Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Me and My Shadow

Our mental business is carried on much in the same way as the business of the state: a great deal of hard work is done by agents who are not acknowledged. George Eliot, Adam Bede

While a visitor in a church other than my own, I had a strong negative reaction to one of the lay ministers—some confluence of mannerisms and appearance just grated on my nerves to the point where I couldn’t stop watching this person, in the same way that one will continually pester a cold sore.

It being apparently a good morning, I was able to self-transcend enough to notice not only the irritating object, but also my own irritation. Isn’t that interesting, I thought; now why should I respond so negatively to this person?

Trying to run my thought process to ground, I began to catalog all the things about the person that annoyed me, and ask myself why I was so annoyed at each one. This strategy backfired. In no time, I had gone from being conscious of an irritant within my field of awareness to being entirely subsumed by irritation: I had absolutely nothing on my mind but how much this person annoyed me, and a laundry list of self-justifying reasons for being annoyed.

Then I remembered something that Martin Laird pointed out in his book, Into the Silent Land: when Satan was tempting Jesus in the wilderness, Jesus didn’t debate with him; he didn’t allow himself to be hooked. Instead, he simply met each temptation with an appropriate quotation from scripture. “It is written…,” he said, then shut up, never giving the tempter the time of day.

(I’ll interrupt myself here to share the only thing I ever learned in my brief career as a vacuum cleaner salesman: “once you have stated your case, the next person to talk loses.” When you are arguing with someone—a sales clerk or petty official, say—make your point and then absolutely clam up. It’s difficult, but often works; the tension produced by the silence just becomes too much, and your adversary will begin to babble in order to break it. Then you win.)

So I tried Jesus’ stratagem; abandoning my bogus self-examination about why this person rubbed me the wrong way, I simply told myself what God told Samuel in 1 Kings: “You see not as God sees, but as mortals see; for you look at outward appearances, but God looks on the heart.” I had to repeat this a few times over the course of the service, but it worked: I set aside my involuntary response and put my attention where it was supposed to be.

(The fact that this person turned out, in later conversation, to actually be a jerk is immaterial. I suppose. It’s not as though obsessing about the offending mannerisms was doing any good. And anyway, maybe being a jerk is just one more layer of appearances between me and the heart that God looks on.)

Fifty years before Jung opened his practice, George Eliot put her finger on the problem: “unacknowledged agents” in our minds do stuff without our awareness or consent.

Now Jung attributed much of this stuff to what he called “the Shadow”—those aspects of our personalities which we reject and repress, and which undermine and sabotage us in a bid for self-expression. And Jung believed that, in banishing the unwanted aspects of ourselves into the unconscious, we cut ourselves off from our creativity and self-realization. Jungian psychologist and Episcopal priest John Sanford likened the Shadow to Jesus’ “treasure hidden in the field” (Matthew 13:44). Make friends with your Shadow, the pop-psyche mavens tell us--and why not? If some repressed aspect of my personality is forcing me to read political blogs all night instead of going to bed so I won’t be irascible toward my children the next day, I’m willing to take that as a sign that some fundamental change in my life is called for.

But sometimes the Shadow just needs to pipe down. The Desert Fathers externalized their troublesome inner promptings as demons, and oriented much of their lives and practice toward silencing them—and surely not every vicious or self-destructive drive is potentially redeeming. Sometimes evil thoughts are just evil.

Martha Graham counseled Agnes DeMille to keep open to the urges that motivate her. Well and good; the jungle is dark, but full of diamonds. But how do we distinguish between motivating urges that are potentially liberating, and those that are just plain bad? Or at any rate unhelpful? (“All things are lawful to me,” said Paul, “but not all things are useful.”) How can we tell the gifts of the Shadow from the Trojan Horse of the ego?

One thing I have heard before, but have only recently realized in my own experience, is that turning the attention from the object of one’s feelings toward the feelings themselves is a great disclosing tablet. When our whole field of awareness is filled up with the object, there is no room for awareness of self—the very reason, I suspect, that most of us “nurse our wrath to keep it warm” toward at least one person or situation: we don’t want to become self-aware on that score.

One evening I was at a motel desk with a friend, trying to get in touch with a mutual friend who was staying there and whom we had arranged to meet. Her room phone wasn’t working, and we were trying to get the desk clerk to somehow get a message to her—which, being more afraid of his employers than he was sympathetic to us, he refused to do. As we pressed him—OK, as I became angry--he became rude and dismissive.

Back in the car, my friend asked me why I so furious at this subaltern. As one reiterating the self-evident, I said, “Because he was rude to me!” “So what?” my friend asked.

And I couldn’t think of a thing to say.

Later, upon reflection, I realized that if someone is rude to me, it constitutes an implicit statement about my relative worth—and that at some level, I take that statement at face value. This person is, by being rude to me, implying that I deserve no better, which some part of me already believes, so in order to distract myself from that externally validated self-assessment, I become furious at the rude person.

Lesson 5 in A Course in Miracles says “I am never upset for the reason I think.” The ego does a bang-up job of directing the attention outward in order to avert the inward gaze. Maybe the key to discerning between the (potentially) liberating drives of the Shadow and the cramping, self-protective machinations of the ego lies somewhere in there. Maybe if I had the keenness to discern and the courage to follow my redemptive inner promptings, I would find myself happier and more self-aware--whereas getting caught up in ego chatter invariably makes me more miserable and more aware of other people, other things (or rather, of my thoughts and feelings about them.) Maybe these internal agents need to start carrying ID. Or maybe I’m just breathtakingly self-involved.

(Or all of the above. Once as I stood in line at a convenience store in St. Paul, I asked the clerk, “Are magazines becoming trashier and trashier, or am I just becoming a grumpy old fart?” “Well, sir,” she deadpanned, “both of those things could be true.”)


  1. Wow, Scott, I really connect with what you to say in this post. It seems I have some inner work to do. Thank you for being so open with your inner life!

  2. That's one of the reasons I keep writing--I figure I can't be as much of a freak as I seem!

  3. The striking thing to me about your story about the guy in church is that you were able to get beyond your preoccupation at some point. Church, like other situations where I'm kind of stuck in my seat--driving a car, mowing grass (well, weeds), pushing dirt around the farm, etc.--, provides an opportunity for my mind to go on a little stroll. When it does, it invariably ends up in some pretty bad neighborhoods.

    I find that the very moment of deciding that a thought is not appropriate for church makes that thought almost impossible to escape. When neither ignoring these thoughts nor feeding them until they burn out gets me anywhere, you have provided a reminder of an important third option.

  4. As I was going through the worst phase of my separation from my husband, a friend of mine gave me a very useful piece of advice. She referred to all the anger, hurt and obsessing I was doing as the demons in my head. I didn't invite them in, they were forced on me by circumstance, but it was MY choice whether or not to feed them. Every imaginary conversation with him, every moment of obsessing over why this happened or what his issues were that caused him to leave was food for the demons. By feeding the demons, I was taking time and energy away from doing what I needed to do to start healing myself, and be fully present in my own life as it was now, rather than as I had wanted it to be.

    I had to learn to chose to acknowledge the demons, but not to let them consume me. In my own religious tradition, an important element of ritual is acknowledgment of the Outdwellers, the spirits of chaos, strife and discord that are always present. As part of my rituals, I acknowledge these spirits, accept that they are always present, make an offering to them outside the ritual space, and ask that they accept this acknowledgment but not trouble the working that I'm doing.

    For me, it's a way of recognizing the shadow self, without allowing that part of my psyche to become the core of who I am.


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