Integral Recovery and Shadow Work: The Recovery of Spirit

In the unfoldment of the work that is Integral Recovery, the Shadow and its releasing and transmutation have become ever more one of the chief cornerstones of the building. First, what is Shadow? It is that which is in the darkness, which either through conscious thought or unconsciously has been relegated to the realms of the unseen, unheard, and unknown. This unconscious material can be good stuff, bad stuff, or indifferent; pre-personal, personal, or transpersonal; individual or collective. This realm of darkness contains our greatest gifts and our greatest sins and curses, and unlocking the doors that bar these hidden aspects of ourselves is the key to our survival, transformation, and continued evolution. In and through the Shadow lie our unique selves, our true faces, and recovery of the Spirit. Diving into this realm seems completely counter-intuitive and contrary to all common sense. Shouldn’t one avoid this journey into the nether realms that promises death, dismemberment, pain, and suffering? No, we shouldn’t. Why? Because it is the only way out of our human tragedy.

Without this key, the key of the Shadow, all our work is done in vain: our sanghas become cults, our teachers become tyrants, our recoveries are temporary, our hope forlorn, and our future on this planet devolutionary and catastrophic.

Again, I deeply bow to the great wisdom of Ken Wilber in including the Shadow as an essential aspect of the Integral map. Without this key, the key of the Shadow, all our work is done in vain: our sanghas become cults, our teachers become tyrants, our recoveries are temporary, our hope forlorn, and our future on this planet devolutionary and catastrophic.  In the words of Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest, spiritual teacher, and sacred activist:

“The mystics call it the apophatic tradition, the tradition that has to accompany the cataphatic. The spiritual life has a way of light and a way of darkness. The cataphatic is the way of the light. The apophatic is the way of darkness. Since the Enlightenment, most Western Christians have not been trained much in the apophatic tradition. But the tradition of darkness is the greater teacher, the necessary teacher, really the teacher that breaks a person down through and into this realm that our biblical tradition, our Judeo-Christian tradition, calls faith. At its depths, our tradition acknowledges the primacy of darkness as the greater teacher, as the greater expander of the soul, as the greater opener-up of the eyes.”

“This seems to be the wisdom that we should be bringing to the West today, but that certainly hasn’t been where most Catholic Christian theology has been for the last 300 years. We’ve wanted answers, we wanted clarity, we want closure, we want solutions which tell me that we have been more influenced by the ascendant Western civilization than what I will call, as a Christian, the descent language of Jesus, or Job, or the Jewish prophets, who are talking much more about this way of tears, this way about going into the Shadow, into the pain, into the dark side if you will, and that being where we would find wisdom. I think we are at a very difficult position in terms of Western spirituality, because it often feels, in many established church groups that I talk to, that we’re on a course that needs to be turned around 180 degrees. We will never find wisdom in this search for closure, answers, certitude, fixing, and explanation. It simply isn’t the path of wisdom.”

The way of healing, the way of wisdom, the way of transformation is the way of darkness, or the Shadow. The way of defeat is the way of trying to defeat the Shadow. The way of victory and the way of grace is the way of letting the Shadow defeat us. In the words of Rilke, from The Man Watching, translated by Bly:

“…When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestler’s sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.”

“Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.”

This is the way of darkness. And when we can, by grace and practice, begin to relax the contractions that keep the doors shut tight from these realms of darkness, pain, and the unknown, we begin the journey that perhaps could be called the beginning of wisdom.

How do we do this? I think the answer is in deep, contemplative, and meditative practice. In the words of Thomas Merton, “The contemplative learns that God is in the darkness too.” And, I might add, almost always comes through the very same. How does this work on the ground in 2009? One of my clues that something wants to emerge from the Shadow realms is I feel a sense of disquiet and want to do something to distract myself. The last thing I want to do is to sit with it. In the words of Quaker wisdom, I must “labor” with it.

The formula, as taught by Sally Kempton, is the following:

Identify the hurt,

identify the thoughts associated with the hurt,

let go of the thoughts,

and stay with the feeling.

This is the process, as Rilke said, of letting ourselves be overcome. And let me tell you, you will be overcome. This realm can be absolutely terrifying and as dark as your worst nightmare. But the job of the individual or the spiritual teacher is to help us hold the pain and the darkness. And in holding it, to be overcome, dismembered, and ultimately transformed and resurrected.

The capacity to do this takes practice, grace, and faith in the ultimate goodness of the universe. Because sometimes it can feel like one is drowning in gore-infested quicksand. And this is where we come to the end of our rope. In the words of T.S. Eliot,

“You say I am repeating

Something I have said before.

I shall say it again.

Shall I say it again?

In order to arrive there,

To arrive where you are,

To get from where you are not,

You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.

In order to arrive at what you do not know

You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.

In order to possess what you do not possess

You must go by the way of dispossession

In order to arrive at what you are not

You must go through the way in which you are not.

And what you do not know is the only thing you know

And what you own is what you do not own

And where you are is where you are not.”

Let me, at this point, give an example, something that happened in my meditation this morning. Over the last few days, I have been increasing my meditation from the normal one hour a day to two hours because I was beginning to pass through a period or a spell of depression and despondency. Again, as I have learned and been taught, the way out of this darkness is to literally get to the bottom of it-through the dark thoughts, painful emotions, and the coldness of fear and dread, where there is no light, where the world has lost its luminosity, and where hope and faith seem like cynical jokes.

To be in this space, and to hold it, to release all contractions and be devastated by it, is the point of return to the light, to your unique essence, and into the infinitude that is God. At this place of deep despair, my fear, despair, and self-loathing began to be transmuted. At this point, I had a vision in my meditation of the hero confronting an enormous, awful dragon, who was standing in front of a luminous treasure of gold. As I struggled with this dragon, with the terror and the fear, somehow I broke through to the treasure, and the dragon was no longer in opposition to me but became a great force, the power of faith, to protect the treasure and help me bring it forth into the world.

This is the secret of inner alchemy, that as we learn to lessen our egoic contractions through faith, in the Love that is God, that is our truest Self, the lead of our baser emotions changes and transmutes into the gold of pure luminescent Spirit, that which is beyond all states. What a great secret! It ain’t easy, but again and again it comes to me, “The only way out is through.” You can do it. It takes grace, faith and cohones the size of Mt. Sinai, but there it is, the way beyond the tragedy of human egoic existence into the Light of the incomprehensible Love of the all.

How do we develop this capacity? We practice as if our souls and world depended on it. As Sensei Diane Hamilton is wont to say, “Practice is cultivation through repetition.” This apophatic path of inviting the darkness has transformed my life and practice and it is doing the same in the students I am working with.

Recently, I was on a panel discussing Integral Christianity. And someone asked the panelists, “What is God for you?” The answer that arose in my heart without thought, like break of dawn over the Southern Utah desert, was… “God is the light in the darkness.”

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