Comments on “Hunting the shadow”

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First Sight and Second Thoughts

Dan's picture

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... The other is extremely subtle.

Any chance you could elaborate on the extremely basic meaning? The principle seems straightforward to me, but I can't tell if that's because I'm only understanding the basic version, or if it's because I've spent a long time with Vajrayana-influenced teachers.

My take is something like: "the world as you actually experience it is a frothy mixture of map and territory, and you could probably stand to pay more attention to the less mappy parts."

In Terry Pratchett's Discworld books, adults who meet Death usually manage to convince themselves they're not seeing a walking, talking skeleton, because that would be indecent. Witches are not so hung up on decency:

‘’Tis the First Sight and Second Thoughts ye have, and ’tis a wee gift an’ a big curse to ye.’

‘Don’t you mean second sight?’ Tiffany queried. ‘Like people who can see ghosts and stuff?’

‘Ach, no. That’s typical bigjob thinking. First Sight is when you can see what’s really there, not what your heid tells you ought to be there. Ye saw Jenny, ye saw the horseman, ye saw them as real thingies. Second sight is dull sight, it’s seeing only what you expect to see.’

The Wee Free Men

Frothy mixtures

For ease of exposition, I drew a false dichotomy between the basic and subtle understandings. They too shade into each other... The basic version would be that you are either seeing the map or the territory. The subtle one, I fail to explain :-) But if you regard the map and territory as shading into each other (or a frothy mixture) then that's on the way at least.

I love the Discworld books, and that is a particularly memorable passage!

Eerie Disconnect

Good to read these two articles! I also enjoyed the Terry Pratchet reference from the previous commenter. :)

You make a case how difficult these things are to communicate, particularly in writing. Having received some teaching on these things from my personal discussions with Aro gTér teachers, I have at least some grasp of the subject, but I have big difficulties communicating the attitude to others.

For example, I spend a chunk of my free social time nowadays with people involved in the Finnish black/death/doom metal scene and also with people in science fiction/fantasy/anime fandom (And here I notice how I am one of those pesky Millennials living in mixed subcultural matrix). As my attitude towards any kind of art is now heavily influenced by the Vajrayana view, I come often into situation where I just realize that my attitude differs strongly from many of the "fans". In these situation, I have absolutely no useful tools to open up my perceptive. Naturally, I can participate in the conventional talk, but some of the most interesting things cannot be talked about.

For a typical "fan", to generalize, it seems, the primary attitude for art is not as much what one genuinely likes, but what solidifies ones sense of identity, safety and obsessions. To such attitudes, the ambiguity which is connected to active appreciation creates anxiety. They just blanc out, even though we would be talking about something that all of us supposedly enjoy.

Sometimes I have fantasies of just hitting people to the head with "a vajra hammer of instantaneous illumination", but then I remember that I have no capacity for such wrathfulness. I just have to try to be gentle with them.

Excuse my reflections. This is likely not a proper comment.

Ambiguity & appreciation

I have absolutely no useful tools to open up my perceptive. Naturally, I can participate in the conventional talk, but some of the most interesting things cannot be talked about.

For a typical "fan", to generalize, it seems, the primary attitude for art is not as much what one genuinely likes, but what solidifies ones sense of identity, safety and obsessions. To such attitudes, the ambiguity which is connected to active appreciation creates anxiety.

Yes! Exactly this! Thank you!

Your comment was extremely proper and I hope & expect some readers will find it illuminating.

Life is funny

The irony in this is that the simple appreciation of the sense experience is something that in principle could be explained without any weird doctrines, rituals or religiosity; but this also makes it very difficult.

I guess this is the big joke of Dzogchen - everything truly interesting is too near, too obvious and too natural to pay attention to. Like, you are living as a character in an absurdist situational comedy without actually noticing it.

Shadow eating usually requires a helping hand

Hi David,
Great piece! It’s refreshing to see reference to Bly and a creative reworking of Tantric themes. I have to start out by saying though that there is one truly nonsense claim in your text that I wholeheartedly disagree with :)

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

I have a few thoughts to share but can't help but think that from this we are pulled once again to the big challenge in front of us: How to create, establish facilitate functional if temporary communities of willing participants in this sort of ‘deep’ work.

