Hunting the shadow

Shadow of the Colossus
Image courtesy TeaBeforeWar

We can embrace our monstrosity while cultivating 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.


In “Eating the shadow,” I suggested five phases: hunting, chewing, swallowing, digesting, and burning.

  • You have to go hunting, if you want to find what you have hidden from yourself.
  • Chewing shadow is getting extremely intimate with a rejected bit of reality and thoroughly experiencing it, without holding it away at all.
  • Swallowing shadow takes it “inside,” so it is no longer “not me.”
  • As you digest the shadow, it becomes a familiar aspect of experience.
  • Digested shadow is fuel for creative work and practical magic.

Here is how the explanation of hunting in my 2010 draft began:

To hunt the shadow, you might be tempted to “look deeply inside yourself.” That doesn’t work well. Mostly all you’ll ever find there are familiar fantasies and feelings. Your shadow, by definition, is what you have succeeded in hiding from yourself. It is the not-me—the aspects of life that, long ago, you rejected and cast out.

To hunt the shadow, you have to pursue it outside your self. Or, more accurately, you will find the shadow’s tracks in your interactions: with other people, with the non-human world (natural and human-made), and with your own, unfamiliar body. You espy your shadow in perception and in action—a glimpse, at first, through swirling fog—and then increasingly clearly.

Capturing the shadow means rediscovering the world, just as much as recovering splinters of your self—because these two are not separate.

So far, so good. This is a straightforward repudiation of Romantic/Jungian mentalism, in favor of tantric interactionism.

(Passages from the 2010 draft are in a different typeface, so you can see which bits I wrote when. In “Romancing the shadow,” I explained why I am commenting on my own draft. I explained Jungian mentalism versus tantric interactionism here.)

Two questions: how do you find the shadow and what do you find?

When you pay close attention to sensory experience, you find that it prompts emotions, positive and negative. Here it is possible to find out what you actually like and dislike. You might think that’s obvious, but often preferences are based on social expectations, rather than direct experience.

Here Buddhists should think of the Three Poisons: lusting, loathing, and ignoring. So, a Buddhist translation of “hunting the shadow” might boil down to noticing yourself doing those things.

Problem is, this is the first thing you get told in Consensus Buddhism class. Everyone knows it already. Dressing it up in tantric and/or vampire robes won’t disguise that.

Problem is, when translated into Vajrayana terms, some aspects of shadow work are extremely basic, and other aspects are extremely subtle.

Jungian psychology offers allusive, poetical, mythological exposition that has real value (as well as sometimes complicating simple ideas unnecessarily). But you can’t translate its metaphors one-to-one into Buddhist terms. Explaining subtle practices in vampire-ese—as I attempted in 2010—adds to the difficulty.

Nevertheless, let us press on, splashing first into the sulfuric acid lake of loathing. Then we’ll traverse the howling desert of ignoring, and shoot the rapids on the flaming river of lust…

Who do you loathe?

The shadow lives particularly in personal interactions. What we call “self” is mainly patterns in relating to others. Understanding these patterns is one way to transform one’s self, which transforms one’s interactions, which creates a context for others to do the same.

You exile dynamics of interaction to the shadow by un-seeing ones you learn are “inappropriate” or “unacceptable.” You can recover them by observing your own social interactions closely (so you do not miss clues), and without judgment (so you are not triggered into un-seeing the unacceptable).

What do you not do—even though you feel a momentary impulse? What do you catch yourself doing—and then immediately explaining away?

You can also observe the interactional behavior of others, as signs not of their shadows, but of your own. Robert Bly, in A Little Book on the Human Shadow, calls this “the path of attention,” and recommends a specific practice. I summarized it thus:

Irritating people are hugely valuable. Especially, someone you hate in an irrational way, who has not harmed you. Someone who makes you think “I am absolutely not like that and my whole purpose in existing is to be not like that.”

Pick one now… describe them precisely: what are their behaviors and personality traits that get up your nose the most? (You might like to take a minute to do this before reading on. If you are a Buddhist, someone in your sangha is sure to fit the bill!)

You will find that whatever is most annoying about them is also true of you. Exceptionally aggravating people are often unusually similar to you. They display openly some energy that is strong in yourself, but that you have chosen to hide. You can see your shadowy not-me in them.

However, their personality may exaggerate and distort the shared characteristic. You may be right that they behave badly. But you are not essentially different—you differ only in how you choose to express or suppress that trait.

As an angry young man of the left, Bly wrote Poems for the Ascension of J.P. Morgan, about what scum businessmen are. But later,

I began to be suspicious. Why are bankers and businessmen being singled out? If I had to rephrase “banker” what would I say? “Someone who plans very well.” I plan very well. How would I rephrase “businessman”? “Someone with a stiff face.” I looked in the mirror then.

