The Limitations of Shadow Work: A Yogic Perspective
The practices we share at Hridaya Yoga are aimed at helping us discover our Real Essence, the Truth beyond the constructs of the ego. For some students, this lack of emphasis on the personal level sometimes raises the question of if we are repressing or denying the negative aspects of the personality. They wonder if they would be better served by delving into their “dark side” via shadow work.
However, although shadow work is a useful psychological approach it is not a sine qua non truth. While any authentic spiritual path involves the awareness of the subconscious, this does not necessarily mean a fight with “our demons.” Shadow work is simply not present in traditional yoga and there are some important reasons for this.
Non-Reactivity Is Recommended
Non-reactivity to thoughts and psychological stories is one of the most fundamental recommendations of almost any contemplative tradition. There are many such examples: Buddha was not disturbed by the “threats and seductions” of Mara, the Demon of Illusion, while he was meditating under the bodhi tree. And, Jesus refused Satan’s “temptations” when he fasted for 40 days in the Judean desert. In psychology, both stories are seen as symbolic confrontations with the subconscious dark side.
Actually, the first practical advice offered in the Yoga Sutras regarding the serenity of the mind refers to equanimity in regards to culpable situations, emotions, and thoughts: “The projection of friendliness, compassion, gladness, and equanimity toward things—[respectively] joyful, sorrowful, meritorious, or demeritorious—[leads to] the serenity of mind.” (1:33)
In traditional yoga, we never find recommendations to feed or fight our personal stories.
Avidya—The Root Cause of Suffering
The subconscious activators, samskaras, and their concatenation structures, vasanas, were acknowledged in Classical Yoga (in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras) almost two millennia before Western psychology was created. However, yoga and all main Eastern spiritual philosophies reveal that the root cause of suffering is ignorance, avidya (Yoga Sutras, 2:3-5). In this traditional context, avidya is simply the premise of considering the personality our ultimate truth and, thus, emphasizing personal dramas and the sense of separation from others. Therefore, as long as such a premise is maintained, suffering will continue. This is because the ultimate cause of a phobia, etc. is not a specific life event, but our ignorance regarding our Real Nature, atman. Unfortunately, shadow work doesn’t necessarily bring freedom from the trap of selfishness.
Working only at the level of the personality is like trying to improve conditions in a prison while we continue to live in that prison. Self-Enquiry, by gradually changing the paradigm, frees us from this imprisonment. But, this paradigm shift cannot be attained through rational understanding or via personal will. It is only the genuine awareness of our Real Nature that brings wisdom.
Cognitive therapy is one of the classic approaches in psychotherapy used to reduce anxiety by identifying and changing unhelpful or inaccurate mental patterns. Thus, we learn to think in a less catastrophic way. Eventually, this different approach to thinking about ourselves leads to self-respect, confidence in our will, compassion for ourselves, etc.
Hridaya Meditation as Trans-Cognitive Therapy
Hridaya Meditation is a radical cognitive therapy since another relationship with the thinking process intervenes. We can refer to it as trans-cognitive therapy since it is not just about replacing one belief with another, but about a more intimate way of knowing ourselves. Self-Enquiry meditation reveals that we are not just a weak body or a miserable personality, afraid of our thoughts and emotions, haunted by painful subconscious tendencies. We are the ineffable Awareness in which all these thoughts are witnessed. Learning to witness different thoughts and subconscious tendencies, we find we no longer need to believe them. Catastrophic thinking naturally ends when we can stop our tendency to dramatize life. This is one of the first lessons in Hridaya Meditation and applies to daily life as well.
Hridaya Meditation is a kind of cognitive therapy on a higher octave. It doesn’t only address the personality, but essentially supports its de-structuring. The personality, stripped to its essence, is dissolved in the pure “I”-feeling, aham vritti. This naturally brings a transformation of a much higher magnitude.
