EMBRACING THE DARK
Realizing oneness through Tantric Shadow work
Embracing the Dark (Part 2)
As we learned in the previous blog, Shadowwork is originally a Western psychological concept. So how is it related to the spiritual practice of Tantra? For that, we first have to dive into what the system of Tantra aims to bring us.
What is Tantra?
Tantra is a spiritual path that has its roots thousands of years ago with the first certain evidence around 1500 years ago in North India (Tantra Illuminated, 2012). The perspective of Tantra is that our existence is an ecstatic play of energy (Shakti) and awareness (Shiva). These two qualities form one divine unity that we are a part of. Tantra is the practice of realising that we are one with this infinite play of existence. In contrast to this, most of us experience ourselves as being separate and often lonely actors within a liveless universe that contains other separate actors (we call humans or animals). If we slowly surrender to realising that we are not separate, but one with the world around us, life becomes like a dance instead of a fight. According to Tantra, we are free if we learn to dance with and embrace whatever life throws at us instead of resisting it.
This might sound beautiful, but the path of Tantra is not an easy one. It invites us to embrace, and welcome in all the breathtaking beauty of life as well as the heart breaking pain that it contains. For this reason, Tantra was described as ‘the advanced path’, exactly because its practitioners were invited to include all facets of life in the exploration. From the light to the dark, form the kind to the destructive, from the celebat to the sexual. You might imagine the difficulty of truly embracing the pain, anger or depression that is stored inside of your body with a curious and loving attitude. Tantra is all about whether you are willing to feel the totality of the experience and not avoid or bypass it.
The realisation of oneness is not something that you have to work for to maintain. It is our natural state of being. In fact, we can’t actually ‘do’ anything to achieve this state either. This state arises exactly if we stop trying to change who we are and how life turns out to happen – if we surrender to our being. In Tantra we call this the ‘non-doing’ state, in which you let life happen instead of forcing it. This does not mean that we don’t move or interact with life, but that every action is a result of letting existence move you. It’s like a tree that moves with the wind. This is not an expression of will or force of the tree itself, but it’s the tree moving along with the forces of existence.
But if our doing does not get us there, how do we reach this natural state of being? And what is the practice of Tantra all about when it isn’t something that we can ‘do’ either? This is where shadowwork comes in. It is one of the profound paths one can walk in the Tantric journey.
Shadow work and Tantra
As we learned in Embracing the Dark Part 1, shadows are the parts of ourselves that we ‘effortfully’ dismiss to the unconscious. These parts however still beg for attention and keep coming up in the form of compulsions, sarcasm, depression, jealousy, anger, anxiety etc. Usually, we deal with these tendencies in two ways. One is to try and hide them so others don’t see that we are scared or feeling a lack of attention (e.g. by wearing a friendly social mask). The other is to act out a part of our suppressed tendencies on others or ourselves. If we are actually angry, we can make cynical jokes to friends or family to at least alleviate some of the inner tension. But this does not actually address the underlying shadow that wants to be seen. The result is that we keep our shadows in our system like a tensed and sealed container full of boiling water. The pressure keeps rising until it releases hot steem just enough to stay closed again afterwards. One can only imagine the amount of energy we spend to keep everything in.
If we recognise Tantra as the practice of getting to our natural, connected, non-doing state, it seems logical that it focuses exactly on those forces that prevent us from surrendering – the suppressing, rejecting and hiding. The key in the Tantric approach is to meet these parts of us that try to stay under the radar (and keep us from surrendering to existence) with the acceptance and light of awareness. In our Tantra retreats and workshops, we therefore practise to become aware of the shadows that are there and to hold them close without doing anything with them. This non-doing also means that we don’t try to hold back their power (e.g. our hidden desires). With Tantra exercises like Bodywork, breathwork, touch, and authentic expression we let the shadow quality come to the surface and express itself how it wants (without being destructive to others!).
The beauty of bringing your awareness to your shadows is that you gain clarity of what it is that your shadow truly needs. This is the moment when you unleash the gifts that have been hiding in the dark. If we start seeing through these inner processes of the shadow aspect, the automatic response of our system is to release the tension that is stored within them. For example, you might force yourself to be social in groups in order to hide your inner feeling of unworthiness. With Tantra exercises and breathwork you can bring your awareness to the effort that you put in to keep up the mask and acknowledge the deeper pain that you try to hide with it. Doing that is like giving a child the attention that it truly needs. The embodied realisation of this attempt and the acknowledgement of the pain of unworthiness, leads to a release of the tension inside. The container that had kept the boiling water in place all of a sudden falls apart and the steaming water can flow in all directions. The feeling of unworthiness transforms and leads to you realising your inherent worthiness that you were trying to artificially reproduce by ‘being social’. Once we clear up the misconceptions that were suppressed in our unconscious, we can realise and embody our natural state of being again. When realising our inherent worthiness, connectedness, love, play, or any other aspect of our naturally blissful state, it becomes clear that life is not a fight to be won, but a dance to be enjoyed. This non-doing state, is the gateway to realising our oneness with existence.
I want to mention that Tantra is not about clearing ourselves from all shadows, but about realising your oneness – including deep rooted shadows. If we stick to the goal of dissolving all our shadows, we can’t really fall into a state of non-doing, but we keep striving for perfection. Furthermore, as far as I can tell at this stage, there are too many shadows to even solve in one lifetime (if not infinite). The key to Tantra is to live life as an exploration. A continuously deepening exploration in which you realise that you and everyone else is always more mysterious than you can ever comprehend with your mind. Once we take the exploration itself as the goal, we fall into the direct non-doing approach towards existence itself. The shadows are just the stepping stones on the path of realising that you are already a perfect expression of the dance of this universe. Like the Buddha said, “It’s better to travel well than to arrive”.
Tantra exercise to work with your shadows
So, how do you do shadowwork in your life? The great thing about shadows is that every day they give you a multitude of hints for their existence – a slip of the tongue, a grumpy expression, a flash of jealousy, an obsessive desire, a sinister thought, a day of procrastinating. All of these can be taken as doorways into shadow work. Usually we ignore or mask them as soon as we can, but if you want to take the path of shadow work, this is the time to stand still, or write them down to work with it later. The invitation is to sit down, take the thought, or feeling into your awareness, and notice what the experience does in your body and mind. Does it contract you, does it make you nervous, greedy, angry, do your thoughts start going on overdrive? Take your time… To be able to get to the core, you need to cut away the story of your own justification like “I am right to be angry at you because you did not clean the dishes”. This is the hard step, because we are usually attached to our own stories, but without it, you never get into your own depth. Then, go into your direct experience of the moment, embrace the tension, the wish to explode, the depth of the depression, the deep longing for the other. Breathe into it deeply and allow the experience to come up in its full form. Allow sounds, movement and emotions to come and do what they want to do. Sometimes this is already the full process, but you can also ask your shadow, “what do you need?” Maybe it is something you can give yourself. Don’t think about an answer, let it come if it comes. Listen to your body. Feel where it leads you without an agenda. Your body might relax, it might tense up more at first, eventually it always changes. Be open about where it goes.
Maybe you want to write down what you learned, maybe you want to take a walk afterwards. Do what you need to give your experience the time to integrate.
For more profound shadow work, I recommend following a Tantra retreat or Tantra workshop with us, as this gives the bedding to surrender more into the depth of your being. Find our offer on the website.
Ruben (20 December 2023)
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