Now when I go to a party, I say to a man, “What do you do?” He says, “I’m a stockbroker.” And he says it in a faintly apologetic way.

I say to myself, “Look at this: something of me that was deep inside is standing right next to me.” I have a funny longing to hug him.

Not all of them, of course.

When you have swallowed your own monstrosity, it is easier to allow monstrosity in others.

Bly’s last line—“not all of them”—is critical, though. Without it, this would be eternalist kitsch. Universal love is a fantasy, enabled by the rejection of loathing, which is precisely what creates the shadow in the first place. “I am such a good person that I am nice even to people like that.” This is contempt disguised as tolerance.

Eating the shadow is not about becoming “nice.” Quite the opposite. It is about becoming a clued-up monster—one that knows accurately what it likes and loathes, and why.

Whereas Sutric (mainstream) Buddhism renounces negative emotions, Tantric Buddhism transforms them. That is the essential difference between the two approaches.

Suppressing an energy, according to tantra, is never necessary or wise in the long run.

  • It takes effort to bottle up an energy, which is wasteful and eventually exhausting.
  • Rejecting an energy as not-me means you lose access to its beneficial manifestations in an effort to prevent its harmful ones.
  • Caging an energy as not-me makes it more likely that it will become enraged and break out and cause harm. (Then you say “I don’t know what came over me! I wasn’t myself at all!” because you have un-seen it.)

It is better to find a way to transform or straighten out the energy, so you can use it beneficially. That requires noticing the ways you are distorting it or rejecting it—which is much the same thing as “hunting the shadow.”

Tantra categorizes energies in a five-fold scheme. Mnemonically, each corresponds to one of the five elements. Each can manifest in distorted (“neurotic,” klesha) or fluid (“enlightened”) forms:

Greed, possessiveness, and power-seeking are distorted manifestations of generosity and elegance
Anger is a distorted manifestation of clarity and directness
Neediness and selfish lust are distorted manifestations of compassion and discernment
Hyperactivity, aggressive goal-seeking, and paranoia are distorted manifestations of confidence and competence
Depression and obliviousness are distorted manifestations of open awareness

It may not be obvious why these qualities are categorized together, or what links the distorted and fluid manifestations. Spectrum of Ecstasy: The Five Wisdom Emotions explains this, with methods for transforming distorted energies to fluid forms.

Here are two of the five energies, explained in shadow terms:

Earth: If you find yourself particularly upset with other people’s greed or power-hunger, you may be wasting energy on making sure you don’t get more—or even enough. Your life may be unnecessarily narrowed by poverty, and time wasted on low-value tasks that could be avoided by spending money. You may do less good than you could, because you refuse to take a leadership role. You may occasionally act unethically to get what you need but have denied yourself—and then you find ways to explain away this eruption of the shadow.

Fire: If you especially loathe sluts or pick-up artists, you may constantly have to fight your own libido—consciously or otherwise. You probably enjoy sex much less than you might. If you think sexual enjoyment is selfish, consider that you may be denying someone else enjoyment through your sexual inhibition. It’s likely that there are times when you are inappropriately seductive or sleazy or sexually crude, without noticing it, because you have committed to un-seeing your own sexuality.

(Exercise for the reader: explain the other three energies in the same format.)

Reopening the senses

“Paying close attention to sensory experience” is the antidote to ignoring—another of the Three Poisons. “In daily life one might suggest making the sense of smell, taste, touch, and hearing more acute…” writes Robert Bly. And so I began:

It is only by reawakening the senses that you can get beyond a closed system of concepts about what everything means, and therefore what is acceptable and what is not.

There are two ways of understanding this. One is extremely basic, and you can find it any introduction to Consensus Buddhism. You probably also got taught it in a grade school art class.

The other is extremely subtle. It is, actually, the ultimate practice of Vajrayana Buddhism, and you cannot find it explained clearly anywhere. It is not the least bit secret—not in the sense that haughty priests withhold information from the uninitiated. It’s just extremely difficult to communicate. What, exactly, are you supposed to do? What is supposed to happen? Why is that helpful?

Half a year ago, I renamed my main Buddhist web site Vividness, and gave it the tag line “The electricity of liberated perception.” This was an attempt to summarize the practice and its result.

Liberated perception is discovered in nature, and through art, and especially art that is about perception in nature.

