Comments on “Eating the shadow”


Staring into the face of our empty "monstrosity"

Frankly, a lot of the talk about "monstrosity" seems to focus around it repulsiveness and our rejection of it.

I think it's easy to forget that another form of our "monstrosity" stems from it's incredible attractiveness to us and our unconscious addiction to those aspects of - as we are. And that goes for actually uncategorizable people identifying with glamorous vampire / monster personas to plaster over the indescribable complexity of their actual situation no less than if they are in denial of their darkness potential and vigorously conform as much as possible to reject their own "shadows".

After all while this article singles out the "irrational" as monstrous, I find that the ones who consider themselves absolutely rational can be equally monstrous, especially scientists that create inhuman experiments that corner unwitting subjects into realizations they were in no real position to have on their own or make use of, for some allegedly greater good and philosophical contribution to science of the nature of mind - expressed in meaningless statistics.

I think that you give a trek-chod a glossing over as "arduous and impractical" for most people, and then offer instead an approach that you describe:

Eating the shadow is slow, repetitive, and often unpleasant. You can’t go to a weekend workshop and get it. It’s like a restaurant in hell. You have to keep chewing, even though the pile the demons shovel in front of you is so vast you cannot see its edges in the gloom. It takes years. And it is disgusting. The shadow includes everything you have rejected because it is slimy and dark, embarrassing and terrifying.

If that's easier, please let me quote the pithy instructions on the practice you find arduous and impractical, and let the comment reader decide (quoting one of your teachers ):

The practice of meditation in the context of embracing emotions as the path gives us another option. This option is one in which we neither repress, express nor dissipate our emotional energy. But one in which we let go of the conceptual scaffolding and wordlessly gaze into the physical sensation of the emotion. This is what we describe as ‘staring into the face of arising emotions in order to realise their empty nature’. This is where meditation becomes an essential aspect of our method of discovery. The form of meditation we will discuss here comes from the system known as Trek-chod, which means ‘exploding the horizon of conventional reality’. Trek-chod involves finding the presence of awareness in the dimension of the sensation of the emotion we are experiencing. Simply speaking we locate the physical location of the emotion within the body (it may be localised or pervasive). This is where we feel the emotion as a physical sensation. We then allow that sensation to expand and pervade us. We become the emotion. We cease to be observers of our emotions. We stare into the face of the arising emotion with such completeness that all sense of division between ‘experience’ and ‘experiencer’ dissolve. In this way we open ourselves to glimpses of what we actually are. We start to become transparent to ourselves. Through this staring, the distorted energy of our emotions liberates itself.

~ Ngak'chang Rinpoche

Personally, I am not interested in a "shadow" regimin, as if I go into the desire for integration knowing, in some preordained way what my integration requires. What my integration requires is not being separate from whatever I experience emotionally, and that does not have to come dressed in any particular style, be that the ornaments of monstrosity, or the ornaments of normalcy.

If that is arduous, well, as you seem only too aware, with an equally arduous sounding option, then so be it. I don't know if anything is really accessible that is easier that is as valuable as what one learns from staring into the face of their own emotions to realize their emptiness.

shadow-eating vs. emotion-staring

Kate Gowen's picture

Seems like a 'you say tomayto; I say tomahto' kind of distinction to me. Either David's slow mastication of, or Ngak'chang Rinpoche's staring at, what we wish to avoid is notably NOT evasion, suppression, eradication, or succumbing to said 'monsters.'

Or did you think that the latter is a do-it-once-and-it's-done sort of thing? That was never my impression.

Shadows and Emotions

Well, yes I distinguish a take on "embracing emotions" that suggests a diet of shadows as that seems a slant on a certain hue of emotions, and which is no less likely to result in the denial of other emotions that need integration no less so than "shadows".

Mostly my reaction came from the incense I felt when trek-chöd was described as "too long and arduous for most", only ironically to offer a shadow diet that was described in no less long and arduous terms.

I wonder is feeling that a commenter is criticizing one's work (that he actually appreciates quite a bit) a shadow that one can integrate with?

Not only shadows

Hi, Sengchen,

I didn't reply to your first comment because I couldn't really figure out what you were disagreeing with. I've been unusually busy, and so set it aside, because explaining my puzzlement would have been time-consuming.

