Romancing the shadow

Woman/tree shadow figure
Image courtesy Inextremiss

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 2010, I wrote a series of essays that tried to answer that. I published the first two: “We are all monsters” and “Eating the shadow.” And then I stopped. I put an explanatory, apologetic, unhelpful note at the end: “I’ve discovered that the next has a serious technical problem...”

My series drew heavily on the poet Robert Bly’s A Little Book on the Human Shadow. That book is amazing, inspiring, profound, and wise; it has had a major, continuing impact on me since I first read it, decades ago.

It is also infuriatingly incoherent, vague, often meandering and off-topic, uneven, and—in the end, I think—a failure in its own terms. One wishes he had written A Medium-Length Book on the Human Shadow, and that his editor had demanded that he make more sense and tie up loose ends and get to the point instead of gesturing in its general direction.1

Nevertheless, many of the Little Book’s themes are concordant with fundamental principles of Vajrayana Buddhism. Moreover, Bly works extensively with the same mythos of monstrosity that I adopted in Buddhism for Vampires. So, adapting his ideas seemed natural and straightforward.

But then I found a “serious technical problem”… or, to be more honest, my teacher Ngak’chang Rinpoche pointed it out to me.

Seven years after abandoning the series, I learned of a 2016 Wisdom 2.0 presentation, in which the psychologist and Buddhist leader Trudy Goodman teaches from my “Eating the shadow” page. Her discussion of it begins at 19:00 in the recording:

This reminded me of my unfulfilled promise to explain how one can eat the shadow. So I spent several days trying to fix the remainder of the series—and failed again.

Persevering, with another week’s work, I have developed a version I’m willing to post. However, I have had to go meta, to explain why the 2010 draft was unfixable. So this first new page explains “How The Monsters Ate My Homework.” A long excuse is rarely interesting; but the new approach may be more illuminating than the original essays. To address the “technical problem” I have had to dive deeper into the principles and functions of the shadow, and of Buddhist tantra.

In following web pages, I’ll include much of the content of the 2010 draft, commenting on it in a very different style: analytic and meta, rather than poetic and mythic. That may be less entertaining, but perhaps clearer and more useful.

Despite my best efforts to shoo away an irrational gaggle of fairy-tale characters, along the way we will encounter gods and giants, bankers and bishops, patriarchs and witches; and, at the end, something between zero and two Wise Old Men.

The shadow

“The shadow” originates with Carl Jung. His discussions are vague and incoherent. Still, the concept seems powerfully useful, or at least powerfully evocative, and generations of Jungian psychologists have developed it in various directions.

The shadow is the not-me: whatever one has rejected, and chosen to un-see because it is unacceptable. Jungians describe it as a dark part of the self, or as a place where parts of the self hide in darkness. For Buddhism, which is skeptical about selves, this is a problem; a difficulty I had in writing about the shadow from a Buddhist perspective.

Here’s one of Bly’s several, quite different, explanations:

When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality. Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche. A child running is a living globe of energy.

One day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball. They said things like: “Can’t you be still?” Or “It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.”

Behind us we have an invisible bag, and to keep our parents love, we put the part of us that our parents didn’t like in the bag.

Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.” So we take our anger and put it in the bag. By the time my brother and I were twelve, we were known as “the nice Bly boys.” Then in high school, it’s people our own age that pressure us. I lied all through high school automatically to try to be more like the basketball players.

“The shadow” represents all that is instinctive in us. Whatever has a tail and lots of hair is in the shadow. People in puritanical cultures tend to push sexual desire into the bag, and also fear of death; usually much ecstasy goes with them. Old cave impulses go there; longings to eat the whole world. Then the part left in the light looks quite respectable.

So out of a round globe of energy, the twenty-year-old ends up with a slice. We spend our life until we are twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag. Then, perhaps at forty, we suddenly look into ourselves, exhausted, and see our own diminishment. The more we have put in the bag, the less energy is available to us.

And so, those of us who are lucky enough to recognize this spend the rest of our lives getting things back out. But this is difficult and dangerous:

When we put a part of ourselves in the bag, it regresses in the darkness. It de-evolves toward barbarism and becomes monstrous. Suppose one seals a bag at twenty and then waits another twenty before he opens it again. What will one find?

