“Hello darkness, my old friend,
I’ve come to talk to you again…”
Many readers will no doubt recognize these as the haunting opening lines of Paul Simon’s song Sounds of Silence. To me, that song always reflected a desire to understand and integrate the shadow side of one’s personality. Everyone has a light and shadow side; to deny this is to deny reality.
Our shadow sides can frighten and repel us, and this can be a good thing to a certain degree. We are mammals with highly developed cerebral cortexes; as such, we have nurturing and loving instincts that we ought to engage and develop. But in evolutionary terms, we’re only half a minute or so removed from our hunter/gatherer ancestors, and from them we’ve inherited predatory and tribalistic instincts as well. Many of us have encountered our authentic, ideal selves in meditation; we know that divinity resides within us. Yet to deny the reality of our animal selves is to invite disaster. Pushing them down deep into the subconscious tends to make them manifest in disastrous ways. The most successful human beings, I think, are those who consciously engage their shadow sides, learn from them, and integrate those energies into their lives in a positive way.
When we encounter the darker sides of our nature: our anger, rage, jealousy, bigotry, and the rest, what are we as yoga and meditation practitioners to do? I would suggest that all energy is malleable; one form of energy can always be transformed into another. Meditation is about being fully aware of what’s going on, both within and without. If in the course of meditating we come across some singularly unpleasant aspect of our nature, I think we should simply sit with it at first, allowing it to be what it is. As Thich Nhat Hahn teaches, “There is a time to visit with a pleasant friend, and a time to visit with those who are not so pleasant.”
If jealousy arises, try saying, “Hello, jealousy, I know you’re there. It’s okay; you can be what you are.” If anger comes to the surface while you meditate, you can welcome it in the same way: “Hello, anger, old friend. I know you; I know you need to be acknowledged.” As soon as you stop resisting these aspects of your shadow self and allow them to be what they are, they lose some of their power over you. You are then free to start transforming their energy into something positive. It’s really not that difficult to transform the energies of hatred, jealousy and delusion into their glorious opposites: love, expansiveness and enlightenment. But they will not yield to the transformative process until they are acknowledged and validated.
Of course, this does not imply that we should indiscriminately embrace all the impulses from the shadow side of our personalities; that’s how tyrants and murderers are created. One must find an ideal balance between the extremes of complete denial and total embrace. By practicing faithfully and working skillfully, a practitioner can find the middle way and be a source of joy to herself and others.