Written by Scott Kiloby kiloby.com
A shadow is an aspect of the separate-self story that, for whatever reason, gets repressed and then projected outward as an “other.” The “other” is really a reflection of the separate self. We box and hug shadows. To box a shadow is to repress a negative trait and then experience a strong aversion towards others who possess that trait. To hug a shadow is to repress a positive trait and then experience a strong attraction towards others who possess that trait. We’ll go into more detail below about what shadows are and how to spot and deal with them. But first, let’s address common questions that pop up at this point.
If shadows are just appearances, why even talk about them? Why go into detail about them? Why not simply stick with the invitation to recognize present awareness and see that all appearances are not separate from awareness? Hopefully, the answer to that question will reveal itself as you continue reading.
There is both good news and bad news about shadows and shadow work. The good news is that the “shadow,” a term first coined by Carl Jung, is one of western psychology’s greatest discoveries. Re-owning shadows provides a depth of freedom that has to be experienced to be appreciated. The bad news is that many spiritual teachings with an eastern influence (including Buddhism and nondual teachings) completely ignore talk of shadows. This is more than just a small oversight—it actually creates spiritual teachers who claim, on one hand, to be free of self and who are, on the other hand, boxing and/or hugging a shadow self. This blind spot then gets passed onto students like a virus.
We’ve all heard stories of the guru who speaks with such clarity and wisdom yet constantly finds himself in conflict with loved ones or even isolated from family and friends, who defends his own teaching or lineage and attacks others personally as if his expression is the only correct one, who cannot help but sexually prey on young students, or who is always talking about how everyone else is angry, self-centered, or controlling while not seeing those same qualities in himself. Much of this behavior comes from not recognizing and re-owning shadows. Many shadows have popped up for me. That’s why I talk about them.
There is an old Buddhist story of a circle of Buddhist teachers that met every year for a gathering where they discussed their teachings, students, and their own lives. Each year, like clockwork, they would report to each other that everything was going well, except that many of them still found conflict with others. So each year, they set out to meditate more, believing that more time on the meditation mat would release this self/other conflict. But each year, they would gather again only to admit that many more hours on the meditation mat yielded no real results in this area. These teachers were ignoring shadows. For those practicing Buddhism (including Zen), Advaita Vedanta, and many other eastern spiritual teachings, this story is more common than might be expected. In the move to claim no self, aspects of that self can, ironically, hang around for years.
In our rush to proclaim that “all there is, is Oneness” or “awareness is what I am,” we can solidify separateness by ignoring shadow work. Shadows are hidden. They are not appearances that come and go obviously and openly within awareness. They are unknown, unseen, repressed aspects of the separate self. If they were open and obvious, we would see them through the simple recognition of awareness and the noticing of thoughts as they appear and disappear within awareness. As a result, meditation, inquiry, resting as awareness, recognizing non-conceptual presence, centering prayer, direct path teachings, neo- and traditional Advaita, vipassana, and a host of other eastern spiritual practices and expressions designed to point to the direct experience of presence never reach shadows. They aren’t supposed to. Eastern teachings deal with the nondual awareness only, not relative egoic stories. Unfortunately, because they don’t deal with shadows, many teachers and students from eastern teachings end up boxing and hugging shadows, having no idea why that is happening.
Shadows are the stories we don’t like about ourselves. Yet, these stories are still operating within us, whether or not we see them. Everyone around us sees them, but we don’t see them ourselves. These stories are blind spots. We push them onto the other side of the self boundary. We make them into “others.” This is why the shadow is sometimes called “the disowned self.” It looks like someone else’s problem, but it is still just “me,” a part of my story that I’ve disowned and projected outward.
It’s important to reiterate that, as they reside “out there,” as other people’s traits or emotions, no amount of witnessing brings the repression to light. We falsely see them as belonging to others when they are really hidden parts of the separate self. These are the parts we despise, the parts that embarrass us, and the parts we disown for various reasons. You can scream that there is no self for a million years and miss these blind spots. Many have carried their shadows into “enlightenment.”
