If any help was going to arrive
to lift me out of my misery,
it would come from the
dark side of my personality.
– Robert Bly
It is an extraordinary paradox that even after decades of meditation there can still be areas of our inner-life which remain untouched by the power of our practice. Meditation is not a psychological cure-all and this is evidenced by the ever-growing list of well established enlightened teachers who have fallen from grace into scandal, accused of violence, psychological and sexual abuse.
The fact that our own shadow material can continue to operate unabated, even in the midst of a strong practice, points to the downside of relying on a technique for full transformation.
With mindfulness we can become highly skilled at simply observing our experiences come and go without identifying with them. We’re able to detach from our deeper emotional material by holding it in cold attention, rather than feeling into it and integrating this material into a richer tapestry of who we are.
This approach enforces a duality between ourselves and our emotions.
Perhaps you have noticed that many meditators and spiritual teachers seem flat and insipid, drained of any fire or vigour? This is the effect of cold observation over openhearted inclusivity. We observe away all of our emotion and become spiritless, because emotion is energy and energy is life.
Of course, the ability to detach from our real-time thoughts and emotions, allowing them to arise and pass away by themselves, is absolutely vital if we want to experience more freedom and less entanglement. But too much emphasis here will throw our practice off balance into sterile knowing.
In fact, we are equally the knower and the taster of our experiences, because ultimately there is no division between these two aspects. We are both the silent witness and the bubbling, shifting life-energy: heart and mind are One.
Our deeper freedom comes not from simply standing outside of our messy body-mind, but seeing clearly that we cannot fundamentally be the same as it, and that if we are not really the same as it, then why not feel-into it?
Why not allow our inner experience, however tumultuous to shift, buzz and flow, within the intimacy of our own awareness?
Why not fully surrender into the depth of the feel?
I practiced mindfulness for almost 10 years before it became dazzlingly apparent that I was simply watching my life happen, rather than deeply feeling it. My practice had essentially become an escape from the raw and unprocessed themes which commanded my subconscious: sex and violence, fear and self-loathing, pettiness and selfishness. All of the parts of myself I refused to show others and refused to acknowledge myself began to erupt, often exploding in broad-daylight when I least expected it.
A turning point came during a trip to India in 2005, when I was travelling with other back-packers to Leh, in the far north of the country. I was in a small Jeep racing across high-altitude desert, sitting opposite a young Ladhaki girl asleep on her father’s lap. At one point he reached down and adjusted her head with such tenderness in his eyes that something deep inside of me cracked open. I sat for the rest of the journey, sobbing broken-heartedly into my hands, unable to speak or even explain what had happened.
This experience in particular told me that my practice alone was not processing my deeper material. In fact, over the following years, as more of my subconscious fought its way to the surface, I became more and more unable to avoid it.
After experiencing a break-down at the age of 29 I decided to see a counsellor at my University. It seemed that in order to release this buried material, I needed to do something more active that meditate in semi-numb bliss. I needed to speak, tell my story, verbalise my deepest fears, shame and confusion. And this is exactly what I began to do, supported by an incredible counsellor who simply held the space for me to unpack my personal baggage.
During one of our sessions I mentioned how I had recently become aware of the sense of a dark and menacing presence over my left-shoulder. I realised that this stranger had actually been with me since childhood and yet I had only just become fully conscious of it.
That night as I lay in bed, mindfully soaking my body in awareness, I felt the presence over my shoulder again and out of sheer curiosity, I asked it a question:
Who are you?
I hate you, it immediately replied.
Why do you hate me?
Because you ignore me.
I don’t hate you, I love you, you are me.
I then turned to this huge dark figure and embraced it, and as I did it merged into me and we became one. I was embracing myself.
I had reached a point in my life where not only was I able to recognise my shadow, but converse with it and integrate its powerful energies into a bigger picture of who I am.
We meditators are often desperate to ascend into the bliss, peace and joy of theobserver rather than descend into the grit and grime of our own bodies. But to really know ourselves we must be able to see and accept our conditioned human selves, our personalities and character, our moods, faults and themes, our old stories and our numbness.
We must be willing to drill into the most hard and frozen parts of ourselves, thawing them with the warmth of awareness. When we breath life into this numbness it can begin to melt and flow once again through our being, like a new torrent cascading through a dry valley.
And by plumbing the depths of our physicality with bright awareness we see that our true nature lies not only in the thin air of detachment, but in the deep dark chasm of this ancient wise body. By surrendering down into the life-giving intelligence of the body we rest in our home ground, and sooner or later we discover that this ground is simultaneously groundless.
The body which we run from, afraid of its ghosts, shadows and wild animal spirits, is exactly the way home, to a fully embodied freedom. Not merely the freedomfrom being human, but the freedom to be fully human with all its rich textures and flavours.
Because the destination is ourselves, our mindfulness practice is really a life-practice, and we should use it to cultivate an awareness of what works for us and what doesn’t. What moves us forward and what holds us back? What keeps us in fear and what dissolves it? What needs work and what feels effortless?
This may mean including physical exercise, running, dance or martial arts, it may mean a more conscious diet, working with our hands or less attachment to social media. But it may also mean knowing when to ask for help, and seeking counselling or therapy to release the parts that our other practices do not touch.
Let’s not get caught in the trap of believing that our meditation alone can solve all of our problems, refusing to acknowledge where we feel stuck, lost or confused.
The entire universe is here to help you.