I suspect you've misunderstood me as saying something I didn't intend, and I would like to clarify that (for the benefit of all readers). This is probably mainly because of missing material—more about that below. But I'm still not sure quite where the miscommunication is.

I find myself in accord with everything you said in your first comment, and have failed to locate a disagreement. Unless you have mistaken me as suggesting that, in exploring experience, everything we find will be dark. That's of course not the case.

Possibly you have mistaken me as advocating what I called "inversion," in which one pretends to be purely monstrous, and not at all noble. That's not the case. As you note, incorporating one's own inherent nobility also requires work, and may be more difficult than incorporating monstrosity. My own experience is that I was able to start serious work on nobility only after I had made substantial progress with monstrosity, for instance.

I do think trek-chöd is hugely valuable, but I'll also continue to insist that—as a formal practice—it is too difficult for most people. Technically, you can only practice it if you are in the state of rigpa. That rules out almost everyone. It's possible to approximate trek-chöd without rigpa, but you need quite a lot of meditation experience even for that. At minimum, some familiarity with the experience of emptiness.

"We are all monsters" and "Eating the shadow" are the first two pages in what will eventually be a series of five. I had a complete draft of that two years ago, but realized there were some problems with the other three, and set them aside. I hope to return to them Real Soon Now.

One of those missing pages discusses black magic, a/k/a "inversion." That will clarify the possible misunderstanding that I'm suggesting taking up monstrosity as a persona.

The other two sketch ways of accomplishing "incorporation." (This is roughly what is called "integration" in some other Buddhist systems; I'm following Ngak'chang Rinpoche's advice in reserving the word "integration" for practices that require rigpa.)

The methods I propose are what might be called "informal practices of view": ways of noticing one's own everyday monstrosity, and both laughing at it and accepting it. A critical part of the practice is recognizing the noble aspects of these same monstrous tendencies.

This is a much less direct, precise, and rapid method than trek-chöd, but it has no prerequisites, so anyone can do it. It is less arduous, but doubtless longer and likely to bring about only partial incorporation.

I've been enjoying your blog, by the way. Your "now you something say" pieces seem accurate and insightful to me.


You can't get there from here . . .

Hi David,

Perhaps I'm not sure I see monstrousness and nobility as simple inverses of each other. The field is more complex than that duality, at least the way you are describing monstrousness. For example in describing monstrousness you refer to it's repulsiveness, but I am not sure that the opposite of repulsiveness, which could be compulsive attraction or addiction, that this really qualifies as nobility, nor is any less of a reason for integration practices.

Regarding the requirement of being in the state if Rigpa to practice trek-chöd, it's quite circular isn't it, but that is the way of all Dzogchen yanas, there bases and results are the same, and every dzogchen "method" amounts to taking you from where you are to where you are.

I don't know if I want to talk about this on this forum, but I have an idea about these teachings that state that you would have to be enlightened to practice something (seemingly discouraging monsters like us from even considering the attempt) when those teachings are right next to other teachings that remind us that we are, as our Lamas see us for instance, beginninglessly enlightened. I think the teachings become pathologically paradoxical and leave a kind of trap for the practitioner, in which it seems quite reasonable, very very reasonable actually, to stick to those practice for humble unenlightened folk, because of what most of us believe about our actual condition . . .

I'll gladly look forward to your picking up these topics and continuing the thread of writing you started.

I like this idea of "informal" practices of view. It makes me wonder what "formal" practices of view are, and perhaps more importantly, what are not FORM-al or in-FORM-al, but perhaps nondual practices of view. What would we see in the mirror? Monster? Noble warrior? Both? Neither?

Thanks for the interest in the beginning of my journaling. I haven't found something to really right about yet, so my format is still anchored in my teacher's teachings. Thanks for the encouragement.


Monstrosity and nobility are non-separate

Hi Sergio,

I'm not sure I see monstrousness and nobility as simple inverses of each other. The field is more complex than that duality, at least the way you are describing monstrousness. For example in describing monstrousness you refer to its repulsiveness, but I am not sure that the opposite of repulsiveness, which could be compulsive attraction or addiction, that this really qualifies as nobility, nor is any less of a reason for integration practices.

Yes to all of that. If it seems like anything I have written contradicts that, then I have been unclear...

