The unique holy service, particular to Yom Kippur — the Day of Atonement — is the annual entry of the High Priest into the Holy of Holies, and the lighting of the exquisite incense. The special sacred recipe combines to make a sublime aroma. One of the ingredients is galbanum, known for it’s unpleasant smell, that when mixed with the other secret quantities of sacred ingredients contributes to the intoxicating smell that forms the climax of service to the Divine in the Holy Temple.
Montaigne says that “Nothing human is foreign to me”, and in a similar vein, Thich Nhat Hanh writes a poem, called “Please call me by my true names,” where he claims to be both the killer and the victim, both the expansive sea and the dry desert. However, in everyday life, we may not always be so comfortable or be encouraged by others to show this sometimes submerged parts of ourselves. We call these parts, the shadow. We may be scared to own up to the “galbanum” in our lives.
This week I have noticed myself being chased by my shadow. I’ll share with you the form it has taken. It disgusts me first, then gives me pause and also, it must be said, makes me come to a certain peace and wholeness. Basically, there is a quality of one of my family members that I find really difficult and even distasteful. I have noticed that I have been embodying that quality — if not in external actions — at least in my inner thoughts. It is very humbling. It is also me. There is no separation. What I see, I am connected to. And the news is, it is not just me. We all are.
When we can have the courage to name the dark parts of ourselves, then we get freedom, because we have nothing to defend against, protect, or pretend. We have no pretense about being different to any other human. In fact, the more we are willing to acknowledge these shadow parts of ourselves, we can in fact embody more and more of our humanity.
What kinds of things are we referring to? You probably have your own “secrets” about yourself, and your own “badness”, “If only they knew……then they wouldn’t like me”. Well, this is an invitation to come clean about these dark corners, to let the light of day shine on them, in safety, in compassion and most of all in good intention.
A few nights ago I had a dream that I was with a friend and we were at a retreat for work and there was nowhere to put out the trash. But we knew it was really important to us so we were making a big effort to find a place to put it out. And we needed more time because we knew we couldn’t do the retreat if we didn’t have the place for the garbage. The night before that, in my dream, my torso was covered in boils.
We need to consciously create the space for the expression of the shadow in externalized ways in our group situations otherwise — we will unconsciously embody that energy because it needs to be held somewhere. This unconscious embodiment could have it projected onto one person — an unfortunate and confusing dynamic that can have harmful consequences to all involved.
We neglect to take out our garbage at our own personal, family, community, work and universal peril. There is nothing too dark to be acknowledged. We are not and never will be worse than any other human. If we have thought it, chances are hundreds of thousands of others have also.
Befriending the shadow has several different parts. It impacts how we see ourselves, how we see others and how we relate to the world:
- When we see “bad” things in other people. Instead of blaming them in our own mind we can use our sighting as an invitation to look at how that quality sits inside us.
- We get an opportunity to take responsibility in our little slice of life for perpetuating the good, for reducing destruction. It never means we need to be silent, it means that we learn to speak in a way that can be heard by all people.
- Even when others may have behaved problematically we also look at our own role in the dynamic and learn our own lessons. If we only blame the other person then we are deprived of the possible lessons we could learn. (See my post on “Approaching Elul: My Role in My Teacher’s Breach”)
I have an ongoing discussion with a colleague who works in conflict resolution and trying to create constructive conflict in a range of intra-Jewish and interfaith and other inter-group settings. He likes to metaphorically identify himself as a doctor. He sees a conflict and then he gives a “diagnosis” of different appropriate methods to work with that conflict. This model acknowledges that different situations require different tools to create change.
From the first time I heard this metaphor, I knew it didn’t resonate with me. I am not the doctor, somewhat removed looking at the “symptoms” and working out my “diagnosis.” I realized that I am more akin to someone with all the diseases. What I mean by this is that when I face people or groups in conflict, instead of seeing them from a distance, and distancing my connection and identification with them as people and also the story they tell about themselves, I try to find within myself a place in my own humanness where I can connect to what each person is saying. By being people with accessibility to all the diseases, there is a way in which our immunity is raised (Thank you to my colleague Sarah Pollack for this addition), and we become protected without being defensive. As Rashi, medieval commentator, says in Numbers 13:18 “If they live in open cities, they are strong, since they are confident of their strength. But if they live in fortified cities, they are weak”. It is our openness that underscores our security.
This is an invitation to a radical paradox and deep trust — we may feel we have to risk everything when we show ourselves, but it is only through passing through this risk that we get to have what we want.