Recently, I finished watching the mini-series documentary Wild, Wild Country on Netflix. It tells the story about the time the Indian Guru Osho moved his commune from India to the small town of Antelope in rural Oregon in the early 1980s. The story gives perspectives from residents of Antelope, residents of the commune, law enforcement, and journalists covering the story at the time.
As conflict increases between residents of Antelope and the commune, the power struggle results in attempted murders, lying, poisoning, and more. Was it the fault of the residents of Antelope who were racist and unwelcoming to their new neighbours? Was it the fault of the commune who never took the time to befriend the community of Antelope and instead took steps to annihilate it? As you watch the story unfold the viewer will see that while the behaviors by the inner circle surrounding Osho were clearly on the wrong side of the law, there were no innocent parties in this conflict.
Watching this series got me thinking about the shadow side of spiritual organizations. The shadow is the darker sides or “negative” qualities that lay hidden in an individual or organization. Sometimes the shadow of an organization is recognized by most people, but not talked about.
It can be easy to label Osho and his followers a cult and their experience as an exception to the rule, but every spiritual leader and organization has shadows. Certainly, Catholicism and the sexual abuse perpetrated by many priests is another shadow in religion and spirituality.
I remember my first experience of the shadow of religion and spirituality. I will always remember the day that my church split when I was a child. It was a regular Sunday morning service, but then one of the church elders went to the front podium and read a letter that represented half of our church community. The letter said that these people were planning to leave our church community because they didn’t agree with theological aspects of the church. I remember this elder crying, and then I looked behind me at another elder who was sitting there smugly smiling. In that moment, I hated that man and what he represented. Later we found out that our pastor was leaving with this group after he had told some people that he was planning to stay. It felt like a big betrayal to me.
My family was in the group that stayed, and my best friend was in the group that left. Both sides felt like they were the victims, and there was great pain felt in our church community that took years to begin healing. I was fortunate to retain my friendship. My friend’s parents would pick me up on the way to their new church on Sunday mornings and bring me home after the evening service. As a child, I was given a rare opportunity to spend time with both sides of the conflict. As a child, the new church felt about 2% more strict than my own church. As a child I learned that Christianity wasn’t all about believing in Jesus. This was my first experience of the shadow side of religion and spirituality.
As a young adult, I started to idealize a more broader sense of spirituality after my experience of the shadow in Christianity in my church. In my twenties, my husband and I were once in awe of a meditator who had experienced incredible things on his journey and deep insights. After spending more time with him, we realized that he was using his spirituality to raise himself above everyone else. We were dismayed, and the friendship dwindled. Years later I can surmise that he was using self-righteousness to avoid feeling the pain in his life. I’m not proud to say that in that moment we felt more comfortable judging him and then leaving to seek a “better” guru. (The irony is not lost on me – self-righteousness can feel really good)
There were more learnings throughout the years, and my most recent experience was just prior to graduating from Barbara Brennan School of Healing (BBSH). This is a school that taught me most of what I know about energy healing. It is a journey that is both practical and highly spiritual. During my fourth year, part of the shadow side of the school emerged with a situation where 90% of the teachers left. New teachers replaced those teachers after I graduated. I remember seeing this situation unfold and wondering, “Again??” I didn’t feel strongly attached to either side of the conflict. Partially because I was graduating that year, and partially because I felt relief that the teachers became more authentic and human to me.
Even as I wrote about my experience at BBSH, part of me wondered whether someone would be angry for revealing a shadow side of the organization. Keep that hidden!! So, don’t worry BBSH, I can still say that you were an amazing school and would still highly recommend it. It’s not perfect though because it’s full of human beings!
In each situation I’ve written about, there are individuals who will hold onto “their side” of the argument until the end. There are those who will switch sides. There are those who will leave the spiritual group completely.
I find that most spiritual organizations want to keep their shadow side hidden. This is extremely curious to me.
Exploring our own Shadows
In these experiences, we can be the judge and shake our heads at it all. In fact, I did have judgments in each situation. After some time has passed and our emotions surrounding the experience loses some of their intensity, we can use these experiences as an opportunity to explore our own shadow.
I could explore each of the past situations and use them to explore specific part of my own shadow, but today I’m going to explore a larger theme that was held by each situation.
Image/Belief: The more spiritual I/We (person or organization) become, the less shadows I/We should have
Why? There’s a belief that I should be more virtuous or “pure” if I am spiritual
I’m not going to dive too deep today into my own shadow, but I will share a piece of it to give you an example.
I can feel the struggle with being on a spiritual path and whether that fits with drinking alcohol. I was taught at BBSH that when we drink alcohol we become less effective healers. In fact, there is a policy that during each week of school that no alcohol is consumed because the school members noticed a very distinct difference in the quality of energy healing with times when people had drunk alcohol (even a glass) versus when they did not drink alcohol.
