Several years ago I took up a meditation practice. My spiritual mentor instructed me to begin with just 5 minutes on the cushion to build, what she called, “the muscles of presence”. At first I fought with myself in the ways I have heard countless people describe; I mentally wrote a to do list for the day, I daydreamed about winning the lottery, and finally I would just get so mad that I was wasting any time on the cushion at all when I clearly had so much to do. After all, I had just come up with that to do list!
As the months went by my practice grew from five minutes to twenty minutes on the cushion every day. At first there was a kind of sweet spot where I was happy to just tune out the list making and actually be able to just sit, but then something happened. I accidentally wandered into that place between the shadow and the soul, that obscure place inside myself; where demons and angels seem to live and being in that place was painful. Suddenly my time on the cushion was spent crying, sometimes tears just streaming and other times outright sobs that would have probably gotten me kicked out of a monastery or Zen-do. I couldn’t take it. I abandoned my practice of meditation.
Over the years I would begin again, 5 minutes then 10… building back up to my goal of twenty minutes a day. I kept thinking that because I was in a different place in my life that the pain I had encountered wouldn’t be there to greet me. I was wrong. I just couldn’t escape it. My mentor acted like this encounter on the cushion wasn’t even really news. “Sit through it” she said. I tried to reason with her and tell her she just didn’t understand. She was steady in her resolve that the only thing for me to do was move through this and that meant continuing the practice.
So I kept showing up to the meditation cushion every morning. I would sit and I would cry. This went on for weeks and then somehow along the way I started having aha moments. Suddenly I realized what it was that was hurting. All that muscle building for being present had brought me to a place where I was meeting parts of myself I hadn’t met in years, some that seemed to have been in hiding since early childhood. There in that in between place, in that place of darkness and stillness within myself I was able to finally get real.
I didn’t really think of myself as fake before that time but suddenly there was a kind of radical and surprising honesty about the ways I had, and had not, been living my life. I found pockets of grief I didn’t know existed, like for the marriage I had chosen to leave. I discovered childhood memories I would have preferred stayed buried. I kept showing up and somehow the grief dissipated and I started working on my forgiveness practice. All of this from sitting with the absolute discomfort of those unknown places I found within.
This place that one can find on a meditation cushion or a yoga mat comes to us in different ways. I’ve revisited that same darkness from a broken heart. I know friends who came in to that place from anguish over the death of a loved one. There are countless ways you might find yourself between the shadow and the soul and I suspect none of them are too comfortable.
This isn’t work we like to do, at least not most of us. If anything we’ve been taught to fear this place. We have come to view darkness as the things that go bump in the night, the places we don’t want to explore. We repress those parts of self we don’t know how to deal with into the shadows and we plaster a smile on our face and move forward, even if our hearts are breaking, even if our beloved has died, even when we have forgotten who we are or why we are here, even when we realize that our lives were built on a lie.
Industry after industry wants to keep us from looking too closely at those dark corners of our lives. So we are taught the boogey man lives in the dark, under our bed and deep in our psyche. So we stay busy. We fill our lives with work, and errands, and alcohol, and fast-food, and television so that by the time we hit the pillow at night we are too exhausted to accidentally stumble into that space, that space between the shadow, what psychologist Carl Jung called the parts of self we have repressed and try to keep hidden, and the soul, what I call that part of us which is inherently divine or you might say is aligned with our higher purpose.
I suspect that somewhere between the shadow and the soul, that place we fear so much, is the place where we find our power, the power to be fully human. We don’t reach this growth because we embraced the shadows but because we sat with them. We stripped away all the distractions of ego and day to day living and really sat with those parts of self we’ve been trying to squash. This place is ideal for growing into our authentic selves. It’s fertile ground.
Nothing grows from light alone. Every seed starts in the dark pit of the earth, sometimes buried under a pile of manure, and the same can be said for our growth as well. Now, it would be one thing if we were all just plopped down in some unpleasant dark soil and compost and then suddenly had our heads above ground, blooming and bouncing toward the sun. This isn’t the way it works though. At first there is the breaking. The seed splits open, the roots head down deeper before the shoots can begin to reach for the light. No one likes the experience of breaking open and I suspect that includes the seed. We are so quick to focus on the blossoms above ground that we forget the beauty in the layered earth, in those hidden places where the seed became, where it found itself and suddenly knew that it could push into the unknown and come out the other side.
I am not someone who thinks that darkness is beautiful because the light breaks through. I think darkness is beautiful because it is where we grapple with our humanity and push ourselves to both go deeper and to reach beyond.