The “I”-Feeling—Spiritual Minimalism
The “I”-feeling is the innermost sense of our existence. It represents the irreducible element of any human knowledge, experience, perception, etc. Self-Enquiry meditation brings the awareness of this constant element of our lives that was, is, and will continue to be “ourselves” in spite of changing thoughts, emotions, visions, religions, and philosophies.
In the arts, minimalism is a style that tries to bring design elements and forms back to their essence. The awareness of the “I”-feeling can be seen as spiritual minimalism.
This path reveals the beauty of an exquisite simplicity. It also brings a release from the identification with the shadows.
The Sacredness and Unconditional Goodness of Our Being
“Sacredness is not trying to look on the bright side of life and using that as a stepping-stone, but it is unconditional cheerfulness that has no other side. It is just one side, one taste. From that, goodness begins to dawn in your heart. Therefore, whatever we experience, whatever we see, whatever we hear, whatever we think—all these activities have a sense of holiness or sacredness in them. The world is full of hospitality at that point. Sharp corners begin to dissolve, and the darkness begins to lift in our lives. This is not too good to be true. Such goodness and sacredness are unconditionally good.” –Chogyam Trungpa, Smile at Fear: Awakening the True Heart of Bravery
Believing Subconscious Stories vs. The Radical Openness to Truth
- Imagining that we are that subconscious beast that needs to be released or expressed and taking this as the deeper reality of our being is also a sign of ignorance, avidya, according to yoga. It is ignorance because what we ultimately are is that Witness Consciousness in which thoughts, emotions, and subconscious tendencies are embraced and observed.This spiritual understanding is very practical. It is not spiritual bypassing, but a fearless and radical opening to the very essence of life. In Hridaya Yoga, we call this “living with an Open Heart.” In the subtle tremor of the Heart, we can meet life more deeply and authentically.
- Finding the source of a trauma in childhood or any other painful event is deceiving because such “causes” are not primordial. Again, according to yoga, the primordial cause of all suffering is ignorance, avidya—not knowing who we are beyond the personality. A difficult event may be the trigger of a deep psychological wound, but real healing will come only with detachment from that drama, in the silent awareness of the pure “I”-feeling. Otherwise, while that specific problem may be solved, countless others will continue to appear.The Buddhist vision of the “Wheel of Becoming,” bhava chakra, is a metaphor for this, extended in a span that goes beyond the limits of a single life.
- The subconscious domain is even wider and more deceiving than what we consider our normal conscious domain. The true end of suffering and trauma cannot be found in the time-bound position of the mind and personality.Hitting a pillow in order to express the hate that we have towards our ex-partner, as is recommended in some New Age teachings, may be a way to objectify and release tension. But, the main problem with such an approach is that it will not bring the wisdom, jnana, to stop entering into poisonous relationships or repeating other unhelpful patterns. So, we may continue to hurt many pillows.
Working with Emotions
In traditional yoga and Tantra Yoga, there are indeed forms of meditation that invite strong emotions—like evoking death and confronting the fear of death, abhinivesha. But, such existential fears are stirred in order to point to the very same ineffable reality that we are. Again, this is not just a personal or psychological approach.
The Transformation of Dissolution
There is indeed direct work with the subconscious mind in yoga. The Yoga Sutras calls it nirodha parinama, the “transformation of dissolution.” This refers to the way in which the stillness of the mind that arises in meditation gradually purifies the subconscious residues (3:9).
Nirodha parinama refers to the deepest transformation of the subconscious mind. It is an inner shift in which the awareness is no longer object-oriented, but is just an awareness of Awareness itself. It generally happens during meditation or whenever there are moments of perfect inner silence.
In Hridaya Silent Meditation Retreats, this process is explained in connection with Ramana Maharshi’s teaching “Bringing the ‘I’-feeling back to its source, the Heart” and Nisargadatta Maharaj’s advice to constantly maintain the awareness of the pure “I am.”
Psychotherapy vs. Yoga: Relative Truth vs. Absolute Truth
Because strong emotions like fear, jealousy, hatred, etc. are so painful (often having a physical reflection), shadow work implicitly considers them real. Nevertheless, yoga emphasizes their relativity. They are a relative truth because emotions may be happening to us, but what we are is more than the emotions. We are that spaciousness in which thoughts, emotions, and subconscious forces appear and disappear. This is one of the main differences between the yogic approach and psychotherapy.
