‘What has no shadow has no strength to live.’
– Czeslaw Milosz, from his poem Faith
‘Love crowns you and crucifies you’
Shadow is the darkness that my simple act of being here casts across the earth. The more I walk in the light, the starker my shadow. It is the evil I am, but which I don't see. The vehement energy with which I deny my evil reveals its presence in me. Especially, the evil in others that pains me so, reflects its hidden shadow in my own being. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of it. But usually, without noticing, I cover over what I see. Like old-age I can never overcome my shadow. It remains my constant companion. Even as I'm laid to rest. Even the flickering of final flames devouring my body casts a theater of shadows. Not even death does us apart. Even if death undoes me.
It is the life I did not live because of the choices I made. It lurks deep inside the sorrows of my loss. So that loss offers discovering and coming to terms with my shadow. It is the harmful consequences that my ‘pure’, good-intentioned actions inevitably lets loose upon the world and those I love. It is what I suppress while I feel ‘I am this’ or ‘I am that’. In other words, it is what I am convinced I am not. It is the darkness that is real inside me, which I pretend not to be there. Which I ignore. It is what becomes cancer, when I have been ignoring it for so long that it has no option but to consume me, its unloving host.
It is the evil that exists. Paying no heed to my philosophies, my pretences, my good intentions. The evil that teaches me the true meaning of love. As opposed to the flimsy sentimentality that shadow-repressive cultures call ‘love’. These are the cultures of nations and communities, and the culture coursing through the veins of my being and the synapses of my mind. It is the evil that forces me to refine my love. Or perhaps rather, the evil that shapes me and refines me so I eventually, after long travels arrive at the ability to love better.
It is the evil that wakes me up again and again to the urgency for shaping how I live and who I am. With renewed intensity. So that my actions reflect more intricately the soul's necessity for love. Even if this may take billions of years of revolutions through ups and downs. Through creation and destruction. It is also the evil that overcomes all my illusions of shaping anything, and takes me down into the cauldron of helplessness, hopelessness and death. It is the evil that ultimately rids me of all illusions that separate me from the rawness of earth, from being simply utterly fallibly human.
‘Let your killing be an act of worship’
Shadow is the killing necessary to eat. Embracing shadow is being shaped by my shame. It is standing without denial, squarely in the truth that my existence rides on the back of the suffering and death of others. Not proudly, arrogantly or exploitatively. That would be identification with shadow. Which is an extreme, an unwillingness to carry the discomfort of a truthful relationship with shadow. Which inevitably entails facing the truth that we are all killers. The very transport we use in our every day, is right this minute killing vast amounts of species.
Yet embracing shadow does not entail abandonment to and revelry in killing. Again, an escapist's extreme. Embracing shadow involves embroilment with what we don't like. Deep involvement through our being and our acting with our world and others. It involves opening to what is, simply because it is. Stepping deep into the cataclysmic interplay of good and evil. And so being transported ‘into the unknown’. The secret of Maya is not shutting Her out, but being dismembered and shaped by Her.
Shadow comes shimmering through in the guilt I feel when I inadvertently tread on the toes of others. Or break the rules of what is generally acceptable. Getting entangled in the guilt is ego's trip, blinding me from grasping the shadows flitting in the raw energy. Shadow is what I lack yet don't feel as lacking. It is unconscious, which means, I'm mostly unaware of it. Yet, what my attitude to life, the world and others lacks, what my world lacks while in fact it is important to soul, will come back to haunt me. Shadow is those intensely irritating qualities of our beloved. The very same qualities we are surprised to miss so deeply when our beloved is no longer there.
‘Pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses our understanding’
Shadow is not a symptom. That is, it does not exist because I have somehow ‘gone off-track’. It exists. It is a character. It has character. It shimmers through character traits. Like the lines etched onto my face as I face up to who I really am. As I open my heart to hear, heed and experience deeply, the weight of sorrow, the weight of consequences of my own ‘best thinking’ and actions. Of the choices and actions I once were driven by. Blindly, like Oedipus. The consequences of a lifetime, a slow-grinding glacier. Shaping the landscape, the lines on the surface of our good-and-evil earth.