The sexuality, the wildness, the spontaneity, the anger, the freedom and creativity one put in have all regressed. They are not only primitive in mood, they are hostile. One who opens the bag at forty rightly feels fear.

Every part of our personality that we do not love will become hostile to us. It may move to a distant place and begin a revolt as well. The aggression escapes from the bag and attacks everyone.2

Eating the shadow

So then what? Bly describes the process of retrieving energies from the bag as “eating the shadow.” That means recognizing them, accepting them, and bringing them back into oneself. The quote at the head of this page, taken from “We are all monsters,” is my summary:

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.

“How does one go about eating the shadow, practically?” Bly asks. His answer:

In daily life one might suggest making the sense of smell, taste, touch, and hearing more acute, making holes in our habits, visiting primitive tribes, playing music, creating frightening figures in clay, being alone for a month, regarding yourself as a genial criminal. A woman might try being a patriarch at odd times of the day, to see how she likes it, but it has to be playful. A man might try being a witch at odd times of the day, but it has to be done playfully. He might develop a witch laugh and tell fairy stories, as the woman might develop a giant laugh and tell fairy stories.

This is almost everything he has to say about “how.”

These are all excellent suggestions. Furthermore, they are all highly compatible with Vajrayana. In fact, every single one of them is a standard Vajrayana practice. There is a great deal to say about each in Vajrayana terms—which is what I intended to do.

Bly is a poet; I am a businessman. He talks around the point, using many murky metaphors that don’t fit together, and none of which quite works on its own, either—although each does contain considerable allusive wisdom. I wanted to give a clear, practical account.

I have failed repeatedly.

I blame Romanticism.


Jung, although notionally a psychologist, worked squarely in the German Romantic tradition pioneered mainly by poets and philosophers. Romanticism was a reaction to the errors of the European Enlightenment’s rationalist eternalism. That is the failed and harmful attempt to make objective logical reasoning the source of all meaning. As an antidote, Romanticism emphasized subjectivity, mystical intuition, and emotionalism.

Unfortunately, the exact opposite of a wrong idea is usually also a wrong idea. Although Romanticism did provide some insight, it was mainly mistaken and harmful, I think. Romanticism, and Jungianism, smear imaginary meanings all over everything, indulge in overwrought emotional dramatics, and justify obviously false claims with stubborn “intuitive” or “mystical” anti-rationalism.

The central false claim of Romanticism is that we each have a True Self hidden deep within us; and this wonder-filled True Self is magically connected to The Entire Universe, or maybe even is The Entire Universe, which is also God, so finding it gives one access to all the Cosmic Secrets of Meaning.

The only evidence for this is that it would certainly be nice if it were true.3

Jungian psychology and the Romantic True Self theory are versions of what I’ve called mentalism: the idea that all that matters for meaning are things in your head. An alternative is interactionism: meaning arises in patterns of activity, which involve both you and your surrounds. Interactionism accords better with Vajrayana (and with reality, I think) than mentalism does.

Unfortunately, Bly is a Romantic poet. Or, at least, he thought he was—at the end of this series, I’ll suggest he may have been disastrously wrong.

Also unfortunately, the shadow, as Jungians understand it, is a mentalist idea: it’s a highly meaningful thing-in-the-head. Ambiguously, a place in the head, or a sort of sub-person living in the head.

To translate the shadow concept for Vajrayana, I have tried to reformulate it as “obscured patterns of interaction.”

Romantic Buddhism and Tantra

Since the True Self seemed to be quite difficult to locate in Germany, Europeans in the late 1800s decided it must reside in the Mystical East. They declared that the essence of Eastern Religions—including Buddhism—was a method for merging one’s True Self with Cosmic Consciousness by Going Deeply Within. This was almost entirely untrue, but for political reasons, many Asian Buddhists went along with it, and co-invented a new Romantic Buddhism to satisfy European demands. And that is the “Buddhism” we mostly get today.

