Stained glass shadows

An article titled, “Me and My Shadow” by teacher and writer Sally Kempton brought to mind how my Without a Net project is an option to spiritual bypassing.

I’ve always been mystified by the people who believe in the put-on-a-happy-face philosophy of life. Sayings like “the past is the past—move on” or “snap out of it” or “cheer up” have never been helpful for the navigation of problems. In fact, they could be considered a little cruel. They ask that you quit being yourself in the moment and act like someone else thinks you should. People who say these things are really saying, “I’m nervous about your hard feelings, so I’m going to demand that you stop making me uncomfortable.” These people are actually uneasy about their dark side and unskilled at expressing it.

Spiritual bypassing has become more common as a term for skipping over our ugly parts with the use of meditation, prayer, or positive thinking. The result is a lack of engagement with our whole self, and an inevitable rebound of ugliness when the concealed issues resurface. In simple words, if we don’t deal with our crap, it will come back to bite us.

The idea of trying hard to be a good person is counterintuitive. I’ve never found a way of acting “good” that made my difficult inner states feel better permanently. Meditation, prayer, walks in nature, therapeutic methods, making art, being around loving people are all genuinely excellent ways to make our hearts available to feeling better. They may sooth a bad mood or initiate a break from a toxic situation, but on their own, they will not weed out the deeper mental scars that drive my bad habits and fear-based perspectives. I’ve needed extra methods for that.

Sally’s article talks of how our shadow side controls us.

“Our shadow qualities are often primitive and immature, because they haven’t been cooked in the fire of our self-awareness. In fact, when certain negative tendencies remain hidden from our conscious awareness, they will tend to drive our emotions and behaviors in unpredictable ways. Your unconscious shadow attitudes, inescapably, become the lenses through which you look at life. Refusing to “own” a shadow tendency just makes you less conscious that it is distorting your perspective.”

The means of intentionally working with my shadow parts starts with bringing them to the surface. Most of us are given occasion to see our faults or failings quite often.

From there, curiosity and a little courage open the door to seeing them more clearly. Sally talks about why it’s so hard to look at them.

“It’s painful to become aware of a deep-seated shadow trait. The pain often goes back to early childhood. Our parents might find us too exuberant, too volatile, too needy, too sensitive, or too angry. Our peers and teachers might reward certain behaviors, reject others. As we meet disapproval, we do our best to repress or cover these unacceptable qualities.”

Many people say it takes some repeated pain over a length of time to get sick and tired enough to be ready to dig deeper to dismantle these childhood repressions. The initial plunge-in takes a willingness to be honest and determination to stay with the task no how much we want to squirm. It can feel embarrassing and scary.

Owning and accepting them may take time, but sticking with the “thought knots” through attention will naturally soften our judgment about it. We will start letting go of seeing it, and ourselves, as awful.

Some seemingly magical transformation is involved here, all based in love. It takes love to give ourselves the time and attention of being where we are, no matter how unsavory it seems. We are definitely showing ourselves love when we start letting it be OK to have “bad” traits. As the knots release their grip, there is relief from all the spent energy used to try to hold in the negative trait and paste on the positive one. It is a profound act of love to allow ourselves that relief and to commit to a continued path of self-honesty.

Sally describes what is missed by spiritual bypassing: the treasure hidden within our “bad” qualities.

“You lose the opportunity …to find the positive aspects of these traits. For example, the intensity that expresses itself in childhood anger—assuming that you are a mentally healthy person—could grow into a mature quality that allows you to stand up to a bully, or assert yourself in a challenging situation. Your sadness could develop into a capacity for deep empathy. Your fearfulness has the potential to blossom into healthy vulnerability; your impulsiveness can mature into genuine spontaneity. This is why it doesn’t work to repress your shadow. Yes, it’s primitive, selfish, and sometimes volatile, but it’s also the source of the energy you need for creative and spiritual growth.”

I grow in faith when I see my worst traits or fears transform into uplifting and beneficial life skills. I’ve never accomplished this transformation on my own. I needed help from others, and especially a higher power. Each time WE have conquered or tamed another mind dragon, I have more practice at it, and more proof of how miraculous and loving this path is.

Self-honesty that develops into self-awareness is a Hero’s Journey, as Joseph Campbell put it. The results of embarking on it are here in Sally’s eloquent passage:

“It’s only when we know our own depths—our unique wisdom and our unique blindness, the way we are at our most loving and the way we are when we’re most angry, that we become truly trustworthy to ourselves and others. That’s when we can authentically choose to live as our best self. That’s when our yoga begins to shine through all our moments and all our days.”

I’m happy to say that Without a Net project is an engaging way to access a broader spectrum of consciousness and a unique instrument for avoiding the trap of spiritual bypassing.