In the shadow of goodness
In late September I was shocked and saddened to hear that a good friend had died. As a man in his early forties his life was beginning to move into a new phase, which looked as though the future was going to be very positive. His work, new home and a reunion with his wife, all suggested that he could settle into a way of life that would be very rewarding. A few days before his death he had spent an evening with myself and a group of friends during which he commented with great enthusiasm that he felt a real sense of community for the first time in many years. How sad and shocking it was then to hear a couple of days later that he had died.
My friend was someone who could genuinely be described as a good man. He had a good heart and was always willing to help those around him. He worked as a therapist and was clearly very talented at his work. His Buddhist practice was something that meant a huge amount to him and he tried to live within a code of life that was caring and wholesome. His friends and those he worked with all felt he was a very compassionate and generous presence and would often put him on something of a pedestal as a particularly gifted soul. In many ways his life was blessed, particularly in the way he was given opportunities to work in remarkable ways.
The shock of his death came in part from the ending of a bright and gifted life, but for his community of friends and colleagues the biggest shock was that he died of a crack overdose. Some of his closer friends knew that he had had a habit for many years and had tried through various means to clean up. At the time of his death most had assumed that he was indeed clean and so the event of his death was a great shock.
When I heard the news I was very sad, but the feeling that rapidly followed this was, how could he be so stupid. My anger came from a very strong sense that he knew and indeed had said to another good friend, that this could kill him. It seemed such a waste of a life.
I had known this friend for some years and was aware that his biggest struggle was resolving two totally disparate sides of his nature. He was a good Buddhist practitioner that people loved and valued but with a very dark shadow that he could not resolve even with his meditation practice. He unfortunately had grown up in an extremely dysfunctional family, which had left him damaged emotionally. He had tried, and to some extent succeeded, in resolving some of this damage but was still left with scars that were raw and vulnerable. It did not take much to rewound those scars to his sense of self. His addiction was one way of temporarily drowning the pain.
At his funeral a teaching was read out in Pali that is known as the discourse on loving-kindness. As I read the English translation I became acutely aware of the conflict that must have gone on within him. The text read: “If you are wise and want to reach a state of peace you should behave like this: You should be upright, responsible, gentle and humble. You should be easily contented with only a few things……Your senses should be controlled and you should be modest…….you should not do the slightest thing that a wise person could blame you for. ….And if you do not fall into bad ways, but live well and develop insight, and are no longer attached to all the desires of the senses, then truly you will never need to be reborn in this world again.”
When I read these words I was surprised to find that I was feeling really troubled and quite angry. I began to wonder if many people realised how much this friend had tried to live up to this ideal and felt so bad because he could not do so. Beneath this ideal of virtue and goodness he had never found a resolution to that aspect of himself that would never be acceptable. He was tortured by the conflict that such a view of goodness left his darker side totally irresolvable, unacceptable and shameful. He could only try to suppress the side of himself that was addicted to the extreme high of crack and sex and that was never transformed by his spiritual practice.
The only resolution he found was to suppress, to hold his addiction within tight boundaries that would at some point erupt and drive him back into binges. His life was a vivid example of a swing that can happen between periods of being “good and wholesome” followed by periods of intense pain and ecstasy as, to use his term, he would enter into a very dark underworld.
This friend was indeed a good man. What felt tragic is the seeming impossibility of resolving the side of him that was in huge pain. The ideal of goodness he held as so important was not the cause of his torment; this began years before in his childhood. It was, however, an ideal against which he constantly measured himself and found himself failing. The shame and lack of self-value this conflict brought must have been unbearable. In many people’s eyes he was extraordinary, inspiring and good, yet within, he suffered something so black that it could not be accepted or shown.
Perhaps it is on these occasions that we ask ourselves how helpful is it to set up, even with our Buddhist practice, what Freud would have called, a Super ego ideal, that we cannot easily live up to? Could it actually be detrimental to our psychological health? Could it be that our Buddhist ideals can cause us to attempt to repress our darker side rather than to accepting, integrating and transforming it? It will probably mean that we are not so clean and holy. It will mean that we have to allow ourselves to be more honest both with ourselves and those around us about our human fallibility. It also means we need a compassionate context that does not judge us badly for being caught in our basic instincts. For this friend the greatest support came from the group who called themselves CA or cocaine anonymous, because they understood the struggle so well. I am not sure that his Buddhist peers would have been so understanding.