Sometimes we don’t go deeper because we’ve developed a huge story around what might be waiting for us if we did. It reminds me of the story of the labyrinth and the Minotaur. The labyrinth was constructed by the magician Daedalus to hide the Minotaur, the source of the Queen’s shame. The beast at the heart of the labyrinth was legend. No one knew exactly what was inside the twisting labyrinth, but they had all heard the stories of how fearsome and gruesome it was. It was told that those who went seeking the beast were never seen again. To drive home this point, every year 7 young men and 7 young women were sent into the labyrinth. They were never heard of again. There were whispers throughout the town about a beast that ate humans. The problem with a really, really good story is it attracts a certain element. There will always be a few who dare to rush toward darkness, especially if it is not their own.
Theseus heard the story and set sail for Crete, swearing he would slay the monster. Upon his arrival the princess Ariadne fell in love with Theseus and she helped him navigate the labyrinth by sending him in with a ball of string to mark his way in and back out again. The story goes that once in the labyrinth, Theseus slayed the Minotaur.
I wonder where you are in the story.
These stories, like all great myths and legends, invite us to find ourselves within it. Are you the Queen who has created a symbol of shame she cannot bare to kill? Or maybe you are the magician who helps hide away the shame of another, enabling them to look the other way. Maybe you are Theseus who bravely enters the cave to slay the monster. Or are you the monster?
Let’s entertain for a moment the idea that the Minotaur represents the Queen’s shadow self. Daedalus represents the parts of our personality that wish to keep the shadow hidden. Then enters Theseus, the spark of bravery within each of us that knows we have to deal with the shadow eventually.
According to Jung the shadow isn’t something to be slain; rather it is part of us that must be embraced. Perhaps Theseus did slay the Minotaur, but I like to think he freed him.
I did a yearlong exploration of this story with a group employing depth psychology, which is the use of archetypes for personal growth. In our version, what we found at the center of the labyrinth was not a beast, but a mirror. In this version, one emerged from the labyrinth so changed that they were unrecognizable to those who had known and loved them.
How many of us have found that to be true in our lives? We greet our shadow, we look honestly in the mirror at ourselves and our lives, and we emerge feeling more whole and more wholly ourselves, only to find the people we love don’t seem to recognize us anymore.
One could say this comes from embracing the shadow parts of self, but I actually think it comes from the willingness to sit in that dark space between the shadow and the soul and get really honest with ourselves. In that honesty, we find a kind of freedom. It’s amazing how we live our lives restricted in ways we don’t even notice.
I have a friend, Karen, who had blocks around being able to move her body in joy. She simply could not dance. Her therapist had encouraged her to dance alone but Karen would find herself, after swaying just a few times, completely frozen. Finally the therapist sent her to a dance class called “dancing in the dark”. It was an ecstatic, free movement kind of class and the part that made it different from other courses is the instructor passed out blindfolds and turned out the lights. Over the course of several weeks Karen saw some progress. She told me that at first she would just cry. She would stand completely rigid and cry. Over time she began to move her body, little by little, until finally she was dancing… full on, ecstatic with joy, dancing. By the time I met Karen, she had already worked through this and I was used to seeing her dance at bonfires and at parties: dancing with wild abandon every chance she got. So when she shared the story with me I was surprised. I asked her what it was about dancing in the dark that was easier for her than dancing alone. She told me that the dark gave her permission to be raw. Even alone with her own eyes open there was a kind of awareness that there was something within her she wanted to avoid. The darkness had set her free. She told me that as she was grappling with being able to love herself she found she had to do it in secret, hidden in the dark away from the parts of her that were so quick to judge.
The poet Pablo Neruda writes “I love you as certain dark things are to be loved, in secret between the shadow and the soul”. I’ve always thought Neruda’s work was sometimes too intimate to be talking about a lover. I suspect he was often writing about the self and how we call all our various parts back from their compartmentalization and integrate them back into the whole. How can we do this without entering the labyrinth of our own lives, facing the shadow and instead of folding it quickly into us as though that is all it takes, instead inviting it to tea, and sitting with it?
I don’t want to skip past those places where I break open and find my roots. I don’t want to case the darkness as something only to define the light. Like the child from our wondering story this morning, if you are willing to explore the dark you never know what you may find.
There is beauty in possibility. When we find ourselves in that dark place, between the shadow and the soul, all things are possible. We need only find a stillness and wait.