Training the Mind for Shadow Work

I have spoken many times over the years about the importance of doing basic concentration work with the mind. Meditation on the breath, which is taught on Vipassana (Insight) retreats, is great for honing the attention and turning it into a tool that can be used for doing consciousness work.

When I was first doing Vipassana retreats, the primary instruction was simply to continually bring the attention back to the breath when it would wander. Out of this focus and the quieting of the mind that would come out of it, sometimes big insights would emerge about the nature of the Self, about impermanence and the interconnectedness of all things. What I am finding now, in my counseling work with clients, is that the ability to bring this focus is extremely valuable as an adjunct when we’re doing Shadow work./

“Shadow work” is a term that I use for getting in touch with repressed emotions, memories and parts of our self that we normally don’t want to think about. There’s often fear connected with the material, and our normal tendency is to go the other direction when we smell fear.

There’s tons of material buried in the unconscious and I only counsel my clients to get out their flashlights and go hunting for the bogeyman when the habit of not doing it is causing obvious negative consequences in their lives. This can include anxiety, sleep problems, angry outbursts with loved ones, increased use of substances and finding oneself engaging in questionable behaviors, such as looking at more on-line porn or developing emotional or physical affairs.

Developing mental concentration can support the work of dealing with these kinds of situations. When you start noticing one of the above-mentioned symptoms (or a myriad of other ones), you will eventually start looking for help. You may come to it on your own, or someone may point out to you, that you can use your own consciousness to help with the problems you’re having. This is probably best done with the support of a therapist or a spiritual friend at first, but it is possible to do it on your own once you get practiced in it.

The way I start with my clients is to teach them the practice of concentration on the breath. If you want to practice this on your own, give yourself 15-30 minutes in a quiet space where you won’t be disturbed. Sit with a relaxed, upright posture and let the breath start to flow in and out in a relaxed fashion. Your eyes can be closed or half open and settled on a point on the floor about three feet in front of you.

As you are starting to settle down, take a few moments to be aware of sensation: what are you feeling in your body? Are there aches or pains? What are the sensations like where you’re making contact with the chair or meditation cushion? Just notice these. Then let yourself be aware of sounds in the environment. Simply take note, be aware of them. Then let yourself be aware of the breath moving in and out of the body. Take your time with this.

While watching the breath, you’ll notice that you’re drawn to one of two points: either the place where the air goes in and out at the nostrils, or the sensations associated with the rising and falling of the diaphragm. Choose one of these places as an anchor point for concentration. As closely as possible, observe the breath as it moves in and out at the nostrils or the sensations as the diaphragm rises and falls. Let the attention simply rest on the breath. I like to use a surfing analogy here: Think of the breath rising and falling like the swells of the ocean just out beyond where they start to break. The surfer resting on those swells, feeling the pulse of the ocean is like the mental attention. Let the attention rest on the breath with the same loving closeness that the surfer has with the swells of the ocean. Let the mind rest in that. Simply be present, simply attend.

One additional element that can further enhance this practice is to add in counting. Count the breath just up to four, and then start over again. Each inhale/exhale cycle counts as “1” while you’re counting. If you’re working with the point at the nostrils, let yourself stay present with the mind focused on the sensations around the nostrils for the full duration of the breath: all the way “in” and all the way “out”. Then internally count “1”. Then in and out again and count “2”. Then “3” and “4”. Then start over. When you notice that the mind has wandered, as soon as you’re aware of it, bring the attention back to the breath again and start over. That’s all there is to it. Stay focused on the sensations of the breath, count from one to four, and when you notice that the mind has wondered, return to the breath and start over. If you’re working with the diaphragm, stay present with the sensations of the diaphragm as it moves up and down down.

I suggest doing this practice first thing when you get up (when the house and your mind are quietest) for 10 or 15 minutes a day to start, gradually extending to 30 minutes or longer should you choose. Once you get a bit stabilized in your attention, you’re ready to use it for doing the Shadow Work.

Start by taking a few moments to get the attention settled on the breath.Then simply “look at” the situation you’re concerned about. Let yourself be aware of it. Let yourself know that it’s there. Let yourself feel it. This might be difficult because you might encounter fear, sadness, confusion, shame or other feelings that are hard to put a name on. Let yourself stay present with those feelings. This will require a certain strength of mind, that does get stronger over time. The simple act of paying attention to these symptoms does a number of good things:
1) It helps you learn more about those symptoms, what they’re about, where they come from.
2) It gives you some breathing room from those difficult feelings, because, what you’ll find is that “the awareness of fear is not afraid.” The awareness of confusion is not confused.
3) Through doing this practice, the general faculty of awareness gets stronger.
This can support mindfulness in all areas of your life.

There are other benefits to this practice, but I’m going to leave it there for now. As I said earlier, using this practice for shadow work is best done in conjunction with a therapist. But even if you don’t have a therapist, start practicing and see for yourself! You may be surprised at what you learn about yourself and what changes you can make from doing this simple practice.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 13th, 2014 at 11:57 am and is filed under Blog. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


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