PhotoAs a child and, let’s be honest, as an adult too, I was and am fascinated by my shadow. No, not the Jungian shadow of my psyche, though definitely that as well, but my physical shadow, that strange creature following me everywhere and only ever noticed when light is blazing at a particular angle upon me. Despite this fascination I still often forget that it’s there, my constant companion, the always-present hazy mimicry of my body. That a shadow is inevitable under certain circumstances doesn’t seem to lessen the initial interest nor diminish the fright caused by seeing it, having forgotten it’s just what it is and not some foul creature sneaking up on us. 
We live in a cause/effect universe, our brains offering up upon the platter of the mind a constant stream of connected events creating story after story after story, often at such an unconscious level we are unaware until something changes. Research, for instance, indicates that we’re far more likely to get into an auto accident when closer to our home than driving elsewhere, the reason being one of comfort in a projected understanding of an unchanging situation. We believe we simply know what is going on at all times around us because we’ve driven the route so often and nothing has happened before, making us susceptible to running into things that are suddenly different. 

There’s a lesson here. The differences surprise us because while our brains are great at creating narratives these stories only ever capture a selection of the variables we’re capable of being aware of. Our startle response reacts to abrupt changes in our environment, but it doesn’t provide data to ascertain just what the issue is. We rely on our, until that moment, reliable narratives to guide us. It’s why some people can see a picture of Jesus on a piece of toast and others continue to slather jam all over without blinking. Our narratives, cobbled together from the familial/cultural/societal/relational dynamics of our entire lives, shape the action potentials for all the behavior open to us. 

Imagine for a moment all the potential behaviors existing as a flat plane of possibility. As each relational connection occurs, from childhood onward, there are sections of behavior that rise up and become more likely to happen. If we look, for example, at emotions as manifested energy potential, we can see that they make certain behaviors more likely to happen than others. A simple trip down memory lane will suffice for anyone to encounter a situation where an action they did was out of the ordinary but occurred because of a particular emotional response. We yell at a friend or lover coming home from a frustrating day at work. Or more kindly, feeling loved and accepted because of an interaction that morning with a friend or lover we don’t feel the same consternation when confronted with work drama or being cut off while driving. The exact opposite reaction would have more likely occurred in the past in both of these situations, but because of the initial emotional setting our behavior went down a different path. We can no more stop our emotional responses than we can stop the earth from spinning on its axis. What we can do is bring to consciousness through introspection and training a greater appreciation for the inner connections being made with every emotional response.

Incidentally this is why I attempt, to varying degrees of success, to wait a good half-day to a full day before responding to a letter or comment online that particularly incensed me. I am not ashamed by my tendency at times to attack as if personally done wrong, it’s part of who I am, but it’s not something I care to act upon in light of my highest good.

For every response that happens there are any number of others that could have happened if circumstances, internal and external, had been different. This is not about judgment but about being aware of the extent to which our fantastical notions of free-will have no support. Rather than selecting from a place above everything the particular behavior we’re going to do, it arises from the sea of potential behaviors we each of us have at our disposal because of the contexts of our lives. This is why our ideas and perspectives are so important to acknowledge and understand, for they too, like our emotions, are part of the breadth of phenomena we call our mental lives. Each and every one shifts that plane of possibility, raising a selection of potential behavior above another or lowering another set.

Our shadow is the behavior we attempt to tell ourselves doesn’t exist within us, those actions built upon guilt and shame and self-doubt that reside close as a breath and yet often without our knowing it. Here is the power residing in increased awareness. Just as shadows exist when we shine a light at a particular angle, so the light of our introspection/reason and meditation can display for us the shadows of our better selves, those behaviors that feel later as if they were from someone else and yet honesty compels us to accept that they exist within us as well. Our journey is not to destroy our shadows but to shine a light and see them for what they are, potentials but not fatalistically inevitable.

We are not bound to any single moment of our lives, any more than our thoughts can be judged by any single instantiation. We are a relational dynamic and it is the trajectory of our consciousness that defines the quality of our lives. Our shadows are our companions, but it is in the light that we see how very much more we are than that.

© David Teachout

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