Continued from Part 5 – A New Relationship To Feelings
As you begin your shadow work journey, you will start to become increasingly aware of your shadow and in particular all of your projections onto the outside world.
As you consciously look at and observe these patterns of thinking and the pursuant behavior in your life, you’ll start to develop and continue the mind-quality of mindfulness.
As you look to go deeper into these shadow parts, through following your fears, you’ll be bringing up uncomfortable feelings to the surface that require you to develop the capacity to be with these feelings unconditionally.
So this requires a new level of emotional literacy and a capacity to be with your experience just as it is without striving to change it. This is a very different way of living and being to how we operate for the most part, particularly here in the West.
So in this lesson I want to talk about how you can strengthen the key skills of mindfulness and the ability just to be.
Mindfulness is experiencing your sensations, accepting them, not judging or trying to fix them.
At its core, the concept of mindfulness is really simple.
To be mindful means that you’re just paying attention to your experience in the present moment without judging it. So whatever it is that you are doing, feeling or thinking, if you approach it mindfully, you’re attending to it in a non-judgmental, open and gentle manner.
It doesn’t matter if your experience is pleasant, like feeling happy, or unpleasant, like grieving a loss, or neutral, like commuting on the bus or washing the dishes. Whatever is happening, being mindful means you are able to be with that experience, to observe it with curiosity. In other words, you can accept a situation that you’re in without fighting it or wishing it was different.
This is particularly helpful when what is happening is painful or unpleasant. So for example, if you’re feeling anxious, your habitual way of dealing with this might be to distract yourself from the anxious sensation and maybe by throwing yourself into work or by self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, or even just Netflix.
This strategy may disguise the anxiety for a while, but it will not help you manage it or effectively transform through. Mindfulness presents the possibility of actually attending to that anxiety by leaning into it rather than pulling away. This means that you are allowing those feelings to be present. Maybe you’ll become aware of shallow breathing or accelerated heartbeat or a dry mouth, for example, as you’re curiously examining them. This is not an intellectual curiosity per se, but rather, an interest in the sensory quality of the anxiety as it’s felt in your body. You’re experiencing the sensations, accepting them and not judging them or trying to fix them.
Approaching difficult experience in this way allows you to cultivate equanimity, an unshakeable peace of mind in the face of anything that life throws at you.
Cultivating this mindful attitude towards your life brings profound benefits. With respect to shadow work specifically, mindfulness allows you to become more aware of your projections by cultivating your ability to witness them without judgment. It’s actually the art of really learning to see with your inner gaze and it has immense impacts on the way you live your life.
So how can you strengthen mindfulness?
We are, to begin with, very often quite conditioned in our typical behavior and patterns of escaping the present moment by thinking about the past or mulling over the future. It’s of great benefit therefore to start to develop a daily mindfulness practice where you set aside 10 to 20 minutes a day to consciously acknowledge your experience and to stay present with it. In this way, just as exercise training, you start to strengthen the muscle of mindfulness in your mind that will carry through into your daily activities and your shadow work.
You can think of this as brightening the spotlight of your attention to then focus out onto your projections and your shadow. To do this for this kind of practice, I’d recommend choosing a time of day that you can more or less stick to every day, first thing in the morning works really well for many people as they’re are unlikely to forget to do the practice or run out of time.
Find a spot where you can sit on a cushion on the floor or upright in a chair, and this place should be comfortable and quiet where you can be undisturbed for 10 or 20 minutes. If you have a timer on your phone, for example, use that. There’s a free app as well called Insight Timer, which can be downloaded and it’s really useful for this purpose.
At the start of the session, silently remind yourself of your intention for this practice. You might say something like, “I intend to be fully awake and attentive to my unfolding experience without judging it” or something similar to that, that feels right for you.
Then with your eyes closed or open, if you prefer, begin to take your attention into your body and notice the feeling of your feet or legs on the floor, the touch of your hands in your lap and your clothing against your skin. Then become aware of your muscles, perhaps you notice there’s some tension or tightness stored in them. If so, as you breathe out, see if it’s possible to breathe out the tightness and allow your body to soften on the out breath as you let go of the tense sensations.
Just spend a few minutes simply watching the changing sensations in the body, not trying to change them or fix them or wish them to be any different. Just accepting the present experience, whether it feels pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. When your mind begins to wander from the sensations in your body by getting lost in distractions such as thoughts and sounds, simply acknowledge that the mind has wandered and then without judging yourself or having strayed, gently return your attention to the body and to the sensations.
It’s very natural for the mind to go off track like this, so do not worry if it repeatedly does this. Trying to stop the mind from wandering is attempting to stop the sea from ebbing and flowing, and it’s something that you will fail miserably with so it’s best to not even try. Just accept instead that the mind has drifted as soon as you’ve noticed this, escort your attention back to the body.
If you find your thoughts overwhelming you, try to get more curious about your felt sensations and gradually direct your attention towards them. Trying to turn off your thoughts is more or less impossible and it’s best to think of them like music playing on the radio. The more you become curious about the rest of your experience, the less the volume on the radio. It’s all a matter of where you’re directing your attention. Your attitude whilst doing all of this is one of a warm curiosity towards your experience. A kind of befriending and by cultivating this attitude, you’re laying the foundations for the ability to observe your projections as they arise in your daily life.
You can spend the rest of your mindfulness session watching sensations in the body or you can shift your attention to your breathing. Notice the feeling of the air entering the nostrils and the sensations of your breath flowing out. Follow the natural flow of your breathing, being curious about the texture of each breath, whether it is rough, smooth, cool shallow, deep and again, if the mind wanders, bring it back to the flow of the breath. The breath will be a useful reference point for you to strengthen your familiarity and association with it.
