My eyes are closed and I feel present in my body. Sensations are coming and going, just like the thoughts. In fact, they never stop. I’m just getting better at watching them rise and fall, without feeling the need to grab hold. It feels good to loosen up a bit, and to not feel so endlessly lost amidst the flow of sensation and thoughts. Yoga and meditation have given me the space to sit in the dark and deep parts of myself from a non-judgemental vantage point. I would have groaned if I had heard someone say that years ago, lacking an understanding of what it really meant. Granted, there’s a great deal of vagueness, ambiguity, and obscurity almost built into the vocabulary of spiritual development. Perhaps it has to be like that. The experience, after all, is by nature quite obscure. It’s a fascinating quality of human nature to take an abstract concept and try to make it into something more tangible. I suppose it helps us with quantifying experiences by operationalizing the terminology we use to describe them. It provides for ourselves and others a roadmap through the wilderness.
So, what does it mean to meet those shadow aspects of ourselves? I often use chanting as a way to explore this. I’ve always been fairly comfortable with using my voice. It’s been an avenue for me to connect with others, to express myself, give form to ideas, and very frequently, to control situations. I have seen and felt the pain my words have caused, as though my tongue could cut like a knife. I’ve watched words spill thoughtlessly from my mouth, and I’ve spit violence like venom. I used my words to dominate conversations, to make me feel superior when I really felt self-conscious and afraid. And when I found chanting, I experienced a way to use my voice in a profoundly constructive and healing way. It instantly became a way to release and channel the anger and fear that I had otherwise directed through unhealthy speech. It allowed me to experience the potential and potency of my voice, and to experience myself in a completely different way.
When we practice new skills we gradually create new neural pathways that enable us to cultivate new patterns of behaviour. The Canadian neuropsychologist Donald Hebb gave form to this process with the adage: “neurons that fire together, wire together”. Communication between neurons is strengthened through repeated stimulation from sensory input (i.e. the experiences we continuously expose ourselves to lead to the cells in our brains firing in specific patterns). This is essentially the mechanism for synaptic plasticity, and contributes to the basis of how we learn. When we first come to spiritual practices, we’re trying to carve out new pathways and form new connections. We are literally braving the wilderness of our neural circuitry. Over time, just as a new path is worn in the earth, new neural networks form as a result of exposure to novel and repetitious stimulation. That process can (should) illuminate for us the patterns of reaction that we’re ordinarily subject to, and also offer insight into an alternate way of being.
I think braving the shadow parts of ourselves has a lot to do with rewiring this neural circuitry. We get so used to doing things a certain way, reacting in specific manners, that when we face a new way of being it can sometimes be quite the challenge. Especially if what you’re doing is deliberately trying to change the “bad” patterns. It almost feels like a part of ourselves is kicking and screaming! In my own case, using my voice in a more constructive and powerful way allowed me to form new connections and patterns of response around vocalization. And though having these experiences were very empowering, there’s no denying that I was constantly being faced with truths about myself that were at times very hard to identify. When we talk about “sitting with the darkness”, it’s this right here. We find these parts of ourselves that are uncomfortable; they make us squirm; they give rise to sensations we might otherwise like to ignore or run from or shove down further, further, further. This is where the skill of equanimity can come in very handy! Learning to observe what comes up, whether it’s blissful or uncomfortable, enables us to form new connections with existing experiences. It helps us to limit our reactive tendencies and instead engrains a more conscious and informed way of being. In my chanting example, I learned how to direct my expression very consciously. When we chant mantra we do so very systematically. It leaves very little room (ideally) to be thinking of other things, and therefor contributes to a calmer mind. It calls upon our focus so that the sounds we make are intentional. It’s hard not to be aware of the potency of sound and word when we use mantra, and it’s easy to draw parallels with how we use sound and speech in other areas of our life.
Sitting with the darkness means acknowledging the less-than-favourable aspects of our being without getting wrapped up in them, without judging them or even expecting anything different of them. That certainly doesn’t mean we want to live there, or allow those patterns to persist if they are detrimental to our development or to the wellness of the world around us. However, it provides us with the vantage point to experience our actions from a more compassionate plane. For some of us, that space of peace in how we perceive ourselves in what might be very dark places can be very healing and liberating. We may at times be the only ones capable of offering that space of unconditional acceptance of our darkness. And the more we do THIS, the more create the pathways in our brain and behaviour that enable us to feel comfortable confronting those aspects of our being that are not working for us anymore. The process of changing our minds can be slow; it can also be fast. It can feel like a painfully dramatic crawl, and it can happen instantaneously. I like to remind students that even if we have to pull our awareness back to the breath or the mantra a THOUSAND times in one practice, that it’s far better than not having done it at all. This is a PRACTICE, and we are being challenged by pretty complex mechanisms that might otherwise keep us stuck. I personally think the fun is in those challenges; at least, that’s where the real work for me has always been. I’ve learned to really love the dark and deep parts of myself. I’ve learned to be patient when I find things that are hard to look at, and to be forgiving with myself when I move in patterns that I’d perhaps prefer to change. I often feel like a baby on this path, constantly trying out new techniques to move around in the world, burning myself, falling down. Yoga and meditation have truly given me tools to be able to at least start to wear down the new path in my wilderness.