As you stick with these “shadow work” strategies over time, make an effort to notice and explore the ways that your shadow might be manifesting, without judgment or self-blame. For instance, you might become aware that you’re in the grip of your shadow when you find yourself obsessing over your ex’s critical remarks. Or when you brood over a close friend’s silence rather than calling her. Or when you idolize your boss because he’s so creative, while continuing to hold back from offering your own creative ideas. Once you can recognize when you are in the grip of your shadow, you can refrain from acting on a negative shadow impulse (such as lashing out at a loved one), or choose a different way of behaving than you might otherwise (by being patient when someone is annoying you, or reflecting on how the man you suddenly adore exhibits beautiful qualities that are latent in yourself.

And then you can take the next step, the step that allows integration and, ultimately, release. You learn how to hold the shadow feelings in your awareness, and sense your way into the energy tied up in them. You recognize and accept the fact that, like everyone else, you contain light, and you contain darkness. And if you can become the witness of both, your very awareness will allow these two sides of yourself to integrate, releasing the energy that has been tied up in privileging one side over the other. Paradoxically, it’s then, and only then, that you gain real power to change the tendencies and behaviors in yourself that can and should be changed. Change doesn’t come from blindly trying to suppress or get rid of a negative tendency, or refusing to acknowledge a positive one. It comes through the power we gain by becoming aware of it.  It’s only when we know our own depths—our unique wisdom and our unique blindness, the way we are at our most loving and the way we are when we’re most angry, that we become truly trustworthy to ourselves and others.  That’s when we can authentically choose to live as our best self. That’s when our yoga begins to shine through all our moments and all our days.

Exercise: Letter Writing Game

Another way to identify your unacknowledged and projected shadow is through an exercise that I call the Letter Writing Game. Set aside half an hour, during which you will write two letters. One is addressed to someone you have an intense emotional charge with, someone you dislike, judge, disapprove of. It can be a friend, a colleague, a family member, or even a public figure. Describe the things you dislike about them, including the reasons why you dislike these things. (“I can’t stand the way you talk to people because it makes everyone feel bad.” “You’re such a drama queen.”)

The second letter is addressed to someone you admire. Write everything that you love and admire about them in detail, again, addressing that person directly. (“I love how adventurous you are.”  “You have such a gift for empathizing with people.”)

Then, read the letters aloud in front of a mirror, substituting every “you” for “I”. In other words, read the letters as though they are addressed to you.

Next, discuss the exercise with a friend. Having a witnessing friend present can help you see a lot more deeply into your own shadow tendencies. And you can do the same for him or her.

Now, it’s crucially important to take the next step. Sit in meditation, following the breath or simply focusing your attention in the heart center. Ask that the inner Self, the power of grace, the spirit of yoga be present within you. Offer the qualities you’ve seen in yourself—both the dark and the light shadow qualities—to the Self. Ask, “May all imbalances be balanced. May confusion be illuminated. May the dark and light sides of myself be balanced, and may I be able to use the gifts hidden in shadow for the benefit of all beings.” Once you’ve made the offering, sit quietly for a few minutes.

In the hours and days that follow, stay alert for any subtle inner shifts. Notice if there is a change in the way you see these other people, or in how you see yourself.

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