People practice meditation for different purposes. Some seek one of meditation’s many benefits for the body, mind, and relationships; others are seeking personal growth, emotional healing, or spiritual development. Regardless of what your initial intention was for starting the practice, if you meditate long enough, you are bound to discover many things about yourself—some of which may not be pleasant. This could be called the “shadow self”.
Our personality, together with our conscious thoughts, emotions, decisions and interactions with the world, all happen at the level of our conscious mind. However, that is just the tip of the iceberg of our consciousness. According to the teachings of some Eastern contemplative philosophies, beneath this conscious layer of mind there is our subconscious mind and, even deeper, our unconscious mind. Modern western psychology holds a similar view.
The content of our subconscious and unconscious mind is the structure of our personality. They are the hidden motivating forces behind all our decisions, thoughts and feelings. They have a profound influence in our life, and yet we know very little about them. Our conscious mind is so busy and agitated that we rarely get the chance to look deeper.
Isn’t it dreadful to think that what most influences your life are the things you are least aware of?
One of the major benefits of meditation is that it calms your conscious mind, allowing you to get in touch with what lies beneath. At the same time, that is also one of the major challenges of meditation—and one that most people are not aware they may encounter.
Meditation and Your Shadow Self
As meditation deepens, our attention begins to dive into the subconscious. The conscious mind becomes less busy, and the awareness is thus allowed to recede back to deeper levels of our being. With that, things that you had repressed, or chosen to overlook in life, are there waiting for you.
These can include, among other things:
- difficult emotions
- hidden traumas
- “wild desires”
- negative thought patterns
- shame, guilt, regret
- aggressiveness, anger
- unconscious fears
- unresolved emotional processes
When faced with this for the first time, the beginner meditator may panic. They may think, “Since I started meditating, my mind has become busier”, or “Meditation is making me feel more anxious and restless.”
The truth is that meditation is not making your mind more noisy or anxious. It’s simply revealing the noise and anxiety that was already there. Now, with fewer distractions, you see them all too clearly. It’s like allowing a cup of muddy water to settle, so you can clearly see all the dirt that was already in the water.
Apart from making your mind more calm and clear, meditation also heightens your sensitivity, and sharpens your attention—so you will be able to perceive things in yourself that you were blind to before. Trapped energies in your psyche will come up. It’s the opening of the “Pandora’s box” of your subconscious mind. It’s not always a lovely sight, but it is a sign of progress in the practice.
You are meeting—and freeing—your shadow!
What is the Shadow Self?
Our shadow self is made up of everything we feel ashamed of thinking and feeling, as well as every impulse that we have repressed, consciously or unconsciously, for the sake of keeping ourselves tame, likable and “civilized”. According to Jungian analyst Aniela Jaffe, the shadow is the ‘‘sum of all personal and collective psychic elements which, because of their incompatibility with the chosen conscious attitude, are denied expression in life’’.
“Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”— Carl Gustav Jung
The idea, in Jungian psychotherapy, is that to genuinely become a whole and healed person, you need to fully integrate your shadow. You need to meet it face to face, understand it, unlock its secrets, and reuse its energy. [Learn more about shadow work in this book.]
Meditation as a Shadow Work Exercise
All of this messy work is part of the liberating process of meditation. Meditation has always included this. But the question is: is this acceptable for you? Are you up for this challenge?
If you look at meditation as a tool for personal growth, healing, or spiritual development—you may say “Yeah! Let’s do it”.
But if you see meditation as a simple stress-relief exercise, or a no-pill approach to manage depression, or a tool to improve your cognitive skills, then you might not want to go through this shadow work thing. “That’s not what I’ve signed up for!”, you may rightfully object.
In any case, there are steps you can take to either avoid going through this or to at least make the process feel safer and less troublesome.
Avoiding Challening Mental States in Meditation
If you want to prevent the influx of difficult psychological material, but still want to continue to develop your meditation practice for its other benefits, here are some things that I suggest you try.
Diminish the length of your sessions, especially if you are practicing for more than 30 minutes per day. Avoid going to retreats. Keep your body and mind busy with constructive activities.
Change your technique.
Not all meditation practices are created equally.