John Welwood provides a good definition of the shadow in his book, “Toward a Psychology of Awakening”:
“Focal attention selectively emphasizes certain aspects of the experiential field while ignoring others, thereby casting into the shadows these unattended parts of the field. The shadow is the mirror reversal of what focal attention has emphasized. Overemphasizing any part at the expense of the whole sets an opposite tendency in motion, as part of a larger equilibrium process.”
Here are a few examples of opposites that can turn into shadows. There are many others not listed. Any opposite can be a shadow.
– Controlling/not controlling
– Greedy/not greedy
Let’s stick with Welwood’s term “focal attention.” The separate self is a set of dualistic stories such as “I’m nice,” “I’m a victim,” “My life is incomplete,” “I’m a successful news anchorperson,” or “I’m unhappy.” This is the play of opposites playing itself out in our lives. We focus attention on certain traits, stories, identities, feelings, roles, titles, and other thoughts. We pick one side of a pair of opposites and deny or ignore the other. For example, to continue telling yourself that you are a nice person, you have to repress “mean” aspects, thoughts, and behaviors within yourself. You have to overlook them, explain them away, deny them, repress them, and/or ignore them. To be a spiritual person, you have to overlook or disown traits, feelings, and stories that don’t meet the “spiritual” criteria. Those who pride themselves on not being controlling have to overlook the controlling voice within them. Those who see themselves as not greedy must repress the greedy story within.
In focusing attention on one side of a pair of opposites, making that your story, the other side is still there, but now it’s repressed, denied, and disowned. Repression is self-deception, plain and simple. The boundary between opposites is purely conceptual. Opposites are mutually interdependent. One doesn’t exist without the other. You can’t actually split them. To pretend to split them is a lie. One side can be repressed or denied, but you can’t truly split it from the other side. The other side of the opposite often appears as an “other.” Suddenly, you (the “nice person”) start noticing all the mean people in the world: the convenience store clerk with her dismissive, rude attitude; your husband who seems so insensitive all the time; and your boss who can’t seem to say a nice word about anyone.
We aren’t stories. Our real identity does not lie on only one side of a pair of opposites, e.g., “nice” as opposed to “mean.” Although it may be comforting to place our identity in some dualistic story or trait, our real identity is awareness. Recognizing awareness is not about comfort. It’s about seeing what is actually here and what is happening. Awareness is the experiential field from, within, and through which all opposites inseparably appear and disappear.
Test this out for yourself right now. No matter what story you tell about yourself, it’s an appearance within awareness. If you say, “I’m a controlling person,” there is still an awareness prior to that story that sees the story as an appearance within its view. The opposite story, “I’m not a controlling person,” is also an appearance within its view. These stories are both equal appearances of awareness.
We find conflict with imagined “others” by choosing one story over the other and owning the chosen side as an identity. At that point, we don’t see the appearances as equal, giving the chosen side more attention. As Welwood states, “The shadow is the mirror reversal of what focal attention has emphasized… overemphasizing any part at the expense of the whole sets an opposite tendency in motion…” What you see as an “other” with whom you are in conflict is really just your own shadow, following you around everywhere, in every relationship.
3-2-1 Shadow Work
Scott Kiloby has been permitted to use the 3-2-1 shadow process developed by the Integral Institute. This amazingly powerful method involves three parts:
1) Spotting the shadow
2) Dialoguing with the shadow
3) Re-owning the shadow
Spotting the Shadow
In this process, it is important to spot a shadow first. The biggest mistake that people make in spotting shadows is endeavoring to mentally analyze their own story in an attempt to spot shadows. Upon hearing of shadows, there is a tendency to sit and think endlessly of the various people and circumstances in your story, looking for ways in which you have been boxing shadows in the past. There is no need for that, to get busy fixating on your story. That is just more self-centeredness. Simple present awareness allows you to see where conflict arises for you. Just pay attention now. Don’t analyze past instances in which you’ve been in conflict with others.
