A shadow is an aspect of the separate-self story that, for whatever reason, gets repressed and then projected outward as an "other." The "other" is really a reflection of the separate self. We box and hug shadows. To box a shadow is to repress a negative trait and then experience a strong aversion towards others who possess that trait. To hug a shadow is to repress a positive trait and then experience a strong attraction towards others who possess that trait. We'll go into more detail below about what shadows are and how to spot and deal with them. But first, let's address common questions that pop up at this point.
If shadows are just appearances, why even talk about them? Why go into detail about them? Why not simply stick with the invitation to recognize present awareness and see that all appearances are not separate from awareness? Hopefully, the answer to that question will reveal itself as you continue reading.
There is both good news and bad news about shadows and shadow work. The good news is that the "shadow," a term first coined by Carl Jung, is one of western psychology's greatest discoveries. Re-owning shadows provides a depth of freedom that has to be experienced to be appreciated. The bad news is that many spiritual teachings with an eastern influence (including Buddhism and nondual teachings) completely ignore talk of shadows. This is more than just a small oversight—it actually creates spiritual teachers who claim, on one hand, to be free of self and who are, on the other hand, boxing and/or hugging a shadow self. This blind spot then gets passed onto students like a virus.
We've all heard stories of the guru who speaks with such clarity and wisdom yet constantly finds himself in conflict with loved ones or even isolated from family and friends, who defends his own teaching or lineage and attacks others personally as if his expression is the only correct one, who cannot help but sexually prey on young students, or who is always talking about how everyone else is angry, self-centered, or controlling while not seeing those same qualities in himself. Much of this behavior comes from not recognizing and re-owning shadows. Many shadows have popped up for me. That's why I talk about them.
There is an old Buddhist story of a circle of Buddhist teachers that met every year for a gathering where they discussed their teachings, students, and their own lives. Each year, like clockwork, they would report to each other that everything was going well, except that many of them still found conflict with others. So each year, they set out to meditate more, believing that more time on the meditation mat would release this self/other conflict. But each year, they would gather again only to admit that many more hours on the meditation mat yielded no real results in this area. These teachers were ignoring shadows. For those practicing Buddhism (including Zen), Advaita Vedanta, and many other eastern spiritual teachings, this story is more common than might be expected. In the move to claim no self, aspects of that self can, ironically, hang around for years.
In our rush to proclaim that "all there is, is Oneness" or "awareness is what I am," we can solidify separateness by ignoring shadow work. Shadows are hidden. They are not appearances that come and go obviously and openly within awareness. They are unknown, unseen, repressed aspects of the separate self. If they were open and obvious, we would see them through the simple recognition of awareness and the noticing of thoughts as they appear and disappear within awareness. As a result, meditation, inquiry, resting as awareness, recognizing non-conceptual presence, centering prayer, direct path teachings, neo- and traditional Advaita, vipassana, and a host of other eastern spiritual practices and expressions designed to point to the direct experience of presence never reach shadows. They aren't supposed to. Eastern teachings deal with the nondual awareness only, not relative egoic stories. Unfortunately, because they don't deal with shadows, many teachers and students from eastern teachings end up boxing and hugging shadows, having no idea why that is happening.
Shadows are the stories we don't like about ourselves. Yet, these stories are still operating within us, whether or not we see them. Everyone around us sees them, but we don't see them ourselves. These stories are blind spots. We push them onto the other side of the self boundary. We make them into "others." This is why the shadow is sometimes called "the disowned self." It looks like someone else's problem, but it is still just "me," a part of my story that I've disowned and projected outward.
It's important to reiterate that, as they reside "out there," as other people's traits or emotions, no amount of witnessing brings the repression to light. We falsely see them as belonging to others when they are really hidden parts of the separate self. These are the parts we despise, the parts that embarrass us, and the parts we disown for various reasons. You can scream that there is no self for a million years and miss these blind spots. Many have carried their shadows into "enlightenment."
John Welwood provides a good definition of the shadow in his book, "Toward a Psychology of Awakening":
"Focal attention selectively emphasizes certain aspects of the experiential field while ignoring others, thereby casting into the shadows these unattended parts of the field. The shadow is the mirror reversal of what focal attention has emphasized. Overemphasizing any part at the expense of the whole sets an opposite tendency in motion, as part of a larger equilibrium process."
Here are a few examples of opposites that can turn into shadows. There are many others not listed. Any opposite can be a shadow.
- Controlling/not controlling
- Greedy/not greedy
Let's stick with Welwood's term "focal attention." The separate self is a set of dualistic stories such as "I'm nice," "I'm a victim," "My life is incomplete," "I'm a successful news anchorperson," or "I'm unhappy." This is the play of opposites playing itself out in our lives. We focus attention on certain traits, stories, identities, feelings, roles, titles, and other thoughts. We pick one side of a pair of opposites and deny or ignore the other. For example, to continue telling yourself that you are a nice person, you have to repress "mean" aspects, thoughts, and behaviors within yourself. You have to overlook them, explain them away, deny them, repress them, and/or ignore them. To be a spiritual person, you have to overlook or disown traits, feelings, and stories that don't meet the "spiritual" criteria. Those who pride themselves on not being controlling have to overlook the controlling voice within them. Those who see themselves as not greedy must repress the greedy story within.