The poet tells us to be truly alive we have to turn and embrace this ‘other’ in the bosom of our being. While we still have time; while we still walk the surfaces in the world of casting shadows. But this embrace is not a once-off occurrence. It is an always continuing process. Like a slow and grinding glacier that etches us into living authentically, into our deaths. There can be no authenticity without embracing and opening to love shadow.
‘Your daily life is your temple and your religion’
Prevailing culture, being a shadow repressive culture, has lost the significance of God too having shadow. A religion that splits good from evil, that foments hatred of evil, cultivates cultures of hatred. And perpetuates the power of evil to overwhelm. God of the Bible and the Torah has said clearly, without a shadow of doubt, ‘I form light, and I create darkness. I create harmony, and I create calamities. I create good, and I create evil. I, God, do all these things.’ (Isiah 45:7).
You cannot create evil if you have no evil inside you. So, it is not God who wanted this one-sidedness. But rather our power-hungry human-made religions. And as history has shown, as religions lose touch with the nature of God, they become meaningless and empty. And increasingly power-obsessed.
A shadow repressive-culture has no tolerance of frown-lines. It obsesses with smoothing out kinks in surfaces. It obsesses with surface, so that depth itself is its shadow. And we know that repressed shadow always retaliates. So from those unconscious depths eventually it always rises and overwhelms.
Shadow is the methane trapped in arctic snow, which will be released when the icecaps melt. And will contribute to pushing earth ‘beyond her tipping points’. So that most of life will no longer be sustained. This is the way of nature, the Tao of existence. When shadow has long been suppressed, it is eventually released by the floes of Time to wreak destruction. Cain. Destructive Shiva. Kali. Delilah. Ereshkigal. Salome. The Tower in Tarot. The furies. Global warming. Hitler. Stalin. Jacob Zuma. Donald Trump. Covid-19.
These are all are destructive shadow figures arisen from the ashes of widespread one-sidedness. They are images, avatars of the very evil those cultures have long indulged in. Which indulgences long afflicted the lives of masses of silenced powerless others. To which the powerful have long turned a blind eye. While protesting their own purity and goodness. Shadow now rising up and turned against those corrupt cultures themselves. Cultures alive in the bosoms of every single one of us.
‘There is no purpose in friendship, save the deepening of spirit’
Shadow is what we do not see about ourselves, but which is patently clear to others. Yet it is that which our so-called ‘friends’ usually find too embarrassing or embroiling to point out to us. Unless, in themselves, they have learnt to embrace their shadow. Which in our world today is not a regular occurrence, encountering someone like that. Because, in a shadow-repressive culture, friendship is believed to exist in taking care of your friends' self-delusions. In such cultures, honesty, even flowing from kindness (and the friend who delivers the message) is judged, ignored, dismissed and no longer valued.
Shadow is what really hurts when someone points it out to us. It is what we habitually and often violently deny and defend against. It is what makes me end relationships rather than open to the true meaning of love. Including that cultivating true love really only begins in the boring and grinding realms beyond enchantment. In staying present in the conversation with my beloved or my friend, remaining receptive and open, continuing to listen and hear. Despite the overwhelming tensions of disapproval, disappointment, dis-ease, discontent, disharmony, discomfort transporting both of us into the disconcerting realms of Dis. Which is an ancient name for the underworld, that world of haunting shadows, discontented ghosts and excruciating discomfort and pain. The experience of which, being shaped by the corrosive energies of the experience, is the necessary passage of embracing shadow.
True love, both for myself and for others always involves holding sometimes excruciating tensions, without jumping out. Without yielding to that jerk-reaction to snap back to the delusions of slumber-induced comfort. There can be no love without embracing shadow. The goody-goody version of love that shadow-repressive cultures sell, is simply another marketing ploy furthering cultures of superficial glitz rather than meaningful depth.