Shadows show up as present conflict. Whenever you see someone in the present moment with a trait or feeling that really bothers you, that’s a shadow. The other person is a hook for your shadow.
People also make the mistake of labeling all outward judgments of others as shadows. Not every judgment is a shadow. For example, if your neighbor tends to talk a lot, having the thought, “My neighbor talks a lot,” is not necessarily a shadow. It may be that your neighbor just talks a lot. You know it’s a shadow based on the degree to which it bothers you. Hooks are those people or things “out there” that provoke strong mental and emotional reactions within us. If you feel great irritation or even anger when your neighbor starts talking, you can bet that there is a shadow operating. That is what it means to spot a shadow.
Upon spotting a shadow, many people involved in awareness-based practices or teachings make a critical mistake at this point. They simply witness the negative thoughts and emotions about the neighbor. But witnessing often solidifies the belief that there is an other. And so the story goes, “I’m noticing my thoughts and feelings about my damn neighbor who talks too much.” This just reinforces the self/other boundary line. It looks like it’s your neighbor’s problem. Witnessing just strengthens that misperception. No amount of noticing what is happening within awareness reveals what is actually happening when it comes to shadows. Within awareness, shadows always appear as “others.” They are not seen for what they really are—disowned aspects of your personal story. Don’t witness—dialogue with and re-own the shadow.
Dialoguing with the Shadow
The next step is to dialogue with the other person or trait. It may sound funny or feel a little weird at first to dialogue with the “other,” but this helps you find out what really bothers you about that trait or person. Don’t dialogue with the person physically in your presence. Dialogue mentally. Vocalize it. Here is an example:
To John, controlling people are really irritating. He finds himself arguing in his head with these others who boss people around. He would love each one of them to just shut up and leave everyone else alone. In coming into contact with the 3-2-1 process, John begins spotting the shadows when they appear. So he notices that he has a very strong mental and emotional reaction to his controlling boss one day. John does not just notice his thoughts and emotions. He steps aside, out of the presence of his boss, pretends that his boss is still in the room, and says, “I don’t like you at all. You are arrogant and bossy and controlling! You always think you know what is best for everyone else and it really gets under my skin!”
Without dialoguing with the shadow, it will appear again for John, either in his boss or some other person. Shadows reappear over and over in our lives. They are conditioned responses, loops that just repeat endlessly. In dialoguing with the shadow, John now sees specifically what bothers him about his boss. He has identified the trait—control. He has named it. He has listed reasons for his aversion towards it. He is no longer downplaying it, repressing it, or denying how he really feels. For the first time, the loop is interrupted.
Re-owning the Shadow
Once you have dialogued with the shadow, it can be re-owned. What does it mean to re-own the shadow? It means to stop pretending that there is a self and an other. Specifically, it means to look at your own story, what is happening in your thoughts, and see that the very trait that you are reacting to in the other person is a trait operating within your own story. You re-own the trait, saying, “I am controlling.” “I am greedy.” “I am whatever story I’m reacting against.” It means to list the ways you’ve exhibited the very trait you are attacking in the others. Feel how that feels, to own what you have been denying. See where you are or have been controlling or greedy. By re-owning it, the self-deception ends. The trait is no longer being placed on the other side of the self boundary—out there in the imagined “other.”
Once the shadow is re-owned and seen to be a part of your own story, awareness—your real identity—can now see that both self and other are thoughts. You are no longer placing your identity in a dualistic trait and boxing its opposite. Self and other, and the dualistic traits that kept that division in place, are now seen as equal appearances of awareness. As long as you are boxing shadows, appearances are not seen as equal. Separation seems real.
In the example above, John re-owns the shadow by looking within his thought-based story and seeing that the very thought that controlling people ought not to be controlling is in fact a controlling thought. If John looks a little more, he will probably find that he has all sorts of thoughts about wanting others to be different. That is control. He thinks that he knows what is best for everyone else. Sounds a lot like the trait John was fighting in his boss, doesn’t it? That is not a coincidence. John was shadow boxing.
