For the past couple of years, I’ve been dealing with shadows; those parts of myself disowned since childhood, as well as the shadows within others. It’s been fascinating, confusing and liberating, changing the way I see myself and every one I meet.
There are many great lessons on the shadow in the film American Beauty, where actor Chris Cooper portrays Frank Fits, a retired US Marine Colonel, with homophobia covering his latent homosexual desires. Frank falsely suspects his son Ricky is having a homosexual relationship with their next door neighbor Lester, the main character in the movie. Frank then beats his son and kicks him out of the house. Later, thinking Lester is homosexual, Frank tries to kiss Lester, and is rebuffed, only to come back later and put a bullet in Lester’s head. Why does he rail against homosexuals? Because he is attracted to men, a disowned part of him self.
Frank’s shadow was his latent homosexual feelings. His homophobia was the demon protecting him from being able to see and embrace his attraction to men. Some consider the demon to include the disowned part too, but I prefer to separate it into the genuine part of ourselves we have disowned, and the demonic defense mechanisms in place to keep this part hidden. Of course we cannot escape ourselves – wherever we go, all parts of ourselves will go there too. And where our disowned parts go, so too will the demons guarding them.
There has been a lot of distress in the yoga community lately following the implosion of Anusara Inc. I am not part of that community, but I have many friends in and around it. I know enough about Anusara to recognize that there is beauty and wisdom in it’s approach to yoga. There also seems to have been a celebrity culture, where one’s status was determined by one’s closeness to the leadership. Some have demonized the leader, as though the celebrity culture could exist in a vacuum. Whether we are seeing angels or demons, that’s a strong indication that there is shadow present; both are forms of projection, making the journey from angel to demon a short one.
We are all social beings. As social beings we want to be liked by others; to be popular. This is hardwired into our being, and cannot be escaped. Some people see this and make popularity the goal of their existence. Others recognize the folly of basing one’s self worth on the opinions of others, and completely reject the pursuit of popularity. I’m not sure which is less healthy. We can accept this human quality without it having rule our actions.
Growing up, I was exposed to many moral messages suggesting that I not get caught up in the desire to be popular. I believe these are well intentioned, for if left unchecked, the desire to be liked can result in lying and other deceptive behaviors. However if taken too far we will take the desire to be liked into the shadow. If we take it into the shadow we cannot see it clearly; we will have disowned it. From it’s safe hiding place in the shadow it can act free of the restraints of our conscious awareness. This creates fertile ground for a culture of celebrity to be created. Conscious or unconscious alliances are formed in the quest to move up the ladder of popularity. Most of us got a heavy dose of this in high school. Accept it or deny it, we are all likeaholics.
The cult of personality is not an Anusara problem or a “yogic” problem, it’s a human problem. They exist in politics, corporations, entertainment, and in many local organizations – maybe even in a yoga studio near you. Chances are there are one or more “Angels” at the center of the cult of personality, people we project only good qualities onto. Yet no one is entirely good or bad. The deeper lessons we can get from the implosion of Anusara Inc. are not about anyone except you and me. It’s about what it means to be human.
Part of the fallout for those who were involved with the Anusara system is our human tendency to put all of the blame outside of ourselves. Some seem to think something was done to them and they had no part in supporting the culture. When we do this we are projecting our own demons onto others. No one can be popular without the help of others. Yet the desire to be popular does not seem very yogic, so much so that there is a large motivation to hide this desire in the shadow.
If you were involved in Anusara and feeling troubled by it, maybe it’s time to look inside. Were you trying to climb up the ladder of popularity? Did you long to be a yoga Rock Star? Did you ignore or look the other way when you saw bad behavior, fearing it would imperil your social standing? I suspect the answer for many would be yes. This is the first step on the way to healing, and it’s a big one. If you wanted to be liked that is normal. Now that Anusara has imploded, are you angry with yourself for having been “taken in”? Were you before, or are you now, trying to disown your desire to be popular? Are you feeling self-righteous or indignant? Are you now judging or hating some part of yourself? Are you, like Frank Fits, seeing the demon outside of yourself? Self-awareness and self forgiveness are the next step to healing. The problem is not so much the desire to be popular, it’s keeping that desire in the shadow, where it can act unchecked.
For everyone, inside or outside of the yoga community, these scandals can result in self-righteous condemnation. However, for those with the eyes to see, this can be an opportunity to peer behind the veil of what it means to be human. This is a normal garden variety scandal, and exposes qualities we all share, like the desire to be popular, and what we will do to climb the social ladder; like our tendency to stuff the things we are ashamed of into the recesses of the shadow, like the demons we create to protect ourselves and others from knowing about these disowned parts.
The concept of shadow was introduced by psychologist Sigmund Freud and later explored by Carl Jung and others. Why would we disown a part of who we are? At our core, we are complex multifaceted beings. We are not just one thing. But the ego wants to present as just one thing; the face that we show the world. The parts that don’t fit the ego’s idea of who we are (or should be), get disowned. We are ashamed of these qualities, so they get put into the shadow, and the light of our awareness does not easily shine there.