‘Only when you are empty are you at standstill and balanced’
Shadow is what I abandon myself to ‘when I'm having a little fun.’ And when I do so, I am often shocked by how alive I feel! Because the very eros suppressed by ‘the good me’ or even just by who I am in the habit of being, is then released. And in this release we experience aliveness. Starkly etched out against the pale background of a life of soullessness.
Shadow always contains tremendous energy, tremendous eros. Which is what makes me an addict when my relationship to shadow is limited to oscillating between complete suppression and utter abandonment to it. When I am stuck in relationship only to extremes. It is my habitual relationship to eros that burns out my will, my willfulness, my devotion to me. Sometimes gradually over time. Sometimes like a shooting star.
‘Be in your pleasures like the flowers and the bees’
Embracing shadow is the first ordeal I go through when I psychologically grow up. Addiction is always a call from the depths of soul to grow up in a way that is long overdue. Not because others say so. But because the pain of addiction, is in fact, the very message that it is high-time for me. That it is my destiny now. It is a direct message to me, delivered to me personally, via the torment of my inner being.
This message is as real as the paralysis of a hangover. Or the gradual paralysis of my life in general, when I so cleverly ‘manage’ my continued ‘functional addiction’. I tell myself I am getting away with it. I pat myself on the back for my strength of will. For my discipline at not getting overwhelmed by my drug of choice. Whether hard drugs, or any other way in which I keep my comfort zones going. Which I do while I turn a blind eye to the gradual seeping away of eros and ‘heart’ from my life. So that my self-deception wastes away much of my life.
Whether I am a full-on addict, or a functional addict, both are due to my lack of true relatedness to shadow. I have not yet surrendered into the initiation involved in learning to relate to shadow inside the middle space between extremes. Which is a telling sign that I have remained, psychologically, a child. A condition that soon becomes an epidemic in cultures intolerant to and disapproving of the dis-comforts of initiation. Cultures that no longer have rituals for children to imprint on their beings and their bodies, at the appropriate time, the reality that they are no longer children. So we end up with a world of mostly adult children running around thinking they are running the world. Such are shadow-repressive cultures.
‘Work is love made visible’
The middle space requires cultivating gentleness. By hearing what beats in my heart and not running away. By experiencing craving while not abandoning myself to using. Through using the energy of craving to open up beyond its ‘surface noise’, into the infinitely more subtle realms of truly hearing soul in the depths of my being. Through noticing that craving is the very energy needed for this initiation into the depths.
Gentleness, to hear my beloved reflect the evil in my being and to truly take it to heart. In a way that remains open to learning, over time, whether what she sees is truly there. Or not. For the reality of ‘the unconscious’ means that at the moment when she reveals it to me, I cannot actually know whether it is true. No matter how well I think I know myself.
The middle space requires cultivating patience. By not jumping out into my usual entertainments. By containing the tensions of the slow-grinding glacier of alchemical processes in my being. Which are activated only when I refrain from indulging my usual comfort zones. To contain this process, continuously, for at least nine months. For this is how long it takes a human being to be re-born. Sometimes longer. Containing the mystical chemistry of discomforts. Like craving and boredom. For these energies are exactly what is needed, to slowly stew inside me, to bring about real, embodied transformation of my being. That's why soul brings them to me.
Patience, to not ‘jump out of the container’ when the petulant child of my being shouts that, ‘for months now, nothing has been happening! This is not working!’ Or, ‘I cannot bear this anymore!’ To learn to love this wounded child in its distress. Rather than medicating it to keep it quiet. To open into the kind of patience that is not the ‘grinning and bearing it’ that shadow-repressive cultures tell us is patience. But the kind of patience that involves opening to what is. Opening into and being with the rawness of experience. And so cultivating openness to all of existence. And death.
The middle space requires cultivating courage. Which really is devotion to living with heart. What generally passes as courage is forced and contrived. Because it is heroic. Which is another description for the one-sidedness of shadow-repressive cultures. Heroics can't last. It always eventually collapses into our usual entertainments. It is rooted in ego-will. As opposed to transformed embodied being.