The reason we re-own the story that has been repressed and projected outward onto another is NOT to start telling that opposite story about ourselves. We re-own it because it is ALREADY our story. It is already an aspect of ego, but one that has been repressed either because it is too ugly or too beautiful. In re-owning it, we don’t start believing that story. We come to see all stories, all opposites, as equal appearances coming and going to what we really are–awareness. When there is a belief in separation operating within us, dualistic content boxes itself. Opposites react against each other. It’s all based on an identity crisis. We don’t know who or what we are. For example, good people box bad people. Unintelligent people box intelligent people. Spiritual people box unspiritual people. The list is endless. In John’s example above, the point is not that John should tell a different story. It’s not that he should start being controlling. This is just about seeing that all opposites are equal appearances of our real identity as awareness.
Shadows are like pieces of furniture that are too dark to be seen as we shine the flashlight around the room of the mind. Recognizing awareness is simply not enough. In re-owning shadows, the light finally hits them. They are seen as they are—shadows appearing as others. In being seen as appearances of awareness, our real identity as awareness is recognized. We stop placing our identity in dualistic, one-sided stories. In re-owning shadows, they are seen as appearances within awareness rather than the lens through which we box and hug others to remain separate. Re-owning them allows us to let them go by seeing that they aren’t who we are either. We aren’t either side of any dualistic pair. Our real nature is nondual awareness.
To summarize the 3-2-1 process, we spot the shadow, dialogue with it, and then re-own it. You can do the 3-2-1 process with any trait that you react strongly to in someone else.
You can also do the 3-2-1 process on shadow-hugging. Just as we can repress or disown negative aspects of our personal stories, we can also repress or disown positive aspects. Shadow-hugging happens as we disown positive traits or attributes and then project them outward as “others.” We then feel a strong attraction to those others. A classic case is the spiritual seeker who disowns the love, peace, and wisdom inherent in her true Self (i.e., awareness) and instead projects that onto a teacher. The teacher then seems larger than life, “enlightened.” Another example is sexual or romantic obsession. We idealize others in various ways, not realizing that these others are really just repressed and projected aspects of our own story. These positive aspects are too powerful, too beautiful, too loving to own. It becomes easier, so we think, to project them onto others.
Victims stay victims by constantly idealizing (shadow-hugging) others who seem more fortunate or who seem to possess great qualities that are lacking within the victim identity. In doing shadow work and re-owning these projected positive traits, it is impossible for a victim to remain a victim. The separate self, no matter how it manifests, is seen to be made of empty mental images. In shadow work, both the good and the bad (and all other opposites) come fully into view as equal appearances of awareness. There is no more idealizing. No more shadow-hugging.
Other examples of shadow-hugging include obsessing on another’s intelligence, personality, success, or wealth. Envy and jealousy are classic projections. We find ourselves fixated on other people who seem to have everything we would like to have within ourselves. The realization of awareness as our real identity resolves this desire to project. Good and bad, attractive and unattractive, nice and mean, spiritual and unspiritual, and all other opposites are seen to be equal appearances of awareness. The “other” you are hugging is seen to be none other than what you are—awareness. In other words, there is no self and no other. These traits may still appear, and others may appear more intelligent or more attractive. It just won’t bother you as much. It won’t be personal.
Shadows and Emotions
Shadows don’t appear just as traits. Do you ever find yourself saying, “Why is this other person so damn angry!?” Do angry people bother you? We’ve been conditioned to believe that anger is bad. Our spiritual and religious teachings often reinforce this conditioning. We’ve been taught to suppress anger or “witness” it away. Yet anger is a natural expression of awareness. All movements within awareness are natural, inseparable appearances of awareness. To deny or repress any of it is to deny this fundamental and obvious fact of our existence. This is not an invitation to go out and hurt people in some attempt to “express” your “natural anger.” The message here is that anger appears and disappears spontaneously, inseparably, seamlessly, and dynamically within awareness. We don’t choose it. It just appears. To deny what naturally appears is repression. It presupposes the existence of a person to whom anger is happening, one who must do something with it, get rid of it, or repress it. In our direct experience, we see that there is no person. “Person” is just a thought appearing within awareness. Anger arises directly within pure, naked awareness. In seeing that anger is arising only to awareness, not to a person, the anger is allowed to be exactly as it is. In that seeing, the person is seen through as a false entity (ego).
