“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
― Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
In the nineteen seventies as eastern religious traditions were attaining prominence in the US, psychologists and academics began to make observations about the shadow as it applied to the transcendental and New Age movement. Numerous cases came to light over the next 30 years of “enlightened” mystical leaders who hid, or expected faith communities to enable and deny addictions, exploitation and sexual abuse. These leaders spent the majority of their lives leading and participating in meditation designed to allow them to transcend the self and the ego. Yet, they were still able to engage in a parallel existence that most would consider selfish or egomaniacle.
The most reflexive response from those outside the communities was that the leaders of these communities were hypocrites or charlatans interested only in personal gain. However many members of these faith communities had seen and felt the compassionate and honest work that these leaders had done to help themselves and others transcend the self. The people in these communities were genuinely overwhelmed by attempting to reconcile the ability of their spiritual leaders to both overcome the ego and to dualy indulge the ego and it’s counterpart, the hidden shadow.
Eastern meditation uses techniques to allow practitioners to dissolve their ego and perceive themselves as connected to all things in the world. This feeling of connectedness fosters a reflexive compassion for the world and a corresponding detachment from your own ego or selfish drive. This state of both detachment from self and connectedness with a greater sense of compassion is the “zen” stereotype that is associated with the new age movement.
I was raised an Episcopalian, I practice as an integrative and Jungian leaning therapist, and I very much enjoy the mindfulness practices from eastern meditation. I find them to be extremely useful tools for my own self renewal and for calming and reconnecting patients with “lost” parts of themselves in therapy. The problem with eastern meditation in a vacuum, without the context of the rest therapeutic process is that it does not heal ego wounds or help a patient to integrate the shadow. Transcendentalism or spirituality does not help a patient recognize patterns, readjust a limiting self image, or develop a less automatic decision making process.
Eastern transcendentalism is a tool for leaving the world to gain perspective; not for living within the world once you come back. Compassion for others is all well and good but it does not always teach you how to act on that compassion in a healthy way. In other words, clinical psychology is a set of tools for us to work on our ego, where eastern mindfulness is one tool that lessens the effect of the ego temporarily. We still are a self after all, and have to learn to operate with our egos while we are in the world. Anyone in a permanent state of ego death would be a psychotic confined to a facility.
Early American transcendental leaders claimed that mindfulness would “flood the shadow with light” thereby lessening and eliminating it, and many Christian churches make a similar claim today. This belief that spirituality was an alternative to therapy or self analysis only makes religious communities more blind to their own shadows and the shadows of their leaders. The scandals in the Buddhist communities of the seventies and eighties saw many people realize that they had been relieving the patterns of collective denial, enabling and abuse that they had experienced in their families and hoped to heal from in their faith communities. After a mountaintop experience your shadow will still be waiting for you when you come down from the mountain.
Clinically I see patients come in with a variety of “shortcuts” they think they have found to avoid integrating their own shadow. Many people first turn towards substance abuse to save them from shadow work, then later towards sobriety to save them. The group dynamics of alcoholics anonymous will often have a collective shadow that rivals any religious community. Other patients use psychedelic drugs, spirituality or ego management strategies to avoid living by looking inward in a sustained way. Patients often explain to me why they are ok living life with anger and assertiveness turned off, cut off from their warrior self. In truth they are terrified of open conflict or having to judge others. It is human nature to run from the shadow, it is by definition all of the things we don’t know how to deal with yet.
Other religions are not exempt from these same tendencies. Many people repeat this same cycle with the belief that being “saved”, “enlightened” or “leaving their faith” will somehow save them from their own ego’s shadow. Years ago I gave a presentation at a church about internet safety and responsibility for adolescents. A parishioner told me that “These kids don’t need internet safety, they just need Jesus”. My response was that it was my experience that teenagers who had Jesus in their heart could also still have a lot of stupid ideas in their brain.