Most of the text of A Little Book on the Human Shadow is about art and nature and perception. “Playing music, creating frightening figures in clay…” I imagine many readers find this annoying. “Why is he going on and on about fairy stories and blackbirds and snowbanks and looking at paintings in museums? I want to learn a method to fix myself so I don’t do so many stupid things, so people like me more. I thought this was supposed to be a psychology book. Why can’t he just get to the point and tell us what to do?”

He was trying, I think. If he did not clearly succeed—neither did my two favorite Vajrayana Buddhist authors.

Chögyam Trungpa’s Dharma Art is about liberated perception, nature, and art. It’s probably his least accessible book, although it is written in straightforward English, about a subject everyone thinks they mostly understand, and contains even fewer “esoteric doctrine and practices” than his others. It was one of the last of his books I read, after I had already been practicing Tibetan Buddhism for many years, and I got almost nothing out of it.

Almost nothing, that is, until I’d received teachings on the topic from Ngak’chang Rinpoche in person. Then I re-read Dharma Art and found it made perfect sense.

Rinpoche’s teachings were also oblique. He subsequently published them in the form of an odd boy, a three-volume autobiography. Many of his students found this annoying. “Why is he going on and on about blues guitar riffs and the color of tree bark and the smell of oil paint and a preposterous song about Vlad the Impaler? I want to learn a method for becoming enlightened. I thought this guy was supposed to be a Buddhist teacher. Why can’t he just get to the point and tell us what to do?”

Lurching in where lamas, yidams, and dakinis think twice before teaching, I had a go at it two years ago. “At the Mountains of Meaningness” is about nature, and perception, and art. Predictably, I circumambulate the point without ever getting to it. Instead I go on about the color of tree bark, and geologize granodiorite, and blather about Bishop Berkley. And in the end I resort to Romanticism, and commit the pathetic fallacy.

Let me try again…

Liberated perception is discovered through precision: “sharpening the senses by labor,” as Robert Bly puts it. You might hear “precise perception” as meaning “just the facts ma’am,” and as materialism or nihilism, stripping away meaning. But that’s not right. It’s allowing things to mean whatever they do, to appear however they do, without either exaggerating or diminishing them; without imposing any scheme.

The senses are dulled, Bly implies, by concepts, habitually applied. The shadow is maintained by what we might call “perceptual flinch,” a learned reflex of un-seeing. Then one “projects” instead an image of what a nice person would see.

In Vajrayana, “ignoring,” or “unenlightenment,” is avidya, which is literally un- (a-) + seeing (vidya—the word is cognate with “video”). Vidya is used as a synonym for enlightenment.1

This is easily misunderstood. The whole Western philosophical tradition conspires to confuse us. Going back to Plato’s Cave: the idea that there is reality and there is appearance, and appearance is deceptive and false, and our senses fool us. And Kant’s noumenon and phenomenon. Down to the idiotic present-day Representational Theory of Mind, which says we have no access to the world, only to concepts. And then there is the Romantic idea that Enlightenment somehow blasts through the murky screen of concepts to a direct experience of reality.

This story is compelling, because it is almost right; but it is also entirely wrong. I tried to explain why in “Mountains of Meaningness”:

Do you see “a mountain”—a concept—or a mountain? These can be very different, but not always. We might say that this difference is a matter of degree, not kind; or that it is sometimes indistinct, like the non-boundary between the lake and the fog.

The operation of one’s self, the machinery of perception, the application of concepts—these too are a borderless interplay of pattern and nebulosity. We need to recover from the consistency of the subject—the idealized and impossible coherence of the self.

As you can see, I should leave the teaching of the ultimate practice of Vajrayana Buddhism to qualified professionals!

Even for them, it seems difficult or impossible to convey in writing. This is why Vajrayana has to be taught in person; ideally one-on-one. To the extent I understand this matter, it is from spending many days discussing specific aesthetic problems—in web design, essays, calligraphy—with Rinpoche, alone or in small groups. You need a guide. Like in a fairy tale…

China Miéville’s novel The City & the City is set in two fictional towns, Besźel and Ul Qoma. They have quite different cultures, clothing styles, architecture, and languages. They are unusual, though, in that they are in the same place, but are perceived as two different cities. Citizens of each city are taught from early childhood that it is a terrible crime, “breach,” to consciously notice people or things from the other city, even when they are surrounded by them. And so they learn the skill of unseeing.

At a turning point of the book, the first-person protagonist is forced by his guide Ashil to breach:

“You’re hungry,” Ashil said. He took my arm and guided me, and I hesitated because there was no food in sight except—I pulled against him a moment—there were dumpling stations and bread stalls, but they were in Besźel. I tried to unsee them but there could be no uncertainty: that source of the smell I had been unsmelling was our destination.

