I was listening to a lecture on Buddhism by Dr. Robert Thurman at The Tibet House in NYC last spring, and the floor had been opened up for questions. The last question had arrived and a man had challenged, "Why don't we simplify our meditation practice by just focusing on the experience of nothingness when we most likely will be facing that very thing after we die?" This sent Dr. Thurman into a passionate outburst, "You have no fear! That is nihilism! You must have fear to transcend suffering and the ego!" For the first time that evening I perked up and became interested in what was being said. Frankly, it was refreshing finally to hear a Buddhist stick up for the part of ourselves that I believe gives empowerment to our non-violent self.
I practice a therapy modality called Core Energetics (a.k.a. Core). It is a wholistic therapy approach in that it embraces not just the mind but also the body and the spirit. In a Core session we often acknowledge an aspect of ourselves we call the lower self. Most of us are more familiar with the Jungian term “the shadow.” In the Core modality, we use the lower self to reach the higher self or the heart.
In most societies, we are taught as children to hold back the expression of the shadow, that being anger, hatred, jealousy, spite, just to name a few. Because we learn to be afraid to show these parts of ourselves, it is assumed that we need to disown them. I believe it was these places that Dr. Thurman was referring to in his argument. And it seemed to me that he was acknowledging that if we are to transcend suffering, we need to know our fear.
Perhaps Buddhism has become popular because of the precept that we can master our reality. Who wouldn't want to master reality, especially the painful parts? Dissolve frustration, ignorance, judgment and the things that make us suffer? But how do you master anything? You get comfortable with the thing you are mastering. You learn every side of it, you “be” with it in every aspect. If it was pleasure you were mastering would you avoid getting to know it? Probably not, you most likely would indulge in it.
What seems to be keeping us from exploring our lower self are feelings of shame, pride, guilt or humiliation. We have built elaborate walls of fear around these areas within ourselves we think, to protect us and others. We need to remember that exploring our lower self is an earnest quest toward deepening our compassion. When we understand how darkness operates and what gives it its impetus within us, our suffering changes. The paradigm shifts. We are no longer on the pedestal of judgment. Now we know what impels another to steal, deceive or kill and we cannot help but acknowledge that potential in ourselves.
Avoiding our lower self can result in denial and an imbalance on one side of our true nature. This is when our lower self becomes dangerous. Idealizations can roost within and denial can create powerful delusions. A major Tibetan Buddhist figure, Milarepa, claimed he was grateful he had the awareness of hell, of infinite negativity. He had killed many people with black magic when he was young to avenge his parents before he turned to the dharma, but understanding the dangers of hell gave him the power to become a Buddha and escape the consequences.
Jung in The Stages of Life (1930) wrote, "When we must deal with problems, we instinctively resist the way that leads through obscurity and darkness. We wish to hear only of unequivocal results, and completely forget that these results can only be brought about when we have ventured into and emerged again from the darkness. But to penetrate the darkness we must summon all the powers of enlightenment that consciousness can offer."
Jung studied a myriad of religions because he recognized that spirituality is part of our true nature and we need connection to this place within ourselves to ascend suffering. We need a supportive environment and or teacher to guide us through the exploration to reach a greater and more fulfilling consciousness. Embracing the shadow requires remembering that these places are only a small part of ourselves. It can be extremely painful work and takes enormous courage. In order to master those aspects of ourselves which are dangerous we need to “feel” them. In order to feel them productively we need to trust our connection to our hearts and our spirit.
Since I was a child I have been seeking my true nature. My journey has been painful and I have been lost many times. But what has brought me into my heart more than any other thing I have encountered has been my work with my lower self in the Core Energetics modality. I believe it is sacred work, and I support and encourage anyone willing to do it.
"Taking it in its deepest sense, the shadow is the invisible saurian tail that man still drags behind him. Carefully amputated, it becomes the healing serpent of the mysteries. Only monkeys parade with it." -- C.G. Jung