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Mindful of the Shadow: Do You Fight or Invite Your Dark Side?

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Beth Anstandig

Eric Killough shares the down and dirty truth about meditation and how slowing down our thoughts allows us to come face to face with primitive parts of ourselves. Is it our inner sociopath wanting to run our lives or simply the human animal inside of us who would has a bit of important information? 

I hate myself. I hate you. I hate this. I hate her. I want to break things; not just my own arms. Someone should assassinate him. It’s good that those punks in black hoodies beat those guys in red hats. It’s good that the assholes in red hats were afraid. Fuck those guys. Fuck them all. Fuck me. I’m such a fraud. I’m just not a good person. I’m not.

And so forth.
Now meditate.

And now be peaceful and quiet and mindful and do not think. If you think, you’re doing it wrong. Stop it. Stop doing it wrong. What’s wrong with you that you can’t sit still? There must be something wrong with you. See, everyone else is sitting still. You’re not supposed to be looking, kid. Stop it. Stop looking wrong.

And so forth.
Now meditate.

I can’t breathe. I’m breathing too fast. I’m breathing too loudly. I’m breathing too shallow. I can’t relax. I’m too relaxed. I’m slouching. My back is too straight. My back hurts. So do my legs. So does my neck. I’m thinking again. I’m being too negative. I should be positive. I need to relax. I need to breathe. This isn’t working.

And so forth.
Now meditate.

So, that’s my experience with meditation on a bad day. I’ve been sitting in subtle variations of the meditative posture for roughly a quarter of a century at this point. On good days, I set a timer, settle in, watch my breath and my thought-maker, only hurt a little, and completely inhabit and enjoy the time I’ve carved out for myself. I emerge energized and calm, armed with the knowledge that I can be with myself in a good space and that I am nothing to fear. It’s beautiful, I wish it for everyone and I know that it will pass as all do all things.

On a bad day, it’s really quite terrible. It will never pass. The timer must be broken. My legs are being permanently disfigured. Worst of all: I’m beset by my shadow self. The self that bludgeons me with thoughts like those above: I’m terrible, others are terrible, life is terrible. What’s more, the shadow self sounds like a friend, an informant, a confidant.

The shadow self completely believes it’s correct in all of its judgment and so it judges freely and without consequence or correction. The shadow self is unreachable. The shadow self is a bully. The shadow self is a narcissist. The shadow self does not meditate.

But what if the shadow is a friend? An informant? A confidant? We all have or have had (or have been) the friend who says what we’re uncomfortable saying. Or maybe we enjoy a stand-up comic or a writer or a rapper who does the same. We don’t necessarily agree with that friend or whoever but appreciate the honesty of the emotion that’s underneath what’s been said. Whatever it is points to something that affects us too, something we’ve been trying not to look at because our better judgment says we shouldn’t. But it is there. It’s there. It is.

My six-year-old gets splinters as frequently as any other six-year-old. They hurt her just like they hurt anyone else. The solution is as instant and assured for her as for anyone else and every splinter is essentially the same. So is the drama that surrounds each one. She gets the splinter. The splinter hurts. She shows one of us the splinter. She refuses to look at the splinter herself. She refuses to let us to remove it. But the splinter hurts. The splinter continues to hurt. In fact, the splinter starts to hurt more because she knows it’s a splinter. After a sufficient amount of time and tears have passed, she begins to look at the splinter. She shows it to one of us again. She says she doesn’t want it to come out but will we take it out. One of us does. It no longer hurts. We pass the splinter back and forth and admire it.

The shadow could be the same way. What if, one shadow thought at a time, we take it and we hold it out to someone we trust? We say “look, I had a racist thought” or “look, I had a homicidal thought” or, simply, “look, I was really angry about this” and that trusted person could hold it and say “wow, would you look at that!” and they might then say “it must have really hurt”. If we could do this, we would find that the shadow would stop hurting.

And that’s where meditation comes in. The shadow does not meditate but the shadow does definitely visit meditation in progress.

Try this: set a timer for 10 minutes. And sit down. Rest your hands on your knees. Straighten up your spine enough that you can let your shoulders rest on it. Raise the top of your head and tip your chin just a touch. Just a touch. By now, the shadow should be saying something like “this is stupid” or “don’t put your hands there” or “just a touch? What does that even mean?” Or, any other variation on the thought that letting yourself “meditate” is a stupid, indulgent, waste of time.

OK then. Now sit with it. Don’t move. Just breathe. Feel the air come in through your nose and out through your mouth. Or is it in through your mouth and out through your nose. Whatever, this is stupid. But sit with it anyway.

What’s happening? Are you breathing in your oneness with the cosmos? Are you visualizing world peace and a basket of flowers? Or are you wondering what time it is? Is your timer even working? Are starting to think of all you should be doing instead? Or are you thinking this stupid again? If you are, who’s voice is thinking that?

OK, finally, here’s the punchline for your shadow: you want the nasty thoughts to come. This has all been an exercise to see the judgment and the negativity that your shadow generates. Why? Because it takes away the hurt. And, because there may be a lesson in it, some valuable information. For instance, if you’re telling yourself you can’t sit still for 10 minutes, you may be (a) working yourself too hard or (b) working so hard that you avoid yourself. Either way, your shadow just showed you something.

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article here about my reluctance to go camping. A few week later, I went backpack camping in Yosemite. I hadn’t worn a backpack in at least 8 years and, in the meantime, I’ve gotten older. Almost immediately after beginning the hike out into the woods, I decided — with the help of my shadow — that I’d made a terrible, terrible mistake. For the next three days, too embarrassed to share this with my co-campers, I visited upon myself the most vile, abusive, and plain nasty criticism that I’d ever sustained. All in my father’s voice, I called myself every derogatory turn of phrase I could conjure. Why? Because I was tired and not in great shape. I needed to go slower than my friends. Big deal. The shadow was saying slow down and adjust your expectations.

But I didn’t share this with anyone at the time. I just chewed on it and abused myself with it. And it was terrible. When I shared it with my friend — one I can share my shadow with — a week later, he just said “I could tell you were mad at yourself. I had to just let you go be that.” If I’d shared it at the time, I could’ve learned from the shadow. And been freed from the shadow. And had a much happier hike.

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