I know a lot of people think self help is a new-age, woo-woo, crock of shit. I used to be one of those people. I distinctly remember when my sister and I lived together in East Harlem during my senior year of college and I came home to find her reading "Chicken Soup For the Soul." I don't remember what smart ass comment I made but at point in life, my chicken soup for the soul was vodka and unless staying out dancing at nightclubs until 4am counted as self-help I sure as hell wasn't doing it. For the past five years or so though I have become not only a participant in but a proponent of all forms of self-sutdy, self-discovery, and yes even self-help. Motivated to delve deeper after my initial infatuation with the yoga asana practice I've gone on retreats, attended workshops, read countless books and even been certified as a yoga instructor. Yes ladies and gentlemen call me Mr. Kool-Aid because I not only drink it but serve it to anyone around me who expresses even the mildest thirst for inner work. I don't care how happy (or depressed) you seem or how perfect (or wretched) your life appears to be: we can all benefit from working on our internal lives. In my opinion and that of many others, inner work is really the only way to truly improve our outer lives. In the words of one of my favorite poets Rainer Maria Rilke "the only journey is the one within."
So what happens when self-helpy folks have a bad day? A really bad day? Maybe a crying on the bathroom floor day? Or a binge-drinking night followed by a binge-eating, self-loathing, pajama-wearing day? What happens when we are jealous of our friends, siblings or colleagues? Or when we judge people, say hurtful things, or even worse- think dreadful self-destructive thoughts like "I'm never going to be happy" or "nothing I do will ever be good enough"? What, pray tell, do we do then Oprah?
Yoga Sutra 2.33 loosely translated says that when we are confronted by negative thoughts we should consciously cultivate the opposite thoughts. While this is sometimes helpful, especially for someone with enough self-awareness to notice the onset of negative emotions before they get carried away, I don't think it's always enough. If negative thoughts or habits are ingrained enough there comes a time when you want to know why. Why do I think these things? Why do I do these things? Why do I say these things? Sure, not thinking/doing/saying them is great for now but if I don't understand the underlying motivation, how can I stop or change them once and for all?
This is the topic of a particularly intense book I just finished called, "Romancing the Shadow: A Guide to Soul Work for a Vital, Authentic Life," by Connie Zweig, Ph.D. Before you vomit in your mouth over the title just let me explain the premise. Most of us are familiar with the concept of the True Self (soul/purusha) and the Ego (pushy, proud little bastard) but there is also another facet to our personalities that Zweig refers to as the shadow. This is the darker side of our nature. The aspect of ourselves that thinks nasty thoughts, craves dirty porn, plays violent video games, and basically sabotages the sunny, happy, confident "self" that the combined forces of our True Self and Ego would like to present to the world. Some sects of society- addicts, child molesters and murderers for example- show their shadows to the world in big bold ways. Most of us though, allow the shadow to peek out more discretely as vicious low blows slip out during fights with loved ones, when we engage in dangerous and shameful sexual escapades, or even just by looking at ourselves in the mirror through a lens of disgust. She traces the impact of the shadow through all aspects of life: childhood, early adulthood, dating, marriage, friendships, work, parenthood and mid-life and relates mythological stories and archetypes to personal psychology. It's not always a fun book to read but self-discovery ain't always fun. There is some murky shit down there inside us all and I don't think anyone could read all 320 pages without having at least a dozen "urgh...I totally do that" moments.
Those moments however are the moments that invite us to experience real self-knowledge and change. When mantras or "thinking the opposite" fail to bring us clarity, a little shadow-dancing just might.
The goal is not to kill or supress the shadow. When we do this, the shadow just gets more and more impatient for its time to appear (think celibate priests fondling young clergy members). Zweig argues that instead of punishing our inner bad boy or girl, we should "romance" them. By romance, she means to coax the bugger out of its hiding spot just long enough to begin to see it clearly. From there, we can start to dissect and analyze it and understand the triggers that coax the shadow out so that we don't explode with a Chris Brown style burst of rage when we least expect it. We've all got our own unique shadow and they all have diffent root causes: fear of abandonment, repressed sexuality, internalized verbal or physical abuse from early childhood or a myriad of other subconscious boo-boos that mommy or daddy couldn't kiss and make better. The shadow never goes away, but like the ego, the True Self can gain full awareness of it and rearrange the hierarchy within. My mean dirty shadow is a part of me just like my boastful greedy ego is a part of me, but they are not Me. Like a snake-charmer, I know what tunes make my inner serpent dance and can consciously choose not to play them.
Look just below the surface of your self-helpiest, yogi-est, Eat-Pray-Lovingest friend and I guarantee they've got a shadow of their own that they may or may not have an awareness of yet. If I happen to be that friend, let me know and I'll loan you this book. Me and my shadow have some work to do.