In “insight practices” (like some types of Vipassana and mindfulness), Yoga Nidra, and nondirective meditation (ACEM, NSR, etc), there seems to be more of this “self-processing” going on. The attention is allowed to interact with spontaneous thoughts and emotions that surface during meditation.
So if you want less of that, try instead purely concentration-based practices—that is, meditation techniques that ask you to focus on one object with the exclusion of all others. Some examples are Mantra meditation (concentration approach), Samatha (focusing on the breath to the exclusion of all else), Trataka, Chakra meditation, Nada Yoga.
Trying different techniques, until you find one that allows you to get the benefits you want without much emotional challenge, often works. (If you need help with those experiments, check out my Intermediate Meditation Course.)
Talk to someone.
Talk to an experienced meditation teacher about your experiences. And I would also encourage you to consider consulting a mental health professional (one that meditates), especially if you are experiencing trauma symptoms or any other serious mental health disorder.
If all that fails and you still feel that you are in trouble, then stop your practice for a while, until you can work things out.
Powering Through Challenging Mental States
“What you resist, persists.” – Carl Gustav Jung
Perhaps you are ready to allow your repressed thoughts/emotions to come up, and just need to know how to deal with them better. Here, there are two essential tools that can help you: pranayama and witnessing.
Pranayama exercises are special breathing techniques from the yogic tradition. Rather than just observe the breath, you actually modulate your breathing to follow a specific pattern. This helps create tranquility and stability in the nervous system—and you will definitely need these two conditions in order to power through the storm!
There are nine traditional pranayama exercises, and many more if you count the variations and modern additions. For the purpose of this article, I’ll just suggest one simple exercise, which I like to call “Square Breathing”.
- Breathe in counting four seconds
- Hold your breath for four seconds
- Breathe out for four seconds
- Hold empty for four seconds
That makes it one cycle. Do 12 cycles like this, and your mind will be in a different state. It takes less than four minutes.
General guidelines: When breathing in, take in as much air as possible. This will help you take in plenty of oxygen. When breathing out, expel all the air from your lungs, so you can detox your body. Breathing in and out should be done through the nose, and as deep, even and silently as possible. If four seconds is too hard, you can do three seconds. If it’s too easy, you can increase the count.
You can do this exercise before your meditation sessions or after an emotionally challenging session. You can also practice it whenever intense emotions surface, whether in meditation or in your daily life.
The second practice is that of witnessing, which is an essential attitude/power that most meditation practices attempt to develop. It is the ability to just observe whatever comes, without being too affected. This involves accepting with equanimity the thought or emotion that arose, and allowing it to go.
Accepting with equanimity means to look at things as they are. It means you see the thought or emotion for what it is—beautiful or ugly, heavy or light, positive or negative. Don’t create stories about it. Don’t interpret. Don’t cling. Don’t suppress. And, above all, don’t react.
Simply watch. Be the detached witness. It’s as if you were watching a movie on the screen of your mind, or hearing about someone else’s life story.
In Buddhist and Hindu philosophy there is the idea that the unconscious is the storehouse of innumerable “impressions” (called samskaras, vasanas, karmas), both good and bad. In meditation one allows all these impressions to surface, and watches them dispassionately, as a witness. It’s the Eastern version of doing one’s laundry.
When these thoughts/emotions/impressions arise in you, if you react, suppress, or create a story around them, then they are reinforced. But the more you watch without reacting, the more those mental patterns will lose power. This is how, slowly but surely, meditation allows you to purify your subconscious, and free yourself from limiting conditionings.
Going deep into meditation can evoke challenging experiences or repressed emotional material and negative thought patterns, which constitute your shadow self. Traditionally, this is seen as a normal step in the process of meditation, and the practitioner is advised to push through, gently but surely. It is only by allowing the subconscious material to come up to surface
The idea is that it is only by allowing the subconscious material to come up to surface that we can shed some light on it. Only then can it leave our system.
However, as meditation becomes more widespread, and is now practiced for all sort of reasons, this approach is not always the best.
In this post you have learned about why these repressed emotions come up in practice, and what to do about them, depending on your goals with meditation. If you find yourself going through one of these crossroads in your journey, hopefully this piece has shed some light on what is going on, and will help you to continue to make the most out of your practice.
And if you need some support in figuring things out in your meditation practice, consider coaching.
[Attribute for the brain image: consultinghealth.com]