The topic I wish to comment on concerns the need for others to help us with the various phases you lay out. You mention Vajrayana professionals but I have met few of them capable of providing context for the practices and processes you lay out. Although I appreciate your generosity towards the ‘pros’ and your exercising of humility in downplaying your ability/knowledge, I strongly believe that we need more of the sort of work you have carried out here. It can certainly be done without it turning into an act of self-aggrandizement which most Buddhists consider to be evil. That’s just shadow stuff anyway and reflective of the general Buddhist distaste of or paranoia over power.

The process you lay out is extremely challenging and the tricks of avoidance are many and varied. In most cases, another human being or beings is/are required, which I am sure you are aware of. That was one of the great contributions made by the Men’s Movement when it functioned, in that it supported men in eating the collective western archetypal male shadow. This is further illustrative of the point you make about our stuff being part of the world, or collective stuff. There is actually a contemporary version of such a movement in the form of Family Constellations, which seems to have overcome the gender divide that ended up becoming important for a lot of men and women after Bly became less fashionable and the limits of men working on themselves became more visible. I don’t know a huge amount about Family Constellations but from friends that have taken part I have surmised that through a sort of theatrical playing out of family dysfunction, participants eat chunks of their shadow while the other participants bear witness and feast with them thereby eating potential chunks of their own shadow in the process. This could provide a model of sorts for this type of work within a Tantric theoretical Buddhist framework.

Although I agree with the spirit of your critical take on looking inside yourself, the expression should be recognised as being a place marker for a whole bunch of stuff, much of which is far from the New Age, romantic call to solidify or find the sacred self and its universal wholeness, etc, etc. You’re right in part in your criticism of it but miss out a lot of the good that comes from shifting focus from the external or superficial to the inside, which for many simply means connecting to layers of avoided feeling or non-feeling in the body, which is strongly connected to the practice you lay out later in the text. Depending on the depth of dysfunction and avoidance at play, it can require a hell of a lot of work so that metaphorically speaking; a person is deep mining into layers of feeling or non-feeling ‘within’, which is to say within their limited sensorial perception. A huge amount of work in psychotherapy obviously revolves around this.

The point you make about finding the shadow’s tracks in your interactions with others is great but only works if they represent a change to the status quo of your well-trodden social tracks or if you are facilitated in experiencing them differently with the help of an outsider. That said couching the process in terms of reclaiming bits of the world is very, very positive. This is an essential point to make as so much of the therapeutic environment reifies the self and is based on the idea of a true self. This actually points to the feelings of inadequacy that drive the New Age and its never-ending supply of self-help seminars and books. People are looking for a non-existent final answer.

I think there are shortcuts in the shadow eating process that can be functional if a person is reasonably emotionally robust and curious enough to experience the unknown and challenge themselves. They would also need to be attracted sufficiently to the idea of experiencing destabilising spaces in which they are exposed. This would be sped up by group dynamics that solicit such transformational potential in a safeish space made up of consenting adults. This is rare and difficult to find and explains in part the willingness of so many folks to hang out with dodgy gurus for longer than might be wise. They instinctively know that something powerful is happening and they may not find it again so better to suffer and maintain absurd beliefs than lose the magic. I don’t think that gurus have to be done away with, however. As an aside, the work you describe comes very close to the shamanic world I inhabited for years, which assisted participants in taking the processes you describe very far indeed. It was only made possible by the quality of the teachers, however, but one significant feature was that the teachers refused the role of guru and had a code of honour of sorts which prevented an individual from becoming the all-knowing, powerful, wise one. These codes are not so difficult to craft.

I’m of the view that consensual alternatives to top down guru dynamics can be established that would facilitate work like this but the facilitators would need to be very capable and have gone through enough of the process to participate fully without losing their shit. They could incorporate the steps you lay out and add in opportunities to confront limitations, experience the forbidden, play out taboos and be witnessed while doing so. There is something quite liberating in being seen and receiving permission from others to experience the taboo and express our darkness, or monstrosity as you define it. Additionally, participants would benefit greatly from engaging fully in sensorial activities of a radical variety and taste that solicit very strong feelings on the spectrum of repulsion and lust.

Your liberating perception section is great but presents challenges for those arguing from a purely theoretical perspective. I have mentioned theatre and performance a few times in recent posts and I think that might be a way to facilitate greater openness to participation for the intellectually enamoured. Religion, new and old, tends to frame this sort of work in grandiose terms or package it in highly symbolic, culturally rich forms, which can make it very powerful for believers but utterly unappealing to everyone else.
As for the fear part, I agree and think that it helps enormously to play with the divide between self and society. There are incredibly dark impulses to be absorbed. I wonder to what degree the individual shadow is the shared shadow and to what degree we must consumer our part of it to help reduce its collective power. That sounds very newageish I guess but it’s an open question I continue to explore.