I am reminded of the time that a community religious leader sent out a list of the “rules” that he and his wife follow in order to not have affairs. Included were things like ”Never eat with another member of the opposite sex without both of us present” an “Don’t talk to members of the opposite sex on the phone”. Strangely omitted from the list were “have a happy marriage”, “know thy self” and “don’t want to have an affair“. My wife and I, who are still in our first marriage unlike the community leader in question, were perplexed. “If you followed a list of rules not to cheat on me I wouldn’t trust you” she told me “It would mean that you wanted to have an affair.”
I have had strongly religious patients in therapy before who were terrified to look at the parts of themselves that were “sinful” “bad” and “immoral”. They wanted to turn these parts into demons and devils that they could damn or exorcise so that they would not have to accept them as parts of themselves. However if they had not had the strength to do this in therapy with me they would have never discovered the scared and hurt parts of the self that led them to be more whole people.
Underneath the “bad part” that wants to have an affair is often a scared childhood part that feels alone and afraid it will be misunderstood. Bringing this part into a marriage not only improves the marriage but allows for a deeper and more honest relationship. When we examine our own shadow desires they no longer scare us, because then we know what they are and can decide to act on them or mindfully choose not to.
Similarly, when I worked for a church my inbox would fill up with tips that marketed religious programs that taught men how not to be gay. Tips included “Only talk about appropriate subjects with other men” and “never watch romantic films with men”. The thought of a heterosexual male honestly following these tips to gaurd against lapses in sexuality was absurd. It would seem like a more appropriate questions would be “Ask yourself honestly if you are gay?” or “Am I attracted to men”. These questions are not allowed because these communities are afraid of the answers. Leaders in these communities tell their followers to fear the world because it is too hard to admit that what they are actually afraid of is what lies within themselves.
An example of a conservative religious community that maintains a tribal purity while still attempting to integrate the shadow might be the Pennsylvania Amish community. The tradition of Rumspringa in the Amish community allows young adults to live in the external world for a time before they choose to return to the community to be baptised. While the Amish community is intolerant of sinful behavior, any behavior youth take part in during Rumspringa is forgiven and overlooked. The Amish community is not afraid of its shadow, because it wants involvement in the community to a mindful choice not a fearful or reflexive one. The community trusts its members to discover that over indulging in one’s worst impulses leads to an unfulfilling life. Many world monastic traditions have similar practices that allow members to look at the choice to lead a religious life in an honest way.
Many world monastic traditions have similar practices that allow members to acknowledge and keep balance with the shadow self instead of denying or repressing it. In the zen buddhist tradition monks cut a piece from the most choice portion of each meal. They hold their utensils against the wilderness and yell “come hungry ghost and eat”. In their traditions “hungry ghosts” are the dark spirits towards hedonism and secular passions that starve the spiritual self. The servants for each meal take away their offerings and throw them to animals nearby returning them to the circle of life. In doing so the monks have “fed” their capacity for gluttony and self absorption in a ritualized way. Later when they feel temptation they will say “hungry ghost, I already fed you today, begone from me”. In this way do the monks continually acknowledge and balance their own shadow.
These group dynamics of the collective shadow are not at all a religious phenomenon. The fact that the collective shadow functions in every family society and culture is a hard truth to look at. Most countries, families and communities want to project the collective shadow just as individuals project their own. These are what others do, not us. If we see it in others then we don’t have to see it in ourselves. A quick study of the American propaganda machine in any era will reveal that every accusation we make as Americans towards outgroups and other nations we are often doubly guilty of as a country. This pattern happens in all communities that ignore the shadow.
The shadow is a twisted knot of ignorance, convenience, denial, anxiety and willful blindspots. It is not evil or black and white. We can’t use whatever faith, nation, or identity we practice to escape from integrating our shadow. When we try to, we will just blind ourselves to the control that the shadow has over our own lives. Even the most immoral people can still experience ego death, or become highly effective at managing their worst parts. When many people participate collectively in ignoring or projecting the shadow we open the gateway towards some of the worst evils mankind is capable of. Enlightenment is a poor substitute for finding a good analyst.