The summary description of this site, over on my Wordpress site, is:

We are all monsters, but we can embrace our monstrosity while retaining our human nobility. We can allow each to transform the other, so we become cheerful, kind, useful monsters who are also overpowering, unpredictable, and dangerous heroes.

Is that helpful?

A dispassionate view in the mirror should, as you suggest, reveal both a monster and a hero, who are not in the least in conflict with each other.

I agree that, inasmuch as we are all beginninglessly enlightened, there is some possibility for all of us to practice Dzogchen. There is indeed a paradox there; and Dzogchen is a complete vehicle in itself, which means that nothing else is a prerequisite. [Contra conservative Tibetans who want to prevent people practicing Dzogchen by putting endless tiresome nonsense in the way as preliminaries.]

Nevertheless, skipping fancy theory, maybe 0.001% of Americans might be willing and—in mundane practical terms—able to practice trek-chöd. If only because it requires sitting in an uncomfortable position doing nothing for an hour or so, and then tolerating intense emotions without doing anything about them.

There are formal practices of view. Self-arising yidam practice is an example. It is "formal" because there is a tradition, a set method, a complex body of theory, a load of details, ritual permissions required, etc. etc. etc. It's a practice of view because the essence is to experience ("view") yourself as the yidam.

Informal practices of view have more the flavor of men-ngak-dé—"mere indication." To take a non-Buddhist example, Robert Bly wrote "Regard yourself as a genial criminal." There's nothing more in the practice instruction than that. If it resonates, then at times it may suddenly come into your head and seem applicable.

I'm not sure what would be a non-dual synthesis of formal and informal. (Do you have thoughts about that?) There seems to be more of a spectrum, from highly formal practices (such as elaborate rituals) to the most informal ("Do you hear that dog barking down in the village?" "Reckon I do..." "That's the nature of mind."). Lots of points along the way.


Talking 'bout a resolution

Hi David,

I think I may have been a little myopic in my critical read of the text of this article, and most of my points were based on some of things specifically stated here. I do see in the broader read that you are not intending monstrosity and nobility as a duality, so I really do stand corrected in terms of your intention. When people tell me that they may not have been clear, I am usually all to willing to admit that I might be the one that is not clear.

Actually, as you know, the Four Naljors are a preliminary practice for Dzogchen, but of course in classic style, the preliminaries are the main practice itself, but if you really appreciate that, you probably could skip the preliminaries by practicing the preliminaries (a paradox that makes perfect sense in the elightened state . . .)

I think the "form" of formal practices is in the outer approach to them. Actually self-arising practice is only possible through dissolving into emptiness and arising from emptiness as the yidam. In the preliminary outer stages of practice, there is a lot of intense staring at an awareness being thangka and willfully imagining oneself as . . . whatever . . . but in the end, all the form-ality of that practice has to be exploded for the actual practice to occur, largely without form of any kind (as we conventionally mean with "formality")

It's funny, but I kind of see men-ngak-de as more of a form-al practice. In men-ngak-de, an instruction is said, or the the teacher suddenly puts on a grotesque face in a completely out of context situation, and that form - those words, that body position, and even those mental constructs (appreciated as form) are the whole instruction. Any conceptual elaboration or attempt to sieze the implicit instruction destroys the transmission in mid sky.

This stuff is very mirror like you know, first you see the outer form of something, and then it becomes completely empty, and then something else that appears completely empty (like a men-ngak-de instruction) suddenly arises as these kind of enlightened forms (that which moves in mind). I love the catlyst question: What is the same? It's not the answer that matters really, it's the question isn't it . . .

Incidentally, Skyrim looks amazing. I was huge Elder Scrolls fan, and I think I may need to Best Buy on Friday at 11 minutes after 11 am (and all that that implies . . .)


What is the same?

Hi Sergio,

Glad we cleared that up!

The question "what is the same?" plays a key role in my vampire novel. (Somewhat further along than the story has got itself so far.)

I've been looking forward to Skyrim for ages. I hope it is as good as we hope it is!

If I vanish off the interwebs for a month or two, it's probably because I'm busy mixing up potions to deal with dragons.


Oh man

Cait's picture

This article is so awesome!!! It nearly brought tears to my eyes. I'm basically writing a book about eating my shadow, though I've never seen it articulated so perfectly and humorously. Thanks for this post!