Shadow, Power & World-Making: You Always Get Exactly What You Want.
A caveat: this essay talks about the dynamics of feeling stuck in victim vs. perpetrator patterns. The insights expressed here are meant to suggest a way towards an internal freedom that leads to no longer being drawn into such patterns, not to deny or invalidate the realities of abuse or hardship.
If you’re in a situation that’s causing you harm, please remove yourself from it as fully as possible before beginning this kind of reflective work.
This past year I began a radical practice. I took two provocative aphorisms — “Having is evidence of wanting” and “I’m always having exactly what I want” — to heart.
I used these incredibly odd notions as magnifying glasses for examining the shadows on the film strip of my existence. I began studying how these phrases might be true in my experience, especially at times when I very much seemed to not be having what I wanted: times of conflict, turmoil, disappointment.
What I continually discover with this digging drops me down a trippy technicolor rabbit hole of nondual awareness and gives me more fulfillment than I had ever previously dreamt possible.
(Down, down, down the rabbit hole)
Where the rabbit hole starts:
Rejected. Insulted. Misunderstood.
Helpless. Sad. Abandoned. Poor. Trapped.
My conscious persona is very clear that these are the ways I do not want to feel.
So why do I keep encountering situations where I feel these yucky feelings?
I’m of course not the first person to get curious about this paradox of wanting awesomeness and seeming to get suckiness instead. There’s a traditional Mahayana Buddhist observation:
All sentient beings desire to meet with happiness,
yet all sentient beings encounter suffering.
I don’t know about all sentient beings exactly, but what I’ve found for myself is that the experiences I encounter in the world around me (the relationships, the situations) very rarely match the preferences of my conscious persona.
Any preference that I have for having things look the way I want them to look rapidly gets ignored, smashed to bits, ever-so-ironically twisted and generally pissed on by the Universe. Which I’ve decided is actually kind of great…
… because it’s allowed me to notice that while the relationships and situations that appear in the world around me rarely match my preferences they do always, unfailingly, and with bone-chilling precision, mirror and make manifest the desires of a much deeper and much more power-saturated part of myself: my shadow.
“Having is evidence of wanting,” I think to myself. “So if I have all this suckiness, some part of me ‘wants’ it?”
In short, Yes.
Life in a disreputable movie theater
Imagine this: your mind is a holographic film projector. The film that’s playing is colored and imprinted with all of your conditioning, all of your identity, all of your habitual patterns, every truth you would like to grasp onto. The light that shines in the projector is the light of consciousness itself.
The big light of consciousness flows through the film that’s colored with your conditioning, your beliefs, your habits, and identity — and through this filter the light of awareness projects all around you a hologram movie that projects precisely those things inscribed on the film.
If you think about it, everything imprinted on that film is actually a kind of shadow. It’s there to block or distort the light into a specific shape, so that there’s something to be projected.
This is not at all a bad thing. It’s actually wonderful: without the shadows printed on the film, there would only be a shining pure light without form and without shape. Shining pure light is nice and all, but it does not make for a riveting cinematic experience, that’s for damn sure.
(Popular shows are going on all the time in the nickel movie theater of life)
One might say that pretty much every spiritual practice on earth is designed to one way or another stimulate our recognition that this holographic projection is happening.
Once we recognize that it’s happening, it’s actually fairly simple to realize that the consciousness that shines through us each as individuals is the same consciousness that shines behind all projections.
This is an awesome place to start. It’s illumination.
What can be a lot trickier to recognize and accept is that we’re also the artist who put the imprints of conditioning on the film in the first place, and indeed, who we usually perceive ourselves to be and the world that we usually experience around us is entirely the result of that deliberate artistry.
The recognition and acceptance of our role as artist of the shadows on the film is a tad bit more exciting than spiritual illumination. Accepting our power as world-making artists and learning to consciously engage it is… drumroll, please… magic.
Full illumination is just sitting around and enjoying the big pure light because you realize that there’s not actually anything else to do, it’s all a hologram. Enjoyment of the light is cool and all, but it mostly seems to lead to sitting at the base of mountains whilst wearing loin cloths. That is a fully viable life path, and you can do it if you want to.
(This is Ramana Maharshi — by all accounts, a lovely person who greatly enjoyed sitting and appreciating the illuminative light of consciousness)
As for me, I’m more excited about playing in the hologram with magic.
(This is a portrait of Mahasiddha Carbaripa doing some freaky flying sexy stuff above the mountains with a hot lady friend. This is more what interests me.)
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows.
It’s like this: my shadow is the part of my psyche that holds my conditioning, the stuff that colors the film. It’s usually also stuff that I don’t want to consciously accept — because if I fully accept it, then I have to become fully aware of the power that I have as artist of the film.
I notice that my shadow really wants to feel victimized, hurt, stuck, deprived. Why does it want to feel that way? So far as I can discern, it wants to feel those things because it wants to
1) keep me convinced that I am indeed a separate, put-upon individual little self and
2) protect me from the sensation of intense freedom, fulfillment and intimacy with my own being, with the world, and with others that tends to arise in those brief moments when I experience myself as someone with absolutely no cause for grievance or worry.
Now that’s strange — why should a part of me want to prevent feelings of intense fulfillment and intimacy from arising? Aren’t those ostensibly part of the happiness that I want?
Well, you see, no, not exactly.