Eastern spirituality points to our ultimate, ineffable reality (called a variety of names depending on the religious context: atman, the Supreme Self, the Buddha Nature, the Nature of the mind, One Taste, the Witness, the Seer, God, etc.). As a natural and logical consequence of having glimpsed the Supreme Self, yoga recommends sublimating all personal problems through such understanding. It is called transcendent wisdom, jnana (the opposite of ignorance, avidya). In this way, problems are transcended (in the ascetic paths) or embraced in a genuine naturalness, sahaja (in tantric approaches).
A Superconscious Descent into the Subconscious
Psychology, the science of the psyche (soul or mind), is intrinsically oriented towards regaining psycho-mental health. While it creates a good foundation for the spiritual journey, it doesn’t claim to be a spiritual path in itself. Psychologists are not necessarily more spiritually mature people.
Some great sages of yoga, like Sri Aurobindo, quite strongly criticized the limits and dangers of subconscious work done by people who don’t also have a spiritual background or practice of Self-awareness. For example, Sri Aurobindo stated that the higher the awareness of superconscious levels, the easier and safer it will be to access deeper subconscious domains.
The yogic teachings do support Carl Jung’s perspective that when such “inferiority” (the shadow) is conscious we always have a chance to correct it.
The widening of self-consciousness is strongly emphasized in Hridaya Yoga. Our silent meditation retreats, especially, often bring many such insights, both through lectures and Self-Enquiry meditation. But, we also emphasize the capacity to witness shadows—which means the dis-identification with such patterns. There is a very clear difference between such dis-identification and suppression.
It Is the Truth That Reveals the Truth
Ultimately, any spiritual journey is a matter of inner truthfulness and an authentic capacity for self-awareness. Otherwise, there will always be the danger of falling into the two extremes mentioned in both yoga and Buddhist Tantra:
- Spiritual escapism, in which people withdraw into an imaginary ideal or “spiritual” world, refusing to see and confront their obvious limitations.
- An obsession with personal stories or “personal work.” This entails making decisions based on relative interpretations or trying to discover traumas that may justify selfish behaviors, etc. This ignores the wider perspective—the reality beyond the personal world, the Witness Consciousness.
Yoga is not about creating other types of clichés—saying nice words like “all is Love”—but about rediscovering our deep humanity. This means embracing all shadows and subconscious “monsters” in Love-Awareness, in the furnace of intimacy.
As long as our emotions and states of mind are not embraced in the Stillness of Pure Presence (the Witness Consciousness or the Spiritual Heart), the changes will continue to occur at an individual level. Because of this, they will be more or less governed by lower, ego-based intentions. This type of inner transformation is only “horizontal.” It does not allow a vertical spiritual leap, from the sphere of individual consciousness into Pure Presence.
Hridaya Yoga points to an attitude in which the awareness of the Spiritual Heart accompanies any energy, sensation, or mental state. They are all experienced against the background of Stillness inherent to the Spiritual Heart. In everyday experiences, we tend to ignore this background, always remaining at the surface in a continuous agitation of mental states, thoughts, moods, feelings, emotions, sensations, etc. The awareness of the subconscious mind can be a first step towards perceiving this background.
In Hridaya Yoga, we develop an intimacy with “What is,” without comparing it to “What should be.” So, the emphasis is not on “correcting” our mistakes or fighting with “sins,” but on an intuitive awareness of our divine nature, of the Spiritual Heart.
Thus, transformation occurs spontaneously because it is supported by the infinite power, wisdom, and light that we ultimately are.
It is exactly the dissolution of the personality (not its suppression) that the different forms of yoga point to. Through this dissolution, “we exist in non-existence,” as Jean Klein use to say.
This is a wondrous, blissful void.
Sahajananda is an experienced meditation and yoga teacher and the founder of Hridaya Yoga.