Walking the Spiritual Path Means Learning to Love Your Shadow


In Being Upright, Reb Anderson, a Zen Buddhist priest highly trained in meditation, recounts how he came across a dead body in a park. Rather than report the body to the police, he kept returning to the body and at one point, even took a gun from the scene. Sometime later he was robbed at knifepoint, and grabbed the gun he had kept hidden in the San Francisco Zen Center; he chased after his assailant, brandishing the weapon. Anderson quickly faced the karmic consequences of his actions, which included police arrest and outrage in his community. Perhaps the most important lesson of Anderson’s story is that his ego, along with a great deal of repressed anger, fear and shame, reemerged when confronted by this threat.


Anderson’s story is a poignant cautionary tale, one that suggests that our shadows, the wounded parts of ourselves that often cry for attention but are ignored, can always resurface, even when we have dedicated our lives to spiritual practice. We all have our shadows, no matter how much we have worked to diminish our ego.

Most of us have spent our lives swimming in the dark muck of life with only flashes of light to illuminate our true self. Those shadowy parts of ourselves, the genesis of childhood fears and adult missteps, continue to cloak us well after we have embraced meditative practices and offered ourselves in service to others. We have no doubt spent much more time nursing our wounds and spewing venom at the world, than we have in spiritual practice. Our shadows have a way of hiding our true self from the Light.


This is not a condemnation of our search to escape the darkness of our egos but a reminder of how powerful our egos can be. The repressed voices of our egos can find their way to the surface of our lives through unconscious actions, often when we least expect it. Anderson is hardly alone as an example of a spiritual teacher whose shadow erupted because it had been lurking in the wings, ignored under the misguided belief that it was no longer there. The same can be said of Amrit Desai, the former spiritual leader of Kripalu, who was discovered to have been sleeping with students, causing an enormous uproar in that community.  There have been and will be others whose shadows emerge, and we will find ourselves taken aback only because they occupied the role of the teacher and we therefore assumed that the shadow was no longer there.


The drama of brandishing a gun or committing adultery is not the only ways that the shadow emerges. The shadow can come forward in any aspect of your life in which you begin to act and speak from a place of separation. A common sign of the shadow is the belief that you are somehow superior to others--this is nothing but a judgment that you’re “special” or “chosen” and you have figured out something that others have not. The shadow is also emerging when you feel the compulsion to dictate or control others’ behavior based on your newfound spiritual beliefs or when you suddenly believe that your actions need only conform to your spiritual beliefs, and that you are above man-made conventions like the law.  For many spiritual seekers especially, because we dedicate ourselves to diminishing the ego, the shadowy parts of our psyches often go dormant, and we think they have disappeared. Signs that your shadow has appeared are when you feel a sudden burst of anger, fear, or defensiveness in response to a person or a situation.


For many spiritual seekers, that might be anger. Your life appears to be peaceful and going smoothly, and therefore you find yourself at peace. You feel loved and in control. Time goes by and you have not experienced any anger for so long that you believe anger is no longer a part of you. You will soon discover that the anger reemerges, provoked by a seemingly external event. In fact, it was the anger lurking in the shadow, as shadow, unseen and ignored, until it needed to be acknowledged again.  For others, that might be a belief that you’re good enough and on your path. Then you hit an obstacle after months and months of “progress” and the old, familiar voice of your ego tells you that you’re never going to get anywhere or becoming anything. You feel like you’re standing in a quicksand of depression or suddenly deflated, like a balloon that has lost helium.


The most important step is to be gentle with yourself when you observe the ego reemerging. Do not convert your spiritual path into a yardstick by which to measure progress. When your ego reacts, leading to some unkind or angry thought or action, do not judge yourself. It is very easy to see yourself as regressing or taking a step backwards. You might even have thoughts about giving up altogether and throwing in the towel. Why meditate when you can binge on television and eat a carton of ice cream?  Be gentle and acknowledge your feelings. There’s perfection in the sudden feeling of imperfection, because all of us have shadows. You’re never alone in this regard. You have not fallen off the path. If you do judge yourself, that’s okay too. Once you’ve gone through the steps of judging yourself, feeling bad, or even bingeing, then stop and pick up where you left off. This is all just another opportunity to forgive yourself and to love yourself some more. Then, after the intense moment has passed, you can begin to regard your shadow’s emergence, and any judgment you attach to it, as a blessing, another opportunity to clear away negative energy.


When our shadows emerge, they remind us to be humble about our spiritual development. All too often, we believe that through our spiritual practices, we have confronted and overcome our shadows. We come to believe that we are making “progress,” and our shadows disappear from our lives. That is not true—even years of spiritual practice cannot entirely eradicate our shadows, as Reb Anderson’s story confirms. If we were to condemn Anderson for somehow failing to be a model Zen priest, we merely condemn ourselves, for our judgment is a rejection of our own shadows projected on to him. Some aspects of our psyche may return repeatedly. The key is to remain disciplined and be forgiving of any perceived “setbacks.” Over time you will come to understand is that the purpose of your spiritual practice is not for you to live free from any shadow, but to enable to you to meet shadow in any place, in any form.

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