Meeting the Shadow on the Spiritual Path: The Dance of Darkness and Light in Our Search for Awakening
by Connie Zweig, PhD

Meeting the Shadow

We begin the spiritual journey in innocence, filled with a longing to be saved, awakened, or healed or simply to belong. We may find a cherished teacher or participate in a community and engage in religious ritual or spiritual practice. We may enjoy a sense of membership and moments of deep fulfillment, even rapture. We may experience ecstatic altered states of consciousness or simply a quieter mind and more compassionate heart.

But, at some point, we may meet the shadow of a spiritual authority, suffering blatant emotional or sexual abuse. Or we may feel the consequences of a series of small, insidious transgressions. Or we may uncover a coercive group dynamic that becomes intolerable. Regardless of the specifics, we come to see through the imago of an idealized priest or teacher to a dark shadow or human limitation, and our projection rattles. If the disappointment is deep, if the disillusionment is shattering, we enter the night sea journey, the via negativa, or way of darkness.

In the Christian mythos, this is the time of the cross. As we read in Mark 15:34: Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

At first, we may try to deny what we see in others. One disciple of a swami accused of abuse explained, “If I believed such stories, I would disbelieve my whole life. I have no room for such thoughts. I might doubt my own perception. I might doubt my own eyes. But I cannot doubt that strength which has given me everything.”

In a different scenario, we deny our own shadows, those unconscious feelings and beliefs that are deemed unacceptable by our teachers and communities. But at some point, those hidden thoughts and feelings—a cynical, gnawing doubt; an intractable, inexplicable depression; a persistent, destructive habit—erupt into consciousness. Then one day we admit to ourselves that, despite our faith in a church or a teacher’s promises, despite our diligence in our attendance or our practices, we still struggle with our own darkness. A spiritual life can’t save us from suffering.

One man told me, “The more I meditated by day, the more I drank at night. At first, I didn’t think anything of it because my parents drank, my brother drank, my teacher drank too. Taking it for granted, the drinking became invisible. Then someone pointed out that I couldn’t get through an evening without drinking. Slowly, I began to realize that, yes, I was an alcoholic. And my teacher and my practices colluded with my problem . . .”

To sum up, we may meet a teacher’s shadow, we may meet our own shadow, or we may suffer disillusionment with spiritual beliefs or practices. In any case, our dreams of transcendence and communion fade. We lose faith and fall from grace. We feel forsaken, even by god.

With the fall, some believers turn away from god, becoming bitter disbelievers who feel confused and disoriented with the fellowship of community and the guidance of doctrine. Others retrench against the threat of loss and defend the fortress of belief with louder right-and- wrong thinking. They attempt to ascend again, denying the meaning hidden in the fall. They rationalize their beliefs, excuse their abusive experiences at the hands of others, or trade in their spiritual props for another set, climbing back toward the heavens of naivete. Still others grab for the brass ring of a materialistic life…

Spiritual abuse may be covert, such as cultivating fear or shame, or overt: money, power, and sexual shadows in religious teachers may lead to outright coercion or molestation. One clear example can be seen in the international scandal of sexual abuses by Catholic clergy. Although there are clear distinctions to be made between child survivors of abuse and adult survivors, there are many commonalities as well. The child’s innocent projection of greatness, even godliness, onto the priest is analogous to the adult’s projection onto a spiritual teacher. The incapacity to give consent is analogous due to the power dynamic. The demand to keep the secret repeats the pattern. And the consequences for the mind-body of the survivor are the same: PTSD, anxiety, depression, and profound loss of faith.

The epidemic of abuse by teachers knows no denominational boundaries. It’s not rooted in dogma or belief; it emerges from the deep recesses of the human shadow regardless of a leader’s beliefs, even regardless of spiritual commitments. And meeting the shadow on the spiritual path—your own or someone else’s—can be a life-changing event, a turning point from blind trust of another to a more authentic self-trust, from naivete to maturity.

The intention of adding shadow-awareness to our search for awakening is not to negate the profound, meaningful, even ecstatic gifts of our teachers and communities. We don’t want to deny the light any more than we want to deny the shadow. Rather, the intention is to learn to hold both, the full reality of our spiritual lives—the dance of darkness and light on the path.

A fortunate few find the narrow path through the darkness and undergo an authentic initiation. With spiritual shadow-work, we can travel from spiritual innocence through the dark descent toward a new level of consciousness – spiritual maturity. We evolve from dependency on a spiritual parent through meeting the shadow toward spiritual adulthood.

Connie Zweig, Ph.D.Connie Zweig, Ph.D., a retired psychotherapist and former executive editor at Jeremy P. Tarcher Publishing, is co-author of Meeting the Shadow and Romancing the Shadow and the author of the bestseller The Inner Work of Age: Shifting Role to Soul and a novel, A Moth to the Flame: The Life of the Sufi Poet Rumi. She has been practicing and teaching meditation for more than 50 years. conniezweig.com.

 

 

 

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