There is the mud, and there is the lotus that grows out of the mud. We need the mud in order to make the lotus. —Thich Nhat Hanh
One of my favorite communication starters I use on YPO and corporate team retreats takes the form of a fill-in-the-blank statement: Sometimes I pretend _____ when the truth about me is ______. It is an invitation to get real and to out yourself and the way you jockey for acceptance and approval when the truth about you is you are feeling insecure and unworthy. The best part of the exercise is when everyone realizes that we are all playing this game. When the person you thought had it all together reveals that she too hides her shadow self, you no longer feel alone and you may even start to feel a little less ashamed.
Say Hello to Your Shadow
The part of ourselves we pretend doesn’t exist is called our shadow. Our shadow holds the trait, the guilt from past behavior, the appearance or behavior that doesn’t match that of the dominant culture. Shadow is the psychological underground cistern filled with the things we hide, repress and deny about ourselves. It’s part of the compost and mud of our lives.
Our shadow typically reveals itself in indirect ways—through our judgments of ourselves or others, our emotional reactivity, or our defensiveness. Sometimes I pretend that I am accepting of myself and others but the truth about me is I compare myself to others when it comes to things like money, success, and work/life balance. It is a sneaky way to make me feel either better or worse about myself.
Underneath this pattern is a belief that I’m not successful. And beneath that is a deeper shadow story that I’m not smart enough to be really successful. I took on that belief before graduating grade school and learned to play the comparison game from my parents and my culture.
It’s Part of Being Human
Not even the most holy make it through life without spending some time in the mud. The mud contains our wounds and our trauma. It holds the way we interpret the painful events of our life, many of which happened before we came of age. As you went about growing up, you did the best you could to compose a life having experienced those events. You surmounted them, stuffed them, denied them, and compensated for them.
In response to our shadow, we either inflate (e.g., get cocky), deflate (e.g., play small) or do a little of each. Whatever the form, no one gets through life without reckoning with their shadow. Usually, our first hint of the existence of our shadow is our emotional reactivity. Later we notice ourselves resisting the consideration that we just might be the problem. Then we start to see that as much as we want to project our shadow onto others and deny it in ourselves, if we don’t start to examine our inner life, we are committing ourselves to a life of existential suffering.
As we get older, we gain enough wisdom to realize that our shadow has a way of recurring, sort of like a scratch in an album. If we’re lucky, before we get too old, we start to see that we are the album and we need to heal our scratch. If we are unlucky, we don’t see it or we don’t own it. Psychologist Carl Jung, the inventor of the concept of shadow, warns those who remain asleep with his words, Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.
Don’t keep your unconscious shadow material in the cistern, it gains too much power over your life. Instead, commit yourself to making your shadow material conscious. Go in the counterintuitive direction of the mud and surface the old wounds. Waking up means deepening your understanding of the ways in which your shadow informs and limits or even sabotages your life.
The best part of waking up is that the lotus in you is allowed to bloom and you discover the creative brilliance that’s been buried in the mud with the shadow. For me, my old pattern of comparison has led me to a deeper inquiry and acceptance of myself and allowed me to experience the peace that comes when I transcend my dualistic egoic, comparing mind.
The shadow is an essential part of being human, it is the gateway to our brilliance. As Frost says, we may not have a choice but to soldier on, yet I think we can decide how much we want to resist waking up. The lotus pedals emerging from the mud is a metaphor for our individuation and progress down our soul path. I’m not sure which is more beautiful, the flower or the mud.
He says the best way out is always through
And I agree to that, or in so far
As I can see no way out but through.
— Robert Frost