I am aware that the dilemma of the addict is not what many of us suffer. To think that we do not have our shadow is, however, a denial we cannot afford. I grew up in a Western culture where I learned through a kind of osmosis what was acceptable and what was not. I do not recall anyone ever making a specific reference to this but it was a major undercurrent to my early life. My family were not particularly religious but the presence of Christianity somewhere in the background always cast a powerful shadow that said I was inherently a sinner and that if I allowed myself to let go and be free, my badness would emerge. I had a kind of instinctual fear of my potential to be bad if I was to be spontaneous and without restraint. I learned to control myself and be as good as I was able, to be a good boy.
When in my early twenties I met Buddhism, its view of an inherent Buddha nature suddenly freed me from the fear that my innate nature was bad or sinful. I felt a huge sense of liberation. It was like casting off an albatross I had carried around since childhood. I found I could begin to relax, and meditation gave me a deeper relationship to myself that did not reveal a monstrous evil within. The fear that the quiet mind is open to the workings of the devil did not come true.
As I became increasingly immersed in the doctrine of Buddhism I gained a clearer sense of the value of a wholesome life that upheld a moral value. I could also see that it was the taming of my mind that was central to the root of my own and others freedom from suffering. What I did not notice, however, was that I was increasingly colouring my Buddhist life with a puritanical wash. I became a kind of puritanical Buddhist without seeing it happen. I found myself once again suppressing and hiding aspects of myself that were not acceptable in order to be spiritually correct. In this process I saw my emotional difficulties and the more basic, primitive aspects of my instinctual life as something that was to be controlled and subdued at any cost. I gave up most of the sensory pleasures I enjoyed like music, alcohol, material comforts and barely allowed myself sex without a sense that it was not spiritual.
Only later in my Buddhist life did I begin to recognise that the tight control I maintained was not healthy. I was bottling up a passionate side to my nature that was not going away, it was just becoming poisonous within. Jung spoke of how the brighter more positive and ‘good’ the life of consciousness became, the more extreme and unacceptable the dark side of our nature would become. But he also saw that the contents of the shadow created by this do not disappear, instead they build up a kind of potency that can be hugely destructive when it eventually, as it almost always does, bursts into consciousness. He saw that creating a strong outer persona of goodness does not resolve the inner feeling of ‘badness’.
In Buddhism we aspire to a lifestyle that becomes increasingly wholesome, peaceful and free of the tyranny of the senses and our emotional and instinctual needs. We recognise that this is the basis of so much suffering. There is, however, no easy solution to the dilemma of valuing a wholesome lifestyle yet dealing with the shadow. It is nevertheless one we each have to come to terms with. From our understanding of western psychology it is clear that repression of what is more raw primitive and instinctual in our nature does not heal or transform it, neither does the covering up or denial of our emotional wounds. Many of us have what could be described as a Dionysian side that is wild passionate, erotic and potentially drawn to become intoxicated. It is often this side of our nature that when buried in the shadow does not go away but instead becomes brooding and dissatisfied and emerges as brutish, rapacious and drunken. We see it endlessly in the underbelly of our Western culture. When repressed, as Jung said, the gods become our diseases and our Dionysian side is no exception.
How do we live with the shadow to transform and integrate it? There is no simple answer to this question. Creating a balance is all-important in our relationship to this aspect of ourselves. The Buddha’s extreme asceticism led him eventually to a middle way. I have found in my own life that only if I allow some space for the shadow to live, that it becomes integrated as part of me. I personally believe that living with a veneer of goodness and spiritual correctness that covers deep shadowy unresolved psychological issues is not useful. This may mean that I am not such a “good” Buddhist, but I feel it means I can be more authentic and honest both with myself and others. It means I do not need to split myself in half and hide part of myself from the word because it is unacceptable. That is how I was brought up, although I place no blame anywhere for this, it is not how I feel it is healthy to go forward as a Buddhist practitioner.
I wish my friend could have found peace with this dilemma in his own life. Perhaps peace came in the end at a point of death. It is slightly ironic that in the Dionysian mysteries the god Dionysus was ritually dismembered in an orgy of intoxication to be reborn as the renewed god. I know that for many friends around at the time of his death it was a time to reflect on the contradictions in our nature and to have compassion for our fallibility rather than try to hide it. There is no doubt that a wholesome and good life is something to be treasured as Buddhists, but this is hard to live authentically if we need to hide or repress aspects of ourselves to accomplish it. As I found myself it always led me to feel I was not good enough and led this friend to a sense of shame. When we include our shadow side it may mean we are a little less conspicuously ‘good’, but we will be able to be more at peace with ourselves knowing we do not have to hide some aspect of our nature. Perhaps honesty, authenticity and compassion around our failings is a greater a virtue than being good.
This article is taken from Preparing for Tantra. For further information or comments contact: