The Shadow from a buddhist perspective

This is reproduced from the “A Buddhist Library”

Jason Espada

          A Prelude to Talking about the Shadow

Looking at difficult emotions and held back elements in the psyche always has the potential to release a lot of energy.  It’s been my experience that when an abundance of energy is released (on the way to integration, one hopes) chaotic events can unfold in the outside world.  The feeling can be that these are not oneself, per se, but still we can feel that there is some relationship to the internal; and such things strange encounters, or accidents, or events involving the police, fire department and ambulances can take place.

My sense is that there is a parallel between the kind of held back, unformed energy that is released, and strange, unexpected, or out of control interactions or events.  Somehow, their texture, or movement, or their character feels the same.

Once they hear about the value of shadow work, I know most people will probably ignore any preliminary warning, and just jump right in.   Ok., fine.  Should unpleasant events get set into motion, we can think of this as part of the learning process, instead of getting discouraged.  We all need to learn our limits, and just reading or hearing is not the same as seeing for ourselves.

Shadow work in a safe container

There is a way to do safe and effective shadow work, looking into and transforming the held back elements.  This involves gathering

a wealth of supporting conditions. Create as much harmony, stability, goodwill and peace as you can, as a container for the

energies to be released.  If there are some spiritual practices that you know work for you, set that as the foundation.  If the energy should start to feel like it is overflowing, and that there is something of a chaotic character to it, then set the inner work aside for a while and increase the stabilizing elements in your life.  Most of all, go slow.  This will give you time to assimilate whatever comes up.

Besides that of the container, another analogy we can use is that of ‘the filament’.  Our constitution has to be strong to look within ourselves and get in touch with difficult elements.  Our body, mind and our emotions, or we can say, our constitution can be liked to the filament in a light bulb.  Too much current, and the bulb will resist, or go out.  We can tell when someone is frail, emotionally.  Their voice trembles, and they avoid talking for long about anything difficult.  Anger can be an escape, as well as distraction.

We all know, on some level, when we need to back off the difficult subjects in our life.  We know, consciously or unconsciously when we are capable, and when we need more weight, so to speak.

The way we fortify our constitution is to be in touch with positive, nourishing things, such as art, beauty, nature, and peaceful environments and experiences.  Then when we are ready, we can engage the deeper, and sometimes difficult things.

Ideally, shadow work is about more than just release.  Deeper resolution is more than the discharge of energy, as valuable and necessary as that might be.  We need then to be able to weather the effects of doing inner work.  If we use a balanced approach as much as we can, I think we’re headed in the right direction.

The Shadow from a Buddhist Perspective

The shadow:

That which is held back, shunted away, denied, unresolved in our psyche; what opposes us in the totality of our ‘personal’ consciousness

An energetic phenomena, that, like all other energy dynamics, has it’s own laws, rules, specific ways of functioning

First thoughts about the shadow

Reflexively, a self arises, right or wrong – an idea of who we are is formed, and from that we relate energetically to the world.  We have wishes, wants, perceived slights, experiences of despair, shame, frustration and virtues too.

Everything that is held back, if its point of origin is still with us in some subtle way, makes up the shadow.

All that is held back, (such as ‘id energies’), all that we cannot express, either due to social constraints, or because it conflicts with some other psychological factor inside us, is repressed or gathered into the unconscious.

Note here that there are two kinds of factors that we hold back – the first is what we don’t say or do because of social discretion, and the second is also what we don’t say or do because it wouldn’t be appropriate, but that has a powerful inner component of willing

to act or to speak in a certain way – the tension of these two elements together create the shadow factors in us.

To further clarify – sometimes we have the wisp of a motivation come up and, if we just wait, it passes without any sense of conflict created.  Sometimes then, this same motivation, to speak or to act in a certain way has to be struggled against maybe even fought with mightily.  The difference between these two reactions to the same impulse is that in the first case there are deep inner structures that support not striking out, not acting or speaking in a certain way.

It’s the role of education, acculturation in the best sense, and the cultivation of morals (at its best, the development and extension into the world of our natural goodness) that determines if the difficult things we meet with in life brings out a mild response or something we need to struggle with and repress – which, in addition to not dealing with the root cause of the problem, brings a whole range of repercussions.

Note also that when we call something ‘shadow’ it implies a degree of unconsciousness – either we reject or deny something because we feel it is too ugly or terrible to bear, or because it does not fit with the strong, persistent idea we have of ourselves.

Further, we have to say that often a shadow element will not just be rejected, but actually hated, which is much stronger than just rejection.  The energy of hatred is powerful.  It is not just that we dislike or push something away, but that we oppose this fiercely, passionately.  When we hate, we exert great psychic energy to keep some things at a distance.  This results in the energy pushing back, also powerfully, in some ways.

As long as these elements are energetically unresolved, they find outlets against our will, or in spite of our best intentions.  We may deny that we are somehow the cause of these shadow manifestations, especially if we hold an image of ourself as entirely right, and there is no outlet to release the charge of shadow energies.

What’s as bad or worse than storing up such shadow energies, is that

we then often then proceed to project the denied elements in our own psyche onto others.

It happens sometimes that if we are angry, or petty around something, or dull, or confused and conflicted, and we see some occasion to blame, or to put onto others what we have in ourselves, we accuse them of what is actually our mind, reacting to our own (unclaimed) aspect of our psychological energies.

As Robert Johnson points out in his book on the shadow, we also project our own positive qualities onto others.  It does not mean the person or situation doesn’t have the negative or positive quality react to, but that some additional factor is there that is usually not perceived, not taken into account and not ‘owned’ or taken responsibility for.  We need to learn to distinguish what is ‘ours’ from what is there in the people and circumstances we meet.

Getting a handle on the shadow

I think of those people who do not say what they most want, and need to say, and the effects that has on their person.  We call such people ‘bottled up’ – their energy gets physically blocked, and even ordinary feeling or communication becomes labored.

Thich Nhat Hanh taught about the need to have what he called a healthy circulation of psychological energy, with an awareness of

what is going on, not rejecting anything in our experience, any thought, feeling, memory or desire.

For me, this assumes some solidity, and enough weight on the other side of the balance: a sense of what is right, profound, rich with virtue and positive life.  If we try to be in touch with or accommodate what is wounded before we are capable in this way, the result, consciously or unconsciously will be that we will be overwhelmed (knocked off center)

and we will either give up too soon, claiming success, or pursuing distraction, or we will have our circuit breakers blow, which amounts to the same thing.  We will not have accomplished the task of accommodating the difficult elements so they can be transformed.

I think that in both Buddhism and in Jungian psychology, what is referred to by the term the shadow is an energetic phenomena – one that can have the charge taken out of it to a lesser or greater extent, and one that’s energy can be, and needs to be utilized, or else it will unbalance a person.

As physics will tell you, when it comes to energy, nothing is ever lost.  These energies can be released and assimilated, to the strengthening and health of the entire person.

At this significant juncture, as I read it, Buddhism differs from Jungian psychology.  The central point of Buddhism, for a person wishing to liberate his own mind from fears and afflictions, and help others to do the same, is wisdom.  Without the teachings that make up Buddhism’s Wisdom Traditions, the teachings would only be about ethics, calming the mind in meditation, and cultivating positive states such as goodwill, and patience.  What truly distinguishes the language of Buddhist teachings is that they point to the cause of suffering, and teach ways to transform the base itself of our responses to life.

The reason I used the phrase ‘have the charge taken out of it to a lesser or greater extent’ is because when I read of shadow work involving such activities as writing a letter, using humor, or talking to ‘let off steam’; or performing a dance expressing some locked up feeling, watching a horror movie, or making a ritual of letting go of an emotion, I sense that there is a difference between this level of dealing with things, and getting at the root cause of what underlies these difficult emotions.  The temporary, provisional methods are useful and necessary as far as they go, but I know we can also work on a deeper, more causative level.

The Wisdom teachings of Buddhism are straightforward, and can be described in a few words, but they are profound in their application.

Essentially, Buddhism teaches that what we take to be ourself, habitually, reflexively, is not who we are, is not what is actually here.  It teaches that our experiences are based on a mistaken concept of ourselves, and others, and this world.

As an idea, such words have only minimal value.  When looked into though, the basis for our many difficult emotional reactions falls apart.  No one can do the work for another, and words are not enough.  This can have a profound effect on our whole life, but only if we do the investigation ourselves into who we reflexively conceive ourselves to be, and integrate that insight.  The effect of integrating this dawning of wisdom in ourselves is that it is able to resolve and heal the past dynamics that were created out of ignorance.

As I read it now, I have the feeling that ‘shadow’ elements from the past are viewed as more fixed dynamics than they actually are.  Perhaps this is true for someone who does not practice meditative disciplines, but it is not ultimately true.

The idea that every hurt, slight, unfulfilled motivation, wants and needs a kind of release or resolution for our psychological balance seems to me to be asserting some kind of a self as a fixed point, relating to the world, striving, making mistakes, seeking redress.

If this ‘self’ as a center were to change, however, what does that do to the shadow dynamics of the previously posited selves?  They may remain for a while, but in one analogy, they are compared to a thief entering an empty house – they can’t cause one trouble.  In fact, the emotions themselves release on their own, and are referred to as ‘self-liberated’.

If it happens that naturally the view of ourself changes substantially from following the Jungian approach, this is not referred to specifically.  Instead, their view seems to be one of a

fixed matrix of experience that allows or prohibits different things in life.  Teachings from Eastern traditions differ fundamentally in that they look at consciousness and the one who experiences himself or herself as being capable of changing.

Buddhism and Jungian psychology have a lot in common: they both aim for the health and wholeness of a person; they agree that mindfulness, self observation and being inclusive is always necessary, as an aim at least; and they both contain methods for catharsis, release and transformation.

Compare, for example, the methods described in Vajrasattva purification meditations, whereby on imagines pure light moving through one’s body (also imagined as being made entirely of light) and going down ‘nine stories’, feeding all we owe a karmic debt to; then there is the Chod practice, where one offers one’s body, imaginatively transformed into limitless light and nectar, to – whatever opposes one – including those we owe something to, energetically, thereby satisfying them completely; compare this with the active imagination techniques that are used to work out yet unresolved, unfulfilled energy dynamics.

Art and Shadow work

We can see also how reference is made to art in both traditions.

There seems to be an over-arching principle to all systems, whether they are psychological or what we call religious, and that is the innate will to find balance.  We all have this inherent intelligence that will function if we only let it.  Intuitive art can accomplish this effectively.  We all have the inherent ability to know when and where we are out of balance, and to create ways to adjust, to restore wholeness.

The poet Robert Bly spoke of an image or verse in poetry rising up to the surface of consciousness ‘soaked in psychic substance’, and therefore capable or transforming the experience of both the writer and the listener or reader.

And music is long associated with healing and transforming emotional states: Mozart uplifts, and the musics of Beethoven and Bach, to name just two, express in sound the process of transformation: from tragedy, struggle and despair to exaltation, a journey that a listener does in fact participate in.

All this takes humility, however, based on genuine self worth.  Only when we know clearly our own value can we acknowledge our limitations, with the aim of working to improve ourselves.

Apology is then not self-abasement, rather it affirms what is more true and precious in ourselves and in others.

Gold in the shadow

In the shadow, something essential of our humanity is found.

What would we be without that tender heart, that heart that can be crushed?  Where else is understanding born into what it means to be a human being, except in the most difficult stuff of our own lives?  Where else is compassion born?

