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Posts Tagged ‘shadows’

Principle TWO: Shadows and Fears

Sunday, October 11, 2009

This is part 3 of 6 in a series of posts about the Five Principles and Supporting Practices of Conscious Social Change.

Principle TWO: Proactively Attend to Shadows, Fears and Distortions
As we begin to go deeper in our own self-awareness, we may find there are things we dislike in others or that we feel discomfort with in ourselves.  These are often one and the same, called shadows.

Connie Zweig and Jeremiah Abram’s book, Meeting the Shadow: The Hidden Power of the Dark Side of Human Nature propose that “The shadow acts like a psychic immune system, defining what is self and what is not-self.” Poet Robert Bly offers an analogy:  When we were young and as we grew up, we had people around us telling us not to be a certain way.  Perhaps our parents said we should be responsible, so we carried this invisible bag behind us and put in the bag the side of us that wanted to be spontaneous and irresponsible.  Then our community said girls are supposed to be a certain way and boys are supposed to be a different way, and so we put those parts that were not appropriate into a bag. Then friends told us that we had to act a certain way and we put more things that we felt uncomfortable with in the bag.  By the time we got older, the bag was very big and heavy. And it still holds the parts of us that we dislike. When we come in contact with those aspects in another person, we will experience an emotional charge, including aversion, judgment, defensiveness, distaste or disgust, because we are still not willing to recognize the same in ourselves.  Unexamined, intense dislike that arises from our shadow selves may unconsciously lead us to create separation, act with prejudice and even resort to violence.

From abortion clinic bombers to torture in the name of national security, from eco-terrorism to the outbreak of violent riots at peaceful marches, the line between non-violence and violence or oppression is easily crossed in pursuit of justice or morality, and very often driven by our unconscious shadows. Admittedly, the roots of activist protests begin with a fundamental sense of injustice and a vision for a better world. However, if advocacy campaigns lack avenues for leaders, if not all participants, to stay grounded in self-awareness, movements can easily move to demonize their opposition with an “us” versus “them” mentality that reinforces a hierarchy of inequality and claims of moral superiority. As frustration grows with the slow process of shifting dominant culture, anger at injustice is replaced by anger for the perceived enemy, and in many cases evolves into violence.   

Cultivating consciousness is essential for advancing social justice so that we do not recreate hierarchies of power, but defuse the fear-based prejudice and abuse of privilege that underlies oppression. A consciousness-based approach to social change fosters understanding of and compassion for the roots of suffering in ourselves and those who oppose us.  It embraces self-reflection to examine our fears, insecurities and the rejected parts of ourselves, so that we can more easily accept or at least understand others.  As Claudia Horwitz, community organizer and founder of stone circles, a non-profit and retreat center for activists, remarks, “If we engage in the collective without some practice of individual consciousness, we’re more likely to get caught up in group think and only use a fraction of our human capacity. Without consciousness, there is no choice.” 

Supporting Practice TWO: Transforming Reaction into Response
Conscious change invites us to look more deeply at the wounding that causes us to react to our emotions in unconscious and often harmful ways. We can repeat conditioned or learned behaviors if we are not conscious of them.  But even in milder ways those who think they are doing good may create harm from unconscious reactivity. A wonderful book called  The Engaged Spiritual Life: A Buddhist Approach to Transforming Ourselves and the World, by Donald Rothberg provided the following perspective: Often we “pass on the pain” when we are angry, annoyed, disappointed – we feel terrible so we lash out or otherwise take it out on another.  Our pattern of action looks like this:

FEEL   ———> IMMEDIATELY REACT (unconscious)

Conscious change starts with a state of mind, and then affects our speech and actions. The key to transforming our unconscious reactivity is simply to lengthen the space between our feelings and our response:

 FEEL ———–> STOP, LISTEN, BE WITH WHAT IS ————->RESPOND (conscious)

The first step is to recognize when we feel an emotional “charge”.  This can be a rush of fear, anger, contempt, embarrassment, defensiveness, etc.  If we can stop ourselves from immediately reacting, then we can take a moment to pause.  A simple suggestion is to take three deep breaths. During this time, we can conduct a brief internal inquiry:  Allow yourself to explore what emotion is arising. Try to see clearly and understand from where they are originating.  Is this an unhealed place in your self? Are you noticing a part of yourself that you do not accept, so you find it distasteful in another? Is there a fear, aversion or attachment present?  What truth is arising for you?  Allow yourself to feel compassion for yourself and gratitude for your underlying instinct to protect yourself. Then ask yourself what response is needed to transform suffering for yourself and the other in this situation.  Respond and act with consciousness and with wisdom. 

A Story
This practice was shared with a group of women change agents participating in Global Grassroots’ Conscious Change Academy.   After a few days of participants experimenting with this practice in their own communities, they were asked to provide feedback on the impact it was having in their lives.  One woman raised her hand to share.  Having returned from class one day, she found that her children had completely messed up her home. She was furious because she had worked diligently before leaving for class to clean and straighten everything.  “Usually I just beat my children,” she explained without emotion. “But today, I closed my eyes and took three breaths.”  She then explained to her children why she wanted the house neat and asked that they return everything to its original condition before she again opened her eyes.  “And they did.  And I didn’t have to beat my children today.” 

This woman had been selected to take part in our course because of her commitment to ending domestic violence.  The discussion allowed for a broader dialogue about how we embody violence in our own lives and where we find it acceptable and not acceptable. As a result of this simple practice, this woman has completely changed the way in which she approaches violence in raising her children and engaging other couples in addressing violence within the family.

Change begins with our own ability to be present with suffering as well as unconscious patterns of action within ourselves.  It allows us to explore that which needs attending to, so that we are less likely to react and create harm.  It then enables us to cultivate a greater level of compassion in our social justice work because we know that other people who are causing harm are likely suffering inside.


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