Matthew

"You need a guide..."

Matthew — Thank you for an extensive & illuminating comment!

It would take several long blog posts to give it the reply it deserves. Fortunately, two of the projected posts in this series would cover some of the points you raise. One is on the relationship between Bly's work and Kegan's (eating the shadow is a big part of the emotional aspect of the stage 4 to 5 transition). Another is on the Mythopoeic Men's Movement, and Bly's role in it (and mine). Unfortunately, I am not sure when or whether I'll complete those pieces. (They are the "Chekov's Gunmen" alluded to at the end of "Drinking the sun.")

Some brief responses...

A central point—where we agree strongly—is that this process is much easier with social support: both vertically (guides who have been through it themselves), and horizontally (a community of people at various stages in the process, all making a serious effort to work at it). And, that this support is mainly lacking; and that it's not clear how to provide it. Much of my thinking has been about that in the past few months.

through a sort of theatrical playing out of family dysfunction, participants eat chunks of their shadow while the other participants bear witness and feast with them thereby eating potential chunks of their own shadow in the process.

Yes... I have some experience with this approach. I've done a workshop or two! I had a close friend who was one of the main US disciples of Bert Hellinger, the founder of Family Constellations, and I've seen him working. I have major misgivings about him, but he was brilliant and impressive. He drew heavily on the work of Virginia Satir, whose ideas and practices I also have had some peripheral experience with. I gather that Gestalt therapy uses somewhat similar methods. I think these approaches can be powerful, but they are easily misused, misunderstood, or distorted into pathology.

shifting focus from the external or superficial to the inside, which for many simply means connecting to layers of avoided feeling or non-feeling in the body

Yes... there's another Chekov's Gun that didn't go off, namely "you will find the shadow's tracks in your own, unfamiliar body." I didn't elaborate on that, and it's a major topic. To continue the interactive approach, I would add that partly this is just a matter of learning to pay attention to sensations, but it is greatly enhanced by "body work" disciplines such as the Alexander Technique or the Trager Approach—in which you physically interact with a skilled guide—as well as systems of exercise like yoga, and martial arts.

reasonably emotionally robust and curious enough to experience the unknown and challenge themselves. They would also need to be attracted sufficiently to the idea of experiencing destabilising spaces in which they are exposed. This would be sped up by group dynamics that solicit such transformational potential in a safeish space made up of consenting adults.

Yes... this is the paradigm of "California growth workshop culture," starting with est. (Everyone should know that Shambhala Training was openly and explicitly modeled on est, btw.) Those have been evolving for half a century now, so there's a lot of experience one might draw on: what works and what doesn't. There's certainly some common failure modes. I'd have to say that the impact of the approach overall seems to be less, in the long run, than one might hope—but definitely positive.

Maybe some of what I wrote about taking a slow, consistent, cautious approach, rather than aiming for dramatic breakthroughs, is based on my experience with growth workshops. (Both personal experience and having been part of that scene in the 80s and 90s and talking with hundreds of people about their experiences.) But I do think there's value in both.

the facilitators would need to be very capable and have gone through enough of the process to participate fully without losing their shit.

Yes. Such people are not easy to find.

theatre and performance

Right. When I was a Neopagan, this was very much part of how we thought about what we were doing in ritual. Tantric Buddhist ritual is less like that, which I think may be a missed opportunity.

I wonder to what degree the individual shadow is the shared shadow and to what degree we must consume our part of it to help reduce its collective power.

Yes... Bly talked about this a lot. I think it's an important insight. Understanding recent political events and processes in shadow terms helps make sense of them.

Qualified to write novels

LarryOlmer's picture

"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. "

With your careful questioning of modern "inner self" psychology and Romanticism, why not write a Vampire novel where Romanticism is the "betraying usurper" or whatever the hero is compelled to battle? Rousseau is a bit fancy pants for that role, maybe resurrected with more Puritan self discipline ( Solomon Zero ? ) he'd make a better opponent for your protagonist. I'm sure I'm not alone in wanting better horror novels, whether electronic or printed.

On a first instance, I argue

Anonymous's picture

On a first instance, I argue that this is a clever guide to become the Nietzschean Übermensch through Sartrean authenticity.

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