In focusing attention on one side of a pair of opposites, making that your story, the other side is still there, but now it's repressed, denied, and disowned. Repression is self-deception, plain and simple. The boundary between opposites is purely conceptual. Opposites are mutually interdependent. One doesn't exist without the other. You can't actually split them. To pretend to split them is a lie. One side can be repressed or denied, but you can't truly split it from the other side. The other side of the opposite often appears as an "other." Suddenly, you (the "nice person") start noticing all the mean people in the world: the convenience store clerk with her dismissive, rude attitude; your husband who seems so insensitive all the time; and your boss who can't seem to say a nice word about anyone.
We aren't stories. Our real identity does not lie on only one side of a pair of opposites, e.g., "nice" as opposed to "mean." Although it may be comforting to place our identity in some dualistic story or trait, our real identity is awareness. Recognizing awareness is not about comfort. It's about seeing what is actually here and what is happening. Awareness is the experiential field from, within, and through which all opposites inseparably appear and disappear.
Test this out for yourself right now. No matter what story you tell about yourself, it's an appearance within awareness. If you say, "I'm a controlling person," there is still an awareness prior to that story that sees the story as an appearance within its view. The opposite story, "I'm not a controlling person," is also an appearance within its view. These stories are both equal appearances of awareness.
We find conflict with imagined "others" by choosing one story over the other and owning the chosen side as an identity. At that point, we don't see the appearances as equal, giving the chosen side more attention. As Welwood states, "The shadow is the mirror reversal of what focal attention has emphasized… overemphasizing any part at the expense of the whole sets an opposite tendency in motion…" What you see as an "other" with whom you are in conflict is really just your own shadow, following you around everywhere, in every relationship.
3-2-1 Shadow Work
Scott Kiloby has been permitted to use the 3-2-1 shadow process developed by the Integral Institute. This amazingly powerful method involves three parts:
1) Spotting the shadow
2) Dialoguing with the shadow
3) Re-owning the shadow
Spotting the Shadow
In this process, it is important to spot a shadow first. The biggest mistake that people make in spotting shadows is endeavoring to mentally analyze their own story in an attempt to spot shadows. Upon hearing of shadows, there is a tendency to sit and think endlessly of the various people and circumstances in your story, looking for ways in which you have been boxing shadows in the past. There is no need for that, to get busy fixating on your story. That is just more self-centeredness. Simple present awareness allows you to see where conflict arises for you. Just pay attention now. Don't analyze past instances in which you've been in conflict with others.
Shadows show up as present conflict. Whenever you see someone in the present moment with a trait or feeling that really bothers you, that's a shadow. The other person is a hook for your shadow.
People also make the mistake of labeling all outward judgments of others as shadows. Not every judgment is a shadow. For example, if your neighbor tends to talk a lot, having the thought, "My neighbor talks a lot," is not necessarily a shadow. It may be that your neighbor just talks a lot. You know it's a shadow based on the degree to which it bothers you. Hooks are those people or things "out there" that provoke strong mental and emotional reactions within us. If you feel great irritation or even anger when your neighbor starts talking, you can bet that there is a shadow operating. That is what it means to spot a shadow.
Upon spotting a shadow, many people involved in awareness-based practices or teachings make a critical mistake at this point. They simply witness the negative thoughts and emotions about the neighbor. But witnessing often solidifies the belief that there is an other. And so the story goes, "I'm noticing my thoughts and feelings about my damn neighbor who talks too much." This just reinforces the self/other boundary line. It looks like it's your neighbor's problem. Witnessing just strengthens that misperception. No amount of noticing what is happening within awareness reveals what is actually happening when it comes to shadows. Within awareness, shadows always appear as "others." They are not seen for what they really are—disowned aspects of your personal story. Don't witness—dialogue with and re-own the shadow.
Dialoguing with the Shadow
The next step is to dialogue with the other person or trait. It may sound funny or feel a little weird at first to dialogue with the "other," but this helps you find out what really bothers you about that trait or person. Don't dialogue with the person physically in your presence. Dialogue mentally. Vocalize it. Here is an example:
To John, controlling people are really irritating. He finds himself arguing in his head with these others who boss people around. He would love each one of them to just shut up and leave everyone else alone. In coming into contact with the 3-2-1 process, John begins spotting the shadows when they appear. So he notices that he has a very strong mental and emotional reaction to his controlling boss one day. John does not just notice his thoughts and emotions. He steps aside, out of the presence of his boss, pretends that his boss is still in the room, and says, "I don't like you at all. You are arrogant and bossy and controlling! You always think you know what is best for everyone else and it really gets under my skin!"
Without dialoguing with the shadow, it will appear again for John, either in his boss or some other person. Shadows reappear over and over in our lives. They are conditioned responses, loops that just repeat endlessly. In dialoguing with the shadow, John now sees specifically what bothers him about his boss. He has identified the trait—control. He has named it. He has listed reasons for his aversion towards it. He is no longer downplaying it, repressing it, or denying how he really feels. For the first time, the loop is interrupted.