Discovering the Shadow & the Inner Light

We’ve been talking about this inner cast of negatively-charged emotions that each of us has within us. This is really just another way to talk about what Jung called the shadow. The shadow is the part of our nature that we deny. It is unacceptable to us and must be hidden from others. We hide the shadow so well that we are usually unaware of it, but we may have an uneasy sense of its presence lurking somewhere. This intentional unawareness combined with unease causes us to contract in fear and fuels the subversive behavior of the shadowy aspects within. We do things we are then ashamed of, unable to explain what came over us, because we don’t see the shadowy aspects with their fear-based hidden agendas and secret intentions.

Then through the practice of meditation in a supportive atmosphere we are encouraged to notice our thoughts and emotions as they arise and fall away. Especially if we spend an extended period of time doing so, as on a silent retreat, we begin to see what we had been hiding from view. This can be scary and it can be thrilling. It is scary to the shadow aspects that feel threatened with discovery. And it is thrilling to the deepest part of our nature, our Buddha nature, to illuminate the darkness and thus dissipate the shadow.

Now here’s a very interesting thing about shadow: Think about a physical shadow caused by our standing in the light of the sun. If we rely on the cast light of another being, whether a particular human, a deity or a set of cultural norms, then that light will cast a shadow. There will be a part of us that must be hidden as unacceptable because it doesn’t meet the other’s expectations, or what we speculate to be the expectations of the other. We revolve around this external light and like the moon, always carry a dark side, that unacceptable side that doesn’t meet external expectation.

Feeling the density of the shadow like a weight, a person might turn away from the light altogether. They may feel the darkness is more honest and comfortable. They feel safer in the darkness because it seems to accept all of who they are. Think of the muted and almost blind camaraderie of the all-forgiving bar, opium den, casino or bordello, whether actual places or just the dark unwholesome places within our mind that can feel safer, relieved of having to try to be so good. In this place goodness looks very shallow and ineffectual, full of itself, self-righteous, hypocritical, treacle-y sweet and unsatisfying.

From the darkness external light is often suspect and accusatory, like a searchlight tracking us down to drag us off for questioning. Thus the darkness dweller turns away further and further from the externally cast light.

From the darkness the shadows of others, who are trying to live up to the light cast by external sources, are very easy to see, exposing the falseness of their endless efforts to be good. This further justifies the darkness dwellers belief that darkness is the only honest place, and they become further entrenched in darkness.

But at its core a yearning to succumb to darkness is truly a yearning for gestation, for rebirth. When someone wandering in the darkness undertakes to awaken through setting the intention to be fully present with what is, they experience a ‘dark night of the soul’ of wrenching proportions but if they stay with it, can find that being in the darkness has enhanced their ability to recognize their own inner light. We all know how in the middle of the night all the little electronic lights in the house suddenly glow brightly when during the day they weren’t even noticeable.

This is not to recommend hanging out in the unwholesome and unsavory nooks and crannies of shadow to find the inner light, for awareness is required and awareness is hugely lacking in the dark shadows of our existence. That’s how it got so damn dark! Most darkness dwellers prefer to stay trapped where they are, feeling they don’t deserve better and they see no value in self-exploration or meditative practices.

But for anyone who has been wandering in the darkness and has begun to see glimpses of an inner glow, this is a strong reminder to encourage that inner light to glow and grow. It will shed light on the darkness, bring understanding and illuminate life, no matter who we are, where we have been or what we have done or not done.

If we are not wandering in the darkness, we may not be noticing that inner light because there is so much other light around and nothing in our upbringing or culture has encouraged us to look for it. We see light as external and we long to stand in it as long as we can, treating it like a much-needed vacation. The practice of meditation is often treated this way, as a getaway. If this is how it feels for you, remember that our practice is to develop awareness in every moment, awareness of the gift of life, awareness of the light that is ever present, radiating from within.

Jesus said, ‘Be a lamp unto yourself.’ He recognized that we each have access to the source of light, not by standing in the light cast by others but by being aware of our own light nature, our connection to the infinite light of being.

We can honor the cast light of others as a celebration of life. But we need to also recognize the shadow cast when we stand only in that cast light. This is the danger of submitting to the will of a master or powerful teacher, who is casting false light and false hopes while dwelling in the darkness and trying to suck the inner light out of their followers. With insight through meditation we begin to understand that we are each expressions of infinite light that is the interconnected web of life. If we use the name of God for this infinite light, then feel God as beingness itself, world without end, not some finite external being that picks and chooses who is worthy of its love and light. Feel the joy of being an expression of God’s infinite love and light.

And think: When we are radiating light, when we are an expression of the infinite light of being, we cast no shadow.

Since we are humans living in a human society with all that entails, it’s all too easy to get lost, to forget we are lamps unto ourselves, to forget that we have access to inner wisdom, so our practice to deepen and maintain that awareness is ongoing. We set our intention to be present with our experience, to notice our thoughts, our judgments, our tendencies to grasp and cling to the past and the future; to anchor awareness in physical sensation to keep us present and to notice and release habituated tension in the body, noticing associative memories, images, thoughts and emotions that the tension is holding. This noticing sets the stage for noticing the shadow. And when the shadow is seen and not further banished, then it begins to dissipate. As we identify more and more with the radiant light within us, knowing ourselves to be a part of the infinite expression of life, we can become much less defensive for we have nothing to defend against. As we begin to see the shadow we cast when standing in the bright externalized light, we recognize that shadow is just fear, compressed and hidden in darkness. Releasing tension, shedding our inner light of awareness on the fear-based emotions, we are able to gently and steadily awaken.

This process of shedding light and acknowledging the shadow, or the negatively-charged aspects we have suppressed so long that they have become dense and toxic, is part of our ongoing exploration through awareness or insight meditation. In the process of letting go of the belief that we are the emotions and thoughts that pass through our experience, we are more able to hold ourselves in an open loving embrace. We see the shadowy aspects for what they are. We align with the infinite light of our being to unravel the tight fearful tangle, shedding loving light, metta, upon all that we find. Noticing the judgments, noticing the expectations, and even sending metta to those fearful aspects that must criticize lest someone criticize them, to the ones that find fault with the way things are, comparing them to the way they were or the way we had hoped they would be, we make room for all of these expressions in the spaciousness of our being. And by making room for them to be seen, we loosen their tight hold on us, and are no longer blindly vulnerable to their subversion of our intentions to be kind and compassionate. Our willingness to acknowledge that at times we experience thoughts, urges and emotions that would be harmful if acted upon, frees us from the need to act upon them! We can simply acknowledge them, or if they are urgent, we can take the time to sit with them and explore what their need is, and respectfully negotiate a truce as discussed in previous posts.

To the degree that we access and align with the infinite light of being, this deep understanding of our interconnection and the infinite nature of being, then the more joyful we are able to be. We needn’t be afraid of our shadow! But if we are aware of it we can recognize that we need to spend some time looking in to see that inner light glowing in the darkness.

We can even sing to ourselves that wonderful tune: “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine….Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!”

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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