Seeking shadows to reclaim wholeness
Life's challenges can loom over us like dark shadows sometimes. Finding time and space to contemplate those shadows can help us to transform them. By Lauren Bloxham
There's a long, cool figure standing in front of me, she's shaped a little like me, but the early morning sun, like a distorted mirror, stretches her length...I raise a hand and wiggle my fingers; she wiggles her foot-long fingers back at me. A sad, lonely feeling rises within me, she seems a long way away and I can't reach her. I want to draw my shadow closer, bundle her up and keep her warm.
I spend a moment contemplating this spontaneous reaction to seeing my shadow. My shadow is an aspect of me that's distant and untouchable, but very much there and real. She's sometimes subtle and not always seen, and sometimes, just like today, she's there, clearly outlined and right in front of me.
I turn towards the sun and continue my walk. As the path meanders and the sun rises, so my shadow falls differently. I watch her changing shape and length on the ground around me, sometimes we walk side by side, sometimes I walk towards her, and sometimes she disappears from my sight completely. My shadow and I walk within a broader environment, grassy dunes, the ocean to the north, a patchwork of farms to the south. We are just dots on this ancient landscape, passers-by, temporary visitors. I feel small.
This broader view shows me how close we really are, my shadow and I, how deeply connected we are. My feelings change as I remember that we are made of the very same stuff as the landscape all around us. We are enveloped in life, and we are an integrated aspect of it too. I feel a deep sense of connection and I am full again, just as we reach the top of the dune and descend its sandy banks towards home.
Making sense of the shadow self
Discerning and making sense of the shadow aspects of our being can be challenging when life is busy, and our minds are full of responsibilities and obligations. Sometimes we actively avoid meeting our shadows; we fill our time with activities and people. But integrating our whole self, reclaiming the fragmented, distorted, and distant aspects of our minds takes time, space and contemplation.
When life becomes challenging, when we're forced to sit up and pay attention, when the demands of our circumstances require our complete presence, it is then that our doubts and fears, our traumas and vulnerabilities, our guilt and our shame are clear for us to see. It can feel as though our shadows are 15-feet-tall dark, looming visitors in our lives, and it's at these times that we can feel the cool fear they evoke most acutely.
For many of us, compassionate awareness may not be our go to response to the darker aspects of our experience. Sometimes it's easier to pass over what is painful, blame others or ignore what is niggling, and bury what we find vulnerable with shame. This is why we meditate, why we take a formal practice. This is what we practice for.
When we arrive in meditation and take in our physical bodies, our breath, or our environments, we get to practice bringing compassionate awareness to what we experience. Recognising it, accepting it, and welcoming it. The sound of a dripping tap, tight hips, stuck breath. It's the little things in life that teach us how to broaden our perspectives and expand our courageous hearts.
We're practicing for the big stuff that life presents, for the times of shock, grief, hardship, and illness. The situations that feel insurmountable and the challenges that feel impossible. The times we don't want to experience, but inevitably will. It's then that we can meet our greatest challenges within a broader landscape or compassionate awareness. After all, the experience is a part of us, this is the experience of our wholeness.
The small lessons are the same as the big lessons. Just as we accept the dripping tap, or neighbour's drilling during our peaceful meditation, so we accept the bigger challenges that we face. That's maybe easier said than done, but the practice is the very same.
Take some time to sit or lay now. As you close the eyes take in the sensations of the body. Notice what you feel; you may have just eaten, or perhaps you're hungry, maybe you've been on your feet all day, or possibly still in bed? Where you've been and what you've been doing has an effect on the body and you'll notice it as you tune in now. There may be sensations that demand your attention...old injuries, niggles, the effects of surgery or treatment. Notice them, greet them, welcome them, let them be the focus of your attention, become the broader awareness around them, curiously taking them in, their qualities and nuances. Notice how long you can hold your attention with them, and be curious about whether their qualities change, or how you feel about the changes.
This principle can be extended towards sounds in the environment, what can sometimes feel invasive or unwanted, can challenge our compassionate awareness, strengthening it, broadening it. These challenges are lessons in themselves.
We can extend this principle towards difficult thoughts or feelings we're having too. When we hold thoughts and feelings in our awareness, when we become curious, greeting, and welcoming them, when we let the kinds of fears that cast dark shadows over our experience, become the focus of our awareness and contemplation, they too can become rich lessons to learn as we watch them transform dynamically in front of us.
With compassionate awareness as our landscape, fear, guilt, shame, and judgement become passers-by, temporary dots on the broader landscape of our being. We recognise them with a broader, more rounded perspective, and their power diminishes and our compassion is strengthened.