I LOVE a glass (or more than a glass) of wine. I like to get together with friends and have many glasses on occasion. I can feel the one part of me that wants to deny myself this pleasure. I can feel another which says to drink a glass whenever I want and don’t worry about it’s impact on my work. Then there is another which says that I shouldn’t write any of this and take on that image of a more “spiritual” person and just have a drink and say nothing. These are all shadow pieces, but the last one is related to the image of a spiritual person not having a shadow.
I am proud to say that I make a point to not drink alcohol 24 hours prior to a session with a client. I have made that commitment.
Do you see what I did there in the last 2 sentences? – I felt shame and then felt it necessary to defend my choice to you and give you a reason to put me back in the “more spiritual category” in case you judged me and dropped me down a level. GUESS WHAT? The level of my alcohol consumption doesn’t make me a better or a more spiritual than another person, yet part of me thinks it does.
Sometimes, I also idealize others who don’t drink and judge those who drink more than me. I can feel shame if I don’t meet my own standards. That’s more of my shadow to explore.
Exploring Your Shadows
After reading all that, you may either want to run far, far away and stop reading, or you may say, “Alcohol? Big deal. My shadow is WAY bigger than that”. You may want to defend or rationalize my choices and give me a pat on the back. Your response is a glimpse into your relationship with your shadow.
When you go on a journey to deepen your connection to the spiritual world, it rarely (if ever) starts with the desire to explore our shadow side. I don’t think any one has ever said to me, “I really want to get in touch with my anger, rage, disappointment, sadness, and shame, so I’m going to explore that more deeply by becoming a (insert type of religion) or go to India to meditate in the Himalayas for a while, maybe spend time at an ashram”.
I know that my spiritual quest has been towards an experience of more freedom, peace, love, joy, and connectedness. Yet the more I explore this path, I’m also brought more closely to my shadow side. The side that takes pleasure in being a victim, escapes when things get difficult, blames others, and takes pleasure in arrogance and self-righteousness. Often as we move towards light qualities we experience the dark ones too.
Putting Our Spiritual Leaders On A Pedestal
On this spiritual journey, we are given leaders whom we often put on a pedestal. In psychology we call this positive transference. These leaders embody something that we desire in our own lives, whether they be pastors, gurus, teachers, or a really good yoga instructor. Who do you look up to as a spiritual mentor in your life? When we meet this person, we may be in awe of them. They have some sort of “wow” factor for us. It can be like meeting a famous musician, actor, or author.
Personally, I have had multiple experiences of putting someone on a spiritual pedestal only to have that pedestal knocked down. Awe may remain, but the reminder is the same – no matter how spiritual a person may be, they’re human. They can be arrogant, selfish, self-righteous, and make mistakes.
This invites the opportunity to own this shadow in myself: I can be arrogant, selfish, self-righteous and make mistakes.
This journey has been sad, angering and jaw-dropping at times. “You’re so spiritual, shouldn’t you know better? Shouldn’t you behave better than this?” Once the dust has settled, I have found this experience to be freeing. Like my previous blog post about the Myth of Perfect Parenting, the message is the same for those on the spiritual path. The goal is not to be rid of the shadow parts of ourselves but to recognize them and relate to them differently. There is wisdom in the shadow. We can look at our shadow pieces as information to help us grow.
Benefits of Exploring Our Shadows
After reading all of this, you may wonder why anyone explores their shadow side.
When we take the pressure off our spiritual leaders to be pure light, it takes the pressure off ourselves too.
When we take the pressure off ourselves to be pure light, we can take the pressure off our spiritual leaders too.
And compassion my friends is one of the reasons we even bother to explore our shadow. If we can be kinder to ourselves, we can also be kinder to others. As we explore our shadow, we also bring in more opportunity for our light qualities of compassion, love, creativity, pleasure, joy, and connectedness. It also gives the shadow less power so that we don’t get to the point where we do something extreme. The shadow gains power in secrecy until it reaches a breaking point. Bringing light to our shadow also brings freedom.
Questions for Further Reflection
If you are considering joining a spiritual or religious organization OR you want to reflect on your shadow on your spiritual journey, here are a few questions to consider. Guess what? You can apply this to politics too. How uncomfortable is that?
Questions when considering joining a spiritual or religious organization:
What are the shadows in this spiritual organization?
Does this organization recognize that it has shadows?
What does it do when it recognizes a shadow?
Do they blame others or take ownership for their shadow? Do they pretend their shadow doesn’t exist? Do they admonish people who show their shadow side?
Why do I want to join an organization that looks like it has no shadow?
Why do I want this spiritual leader to embody all the positive qualities I imagine them to be and none of the negative ones? What does it say about them if they show their negative qualities?
Now take the same questions and ask them about yourself.
Do I recognize some of my shadows? What are some of them?
What do I do when I see a “negative” quality in myself?
Do I blame others or take ownership for my shadow? Do I pretend my shadow doesn’t exist? Do I admonish people who show their shadow side?
Why do I want to appear to the world like I have no negative qualities?
Do I allow myself to have both positive and negative qualities? What happens if I show negative qualities, what does that say about me?
And remember..be compassionate to yourself on this journey. That is key.
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