Romantic Buddhism is a valuable synthesis in some ways. European Romanticism was a critique not just of Enlightenment rationalism, but also of Christian renunciative morality. That is Christianity’s anti-world, anti-self, anti-emotions, anti-enjoyment, anti-sex, anti-women, anti-body strand. Romanticism has mainly vanquished that in the West. Mainstream Buddhism—Sutrayana—shares all those renunciative dictates. That makes it unacceptable to modern people; for Buddhism to survive, they had to go.

Tantric Buddhism also rejects renunciation, and its critique of Sutrayana is in many ways parallel to Romanticism’s critique of Christianity. That is part of why I think tantra is particularly valuable now: it’s a genuinely Buddhist non-renunciative path, whereas Romantic Buddhism is a dubious mash-up. However, tantra also tends to overwrought emotionalism and anti-rationalism. I’ve described it as “big and stupid,” contrasting it with Dzogchen, which corrects those errors.

Unfortunately, the synthesis of Buddhism and Romanticism was pursued uncritically, and they reinforced some of each others’ worst aspects. A century later, we should step back and ask some hard questions; but that reassessment has barely begun.4 Modern Buddhism has exiled its own recent past to the shadow, and adamantly refuses to hear that it is mainly a mash-up of Romanticism, Protestant Christianity, scientistic rationalism, and Marxist social justice ideology.

Because tantra is genuinely similar to Romanticism in certain ways—and for accidental historical reasons—Europeans romanticized it more than any other form of Buddhism.5 Tathagatagarbha, sometimes called “Buddha nature,” resembles the supposed True Self enough that they can be deliberately conflated. Tathagatagarbha is the theoretical basis for all of tantra—although I think it too is mainly nonsense.

Jung himself contributed an important piece to the romanticization of tantra. He wrote the introduction to the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which was one of the very few books about Buddhist tantra available in the West for several decades. In it, he claimed that yidams, usually but mistakenly regarded as a species of god, are actually “archetypes.” This idea is still commonly held in the West, although quite wrong. Since yidams are the key to perhaps the most important tantric practice, this matters.

Jung never clearly explained what “archetype” was supposed to mean. That has made Jungian psychology an swamp of conceptual confusions. Although it contains valuable insights and wisdom, some aspects seem dangerously wrong to me, compounding the metaphysical errors of Romanticism.

The shadow is supposedly also an “archetype.” In retrospect, my trying to recast an archetype as a tantric practice may be as misleading as Jung’s trying to recast a tantric practice as an archetype. I don’t want to contribute to further muddling of Buddhism and Romanticism—but here I was doing exactly that.

Buddhism for Vampires also drew on contemporary American monster fiction—but that lineage is directly in the Romantic tradition. Classic early horror novels were written by some of the greatest English Romantic poets.

So now you begin to see my problem…

Related resources

The next page in this series is “Hunting the shadow.”

  • 1. To be fair to Bly, the book wasn’t his idea; it was assembled by the editor from talk transcripts, poems, an interview, and an essay of literary criticism. Although the book has become a classic, I suspect Bly understood it doesn’t quite work.
  • 2. I’ve assembled this explanation of the shadow from several passages of Bly’s book, and done a small amount of rewording, for clarity and concision.
  • 3. The cognitive scientist Nina Strohminger’s recent paper “The True Self: A psychological concept distinct from the self” is a brilliant, acerbic, and entertaining explanation of the delusion, and makes a strong case that the True Self is a strictly mythical beast.
  • 4. Thanissaro Bikkhu has done the most important work so far on disentangling Buddhism from Romanticism—a process he describes as “cultural psychotherapy.” He has presented his analysis in numerous essays, interviews, and recently a book, Buddhist Romanticism, available free online. David McMahon’s The Making of Buddhist Modernism, which I reviewed here, also includes important contributions.
  • 5. Whereas some Asian intellectuals enthusiastically collaborated in the Romanticization of Sutric Theravada and Zen, for political reasons, most Tibetans have resisted—for other political reasons. That means that the tantric Buddhism taught in the West is much more “traditional.” That is for better and for worse, in different ways, I think.