The Shadow on The Spiritual Path – Part One

When I first began exploring my spirituality in the 70’s there was very little information available about the shadow side of spiritual work. Most of what I was exposed to were the promises and benefits of the spiritual journey: expanded consciousness, openness to love, light, wisdom and beauty, freedom from many of the limitations of the human condition. I would become liberated, enlightened, and forever at peace if I was persistent and diligent, if I chanted and meditated enough, immersed myself in teachings and traditions, and engaged with spiritual teachers. Much of that focus for me and others was rich and growthful. Many of us accessed our transcendent nature, often for the first time, and unearthed potentials we never dreamed possible. But there were, and are, pitfalls and challenges on the spiritual path. I think that the more we understand what we may encounter in ourselves and others, the easier the journey can be.

Spiritual work is deeply transformative. When you relax your thinking mind and deconstruct a lifetime of conditioned patterns, which is what happens when you engage in spiritual practices, you awaken to your whole being – light and dark. You access compassion, inner peace, wisdom, joy, gratitude, creative inspiration, awe, and a sense of connectedness with all beings. You also open to other aspects of yourself that have been repressed, such as fear, anger, sadness, painful memories, forgotten events. For me, when some of this difficult material began to surface, I thought that I must be doing something wrong. Perhaps I needed a new teacher or I wasn’t meditating properly. If I knew then what I know now, I would have understood that this was a natural and inevitable part of the journey toward wholeness, toward an ongoing uncovering and embrace of both my human and infinite nature.

Transpersonal energies ebb and flow, which can be quite a surprise when this starts to occur. When I experienced heightened states, I often felt that ‘this is it.’ ‘I have arrived; nothing can ever go wrong again.’ I wanted, and expected to maintain, the experiences of spaciousness, bliss, clarity, and serenity that I was enjoying. If I just continued to pour myself into practices and spiritual studies, I thought I would be able to remain at the top of the mountain. It is common to become attached to the highs on the spiritual journey. It can be very disappointing, at the least, to discover that these states are transitory, and that there are natural cycles of expansion and contraction in the spiritual aspects of our lives, just as there are in every domain of life.

Another shadow issue to consider is the fact that there’s a tendency to become inflated, to feel special, sometimes just by virtue of the fact that we’re on a spiritual journey. At various times along the way, I have felt ‘high and mighty.’ Part of what knocked me off of my pedestal were many difficult life experiences that shook me to the core and humbled me like nothing else ever had. These experiences have been profound spiritual teachings for me – the teachings that happen in the trenches, not on the mountaintop. With this sense of specialness can also come judgmentalness. Both are egoic identifications. We may think that people who don’t explicitly identify themselves as ‘spirtual’ are inferior to us, less evolved. I used to fall into some of these judgments, but am happy to say that I came to meet and know many wise, unselfish, compassionate, honest, and authentic people who didn’t conform to my narrow-minded assumptions about what spiritual should look or sound like. They opened my eyes wide and I am forever grateful.