If you find yourself reacting strongly to other people who seem angry, it just means that anger has been repressed within you. Instead of “I’m angry,” anger gets pushed onto the other side of the self boundary. Suddenly, it’s the “other” who is angry. “He is angry. I’m not!” “There is anger appearing, but it’s not my anger!”
After doing the 3-2-1 process, the anger is no longer seen as someone else’s anger. To re-own it means to say, “I’m angry” and really mean it! In seeing that this anger is “mine,” it is then seen to be no one’s anger. Just as there is no angry other, there is no angry self. There is only anger appearing within impersonal awareness. The anger is inseparable from awareness. There is no person between anger and awareness who must mitigate or do anything with the anger. There is no middle man. No self. There is only anger. In that seeing, anger is no longer the enemy. It is nothing that you need to repress and project outward as an “other.” It is felt fully, whenever it appears. No self or other. Just anger. It is no coincidence that anger tends to appear less when it is seen to appear to no one.
The 3-2-1 process can be applied to any emotion, not just anger. Do sad people bother you? Do happy people really get on your nerves? Find out where your hook is. Dialogue with the shadow and re-own it. All emotions are equal appearances of awareness. They don’t belong to anyone. Life isn’t personal! To re-own shadows simply means to recognize our nondual nature and to stop feeding illusory separation and conflict. Nonduality is love.
Shadows and Beliefs/Positions
Do you react strongly to positions or views that differ from your own? It is difficult to see that we are often boxing our own doubt when we find strong disagreement in the realm of religion, politics, science, morality, culture, spirituality, and other worldviews. Beliefs and positions are not ultimately true. They are thought-based. There is no such thing as an absolutely true thought (including that thought). Thought is relative and dualistic. When we look to thought for ultimate truth, we often don’t see the hidden, repressed doubt that underlies our own positions and beliefs. But the doubt is there. It comes screaming to the surface when we attack others’ viewpoints.
All viewpoints are equal viewpoints of the undivided awareness that is our real identity. We attack those viewpoints that we have repressed within ourselves. To convince ourselves that we are right about any subject, we have to repress all internal arguments against that position. We have to repress our own doubt. This repression is based on the split between mentally knowing and not knowing—another pair of opposites. We focus attention on what we think we know or would like to know as truth. We are looking for mental certainty. We repress that aspect of ourselves that doesn’t know. But opposites never actually get split. The opposite arguments are still within us. They appear as others “out there” who are wrong. We then find ourselves in conflict with the others. We box them, not realizing that we are fighting our own doubt. We maintain a false split between self and other this way.
In recognizing that our real identity is awareness, we see this kind of boxing to be like space fighting space. It’s unnecessary and based on an illusion of separation.
Through the 3-2-1 process, we see that all views, beliefs, positions, opinions, traits, emotions, and stories are inseparable appearances of one undivided awareness. The certainty we’ve been seeking is not found in mental positions, but in recognizing awareness as our real identity. This recognition provides an unshakable knowing, a certainty. It’s not a mental position. It’s a knowing, a freedom from all extreme views. All opposites and all views are equally this undivided life. All are allowed when we see that there is no self behind any one of them.
External Is Internal
This is another area where shadows pop up. When others confront us and we get defensive, we often don’t see that the others are merely presenting an unseen, repressed aspect of our personal story.
External pressure from others is really internal drive. This is the pressure shadow. External criticism from others is really internal self-criticism. This is the criticism shadow. The line between external and internal should be seen as a product of dualistic thought, of once again choosing one side and denying its opposite. Let’s go into more detail about the pressure shadow and the criticism shadow.