When you are in the midst of an uncomfortable experience during your shadow work, you may feel unbalanced or overwhelmed, so returning to your breath as an anchor is a safe place to which you can return.
So those are some of the basic principles to set up your mindfulness practice and start to cultivate this quality of mind. It typically takes a few weeks of consistent practice, but you’ll start to see the benefits.
This is really important, many people give up the practice in the first month because they can’t see the benefits, but it’s simply a function of patience, which ironically is a quality that is desirable to cultivate for shadow work. So you see, meditation and mindfulness is as much about what happens on the mat as about your approach towards it.
Mindfulness is like waking a sleeping giant, a friendly one. It’s worth the slow, dedicated progress to arrive at the incredible improvement in your mind that you can have for life, for free. When your mindfulness practice comes along, you start to observe much more in your day to day life and often people notice that they are much more in touch with their body, their sensations, their feelings, and their intuition. They notice things that didn’t before in themselves and in other people and increasingly recognize their own patterns of behavior.
All of these feelings and experiences were that to begin with, mindfulness practice is simply increasing the size of your total field of awareness. It’s only through doing the practice that you realize how small your total field of observation was beforehand and it just gets bigger and bigger and more beautiful as you practice.
Cultivating The Ability ‘To Be’
With an inner attitude of curiosity and ownership and receptivity as we spoke about in the last chapter, as well as this increased field of awareness that you can develop from a mindfulness practice, you can move to the third pillar of successful shadow work and that is cultivating the ability ‘to be’.
This is what’s known in the Buddhist tradition as ‘equanimity’ and is the ability to be with any experience in its full totality without wishing to change it in any way.
We can think of it as being with an experience unconditionally. Any attempt to lengthen or shorten or suppress an experience that you’re having is adding a condition to our observation of it. It’s not really allowing you to be with it in its fullness.
So why is unconditional observation of our experience so important?
Well, remember back to the first part of this series about how the shadow began? It started from the innocent manifestation of your impulses and intuitions, often as a young child and an adult, which were judged inappropriate for display and thereby placed in your shadow bag.
So the feeling you had originally was judged negatively and then put away, and this means that if you want to successfully bring it back up, out the bag and into consciousness and remove it from our shadow, we must do so without bringing any judgment upon it. This is vital and difficult work, and as we’ve looked into deeply, the nature of shadow work is that it does bring us to the edge of our comfort zone and more often than not, the first thing we try to do when we get there is to get out.
Well now it’s time for a different approach. Now it’s time to lean in.
Perhaps the best inner metaphor for working with uncomfortable feelings as they arise is to learn to surf them. The emotional intelligence expert Raphael Cushnir pioneered this term and work over 10 years ago, and it borrows from the best of Eastern spirituality to help you connect with your emotions. In short what he recommends is to think of emotions as waves that are coming in and your attention is a surf board and as a difficult emotion arises within you, your aim is to place a hundred percent of your attention onto the feeling that is arising, then stay perfectly present with it, without looking to change it in any way.
As thoughts come up along with that emotion, as they inevitably will, just gradually move your attention back to your feeling and stay with it. It’s a process that done with complete attention takes about two to three minutes to fully and completely process an emotion. This however takes considerable practice and what’s common is for the wave or the feeling to increase in intensity as you’re welcoming it in with your attention.
This is a really good thing, but many people when they’re first starting out, tend to panic or get distracted, so you fall off the surfboard. Ways of falling off the surfboard are ‘bargaining’, that’s like when you’re saying “well I’ll stay with this feeling because I know I’ll be released at the end” and that’s a condition that we’re placing on the experience so bargaining is not helpful here.
Another way of falling off the board is by becoming a victim of it. When you just start feeling, “oh, this is too much, I shouldn’t have to deal with this”, that’s an act of suppression. Another way is checking out and that’s like thinking; “I wonder when this is going to end, how long is this going to go on for?”, that’s pulling you out of the present moment. The last way, which is probably the most common, is distraction, so that’s instead of feeling the emotion or whilst its happening, instead of being present you start thinking “what do I have to do later today?
The surf analogy points to another important component of successfully bringing up and surfing a feeling and that’s actually being relaxed in the whole process. If you’ve ever surfed a real wave in real life, you’ll know that you need to hold a relaxed stance on the board. Being too rigid will throw your way off and put you into the ocean. You need to adapt to the wave as it moves underneath you. Similarly with emotional surfing, you need to relax into the experience and this may seem counter-intuitive as obviously the feelings that are coming up are uncomfortable.
But you need to yield into this experience so that you can see deeply that it really is nothing to be feared. It is just a feeling that’s completely valid for you to feel.
This tells your unconscious mind that it’s okay to feel that feeling and effectively restores the shadow component of the psyche back into consciousness and into light.
So the principles of emotional surfing and connection are that of noticing what’s arising, allowing it, and following the feelings at all times. You’re not trying to understand it, change it or make it go away in any way. You’re letting the experience lead you and this is a practice to be cultivated along with gradual exposure to the shadow as discussed in previous lessons.
The ability to surf my feelings, my fears, my doubts and my worries as they were coming up in real time without distracting myself or checking out or bargaining or feeling sorry for myself, was a lot of work to master (and is still ongoing).
Emotional mastery is like everything else. Practice makes the master. You will become better and better at it and soon you’ll be able to surf effortlessly through your emotions. You’ll start to see the transformation of your fear in situations that previously used to worry you or create conflict and anxiety for you.
So I encourage you to embrace these principles and practice them as you carry out your shadow work over the following weeks.