Just as it is said that we are more than our suffering, we are also more than the sum of our joys, our triumphs, our ideals and aspirations, even more than our potentials.

I recall that Tibetan Buddhist practice involves letting go of our limited self concept (for better and worse, ideas that are somehow resistant to anything else) so that we can then access our deeper potentials.  We’re taught not to deny things, but to ‘hold our concepts loosely’ to allow room for greater possibilities.

Our whole energy, and some of our greatest resources are found in the comprehensive view that includes those part of ourselves, our experience that we’ve deemed unworthy and pushed away, consciously or unconsciously.  Not only is great energy made available from shadow work, but understanding and qualities and virtues to can then become available to live and work throughout our lives.

Relational, familial, and collective shadow work

Perhaps I should say just a very few words about this here: From doing personal work, we can begin to see our relationship to the shadow in others.  In fact our definition of ourself will change as we study and aim to go in a positive direction.

At some point, we can see that we can not remove ourselves, in terms of who we are, from our relationships, from our family and our culture.

Related to this is the whole concept of Field dynamics: energetically, we are not separate.  It’s true also that if one in a group has a repressed desire to act silly, or sad, or angry, another can pick up on that unconsciously and express that energy.  The causes have not been addressed, but for the time being that held back energy finds some release and relief.

At some point, any idea we had of ourself as separate seems to be just that – only an idea with no actual energetic reference in the way things are.  We have to accommodate others in some way.

What then to do with the shadow we, or they experience or express, all the terrible unconscious imbalance that by its nature needs to be taken into account and brought back to a state of

health?  A line from one of Paul’s letter’s comes to mind: Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.

We may not feel up to this, depending on where we are in our life, what challenges we face and work we ourselves have to do, but I take comfort in one idea I heard factored into a Western practice of prayer.  At a certain point, a person is told to pause and to try to have a sense for what they are given to pray for – a person, or group, a situation, or a cause.  I like this because it feels true.

We don’t have to feel like we have to do everything (which no one person can do anyway)  We are each given a part of the world soul to heal, and if we can do this much, we have fulfilled our purpose righteously on this earth.

Whatever approach we take, when the basis of our suffering is changed, there is no further accumulation, and so nothing more gathered that will need to be released or resolved.  In addition to the provisional methods we use for balance sake in our lives, then we should also be sure to aim to address the underlying causes as much as we can.  Such an intention will surely bear fruit in time.

Jung and Buddhism

When I watch film of Carl Jung, Robert Johnson, and Joseph Campbell, I see what I think are whole human beings, intelligent, compassionate, balanced, integrated, articulate, and with a profound degree of inner freedom.   Buddhism and Jungian psychology have much in common that is worth exploring, and not only for the sake of mutual affirmation, but because, like all useful inter-disciplinary study, the different approaches can be mutually illuminating.

I don’t claim any high degree of accomplishment in Buddhist practice, or any great knowledge of Jung’s methods, but as a student of these things, I can offer a few words about what I see as their strengths and differences.

I suspect that Buddhism, being a contemplative tradition, has an awareness of and active engagement with more subtle levels of functioning, and access to greater resources than are recognized by psychology.  The reason for this is that Buddhism has always included the practice of calm meditation, and this reveals factors that any person without these disciplines, no matter how educated or intuitive, can only be dimly aware of.

Jungian psychology, on the other hand, is what Tibetans would call ‘a close lineage’.  The founder was a brilliant man that lived from the late 19th through much of the 20th centuries.  His learning was boundless, engaged without inhibiting prejudices, and infused with intelligence, intuition and compassion.  Many of his insights are particularly relevant for us today.  His was, and continues to be an immeasurable gift for humanity.

One thought on “The Shadow from a buddhist perspective

  1. Pingback: Id – The ego of Maya, the Shadow | Neon Plastic Lotus

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