“Walk,” he said, and he walked me through the membrane between cities; I lifted my foot in Ul Qoma, put it down again in Besźel, where breakfast was. Behind us was an Ul Qoman woman with raspberry punk hair selling the unlocking of mobile phones. She glanced in surprise then consternation; then I saw her quickly unsee us as Ashil ordered food in Besźel.

He put the paper plate in my hand, walked me back across the road into the supermarket. It was in Ul Qoma. He bought a carton of orange juice, gave it to me.

He walked me down the middle of the boundary road. My sight seemed to untether as with a lurching Hitchcock shot, some trickery of dolly and depth of field, so the street lengthened and its focus changed. Everything I had been unseeing now jostled into sudden close-up.

Sound and smell came in: the calls of Besźel; the ringing of its clocktowers; the metal percussion of the trams; the chimney smell; they came in a tide with the spice and yells of Ul Qoma, the clatter of a copter, the gunning of German cars.

“No one knows if they’re seeing you or unseeing you,” Ashil said. “Don’t creep! You’re not in neither: you’re in both.” He tapped my chest. “Breathe.”

“One who perceives both form and emptiness simultaneously” is the orthodox Vajrayana definition of a Buddha.

What do you want? What do you like?

Now for the flaming river of desire!

Most people don’t clearly know what they want—nor what they like. Many things, you may want without realizing it. And it is possible to believe you want things you actually don’t—or that you don’t like.

Of course, some things practically everyone wants. I am not suggesting you don’t want better sex, and buckets of money, and to be young, healthy, and good-looking forever. This is the obvious stuff, which, for most people, is not in the shadow. (Although some aspects of sexual and material desire may be, for many people.)

One reason people don’t know what they want is that they are afraid to find out. They are afraid that they might unconsciously want terrible things. Of course, everyone has momentary fantasies of killing their boss, and that is good to notice, because aggression and dominance and submission typically go in the shadow-bag. But killing people is probably not what you actually want. You wouldn’t like it.

What you want is much more likely to be odd than awful. It might be socially unacceptable, but probably not harmful.

Often, people think they want what other people want them to want, or what they think they ought to want, or what “people like me” want. Or it is something “on the way to” what they want. But that makes it a substitute, a plan or strategic stepping stone, not an actual desire.

The typical function of likes and dislikes is to confirm what sort of person you are—both to yourself and to others. Becoming a monster, metaphorically, means giving up on being any sort of person. It means letting go of identity: a well-lit self that includes this and excludes that.

As a human, you define yourself as a member of particular social groups—classes, subcultures, ethnicities—who are supposed to like and dislike particular things. Some kinds of music are cool and others are stupid—because the people who like them belong to different subcultures.2 If you are a fan of blackened death metal, you wouldn’t be caught dead listening to technical death metal (far less melodic death metal). That’s for hopeless wannabes who wear the wrong kind of corpse paint. If you are upper-middle class, it’s critically important to have contempt for the wrong sorts of kitchenware (preferred by members of the middle-middle class). Otherwise, when guests visit, they might mistake you for middle-middle class yourself.

To find out what you want, what you like, what you enjoy: you have to listen and sniff—those are hunting. And you have to act—which is chewing and swallowing.

Listening means being quiet, and receptive. Buddhist meditation is helpful. Bly’s suggestion to “be alone for a month” is a way to free yourself of the noisy expectations of others. He also recommends long walks in nature. I have found all these methods work.

Listen for the slightest, momentary flickers of velleity. A “velleity” is a wish so weak that it does not occur to you to act on it. These are desires you instantly dismiss because they do not match your picture of what you think you want. They seem nonsensical, unexpected, and do not fit into your plans. But they are shadow-tracks of passions you do not know you have. Pursuing them, you will capture your desire.

Inhale the odor of being. Does this smell good—right now? If you do not sniff, it is easy to fool yourself. It is easy to think that because an experience is “the sort of thing people like me enjoy,” you do. But maybe not.

It is easy to think that “everyone hates having to do this”—but maybe you are actually enjoying it?

Related resources

Sniffing is on the verge of chewing—“getting extremely intimate with a rejected bit of reality.” The next page in this series explains chewing and swallowing the shadow.

  • 1. Vidya is Sanskrit; the Tibetan equivalent is rigpa. That also just means “seeing” in ordinary language, but rigpa is the Dzogchen term for enlightenment: non-dual vision. Unenlightenment is ma rigpa, un-seeing.
  • 2. This is the essence of the subcultural mode of meaning-making. That is “native” for many people in Generation X. We now live in the atomized mode—native for Millennials—in which musical genres are no longer meaningful. In 2010, I did not yet understood that distinction clearly.