The catch-22 is that while I have not yet been initiated, this devotion is not present in me consistently. Because it is not yet embodied, deeply enough, in my being. Paradoxically, the painful process of failing again and again, is itself the path by which my ego-will gradually rots away and ferments. Until my being has become empty in the Taoist sense. When I can become a vessel for the natural devotion inherent to existence to flow into me and through me.
‘Life and death are one, even as river and sea are one’
Shadow breaks my bones and tears my flesh and makes me sick. Sometimes, when we have long insisted on suppressing our shadow, on having no relationship with shadow, we fall ill. When ‘all I have been doing was trying to be a good person’.
Then the river of shadow arrives into an ocean of crisis, illness and death. For initiation that penetrates to the core of our being is required to open our eyes to the one-sidedness we have lived. This illness of the soul may manifest in actual physical illness, financial ruin, serious accidents and any number of afflictions. It may be individual, or collective like the current ‘novel coronavirus’. Soul is infinitely imaginative in her tortures, and equally precise in choosing the specific affliction our particular self-deceptions require.
Shadow's illness has the power to take me down deep enough. If I surrender to it. If I stop deflecting it with the values of shadow-repressive cultures. But surrender here, as always in the context of soul, demands nothing less from me than dying. Specifically, I die to my preoccupation with my subjective experience of myself. My identification with my needs, my desires, my life. When I truly die like this, I lose my self-importance, which includes my self-pity.
This kind of surrender gives my illness the space to be a deep and rich experience. Beyond my preoccupation for self-preservation. It truly becomes a journey. It carries me to ‘other realms’. It awakes me to the experience of soul being a realm quite beyond the world of matter. Understanding this, and actually experiencing it, are two very different things. When we wake up from this experience, we are no longer able to live our lives in the way we used to. For the change is now embodied.
‘Dying is to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun’
Yet, always there are those who insist on continuing to fight shadow. Even while illness has them in the grip of death. Ultimately, they do not lose their preoccupation with their own self-importance. This remains true, despite them quite sincerely believing they are doing it in the name of ‘being good’. Sometimes it is simply a case of the kind of stubbornness we call ignorance. Often the illness kills them. And sometimes their ‘medications’ bring them a cure.
But, a cure is not the same as a healing. True healing can only occur if the sickness ailing my soul is attended to deeply enough, thoroughly enough and lovingly enough. It requires deep alchemical soul-work. A medicine that no longer considers the soul, can only cure the physical illness on the surface. Such cures are always temporary. They only postpone the inevitable. Often for the sake of extending an already meaningless existence.
Surrendering to my affliction so it may work its poison on my deeper being, to bring about the transformations soul longs for in me, demands opening to the terrible cold darkness of ‘the unknown’. Doing this requires sacrificing my preoccupation with extending and safeguarding ‘my life’. Surrendering to realities and forces much greater than me. If I am to truly die while I am still alive.
Only when we've already died, are we able to be truly alive. To be truly present. Otherwise we cannot tolerate the death we inevitably die in every moment. Dying into now, into all it is and is not, involves embracing shadow. Not only ‘my’ shadow. But all shadow. God's shadow. The fact that shadow exists. The shadows of others. All shadows of others. Truly being alive is not possible if we have not done this. Only then can our senses open and can we ‘see’ this life for what it is.
And yet, even when we do die in this manner, our physical illness may not be cured. Again, finding a healing is not the same as being cured. In fact, once we've made these sacrifices, we understand that whether we get cured or not, does not depend on us. But sometimes it does happen, that with grace, the ailment that was eating away my flesh, starts to dissipate. Which is not a question of my achievement. No recipe exists that guarantees this happening. Ultimately, it is not a question of my will. But of ‘thy will’. For, none of this has really ever been about me.
1. All sub-headings in this article are quotations from Kahlil Gibran's book,The Prophet].