My persona-self says that it wants fulfillment and happiness, but it doesn’t really. What it wants is to get its preferences met and to keep itself existing as a separate subject, period.
And I’ve found that total fulfillment is immensely disturbing to my persona-self because it’s disgustingly humbling: it tends to have next-to-nothing to do with my preferences.
Fulfillment is humiliating. It decimates my sense of being an isolated individual. In other words, it kills the ego. My dualistic identification as a subject in a world of objects depends upon me having a felt experience of non-fulfillment, of lack and of suffering.
I’ll just say that again: fulfillment is humiliating.
My persona is in denial about how strongly it just wants to maintain its identity as a separate self — which is why it all goes into the shadow part of me, the dimension of myself that works subconsciously rather than consciously.
Fulfillment in intimacy is especially humiliating. It’s just the worst. It’s terrible because it sends me out of control. Who knows what will come through me when I’m in intimate, fulfilled connection with another being? Or with the energy of my own body? Or with the elements of the natural world?
Only inscrutable, unknowable things that I just plain can’t control or predict, that’s what. And who wants that? Not this ego, that’s for damn sure.
So I’m learning this: because of the way our world projects based upon what’s in our shadow, you always get exactly what you want, and often, unbeknownst to yourself, what you most want is very, very dark.
Conflict. Fights. Confusion. Violence. Anger. Depression. Anxiety. Lack.
These can all show up in the holographic projection when you’ve got a heavy shadow: a strong need to feel individual and special, a terror of non-existence.
I’ve discovered that what I most want — want my shadow self most wants to keep itself intact — is the appearance of a dualistic world of subject and object, and the dualism of subject vs. object very rapidly becomes the dualism of victim vs. perpetrator.
In other words, my shadow self sees itself as the victim of a world that’s never quite doing what it wants, it feels resentful, and then manages to find occasions to feel victimized by specific situations and people.
“Be joyously at one with all-that-is? No, thank you. That sounds lame and boring. I would rather suffer distinctively, endlessly, and painfully as my own discrete self. I would also especially like to resent the universe for creating me to be so far from the way that I would prefer to be,” says my shadow.
And then — rather miraculously and with stunning precision — the world around me seems to offer people and circumstances that help to confirm and justify the appearance of dualistic conflict and victimhood that my shadow self wants.
This is the very same attitude that the 19th Century Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard identified as demonic despair. According to Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death, demonic despair is to will despairingly to be oneself.
It’s to recognize that we don’t like ourselves that much, to long to be different and better, to imagine that if we were the authors of our selves and of the world we would do a much better job than God, and to be pissed at God for making us less perfect than we would make ourselves if we had God-like powers.
The defining hallmark of demonic despair is an attitude of resentment towards ourselves, towards others, towards Reality and divinity itself.
It’s an amazingly self-perpetuating pendulum since the more resentful we are, the more we find ourselves drawn to situations and people that make us feel victimized, and the more we have to rightfully resent. We feel powerless, hurt, and bitter about our lack of power to create a world around us that feels beautiful.
I’m learning that the antidote to a life of conflict drawn to me by the hot and heavy pull of my shadow’s magnet involves:
Allowing myself to hugely, fiendishly, gleefully revel in and completely enjoy the dark thing that my shadow has drawn me to.
Whatever it is: a fight with a friend, a betrayal in a romance, a career catastrophe. It’s only in this close-to-insane reveling and enjoyment of the thing that’s victimizing me that I begin to realize that I’m not powerless; I’m a super-magnet, and I’m having precisely what I want: a chance to feel separate and put-upon.
This reveling — this getting off on the anger, the lack, the fear — is a hugely important part of integrating my shadow and gaining its power for conscious use.
As long as I refuse to genuinely get off on what I’ve created (even if I intellectually acknowledge my role in generating the circumstance) I’ll feel that I’m the victim of it, and I won’t perceive the true depth and power of my magnetism.
The paradox here is that it’s only in fully owning and enjoying my power to draw very dark circumstances into my life that I can actually interrupt my habitual shadow-feeling of resentment.
And it’s only in interrupting that shadow resentment and fully understanding how I created harm and disconnection while caught in my resentful stupor, that something else comes into my experience: a flood of gratitude.
Not grit-my-teeth-and-force-it-out-of-me-in-pastel-greeting-cards gratitude, but loopy and energetic and over-the-top gratitude.
This is the same force that Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, the founder of Shambhala Buddhism, called wind horse — it’s the basic goodness of yourself and the world experienced as an uplifting flood of energy and concern for others.
To get a picture of this kind of gigantic, liberated gratitude think: Scrooge on Christmas morning nearly falling out of his bedroom window in his underwear while gleefully hiring a boy to go buy a goose for his less-fortunate relatives.
(“You there, lad! Here’s 10 farthings! Fetch me a goose, the fattest goose you can find! And buy yourself some figgy pudding! I’ve integrated my shadow! Merry Christmas!”
After that first big rush of gratitude, the ongoing task before me (and I imagine the ongoing task that was set before Mr. Scrooge) is to continually notice just how very fictional is the fiction of my identity as a separate, discrete, wounded little self that exists apart from everything else and apart from the present moment.
The less hypnotized by the fiction of my ego-self that I am, the more aware of myself as the artist of the imprint on the film I become, and the more fun it is to play in this holographic world.
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