Out of the Shadows

Yoga Sūtra II.8 duḥkha-anuśayī dveṣaḥ
Dveṣa is avoidance of what is perceived painful.

Hiding Under Our Bed

“That which we need the most will be found where we least want to look.” —Carl Jung

Lee Israel was an American author who’d found reasonable success in the 70s and 80s writing biographies. But by the 90s, her career had stalled. So in a desperate attempt to pay her bills, Israel began forging letters of mid-twentieth century icons and selling them to collectors. But that was not her only deception … 

You see, in the midst of all this, Israel’s cat falls ill. The loss is apparently too painful for her to imagine — so she doesn’t. What she does notice is a sudden fly infestation in her tiny apartment. And it’s the flies that move her to investigate. 

Israel enlists a friend’s help but when that friend arrives, he cannot bare to even walk through the door as the stench is so overwhelming. Turns out, Israel’s sick cat had been doing its business under her bed for months. Literally, right under her nose! And yet, Israel never smelled a thing. 

Crazy, right? Not really. That’s the power of the unconscious mind, able to keep secrets, even from ourself.

It’s what Carl Jung called our “shadow self” — a place in our psyche where we keep everything about ourselves and our lives we find shameful or scary and not ready to face. Like painful realities, trauma, or the parts of our personality that don’t jive with how we want to see ourselves. Our dark side, if you will. And so we bury or repress. 

Trouble is, just because something’s hidden doesn’t mean it goes away. In fact, much of our suffering is rooted in what lies hidden under our bed. Israel’s cat would just keep getting sicker, and her fly infestation continue to worsen, the longer she ignored.

In the end, a trip to the vet and some clean-up at home was all it would take to alleviate both. 

Lurking in the Shadows

“The gold is in the dark. And one does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”  — Carl Jung

Of course, it’s not just ourselves we hurt with our ignorance. We hurt others too. Though we’re often unaware and do so with the best of intentions. This is something Lara Land talks to us about in a recent Ashtanga Dispatch Podcast — ways yoga teachers unconsciously cast a shadow onto students. 

A good example, and one you see often, is the overly-helpful teacher. After all, wasn’t that the point of becoming at teacher? To help others? But when is that helpfulness meeting the needs of the teacher rather than a student’s?

Let’s face it, it feels good to be the hero. And I say this as a teacher who likes to help. It feels good to help alleviate someone else’s suffering. It also feels good to be seen as knowing and wise, not to mention, powerful. What I don’t love is admitting this to you right now. I’m well aware of the dangers of such traits. At the same time, these are the same qualities that allow me to support and empower others.

One does not negate the other; both are true. But only in recognizing both do I reduce the risk and contain my own shadow. By asking myself each time I step in to assist: who is this for, the student or me? And recognizing that sometimes, the wisest and most powerful action is to simply be present and allow the other person their struggle.  

It’s this kind of self-exploration that seems missing from many teacher training programs, education that focuses mostly on material and hardly at all on the teachers learning their own self.

Maybe that’s because we believe practice takes care of all that. Often, it does not. I mean, if Lee Israel is any indication, we are capable of ignoring a whole lot of our own crap. Or worse, throwing it onto others.  

Which, by the way, social media makes incredibly easy to do. And why it always raises a red flag for me anytime someone starts preaching from a reel. Projection is always easier than assimilation. And in rising above, we often leave behind what is ours. Usually something unresolved or hidden within us.

For in anything we attempt to transcend, there is also something we are trying to avoid.

Heroes and Dragons

“Medieval heroes had to slay their dragons; modern heroes have to take their dragons back home to integrate into their own personality.” — Robert Johnson

There can be no shadow without light, no light without dark. This is the great paradox. And so while we like to sort such opposing energies separate and away from each other, the truth is, they are not separate at all. 

One exists in contrast to the other. The same way day exists in contrast to night; masculine to feminine; inhales to exhales; and (one could even add) progressives to conservatives. Don’t worry, I’m not going to make this political. And yet, today’s polarization in politics is a perfect illustration of what happens when we choose one pair of the opposites at the expense of the other. 

The thing is, until we find a way to honor both pair of opposites, we will continually find the pendulum swinging and remain imbalanced, ourselves. And why if we ever want to reclaim our wholeness as individuals as well as reduce the the harm we bring into this world, we need to connect with our shadow. That’s how we’ll grow.

Because light and dark live in close proximity. It’s what we fear most that often paves the way for our greatest achievements . And why Jung often greeted friends by asking, Had any terrible success lately? According to him, “the brighter the light, the darker the shadow.”

“The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.”
Carl Jung

In fact, artists often tap into what is dark for inspiration; there is something highly creative that occurs when we are able to fold in our own suffering.

There is also great wisdom that can come from any trauma we’ve experienced or hurt that we carry. That is, when we are able to process and absorb. 

So not move past. Not overcome and defeat. Which is the mistake many of us who practice yoga make; we turn to the practice as a way out of suffering, rather than a way to be with it.

There is no dragon to slay, only one to understand.

Besides, nothing is ever one-sided. In addiction, there is also impressive determination. In perfectionism, there is also intense devotion. And in every hurt, there is also this amazing capacity to heal.

Even the habits or patterns that now hold us back can often be traced back to a very necessary way of coping, once up on a time. Children of alcoholic families find safety in their ability to retreat in the presence of a drunk and argumentative parent. However, the avoidance that was a lifesaver as a kid will only stand in the way of intimacy, later in life. 

We must be careful in yoga, that we do not use spirituality as a form of escapism. You don’t need yoga to write your story of redemption. Especially when there is nothing we need to redeem

Owning Our Shadow

“To confront a person with his shadow is to show him his own light.”  — Carl Jung

I spent some time at my parent’s house last month, helping them sort through the stuff that’s accumulated through the years in their basement. They rarely go down there and I could understand why — it was pretty overwhelming. Part of my mom’s motivation was that she didn’t want my sister and me to have to inherit this one day. 

Though the thought made me sad, it was also something I could understand. I often think of the work I do on myself in the same way, as a way not to pass on to my children my own baggage.

It was long and tedious work, going through all the old boxes. By the time I had left, we had only managed to clear a small portion. A reminder that the sorting is easier done when we make it a daily habit.

Along with the many items to be tossed or given away, were also a few gems. Like the Madonna statue holding a baby Christ, whose head I had once severed clean from its body with a quarter I’d angrily flung at my sister.

Afterwards, I remember the two of us working together to sloppily glue back the head, thinking Ma wouldn’t notice. Which she eventually did. Still my sister never ratted me out even though it was her head at which I was aiming. Then again, she didn’t have to. I confessed and took what I was due. 

That statue had become a symbol of my (then) quick temper and seeing it made me ashamed. Which may be why it ended up in the basement. But this time, as I held the statue in my hands and ran my finger along the jagged line that encircled Jesus’ neck, I felt only love. This was the bond of sisterhood. One that would only grow stronger through the years. 

Can I take this one home? I asked my mom. I feel like this one is mine. 

"To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.
 To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,
 and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,
 and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.”
                                     — Wendell Berry