Often translated as union, the word yoga means to yoke together. In order to be whole beings, we must reclaim our disowned parts, yoking together the conscious and unconscious. But it is our shadow because we are refusing to see it. Others may be able to see our shadow more easily then we ourselves can see it. Embracing one’s shadow takes maturity, self honesty and strength of character. It also takes something that the yoga sutra’s call Svadyaya, which means both scriptural study, and self observation. It means to take the truth and put it inside.
When practicing Svadyaya, one of the things we can look for is what disturbs us in other people. For the man in American Beauty, it was homosexuality. There is a tendency to want to push away, or even attack, others who display our shadow qualities. That’s why Frank Fits beat his son. That needy woman that you just can’t stand? Ask yourself if you have fully owned your own needs. That man you think is selfish? Ask yourself if you can admit your own self interest. Does that sad man drive you crazy? Ask yourself if you have disowned your own sadness or grief.
The things in others that drive us crazy could be the external sign post pointing to the disowned parts within us. Psychologists call the process of seeing our shadow in others projection. If we refuse to see our needs, we will instead see them in others, and it will drive us crazy. It makes us crazy because it energizes the split in our consciousness; activating the separation between our shadow and non-shadow selves.
It can take years before we are really ready to face our own shadow. It’s so much easier to project blame outside of ourselves then to look inside. For insight, look for patterns in your relationships, especially your intimate relationships. If you have a pattern of being with emotionally unavailable partners, maybe it has something to do with you, rather than with all men, or all women, being emotionally unavailable. Maybe you are not emotionally available for yourself.
It is not just that we project our shadow selves onto others. We do, but we look for good screens for our projection. We select for others that fit our shadow needs. I don’t believe we do this because we like suffering. I believe we do it because we want to be whole, and in order to be whole, we need to be able to see our disowned parts. So we bring them into view by drawing those people into our lives who represent our shadow. Most of us need to go through our patterns multiple times in order to stop blaming others and to start looking inside.
Once we disown a part of ourselves, we often create a demon to keep this part hidden away in the dungeon. The demons sole purpose is to prevent anyone from seeing the prisoner held in the dungeon, including the person themselves. We’ve locked the things we are ashamed of in the dungeon, and the demon is protecting us from our shame. Demons often will parade as the opposite of what is locked in the dungeon, over compensating for their perceived lack. For Frank Fits, it was to parade as the tough macho man. For someone who secretly thinks they are not smart enough, it would be to parade as the smartest person in the room. Shakespeare captured this overcompensation dynamic well when he said, “The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”
Childhood is a time of great vulnerability, when our minds are unformed and our hearts are unprotected. It’s a fertile time for shadow formation, and these shadows can stay with us for the rest of our lives. We were either held too much (smothered), or held too little (abandoned). It’s when we got our ideas of which parts of ourselves were OK and “loveable”, and which parts should be hidden away. By digging through the rich soil of our childhood and adult relationships, we can get some clear information of which parts of ourselves have been disowned.
In her book, “The Dark Side of the Light Chasers”, author Debbie Ford explores another aspect to our shadow. Spiritually minded people are working on self improvement, trying to be a better person. It is very easy for this to turn into “I should be X and Y, but never Z”. But if we are Z, then there is a great temptation to “become a better person” by pushing Z deeper and deeper into the shadow. “If only I can find the right technique, then I can become egoless, and I will become a better person for it.” OR “I’m a spiritual person, and my only motivation to become a yoga rock star is so I can help more people.” Disowning a part of one’s self is never the answer. Nothing seems more stilted and phony than a bunch of people pretending to be what they are not.
The Sufi’s have a saying: “The only way around is through.” To be spiritual means to be authentic; to embrace our humanness. We need to turn toward our fears, not away. The more that we can embrace our shadow parts, the more whole we become. If we have the courage to embrace our shadow and let others see it too, then we give them permission to do the same. It’s shame that keeps the shadow in place, so if we admit our own struggles, it will help release the shame that others have buried.
If you are ready to take on shadow work, I have a word of caution; you can befriend your own shadow, but be careful about befriending the shadow of another. No one can force another to look at his or her own shadow. To befriend someone else’s disowned parts puts us in opposition to the demon protecting it. Here is a saying I created to express this: “The friend of my enemy is my enemy.” In other words, if you befriend another’s shadow (their enemy), you might become that person’s enemy, even if you mean well. You cannot slay the demons of another. The demon cannot be vanquished from the outside. Once the disowned parts become nurtured and cared for internally, the demon will dissolve on it’s own.
I’ve come to believe that in order to have true intimacy in a relationship, both people need to embrace their shadow. Both people need to be have the humility to acknowledge their own imperfection. If the shadow is disowned, then there are really four actors in the relationship: Two conscious selves and two shadow selves. Many relationships change at the point where the couple can no longer keep the shadow selves hidden from their partner. If we want to be loved fully for who we are, we must embrace fully who we are.
Author Debbie Ford describes the effort to keep the shadow repressed as being like trying to keep a beach ball under the water; all one’s energy will be used to keep it submerged, and we will ultimately fail; and that’s a good thing. When we let go and allow the disowned parts of ourselves to meet the light of awareness, it can be a huge relief. This may mean accepting truths about ourselves which we have been trying to avoid. Although it can be painful, this is the only way we can have true peace inside. Our “flawed” wholeness may not be pretty, but it is fantastically beautiful.