Me and My Shadow

Liane is sure that Brian is the love of her life, but when they move in together, she begins to notice a disturbing pattern in herself. When he is late getting home, or absorbed in his work when she wants to talk, she feels red hot with resentment. Soon, she sinks into infuriated silence, or worse, explodes at him. Catching a glimpse of herself in the mirror during one of these tirades, Liane is shocked to see the hard, angry expression on her face. She writes me in search of a meditation practice that can help her get centered enough so that she doesn't blow up at her boyfriend. "I'm a loving person," she says. "I don't even know where these feelings come from. Isn't there some practice I can do to get rid of my negativities?"

This question comes up a lot, especially from people who know what it is to experience loving, expansive states. As a spiritual practitioner, an ethical person, you know the beautiful, warm-hearted, wise person inside you. So where do these ugly feelings and behaviors come from? Often, you wish there was a magic bullet to destroy your fearfulness, anger, and insecurity for good.

But the desire to get rid of your negative qualities, so that you can just be your "good" self, is actually part of the problem. There is no magic bullet, in yoga or in any other spiritual path, for eliminating negativities. Instead, you need to bring them to consciousness, learn the lessons they have to teach you, and deliberately work with them. The painful samskaras, deep mental grooves that lead to negative behaviors, will continue to ambush your thoughts and behaviors until you take a close look at them, accept them as an intrinsic aspect of your consciousness, and then release the energy tied up in them, so that it becomes available for your personal and spiritual growth.

The Person You'd Rather Not Be
In other words, we don't really grow up until we learn how to deal with these tendencies, which the great modern psychologist Carl Jung famously referred to as your "shadow." We'll often get clues about our shadow tendencies from friends. "How come you're always late for our dates?" someone will ask you. Or, "Why do you keep spreading gossip about other people?" Maybe you just become aware, like Liane, of how often you erupt at someone close to you, or how you mask your insecurity with boastfulness, or how your sunny moods are often followed by stormy ones.

Jung, whose work was influenced by his reading of Eastern sources, called the shadow "the person you'd rather not be"—the opposite of your conscious personality. He coined the term "shadow" to describe qualities that some yogic scriptures categorize as the kleshas (literally, causes of suffering). These are qualities that a key yogic text, the Bhagavad Gita, rather dauntingly describes as "demonic." In other words, all the selfish, primitive, egoic, violent, lazy, entitled, aspects of yourself. Shadow includes all the aspects of your psyche that you prefer not to look at, the traits that you've been ashamed of all your life, the things about yourself you keep in the psychic basement.

Our shadow qualities are often primitive and immature, because they haven't been cooked in the fire of our self-awareness. In fact, when certain negative tendencies remain hidden from our conscious awareness, they will tend to drive our emotions and behaviors in unpredictable ways. This is when you might find yourself losing your temper over something minor, or going into despair over a small mistake, or disliking someone who exhibits the trait you don't want to see in yourself.

For example, Shelly, a nurse, prided herself on her ability to empathize with patients, and disliked her supervisor, whom she felt treated patients dismissively. As a result, she often found herself in arguments with her supervisor, which threatened her job. In a workshop, I asked her to look at why her feelings of judgment were so intense. As we discussed it, she realized that she often felt dismissive toward these same patients—and over-compensated by bending over backward to be nice. Her judgments about her supervisor exactly mirrored the judgment she directed at herself whenever she 'lost it', or behaved in a way that belied her sweet, caring persona. It took Shelly a while to connect her own self-criticism with her judgments about her supervisor. When she was able to see the harshness of her own inner judge, she was also able to look at her supervisor with more compassion. As a result, they quarreled less, and Shelly feels that the atmosphere in the ward is easier for everyone. "Maybe it really changed," she told me. "Maybe it feels different because I changed."

Projector Screen
Your unconscious shadow attitudes, inescapably, become the lenses through which you look at life. Refusing to "own" a shadow tendency just makes you less conscious that it is distorting your perspective. Because inevitably, when you can't see something in yourself, you project the quality onto someone else, either judging or admiring the quality in them.