Facing Shadow

Through our practice of sleep, dream, and meditation, we will undoubtedly encounter aspects of ourselves that we don’t like.  These aspects normally come in several forms:

1.  Something about “me” I don’t like–a thought, feeling, or emotion

2.  Something about “you” I don’t like–your attitude, your actions, and so forth

3.  Something about “it” I don’t like–traffic, the heat, my job, my life.

Interestingly enough, often when we are furious or upset with someone else, we are actually just experiencing an uncomfortable feeling in our body that we would like to escape from.  Thought patterns trigger a way of reacting to the world, which causes the body to release stress hormones, adrenaline, and other chemicals to help us fight or flee from a situation.

For the most part, this is not only unhealthy, but also an incorrect way to see the situation.

The concept of “shadow” suggests that what we are actually upset about are aspects of ourselves that we have disowned and no longer identify with.  We have disassociated from these aspects because they do not fit the self-concept we are attempting to project to other people.

For the most part, our self-concept includes what we think we know about ourselves: what we like, what we dislike, and why we don’t like those things.  Shadow, on the other hand, is entirely unconscious–meaning we are not aware of it.

For example, if I think of myself as a holy person, I may do the best that I can to avoid “impure” thinking, and try to force thoughts of a violent or sexual nature away.  Since these thoughts do not fit my definition of “holy,” I try to pretend that they aren’t mine (which is interesting, because if they aren’t mine, whose are they?).

This is a classic example of psychological repression, and it has the tendency to create negative experiences in dreams.  For instance, I may begin having more uncomfortable dreams of a sexual nature, or more violent dreams, based on my unwillingness to explore these thoughts during the waking state.

The 3-2-1 shadow process was created by Zen teacher Diane Musho Hamilton as a way to confront shadow during the waking state, interact with it, and then assimilate it back into your conscious self.  I have found this process to be incredibly powerful and revealing.  What follows is a method, along with an example of how a session might unfold.

The Method

1.  Find a few quiet minutes during the day to look into your mind.  You may begin with the meditation method suggested in Meditation: A Simple Method.

2.  Once you feel stable, recall an image, person, or situation from the day.  Ideally, this should be either the most repellent thing you encountered, or the most inviting or attractive.  Either works.

3.  Face it.  Visualize the entity in front of you.  If your visualization isn’t clear, that is OK–it is most important to feel it.  If it is a situation or a feeling, personify it in your mind in some way.

  • I visualize my father, and recall a painful phone conversation with him.

4.  Talk to it.  Ask the person or thing questions.  “Why are you pissing me off?” or “Why are you here?” are fine ways to start.  My favorite is, “What do you have to teach me?” Listen to what it says back–either in feelings or words.

  • “Why don’t you love me?” I ask.
  • He looks at me and says, “I’m just trying to protect myself.”

5.  BE it.  Change positions, mentally speaking, and allow the visualization to dissolve into you, so that there is only you.  Speak the words and feel the feelings inspired by the visualization.  Become that aspect that was once driven away.

  • “I’m just trying to protect myself,” I say, and own the words.  I realize that the pain I felt on the phone with my father has less to do with what was said, and more to do with my own desire to protect myself from further pain, and thus avoid my experience of life.  I also am able to see things from his angle, and realize he is not doing this on purpose.  He also wants to protect himself from pain.

Doing work with the shadow is immensely beneficial, and can often lead to creative insights the conscious mind would never have reached on its own.  Used often enough, it can help us to soften our hearts toward our everyday experience, and stop projecting our insecurities onto other people.

“Where it was, there shall I become.”

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