How well do you know your shadow self? A thoughtful commenter got me thinking more about Rabbi Lawrence Kushner and his insights on the evil we have intended or done. Kushner asserts that even our meanest and most despicable acts have holy sparks buried in them somewhere.
Of course, no one really wants to shine a light on his dark side or his weakest moments. It’s easier just to move on, to focus on doing better next time and perhaps to maintain our pride by pretending it never happened.
In the Twelve Step tradition, recovery seekers undertake a searching and fearless moral inventory in the Fourth Step. Twelve Step literature recognizes the Fourth Step as one of the most difficult and avoided steps because we resist acknowledging, much less embracing, the shadow self we will find. A popular methodology for approaching the Fourth Step wisely starts with identifying resentments. Those are the things others did wrong, so it’s not quite so challenging to pride. It is universally true, however, that injuries impair how we treat others, and the Fourth Step approach continues with examining our impaired responses. A good Fourth Step is complete when the recovery seeker takes ownership for character weaknesses that fostered his impaired responses.
Kushner is suggesting we shine the flashlight a little deeper, though. He is encouraging us to find that shard of holiness our character defects encrusted with evil. Yes, I had an impaired response, but what was the impetus for my response? Was I seeking safety or emotional security? Was I just trying to feel ok about myself? Was I looking for love in all the wrong places? Those are not bad things—security, affirmation and love. Those are blessed things. So what went wrong?
Shifting from Jewish and Twelve Step perspectives to Buddhist ideas, we have attachments to security, affirmation and love. Perhaps early life experiences left me feeling insecure, so my grip on inner security is a bit too tight. Those attachments become priorities in my interactions with others. Maybe I’m a bit quick to fend others off because I’m creating a safety zone for myself, for example. Or I put others down to feel better about myself. Or my simultaneous desire for and distrust of true love leads me to superficial intimate encounters.
What would happen if I released my attachments to security, affirmation and love, or at least loosened my grip? Furthermore, what would happen if I increased my awareness, not only of my own vulnerabilities but, more importantly, the vulnerabilities of others? Perhaps with greater awareness and less attachment, I could encounter another and become aware of his need for security. Since seeking security for myself would no longer be my top priority, I would be free to engage with that person in a way that creates a safe place for her to be herself and to feel loved.
I have been praying this week for spiritual strength to let my holy sparks manifest in caring and compassionate ways. In breathing prayers like this, one inhales what one desires and exhales what gets in the way.
Join the conversation. What have you learned from your shadow self?
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