As a spiritual neophyte I believed (like everyone else I knew) that repressing my honest emotions, denying my disliked qualities, and generally pretending to be something I was not would make me more spiritual. I started trying to be spiritual at the age of 17 when I was a church camp counselor. After asking for help from the Holy Spirit with a problem I was having, I had a numinous experience of awakening to the symbolic meaning of the Bible verse, “Ye are the light of the world.” Matthew 5, 14-16.
Flooded with a dizzying new awareness, I believed I had been touched by God. I was so hungry for more that I began to devour the Bible. In the book of Galatians I was thrilled to discover Paul’s descriptions of the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is it, I thought. This is what I’ve been looking for. These will be my spiritual goals.
I memorized the list, reflected on the qualities, prayed for them, and tried to emulate them. I’m on my way, I thought naively. I believed that developing spirituality was simply a matter of knowing how God wanted me to behave then using my willpower to act that way. Anything I felt or thought that did not conform to “his will” (according to my understanding of these qualities and the biases of my family and religion, of course) I would repress or control with self-discipline. The more strongly I identified with my ideals, the more “spiritual” I felt.
Being “spiritual” alleviated my teenaged angst, maintained the status quo, and made me feel safe and in control. Imagining future glory in a radiant heaven got me through tough times. Ignoring my shadow and acting humble and loving made me feel good about myself. Finding answers to my spiritual questions in conventional beliefs protected me from the loneliness of being an outsider and the terrifying responsibility of free choice.
Perfecting our personas to please a father god who lives the in the light while shunning the darkness from which we are emerging is how immature egos begin the spiritual journey. A young ego doesn’t know it’s afraid or that it’s constructing a mask. It’s convinced it’s free to do anything it wants. But the truth is, we are not free to make original choices until the unconscious is made conscious. If we are unaware of the limiting assumptions and other inner forces that control our behavior, we can’t see the full range of our choices. And if we can’t see our choices, it’s impossible to change our behavior, no matter how much self control or willpower we have.
The shadow is why we, like St. Paul, keep doing things we don’t want to do and don’t do things we think we should. Unfortunately, St. Paul didn’t have access to the psychological understanding we have acquired since his time. Now we know that until we integrate our shadows into our conscious awareness we’ll continue to despise ourselves, alienate others, act in baffling ways, fall short of our spiritual ideals, and wonder why.
Exploring our unconscious and getting acquainted with our shadows brings authentic behavior and spiritual maturity. Mature individuals learn to admit to their “dark sides” so they can defuse them. Admitting doesn’t imply making a public confession, broadcasting, complaining, excusing, wallowing, or surrendering. It just means being honest with ourselves. Other people can see our shadows anyway, and it’s enormously frustrating to them when we deny something so obvious to them. It’s amazing how much conflict we can prevent by simply seeing and accepting responsibility for our disowned selves.
An unimaginable treasure awaits us in the unconscious, and we can find it by digging deep into our subterranean world. A recurring dream I had for a long time clearly demonstrated the truth of this psychological principle to me. In it I was always outdoors following a path, usually at night, when my attention would be attracted to a sparkle of light in the dark earth beside the path. When I bent down to look, I would see that the light was reflecting off the rounded ridge of a half-buried coin. Pulling the coin out of the earth always revealed another one behind it, then another and another until I was delighted to discover an apparently bottomless stash of densely packed coins. It took me years to understand the symbolism. The interesting thing is that once I became fully committed to inner work, I stopped having the dream. I no longer needed the reminder.
The work continues. Ten years ago I dreamed about two mothers, one dark and one light, and two daughters—also one dark and one light. I loved the daughters. The dark girl was extraverted and instinctual. The blonde one was introverted and cerebral. Both were sweet and cute and very loving toward each other. That dream showed real progress.
Have you ever had a dream that contrasted light with dark? Or featured a lit candle? Or a scary dark place? Or something you were running from? What did it teach you?
Note: This was adapted from Healing the Sacred Divide (2012).
Jean Raffa’s The Bridge to Wholeness and Dream Theatres of the Soul are at Amazon. E-book versions are also at Kobo, Barnes And Noble and Smashwords. Healing the Sacred Divide can be found at Amazon and Larson Publications.com. Her new book, The Soul’s Twins, is available at Schiffer, Red Feather Mind, Body, Spirit and wherever books are sold. Subscribe to her newsletter at www.jeanbenedictraffa.com.