The Pressure Shadow
It may not seem obvious at first, but all external pressure is internal drive. Let’s illustrate this with an example:
For the last several years, John has been meaning to paint his house. In the last year, painting the house fell off of John’s priority list. Other things became more important, like work and his hobbies. His drive to paint the house never actually left. It just became overlooked, repressed. It stopped appearing as a story or a drive within awareness. One day, John’s wife says, “I thought you were going to paint the house! It looks awful! Are you ever going to do that?” John gets automatically defensive. “Stop nagging me,” he replies.
John doesn’t see this as a shadow. To John, it’s his wife’s problem. She is nagging again. “If she would only stop nagging, everything would be ok.” He doesn’t realize that his defensiveness carries great wisdom. The external pressure he feels from his wife is really internal drive. The external pressure from his wife is revealing or bringing back into his awareness his own internal drive to paint the house. His drive to paint the house fell away. It became repressed. Other things became important. John’s wife is just reminding John of his own drive to paint the house. But because John doesn’t see it for what it is—internal drive. He mistakenly feels it only as external pressure, as an “other.” “I have a drive to paint the house” is instead interpreted as “My wife is pressuring me again.” This is how the external/internal boundary in relationships continues to be solidified. This is how the illusion of separation (and therefore conflict) continues, through not seeing what is happening in these situations.
Here is the kicker: all external pressure is internal drive. There aren’t any exceptions. We know that statement is accurate by examining something obvious in our own experience. We never get upset when others pressure us to do things which we have no internal desire to do. For example, imagine if John’s wife had said, “I thought you were going to paint the neighbor’s house! It looks awful! Are you ever going to do that?” Since John never had a drive to paint the neighbor’s house, no defensiveness appears. He doesn’t experience her request as pressure because there is no internal drive. In spotting, dialoguing with, and re-owning the pressure shadow, all external pressure is seen to be internal drive.
The Criticism Shadow
Similarly, all external criticism is internal self-criticism. If someone calls you fat and you get defensive, that appears as external criticism. Similarly, if someone calls you greedy and you get defensive, that appears as external criticism. It could be any trait: materialistic, self-centered, arrogant, or unintelligent. Defensiveness always carries great wisdom. Your defensiveness is revealing that you are carrying a self-critical story around. You have a story that you are fat. You have a story that you are greedy. This is why you are defensive. If there were no identification with the thought, “I am greedy,” then someone calling you greedy would provoke no defensive reaction in you. Next time someone criticizes you, thank them for revealing your self-critical story. Spot the shadow. Dialogue with it to see exactly how it makes you feel when you hear the external criticism. Then see it for what it really is—internal self-criticism. Re-own it.
In re-owning the criticism shadow, there is no one there to get hurt. There is just a seeing of the story, “I am greedy,” and whatever feelings come with that story. Both “greedy” and “not greedy,” “fat” and “skinny,” and “intelligent” and unintelligent” are seen to be equal appearances of your real identity—unchanging, unmoving, timeless, nondual awareness.
Shadows show up even after a recognition of nondual awareness, often around ideas about nonduality itself. For example, do you see people in chat rooms, or even teachers, taking strong positions about nonduality v. duality, form v. formlessness, or self v. selflessness, or choice v. no choice? These are all opposites. Although there are legitimate reasons to speak of having “no self” or “no choice,” it often gets really personal as we start to take on one side of a pair opposites and shadow box the other side. It becomes about the personal self, not “enlightened insights.” In doing the 3-2-1 process on these opposites we find in “nondual talk,” a deeper freedom is possible. It’s funny how separation can show up even around seemingly enlightened terms like “no self,” isn’t it? This is why the west’s contribution of shadow work to eastern nondual teachings is so valuable.
The Final Point
No matter how the shadows are appearing or what form they take, once the shadow is re-owned, we recognize awareness as that to which all opposites and all views arise and fall. We see that both our personal stories and the opposites “out there” that we are boxing or hugging are equal, inseparable appearances or views. In re-owning your shadows, you may still have an opinion. You may still state that opinion, even forcefully. But there is no self behind the view once shadows are re-owned. Nor is there an other. Nothing to hold onto. Nothing to defend. Freedom.